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Panel wants hold on STAR Academy auction

A committee of the South Dakota Legislature has asked the governor to postpone the auction of a former juvenile detention center in the Black Hills, but the governor seems inclined to let the auction go forward.

The vacant former campus of the State Treatment and Rehabilitation Center, aka STAR Academy, is about five miles south of Custer. It was put up for auction Oct. 18, but no bids were received. A second auction is scheduled for 11 a.m. Jan. 4 at the Custer County Courthouse.

Last Friday, the State-Tribal Relations Committee of the Legislature met in Rapid City during the Lakota Nation Invitational. The committee adopted a resolution asking the governor to postpone the January auction while state, local and tribal officials research a proposed intergovernmental agreement to operate an addiction treatment program on the campus.

The proposal came from several tribal officials, including William Bear Shield of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who spoke to the committee during the Friday meeting at the Ramkota Hotel.

“You know, with the social ills that we have everywhere with opioid addiction, meth and alcohol, I really think we could do something that could be in favor of everybody involved,” Bear Shield could be heard saying in a recording of the meeting, which was posted to the Legislative Research Council website and reviewed by the Journal.

Bear Shield said the idea had been hatched only 22 hours earlier, and he had been part of a tour of the campus only the day before. He asked for the committee’s help securing more time to research the treatment center idea, and the committee obliged with its resolution.

On Monday, Tony Venhuizen, chief of staff to Gov. Dennis Daugaard, said the governor had not yet received the resolution from the committee but was skeptical about the treatment center idea, because of the potential cost of retrofitting buildings on the campus and because of the potential challenge of recruiting qualified professionals to work in a rural setting.

“If there are parties interested in a mental health or treatment facility West River,” Venhuizen said in an email reply to the Journal, “the governor believes it would be more realistic to consider a facility in Rapid City, which is closer to the patient base and the workforce, and where a more appropriate building could be built or retrofitted.”

In fact, a related project is already coming to fruition in Rapid City, where Pennington County is creating a Restoration Center in a large former National American University building near the corner of Fourth and Kansas City streets. That building will open in the spring and will house a detoxification center, a sobering center, the county Health and Human Services Department, counseling rooms, various outpatient treatment programs, and the Crisis Care Center for people with mental health problems.

Meanwhile, Rapid City’s Collective Impact group is pursuing land and buildings next to the Restoration Center as the potential site of a transformation campus for homeless and near-homeless people.

If the governor allows the STAR Academy auction to go ahead as scheduled, the minimum bid will be $2.34 million, just as it was for the first auction. State law requires state-owned property to be appraised and to be sold for at least the amount of the appraisal.

The STAR campus was first used in 1911 as a tuberculosis sanitarium. It was converted to a hospital for the disabled in 1963 and then to a residential facility for troubled youth in 1996. The campus was closed in 2016 following reforms to state juvenile-justice laws that reduced the number of children who were sent there.

The partially forested property includes 173 acres of land, structures totaling 168,880 square feet, a running track, an athletic field and a fishing pond, among other features.

At Canyon Lake Elementary, Santa isn't the only one coming to town
Couple delivers gifts to 450 schoolchildren

Christmas came early for the students at Canyon Lake Elementary school Tuesday when Don and Linda Rydstrom delivered their annual load of presents.

“I went to school here, kindergarten through third grade, back in the 1960s,” said Linda. “And we found out about nine years ago that this is a Title I school now, and there were some kids that maybe weren’t going to have the opportunity for Christmas presents.

"So we decided we would buy toys for those kids. When it turned out to be a fairly significant amount of the school, we just decided we would host a Christmas party for them every year.”

Firefighters, police officers, National Guard members and, of course, Santa Claus greeted each class in the library and handed out gifts. Linda said the presents included dolls, Legos, Play-Doh and Tonka trucks.

This year the Rydstroms, of Rapid City, bought toys for 450 students.

“This is Christmas for us. We don’t need anything else,” said Linda. “As adults we have too much stuff. We’re glad to do it for the kids.”

Officials don't expect decline in tourism from Custer fire

SIOUX FALL | Elisabeth Weakland has read updates and scrolled through pictures online from a historic wildfire that started last week at South Dakota's Custer State Park, but the Michigan homemaker said her family doesn't plan to cancel their summer trip to the Black Hills.

She had worried that park campgrounds would be damaged, potentially requiring earlier booking, but officials say no main buildings or campsites burned. Weakland said her children are excited to head west for the June trip, and the family plans to book a site for their pop-up camper after the holidays.

"My kids still really want to go out," Weakland said. "It's unfortunate that it happened, but we're still just as excited to get out there."

South Dakota tourism officials don't expect the wildfire to hurt next year's visitor numbers or attendance at the park's famous buffalo roundup. The park reopened on a limited basis Monday, and officials hope it's fully available to visitors by the weekend.

Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said a silver lining is that the fire burned in December, not during peak travel season. Hagen said the feedback his office has received from people has been sparse and positive, which he counted as encouraging.

"The visitors or potential visitors who've contacted us have really rallied around the state and rallied around the park," Hagen said. "I think when it comes to peak travel season late next spring, we're still going to see those visitors."

