Platte County Year in Review: Part I

The good came with the bad during the first part of 2016.

While Platte County treasurer Rob Willard committed a regrettable error, the Platte County community started the process of coming together for a family dealing with pediatric cancer. The headlines were bold and memorable with the area dealing with its fair share of crazy news.

There were homicides in Edgerton; a beloved Platte City daughter was slain while on vacation in Belize.

But on the opposite end of the spectrum, members of the South Platte Fire Protection District saved a dog from a sinkhole, and Platte County and Park Hill wrestlers turned in inspiring performances in the state tournament. Park Hill senior Chris Nilsen vaulted into the national record book.

Take a look back at the first six months of 2016 from the best news source in Platte County. Part II will run next week.

Swaney killed in Belize

Authorities in Belize discovered the body of Anne Swaney, 39, face down in a river near a small horse farm she was staying at while on vacation in Belize in early January. A 1994 graduate of Platte County High School, she continues to be remembered for her caring nature, vibrant personality and groundbreaking journalism work.

Anne Swaney

Anne Swaney

Hundreds showed up for a visitation service held Saturday, Jan. 23 at Rollins Funeral Home in Platte City.

A member of a prominent local family, Swaney served as student council president in her senior year at Platte County and earned the title of salutatorian for her graduating class. She was active throughout her student life and participated in French club, forensics, Writer’s Inc. and art club while playing volleyball and basketball.

In addition, Swaney sang in concert choir, served as editor of the yearbook and was a member of the National Honor Society. She also earned the title of Platte County Fair Queen in 1994.

Swaney went on to graduate from Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism in Chicago in 1998. She briefly worked for the ABC news affiliate in St. Joseph, Mo. before going on to work the past 16 years at WLS — an ABC affiliate in Chicago — becoming one of their first online product employees and most recently serving as executive producer of online operations at abc7chicago.com.

According to reports, Swaney went missing some time on Thursday, Jan. 14 when fellow travelers noticed she didn’t show up for a scheduled horseback trip. Her body was discovered the next day.

There were bruises on Swaney’s neck and lacerations to her head, and the cause of death was determined to be strangulation. To this date, no arrests have been made in the case.

Suburban splits up Park Hill, Park Hill South for 2 years

In its bi-annual realignment, the Suburban Conference of greater Kansas City split Park Hill and Park Hill South. Park Hill shifted up to the Gold Division, the largest of the league’s four tiers, for the 2016-17, while Park Hill South remained in the Red Division.

Despite the change, Park Hill and Park Hill South planned to keep nonconference matchups in all sports between the schools, although some sports, like basketball, baseball and softball, would only have one meeting a year instead of two.

R-3 announces innovative pilot program

Platte County High School administrators announced plans to challenge the inherent structure of the school day during the January board of education meeting, starting with a pilot program aimed at providing a more personalized learning experience.

Dr. Chad Sayre, principal at the high school, helped lay out the progressive idea, which started this fall. Platte County enrolled about 170 students into a “flexible personalized learning” plan that seeks to utilize time relative to strengths and weakness of each individual student. 

Administration wants to take a serious look at the format with the possibility of transitioning all classes to this type of flex scheduling if the system proves beneficial.

South’s Welty hits 1,000 points

Park Hill South senior Ryan Welty reached the 1,000-point mark for his career in a 75-69 win against Truman on Saturday, Jan. 23 at North Kansas City High School. He finished with 17 points and sat at 1,006 for his career following the win. 

A versatile forward, Welty became just the third player in program history to reach 1,000 points for his career, finishing with 1,215 — second-most in program history behind Ivo Baltic.

SPFPD saves trapped dog

A collaborative effort from emergency personnel helped save one lucky dog from a sinkhole in late January.

Lisa Van Valkenburgh let her 11½ year old German shepherd, Maverick, out of their home in the Forest Lake subdivision to use the bathroom late Thursday night. Partially blind and semi-deaf, he didn’t return as usual. 

The dog ended up sliding into a small sinkhole near the intersection of NW 76th Street and Nevada Avenue in a residential area south of Highway 152, east of Interstate 435 and north of 45 Highway. On Saturday, Van Valkenburgh located Maverick, trapped 5 feet underground.

