Written by John Plestina
Wolf Point Police Chief Jeff Harada (left) and Lt. Brian Erwin with part of the pot seizure that is believed to have been on its way to Chicago, Ill. (Photo by John Plestina)
These photos taken from the individuals Facebook pages are Cheryl Oskvarek (left) and David Strasser of the Chicago area. Both were arrested and charged with felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs with intent to distribute. Each is free on $50,000 bond with arraignments scheduled for Wednesday, June 24, in 15th District Court in Wolf Point.
A traffic stop Sunday, May 31, resulted in the arrests of two Chicago, Ill., area residents suspected of attempting to smuggle more than 40 pounds of marijuana across several states and netted the Wolf Point Police Department its largest seizure of pot.
The WPPD estimates the street value between $100,000 and $125,000.
Lt. Brian Erwin conducted the traffic stop of a SUV for a speeding violation on U.S. Hwy. 2 near the Homestead Inn at 4:35 p.m. It became a drug interdiction when Erwin observed the male driver and female passenger behaving suspiciously.
A search warrant was secured for the SUV that had been rented in Illinois. Police found 40.5 pounds of marijuana contained in several plastic bags inside suitcases and duffle bags.
Erwin arrested David Strasser, 23, of Chicago and Cheryl Oskvarek, 57, of Downers Grove, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. Both were charged with felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs with intent to distribute.
“We intercepted a load that was headed back to the Chicago area,” Erwin said. “We suspect that they traveled from Chicago, Ill., to the Whitefish area and were returning to Chicago.”
“This is a perfect example of the aggressive proactive investigative capabilities of Lt. Erwin and the Wolf Point Police,” WPPD chief Jeff Harada said.
“This drug situation is sadly occurring more often than not. However, with additional police personnel, it would allow us to provide more interdiction patrol efforts,” he said.
Oskvarek and Strasser made initial appearances in Roosevelt County Justice Court before Judge Tracy Harada Monday, June 1.
Both were free Wednesday morning, June 3, on $50,000 bond each posted by someone from Illinois who has not been identified with Billings bail bonding company Western Pawn, according to the Roosevelt County Attorney’s Office.
Oskvarek and Strasser are scheduled for arraignments with entries of pleas in 15th District Court Wednesday, June 24.
Fort Peck Tribes Department of Law and Justice officers assisted the WPPD.
Written by John Plestina
The Wolf Point School board extended an offer and then accepted a counter offer from an applicant for district superintendent during the past week, but no contract was signed by Monday, June 8.
The trustees voted 4-1 during a special meeting, Thursday, June 4, to extend an offer to Gary Scott of Billings. District 1 trustee Corey Reum cast the sole dissenting vote, saying he favored Matt Kleinsasser, the other applicant the board interviewed. District 5 trustee Lanette Clark was absent from the meeting.
Board chairman Mark Kurokawa presented an offer to Scott, Friday, June 5, for a one-year contract with a salary of $80,000. Scott responded with a counter offer seeking $82,640. Kurokawa contacted other board members and accepted the counter offer.
Kurokawa said the counter offer is pending the outcome of a background check.
Scott, 67, who is the father of Wolf Point Junior/Senior High School assistant principal Brett Scott, is a retired superintendent with more than 40 years experience in education. He was employed as a school bus driver during the school year that recently ended.
The board must give final acceptance to the hiring, which was not on the agenda for the June monthly meeting, held Tuesday, June 9, after deadline for this issue of The Herald-News. Kurokawa said a special meeting would be necessary.
Following separate 45-minute interviews with Kleinsasser and Scott, the trustees deliberated in a one-hour, two-minute closed executive session. The reasons given were privacy of the applicants and to discuss reference checks. Upon returning to an open session, each board member read six written comments that were not made public.
Scott resigned as superintendent in Fromberg in 2012 after that school district’s trustees received results of an investigation the school board had commissioned through Felt, Martin, Frazier and Weldon, a Billings law firm. Attorney Heather Sather lead the probe, which dealt with several complaints alleging Scott had made inappropriate sexual remarks to students.
The investigation found that Scott did not violate the law, but drew no conclusions about the validity of the complaints against him. Scott says the allegations are untrue.
The Billings Gazette reported April 19, 2012, that the Fromberg Public School District board voted to drop complaints against Scott by students and teachers during a closed executive session in January 2012 in return for Scott’s resignation, which amounted to a suspension with pay until June 2012, when his employment ceased. Scott had been on administrative leave since the January 2012 closed session.
