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The Rankin Fire in Wind Cave National Park had burned an estimated 1,000 acres by Wednesday afternoon. 

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Community gathers for school district's suicide prevention discussion

Corey Harouff received a disturbing phone call Tuesday night. A student Harouff knew through his nonprofit, Rapid City Young Life, was using the social media app Snapchat and saw a message from another student that bothered him.

"He's going to kill himself," Harouff recalled the student telling him. 

Harouff got the student's name, called dispatch and relayed the information to authorities. Pennington County sheriff's deputies were eventually able to locate the student before he could harm himself. 

Harouff shared the story Wednesday night at a special meeting organized by the Rapid City school district to address a recent rash of suicides that has alarmed the community. Since mid-July, eight local students and one school staff member have died, and three of those deaths were by suicide. 

A diverse panel of school officials, local law enforcement and mental health experts held an hourlong discussion that focused on suicide prevention and how to connect with students who may be thinking about hurting themselves. 

More than 100 people attended the meeting in the City/School Administration Center in the Council Chambers. The first floor of the chambers was so crowded that school officials opened a second room on the floor above, where another group listened to the discussion via speaker. Members of the public were allowed to write in questions but were not given time during the meeting to address panel members directly.

Several people on the panel emphasized the importance of listening to students who are experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts. It's "the most important thing you can do," said Stephanie Schweitzer Dixon, executive director of the Front Porch Coalition. The Rapid City nonprofit provides prevention, intervention and "postvention" services to prevent the incidence of suicide, according to its website. 

Schweitzer Dixon presented a slideshow that included tips for how to talk to children about suicide. The entire community, whether it's schoolteachers, parents or foster parents, must ask specific questions such as, "How can I help you?" or "What can I do to help you right now?" Schweitzer Dixon said. 

The use of social media and its effect on children's happiness was also raised during the discussion. "Social media is so addicting for all of us," said school liaison officer Eric Dwyer. 

Each year, fewer and fewer kids are physically getting together for activities or simple things like going outside, Dwyer said. "I think that's so sad." 

He encouraged parents to wait until their children are older before allowing them to create social media accounts. Dwyer said he didn't know what the appropriate age is. "21?" he jokingly suggested, prompting many in the crowd to chuckle. 

Dwyer turned serious again when he brought up his own 15-year-old son and the thought of giving him access to social media. "I don't know when I'm going to give it to him. Not yet." 

Matthew Seebaum, assistant superintendent of educational services, said the entire school district will implement a risk assessment survey for students who are suicidal. If a school receives a report of a student who is suicidal, staff will determine whether the person is a low, moderate or high risk. Based on that information, staff will decide what kind of services the student needs. 

School spokeswoman Katy Urban said the district already uses a similar system but hopes to put a formal process in place soon.

Charles Sitting Bull, who has participated in suicide prevention efforts on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said he has been tracking the number of suicide deaths there since late 2014, and "the numbers are staggering." 

Gang violence and other tragedies have increased the need for counselors on the reservation, he said. 

After the meeting several panel members, including Harouff, hung around to chat with parents. Harouff shared stories of other students he had helped who were on the brink of ending their life. He became emotional while recalling the times he cried with them while they recounted their troubles, and mentioned one instance in which he had to physically restrain a student from hurting himself. 

Despite the recent string of suicide deaths and growing concerns over cyberbullying, what happened Tuesday night was a victory for Harouff and law enforcement in their effort to reach children who are going through a crisis. 

"Social media just saved a kid's life yesterday," Harouff told the panel. 

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Apartment complex a lesson in revitalization
Old Garfield School centerpiece of modern housing development

For 96 years, Garfield Elementary School served as a place of learning for children of families living in a quiet north Rapid City neighborhood.

Now the 107-year-old brick schoolhouse has been reborn as The Garfield, centerpiece of a modern housing complex in north Rapid City offering a lesson plan for the revitalization of an old-town neighborhood.

“It’s a nice, quiet neighborhood, always has been,” said Bill Barber, vice president and project manager for Glenn Barber & Associates, prime contractor for the more than $1.5-million renovation project just in its final stages.

“I think this project can only help enhance that and create an opportunity to stretch downtown into this corridor and let this become even a nicer neighborhood,” he said.

After two years of planning, demolition and reconstruction, Barber is just putting the finishing touches on a dozen upscale apartments to be ready for leasing the first of October.

