As we bid farewell to the 2010s, a new decade lies before us.

Over the past 10 years, the Brainerd lakes area and surrounding communities have seen drastic economic shifts, dramatic weather events, devastating losses and triumphant wins. It’s been a decade of transformation and change, and one in which members of the community have demonstrated their connectedness through help when it’s needed most.

Time marches on, and 2020 is here. But remembering the past — the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome — may help us see into the future. Enjoy a look back at our most impactful stories of the 2010s.

Happy New Year to our Brainerd Dispatch readers.

The Wadena tornado was 1.1 miles wide at its peak and traveled 10 miles before its destructive path ended. In its aftermath was sunlight, silence and stunned realization — about 20 city blocks were wiped out by the tornado in southwest and northwest Wadena.. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
The Wadena tornado was 1.1 miles wide at its peak and traveled 10 miles before its destructive path ended. In its aftermath was sunlight, silence and stunned realization — about 20 city blocks were wiped out by the tornado in southwest and northwest Wadena.. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

2010 — Tornado strikes Wadena, community responds

Months of planning went into a day of celebration in Wadena. Within seconds, it turned into devastation.

Just after 5 p.m. on June 17, 2010, a stormy afternoon took a frightful turn as the ground rumbled with the signature sound of an approaching tornado.

The multi-vortex tornado had wind speeds estimated at 170 mph. The twister was rated an EF4 by the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, the second-strongest rating of tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

The tornado was 1.1 miles wide at its peak and traveled 10 miles before its destructive path ended. In its aftermath was sunlight, silence and stunned realization — about 20 city blocks were wiped out by the tornado in southwest and northwest Wadena.

The National Weather Service quick response team determined the tornado touched down about 5 p.m.on that Thursday about 3 miles southwest of Wadena and produced a continuous damage path through the city before lifting about 5:18 p.m. 7 miles northeast of the city.

Thirty-four people were injured, one critically, though not with life-threatening injuries, officials reported. There were 268 structures damaged, including area businesses. Twenty-five families lost their homes. Damaged areas covered 20-25% of the city and damage extended to farmland outside Wadena.

In the hard hit areas of the city, pine trees were snapped in half, windows were blown out, chimneys torn from rooftops and crushed cars were left on their side or on rooftops. A debris field of family heirlooms and household items littered the cemetery in the city. Trees and headstones were toppled. Heavily damaged areas included the fairgrounds, community center, municipal pool and park, Leaf River agricultural plant and the Wadena-Deer Creek High School. Parts of the community center were wrapped around the high school like a blanket.

For the high school built in 1965, it would turn out to be a mortal blow. The building was damaged beyond repair.

Thousands of volunteers helped with cleanup efforts. Donations came in to help with rebuilding and tree planting. Federal aid was approved. In the aftermath, city officials worried about the economic impact and the potential loss of jobs and population for the city of about 4,200 people.

— Renee Richardson

Other notable 2010 stories

  • Brainerd led state in unwelcomed category — jobless

In 2010, Brainerd stood out among all cities in the state with populations of more than 10,000, but the category wasn’t one worth cheering. The aftermath of the Great Recession kept its anticipated path of a slow and painful recovery where the addition of jobs, slashed during the free fall, lagged even further behind. For Brainerd, which sustained double-digit unemployment for 24 straight months, 2010 was another difficult year in terms of its jobless rate.

  • PR-B community grieves for kindergartner

It was a tragedy that not only deeply affected the Pine River-Backus School District, but also the entire community. Evan Lindquist, a 6-year-old kindergarten student at Pine River-Backus Elementary School, was struck and killed March 22, 2010, by his school bus after the boy got off the bus in front of his home.

Westal Main, Lindquist’s bus driver, pleaded guilty in Cass County District Court in August 2010 to a misdemeanor charge of moving a school bus without ensuring the child was out of the way. Maine resigned from the district following the accident.

Willie Navy, who suffered several facial fractures in an assault in the early hours of Feb. 6, 2010, in downtown Brainerd, wore a patch over his left eye while resting at his Brainerd home. Navy’s eye had been stitched shut after being assaulted. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
Willie Navy, who suffered several facial fractures in an assault in the early hours of Feb. 6, 2010, in downtown Brainerd, wore a patch over his left eye while resting at his Brainerd home. Navy’s eye had been stitched shut after being assaulted. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

2011 — Community steps forward after brutal downtown assault

A brutal assault during the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 2011, in downtown Brainerd left one man with significant head injuries, another man with a year-long jail sentence and a third man with a prison sentence.