The Herald-News downloaded a copy of the 38-page report from the Gazette’s website. Sather’s report acknowledges the allegations and includes a rebuttal by Scott where he disputed the findings.
“There is not one iota of truth to any of it. It was a trumped up deal by three community members and three board members,” Scott told The Herald-News. “None of those board members are on the board anymore.”
He said he would never say or do anything that could hurt a child.
“I signed an agreement that I wouldn’t go after them for what they did, so I better be careful what I say,” Scott said.
Kurokawa said the four WPSD trustees made the decision to extend an offer to Scott based on the information that was brought to the board during the executive session.
“No criminal charges were filed on what we were informed of,” Kurokawa said.
He said that Scott has had many years of employment in education and the board was not aware of anything other than the Fromberg allegations.
“A lot of places [where he worked]; we heard a lot of good things; that he did a lot of good for the community,” Kurokawa said.
In addition to his last position as superintendent in Fromberg from 2009 until 2012, Scott has worked in education in Lame Deer, Columbus, Harlowton, Huntley Project and other Montana and Idaho school districts.
The five trustees present for the interviews were polled and only Reum said he favored offering a contract to Kleinsasser. Brandon Babb, LaRae Hanks, Kurokawa and Linda Hansen all said they favored Scott.
The board voted 3-1 to offer a one-year contract to Scott that would begin July 1 and gave Kurokawa authority to negotiate salary.
The board also voted unanimously to make the same offer to Kleinsasser if Scott were to decline.
Kleinsasser, 40, of Miles City is the current superintendent in Rosebud. He has about 15 years experience in education. Kleinsasser said he has a young family and would like to settle long-term in Wolf Point. He also said he has relatives living in Circle.
“This late in the game, we’re very fortunate to get two qualified applicants,” Kurokawa said.
“When we took over [from the former school board], the deadlines were short,” he said.
Kurokawa said board wants to do the right things and none of them have axes to grind.
“Every one of them is passionate about their commitment to the board,” he said.
The WPSD has hoped to hire a new superintendent before July 1 to replace current superintendent Joe Paine who is resigning for a new position in Grenora, N.D.
The interviews with Kleinsasser and Scott were the second round of interviews of candidates for district superintendent and the third go-around for applicant screenings and invitations for interviews.
Since the process began in April, new trustees elected in May have filled all six board positions. The turnover of all board positions was due to federal court mandated redistricting creating five single-member districts and one at-large position replacing six at-large trustees.
According to WPSD officials, Scott applied early in the process and the former school board did not extend an invitation to interview.
Two other applicants withdrew from consideration that had been scheduled for interviews along with Kleinsasser and Scott.
They were former Wolf Point High School teacher, athletic director and girls’ basketball coach Jim Baldwin and former Wolf Point Junior High principal Les McCormick, currently of Healy, Alaska.
Baldwin, who is originally from Culbertson, interviewed for superintendent in late April, was offered the position and turned it down. He is now slated to become district superintendent in Poplar.
Written by John Plestina
Montana Highway Patrol trooper Seth Adams and Shelley Rodenberg, both of Wolf Point, listen to a presenter during the Alcohol Summit in Bozeman in May. (Photo by John Plestina)
(Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series addressing drunk and drugged driving, and other alcohol-related problems. As a member of the task force, I attended the 2015 Alcohol Education Summit in Bozeman with the Roosevelt County DUI Task Force.)
Offset a culture?
That might be easier said than done.
Drinking alcohol is a part of the culture for many Montanans, especially along the Hi-Line, and too many people often take drinking and driving lightly.
So, it is no surprise that Montana ranks first in the nation for alcohol-related deaths.
The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates 88,000 alcohol-related deaths annually across the nation.
Possible solutions offered during the 2015 Alcohol Education Summit in Bozeman, May 20 and 21, included adoption of stricter laws addressing driving under the influence laws and consumption of alcohol by minors, funding for enhanced enforcement and better public information.
Presenters offered a “wish list” at the end of the conference of possible solutions to alcohol-related problems, some of which will be taken to voters as initiatives before the next legislative session.
Some proposals could change laws pertaining to minors in consumption of alcohol, commonly called MIP, which were said by several law enforcement officers and a justice court judge from Havre to be too lenient.
The underlying intent is to better address the statewide problem of MIP across Montana and to change the culture of the next generation of drinkers.