The apartments range from single-bedroom studio to two- and three-bedroom loft apartments, all featuring spacious, open floor plans with new kitchen appliances, stacked washer-dryer combos, separate high-efficiency heating and air conditioning systems, upper-floor private decks and full handicapped-accessibility on the main floor.

Barber’s construction crews gutted the building from the ground floor to the roof, but elements of The Garfield’s school heritage remain visible throughout the new interior.

Hardwood flooring, ceiling joists and framework were reused to create mobile kitchen islands and walls separating bedroom spaces.

Barber also reused as many transom and interior doors as possible, and even put blackboards and a skylight into the design.

Using a heat-gun to remove layer upon layer of paint from hardwood window and door trim took many hours, he said.

The more than century-old building was well-built, and that meant fewer issues during reconstruction.

“It’s a very solid building. It was well-ventilated, so it stayed dry. There was no rot,” Barber said.

Apartments range from one-bedroom units at just under 1,000 square feet to 1,800 square-foot multi-bedroom apartments. One 2,900 square-foot two-bedroom loft apartment even incorporates the stage from the old school gym.

The redesign eliminated hallways linking former classrooms and some interior stairways between floors. A new exterior stairway on the west side and vestibule entries allow relatively private access for two or three apartments.

Adding to a sense of community are concrete commons spaces, a large fenced-in run for pets and a plot of raised garden spaces on the building’s south side, with an accompanying storage shed for tools.

Upper-floor residents may store bicycles in a first-floor storage room, with off-street parking for all residents.

“We tried to make it as functional as we could and have as much storage as we could. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to live here,” Barber said.

A combination of dwindling enrollment and tightening school district budgets spelled the end for Garfield as a school building. There were only 106 students remaining when it finally shuttered at the end of the 2000-2001 school year.

Rapid City cardiologist Kelly Whitley bought the building at auction in 2001 and operated a children’s community arts center there for several years, eventually contacting Habitat for Humanity officials with the possibility of turning the property into housing.

Two years ago, Habitat of the Black Hills finally purchased the entire school block bordered by Dilger Avenue, Custer Street, North Seventh Street and Van Buren Street for $300,000, then resold the school building to Barber for $260,000.

Planning to transform the school into housing consumed a year, Barber said.

“We just spent a lot of time in the building, getting to know it structurally and what its limitations were,” Barber said.

Collin Goodwin of Pure Property Management said rental rates will start at around $900 for a one-bedroom apartment and go to the $1,800-$1,900 range for two- and three-bedroom units. Rental rates for the larger loft apartments are still being set, he said.

“The difference between this property and any property we’ve rented, or that exists in this town, is, these apartments are bigger than many homes,” Goodwin said.

“The prices that you’ll see on a lot of these units are lower than you’ll get in a comparably sized unit with much lower amenities. You’ve got a lifestyle community here that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” he said.

Also on the block with The Garfield are eight single-family homes being built for Habitat For Humanity families.

The modular homes were donated through Superior Homes of Watertown and placed on six foundations along North Seventh Street west of the school building, with two more homes finishing up on Dilger Avenue north of the school.

All of the homes feature front porches, rear decks and separate two-car garages. Two will include full basements.

Seven of the eight homes have been assigned to Habitat partner families, who must complete 100 hours of classroom application and actual construction, called “sweat equity.”

“We’re on a pretty good clip here. Our goal is to have a couple homes wrapped up by the end of the year, and our hope is to be totally out of the project for Habitat by the end of June in 2018,” said Scott Engmann, Habitat of the Black Hills executive director.

Habitat is also helping surrounding residents to spruce up their properties. A Black Hills Energy donation is providing motion-sensor lighting to boost safety in the Garfield neighborhood.

“What we’re hoping is that there will be increasing interest from a diverse group of residents to be looking at these neighborhoods and taking advantage of the benefits that are there,” Engmann said.

Barber said he and his wife, Kristi, principal owner of Barber & Associates, have seen a change in the neighborhood since they started the project.

“It’s been a neighborhood where people have lived their whole lives and it’s just now starting to turn over, so some young people are starting to move in, they’re out walking their dogs and pushing the kids,” Bill Barber said.

“I’m glad we were able to give this building new life,” he said.

