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West High's JROTC program restarts after semester-long break

WATERLOO — Zane Slack’s senior year at West High School was supposed to start with him leading the Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.

He was named wing commander last May, as the program was preparing for a change in instructors. But the new instructor unexpectedly backed out over the summer, leaving the program with no one to teach the classes. Slack discovered JROTC was on hiatus when he returned to school in the fall.

“I was a little bit distressed,” said Slack. “I was really excited for this program.”

Principal Andy Miehe said the instructor’s decision in late June “really left us in a tough spot.” He noted “these positions are hired through the United States Air Force and not through our regular hiring process,” giving the school less flexibility in filling them.

Within two weeks of classes starting, though, Slack said school officials had identified another potential candidate. Ottumwa native Paul Wallace was retiring as a chief master sergeant at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota after 30 years of military service and was looking for a JROTC teaching position back in Iowa. He was hired and got West’s program restarted earlier this month when second semester began.

A little more than 70 student cadets are enrolled in the program and were fitted for their uniforms last week. Everyone in the program wears their uniform to school on Thursdays.

“We’ve already got just about everything back to normal,” said Slack. That includes drill team, which meets before school to practice. The group is planning to travel to a competition in April, and students will be doing some fundraisers in advance.

Slack noted that currently 15 students are part of drill team. “We’re hoping to get 20 kids by the end of February,” he said.

For Wallace, the position is a good fit.

“One of the things I know I like is teaching,” he said. During the past six years, he first taught airmen and then instructors in the Air Force about the KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft. “To me, this is really the dream job,” said Wallace, noting he still gets to “wear the uniform and represent the Air Force.”

He teaches aerospace science and leadership classes. Students learn about the history and science of flight as well as JROTC organization and leadership. Friday class periods are devoted to physical training.

Next fall, Wallace will be joined by instructor Bryan Carlson, a retired Air Force major who is currently teaching in a Florida program. He is a native of Brooklyn, Iowa.

Two West students who were in JROTC last year decided not to let the pause in the program stop their involvement. After learning it wouldn’t be offered in the fall, juniors Dylan Jensen and Rasion Nelsen got permission to participate in East High School’s Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program.

“I’d started JROTC last year and it absolutely changed my life,” said Nelsen, noting it provided him some needed structure. “I also like the teamwork and opportunities for leadership.”

Jensen appreciates the leadership aspects, as well.

“I’ve wanted to join the military ever since I joined the program,” said Jensen, when he was a freshman. “That team-building stuff made everybody feel like a family.”

Freshman Dakota Stocks just got his start in the program. “It seems interesting and a good way to learn leadership and other good life skills,” he said.

Standing 5 feet 2 inches tall, though, it was challenging to find a uniform that fit him, particularly the pants. “I feel like Captain America before he got the super soldier serum,” said Stocks, in reference to a comic book super hero.

He likes the idea of wearing the uniform as part of the program.

“It makes me feel like I’m supporting a good cause,” said Stocks. “Makes me feel tall.”

UPDATE: Tait Purk gets 50-year sentence

TOLEDO — The toddler left behind when Cora Okonski was murdered in 2000 has grown, but still looks for her after all these years and can’t give up “what might have been,” his adoptive mother said Thursday during a sentencing hearing for convicted killer Tait Purk.

Deb Calvert, who adopted Austin in 2000 when he was 19 months old, said in her victim’s impact statement she and her husband have tried to fill that void, but Austin — now 19 — continues to “mourn for a mother he barely knew.” She told the judge Austin has profound mental health issues including “extreme” anxiety and low self-esteem, and Tourette syndrome neurological disorder.

Every day of his life has been affected by his mother’s death, she said.

“He won’t let anyone get close to him. … He’s an angry and confused young man,” said Calvert, who lives in Missouri with Austin and their family.

Calvert said she’s relieved Purk finally will be punished for the murder, but doesn’t know if Austin will ever bond with her and her husband or form other lasting relationships.

Thursday, 6th Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill sentenced Purk, 52, to 50 years in prison for killing his 23-year-old fiancee on April 16, 2000.

The sentencing went quickly. The conviction did not. The on-again, off-again verdict represents one of the rare cases in Iowa where a murder defendant has been found guilty without authorities ever finding the victim’s body.

Thornhill ruled Purk guilty of second-degree murder last December in a non-jury trial in Tama County District Court.

Purk must serve a mandatory 35 years, or 70 percent of his sentence, before being eligible for parole. Thornhill also ordered Purk to pay $150,000 in restitution and granted no contact orders for Austin and Okonski’s parents and her brother.

Thornhill, in his December ruling, said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to conclude Purk “acted willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly and with a specific intent,” which is required for first-degree murder — the original charge.

However, there was enough evidence to find Purk was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt for second-degree murder,” he said.

The prosecution proved Purk grabbed, choked and slammed Okonski to the floor that day, that she died as a result of it and Purk acted with malice aforethought — which is required for the lesser charge.

Purk’s first trial before a jury in May had resulted in a guilty verdict for first-degree murder. But 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner tossed out the verdict, citing a lack of evidence presented at trial, and even then some of it contradictory. He granted a new trial.

Turner recused himself and Thornhill presided over the second trial.

Purk didn’t show emotion during Calvert’s statement, but became indignant when he addressed the judge.

“I’m innocent of this crime,” Purk said. “I didn’t kill Cora. I didn’t hurt Cora. I would have never hurt her.”

Purk said he did everything right back in 2000, and reported Okonski missing to the police. He reiterated his version of events that night, asserting Okonski went out to get cigarettes and never came back.