Digging by hand so the earth would not collapse and suffocate the dog, members of the South Platte Fire Department worked for about two hours to free Maverick, who survived the incident. 

South student arrested for threat

One arrest was made in connection with a threat written on a bathroom wall at Park Hill South High School in early February, the start of a trend of similar incidents in the district late in the school year. The suspect was a student at the school.

According to reports, students first discovered the graffiti on Monday, Feb. 1 and reported it to administrators, starting the investigation.

A post on social media purporting to be the threatening message showed writing that said, “I hate (racial slur),” with the slur underlined. The writing continued below with a threat of gun violence on a specific date.

North Platte boys claim title

Quickly rebuilding under first-year head coach Tim Sutton, North Platte took advantage of Mid-Buchanan’s poor free throw shooting to score a 46-42 upset of the Dragons on Saturday, Jan. 30 at North Platte High School in the championship game of the North Platte Invitational. Not only did North Platte earns its first tournament title since winning its home tournament in 2007, the Panthers also knocked off the 2016 Class 2 state runner-up, the KCI Conference tournament champions and the league favorite again this year.

911 text service comes to metro

Citizens in nine Kansas City metro area counties, including Platte County, were given access to a text to 911 service in February.

The Mid-America Regional Council coordinates the Kansas City Regional 9-1-1 System, which handles almost two million emergency calls each year. Not supposed to be a top option in most situations, the text program will offer service for a number of scenarios where a person might not be in position to make a 911 call.

Counties in Missouri that are a part of the program are Ray, Platte, Clay, Jackson and Cass, while those in Kansas are Wyandotte, Leavenworth, Johnson, and Miami.

Park coach sets wins record

In the midst of his 10th season, Park University men’s basketball coach Jason Kline found a dramatic way to hit a program milestone. The Pirates’ 112-105 overtime win against William Woods on Saturday, Feb. 13 marked the 183rd of his tenure in Parkville, Mo., setting a program record for wins in a career at Park and continued the Pirates’ standout season.

Park has reached the NAIA National Tournament four times under Kline, who has won two coach of the year honors with the Pirates (2006-2007 and 2009-2010).

Fire burns rural Platte County

More than 75 firefighters from 13 different agencies battled a brush fire that consumed more than 1,500 acres in western Platte County on Thursday, Feb. 18.

The call came in around 10:30 a.m. when a crew with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, using a brush mower, reported a fire after their equipment seized up and sparked the fire. The fire quickly spread fanned by wind gusts of more than 40 miles per hour from the south.

Starting just north of Highway 92 near the Centennial Bridge across the Missouri River, the fire worked its way northeast and consumed numerous vacant buildings before also threatening Weston Bend State Park and all of Weston, Mo. The fire closed Highway 92 between Beverly, Mo. and 45 Spur approaching the state line for about eight hours, while crews worked to put out the blaze.

Tragedy in Edgerton

A four fatality fire developed into an homicide investigation with details that confounded a grieving community in northern Platte County.

Four victims were found outside a burned down house in late February at 4170 Buena Vista Rd. in rural Edgerton, Mo.  The fire was reported just before midnight on Friday, Feb. 19, and multiple agencies battled the blaze.

The house was completely destroyed with only one wall left intact, and it was later knocked down due to being unstable. When Platte County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived on the scene, they saw three bodies in the front yard, two female adults and one infant, with a dog also dead nearby, and sheriff Mark Owen said something “wasn’t quite right” from the beginning.

A male body was found by an outbuilding east of the home, the victim lying on his back with a red plastic gas container found nearby.

This served as the starting point of the investigation into the action of 24-year-old Grayden Denham, a North Platte graduate and occasional resident of the home with his grandparents, sister and nephew. He was apprehended two days after the fire, walking naked in a small Arizona town and later charged in connection with the crime.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Platte County senior Ethan Karsten kneels at the edge of the mat Saturday, Feb. 20 prior to the Class 3 Missouri State Wrestling Championships’ Class 3 145-pound title bout at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. He won his third state title just days after learning of his older brother’s death.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo
Platte County senior Ethan Karsten kneels at the edge of the mat Saturday, Feb. 20 prior to the Class 3 Missouri State Wrestling Championships’ Class 3 145-pound title bout at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. He won his third state title just days after learning of his older brother’s death.