(Editor's note: This story was changed to clarify the age of the building.)

Sutton wants more efficiency, accountability in state government

Editor's note: This is the last in a four-part series on the candidates for governor of South Dakota.

Billie Sutton is Democratic leader in South Dakota’s state Senate and is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018. 

Why he’s running: Sutton officially declared his candidacy for governor May 31 at his family’s ranch near Burke along the Missouri River. His announcement settled two questions.

Sutton, a banker, rancher and former rodeo rider, had decided what to pursue next. And Democrats had one of the strongest contenders since Lars Herseth nearly topped Republican George S. Mickelson in the 1986 contest between two sons of past governors.

Term limits come into play on two levels in the 2018 election. They prevent Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, from seeking election to a third consecutive term as governor. And they prevent Sutton from seeking election to a fifth consecutive term as a senator.

The 1974 election of incumbent Gov. Dick Kneip marked the last time a Democrat won the governorship in South Dakota. 

In a State Fair interview, Sutton didn’t emphasize that he is a Democrat. But if elected governor, Sutton said, he would evaluate a Cabinet he described as “kind of stale” and look for people who think “outside the box,” able to deliver “more efficiency” and “more accountability.”

“That doesn’t mean it is going to be somebody from one party alone,” Sutton said.

Sutton said that as governor he would seek funding for early childhood education that would start during preschool years. Backed by Daugaard, Republican lawmakers on a party-line committee vote this year killed Sutton’s bill proposing a pilot pre-K program.

Sutton indicated he’d seek more resources for job training, career and technical education, health care and scholarships and offer a balanced budget. But with Republicans unlikely to lose control of the two legislative chambers, he probably would need to see what he could get.

Democrats won six of 35 Senate seats in the 2016 election. They re-elected Sutton as caucus leader. The House of Representatives strongly favored one party too, with 60 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

Sutton said he and Kelsea, his wife, spoke last winter, before the 2017 legislative session began, about what Democratic legislators could accomplish in the next two years.

One topic was what could happen with legislative probes and criminal investigations into EB-5 and GEAR UP. The programs quietly spread a decade ago while Republican Mike Rounds was governor. He won election to the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Those management scandals publicly surfaced in 2013 and 2015, three and five years, respectively, into Daugaard’s current administration

Then came Initiated Measure 22. South Dakota voters approved the ballot measure’s variety of restrictions on legislators and lobbyists in the 2016 general election. Republican legislators and Daugaard refused to accept the new limits and went to court Dec. 8, but Republicans then used their legislative supermajorities to repeal IM 22.

The Legislature later passed laws replicating many parts of IM 22, often with bipartisan majorities, but that didn’t stop protests by citizens who felt wronged. Sutton said Sunday he would have let IM 22 take effect.

“I just feel there’s a real need for checks and balances,” he said.

Sutton said seven years as a legislator changed how he approaches decisions. “You have this assumption everything is going to be black and white,” he said. “What I’ve learned is pretty much every issue is more complicated than meets the eye.”

How he’s organized his campaign: Sutton said he still spends 35 to 40 hours a week as a financial adviser at the bank in Burke and tries to campaign 20 to 30 hours a week, especially on weekends.

“Family is the most important thing to me and my wife,” he said. They have a 16-month-old son. “We really work hard to earmark family time.”

How he’s raising money: “We’re going to do well, I think,” Sutton said. He didn’t offer a number. “We’ll get there,” he said.

How he greets people: There was a smattering of people Sunday in the Democratic hall. So, Sutton, who has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed a decade ago in a rodeo accident, rolled down Midway Avenue and met folks at the Republican hall.


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Brian Duncan found not guilty of murdering girlfriend

After 14 months of being led in and out of the Pennington County Courthouse in shackles, Brian Duncan left on Wednesday night a free man.

At 6:25 p.m., a jury acquitted him of second-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend, Helen Wright, in 2015. Wright, 60, was found dead at the Western Thrifty Inn, a motel on East North Street, where she lived with Duncan.

A Rapid City forensic pathologist who conducted her autopsy ruled that Wright died from strangulation, pointing at hemorrhaging in her neck.

But a Colorado Springs forensic pathologist, who reviewed the case for the defense, reached a different conclusion. Wright died from pneumonia, Dr. Leon Kelly said, and the hemorrhaging was a sign of decomposition, since her body wasn’t found till days after her death.

