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Ryan Hermens, Journal staff 

St. Thomas More's Jenna Jacobson brings the ball down the court Thursday during a game against Hill City.

Rapid City police say Wednesday’s shooting death may not be a homicide

Rapid City police are now investigating Wednesday's fatal shooting as an "unattended death" while not ruling out that it may have been a homicide.

"Police have encountered several complicating factors as they work to investigate the specific circumstances surrounding the shooting," the department said Thursday in a press release.

Brendyn Medina, a police department spokesman, confirmed later Thursday that investigation is ongoing as the department examines new evidence it has uncovered.

"There's room for it to go either way," he told the Journal. 

Wednesday's shooting death was originally ruled as the city's second homicide in less than 24 hours in northeast part of town.

It was around 3 p.m. Wednesday when a caller from a home on the 300 block of East Adams Street reported finding an unconscious man, later identified as 20-year-old Michael Mayweather of Rapid City, in the backyard. Once police arrived, they found him with a gunshot wound to the head. He was later pronounced dead at the scene.

During the initial search, police didn't find a gun and suggested the wound was not self-inflicted, the release says. But police later found a gun in a window well underneath a plastic window cover and determined that someone inside the home tried to hide it. 

The autopsy revealed the gunshot wound was possibly self-inflicted, according to the press release. The police collected evidence from the home and its residents and will test the evidence for gunshot residue, which can take months. 

Police Chief Karl Jegeris said the department often initially treats unattended deaths as possible homicides.

"As a law enforcement agency, it’s our responsibility to diligently investigate the circumstances of any unattended death," he said in the press release. "This often means treating an unattended death as a homicide investigation, until evidence gathered suggests otherwise. In this case, we feel the public nature of the shooting incident warrants a high level of transparency into the investigation. It’s very important that the community understand the often-difficult nature of the work our officers are presented with.”

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Bunnies saved from early morning fire in Rapid City

Rapid City firefighters battled a structure fire in the 600 block of St. Patrick Street at 9:15 a.m. Thursday and were able to save two furry friends.   

During the initial attack, it was unclear if all of the occupants of the home were out of the building. Crews then began a search of the home in near zero-visibility conditions. 

During the search, firefighters Andrew Rasmussen and Donavin Neugebauer rescued two rabbits from the home, and medics provided oxygen via animal-resuscitation masks. Officials said the rabbits are doing well and were taken to a veterinarian. 

At the scene, massive amounts smoke poured from one side of the home as fire crews worked. St. Patrick Street was closed between Fifth and Seventh streets while officials were on scene. The street was re-opened around noon. 

Crews finished mopping up roughly two hours after arriving on the scene.

No injuries were reported and the Red Cross assisted the homeowners. 

Hemp bill heads to Senate despite opposition from Gov. Noem

South Dakota is one step closer to legalizing industrial hemp after a legislative committee fought back intense opposition from Republican Gov. Kristi Noem's administration.

The Senate Agriculture committee on Thursday approved House Bill 1191 by a 7-2 vote. The bill would allow for the growth and production of industrial hemp in the state.

Congress legalized hemp federally through the 2018 Farm Bill — which Noem, a congresswoman at the time, voted for — but Noem has said that there is still little federal guidance on how to regulate the crop. Until then, she has said South Dakota isn't ready for hemp and has asked lawmakers to put legalization on hold.

Several administration heads came to Thursday's hearing to oppose the bill, including Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, Department of Health Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon, Highway Patrol Superintendent Craig Price and representatives of the Department of Agriculture and Noem's office.

They questioned how their agencies would enforce hemp and drug laws and regulate hemp-derived products such as CBD oil and said that legalizing hemp was a step toward legalizing marijuana. Noem has previously said that she is "100 percent convinced" of this.

Hemp is not a drug. It is related to, but not the same as, cannabis. Hemp does not contain a high enough concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to cause a psychoactive effects when ingested.

The administration continued to draw parallels between the two separate plants at Thursday's hearing, though. Price showed legislators samples of hemp and marijuana bud, noting how similar the two look and asking how a law enforcement officer would be able to tell the difference with the naked eye. He also played a video of a police dog sniffing out samples of both hemp and marijuana.

Despite the administration's resistance, the Legislature is pushing on. After the committee's approval, HB 1191 only needs a Senate vote before it reaches Noem's desk, unless it is amended. Both Republican and Democratic leadership has said that the majority of the Senate supports the bill.

Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, said at Thursday's hearing that she shares some of the administration's concerns, but to wait at least another year to take action would cause even greater concern.

"We’re going to have to sort this out anyway. Look at the map and what’s surrounding us and what's happening in the country," Soholt said. "I think we can't wait to be involved in trying to craft a response from South Dakota."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 41 other states have legalized hemp. All of South Dakota's neighboring states but Iowa have legalized hemp.

