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Farewell 2023; Remembering a year many would like to forget

Staff writer

It’s not the ancient Chinese curse many believe it to be, but the apocryphal, ironic blessing, “May you live in interesting times,” kept Marion County firmly in its grasp in 2023.

Here, according to analysis of readership information from the Record’s website, were the year’s top stories.

1. Seized but not silenced

Police raids Aug. 11 on the Marion County Record office and the homes of Vice Mayor Ruth Herbel and Record owners Joan and Eric Meyer created headlines like no other news event in county history.

The death of 98-year-old Joan Meyer from a broken heart just 24 hours after seven law enforcement officers invaded her home under the guise of a search warrant later deemed illegal was clearly the year’s single most-read news story.

On the Record’s web site, that one story was read a total of 172,782 times. An additional 94 news stories about the raid were read 485,130 times on the website and other news organization’s coverage of them garnered countless other readers internationally.

Virtually every news organization in the world covered the raid in depth, and the Record’s paid circulation tripled as a result. Even the White House and Voice of America commented on the story.

And the story isn’t over. The first of what are expected to be many lawsuits has been filed. Special prosecutors have been named. Results of investigations by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which brought in its counterpart from Colorado to help, still have not been released.

What role local politicians or potential romantic relationships may have played in motivating the raids still is unclear as Marion’s insurance lawyer has refused to share messages police and officials exchanged via private accounts leading up to the raids.

The raid was not the only top story of 2023, however. Next in line, according to readership data from the Record’s website:

2. Spending, taxes soar

Although many governmental units stressed that tax rates had not increased that much, total property taxes increased as much as 13.5% — well above the inflation rate — for typical homeowners because of increases in spending and rising assessments.

Those increases came on the heels of a 24% increase in taxes not paid for 2023 and a large auction, the first in several years, which attempted to recoup past years’ delinquencies by selling properties involved.

Three of those houses were purchased by 18-year-old Aidyn Escalante of Cheney, who planned to take a year off from studies and work with his father, Steve Bolin of Peabody, to renovate them.

Exactly how some budgets were arrived at remains unclear. Marion City Council, for example, endorsed a budget that had been prepared without any public discussion of spending priorities.

3. Rancor dominates politics

Even before her house was raided, Herbel was a frequent target of criticism from Mayor David Mayfield and council member Zach Collett.

Blowups and shouting matches ensued in the wake of such allegations that Mayfield violated ethics laws by negotiating a city contract with his employer and violated city code by handing out raises without council approval.

After Herbel was successful in overturning an ordinance backed by Mayfield that could have eliminated taxpayers’ right to vote on bond issues, Mayfield attempted to have her recalled for violating the Kansas Open Meetings Laws by sending a note saying only “Thanks” to all council members.

That effort fell short, but she repeatedly was portrayed as a negative influence, two candidates were recruited to run against her, and she failed to win re-election in November.

4. Herington hospital closes

A week after closing its Hillsboro clinic, Herington Hospital announced that it, too, was closing Oct. 13.

The closure came on the heels of a $1.9 million lawsuit filed by Emprise Bank seeking to foreclose on two loans the hospital took out for its Hillsboro clinic. The suit asked that the property be sold at a sheriff’s sale.

A month later, Hillsboro Community Hospital asked the city to impose zoning restrictions that essentially would prohibit out-of-town medical facilities from locating within the city limits.

5. Medics face discipline

After it was revealed that he might lose his paramedic license because he had failed to disclose a history of violent offenses, the county’s ambulance director, Curt Hasart, resigned Sept. 11.

Before arriving in Marion, Hasart was accused of domestic assault, obstruction of justice, and resisting arrest in South Dakota and of battery and disorderly conduct in Wellington.

He wasn’t the only emergency medical services worker facing possible disciplinary action.

Former part-time Peabody police officer Chad Voth, also a firefighter and paramedic, lost his police license and was threatened with losing his paramedic license after being found drunk on duty in 2022.

Registered nurse Kelli Olson of rural Goessel also was arrested on suspicion of domestic battery after a reportedly drunken altercation.