The victim, Willie Navy, and his two attackers, Lucas Eastwood and Travis Campbell, were drinking at Yesterday’s Gone. According to a bar employee, Eastwood wanted to fight Navy because Navy was black. Navy was the last person to leave the bar, and at South Eighth and Laurel streets they confronted and attacked Navy, punching him to the ground then kicking him while he was on the ground.

Navy suffered numerous head injuries during the assault. According to statements made in court, Navy’s injuries included significant face trauma and fractured bones around his eye for which he received several months of treatment. The injuries caused dizziness, light-headedness, double vision, scarring to his left cornea, fluid leakage, light sensitivity, headaches and the inability for both eyes to track together.

Backus man Eastwood, 28 at the time, was charged in Crow Wing County District Court with felony first-degree assault, felony kidnapping to facilitate a felony or flight, felony third-degree assault and gross misdemeanor fourth-degree assault motivated by bias.

Campbell, 30 at the time, of Pequot Lakes, was charged with felony first-degree assault, felony third-degree assault and gross misdemeanor fourth-degree assault motivated by bias.

Many in the community rallied to Navy’s support, appearing at initial court hearings for Eastwood and Campbell. Businesses donated proceeds from sales and a fund was set up by a resident to help Navy offset the cost of his medical treatment.

In September 2011, Eastwood pleaded guilty to felony first-degree assault and in October he was sentenced to 103 months in prison. Campbell pleaded guilty to felony first-degree aggravated robbery in May 2012 and was sentenced to 69 months in prison.

— Matt Erickson

Casket bearers carry the casket of Haile Kifer to a waiting hearse after a funeral at the Living Hope Assembly of God Church in Little Falls. The services for Kifer and Nicholas Brady occurred together at the church. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
Casket bearers carry the casket of Haile Kifer to a waiting hearse after a funeral at the Living Hope Assembly of God Church in Little Falls. The services for Kifer and Nicholas Brady occurred together at the church. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

2012 — Little Falls man shoots teens in his home

Tragedy seems to run a little deeper when it affects a small town.

On Thanksgiving Day 2012, Byron David Smith admittedly shot and killed teens Nicholas Brady and Haile Kifer as the pair allegedly attempted to burglarize Smith’s rural Little Falls home.

It wasn’t until the day after the shooting when Morrison County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call for suspicious activity at Smith’s home that Smith reported the Thanksgiving Day shooting.

Smith kept the teens’ bodies in his basement overnight and told investigators he didn’t call sooner because he didn’t want to bother them on the holiday.

Smith was charged Nov. 26, 2012, with two counts of second-degree murder.

The incident launched a media frenzy forcing the stunned and grief-stricken town of 8,000 into the spotlight. The shooting sparked controversy as law enforcement, media and citizens alike questioned whether Smith was within his right to shoot the teens multiple times and also, as Smith himself told investigators, to take more shots than were needed.

Some voiced their support for Smith’s actions, some cried outrage in the death of the two teens, but most, stunned by the events, braced for a long, drawn-out aftermath of senseless tragedy. Former Morrison County Sheriff Michel Weztel said in a news conference hours after Smith was charged that while Minnesota law protects a homeowner’s right to defend their property with deadly force, once it becomes clear a felony can no longer be committed, a person is no longer within their right to take a life. Wetzel said Smith’s actions went beyond what the law allows.

The lives of Brady, 17, and Kifer, 18, were remembered with a joint funeral service attended by more than 500 mourners. The two teens were cousins.

After requesting to have his bail amount reduced, Smith was released Dec. 18, 2012, from Morrison County Jail while he awaited trial, which ultimately took place two years later in 2014. Smith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

— Sarah Nelson Katzenberger

Other notable 2012 story

  • Late spring, early summer storm bring deluge and damage to Brainerd area

While nowhere near as devastating as the floods that hit northeast Minnesota, rain in May, June and early July 2012 pushed flood waters on area lakes and rivers to record levels at the time.

In Brainerd, the National Weather Service in Duluth reported 8.67 inches of rain in May, 6.99 inches in June and 5.28 inches in July. The rains caused the Mississippi River in Aitkin, Brainerd and Fort Ripley to reach major flood status. In Brainerd, the river peaked at more than 17.5 feet, eclipsing the previous high crest 16.7 feet set in 2001. Flood waters inundated low lying areas, including the community gardens and athletic fields at Brainerd High School.

Cass County also sustained wind damage in an early summer storm along with flood damage.

In all, 13 Minnesota counties, including Aitkin and Crow Wing counties, were listed in a federal disaster declaration.

In the spring of 2013, Wausau Paper closed the Brainerd mill, affecting about 134 employees. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
In the spring of 2013, Wausau Paper closed the Brainerd mill, affecting about 134 employees. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

2013 — Wausau Paper closes in Brainerd

Wausau Paper announced it was closing the Brainerd mill in February 2013 and ceased production that April.