Custer State Park is a top South Dakota tourist destination, featuring hills with ponderosa pine and prairie. Visitors often drive to see roaming buffalo, elk and bighorn sheep, and the park hosts the annual buffalo roundup. The park had drawn more than 1.9 million visitors through Nov. 30, and roughly 21,200 people attended the 2017 roundup, according to the Tourism Department.

The fire burned more than 84 square miles in the park and beyond its borders since it started from a downed power line on Dec. 11. More than half the park was burned, making it the largest fire in its nearly 100-year history, Superintendent Matt Snyder said.

But he said the blaze consumed vegetation and grasses without burning hot enough to sterilize the ground. Snyder said moisture over the winter and beyond should allow for a "nice green up like we expect every spring."

Snyder said visitors can expect to see some pockets of burned trees and charred wood, but officials anticipate most of the trees will come back.

December is a quiet time for Custer, Snyder said. The park's four resorts will open like normal come spring, with the peak season running from Memorial Day through the end of September.

"We're not going to miss a beat over this when it comes time for the tourists to come in, and we're going to be ready for them," Snyder said.

Minneapolis firefighter Andre Plante, whose family stays in the same Custer State Park cabin each visit, said he was worried the wildfire would burn it down. But he said the family would have still visited if the cabin hadn't escaped the blaze.

Plante said he enjoys sitting out at night as moonlight reflects off a canyon's walls and the wind blows through the trees. He called it "haunting."

"We fell in love with it the first time we were up there, and we decided it would be our place for summer vacations," said Plante, whose family has their cabin reserved in June. "I'd go there over Disneyland any friggin' day of the week and twice on Sunday."

Highway trooper testifies he blacked out during assault

The state trooper who got beaten up following a traffic stop in Pennington County testified that he couldn’t remember the assault. Just several minutes beforehand Wednesday, jurors heard the defendant admit to the attack on video.

Trooper Zachary Bader, 36, said he couldn’t recall what happened after he pulled out handcuffs to arrest Donald Willingham that morning of Oct. 24, 2015. Bader said he regained consciousness with his body lying face-down on the ground, grass tickling his face.

He asked perplexed emergency responders if everyone was all right, Bader said. He thought a car had veered off the interstate, hitting him and Willingham’s group.

In the ambulance, on his way to the hospital, he knew that he was bleeding badly.

“I could see it … I could taste it,” Bader said Wednesday afternoon in front of a packed Pennington County courtroom. “Seems like no matter what I did, I couldn’t take a full breath.”

Bader, who is married and has three daughters, said doctors hooked him to a ventilator through a tube inserted in his neck. He learned that practically every bone on the left side of his face had been broken but didn’t care to do a full assessment of his injuries.

But Bader did remember what came after that consequential traffic stop on Interstate 90 near Box Elder: He smelled marijuana inside the Chevrolet Suburban that carried Willingham and three others, he wrote up a speeding warning for the driver and asked the passengers to get out so he could search the vehicle.

In the back cargo area, Bader said he found “heat-sealed packages of marijuana” and intended to place the SUV’s occupants under arrest. He was going to handcuff Willingham first, Bader said, because the man appeared to present the biggest physical threat.

Bader, dressed in the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s brown uniform, smiled a lot and tried to maintain a light-hearted tone during his 50-minute testimony. But at certain moments, his voice cracked with emotion or he would stop to control his tears. Off to the trooper’s right, seated beside his two lawyers and wearing a light gray suit, was Willingham.

The 35-year-old Renton, Wash., man is being tried for attempted first-degree murder and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. He is charged also with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, possession of marijuana and commission of a felony with a firearm.

Where the trooper’s memory of their encounter fails, Willingham fills in the gap in a video-recorded police interview, which was shown to jurors before Bader took the stand.

Willingham admitted hitting Bader about six times, explaining he didn’t want to go to jail for possessing large quantities of marijuana or Bader confiscating the cash he was carrying. Investigators later found some 40 pounds of pot and $30,000 in hundred-dollar bills that Willingham said belonged to him.

These seized items, including a small handgun, were among the evidence that prosecutors presented to jurors Wednesday morning. The vacuum-sealed marijuana came in their original containers, which included two transparent storage bins placed inside huge black plastic tubs.

“I needed some money. I took a risk, and I (expletive) myself,” Willingham told two investigators during an October 2015 interview. He admitted dealing marijuana, saying he had a daughter to support. In a police interview a day earlier, Willingham said he hit Bader because he feared getting attacked. He and his companions were arrested in Wall about an hour after they left Bader by the interstate.

Bader, who returned to work last year, said that every day he lives with the effects of the assault. He has some double vision in his left eye, which has required adjusting the way he does firearms training. His bite has gotten misaligned, which Bader said he’d rather fix with braces than surgery.

The left side of his face remains numb, so he is not aware when food dribbles out of his mouth. And shaving has become the most difficult task. “Are you cutting your face or doing what you’re supposed to be doing?” he said.

The defense didn’t ask Bader any questions. The prosecution rested their case after the trooper’s testimony. The trial is expected to close today.

Willingham’s companions, who were also charged with multiple felonies, pleaded guilty last year to possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and being an accessory to a crime. They are due to be sentenced today.

Willingham’s most serious charges — attempted murder and aggravated assault — each carry a penalty of up to 25 years in prison. He is detained at the Pennington County Jail.