6. Five die in car crashes

Two double fatalities involving semi-trailers within nine days on US-77 east of Marion and a tragic accident in which a kindergartner died just west of Marion dominated news of traffic accidents in 2023.

Centre High School students Michelle Brasch, 18, and Dwayne Moenning, 17, died after their truck ran a stop sign Dec. 4 at K-256 and US-77 and slammed into the side of a semi.

Nine days later, a 43-year-old Wamego woman and her 10-year-old daughter died after their car rear-ended a semi stopped for road construction six miles to the north.

Five-year-old Harper Bryant, a kindergartner at Marion Elementary School, died after a one-vehicle rollover accident March 6 two miles west of Marion on 190th Rd.

7. Silver alert motorist dies

After an extensive, more than daylong search, confused 85-year-old David Sawdy, a Ph.D. who worked on NASA’s Apollo program and at Boeing for 50 years, was found apparently safe. He had become confused while driving to an appointment in Wichita, ran out of gas near US-50 and Wagon Wheel Rd., and wandered into a field.

Although initially thought to be uninjured, his lungs became enflamed by exposure, and he died the next day at a Wichita hospital.

8. St. Luke embattled

Bitter disputes with the county over ambulance bills and with Lanning Pharmacy over reimbursements under a federal drug subsidy program began being resolved after a contentious election for hospital directors and an unexpected resignation by hospital chief Jeremy Ensey.

Longtime Marion volunteer Gene Winkler quit the hospital district board over rumors that the hospital wanted to start a pharmacy to rival Lanning and then was unsuccessful in getting back onto the board.

Sheriff Jeff Soyez was appointed instead, and former county commissioner Dan Holub joined the board after a jam-packed in-person election.

Ensey, meanwhile, became director of an entrepreneurship center at Tabor College.

9. Ex-cop faces porn charges

First, up to 50 cases that deputy and Burns police chief Joel Womochil had handled were imperiled by a mistake he had made in an official report about finding a syringe.

Then, after quitting both posts, Womochil was arrested on suspicion of child exploitation charges.

As the year progressed, the number of charges against Womochil continued to expand, reaching 44 counts total and including federal charges that he encouraged production of pornographic material involving children.

10. Administrators come, go

Marion fired one city administrator, Mark Skiles, just before the year began, found a replacement, and then watched as the replacement submitted his resignation after less than six months on the job.

Brogan Jones quickly found another job as city administrator — this one in a slightly larger town, Neodesha, earning $15,000 a year more and with greater authority to do such things as appoint the city’s police and fire chiefs, with advice and consent from the city council.

With vacancies at police chief and at city clerk, Marion had opted to fill those vacancies before replacing Skiles with Jones.

11. Search ends in suicide

Charles Park, 65, suspected of raping a child younger than 14, grabbed a shotgun and killed himself April 10 as interim Marion police chief Duane McCarty and sheriff’s deputy Aaron Christner were for a second time searching his residence on S. 4th St. in Marion.

At the time, Park was described by his daughter, Casey Taylor, as having challenges to his mental health while he was under investigation.

“He always felt like a turd in a punch bowl,” she said.

12. Fires claim hay, home

Steve and Linda Nazeck lost their 1915 home, a barn that housed Linda’s rescue horses and donkeys, a garden shed, her father’s 1976 Ford F150, and even the family cat in a fire April 5 at their home near Tampa.

In a more bizarre incident, a flaming pan of food was found on a stove at a home in Goessel after two teenage girls reported May 19 that an intoxicated and possibly suicidal woman in the home had turned on a burner, removed the burner’s knob, and locked herself in a bedroom.

What started as seeing dust during a Hillsboro couple’s evening walk Sept. 17 turned out to be a three-alarm hay fire at Stuart Penner’s farm. Hillsboro, Marion, and Durham firefighters spent six hours battling the blaze.

Two hay bale fires Oct. 30 three miles apart south of Marion Reservoir were termed of suspicious origin.

They were among dozens of fires — including 24 separate fires in a week around April 1 — that kept firefighters busy all spring, summer, and fall.

