Bonnie Vculek | Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. — The year 2017 was an eventful one for Enid and Northwest Oklahoma.
It was full of good news and bad news, triumph and tragedy.
Of all the stories that made headlines throughout of the year, Enid News & Eagle staff members voted on the top 10.
The top two local news stories for 2017 shook the Enid community to its core.
In one event, a former mayor and bank vice president was brought up on fraud charges accusing him of using other people’s names to take out loans. In the other, the Garfield County sheriff and several jail employees were charged in the death of a man at Garfield County Detention Facility in 2016.
• Updated: Massive explosion at oil tank battery west of Waukomis kills 1 (Jan. 18, 2017)
We also look back at leadership changes at the city, the death of a teacher in a head-on collision and the subsequent murder charge, a new city attorney, sentencing on a bogus cancer claim, developments on the downtown hotel, Vance Air Force Base keeping some of its planes on the ground, a tragedy at Champlin Municipal Swimming Pool and the disturbing discovery of a baby’s body found in a trash dumpster.
1. Currier faces fraud charges
Former Enid mayor and bank vice president Ersnt “Ernie” Leroy Currier was arraigned in November on 33 felony charges related to what authorities said was $ 6.2 million worth of fraudulently obtained loans.
Currier, 64, was charged Nov. 14 with 33 total counts: one count of misapplication of funds, one count of unlawful proceeds, seven counts of false personation, 12 counts of second-degree forgery and 12 counts of obtaining money by false pretenses. He faces up to 299 years in prison, fines of up to $ 160,000 and civil penalties of up to three times the value of the property involved in the transaction on all the charges.
On Sept. 5, a man made a report with Enid Police Department regarding the theft of his identity. He said on Aug. 31 he’d received a phone call from a Security National Bank representative who inquired about his farm equipment loan. The man said he’d never received such a loan, so he contacted Currier, senior vice president of commercial lending at Security National Bank in Enid.
According to an affidavit filed in the case, when the man called Currier about the loans Currier told him he had taken the loans out in his name and that Currier “fully expected to be prosecuted.” Currier also told the man there were other names he used to create fraudulent loans. The man recorded the conversation and gave police a copy.
Currier resigned from SNB on Sept. 5. Two days later, on Sept. 7, law enforcement officials confirmed an investigation into Currier’s activities.
Detectives uncovered was a loan-fraud scheme that began more than 17 years ago. Police say Currier opened a total of 61 fraudulent loans between the years 2000 and 2017.
He stole and used the personal identities of at least nine people and created at least eight other false identities, according to the affidavit. Bank records indicated Currier disbursed the loans by using wire transfers to a variety of business and personal accounts held at other financial institutions.
Currier had established the other accounts by using sham companies and counterfeit information, according to the affidavit. Once the proceeds were transferred, Currier would typically use a portion of the funds to make loan payments and another portion for his personal use.
2. Charges filed in jail death
Garfield County Sheriff Jerry Lee Niles Jr. and five others were charged in July with a single count each of second-degree manslaughter in the July 2016 death of inmate Anthony Huff at Garfield County Detention Facility.
Also charged were then-jail administrator Jennifer Shay Niles, jailers John Robert Markus and Shawn Caleb Galusha and nurses Vanisa Jo Gay and Lela June Goatley.
The indictment against Gay later was dismissed during an initial appearance in court.
Billy Hefton | Enid News & Eagle
Then, in December, the special prosecutor appointed in the case, District 26 District Attorney Christopher Boring, announced that the indictments handed down by a grand jury have been dismissed, but he intends to refile criminal charges. As of the end of December, the charges had not been refiled.
Boring was appointed to investigate after Garfield County District Attorney Mike Fields recused from the case. District Judge Paul Woodward also recused, and District Judge Floyd Douglas Haught was appointed to hear the case.
Boring, whose district includes Alfalfa, Dewey, Major, Woods and Woodward counties, said he could not comment when asked if different or additional charges would be filed in the case. Boring said since the indictments were dismissed, the defendants would have to restart the entire process with an initial appearance when the new charges are filed.
Huff was pronounced dead at the jail on June 8, 2016, after he was found unresponsive in a restraint chair, according to a release from Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter. Court documents say he was placed in the chair for an extended period of time without proper amounts of food, water or medical treatment for his illnesses.
3. City commission undergoes changes
Enid City Commission underwent some upheaval of its own in 2017, with two incumbents losing their re-election bids in February and another commissioner resigning.
Ward 6 incumbent Dr. David Vanhooser was unseated by George Pankonin. Pankonin won 77 percent of the vote, outpolling Vanhooser 482-144.
In the Ward 4 race, Jonathan Waddell ousted incumbent Rodney Timm by a much narrower margin, 83-64.
