Top ten local stories of 2017

Madelia shooting ranks as top story of the year

David Pettersen reacts after reading a statement during his sentencing hearing Tuesday, July 11, 2017, at the Watonwan County Courthouse in St. James, Minn. Pettersen, who shot and killed an intruder who was fleeing from his home, was sentenced to 90 days in jail. (Pat Christman/The Free Press via AP/File)

An interrupted trespassing attempt and a startled homeowner with a gun led to the death of a 19-year-old Madelia man in January 2017. The tragic circumstances, the criminal charges against the homeowner and the debate they fostered over the use of deadly force to protect one’s safety and property made it The Journal’s top local news story of 2017.

The top ten local news stories of the year are selected by a vote of all employees of The Journal, not just the members of the newsroom staff.

A death in Madelia

On the morning of Jan. 28, 2017, at about 7 a.m., three young men pulled up the driveway of David A. Pettersen’s house in Fieldon Township, rural Madelia. Kyle Thomas Nason, 18, of Sleepy Eye, Nicolas Thomas Embertson, 19, of Madelia, and 18-year-old Cornelius Ayers of Mankato were intending to case Pettersen’s house for a possible burglary attempt, Nason later told authorities. They found the doors locked. Embertson boosted Ayers up onto Pettersen’s second story deck, where he tried the sliding doors. Pettersen, in bed at the time, heard the noise and surprised the intruders.

Nason jumped from the high deck, breaking his ankle. He and his friends piled into their car, with Embertson driving. They pulled out, attempting to flee, when Pettersen came running out of the house with a .45 caliber handgun. As the car pulled away, Pettersen tried to shoot the driver’s side tire, he said, but one of his bullets struck Embertson. The car pulled away, but then veered off the driveway and stayed there several minutes, Pettersen said.

Pettersen returned to the house to call 911.

Watonwan County Sgt. Barry Gulden responded to the call, and found the car stopped by the road, with Embertson unconscious. Embertson and Nason were taken to the Madelia hospital, where Embertson was pronounced dead.

Watonwan County Attorney Stephen Lindee decided to charge Pettersen with second-degree manslaughter and intentional discharge of a firearm. He said Pettersen’s actions did not constitute self-defense, since he had already startled the intruders who were fleeing. Minnesota law only allows use of deadly force for the protection of one’s safety or the safety of another.

The case sparked a wide-spread discussion about a homeowner’s right to protect himself and his property in Madelia among friends of Pettersen and Embertson. Pettersen’s friends described him as a nice man and a good father. Embertson’s friends said he was a kind and caring person who didn’t deserve to die for a mistake he made.

Nason and Ayers pled guilty to burglary and conspiracy to commit burglary charges. Nason was sentenced to 45 days in jail, and Ayers was sentenced to 15 days for their parts in the incident.

In May, Pettersen pled guilty to the charge of discharging a firearm, in exchange for the dismissal of manslaughter charges. Pettersen was sentenced in July to 90 days in jail, with two years’ probation.

He told the court, “I take no satisfaction from (Embertson’s) death. And I will carry that responsibility with me for the rest of my life.”


The other stories in the Top Ten list are:

2. A potential environmental disaster involving nearly two gallons of mercury is avoided

3. The Catholic Diocese of New Ulm files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection as it seeks to settle lawsuits filed over clerical sex abuse of children in the diocese.

4. Long-time Journal publisher Bruce Fenske died at his home April 7, just 18 months after retiring.

5. The New Ulm City Council decided to end a 20-year partnership with the New Ulm Economic Development Corporation, and use the $50,000 NUEDC subsidy to help pay for hiring a new assistant city manager.

6. The fate of the New Ulm Middle School apartment development took a good turn as Community Housing Development Corp. received the tax credits it needed to make the project feasible, and closed on the purchase of the Middle School property.

7. New Ulm’s application to extend its municipal sales tax to fund several new projects for the city’s recreational facilities was approved by the Minnesota Legislature.

8 (three-way tie) The New Ulm City Council approved the purchase of land for a new National Guard Armory near the New Ulm Municipal Airport; the council approved an ordinance allowing people to drive alternative vehicles, such as golf carts, utility vehicles and 4-wheelers on city streets, and the Highway 15 road reconstruction and paving project took place throughout the summer, tying up Broadway and Highway 15 south of New Ulm.

2. Mercury Recovery

On Feb. 7, a local wastehauler notice mercury in spilled in a waste container he was picking up in the alley of the 100 block of Payne and Garden Street. He notified authorities, who called the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

A homeowner in the block had been cleaning out his garage and had placed the containers with the mercury in a dumpster, apparently not knowing what the substance was. About a gallon of the toxic liquid metal had spilled in the container, calling for a professional hazardous cleanup crew from West Central Environmental Consultants.

The mercury was cleaned up with little contamination.

“This could have been multiple times worse simply because of the location and volume,” Craig Schafer with the MPCA Emergency Management Unit said. “I’ve done this kind of work for 27 years; this is by far the largest volume of mercury I’ve ever dealt with.”

Schafer said the homeowner did not know the substance he threw out was mercury.

“It was stored in a container that was in another container. It was all full of dust, dirt and grime and he was just cleaning out the garage and it got tossed out with the rest of the stuff,” Schafer said. The mercury had likely been sitting in the garage for years before Frandsen acquired the property. The incident was a mistake, with no malicious intent and no one was charged or fined for the accident.