Duncan said Wright died on the motel room bed that Oct. 31 while he was trying to perform first aid on her. He admitted leaving town, without informing anyone of Wright’s death, two hours after it occurred.

Pennington County prosecutors said these were signs of guilt from having killed Wright. A psychologist for the defense disagreed, saying Duncan’s experiences as an African-American have resulted in a personality disorder that is paranoid of police and of being falsely accused.

After the jury foreperson read the “not guilty” verdict, Duncan’s head fell on his arms at the defense table and he began sobbing. Second-degree murder carries a sentence of life without parole.

“If I believe that I’m innocent, I will fight till the end,” Duncan, dressed in a gray suit, told the Journal after the hearing, his first public statement since he was charged with murder in May 2016.

Duncan’s defense attorneys, Conor Duffy and Jeff Fransen, looked emotional after the verdict was pronounced.

“Representing an innocent man is a huge responsibility and pretty scary,” said Duffy, the lead counsel. "I'm relieved."

Fransen added: “We believed in his innocence from the get-go. I’m so proud that this jury saw the truth.”

The prosecution declined to comment. But Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris, whose department led the police investigation, sent a statement saying: “Domestic violence is often extremely challenging to investigate and I would imagine to prosecute. It’s even more difficult when a death is involved and a victim can’t speak for herself.

“With that said, I respect the jurors and judicial process.”

Wright's death was one of nine deaths in 2015 that law enforcement had ruled as homicides.

Duncan's verdict came on the seventh day of trial, about seven hours after 7th Circuit Judge Matt Brown handed the case to the jury of eight women and four men.

During closing arguments Wednesday morning, Duffy described some of the state’s trial evidence as “sideshows.” These include, he said, the focus on Duncan’s leaving the motel room as if it had been scrubbed clean and his telling a Rapid City police detective that he had been “evasive” during their previous conversation.

Duffy asked the jurors to instead focus on Wright’s cause of death. Both the prosecution and defense presented multiple photos of Wright in the motel room and on the autopsy table.

Kelly, who testified on two days, said also he didn’t find fractures in the cartilage or bone in Wright’s neck, among the usual signs of strangulation in people age 40 and older. This was the first time since he became a certified forensic pathologist in 2008, Kelly said, that he disagreed with a counterpart's conclusions.

Wright apparently suffered from various ailments, including a heart disease. Kelly said that reviewing Wright’s medical records, which local forensic pathologist Dr. Donald Habbe admitted not doing, helped him reach the conclusion that she died of natural causes.

“Two hundred pages of medical records found just feet from the deceased and he doesn’t even look at them?” Duffy said.

Habbe didn’t need to review Wright’s medical records, Deputy State's Attorney Wayne Venhuizen responded, because they were laid out for him in the victim’s body on the autopsy table. Underscoring Habbe’s 28 years of experience as a forensic pathologist, Venhuizen said the doctor had been performing autopsies since Kelly was “in diapers, or at least pullups.”

Besides the hemorrhaging in Wright’s neck and the blood spots in her eye, Venhuizen said further proof of strangulation were two short, linear marks found along her neck.

“This is consistent with fingernail marks,” the prosecutor said in his closing statement, “right where she was being strangled.”

Other pieces of evidence presented at trial were not sideshows, Venhuizen said in his rebuttal of Duffy, but “minor pieces of evidence” that showed the full picture in the case.

The lawyers also argued over motive. The prosecution highlighted statements Duncan made to police about being “upset” with Wright for constantly urinating on their bed and being a difficult patient.

“This 'seven-year burden,'” Venhuizen said, “he wanted her gone.”

The defense said there was no evidence the couple had anything but a loving relationship, in which Duncan served as Wright’s caretaker. And why would Duncan kill Helen, Duffy asked, when her disability checks paid for their lodging?

“Absence of motive tends to prove innocence,” he said.

Duncan’s murder prosecution, Duffy said, was a seed that sprouted from the statement of a Rapid City paramedic that she found strangulation marks around Wright’s neck.

“Stop this thing. Bring back a not guilty verdict,” Duffy told the jury.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Duncan’s name was taken off the Pennington County Jail’s list of inmates. His release was still being processed at that time, said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Helene Duhamel, but he was expected to be out the same night.

Courtesy photo 

Duncan in a 2005 photo