Both Vanhooser and Timm then resigned from their seats so Pankonin and Waddell could take over immediately, rather than wait until commissioners normally are sworn in to office.
Billy Hefton | Enid News & Eagle
Ward 2 Commissioner Aaron Brownlee resigned in April, citing a move away from Enid.
“I’m relocating to Edmond for a new company I purchased,” Brownlee said in his resignation letter. “I have been commuting for a couple of months but have had a hard time keeping up with the schedule lately.”
In a News & Eagle interview, Browlnee described his decision to resign as “bittersweet.”
Brownlee said he bought a franchise of Transworld Business Advisors, which does business brokering, franchise consulting and developing. Working as an intermediary, he helps a company sell or buy businesses. His territory includes Enid, Guthrie, Edmond and Stillwater.
In May, Enid native Derwin L. Norwood Jr. was appointed to the vacant seat. He owns Derwin Construction, and is an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ.
4. Fatal accident leads to murder charge
Popular Chisholm Public Schools math teacher John C. Matousek was killed in February in a head-on collision, and the man authorities said caused the accident was charged with murder.
Beki Bajo Jr., who was involved in a pursuit with Waukomis Police Department officers at the time, was injured in the accident.
Bajo was charged with first-degree murder while in the commission of aggravated eluding a police officer. It is punishable by life, life without parole or death. That charge was amended April 24 to murder in the first degree-felony murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
He faces life in prison or life without parole on the murder charge. Prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty. Bajo also faces up to 10 years in prison or up to a year in county jail on the assault charge.
A witness said Bajo nearly hit his vehicle while he was traveling from Enid south on U.S. 81. Bajo then drove his vehicle south in the northbound lanes of U.S. 81, narrowly missing Waukomis PD vehicles and eventually crashing into the car Matousek was driving, witnesses said.
5. Lahman back as city attorney
Enid city commissioners voted in October to name Carol Lahman as city attorney, her second stint in the office.
She had been named interim city attorney in July after commissioners voted not to renew Andrea Chism’s contract.
Ironically, Chism had replaced Lahman as city attorney in 2009.
Lahman receives an annual compensation of $ 125,000. Other benefits include retirement and pension, the city paying the annual premium of a $ 100,000 term life insurance policy, vacation leave at the rate of 20 eight-hour days per year, workers’ compensation coverage, reimbursement of travel outside of the city limits on city business and the city paying professional dues for her membership in the Oklahoma Association of Municipal Attorneys, Oklahoma Bar Association and the Garfield County Bar Association.
Lahman had served as city attorney from 1995 to 2009. She had been hired by the city in 1988, left briefly and returned in 1991 as assistant city attorney.
Chism was hired in December 2008 as assistant city attorney, and became city attorney in May 2009.
6. A mother sentenced
In October, Jessica Lynn Good, 33, also known as Jessica Lynn Liebsch-Good, was sentenced to three years in Oklahoma Department of Corrections custody and 17 years probation after being accused of lying about her daughter’s treatment for cancer.
Good had entered a blind plea in August to charges of child abuse, six counts of obtaining money or property by false pretense for charitable or benevolent purposes, two counts of use of a computer for purpose of executing a scheme to obtain money or property by false pretense, food stamp fraud, fraudulently obtaining Medicaid assistance and fraud in obtaining assistance.
She also was ordered to repay $ 69,565.48 in restitution.
Cass Rains | Enid News & Eagle
When suspicions of people who helped her raise funds to help pay for treatments for her daughter’s terminal cancer were shared with police, Good was charged in August 2016. Investigators found thousands of dollars had been raised for the benefit of Good’s daughter, who did not have cancer.
District Judge Paul Woodward told Good at her sentencing that telling her child, and the girl’s siblings, that she was going to die from cancer was “extremely cruel abuse.”
At her sentencing hearing, Good read from a three-page statement she prepared prior to court, often crying while reading the statement.
“I used my child to take advantage of the charity and trust of others to benefit myself. I knew it was wrong at the time, I knew that that (sic) I was harming my family and the people who trusted in me, but at the same time, I did not consider the harm I was causing. I thought only about myself.”
Good told the court the money she took went for everyday expenses, such as bills and activities for her kids, and she even spent some of the money on tickets to Oklahoma State University sporting events.
“The reason I did what I did comes down to greed, disregard for others, seeking sympathy and acceptance, and a life out of control,” she said. “I have no excuse for the way I acted. I look back and don’t know why I did what I did.”
7. Hotel plans move forward
The long-awaited, much anticipated downtown hotel project took a big step forward in late December with news that the lending deal closed with the developer and city of Enid.
City Manager Jerald Gilbert said he expects construction to begin early this year with dirt work.
