Top Niles stories of 2011Published 4:24pm Tuesday, December 27, 2011
The Super Committee’s struggle to lower the national debt, the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Penn State scandal stole national headlines this year.
Niles had its own version of those stories with U.S. representative Fred Upton serving on the Super Committee, Occupy Niles rallies gaining national attention and the “Niles 5″ sex crimes shocking the community.
Here are the top Niles stories of 2011:
Teen ‘sextortion’ scandal
Five Niles teenagers were arrested in May on criminal sexual conduct charges — four of them at Niles High School. What followed was the unfolding of a sex video extortion scandal that shocked their classmates and the community.
Leon Murphy, Martise Washington, Parnell Martin, Martell Miller and Trey Nichols were accused of filming a 17-year-old girl having sex with Washington and then threatening to post the video on Facebook if she didn’t perform sex acts on them.
Washington was found guilty during his November trial on all seven charges against him and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The four other defendants took plea deals. Murphy was handed a seven- to 15-year sentence, while the others are still awaiting their sentencing.
This case came shortly after an ex-Niles cop was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old male inmate at the Niles Law Enforcement Complex in March.
Ivery Cross, now 26, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison. In December, he filed paperwork to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial. A hearing is slated for Jan. 19.
Another case that garnered some attention involved Matthew Purchase, the former owner of Legacy Family Funeral Services in Berrien Springs. He was sentenced to five to 20 years on attempted racketeering, criminal enterprising and attempted embezzlement charges. Purchase was alleged to have embezzled more than $268,000 from customers who pre-planned services.
New Tech opens, Eastside rises from ashes
Superintendent Richard Weigel took some heat when he allowed Eastside Elementary School to close last year.
But the closure was short-lived when Niles Community Schools re-opened the building this school year as a magnet school. Faculty, staff and community volunteers helped refurbish the building that was built in 1939. The project was backed by donations from local businesses.
The district also launched the New Tech Entrepreneurial Academy this year and its project-based learning style. Weigel said the new approach to learning is a “new model for the 21st Century.”
Despite the advancements, the district continued to battle budget woes. The school board is continuing its contract negotiations with the teachers’ union. The board is proposing an 8 percent cut in base salary across the board to help cut costs.
Jim vs. Jim continues at township
In local government, the division in the Niles Township board continued to grow in 2011. Recall attempts, anonymous letters, alleged secret meetings, accusations of wrongdoing and shouting matches at board meetings fueled the fire between Township Supervisor Jim Kidwell and Treasurer Jim Ringler.
The City of Niles said goodbye to City Administrator Terry Eull after 13 years in that role and hired former Police Chief Ric Huff to replace him. Eull will be remembered for his role in the construction of a new fire station and law enforcement complex, improvements to Riverfront Park, a downtown streetscape project and the removal of brow siding from the facades of historic downtown buildings.
Public Works Director Neil Coulston also retired and was replaced by assistant Joe Ray. David Mann, 20, became the youngest city council member when he was elected in November. Niles Mayor Mike McCauslin was elected to an unprecedented fourth four-year term.
The city managed to balanced its budget despite the need to cut $450,000 from its budget due to a decrease in state revenue sharing. The reductions were met by not replacing exiting police officers and firefighters. The city is also saving money by not hiring a police captain after Jim Millin took Huff’s place as police chief.
The city also continues to debate what should be done with the Pucker Street Dam. Niles has received a few offers from companies interested in restoring power to the facility, but a group known as the Dowagiac Riverkeepers is pushing for the dam’s removal.
In Bertrand Township, Supervisor John Mefford and trustee Dick Haigh, both long-time board members, were recalled from office in May.
Niles Main Street got a bit of a makeover in 2011, at least in its promotional materials. Niles was one of four Michigan communities selected by Michigan Main Street to participate in the pilot downtown branding service.
Niles Main Street received a new website, marketing materials and a fresh downtown logo as part of the program.
This came after Niles was named the “Best Main Street in Michigan” by the travel website officialbestof.com, earning the downtown a feature spot on Discovery Channel.
The city was also showcased on Food Network, when the 2011 Hunter Ice Festival was featured on the program “Ice Brigade.”
Downtown Niles also came alive in the summer with the addition of several car shows.
The Occupy Wall Street movement gained steam in cities across the country, including Niles, which drew more than 100 protestors at its first rally in October.
That rally gained national attention when filmmaker Michael Moore gave it a shout-out on the MSNBC program “The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell” and the national news program “Democracy Now!”
Occupy Southwest Michigan, organized by Niles resident Matthew Rosenhagen, has held seven rallies throughout the area.