2017: Pioneer Stories of the Year


The local news cycle in 2017 covered all the emotions—from joy and excitement to worry and sadness. The past year in the Bemidji region started out with searches for a missing Cass Lake teen—who still remains missing—and ends with a continued search for missing fishermen on Upper Red Lake.

But 2017 news was not all negative. There was the opening of the new Watermark Art Center in downtown Bemidji, as well as success in the sporting arenas—both the Red Lake boys and girls basketball teams made it to state, and the BSU men's hockey team won the MacNaughton Cup as the top team in the WCHA. And let's not forget that Bemidji is the Best Town in Minnesota—and that's not just us saying that... a moose even stopped by Lake Bemidji to tell us!

So, like any year, 2017 in the Bemidji area was a mix of the highs and lows. Here's a look at some of our top stories in 2017 as voted on by the Pioneer newsroom staff.

We're No. 1

In 2017, the editors of Minnesota Monthly magazine decided to find out what was the "Best MN Town." They asked communities across the state to submit applications on why they thought they were the tops in the state. At stake was a multi-page editorial feature in the magazine and a media campaign valued at more than $50,000. Not to mention a party. In all, 30 communities entered the contest. The finalists would be determined by the magazine's editors, as well as an online voting component. Bemidji made the first cut to 10 cities, then the final cut to five and then. . . On Nov. 30 in downtown Minneapolis, it was announced that, indeed, Bemidji is the "Best MN Town," a community that best "embodies the spirit of Minnesota." The other finalists were Austin, Owatonna, Waconia and Walker.

About 20 community members were on hand for the ceremony at the Lumber Exchange Building in downtown Minneapolis. Among them was Dick Beardsley, co-owner of the Lake Bemidji Bed & Breakfast and a representative of the Bemidji Innkeepers Association.

"When they announced our name, my gosh, shivers just went through every inch of my body," said Beardsley, who donned a Paul Bunyan costume and was swarmed by gala attendees seeking a photograph with the legendary lumberjack. "It just shows you the kind of community Bemidji is. What a neat deal."

Scary situation in the schools

A former Bemidji Middle School assistant principal, who posed as a teenage boy online to exchange sexual pictures with children, pleaded guilty in 2017 to two federal sex crimes and to several state charges, as well.

Brandon Mark Bjerknes, 35, appeared in federal court in St. Paul, where he admitted to creating decoy social media accounts as part of what prosecutors called a scheme. Bjerknes was charged in U.S. district court with one count of coercion and enticement of a minor to engage in sexual conduct and one count of production of child pornography. Bjerknes also pleaded guilty to four felonies in state district court. The allegations against Bjerknes initially came to light in the fall of 2016 when the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office started receiving complaints from parents of girls who attended Bemidji Middle School. The girls' parents found "disturbing" messages on their children's cell phones. He will be sentenced in 2018.

Taking home the Cup

The Bemidji State men's hockey team roared out to a great start in the 2016-17 season, racking up win after win in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. That hot start propelled the team to a 22-16-3 record and the coveted MacNaughton Cup as the top team in the WCHA.

The Beavers, however, fell short of two other goals—taking home a Broadmoor Trophy by winning the WCHA tournament, they lost in the semifinals to Bowling Green, and being selected for an NCAA tournament berth.

Bus crash injures students

Multiple students are injured in a school bus accident on May 3, a Wednesday. A school bus filled with elementary students was heading south on Irvine Avenue Northwest at about 7:40 a.m. when it was struck by a car heading east on South Movil Lake Road, and the bus came to rest on its side in the ditch. Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said the car failed to stop at a stop sign at the intersection. Multiple elementary-aged children were hurt in the crash. A 10-year-old Red Lake girl lost the use of a kidney, according to her mother, and another girl required plastic surgery to repair a large facial laceration. A man from Tennessee ultimately is charged in the case and sentenced to 10 days in jail.

Missing on Upper Red Lake

Two missing Red Lake fishermen are still missing despite an extensive search by public safety officials and community members. The two missing commercial fishermen — identified by the Red Lake Police Department as Deland Beaulieu, 29, and a 17-year-old boy — disappeared after a Red Lake Fisheries boat capsized on the east side of the lake on Nov. 6. A third man who was on board the boat when it capsized swam to shore and was rescued by passersby.

Search crews from around the region, including several from North Dakota, use remote-operated underwater vehicles to search for the missing fishermen, but to no avail.

Health, wellness and youth sports

Sanford Health and Greater Bemidji announce that Sanford will be gifting $10 million to the community and is earmarking that for the development of a $28 million Wellness Center and Sports Complex on the Sanford Campus that would include a full-service Wellness Center, a sports bubble with multi uses, an aquatics center and two additional ice sheets. To pay for it, Greater Bemidji and other civic and business leaders are backing a hospitality tax that would help fund an Amateur Sports Commission that would promote the centers and youth sports, and the tax also would help cover the city's subsidy on the Sanford Center arena. The group makes several public presentations and goes before the City Council and the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners to present the plan.

Deadly time on the ice

The bodies of two anglers missing on Upper Red Lake were found Monday, Nov. 27, after their ATV plunged through the ice. Melissa Seidenstricker, 29, of Princeton, Minn., and Zeth Knyphausen, 28, of Stacy, Minn., had rented a sleeper fish house from an Upper Red Lake resort and had failed to return from their fishing trip Sunday night. Their deaths were among several others throughout the state as Minnesota is on track to have its deadliest winter on the ice in years. Five people have died after falling through the ice on Minnesota lakes so far this season, the most since five died over the entire winter of 2014-15, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Since 2007, an average of three people have died on the ice every year, with most deaths occurring toward the end of winter rather than the beginning, DNR data shows. Two people died on the ice last winter and none did in 2015-16. The deaths also include Lauren Lund of Bemidji, who died after the ATV she was riding broke through the ice Dec. 16 on Grace Lake southeast of Bemidji.