Park Hill, Platte County wrestling big at state

Platte County ended up second for a second consecutive year in the Class 3 Missouri State Wrestling Championships despite third individual state championships for seniors Matthew Schmitt and Ethan Karsten, the second for senior Johnny Blankenship and first for sophomore Cody Phippen. The Pirates became the first team to win four individual state titles without also winning the team championship since Brookfield in 2009 (Class 1).

Schmitt finished his career with a 194-12 record, beating Grain Valley’s Mavrick Alexander 7-2 in the 132-pound championship. He became the third four-time finalist in program history, joining Zach Sherman and Tyler St. Louis, while finishing off an unbeaten 53-0 season — one of the best in Platte County’s illustrious history.

Karsten (51-1) joined Schmitt as a three-time champion, doubling Platte County’s previous total of two (Chase Verdoorn and St. Louis). He won the title just days after finding out about the death of 20-year-old Jourdan Karsten, his older brother and former teammate.

Blankenship returned to the finals for a third straight year and sandwiched a pair of titles around a 2015 runner-up showing.  Platte County’s three senior state champions earned a total of eight in their career, the second most for any class in Pirates history (2002, 10).

Park Hill won the program’s unprecedented fourth team state championship in the Class 4 Missouri State Wrestling Championships with seven medalists, three finalists and two state champions. The Trojans now have 10 titles total, second in state history to Helias’ 14.

Kelvin Eblen (106) and Weston DiBlasi (126), both sophomores, earned their second state medals and reached the finals for the first time, while senior Sean Hosford capped an impressive comeback story by winning his third state title. Canten Marriott, a 2015 state champion, came back to finish third after a semifinal loss.

Rhodes makes West Platte wrestling history

Justin Rhodes earned his third state medal but finally broke through to win his long-coveted state championship during the Class 1 Missouri State Wrestling Championships, defeating Holden’s Andrew White in the 152-pound final Saturday, Feb. 20 at Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo. He long before established himself as the best wrestler in West Platte history, but he still needed the state title.

Rhodes made the state finals three times in his career and also went without a medal as a sophomore.

Jack Swaney dies at 70

Platte City lost its biggest fan Tuesday, Feb. 23 when Jack Swaney — a veteran, a dentist and a community leader — died of health complications. He was 70 years old.

Swaney graduated from Platte County High School in 1963 and then the U.S. Military Academy at West Point before serving in Vietnam for nearly a year — a tour that resulted in injuries, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He came back to the area and received his DDS from UMKC and opened his dental practice here, serving this community for many years.

In 1999, Platte County made Swaney a member of the inaugural Pirate Hall of Fame class — meant to honor the best of the best among those who helped advance the school district. He died less than two months after daughter Anne Swaney’s tragic murder while on vacation in Belize. 

PCPD officers encounter armed suspect

The Platte City Police Department’s review of two officers’ encounter with an armed individual in late February showed appropriate actions were taken.

No one was harmed and no shots were fired during a foot chase and brief standoff last month that resulted in the arrest of Christopher Aguilar, a 19-year-old resident of Platte City. Body camera footage showed two officers encountering the known subject at Dollar General before a foot chase led to an embankment behind the strip mall.

Officers didn’t fire any shots when Aguilar produced the gun, loaded but later found to be incapable of firing. 

Costco comes with gift

In a joint announcement Friday, March 4, the City of Kansas City announced the intentions of Costco Wholesaler to build a new location at N. Platte Purchase Drive and NW 88th Street in Kansas City, Mo. — just off of Highway 152. The building will sit on the southeast corner of the 152-N. Platte Purchase intersection in Clay County with a target open date of early 2017.

MD Management also gifted 80 acres of land to the Platte County R-3 School District as part of the overall development plan. The site would be for a future middle school and high school campus in the southern portion of the district.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Motivational speaker Mike Smith, center, took a moment for a mass group selfie after he delivered the keynote speech during the opening ceremony of the Missouri Association of Student Councils annual convention held in March at Platte County High School.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo
Motivational speaker Mike Smith, center, took a moment for a mass group selfie after he delivered the keynote speech during the opening ceremony of the Missouri Association of Student Councils annual convention held in March at Platte County High School.

