Cliffs Notes 

The condensed version of the biggest stories from 2007

Beach rebuffed
Barry Beach’s 24-year fight for freedom grabbed headlines during 2007, but he’s still behind bars, serving a 100-year prison sentence for a crime he insists he did not commit.

Convicted in the brutal 1979 beating death of Kim Nees, his high-school classmate in Poplar, Beach claims that detectives coerced a false confession from him and that evidence found by police at the time implicates other suspects. Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey nonprofit that works to free unjustly imprisoned inmates, has tirelessly tried to prove Beach’s innocence, and in June won a two-day hearing before the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole (BOPP). In August, the BOPP unanimously rejected Beach’s request for clemency, declaring they were unconvinced of his claims and that questions of his innocence have been “laid to rest.”

Now Centurion Ministries’ attorney Peter Camiel says he plans to raise new evidence of Beach’s innocence in a district court petition to be filed in January. A handful of witnesses say they’ve received confessions to Nees’ murder from women once suspected in the crime, and while the BOPP didn’t find their testimony compelling, Camiel hopes a district court will decide it’s fresh evidence that merits a new trial for the convicted man.

Beach supporters aren’t just working on the legal front. A statewide group called Montanans for Justice formed recently to “bring the injustice of what’s happened [to Beach] to the attention of more Montanans,” and spokesman Bob Kolar says it will launch a website that features case documents and other information in early January. He hopes the twin efforts on Beach’s behalf make more headway in 2008 than they did this year, as does Centurion Ministries Founder Jim McCloskey.

“We have no intention of giving up until we are able to free him,” McCloskey says. “He’s an innocent man and he deserves to be at home with his family.”

Don’t hold your breath
In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally came clean about the uncertain state of the Libby Superfund Site, admitting that after six years and $110 million dollars spent on cleanup, they had no way of knowing if the town—contaminated by asbestos after years of mining by W.R. Grace—was clean or safe.

In 2007, investigative reporting by the Independent and others revealed the link between the EPA’s questionable efforts in Libby and the agency’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attack in Manhattan, where it fudged its standards for asbestos exposure to reassure New Yorkers they were safe.

The federal government has been of two minds concerning asbestos. The U.S. Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act of 1980 declared there is no safe level of exposure to the fiber. But around the same time, according to a New York Times report, the EPA caved to lobbying pressure from W.R. Grace to consider products containing less than one percent asbestos “asbestos free,” acquiescing to the industry assertion that asbestos exposure in small doses was safe.

When the EPA initiated cleanup activities in Libby, it held to the standards of the 1980 asbestos act, says Gordon Sullivan, a Libby resident who once served as a liaison between the EPA and the community. But over time, he says, he watched the standards erode.

Now we know why. When the World Trade Center collapsed, the buildings, which were partially fireproofed with Monokote, a W.R. Grace product containing 1 percent Libby asbestos, released asbestos into the air. Despite detecting levels of ambient asbestos as high as 4.5 percent in Manhattan, the EPA told New Yorkers it was safe to breath, because the levels were only slightly above the “safe” level of one percent.

W.R. Grace seized on the EPA’s pronouncements to challenge regulators of the Libby cleanup—where asbestos levels often measure less than one percent—fighting proposals to declare a public health emergency and to designate the town as a Superfund site.

Libby got the Superfund designation, but not the health emergency declaration, which could have set a precedent requiring the removal of W.R. Grace manufactured asbestos insulation from an estimated 35 million homes in the United States.

At the same time, the EPA lowered its standards for cleaning Libby homes, and started mouthing the industry line—issuing pamphlets to all Libby residents declaring low-level, short-term exposure to asbestos safe. After revelations about the uncertain effectiveness of the Libby cleanup, the EPA deep-sixed the misleading pamphlets.

In August, Sen. Max Baucus threatened to subpoena documents related to the EPA’s decision to refuse the emergency declaration. The EPA coughed up the documents, which are currently under review by the senator’s staff.

Meanwhile, arguments in a case pitting New Yorkers against the EPA—with New Yorkers asking for money to take care of people ill from exposure to 9/11 dust and for cleaning the city—began this December.

Progressives in control
If challenger Pam Walzer could defeat Ward 2 Missoula City Council incumbent Don Nicholson in the November election, progressives figured they’d take decisive control of city government. A loss would leave the Council stuck in the middle, with a conservative bloc of six members ready and able to derail any decision it didn’t like.

The pivotal campaign started off with a red baiting lit-drop from Nicholson spuriously linking Walzer—who says she actually voted for Nicholson four years ago—to the long-defunct New Party. Walzer struck back by emphasizing Nicholson’s grumpy nature, his obdurate track record of voting “no” on more measures than any other councilor, and his habit of sleeping during meetings. While Nicholson backed off the New Party accusations, he never denied napping on the city’s time. He joked that PowerPoint presentations by city staff deserved the blame.

But if Ward 2 voters were laughing, it was more likely at Nicholson’s expense, rather than his humor.

The move to mail-in balloting, which dramatically increased voter participation compared to previous city elections, might have helped lift Walzer to victory. Or it may have been the dozens of Walzer volunteers who canvassed Ward 2 in the days before Nov. 6. Regardless of reason, voters removed Nicholson from office by 92 votes, a staggering defeat in a ward where past races have been decided by as few as nine ballots.

