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UPDATE: Searchers comb area for autistic La Porte City teen

LA PORTE CITY — The sign in front of Tootsie’s ice cream shop on the corner of Main and Commercial streets says it all — “Pray for Jake’s safe return.”

As the search for 16-year-old Jake Wilson wound through its third day, a crew of volunteers dropped by the shop on the corner of Main and Commercial street — one of the autistic teen’s last stops before his disappearance. They ordered lunch through the same window Jake used.

Jake Wilson

“It’s just sad,” said Teresa Seibert, who owns the shop, which features a classic red Volkswagen Beetle on its roof.

“We would like him to come back home, that’s it,” she said. “I was wanting to say, you get a free Twister if you come home. We want you home.”

Tootsie’s employees are familiar with Jake. He comes by for treats two or three times a month, said employee John Aldermund. Sometimes Jake comes with a friend, and the friend orders for him. Other times, parents would phone in the order ahead of time, and Jake would arrive with exact change.

That was the case Saturday night. Jake came and picked up a cookies-and-cream Twister, said Aldermund, who filled the order.

“His parents called in like they normally do, and then Jake just come up and gets his ice cream,” Aldermund said. “I give it to him, and he’s on his way.”

Seibert said a lot of customers call in advance and then come to the window or the drive-through to save time.

Family members said after Jake returned home from Tootsie’s, he asked to go to Wolf Creek, a few blocks away. When he didn’t return, relatives began searching and called authorities.

Search efforts continue Tuesday.

Police Chief Chris Brecher said authorities are receiving everything they need from the family.

“They’ve been fantastic. ... They are here with us every day. They are here with the first and gone with the last. They have been huge in helping us with the little things. We are in a flood plain, and a lot of stuff gets washed through here. The family has been more than willing to help us eliminate things that we find.

“They are doing as well as we can expect,” he said. “They have good friends and family around them. There have been some tears, but they have an awesome circle.”

About 480 volunteers signed in at the town fire station for Tuesday’s search. They took part in a line search in the neighborhood between the teen’s Commercial Street home and Wolf Creek, about two blocks away.

“It’s an arm-to-arm search where it’s like you got the horse blinders on and you are looking at the ground for anything that you make have overlooked,” said Brecher. “As things are being found they are being marked, and we have investigators on the scene checking out what it is or if it even pertains to our investigation.”

Other volunteers were bused to rural timbered areas for searches, and ATVs and UTVs are combing open fields in the area. Some 97 all-terrain vehicles are being used, he said.

Also on the scene Tuesday are scent-based tracking dogs, which Brecher said operate differently than dogs used earlier that track ground disturbance.

Horseback groups also aided the search, and a team in waders was walking in the creek at Highway 218.

Brecher said the search covers about a 9-mile radius, or about 255 square miles.

Volunteers will gather again this morning at the fire station.

Becher said morale is very good.

“People are still optimistic,” he said. “You can’t ask for a better crowd than we’ve been getting. The people have been very strong and willing to go out into the elements and put a lot of miles on. … You can’t thank them enough.

Sheriff Tony Thompson said the investigation also has been growing. He estimated between 300 and 500 leads have been received.

“We’ve added DCI agents, we’ve added FBI agents from as far away as Milwaukee. ... We have members from National Missing and Exploited Children. We have DCI agents whose specialty is child enticement. We have a quite a robust amount of investigators,” Thompson said.

Additionally, a Child Abduction Response Team is being brought in.

“Don’t read anything into that other than they have specific expertise,” Thompson said. “… We’re still treating this as a missing person. But we are still processing this … as we would any other criminal investigation.”

Asked if Jake could have climbed into a car with someone, Thompson said all possibilities are on the table.

“That’s an absolutely realistic consideration, one that we continue to contemplate,” Thompson said.

He said authorities have developed a solid timeline leading up the disappearance and data from video, cellphones and cell towers is being processed.

Jake is about 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs about 135 pounds with hazel eyes and dirty blonde hair. He was wearing a brown zip-up jacket, dark sweatpants and cowboy boots.