Purk, banging his hand on the defense table at times, said his conviction was based on “hearsay, speculation and innuendo.” He blamed his attorneys for not calling more witnesses.

“This is a miscarriage of justice,” he said. “I’ll wait for the appeal process. I want to know where Cora is, too.”

The Iowa County jurors who found Purk guilty in the first trial told The Gazette they found the witnesses to be credible and they thought the witnesses corroborated each other.

Jurors were “perplexed” by Turner’s actions, some of them said.

Thornhill ultimately viewed the evidence and came to much the same conclusion as the jurors.

Thornhill said the prosecution presented credible evidence of material facts that when taken together corroborate the testimony of former prison cellmates who said Purk had confessed to killing Okonski.

County eyes Country View sale; supports tax increase for time being

WATERLOO — Black Hawk County officials are looking into selling Country View.

But the county Board of Supervisors has tentatively agreed to raise property taxes by $2 million next year to keep the county-owned nursing home open should a sale lose support or not happen quickly enough.

The supervisors met Thursday to hear from a national commercial real estate broker specializing in selling senior housing and long-term care centers.

Ryan Fleming, of Marcus & Millichap’s Chicago office, walked through how the firm could help the county seek proposals, both locally and nationally, and market Country View for sale.

Country View, home to 134 nursing and mental health care clients, has been losing money in recent years. But Fleming said there’s still a market from larger senior care providers interested in acquiring new assets.

“Most of the public homes are losing money, most of them significant,” Fleming said. “I’m assuming if I’m here it’s not because you’re making tons of money in the home and it’s full and everything’s hunky dory.”

Fleming said major care providers with multiple nursing facilities are more skilled at Medicaid reimbursement and can realize economies of scale.

“The mom and pops — the owners that have one, two or three assets — are getting unbelievably squeezed right now, as you guys know,” he said. “… If a person has eight assets in the area, they only pay one executive director. The food they buy is at a better cost.”

Fleming said the supervisors could choose to put stipulations on a sale, such as retaining employees or agreeing to keep Country View open for a certain time frame, but noted such restrictions could impact interest in the center.

While the supervisors took no action on whether to retain a broker or pursue a sale, several board members expressed interest in moving forward.

“I think it’s something we should have considered earlier,” said Supervisor Linda Laylin.

Country View has been a major focus of the supervisors’ efforts to set a budget for the fiscal year staring July 1. While the nursing home is an enterprise operation, expected to support itself with client revenues and Medicaid, the county is tapping its cash reserves this year for $2 million to cover the losses.

Finance Director Susan Deaton projects Country View will run a $2 million deficit in the next fiscal year, which could be larger if County Social Services pulls back a portion of its $1 million contribution to the facility.

Board members had been looking at an overall $500,000, or 1.3 percent, increase in overall property tax collection to support next year’s budget, not including funding for Country View.

Board members voted 4-1 Thursday to add $2 million in taxes to support Country View next year but also to use $500,000 in debt service reserves to offset a portion of the overall increase.

Supervisor Tom Little voted against the measure after suggesting the use of the debt service reserves was “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The net $2 million, or 5.3 percent, property tax hike will be part of the overall budget tentatively slated for a public hearing March 6. Funding for Country View is contingent on the budget being approved.

No time frame was placed on whether to pursue a contract with Marcus & Millichap to begin a sale process for Country View.

Meanwhile, the supervisors voted unanimously to appoint Carol Laurie as interim administrator of Country View. Laurie, the director of health services, will replace administrator Dennis Coleman and assistant administrator Genevieve Shafer, who are both resigning this month.

Pay boosts OK'd for Black Hawk County elected officials

WATERLOO — Black Hawk County’s elected officials will get 4 percent pay hikes this year.

Members of the county Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 Thursday without discussion to approve the raises effective July 1 for the sheriff, county attorney, auditor, treasurer, recorder and themselves.

Board chairman Craig White voted against the pay increases which had been recommended by the volunteer county compensation board in December.

State law allows the supervisors to either accept the compensation board’s proposal or reduce the raises by an equal percentage across the board.

Compensation board members had noted Black Hawk County’s elected officials are paid less than their counterparts in other metropolitan Iowa counties.

Black Hawk County ranks fifth in population among Iowa counties. But the supervisors rank 18th in pay; the county attorney ranks 10th; the recorder ranks eighth; and the auditor, treasurer and sheriff each rank ninth in pay this year.

Board members also voted 4-1 to approve 3 percent raises in next year’s budget for nonbargaining employees, or those not covered under collective bargaining agreements. The raises mirror those going to unionized county workers under their contracts.

Supervisor Tom Little voted against the nonbargaining pay raises after his motion to exclude part-time employees — notably election workers — failed to win approval.

Finally, board members voted 4-1 to approve “equity” increases for seven nonbargaining employees deemed to be underpaid compared to union employees they supervise.

Little voted against those raises, which amount to about $20,000. He proposed instead spending $164,000 to give all nonbargaining employees another 3 percent raise above the 3 percent raise approved earlier in the meeting; no other supervisor supported the move.

Human Resources Director Deb Bunger had previously noted the equity issues arose because union workers were getting additional pay step increases for years of service along with the across-the-board pay raises through their contracts.

Nonbargaining workers did not get the step increases. Over time, it put the overall pay scale out of whack and opened the county to potential discrimination claims.

“With pay inequities, if somebody does bring a claim we want to make sure we’re on the right side of that claim,” Bunger said.

“When you have people in the same pay class, you want to make sure you don’t have somebody whose been here 15 years making less than somebody who just started,” she added. “It becomes a risk for us if they’re in a protected class.”

The wage rate discussions were part of the annual budget process expected to wrap up with a public hearing March 6.