3. Diocese files


When the state’s legal window for filing complaints of underage child sex abuse closed in May 2016, the Diocese of New Ulm announced it was named in 98 lawsuits from victims of sex abuse in the past decades. Three more claims raised the total to 101.

On March 3, the Diocese announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, in order to “fairly compensate” all the claimants with the assets the diocese has available. Bishop John M. LeVoir said if the diocese tried to handle each case separately, the diocese’s resources would soon be exhausted.

“If we were to mediate, case by case, the assets would be exhausted after maybe five or six cases, and the rest of the claimants would get nothing,” LeVoir said. “So this is a way to assure that all of the claimants are considered, and whatever assets we have would be fairly distributed among those claimants.”

The Diocese filed a schedule of assets with the Bankruptcy court on March 17 showing about $10.8 million in assets.

4. Former Publisher passes

Bruce Fenske who had been publisher of The Journal for 35 years in a journalism career that spanned 50 years in New Ulm, died Friday, April 7, at his home. Fenske had started as a paper carrier for The Journal as a kid, then in high school was a part time writer and photographer for The Journal. During his college years he had been a stringer for The Journal in St. Paul, and upon graduation accepted a job with the paper writing ag stories and selling ads for the Agribusiness section. He moved into advertising sales and in 1980 was named publisher of The Journal.

Fenske was remembered as a strong supporter of New Ulm and an enthusiastic and generous worker on various boards and committees in town.

5. NUEDC decision

The New Ulm City Council decided in September, in relatively sudden decision, to end its support of the New Ulm Economic Development Commission. For many years the city had provided $50,000 in funding from the city budget, and $50,000 from the Public Utilities budget, to subsidize the NUEDC’s work in the area of economic development — establishing industrial parks and working to attract industry to New Ulm and support those in town. The city council, under the urging of Council President Charles Schmitz, decided it would use its $50,000 to help pay for filling the assistant city manager position that had been vacant for several years, and would largely take over the work of economic development being done by the NUEDC.

The NUEDC later in the month retained the support of the New Ulm Public Utilities Commission, which continued its $50,000 subsidy, and later the NUEDC gained another $50,000 subsidy from the city Economic Development Authority, to continue its operations for another year as the city seeks to hire its new assistant city manager and set up its economic development program.

6. State Street Apartments

For the past couple of years the fate of the former New Ulm Middle School has been clouded by doubt. The building, except for the auditorium wing, had been sold to Centrasota Real Estate Services, a development firm that planned to convert the building into apartments. However, financial problems kept Centrasota from following through. The developer, who was responsible for paying the building’s utilities, was often late, and finally, in April 2016, allowed the city to turn off the power, forcing the State Street Theater Co. which owns the auditorium, to halt its operations.

A new developer was found for the building, Community Housing Development Corporation. In October

CHDC announced it had received the government tax credits it needed to make the apartment project feasible, and it closed on the purchase of the building from Centrasota in November. The new owners will be moving forward with the plan to convert the old middle school campus into the State Street Apartments, with the State Street Theater Co. continuing to operate the auditorium as a theater facility.

7. RENU Approval

After New Ulm City voters in 2016 approved the extension of the city’s half-percent sales tax to support new projects for recreational facilities in New Ulm (RENU, the proposed extension went to the Minnesota Legislature for approval in its 2017 session. Despite a tumultuous debate over taxes and the budget between Republicans controlling the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, the RENU sales tax was approved, and the city is moving ahead with selling bonds to finance the projects.

8 (three way tie). Armory Site

The New Ulm City Council completed the purchase of 32.24 acres of land near the New Ulm Municipal Airport in February for $1,124,640. Thirty acres of the land will be used as the site for a new National Guard Amory that will be built in New Ulm, providing a new home for the Headquarter Unit of the 125th Artillery in town. The donation of the site was a requirement from the National Guard in order to keep the National Guard unit here.

New Ulm benefits from keeping the Field Shop and Armory in the city. Currently between 18 and 20 full-time Guard members are employed here. This number could be increased to 30 full-time employees. This does not count the part-time Guard members brought in for weekend training. Gramentz said that once the new Field Shop is built in New Ulm, the Mankato Field Shop will be relocated to New Ulm.

8. Golf Cart Ordinance

After discussing and dismissing the question a couple of years ago, the New Ulm City Council once again was presented with the request to allow people to drive alternative vehicles on designated city streets, such as golf carts, utility trucks, ATVs and so on. The council studied the issue and approved an ordinance that allows people to seek permits for the use of these vehicles. A major question was whether the city should require only licensed drivers to operate the vehicles. Once that issue was settled, the ordinance went into effect, and has been in operation with no reports of problems.

8. Highway 15 project

The Minnesota Department of Transportation undertook a major project to reconstruct and repave Highway 15 as it passes through New Ulm. The project involved Broadway from 7th North Street south to the Cottonwood River bridge and south of town on Highway 15 past Searles.

MnDOT managed to get the job done with a minimum of traffic stoppage in the city, working on one lane at a time on Broadway. The project did close off Highway 15 south of town for bridge reconstruction, but the project was completed on time in September.