Some recommendations include: preventing DUI convictions of juveniles from being removed from records, allowing stacking all DUI convictions on a driver’s record; the use of interlock devices and hard license suspensions following second MIP; jail for parents that do not require their children to comply with MIP court-imposed consequences; funding for school resource officers in rural schools and social host consequences that would result in legal penalties for adults hosting parties where minors are drinking alcohol.
Other recommendations for law changes included taxing bar drinks, increased funding for law enforcement, funding for prevention programs and treatment.
The Roosevelt County DUI Taskforce, which the county commissioners formed in early 2014, participated in the summit that the Montana Department of Revenue, several Montana police departments and prevention organizations planned. Roosevelt County Commissioner Gary Macdonald, Shelley Rodenberg, Seth Adams and John Plestina, editor of The Herald-News and The Searchlight attended the summit. All are Wolf Point residents. Adams was the only law enforcement officer from northeastern Montana attending the conference.
Erin Inman is a former Prairie County attorney and former assistant attorney general.
She said the state is working toward healthier alcohol laws and policies.
She presented underlying reasons for recent legislative changes.
“Director [Montana Department of Transportation director Mike] Tooley went to the Legislature and said, ‘We need to change our laws,’” Inman said.
Tooley, then the colonel commanding the Montana Highway Patrol, sought help for the problem from lawmakers following the deaths of two MHP troopers that were caused by drunk drivers in 2008 and 2009.
Inman offered brief explanations of some changes.
She said actual physical control of a motor vehicle could now lead to DUI charges. That includes sitting in vehicles while legally intoxicated.
She gave an example of a driver who drove into a Town Pump in Cut Bank with a disabled pickup, parked it, walked to a bar next door, got drunk and was later found sitting in his disabled truck passed out behind the wheel. He received a DUI. Inman said the drive shaft was broken.
“The officer did the absolute correct thing,” Inman said.
She said an intoxicated person sleeping in a vehicle could get a DUI.
The Montana Supreme Court decided against law enforcement in that case because the pickup was disabled.
Inman also gave an example of a Missoula case last year regarding submission to blood or breath alcohol or drug testing.
“A refusal in and of itself is a variation of a DUI,” she said.
Inman cited a case in Butte in 2011 where a man ran from a hospital where he was being treated for injuries sustained in a motor vehicle crash when he learned that officers were on their way to the hospital and that he was going to be tested for alcohol.
She said the law has since changed allowing for warrants if a person refuses alcohol or drug testing.
Inman also addressed Montana being one of a few states that do not allow roadblocks for DUI enforcement.
She said DUI checkpoints are a gray area because law enforcement can use roadblocks to check for licenses, registrations and proof of liability insurance, but cannot use checkpoints solely to enforce DUI laws, which many other states allow.
“Data shows they are highly effective,” Inman said.
She also talked about House Bill 412 which revises laws addressing minors in possession of alcohol laws allowing for immunity from MIP laws for young people needing emergency medical help.
Another piece of legislation makes e-warrants permissible in Montana.
“You can email a judge now,” Inman said.
Another bill prohibits judges from imposing higher fines than a person can afford and clarifies aggravated DUI in lieu of third offense DUI. A DUI becomes felony child endangerment if a child is in the car.
HB 132 allows for reallocation of unspent special revenue funds from driver’s license reinstatement fees to counties that have DUI task forces. Roosevelt County is one of those counties and between $15,000 and $18,000 will be awarded to Roosevelt County July 1.
“There are 34 [counties that have DUI task forces] right now, but we’re going to have six more because of this,” Roosevelt County Commissioner Gary Macdonald said.
Michelle Snowberger, bureau chief, records and driver control, Motor Vehicle Division and former city court judge in Belgrade, addressed HB 488.
That new law imposes a $300 administrative fee for refusal to submit to blood or breath alcohol or drug testing. The individual’s driver’s license is taken until the $300 fee is paid.
Also, a first conviction of DUI carries a six-month license suspension with eligibility for a probationary or what is commonly known as an “essential license,” which restricts driving to transportation to and from work, medical appointments, court appearances and taking children to school.
Snowberger said Ohio now issues bright yellow license plates to shame people who have had DUIs.
Montana Highway Patrol trooper Lacie Wickum of Chester talked about the 24/7, a zero tolerance program that involves twice daily testing of persons convicted of DUI. She said the program works like an electric fence, forcing people to remain sober or face consequences.