The mill employed 134. Wausau started production at the Brainerd mill on Nov. 17, 2004.

Products from the Brainerd mill were shipped globally to markets in Europe and Asia.

Just two years earlier, Wausau Paper invested $27 million to convert the Brainerd mill to technical specialty grades, such as those used in masking tape and to a limited degree packaging for the food industry. The lack of a revenue stream earlier than expected following an exit from the printed paper market played a factor in the mill’s profitability.

“There should be no issue with the performance of the workforce,” Perry Grueber, Wausau spokesman, said in February 2013. “The folks in Brainerd have been extraordinary. ... This is a very regrettable situation for us.”

In March 2013, Wausau Paper signed a letter of intent to sell its Wisconsin specialty paper mills for about $130 million. The mill in Brainerd was not part of the deal.

In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported about a yearlong fight for control of Wausau Paper with Starboard Value, an activist Manhattan hedge fund with a record of pushing boards to change directors.

“Pressure from Starboard last year prompted Wausau to shut its oldest mill in the village of Brokaw, the mill that founded the company in 1899,” the Journal Sentinel reported in March. “Starboard’s pressure also compelled Wausau to make an abrupt announcement in January that it will sell its remaining Midwestern mills in Rhinelander, Mosinee and Brainerd.”

Wausau Paper reached an agreement with Starboard Value to change the Wausau board after a threat of a proxy fight at a shareholder meeting.

In October 2013, Liberty Paper Co. of Becker was identified as having an interest in purchasing the Brainerd mill. Liberty makes craft paper or brown paper such as grocery bags. Later Liberty reported it was no longer interested citing environmental concerns.

The city of Brainerd signed a purchase agreement of $4.115 million to buy the mill’s hydro plant on the Mississippi River, which Wausau was selling separately from the mill.

The mill has a long history in Brainerd. It began as the Northwest Paper Co. in the first years of the 20th century with efforts including those of Charles A. Weyerhaeuser and R. D. Musser. The paper company bought the Northern Water Power Co. on the banks of the river and the C.F. Kindred Dam in northeast Brainerd.

Wausau Paper bought the Brainerd mill from Missota Paper Co. for $9.6 million. Missota bought the former Potlatch paper mill for $4.44 million.

When Potlatch closed the paper mill in 2002, it put about 600 people out of work. Potlatch sold its paper division and the Cloquet mill to Sappi Limited, a South African-based company for $480 million. The deal included the coating machine in the Brainerd mill.

— Renee Richardson

Other notable 2013 story

  • Shooting at Sleepy Hollow

A Crow Wing County sheriff’s deputy was shot in the arm and a 50-year-old rural Brainerd man was dead following an Aug. 14, 2013, shooting near a residence off Sleepy Hollow Road in St. Mathias Township south of Brainerd.

Crow Wing County deputies were dispatched to conduct a welfare check. Upon arrival, there was no answer at the home. Former Crow Wing County Sheriff Todd Dahl said deputies heard a single gunshot coming from the woods just south of the residence. Deputies searched and found Donald Peter Johnson armed in a tree stand. Deputies negotiated with Johnson, who eventually said he would surrender. When Johnson got down, he changed his mind and began climbing the tree again. Dahl said the K-9 dog went after the suspect, who then turned around and started shooting at the deputies, with a shot hitting current Sheriff Scott Goddard, then a sergeant, in the arm. Dahl said deputies then returned fire and Johnson was killed.

Byron Smith leaves a Morrison County courtroom in 2014. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
Byron Smith leaves a Morrison County courtroom in 2014. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

2014 — Byron Smith goes on trial for double homicide

Byron Smith again topped the Brainerd Dispatch Top 10 when he was convicted in 2014 for the premeditated murder of two teenagers in a case that raised the question of when self-defense crosses the line.

Smith was accused in the Thanksgiving Day 2012 shooting deaths of Haile Kifer, 18, and her cousin Nicholas Brady, 16, in his rural Little Falls home. Smith, a retired security engineer with the U.S. State Department and Little Falls native, said he was defending himself.

Defense attorney Steven Meshbesher said Smith acted out of fear after multiple home break-ins. Under Minnesota law, a person may use deadly force to prevent a felony from taking place in one’s home or dwelling.

The state’s prosecutor, Washington County attorney Peter Orput, said Smith crossed the line between self-defense and murder. Prosecutors said after wounding the teenagers, who were unarmed, Smith should have called police. Authorities said Smith planned the killings, moved his vehicle away from the home, sat in his basement as surveillance equipment nearby showed the teenagers breaking in, shot them repeatedly and in the head after they were wounded and on the basement floor.