13. Evicted passenger, suicide

An unruly Amtrak passenger was evicted from a train at 3 a.m. Sept. 11 and left to fend for himself at the same crossing in Florence where four months earlier 21-year-old Newton resident Michael Wiebe had committed suicide by standing in front of a passing Southwest Chief.

14. Chases cross county

A 17-year-old Hillsboro boy driving a stolen truck led sheriff’s deputies from four counties on a 100-mile-long chase March 15 at speeds of up to 110 mph before the truck, its tires flattened by police spikes, stopped east of Lyons.

A driver fleeing from Harvey County in a stolen car April 24 led sheriff’s deputies on a 100-mph chase on US-50 and US-77 until crashing into a tree in Burns.

A six-county chase on US-50 at speeds of up to 130 mph led to an arrest May 1 in Coffey County.

A Wichita man driving a stolen car loaded with drugs led deputies on a 16-mile chase July 25 on US-50 before being stopped at a railroad crossing in Chase County.

15. Agribusinesses troubled

A sixth lawsuit, filed June 30 against Countryside Feed in Hillsboro and a milling company in Bern, alleges that they sold sheep feed tainted with toxic amounts of copper.

A temporary restraining order obtained Dec. 14 alleges that Agridime of Herington, which sells meat, cooking oil, coffee, hand soap, lotion, starter plants, and microgreens, is a $191 million Ponzi scheme, diverting millions of investor dollars to make “too good to be true” payments and sales commissions.

16. Health site debated

With one and sometimes two county commissioners seeming to prefer a Hillsboro location, plans went forward for constructing a new home for the county health department at the former site of the Marion County Food Bank.

The county also fretted over costs of remodeling the former Silk Salon building and the courthouse annex to create additional office space.

17. Hillsboro gets splash pad

On an appropriate 100-degree day July 28, nearly 200 people turned out to dedicate Hillsboro’s Larry Payne Memorial Splash Pad, named for the retired city administrator who championed it and succumbed to a lengthy battle with cancer June 2.

18. Deaths of civic leaders

County Treasurer Susan Berg died Oct. 4 after a prolonged battle with cancer. Tina Groening was sworn in Nov. 17 to replace her.

Attorney and banker Chris Costello died July 13, four months after stepping down from Marion City Council because of his illness and being replaced by Kevin Burkholder.

Lawyer Ed Wheeler, retired as court trustee for the 8th Judicial District, collapsed and died Dec. 18 at Diamond H Fitness Center in Marion.

Former Hillsboro mayor and real estate agent Delores Dalke died May 12.

19. Dogs causing trouble

Throughout the year, numerous stories reported how dogs roaming free were posing problems in Marion, Hillsboro, and Peabody and at the county lake.

20. Musical police cars

First the City of Marion and then Marion County were forced to operate with fewer law enforcement officers than usual after a spate of resignations and transfers thinned law enforcement ranks.

And that’s not all

Top stories tend to be things that surprise, and surprises often are negative. But bad news was by no means the only news attracting readers in 2023, a year in which Record readers also were drawn to stories about:

  • Bluegrass at the Lake volunteers enjoying supporting their community.
  • A fill-in announcer’s razzing proving to be a hit at an old-time baseball game in Florence.
  • Charmer and farmer Bob Delk turning 101.
  • Marion’s community enrichment director, Margo Yates, providing a smiling face for the city.
  • Centre students enjoying a shopping spree at Target while stranded in the District of Columbia by a thunderstorm.
  • Lake resident David McMurray finding a 70-year-old scrapbook and returning it to Ramona’s Billy Alcorn, brother of the former resident who had left it there.
  • While delivering a meal from Peabody Senior Center, Cindy Unruh finding Sharon Gilmore with a broken hip on a garage floor.
  • While trying to report a crime at Casey’s General Store in Marion, Stephanie Wheatley, 36, ending up being arrested for having failed to appear in court in Cowley County.
  • Exchange student Rey Arribas Molezun, 15, adapting to life in Hillsboro by joining the football team as a kicker.

Last modified Dec. 28, 2023

 

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