The 24/7 program started in South Dakota and was later adopted by the Montana Legislature.
“People don’t typically blow hot [alcohol detected] on this program,” Wickum said. “People are compliant on this program.”
“The law was mainly written for second or subsequent offenders,” Wickum said. She added that it could be used for first time offenders.
People pay for the program and it keeps them out of jail.
In Montana, the 24/7 program later received strong bipartisan support with 95 percent of legislators voting in support.
Following the rollout of the program in several counties, alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Montana were down 30 percent in 2013.
The SCRAM [Continuous Transdermal Alcohol-Monitoring Device] program, is more commonly in use in Montana and is occasionally used by Roosevelt County Justice Court and 15th District Court in Wolf Point. Roosevelt County Justice Court in Wolf Point has also used house arrest. SCRAM provides alcohol monitoring and location monitoring.
The Roosevelt County DUI Task Force has discussed using alcohol compliance checks in Wolf Point.
At the Alcohol Summit, Kalispell Police officer Jason Parce addressed compliance checks. He is an alcohol enforcement team coordinator for the Flathead County multi-jurisdictional task force, a former school resource officer and a member of the STOP Underage Drinking in the Flathead Coalition.
He said several minors have been prosecuted for using fake identification to purchase alcohol and several bartenders have also been prosecuted.
“When we do compliance checks, we let the stores know we’re on their side,” Parce said.
However, he added, “We want to hold the licensees and employees accountable to the community.”
Parce said the underage people purchasing alcohol are victimizing the businesses in the community.
He said he develops rapport with the establishments and their employees.
Parce said juvenile buyers working with police cannot lie about their age if asked by a server or store employee.
He said some establishments are four to not be compliant with the state’s requirement for alcohol server training.
“A lot of people will find out they don’t have the certification to sell alcohol,” Parce said.
Results of compliance checks are publicized with press releases.
Kalispell police send letters of appreciation to establishments where employees have been found to comply with the law.
What Parce called a “problem child,” is a bar in Kalispell where police respond to two or three calls to most nights.
Parce also talked about shoulder tap operations at alcohol establishments where adults who purchased alcohol for underage people are targeted. Underage undercover people ask adults if they will buy alcohol for them.
He also addressed the “Cops in Shops” program that is a partnership between law enforcement and retailers intended to deter minors from attempting to purchase alcohol and deter adults from purchasing alcohol for minors.
Undercover police officers act as customers at establishments with the knowledge of owners or managers, or pose as store employees and wait to apprehend underage individuals when they attempt to purchase alcohol.
State law addressing consumption of alcohol by minors was addressed at the summit.
Rebecca Sturdevant, family nurse practitioner for the Montana Common Sense Coalition, said teenage brains are immature preventing teens from making choices like adults.
Audrey Barger is the Hill County [Havre] Justice Court judge, presides over DUI and Drug Court and is the Montana Judicial Outreach Liaison. She spoke about the underage drinking problem from a judicial perspective.
Barger said she can only detain juveniles under age 18 if she conducts a youth detention hearing.
Most are referred to Montana Youth Court.
Deregulation of alcohol sales, as is the case in Washington, might not be a solution, said Linda Becker, senior prevention research manager for Washington’s Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery.
Becker spoke at the summit on the impact of Washington’s liquor privatization initiative that voters approved, which has been called out of control by some people.
Deregulation resulted in more stores selling liquor with more hours that sales are allowed and the same number of state enforcement officers.
Montana is one of only a few remaining liquor control states.
Becker talked about the availability of Pocket Shots and incidents of teenagers taking the product to high school sports events.
Another presenter addressing deregulation in Washington was Pamela Erickson.
She talked about potential harm of alcohol and reducing the availability of inexpensive alcohol to youth in a hyper-competitive retail market.
Erickson said alcohol promotions include high-volume purchases and lead to binge drinking.
Erickson said Costco re-wrote 60 pages of state alcohol law in Washington’s voter initiative and gave $22 million to the campaign to pass the measure in 2011.
The availability of alcohol spiked with a proliferation of stores selling alcohol from 338 state stores to more than 1,700 outlets selling alcohol.
She said many small liquor stores in Washington have gone out of business and prices have increased.
Written by John Plestina
Wolf Point School District trustees were expected to ratify union contracts Tuesday, June 9, after The Herald-News went to press.