Smith’s own audio recordings of the event showed 11 minutes passed between the time he killed Brady and when he shot Kifer. During that time Smith wrapped Brady’s body in a tarp and moved him to another room and reloaded his gun. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner reported Brady was shot three times and Kifer six times.

Smith left the bodies in his basement overnight. A neighbor, at Smith’s request, called law enforcement the following day.

Smith did not testify during the trial. Meshbesher said he advised against Smith taking the stand. The trial began April 21. Closing arguments began eight days later.

A pool of 140 jurors were assembled in the court’s process to obtain its jury panel. The jury reached its verdict after about three hours and 20 minutes of deliberation. Smith was sentenced to life in prison.

In November 2014, Smith was ordered to pay restitution of about $21,000 to the families of his victims. In 2016, Smith lost an appeal in the Minnesota Supreme Court. He continues to serve his sentence in the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Oak Park Heights.

— Renee Richardson

Other notable 2014 stories

  • Bacteria in Brainerd’s water, boil order issued

In September 2014, bacteria was found in Brainerd’s water, prompting a citywide boil order and debate over permanent chlorination.

Bacteria was first found following a drop in water pressure that resulted from a broken water line that prevented the water tower at the site of the former Brainerd State Hospital from filling overnight. That water tower, which holds 750,000 gallons, was being used because the city’s main water tower was out of commission while being worked on.

The boil order was lifted the following Tuesday night after all the new tests came back negative for bacteria. Per an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Health, the city chlorinated its water for 30 days. Ultimately, the idea of permanent chlorination was shot down with a unanimous vote from the Brainerd Public Utilities Commission, citing an overwhelming cry from residents against it.

  • Cumberland’s death shocks community

Bonnie Cumberland’s sudden death on Feb. 3, 2014, shocked the community.

Her death at home was discovered when Cumberland, Brainerd City Council president, was uncharacteristically absent from a regular Monday night council session. When she didn’t appear for the council session, police officers were dispatched to her northeast Brainerd home. After finding her car parked there, officers ended up breaking down the door. They found her inside.

Cumberland moved to Brainerd in the fall of 1968 for a teaching job. In 1976, she was named Brainerd Teacher of the Year. She retired from Brainerd High School in 2002 after 34 years as a marketing teacher. Cumberland was elected mayor of Brainerd in 1991, serving until 1998.

  • Brainerd buys hydro dam from Wausau

In June 2014, the city of Brainerd became the owner of a hydro dam, formerly operated by

Wausau Paper.

In a process that some residents argued was too secretive, the council voted to buy the dam, with council member Mary Koep being the sole voice against it along the way.

The purchase price was $2.6 million, a reduction from the original price of $4.115 million. It included 37 acres of land and a dam substation. The dam purchase, as well as the major upgrade projects, were funded through local bonding.

The hydro dam purchase came with needed repairs, including a $1.5 million spillway apron, as well as total generation equipment improvements at the cost of $600,000. Also needed were water and sewer connections to the site and automation improvements.

Flattened and upended trees stretch across the ground following the July 12, 2015, supercell storm in the Brainerd lakes area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
Flattened and upended trees stretch across the ground following the July 12, 2015, supercell storm in the Brainerd lakes area. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

2015 — Supercell storm alters landscape

Winds with the force of a Category 2 hurricane hit the Brainerd lakes area July 12, 2015.

The storm, which struck in the late afternoon, altered the landscape with devastating straight-line winds in Cass and Crow Wing counties. No one was reported injured, but thousands of people were without power, one home was destroyed and thousands upon thousands of trees felled.

“An automated weather station in Brainerd recorded a peak wind of 65 mph during the storm. Most of the storm damage in the Brainerd area was consistent with winds in the 70 to 80 mph range,” the National Weather Service reported. “However, there were pockets of more devastating tree damage, mainly in the Pillsbury State Forest area northwest of Brainerd. Based on aerial photos provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, preliminary assessments suggest wind speeds in excess of 100 mph were likely in this area.”

The weather service noted there were other storms of this magnitude in northwest Wisconsin in 2011 and again in Hayward, Wis. and the Crookston area in 2014, but it may mean going back to the 1970s to find a similar storm here. Acres of trees were flattened, causing concern about future wildfires.

Power crews worked 16-hour days to restore power to the lakes area communities and neighborhoods. In some residential areas, such as the Pine Beach Peninsula, restoring power would take weeks.

Late into the summer, tarps remained on rooftops. In November, trees were still being cleared along Pine Beach Road. Hard-hit areas were around County Road 115, Cinosam between Gull Lake and Round and North Long lakes. Crow Wing County reported See Gull Road, Cinosam, Legionville and Love Lake roads topped the list for most severely affected areas.