ENIDBWP LLC — which is Aston Management and Dr. Atul Patel — has 45 days to start construction after the closing, per the master development agreement agreed upon on Feb. 23, 2017. The plan is to build Best Western GLō hotel downtown at the corner of Maine and Independence.
Billy Hefton | Enid News & Eagle
Part of the deal is the city of Enid agreeing to a 40 percent room rate guarantee for five years, calculated on an annual basis for 96 rooms.
The city of Enid has pursued a downtown hotel since 2011. Original developer LodgeWell LLC was unsuccessful in attaining financing for the project.
When the contract with LodgeWell expired, Peachtree Hotel Group II LLC was selected. Around December 2015, when the price of oil dropped, the developer started getting nervous about the Enid market, said Brent Kisling, Enid Regional Development Alliance director.
The city of Enid began working with Aston Management in June 2016. Patel previously said he has built a couple of hotels in Enid and others in Chickasha and in Oklahoma City.
8. T-6 aircraft left on the ground
Vance Air Force Base placed its more than 100 T-6 Texan II aircraft on an operational pause for more than two weeks as base officials tried to determined what caused four separate incidents in which aircrew members reported symptoms similar to hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation.
The pause started Nov. 15 and was lifted Dec. 5.
The investigation concentrated on the aircraft’s oxygen system, drawing in resources from Air Education and Training Command, airframe and component manufacturers and other Air Force commands.
In the end, 71st Flying Training Wing officials said the cause of the hypoxia-like symptoms experienced was not identified, but several possible causes were eliminated.
Billy Hefton | Enid News & Eagle
“No specific root cause for the physiological events was identified during two weeks of investigation by aviation, medical, functional and industry experts,” a wing press release stated. “However, specific concerns were eliminated as possible causes including maintenance and aircrew flight equipment procedures.”
According to base officials, four instructor pilots and one student pilot reported physiological incidents while flying between Nov. 1-15.
Lt. Col. Eric Schmidt, Vance chief of safety, said the aircrew experienced “hypoxia-like symptoms in the airframe that caused the concern that what they felt was beyond the realm of normal operations.”
Hypoxia is a condition in which the body is not receiving sufficient oxygen.
Schmidt said none of the aircrew lost consciousness, and in each case they were able to switch over to the aircraft’s backup oxygen system, which operated as designed, and were able to safely land the aircraft.
9. Tragedy at the pool
Champlin Municipal Swimming Pool was closed for a time in June after a near-fatal drowning.
Sebastian Arana, 14, was found unresponsive in the water on June 1.
Arana spent three weeks in intensive care at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, Kan., followed by three months at Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital in Bethany. He is recovering at home, but is still in need of extensive care.
An Enid Police Department investigation into what occurred involving Arana has been closed, and the incident was ruled accidental.
James Neal | Enid News & Eagle
The pool was closed after the incident until June 9. City officials reviewed pool requirements and made some changes to policy.
According to the new rules, children ages 6 and under must be accompanied by an adult in the pool. Gilbert said children ages 7 to 12 must be accompanied to the pool by an adult. Those over 12 can be at the pool by themselves; however, anyone using the deep end of the pool will be required to complete a swim test. Those who pass the swim test will be given armbands showing they are allowed to access the deep end of the pool.
Family and friends organized a fundraiser in November to help raise money for Arana’s continued care.
10. Baby’s body found
Kathryn Juanita Green was charged in July with second-degree murder, unauthorized disposal of a corpse, child neglect, possession of controlled dangerous substance (methamphetamine) and obstructing an officer after her baby boy was found dead in a dumpster in April.
Billy Hefton | Enid News & Eagle
The boy’s body was found in a construction dumpster the morning of April 9 at 1616 S. 2nd. An Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office report lists the manner of death for the boy as homicide and the cause as methamphetamine toxicity. The report did not indicate whether or not the child was stillborn.
Green faced up to 10 years to life in prison on the murder charge, up to five years in prison or up to a year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $ 5,000 on the corpse disposal charge, up to life in prison or up to a year in county jail and/or a fine of $ 500 to $ 5,000 on the child neglect charge, up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $ 5,000 on the meth charge and up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $ 500 on the obstruction charge.
Green was committed to Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health for care and treatment after being ruled incompetent to stand trial on charges of felony child neglect and possession of methamphetamine, online court records show.
There were several others big stories that didn’t make this list, including several changes in city leadership, a vehicle collision that resulted in the death of a popular Chisholm Public Schools teacher and a murder charge being filed, a tank battery explosion in Waukomis that killed one man, the continued growth of wind farms in the area and the efforts at the state Capitol to cut tax incentives for the industry, Integris Bass Baptist Health Center and St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center naming new administrators, Koch Fertilizer completing its $ 1.3 billion expansion, robberies of Security National Bank and Check Into Cash and millions of dollars in donations being made for scholarships, 4RKids and other projects.