He has autism with a mild intellectual disorder and functions at a 9-year-old level, his mother said.

Anyone spotting Jake is asked to call Black Hawk County Dispatch at (319) 291-2515 or local authorities.

Holly Hudson contributed to this story.


Local
Father of Evansdale girl abducted in 2012 helps with search for La Porte teen

LA PORTE CITY — As volunteers searched for missing La Porte City teen Jake Wilson, a parent who has been through a similar ordeal offered advice to Jake’s mother.

Drew Collins is father of Elizabeth Collins, who disappeared with her cousin, Lyric Cook Morrissey, in 2012. He stopped by the command center at the La Porte City fire station Monday to visit with Megan Neiswonger.

“I just came to talk to the family and offer my support,” Collins said. “There’s not a whole lot I can do, but I can empathize with them as somebody who has gone through it before.”

Collins received training through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to consult with families of children who have disappeared. He volunteers across the country for the organization’s Team Hope.

Collins said he tells parents to stay strong.

“You’ve got to dig deep within yourself. I told Jake’s mom to make sure she’s resting and taking good care of herself, and I told her to find a nice little hiding spot for when it gets too much, that she could just go and be by herself,” Collins said.

Collins said he’s confident in the investigators handling Jake’s disappearance, and he encouraged the public to help the effort.

“People need to get out and check their hunting grounds. If you have a hunting spot, people need to go get a buddy or two and just search over their hunting ground,” Collins said. The bodies of Lyric and Elizabeth were found by hunters in a Bremer County wildlife area months after the disappearance.

The parallels in the efforts to find Jake and those to find the missing cousins aren’t lost on investigators.

Both searches drew hundreds of volunteers who covered small towns and rural countryside for days while braving the elements. The cousins disappeared in stifling heat; Jake went missing in the bitter cold.

Photos: Missing cousins gallery

Sheriff Tony Thompson said authorities learned from the cousins search and other missing persons cases in recent years.

“We have learned from previous experiences, and we have continued to improve and evolve what we do investigatively,” Thompson said.

“We are little more ahead of the game because of lessons learned. We are certainly employing and deploying resources more rapidly than we have in previous incidents,” Thompson said.


Govt-and-politics
topical
Sweeney tops Freese in Iowa Senate election to replace Dix

WATERLOO — Republicans will retain the Iowa Senate seat that was held by former majority leader Bill Dix, a month after a scandal led to his resignation.

Annette Sweeney of Alden defeated Democrat Tracy Freese of Dike in the Senate District 25 race with about 56 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results from Tuesday’s special election.

Sweeney, a former Iowa House member, got 4,776 votes compared with 3,786 for Freese, a small business owner. Iowa Senate District 25 includes all of Grundy and Hardin counties as well as portions of Butler and Story counties.

“Talk about a whirlwind,” Sweeney said when reached by phone about the short timespan leading up to the election.

“It was a team effort,” she added. “It wasn’t just one person, and I’m just totally amazed at all the work that everyone has done.

“That just sums it up. I’m just overwhelmed by how many volunteers we had.”

Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district nearly 2-to-1. There are 16,285 Republicans voters registered compared to 8,256 Democrats. There are also 15,106 registered voters affiliated with no party.

About 21.5 percent of the 39,899 registered voters in Senate District 25 cast ballots in Tuesday’s election.

Sweeney said a victory in a special election like this depends a lot on the get-out-the-vote effort.

“Just make sure that you get out the vote, it’s not guaranteed,” she said. “I am just thrilled at the count that we had for the special election.”

Dix, a Republican from Shell Rock, resigned his seat March 12 following release of a video posted by the online political blog Iowa Starting Line in which he appears to be kissing a lobbyist at a Des Moines bar.

Sweeney, 60, and her husband are farmers near Alden. She served in the Iowa House of Representatives from 2009 to 2012. More recently, she was appointed by the Trump administration to be Iowa’s U.S. Department of Agriculture state rural development director. She left the position upon announcing her candidacy.