R-3 hosts state convention

The Platte County School District hosted the Missouri Association of Student Councils state convention early in March with more than 1,100 people representing 160 schools were in Platte City for the annual event  that temporarily morphed Platte County High School into a Willy Wonka-themed leadership center.

The opening ceremony provided a chance for Platte County students and faculty to show off the product of a year’s worth of work since being named the president school at last year’s convention. 

Platte County students Rylie Collins and Alec Rodgers served as emcees in a show that included two keynote speakers, a special presentation to custodian Kelli and a performance from the Platte County Drum Line in the hour-plus presentation. 

McCormick restarts tours

McCormick Distilling Company restarted bourbon production after a 25-year hiatus, and tours of the historic distillery resumed in early April after a break of 20 years. Tickets can be purchased for $10 apiece with a tour lasting about an hour.

Visitors will learn about founder Benjamin Holladay, the natural springs on site and the distillation process of true Missouri bourbon.

Platte City man tied to prison smuggling ring

A federal indictment handed down in April alleges a Platte City resident and Park Hill High School graduate participated in an elaborate smuggling ring while working as a prison guard.

According to court documents, Anthon Aiono, 28, helped bring contraband including drugs, alcohol and tobacco into Leavenworth Detention Center CCA in Leavenworth, Kan. The charges filed in the U.S. District Court of Kansas stem from a seven-month investigation that indicates inmates and Aiono were profiting from the scheme. 

The indictment indicates the investigation started in September of 2015 and ended up including three informants. Aiono was named in four counts and faces more than 40 years in prison for conspiracy and delivery of methamphetamines, synthetic cannabis and tobacco inside a prison. 

Potential fines are in excess of $1 million.

Woman dies in wrong-way crash

One woman died in a wrong-way accident on Interstate 29, an initial incident that led to a secondary crash in the opposite lanes leading to massive backups.

Joy George, 79, of Platte City was pronounced dead at the scene Thursday, April 14 after her vehicle entered the southbound lanes of I-29 traveling north and striking another vehicle. Following the initial impact, two tractor trailers also struck George’s vehicle, leading to a large pileup that stretched from the median all the way across both lanes of traffic.

The accident occurred just off of exit ramp 19, which awkwardly allows for two-way traffic for a large portion of the surface. Do not enter and wrong way signs can be clearly seen off of Vine Street, which has access to the ramp out of a residential neighborhood.

George was a longtime resident of Platte City and taught Sunday school at the First Baptist Church for more than 40 years. 

Parkville battles water issue

Despite the best efforts to discover the source of the water particle problem in Parkville, Missouri American Water still couldn’t come up with answers. 

Jody Carlson, the utility’s area executive director, gave the Parkville Board of Aldermen a report at the regular meeting Tuesday, May 3. Missouri American reported they had received minimal complaints up through February 2010 when residents in the Thousand Oaks subdivision started reporting issues with water quality. Since then, the utility has investigated the problem and performed flushes of the system and run several tests. 

The utility has been unable to pinpoint what is causing the excess buildup of calcium but insists the water is safe. 

Mayor nixes KCI changes

Sly James plans to push the pause button on all discussions for the future of KCI Airport. Citing low polling numbers from residents, Kansas City’s mayor made the announcement to shelve all talk of building a new terminal or renovating the existing ones during a news conference Tuesday, May 3 in Kansas City, Mo. Kansas City voters will not be asked to approve any measure related to the airport this year.

Instead, James suggested turning the city’s focus to reducing crime and improving schools.

Jaros’ fight inspires

During Platte County’s #PlayForLandon baseball game Thursday, April 28, Landon Jaros served as an inspirational honorary captain, and senior catcher Mitchell hit a towering home run in the third inning that broke a scoreless tie in a tense 2-1 victory for the Pirates. A joyous celebration took place afterward when Landon Jaros — a 4-year-old fresh off his most recent surgery while battling leukemia — arrived at the field with his father and assistant coach Todd Jaros.