Gene Dillon comes together

After what seems like years of insider wrangling, construction begins on the Gene Dillon Elementary School on the western edge of Bemidji. After being approved by voters in November of 2014, the new elementary school for Bemidji's fourth- and fifth-graders is still not yet built, but officials now see light at the end of the tunnel and the school should be ready for the 2018-2019 school year.

Cimmarusti sentenced

As Marchello Cimmarusti was led from a courtroom to the Beltrami County Jail on Thursday, Feb. 9, members of Rose Downwind's family shouted after him. "I hope you die," a member of the crowd yelled, before Cimmarusti returned to the jail. Cimmarusti, who killed Downwind, a mother of five from Redby, in October 2015 and pleaded guilty in April 2016 to second-degree intentional murder, was sentenced to 35 years in prison in February, during a tense and tearful hearing. Six of Downwind's family members gave victim impact statements, describing the hole her death has left in their lives.

Line 3 saga continues

Anti-oil pipeline activists tied themselves to a flagpole outside of Enbridge energy company's Bemidji office through most of the day on a Saturday in September. Garrett Lampson, 25, of White Earth and a fellow activist who asked to be identified only as "T" said they arrived at the building at about 3 a.m. Saturday, planning to remain at the site for 24 hours. The weather shut them down later that afternoon.

It was another wrinkle in the ongoing Enbridge pipeline saga in 2017, which focused on replacing the Line 3 pipeline that runs close to Bemidji. With heated public meetings, and anti-pipeline marches, protests, PR campaigns—and some pro-pipeline machinations, too—Enbridge and oil again was a top story for Bemidji and for Minnesota.

Other top stories

Not all the stories the Pioneer covered this year made the above list, but still deserved recognition.

• Red Lake continues to be a power in Class A basketball in northern Minnesota. The Red Lake High School girls basketball made its first-ever state tournament appearance in 2017. Red Lake is used to the success of its boys basketball team, which also qualified for state for the fourth-straight year in 2017. This was the first time for the girls program. Although they lost twice at the tournament, the team vows "We'll be back here again." In the boys bracket, Red Lake brought home the Class A consolation championship, the first ever for the Warriors.

• On Sept. 16, a bull moose decided to take control of Lake Bemidji for a leisurely Saturday swim. Said moose becomes the talk of the town, with hundreds of onlookers making their way to the shore to catch sight of the iconic animal.

• On Dec. 2, a fire destroyed the historic St. Mary's Mission Church on the Red Lake reservation. Officials vow to rebuild the church.

• Construction begins on the Sanford Joe Lueken Cancer Center, which represents a "new era of cancer care," hospital staff said, and will include a host of therapies, treatments and services for patients battling the disease. The $12 million cancer center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2018. Joe Lueken is the founder of Lueken's Village Foods in Bemidji and was a longtime civic booster and benefactor.

• A year after the disappearance of Cass Lake teen Jeremy Jourdain, the Bemidji Police Department has followed up on more than 120 leads. Still, the teen, who would now be 18, remains missing. He was last seen Oct. 31, 2016, Halloween, in the Nymore area of Bemidji. His family has held multiple fundraisers, conducted numerous community searches and created a reward fund, hoping to bring Jourdain home.

• Martin Giese is named the new president of Oak Hills Christian College in Bemidji. It comes at a time of revitalization for the college on the outskirts of Bemidji. The school put the finishing touches on a multi-million dollar facelift in 2017. Two old dormitories and some offices were torn down in favor of a $4.3 million building with a great hall and room for 88 students, among other renovations.

• After initially deciding no, the city of Bemidji follows the state's lead and allows Sunday opening for its two municipal liquor stores. Sunday opening for liquor stores was approved by the Legislature in 2017, after being banned for 159 years.

• The Watermark Art Center officially opens its new center at the corner of Bemidji Avenue and Fifth Street downtown. The state-of-the-art facility features numerous galleries and wide open spaces for the local arts community. A grand opening is held in early December.

• Patrick Plemel, 58, defeats former Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann 122-86 to represent Bemidji Ward 4 on the City Council. Plemel, a director at the Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center, replaces Reed Olson on the council after Olson was elected to the County Commission. However, Plemel's time on the council would be short lived. On Dec. 27, he submitted his letter of resignation after taking a job in North Dakota.

• A Cass Lake man was charged with murder in November after a Cass Lake woman died from a gunshot wound to the head. Brandon Joseph Roy, 24, was arraigned in Walker shortly after the Cass County Attorney's Office charged him with one count of second-degree unintentional murder and one count of first-degree aggravated robbery. According to a criminal complaint, the 25-year-old victim, Brandi Shank, was killed during a robbery gone-wrong.

• 2017 will go down as the Summer of Road Construction. Not just one, but two major highway improvement projects snarl traffic and cause delays in and around Bemidji. One project is on the Paul Bunyan Bypass on U.S. Highway 2 and the other is a large stretch of Highway 197 right through downtown, the area between Lake Bemidji and Lake Irvine, and into south Bemidji and the Nymore neighborhood.

• In October, government officials, organization personnel and business leaders celebrated the opening of Park Place Apartments off downtown Bemidji. The complex, managed by the Duluth-based Center City Housing Corp., includes 60 units, with 40 dedicated to single-room occupancy for those with chronic substance abuse problems and 20 efficiency apartments for the recently homeless. Just months after it opens, a 31-year-old male resident of the complex is found dead outside the building, succumbing to the cold and his injuries after falling outside the facility.