Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 31, 2013

Natural disasters dominate news '13

By Martin Slagter Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — While plenty of businesses and political figures made waves in Kokomo in 2013, Mother Nature was arguably the city’s biggest headline grabber.

The year saw Kokomo sustain two of its most significant natural disasters in recent memory within seven months of each other, with record flooding in April, followed by a pair of tornadoes that swept through the heart of the city in November. The disasters tested the skills of first responders and the resolve of residents, but those within the city made it clear they would remain Kokomo Strong heading into 2014.

Here’s a look at the Kokomo Tribune’s most popular stories on www.kokomotribune.com, according to the readers, from 2013:

1 It was the most violent natural disaster to hit Kokomo since the infamous Palm Sunday tornadoes of 1965 — two tornadoes struck through the heart of the city Nov. 17. Remarkably, no lives were lost and no major injuries were suffered in the tornadoes that destroyed 47 homes, caused major damage to another 150 and $22 million in commercial property loss. A state of disaster was declared by Gov. Mike Pence in Howard County, although it was denied federal funding in December by the Federal Emergency Management Association. The state has appealed as it continues to rebuild into the new year.

2 Richard Schwartz, an investment adviser who built his business in Kokomo, took his own life Aug. 21 after firing a total of seven rounds at his wife, Brielle, who managed to escape through a bathroom window without being hurt at their Kentucky home. Six other individuals, all family members, were in the house when the shooting occurred, and all were able to flee without being struck. Schwartz, who ran RAS Associates, was well-known from his billboards around Kokomo. In October, state officials said they were “confident” Schwartz was running a Ponzi scheme, identifying between $5 million and $10 million in possible victims’ losses in the case.

3 A total of 95 felony charges were filed against nine employees at Wagoner Medical Center in April, following an investigation into its offices in Kokomo and Burlington. Police said the offices owned by Drs. Don and Marilyn Wagoner ran what amounted to a narcotics distribution ring under the guise of two family medical practices. The doctors both have surrendered their respective Drug Enforcement Agency registrations, and no longer possess prescriptive authority for controlled substances. On top of the criminal charges, a civil suit under Indiana’s anti-racketeering law has been filed, seeking a seizure of the Wagoners’ considerable assets as prosecutors pursue a racketeering case. The Wagoners, along with two other doctors from their clinics, two physician assistants, the head nurse and several office personnel have all pleaded not guilty to numerous charges.

4 A homicide that took the life of 21-year-old Destiny Pittman remains unsolved after the Kokomo resident was found dead in February at her home on James Drive. An autopsy revealed she died of a single gunshot wound to her torso. Investigators with the Kokomo Police Department said they were told there is a possibility that two intruders forced their way inside the home and killed Pittman. Once inside the residence, the intruders were confronted by Pittman and fired a single gunshot, striking her in the upper torso. No arrests have been made in the case and the investigation continues.

5 After 63 years of marriage, Kokomo couple Earle and Lou Nell Howard passed away side-by-side within minutes of each other after praying God would allow them to die together in February. The couple married on July 11, 1949, in Kokomo, after Earle served in the Army during World War II. He eventually became Kokomo police chief, was elected twice as Howard County sheriff and served as a state representative from 1986 to 1994.

On the morning of their deaths, the couple’s only daughter, Julie, walked into the bedroom to wake up her parents. When she entered the bedroom, Julie said she had to stand in the doorway in amazement. Lou Nell was laying in the bed on her left side, and Earle lay on his right. “Their heads where touching, almost as if they were in the shape of a heart,” she said. “They looked so content.” Julie woke up Earle, who got up and dressed, but Lou Nell wouldn’t wake up. She was in some kind of comatose state. Earle was dressed by that time, but said he didn’t feel well and sat down in a chair. Moments later, he died. Julie walked back into the bedroom and saw her mother take her last breath.

6 A Galveston woman was killed in January, when her car was hit broadside by a semitrailer at Ind. 18 and 500 East in Cass County. Myrtle Marie Cornell, 94, was driving a Pontiac Grand Prix north on 500 East when she drove into the path of the semi driven by an Illinois man. The semi was traveling west on Ind. 18 and tried to stop. After hitting the car, the semi and the car came to rest on the north side of Ind. 18. The driver of the truck, Gary Schoonveld, 53, Justice, Ill., was not injured.

7 Prominent Kokomo attorney Vernard L. Johnson died in late March after he was hit by a car near his home on West Boulevard. Kokomo police said a vehicle was traveling west in the 2600 block of West Boulevard at around 6:35 a.m. and struck Johnson, who appeared to be crossing the street, possibly to get his morning newspaper when he was hit. Johnson practiced law in Kokomo for more than 30 years as a civil and criminal defense attorney and recently served as the deputy public defender for child support cases.

8Heavy rains flooded Wildcat Creek in April, causing one of the worst floods on record in Kokomo and Tipton. The water level was measured at 18.34 feet above the base of the Wildcat Creek — the highest recorded since a creek stream gauge was installed in 1950. Howard County commissioners issued a state of emergency after firefighters and community volunteers rescued more than 100 people from their flooded homes. The city has begun the process of purchasing a number of flood-damaged homes in the areas where the worst flooding occurred, in an effort to mitigate potential future flood damage.

9 A Lake County judge determined in September Indiana’s right-to-work law violates a provision in the state constitution barring the delivery of services “without just compensation.” Lake Superior Court Judge John Sedia found the law wrongly requires unions to represent workers who do not pay dues. Indiana became the 23rd state in the nation to ban the collection of mandatory fees for representation from unions. Union spokesman Ed Maher called the ruling a victory for the middle class and dues-paying members.

Since then, union lawyers have gone to the courts to try to overturn the law. Sedia issued an order last Thursday, declaring the ban on collections and associated criminal penalties unconstitutional.

10Two Howard County residents were killed in late March while crossing the street near a middle school in Seattle, where they had recently moved after their retirement. Judy Schulte, the retired director of guidance at Northwestern High School, and her husband, Dennis Schulte, died after being struck by a truck. Washington resident Mark Mullan, who had five prior drunken driving arrests, pleaded guilty to charges of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault and was sentenced to 18 years and four months in prison for the crimes. The collision also badly injured the couple’s daughter-in-law, Karina Ulriksen-Schulte, and her infant son, Elias.