Colton Horn, a senior, presented Landon with the Pirates’ plaque from their recent Northland Invitational championship, along with a wooden bat the entire team signed. Platte County’s Future Business Leaders of America added a gift of toys and games purchased for him.

Finally, Hilary Mathurin brought out a banner members of the high school signed along with inspirational messages for Landon, who found out about his diagnosis in April.

BRENT ROSENAUER/Citizen photo Members of the Platte County Sheriff’s Office, Central Platte Fire Department and Northland Regional Ambulance District along with citizens stand on the Highway 92 overpass above Interstate 29 on Saturday, May 14 in Platte City, waiting for the funeral procession of Kansas City (Kan.) Police Department detective and Weston, Mo. native Brad Lancaster.

BRENT ROSENAUER/Citizen photo
Members of the Platte County Sheriff’s Office, Central Platte Fire Department and Northland Regional Ambulance District along with citizens stand on the Highway 92 overpass above Interstate 29 on Saturday, May 14 in Platte City, waiting for the funeral procession of Kansas City (Kan.) Police Department detective and Weston, Mo. native Brad Lancaster.

Weston native killed in line of duty

A Kansas City (Kan.) Police Department detective killed in the line of duty in May hailed from Weston, Mo. and previously worked for the Platte County Sheriff’s Office. In the shocking aftermath of Brad Lancaster’s death, many in the area recalled his service in the military before returning home to work for a local law enforcement agency. He then took the job in KCK while relocating his family into the Piper School District.

Lancaster, 39, left behind a wife and two daughters.

Many in Platte County were connected to Lancaster, who graduated from West Platte High School in 1994 before joining the U.S. Air Force. He served two tours of duty overseas before returning home and eventually joining the Platte County Sheriff’s Office.

Thousands showed up to Lancaster’s memorial service, held inside a professional soccer stadium to accommodate the crowd, on Saturday, May 14. Many more lined up along the funeral procession route, which wound its way through Platte County to Weston, Mo. 

Projects start on 92

Platte City’s main roadway through town went under construction in May with work lasting almost 180 days.

Motorists who use Highway 92 started experiencing lane reductions and closures between the Platte County High School campus and the intersection with NW Prairie View and Running Horse roads. The work consisted of two separate projects — resurfacing and leveling 92 and an extension of Kentucky Avenue that will connect the roadway with Prairie View.

Together, the two projects came with a $1.75 million price tag and a $470,000 cost to Platte City.

Explosives stored in Parkville

The Parkville Police Department received a surprise while investigating a vandalism case at a self-storage facility. 

Police were called to a self-storage facility off Highway 45 in Parkville on Thursday, May 19, where several trailers and vehicles had been damaged. Upon investigation of a trailer owned by John Panchalk, 42, police found ammunition canisters, rocket fins, blasting caps, C-4 explosive and military grenade simulators.

The former Army explosive ordinance disposal technician seemed evasive when police asked him about the contents of the trailer. When they executed a search warrant at Panchalk’s home in Overland Park, Kan., authorities found 38 pounds of C-4 explosive, detonation cord, blasting caps, grenade simulators, incendiary devices and two M-67 fragmentation grenades.

Panchalk was charged in federal and Platte County courts in connection to the incident.

Ferrelview chief causes stir

Citizens of Ferrelview, Mo., a small village of about 450 in Platte County, started to organize in opposition to police chief Daniel Clayton, accused of excessive force and harassment during his service. 

A contentious Ferrelview Board of Trustees meeting in May resulted in citizens removed from city hall after Platte County Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene at Clayton’s request. The Tuesday, May 10 meeting grew out of hand and ended up canceled. A spokesperson with the sheriff’s office confirmed that two different groups of deputies responded to the scene.

The board continues to stand behind Clayton, who has said citizens are mad over him trying to do his job. Other citizens also came out in support of the embattled chief, who oversaw a drastic rise in tickets filed in Ferrelview Municipal Court during the early part of his tenure.

Park Hill’s Nilsen vaults into high school history

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Park Hill senior Chris Nilsen pole vaulting last spring.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo
Park Hill senior Chris Nilsen pole vaulting last spring.