The storm caused major damage to eight homes and minor damage to 60. The American Red Cross reported overall 186 homes had some damage. The American Red Cross reported 6,552 cases of water and bags of ice were distributed, 2,089 snacks and drinks were distributed. The Salvation Army also served meals at the relief station set up at Timberwood Church in Nisswa.

Heavily damaged areas included Brainerd International Raceway, neighborhoods and the major resort areas on Gull Lake.

— Renee Richardson

Other notable 2015 stories

  • 2 shot; 2 men indicted for north Brainerd murder

Two people were shot in the head Jan. 4, 2015, at an apartment duplex on Juniper Street.

The victims, Joseph Kroll, 31, Brainerd, and Chelsey Crawford, 31, at the time, Brainerd, were airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale where Kroll died as a result of the gunshot wound. Crawford underwent surgery for her injuries but survived.

North Brainerd residents hunkered down while law enforcement searched the neighborhood for the shooting suspects, who had fled the scene. Two Brainerd men were arrested for the shootings after several hours on the loose, were charged and have been going through the court system ever since.

Nathan David Becker, then 27, was indicted by a grand jury Feb. 13, 2015, on first-degree aiding and abetting Tyler Allan Cronquist, then 23, who was indicted on first-degree murder with premeditation and attempted first-degree murder with premeditation.

  • Investigator Sandberg killed

The killing of Aitkin County Sheriff’s Investigator Steven Sandberg Oct. 18, 2015, shocked the small town of Aitkin, and his death impacted thousands of people.

Sandberg, 60, was shot and killed by an inmate receiving treatment at St. Cloud Hospital. Sandberg was guarding the suspect, Danny Leroy Hammond, 50, of rural Aitkin, in a hospital room. Hammond got out of his bed and started an altercation with Sandberg, during which he took Sandberg’s gun and shot him. A hospital guard then entered the room and used a Taser to subdue Hammond, who shortly after suffered a “medical emergency” and died, according to the BCA, which did not provide further information on Hammond’s death.

Sandberg was with the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office for 24 years, including the past 20 years as an investigator.

  • Brainerd Mayor James Wallin dies

The city of Brainerd lost a beloved public servant in 2015. Longtime Brainerd Mayor James Wallin died at home early on the morning of Sept. 26, 2015, at the age of 73.

Wallin was first elected to the city council in 1977 and was mayor of the city since 1998. Shortly before his passing, Wallin had been chosen as 2015 Brainerd Citizen of the Year.

Wallin’s funeral at Zion Lutheran Church in north Brainerd drew hundreds of mourners. The church pews were full to capacity with people who knew and loved Wallin, so folding chairs were set up along both sides of the room in order for attendees to honor him together. Chairs also were set up under a tent outside the church to accommodate the expected large turnout.

  • Mille Lacs walleye season shut down early due to decline in fishery

Summer walleye fishing on Mille Lacs Lake closed down early in August 2015 after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found harvest exceeded the state’s yearly quota by more than 2,000 pounds.

The DNR said the issue was that not enough young walleye spawn were surviving into adulthood. To help improve public relations between the DNR and the public around Mille Lacs, the agency created a Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory group made up of local officials, resorters and anglers.

From 2016 through 2017, walleye anglers were subject to a series of live bait bans and outright fishing bans, as well as stringent catch and release restrictions. In the intervening years the DNR observed an exponential increase in the Mille Lacs walleye fishery. According to the results of the 2018 population estimate, the walleye population for fish 14 inches and longer numbered in the ballpark of 727,000. These estimates compare favorably to estimates in 2013 and 2014, both of which hovered around 250,000 fish.

  • Stings shine light on sex trafficking

In May 2015, a law enforcement operation resulting in charges against eight men for soliciting commercial sex at a Baxter hotel sent shock waves through the Brainerd lakes area.

The sting operation, which involved a fictional online advertisement offering the services of a female escort, was the first of its kind in Crow Wing County. It was followed by four other operations in 2015, leading to charges against 12 other men.

The actions of area law enforcement sparked a community conversation about sex trafficking. While there’s the impression sex trafficking is a new phenomenon locally, those who work with survivors of the illegal trade said the problem was finally getting the recognition they’ve long sought to attain.

  • Fire department reorganizes

The Brainerd Fire Department from the start of 2015 looked much different than the department at the end of the year.

For starters, the department now employs no full-time equipment operators, instead using a staff of entirely paid on-call firefighters to respond to calls.

After months of discussion with the fire advisory board and the International Association of Firefighters, the firefighter’s union, the Brainerd council at its Sept. 21, 2015, meeting unanimously decided to move to an entirely paid on-call fire department.

This move ultimately led to a lawsuit, and in 2019, the Minnesota Supreme Court found the city of Brainerd violated state labor laws by restructuring the paid fire department and dissolving the union.