The Wolf Point Education Association, which represents teachers, and the Wolf Point Educational Support Staff Association, which represents non-certified school staff, including paraprofessional aids, office staff, custodians and cafeteria workers, both met during the past week and ratified proposed contracts.
School district and union negotiators reached a verbal accord Thursday, May 28, nearly four months after negotiations began for new labor agreements.
The lingering impasse was based on the amount the school district would contribute for employee health insurance and wage issues.
The settlement was based on forming a health insurance pool for eligible district employees that would reduce the projected cost of providing insurance to all teachers and full-time classified [non-teaching] employees that work at least 30 hours each week. Under the new agreement, the district will pay individual and family health insurance but there will be no health savings accounts and single employees will have to pay $2,600 deductible out of their pockets and those with family coverage would have to meet $5,200 deductible.
The school district and representatives of both unions initially agreed to the district’s original offer to pay $937.50 per month for health insurance coverage for every participating employee, with the funds going into an insurance pool. But, with both unions participating in a single pool, higher employer contributions became necessary. The district agreed to pay $1,044 per month for every participating employee. The result is that monies paid for insurance for single individuals would help pay for family coverage for other employees. The original proposal with no insurance pool would have left employees with families having to pay part of the premiums.
Before an agreement was reached, the WPESSA was asking for the district to pay $1,356 per month for every employee to purchase whatever coverage they wish.
Neither side waivered on the $418.50 difference until May 28.
The school district is asking both unions to research alternative insurance carriers for the 2016-2017 school year.
The school district and unions have not been in agreement on a possible change of health insurance carriers. The district is renewing coverage for one year with the current provider, the Montana Unified School Trust. That coverage has been called expensive.
Other points of the proposed contracts agreed upon include the WPESSA dropping a demand for longevity raises that could have left the district having to give some longtime employees raises of as much as $8,000 per year. The three classified employees who have worked for the district over 21 years will each receive one additional day of personal leave.
The 15 12-month classified employees will each receive a 25-cent per hour raise.
The district and the WPESSA had not previously agreed about pay for paraprofessional aides that substitute when teachers are absent and substitute teachers are not available.
Under the new agreement, paraprofessionals will receive an additional $30 for each day they are used as a substitute. Substitute teachers who are not on the WPSD staff receive $100 per day.
Most of the unsuccessful negotiations had been with the former school board. The entire six-member board was up for election May 5 due to federal court mandated redistricting creating five single-member districts and one at-large position. Five of the six former board members did not seek election in single-member districts. Former board vice chair Jaronn Boysun was unsuccessful in his bid for reelection.
The new board members are Brandon Babb, Lanette Clark, LaRae Hanks, Linda Hansen, Mark Kurokawa and Corey Reum.
Representatives of the former school board began meeting with union representatives in February with lingering stalemates over how much the school district would contribute for employee health insurance and wages. Two unsuccessful rounds of mediation with a Montana Department of Labor and Industry mediator failed to produce an agreement with the WPESSA. The WPEA did not participate in the mediation process.
Written by John Plestina
The former Wolf Point High School teacher, athletic director and basketball coach who turned down an offer in April to become Wolf Point’s next superintendent received approval from the Poplar School board Monday, June 8, to become the next district superintendent in Poplar.
Jim Baldwin, 59, originally from Culbertson and currently of St. John, Wash., has 39 years experience in education. He taught at WPHS for nearly a decade from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s. Baldwin is also a former superintendent in Choteau.
Baldwin will replace embattled superintendent Dr. Kim Harding, who the board placed on administrative leave May 14. She began working as superintendent at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year.
Elementary principal Keith Erickson and high school principal Dwain Haggard have served as co-superintendents since Harding’s departure.
A petition that circulated in Poplar asked for Harding’s removal.
That came after the Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board voted 9-1 April 27 to banish Harding from the reservation. Numerous allegations claimed that Harding did not get along with teachers and she was accused of referring to several Poplar teachers as “renegades” in an email dated March 6. A Poplar teacher publicized the email from Harding on March 11.
Harding was taken to task because historical uses of the word “renegade” are considered offensive by Native Americans.
Harding told The Herald-News in early May that the email was portrayed in the press [not in The Herald-News] as racist in nature and described situations that had been happening at staff meetings.
“I absolutely wish I had never used the word renegade. I come from Ronan [on the Flathead Reservation]. We raised our family there and have our ranch there,” Harding said.