With Walzer and three other new Council members ready to take office on Jan. 7, steadfast conservatives like Ward 5’s Dick Haines admit the outlook for the next two years looks grim for their camp. Of course, the voting patterns of the new representatives will vary from issue to issue, but the Council’s seven progressively minded members should have their way against just five conservative foils.

PAC track
Prospects for a $60 million Missoula Community Performing Arts Center (PAC) proposed for Missoula’s Riverfront Triangle waxed and waned throughout the year, nearly dying in November before a last minute reprieve by Mayor John Engen.

Back in February, the City Council gave supporters of the PAC six months to complete a feasibility study for the project, and asked the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to report back after that with an opinion on whether the city should reserve land for the PAC at the corner of Front and Orange Streets.

In August, the MRA made its recommendation to Council, urging an 18-month grace period to give supporters of the PAC a chance, if you can call it that, to find a $20 million donor. The feasibility study concluded that the MRA’s requirements could be met, but despite the reassurance, support for the project seemed to evaporate.

When the PAC supporters next appeared before the City Council in November, they encountered overwhelming skepticism from Council members worried that the city would wind up funding the project—and not liking that idea at all.

“We will not ask [the Council] for subsidy,” PAC board member Jim Valeo pledged. However, he did say they’d gladly accept donations.

Just as the PAC seemed to be going down for the count, Mayor Engen saved the day with a surprise announcement that a real estate developer had approached him about purchasing the triangle land and holding it for the PAC. Council gave the Mayor until March to have the parcel appraised and report back.

Meanwhile, the PAC board says it’s continuing its efforts to secure a big money donor, but if they don’t score fast, this story could come to a quick end by spring.

Officer down
The stories out the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department have been less than glamorous during the last 12 months, making it a long year for Sheriff Mike McMeekin.

In February, video of a June 2006 incident involving a sheriff’s deputy firing pepperballs at a mentally ill woman became public. The tape shows the woman getting shot six times, then three more shots hit the wall near her head. An investigation by FBI found no wrongdoing, but the incident was nonetheless disturbing.

A month later, the sheriff fired Sgt. Ty Evenson for chatting up strippers and porn stars on MySpace while using county computers. After Evenson lied to county officials about his activities, McMeekin delivered a damning letter of dismissal, telling Evenson, “Your documented pattern of activity more closely resembles that of a sexual predator than of a deputy sheriff…”

Life got even tougher for McMeekin in August when he demoted Undersheriff Mike Dominick after a tiff about highway closures ordered by Dominick as a result of the summer’s raging fires.

But knocking the undersheriff back down to the rank of deputy didn’t satisfy McMeekin, and he demanded Dominick’s resignation, prompting County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg to intervene by forcing the sheriff to take a week off.

Dominick went public with the quarrel after 45 sworn deputies signed a letter describing McMeekin’s behavior as “irrational” and “detrimental to the Sheriff’s Department.” He told the Independent that McMeekin became exhausted during the long fire season and lost his cool.

“I reported his behavior to both the county commissioner’s office and the county attorney’s office. I had to make a decision: Was I more loyal to Missoula County and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, or to the man Mike McMeekin? Obviously I had to pick Missoula County,” Dominick said.

It’s hard to imagine that McMeekin could have another year as rough as 2007, but there are 12 months to find out.

Tale of two seasons
It’s been a tale of two seasons for the University of Montana football team, marked by record-breaking success on the field and scandal in the community.

Coach Bobby Hauck guided the Griz to their 15th consecutive playoff appearance and the team’s first undefeated regular season since 1996. But higher aspirations—as in, another national championship—went unfulfilled when the Griz succumbed to visiting underdog Wofford in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision. Undone by missed opportunities and baffled by the Terriers triple-option offensive attack, UM lost, 23-22, when Dan Carpenter’s last-second, 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left.

The early exit from the playoffs shifted attention back to the team’s embarrassing, season-long troubles off the field. Over the course of five months, seven Griz players landed in jail for a spate of shocking, headline-grabbing crimes. It started in June, with cornerback Jimmy Wilson arrested in Southern California for allegedly murdering his aunt’s boyfriend. Wilson remains in jail awaiting trial. Missoula police charged offensive lineman J.D. Quinn with his third DUI in July. Cornerback Tim Parks hit the papers in September when he allegedly pointed a gun at a Missoula woman’s head and slapped her. And, finally, following a November win at Idaho State, running back Greg Coleman, cornerback Jeremy Pate and defensive end Michael Shelton were all taken into custody on charges of kidnapping and robbery. The trio allegedly dressed up in ski masks and armed with a machinegun, invaded a university area residence to shake down a pot dealer. Former teammate Qwenton Freeman, a witness to the Wilson shooting already suspended from the team for separate charges of disorderly conduct and assault over the summer, was also suspected in the drug raid. He fled to Oregon before authorities finally arrested him.

The long-term fallout of the arrests remains unclear. Hauck and Athletic Director Jim O’Day defended the program after every misstep, eventually announcing that players may receive increased supervision in the form of a mentoring program next season. Griz Nation reacted with steadfast loyalty to the arrests, filling message boards and editorial pages with notes of support, calling for “true fans” to rally to the team’s side. If there’s been any immediate consequence, it’s that Hauck, once believed to be a lock for a big-school head coach position, hasn’t been hired for any openings this off-season, so he should return in 2008 with a chance to redeem the team’s image in the community, and repeat its success on the field.
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