In early January of 2016, a sale of Mills Fleet Farm was reported. Global investment firm KKR announced it was acquiring the business and the two companies entered into a definitive purchase agreement. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
In early January of 2016, a sale of Mills Fleet Farm was reported. Global investment firm KKR announced it was acquiring the business and the two companies entered into a definitive purchase agreement. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

2016 — Mills Fleet Farm sold

In the fall of 2015, Mills Fleet Farm confirmed it was in the process of looking at a large pool of business suitors to find the right one to take the company to the next level of growth for the future.

The family company with Brainerd origins first started serving customers as Fleet Wholesale Supply in 1955 and in 2016 employed about 6,000 in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota.

“We care very much about our employees and we want to make sure whoever the new owners are they take very good care of them,” Stewart Mills III said at the time. “The employees have taken very good care of us.”

Mills said the company reached a point where, in order to continue to grow at a speed to be competitive, it needs to look for outside sources for capital and couldn’t continue to finance growth solely through its own checkbook. Mills said they could sustain a much slower growth rate, but they knew the business potential was there for more and the decision to move forward was made by the family as a group.

“For the long term, this is what is right for the business, this is what is right for our employees,” Mills said in 2016. “It’s a very, very painful decision for the Mills family.”

In early January of 2016, a sale was reported. Global investment firm KKR announced it acquired Mills Fleet Farm and the two companies entered into a definitive purchase agreement.

“We are proud to partner with Mills Fleet Farm, a highly differentiated brand in the Midwest, and invest behind its continued growth,” said Nate Taylor, member of KKR’s Private Equity team, in a news release. “In doing so, we remain committed to Mills Fleet Farm’s founding values — and those shared by KKR — of honesty, integrity, hard work, service and loyalty to our customers and partners. We anticipate investing significantly in the business, adding infrastructure, stores and local jobs.”

Stewart Mills Sr., along with his sons, Henry Mills II and Stewart Mills Jr., founded Fleet Farm in 1955. The Mills Automotive Group, with 12 franchises, was not part of the transaction.

In December 2016, Bill’s Gun Shop and Range became the new owner of the Mills Indoor Shooting and Archery Range in Baxter.

In the summer of 2019, Fleet Farm announced its intent to close its Brainerd headquarters, consolidating its workforce at a new facility in Appleton, Wisconsin.

— Renee Richardson

Other notable 2016 stories

  • Storms again rock the Brainerd lakes area

After a supercell thunderstorm rocked the Brainerd lakes area in July of 2015, residents were probably hoping for a less eventful summer in 2016. Mother Nature, it turns out, had other plans.

Kicking things off in June was a line of powerful thunderstorms, followed by a tornado. The NWS confirmed the damaging winds that tore through the Placid Lake area south of Deerwood were officially ushered in by an EF2 tornado.

About a month later, early in the morning of July 21, 2016, storms again rocked the area, resulting in widespread power outages, trees down and in some cases people trapped in cabins by trees and downed power lines in central and northern Minnesota.

About two weeks later, on Aug. 4, 2016, Cass and Crow Wing counties experienced severe thunderstorms and high winds, which resulted in significant debris removal costs. This storm came during the Crow Wing County Fair, which resulted in the delayed opening of the fair one day, while crews worked to clear the grounds of downed trees.

The storms didn’t stop after summer ended, as the area was hit by winter storm Argos on Nov. 18. Driving and gusting winds up to 40 mph accompanied heavy snow making driving conditions nearly a white-knuckle affair.

  • Cronquist/Becker cases produce different results

A murder and an attempted murder in north Brainerd in first days of 2015 culminated in a conviction and an acquittal for two suspects in the case.

The two suspects were identified as 23-year-old Tyler Allan Cronquist and 26-year-old Nathan David Becker, both of the Brainerd area. The victims were Joseph Kroll, 31, Brainerd, and Chelsey Crawford, 31, Brainerd. The victims were airlifted to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, where Kroll died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head. Crawford, who also suffered a gunshot wound to the head, underwent surgery for her injuries and survived.

In the fall of 2016, Cronquist, who admitted guilt to shooting two victims in the head, killing one, was sentenced to close to 40 years in prison for the crimes. A Crow Wing County jury found Becker not guilty in May 2016 on all felony charges.

  • CRMC changes from public to nonprofit

Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby was repeatedly in the headlines in 2016 with issues that first gained greater public knowledge the previous winter and would end with a vote to change how the medical center is governed.