Freese, a Clinton native who moved to Dike more than a decade ago, owns an online marketing company and also works as an estate planner. The 35-year-old is chairwoman of the Grundy County Democratic Central Committee.

Sweeney topped Freese among three of the four counties’ voters. Freese came out ahead in Story County, where 1,440 voters cast ballots for her compared to 1,148 for the Republican.

Sweeney won 1,795 votes in Hardin County with 1,120 going to Freese. Another 1,268 voted for her in Grundy County compared with 774 for the Democrat. And in Butler County, Sweeney received 565 votes to 452 for Freese.

Despite the vote, the seat will be on the ballot again for the Nov. 6 general election. Dix was at the end of his term when he resigned.

Both candidates in the special election are running in their respective parties’ June 5 primary. Sweeney will face Chad Buss of Parkersburg, whom she defeated overwhelmingly in a nominating convention last month. Freese won’t face a challenger.

“I’ll be on the ballot three times this year, which is absolutely incredible,” said Sweeney, assuming she is the victor in the primary. “It’s kind of wild for Iowa history, this quick turnaround.”


Sweeney


Freese


Govt-and-politics
Wind farm opponents organizing

HUDSON — Opponents of the Washburn Wind Energy project are preparing for battle at a key public hearing next week.

More than 100 residents met in the Hudson High School Auditorium on Tuesday to hear members of Cedar Valley Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy voice their concerns about the planned 35-turbine wind farm in southern Black Hawk County.

“I understand the wind people are out and have done a good job selling their story to the farmers and offering a fair amount of money to them,” said Harold Youngblut, who farms in the turbine area.

“We want to share a little bit about our story and the impacts we believe they have never or will never address,” he added. “It isn’t as rosy as the turbine people like to make it out, and the impact is real.”

Washburn Wind Energy LLC, a subsidiary of DeSoto-based RPM Access, has secured land leases and filed a request with county zoning officials for a special permit to operate the 70-megawatt wind energy generation project.

The company is seeking permission for 39 potential tower locations around Eagle Center, bounded by Griffith Road on the north, Tama Road to the south, Holmes Road on the west, and Iowa Highway 21 on the east. But only 35 of the turbines — 492 feet from the ground to the highest point of a blade — would be constructed.

Greg Cory, who lives in the shadow of several planned turbines, encouraged residents opposed to the project to show up when the county Planning and Zoning Board holds a public hearing Tuesday to make a recommendation on the project and again April 24 when the county Board of Adjustment is expected to vote on the special permit.

“This isn’t over,” Cory said. “We need you to show up at these meetings. We need you to be present. We’re being told this is not a done deal.”

Residents living in and around the proposed wind farm are concerned about negative health impacts caused by noise, shadow flicker from spinning blades, sleep deprivation and light pollution.

While wind energy supporters contend there is no scientific proof linking turbines to human health, Youngblut pointed to Brown County, Wis., where the county Board of Health in 2014 declared a wind farm in its jurisdiction as a human health hazard.

Opponents also believe the turbines will harm livestock and local wildlife, including eagles, bats and bees; lower their property values; take some of the richest farm land in the world out of production; and hurt radio, television, wireless internet and cellphone service.

“These things definitely affect RF communications,” Cory said. “They can create a dead zone in this entire area where your cell phones don’t work. How are you going to call 911 if your cellphone doesn’t work?”

Washburn Wind Energy’s application includes studies related to shadow flicker, noise and radio communications. Company officials said those studies comply with the county’s zoning ordinance, while they believe their application meets requirements for the issuance of a permit.

But Wayne McGarvey believes the application falls short several areas, while the county ordinance is too lenient on wind energy regulations.

“The shadow flicker on my house (will be) 41 hours a year, 211 days a year,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Youngblut, who has friends signed up to have turbines on their farms, said the project is causing strife.

“I’m still going to be friends with the guys, hopefully,” Youngblut said. “But the money’s not worth what it’s going to do to your neighbors, and it’s not worth tearing our community apart.

“That’s the unfortunate part about having to take a side, the risk of losing friendships,” he added.