Park Hill senior Chris Nilsen endured a lengthy — and somewhat unexpected — verification process for his record-setting pole vault during the Class 5 Sectional 4 meet in late May.

In the end, the tape showed Nilsen had vaulted 18 feet, 4¾ inches — the highest mark ever cleared by a high school athlete in United States history, topping the national record of 18-3½ by Shawn Barber of Kingwood, Texas in 2012. Family, friends and spectators all hung on the measurement process before celebrating all over again after the official record declaration.

Nilsen went on to win his second straight state title the following week to cap a record career.

Fatality reported with DWI

According to court documents, officers made contact with Nicholas N. Sanders, 24, at about 1:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 28 at the scene of a fatal two-vehicle crash on Interstate 29. He admitted having three beers and three shots of whiskey at a downtown Kansas City bar earlier in the evening.

A preliminary breath test revealed Sanders’ blood-alcohol level to be .313 percent — nearly four times the legal limit. He was arrested on suspicion of DWI, and on Tuesday, May 31, the Platte County Prosecutor’s Office filed a charge of vehicular manslaughter against Sanders.

Michael R. Sear, 58, of Kansas City, Kan., the driver of the other vehicle, was pronounced dead at a local hospital about an hour after the crash.

Treasurer mistakenly wires $48k

Five elected officials met Wednesday, June 1 at the Platte County Administration Building in Platte City to discuss the apparent loss of $48,220 of county funds in an apparent email scam which ended with a fraudulent transaction. Platte County treasurer Rob Willard admitted to violating internal procedures in wiring money six days earlier to a Wells Fargo Bank account in Florida.

During the meeting, Willard detailed how a spoof email account sent messages purportedly from Platte County presiding commissioner Ron Schieber asking to send the $48,220 to pay a “tax consultant.”

On Monday, June 6, the county learned that Wells Fargo had returned more than $28,000 to Platte County’s UMB Bank general fund account. However, the process started that day to recover all of the funds, a process that lasted almost six months.

Woman dies in sheriff’s office custody

Emma Lewis died for unknown reasons while in the custody of the Platte County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday, June 9.

According to a press release, authorities found a 50-year-old Hispanic female, later identified as Lewis, in medical distress in the back of a transport van Thursday, June 9. She died shortly after arriving at the sheriff’s office following an approximate 5-minute ride following her arrest.
Deputies were at the residence to serve an order of protection against Lewis.

Nowotny resigns from parks and rec

In early June, Platte County director of parks and recreation Brian Nowotny tendered his resignation after 15 years as head of the department. He accepted a position as deputy director of park operations for Jackson County. 

When it was approved in 2000, Platte County’s parks and rec sales tax had a built-in sunset of 10 years. Voters re-approved the tax in 2009, extending it to 2020, leading to an updated parks master plan which Nowotny oversaw. 

Dearborn bank robbed

An unknown male entered Platte Valley Bank’s branch in Dearborn at about 8:50 a.m. on Monday, June 20 and passed a note to tellers. He left with an undisclosed amount of cash, but authorities did not have a vehicle description nor direction of travel.

No weapon was believed to be used in commission of the crime.

Deputies with the sheriff’s office along with investigators from the FBI responded to the scene just after 9 a.m., closing off the building while speaking with witnesses. The suspect was eventually identified as Jesse Bud Leaverton, 58, who had a history of bank robberies and apparently robbed Platte Valley Bank during a new crime spree that mostly included banks in Oklahoma.

Leaverton was later apprehended in southern Missouri.

Denham charged in Edgerton murders

A Platte County grand jury handed down a 12-count indictment against Grayden L. Denham in late June, officially implicating the 24-year-old in the murder of four family members that occurred in February in Edgerton, Mo.

The charges against Denham include four counts of first degree murder and four counts of armed criminal action in the homicides of his sister Heather Ager, 32, his three-month-old nephew Mason Schiavoni, his grandmother, Shirley Denham, 81, and his grandfather, Russell Denham, 82. Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd and Platte County sheriff Mark Owen announced the development in the case during a short news conference Monday, June 27.

Denham remains in custody at the Platte County Detention Center in lieu of a $4 million cash-only bond with his mother offering support for her son after a court appearance earlier in June.