The CRMC Governing Board voted 12-6 to make a change from its history as a public hospital with elected board members overseeing operations to a nonprofit with an appointed board. The change would effectively end the elected board’s oversight of the medical center’s operations. Instead, CRMC’s governing board would lease the medical facility and its operations to a nonprofit corporation for a term of 30 years. The elected district board would remain, but a newly established nine-member board would oversee the medical center’s operations. The physicians at the medical center expressed a strong desire to have a presence on the board of directors and said they couldn't do so in its current makeup without running for office.

Interest and concerns regarding CRMC’s governing board, the administration and the Care Center repeatedly filled the board conference room to standing room only during regular meetings. No one disputed CRMC’s ability to care for patients or the skill of staff in doing so. For some, the move to a 501(c)(3) seemed rushed and left concerns unaddressed.

  • Local hunter’s death ruled a homicide

Terry Brisk, 41, was hunting alone on his parents’ property in Belle Prairie Township when he suffered a gunshot wound resulting in his death. The sheriff’s office responded after 5 p.m. Nov. 7, 2016, to the area where Brisk was found, located near the intersection of Hawthorn and Jewel roads east of Little Falls. Investigators believe Brisk was shot between 2:26-4:20 p.m.

Brisk, a 1993 Little Falls High School graduate, was the father of four children. He worked for his father’s construction company, Kingsway Construction Inc., since he was young before working for Ziegler CAT in Brainerd for the last several years, according to his obituary.

The case remains unsolved today. Anyone with information regarding the case is asked to contact the Morrison County Sheriff’s Office at 320-632-9233.

The bodies of Marc Welzant (left) and John Greenwaldt were both discovered in 2017. Welzant went missing in 2014. Greenwaldt went missing on the Fourth of July in 2017. File photos
The bodies of Marc Welzant (left) and John Greenwaldt were both discovered in 2017. Welzant went missing in 2014. Greenwaldt went missing on the Fourth of July in 2017. File photos

2017 — Bodies of missing Brainerd men found

Their stories were separated by time, but for the families of two missing men in the Brainerd area, 2017 brought some answers.

The bodies of Marc Welzant and John Greenwaldt were discovered in the early spring and late summer, respectively.

The body of 47-year-old Marc Welzant was discovered March 25, 2017, in a wooded area off Business Highway 371 south of Brainerd. Welzant, who was developmentally disabled, was found not far from the Mississippi River, about 2 miles from where he was last seen on the afternoon of Oct. 26, 2014, when he left his group home.

The body of 29-year-old John Greenwaldt was discovered in the late afternoon on Aug. 17, 2017, in a wooded area near a trail close to the 300 block of Hattie Street in Brainerd. The area is just north of Linden Lane and Little Buffalo Creek. Greenwaldt’s missing bicycle was also discovered in the area. Greenwaldt’s body was discovered seven weeks after he was last seen getting into a vehicle in downtown Brainerd on the Fourth of July. His family reported him missing July 14, 2017.

Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston said the manner and cause of death in both cases remains undetermined.

— Renee Richardson



Other notable 2017 stories

  • BHS yearbook quote ignites controversy

Controversy erupted after a Brainerd High School student was quoted in the Brainonian — the high school yearbook — saying she would like to behead President Donald Trump.

The author of the quote, a sophomore at BHS, later said her quote was taken from a casual conversation in September and used out of context in the yearbook. Much of the blame, however, was leveled at faculty yearbook adviser, Joe Wagner, an art teacher and long-term employee of the district.

The quote raised a number of disputes over the boundaries of free expression, the failure of faculty oversight and the use of taxpayer dollars at BHS. It also resulted in district staff revising its policy regarding how the yearbook is edited.

  • Big bog invades North Long Lake

In October 2017, a giant bog — a natural wetland consisting of marsh, dead plant materials, cattails and, in this case, a line of tamarack trees — about 200 feet by 800 feet in size, broke away from the shores of Merrifield Bay on North Long Lake and spent several weeks cruising the bay, as well as damaging the property of residents along the lake.

The Minnesota DNR said it didn’t have jurisdiction over the bog, so lake association members staked it to the lake bottom near Legionville School Safety Patrol Training Center. Through a series of efforts undertaken the following year, the bog was eventually moved in pieces away from the beach it blocked.

  • Highway 371 four-lane expansion opens

Completed in October 2017, the Minnesota Highway 371 four-lane expansion project affecting Nisswa, Pequot Lakes and Jenkins was two decades in the making.

The project initially faced opposition over clearing the area of trees for the 9-mile expansion that cost $50 million. However, the idea of it improving safety, mobility, access to communities, businesses, schools and industry apparently won out. The bypass was opened in the summer of 2017. The project expanded the highway to four lanes between Nisswa and Jenkins and realigned a segment of the highway to remove the roadway from within Pequot Lakes’ city center.