House Minority Leader Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said the 2018 Farm Bill "changed what our country now looks like."

"It's set the wheels of this train in motion," he said. "We can either choose to be on the train or the tracks. I'd rather be on the train."

Montana is one of the 41 states where hemp is legal. Former legislator Chris Christiaens, who pushed for its legalization while in the statehouse, said the state has had "not one problem" with enforcement in the two years that Montana has grown hemp. He said the economic impact of the crop on the state's rural communities has been substantial.

"Small-town rural Montana, this could bring them back to life," he said.

One of Price's major concerns with HB 1191 is how law enforcement would be able to differentiate between hemp and marijuana in traffic stops. The state's current roadside test only detects the presence of THC, but the concentration.

HB 1191 requires that anyone transporting hemp would have a permit from the Department of Agriculture to do so. Anyone found in violation of this would be subject to arrest.

And even after seeing the driver's paperwork, if an officer still doubted the product was hemp, House Minority Whip and HB 1191 prime sponsor Rep. Oren Lesmeister, D-Parade, said he or she could collect the driver's information and take a sample to test in a lab.

Whether South Dakota legalizes hemp or not, Soholt said that the Department of Public Safety will have to find enforcement solutions regardless: With hemp legal federally and in surrounding states, the crop could still be transported on interstate highways running through the state, regardless of South Dakota's law. South Dakota's nine federally recognized tribes can also grow hemp since they are on federal lands.

If signed into law, HB 1191 wouldn't take effect until July 1 — too late into the season for any hemp to be planted in 2019. With planting more than a year into the future, Soholt said the state should have enough time to figure things out.

The House nearly unanimously voted in favor of the bill on Feb. 11 by a 65-2 vote. Noem has declined to say if she would veto HB 1191 should it reach her desk.

Ryan Hermens, Journal staff 

Rapid City Police investigate the shooting death Wednesday in the 300 block of East Adams Street.

Governor addresses goals for her administration on statewide tour

For all of the goals for her fledgling administration, Gov. Kristi Noem said her primary focus remains on future generations of South Dakotans.

“I’ve been on the job for seven or eight weeks, and it’s been incredibly humbling to be your governor,” Noem said at a lunchtime gathering of the Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

Thursday’s address in Rapid City was the fourth stop in what Noem calls her "Priorities Tour," speaking in more detail on goals previously laid out during her inaugural address and in a State of the State message before the Legislature in January.

“Everything that we do should be thinking about our kids and grandkids. They’re going to live here and continue to help this state thrive,” Noem said.

Noem spoke of the need to bring high-speed internet to all parts of the state, the need to care for the state’s wildlife habitat, the importance of ramping up workforce development efforts and increasing the availability of affordable housing.

She also addressed her aim to find what she called the state’s next big industry, focusing on bio-tech, cybersecurity and technology jobs 30 years after state laws were loosened to entice the banking industry to come to the state.

Noem said she budgeted $5 million to partner with federal funds to help internet companies invest in covering the state with internet access.

“Frankly, if we don’t have high-speed internet access everywhere in South Dakota, we can’t be successful,” she said.

Noem said she wants to streamline the state’s licensing process for skilled jobs and increase paid apprenticeships to allow workers to gain skills while earning a wage.

She said while the state’s overall unemployment rate remains low, too many South Dakotans are underemployed.

“They’re working in jobs that don’t pay them very much. We need to get them the skills they need to fill the jobs we need to fill,” she said. “We have the highest rate of working moms. Low wages mean both parents have to work to pay the bills, and if they’re a single parent then they’re really struggling.”

Noem said the state’s farmers and ranchers are still struggling in spite of weathering tough economic times fraught with low commodity prices and foreign tariffs on U.S. goods.

She said moving agriculture development representatives within the ag department to the state economic development department would give ag reps better access to economic development tools.

“I also want our economic development team to know and have a passion for agriculture,” she said.

Noem said the inflow of banking-industry jobs, thanks to legislation easing regulatory conditions, “fundamentally changed our state.”

“We need to do that again, because frankly we’ve been treading water for about the last 10 years,” she said. “We balance out budget, and we pay our bills but we’re not thriving,”

With the use of methamphetamine exploding among younger people, Noem said she will expand funding and resources to increase education, prevention, intervention and treatment options and hire four highway patrol officers to specialize in meth programs and two Department of Criminal Investigation officers to key on stopping the flow of the drug into the state.

“Opioids are a big problem in South Dakota. I don’t want to distract from that, but overwhelmingly our problem is meth,” she said.

Noem took her tour to Aberdeen and Watertown on Feb. 15 and spoke in Sioux Falls before coming to Rapid City on Thursday.