Brainerd Public School Superintendent Laine Larson embraces school board member Tom Haglin after results of the April 2018 referendum were announced. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Brainerd Public School Superintendent Laine Larson embraces school board member Tom Haglin after results of the April 2018 referendum were announced. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

2018 — Voters approve $205M referendum to refurbish Brainerd schools

2018 kicked off the design process of renovations on existing buildings and construction on new facilities in the Brainerd School District.

These changes were more than three years in the making, becoming a reality after nearly 10,000 voters approved three referendum questions for a total cost of $205 million in a special election April 10, 2018.

The first two questions asked voters to invest in elementary and secondary education buildings as well as the Early Childhood Family Education program. The third question — contingent on No. 2 passing — asked for a performing arts center at Brainerd High School.

A margin of 233 votes tipped the performing arts center into a reality, while more than 2,000 votes separated the yeas and nays in Question 1 and roughly 1,000 for Question 2.

“We promised our community that we will provide the highest quality educational opportunities for our taxpayers’ generous investment,” Superintendent Laine Larson said during a school board meeting the week after the referendum. “When our voters went to the polls they gave from their pocket book and they gave their heart, and we need to keep that in mind as we move forward.”

The voter approved cost for the projects is $145.8 million. Those funds have already been put to work designing updates for Brainerd High School and its performing arts center, Nisswa and Harrison elementary schools and a new elementary school in Baxter, all of which the school board approved. The schools will see new secure entrances, increased classroom spaces and more parking, among other updates. A new competition-size swimming pool will make waves at Brainerd High School, along with renovations allowing all students to be housed under one roof on the north campus for their classes.

— Theresa Bourke



Other notable 2018 stories

  • Man stabs sister, faces murder changes

A Cambridge man shook up the small town of Crosby when he entered Heartwood Senior Living Community in Crosby to meet with his sister Danyele Marie Johnson, who worked in the kitchen, and stabbed her death.

David Michael Otey, then 38, was charged with felony second-degree intentional murder without premeditation in Crow Wing County District Court in Brainerd. According to the criminal complaint, Otey traveled Jan. 13, 2018, to Heartwood to meet with his sister. The visit was unannounced and unexpected. When Otey arrived, his sister let him into the senior living facility. Otey assisted his sister preparing food for 30 minutes, then he took a knife and began stabbing her, the complaint stated.

Otey was found not guilty by reason of mental illness in 2019 and was transported to a locked direct care and treatment facility at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, a state psychiatric hospital in Anoka.

— Jennifer Kraus

  • BIR owner Copham dies in swimming accident

It was a shocking — and abrupt — ending for a larger-than-life local business owner and motorsports enthusiast whose name was synonymous with a Brainerd lakes area raceway.

Brainerd International Raceway owner Jed Copham died Nov. 11 after a swimming accident in Florida. Copham was swimming from his parents’ boat near Punta Rassa, just south of Fort Myers, when he went missing. Search and rescue teams found his body the morning of Nov. 12, 2018.

A nurse and a pilot died and a crew member was injured after a medical helicopter crashed in June while on approach to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
A nurse and a pilot died and a crew member was injured after a medical helicopter crashed in June while on approach to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

2019 — North Memorial Air Care helicopter crashes, killing 2

A pilot and a nurse were killed and a flight paramedic was seriously injured when a North Memorial Air Care helicopter crashed this summer at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.

The crash claimed the life of the pilot, Tim McDonald, 44, of Bloomington, and flight nurse Debra Schott, 58, of Lester Prairie, who both died at the scene. Pillager resident Josh Duda, the flight paramedic, suffered serious injuries in the crash. Duda, who worked for the hospital’s Brainerd-based Air Care unit for almost 20 years, was taken to Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd after the crash, and then to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale.

Duda was released from the hospital Aug. 15, the day a benefit dinner and silent auction was hosted in his honor in Brainerd. More than 1,000 people attended to show their support to Duda and his family. The Pillager man continues to recover from his injuries at his home with help from his wife Amy, their son Kian and two cats.

The National Transportation Safety Board reported in its preliminary report foggy conditions led to the fatal helicopter crash. The medical helicopter crashed on its return to the airport after delivering a patient to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. There were no patients on board at the time of the crash.

As the aircraft descended from an altitude of 6,000 feet, the report stated Duda, who was sitting in the left forward seat, recalled seeing the runway surface and lights below a thin layer of fog. The helicopter landed in a grassy area to the right of the runway.

Although investigators state the helicopter was upright and nearly intact after the crash, they also report parts of it — including the main body and tail — “exhibited crushing consistent with a high velocity vertical descent.”

— Jennifer Kraus

See the other 2019 top stories in the Dec. 31 edition of the Brainerd Dispatch.