Helping others

Volunteer Pat Griffin (left) and city employee Mike Hartwell help bring shares out to cars at the Fergus Falls food shelf distribution. This was one of the many ways people helped others during the pandemic as COVID took the top spot in the Daily Journal’s top stories of 2020.

For most, 2020 has not been a strong year for those in the community. Looking for the net positive has been difficult for many. From things being canceled, political unrest, racial issues in the state and across the nation, and restrictions, as a community we will remember 2020 as a year we persevered and made the best of the hand that was dealt. The Daily Journal looks back at the stories that captivated our readers in 2020.


It is hard not to look at 2020 as a year of what if? The first two months of the year were similar to the prior year with the biggest upcoming event the 2020 general election. But in March, everything would change as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

While not an individual news story, stories about or related to the coronavirus were littered through the Daily Journal’s most-viewed online.

The impact changed the way individuals and businesses operate. With restrictions posed by Gov. Tim Walz during the year, community members and businesses saw the social, emotional, financial and physical effects of the virus as words like “flatten the curve,” “social distancing,” “hand sanitizer” and “face masks” became everyday vocabulary.

Despite a stimulus and several programs looking to aid small businesses, the economy has struggled to stay afloat. Restaurants, bars, gyms and other facilities have seen substantial closures due to restrictions. While some businesses pivoted with a change in delivery of goods or by changing their goods in general, many are hoping for a swift end to restrictions and the pandemic.

The pandemic also directly impacted the children of the community as schools closed and canceled extracurriculars during the spring and have yet to return to a fully in-person learning model. High School seniors had to take a backseat to the virus as they saw large graduation ceremonies canceled in favor of virtual or limited capacity events. Teachers and staff continue to provide the best possible educational techniques during the pandemic.

This put unneeded stress on families as options for day care and after school care were limited. Local facilities, like the YMCA, provided help for some, while others had to look for family and friends to manage a work schedule.

While the year hasn’t been easy for anyone due to the virus, there were also stories of hope as community members and businesses sprung into action to help. Several citizens in the area began making cloth masks, businesses created protective equipment including face shields and plexiglass barriers, volunteers helped keep essential services like food shelves going, support for local businesses and artists increased, and donations helped for-profit and nonprofit businesses alike.

At the end of the year, there seems to be hope on the horizon as a few vaccines have been created to stop the virus. Currently, medical staff and those in nursing homes are receiving the vaccine. Some reports believe that the general population will be able to start getting vaccinated by spring or summer of 2021.

2. Elections

In 2020, the general election saw several seats up for grabs in both county, city and town elections.

The Fergus Falls Daily Journal, KBRF and PEG Access hosted a series of three debates that featured Fergus Falls mayor and city council, Otter Tail County commissioner, state representative and Senate positions up for grabs in the 2020 election.

In Otter Tail County, District 5 Commissioner Lee Rogness held onto his seat, while District 1 and 3 saw new faces (Dan Bucholz, Kurt Mortenson) take seats of retiring commissioners.

In Fergus Falls, Mayor Ben Schierer was reelected to another term, while City Council members Brent Thompson, Tom Rufer, Jim Fish and Anthony Hicks all retained their seats.

Also, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen retained his seat in the Minnesota Senate, while Jordan Rasmusson won the state representative seat. District 8 also saw a change in representative at a federal level as Michelle Fischbach defeated Collin Peterson.

3. Pursuit of Freitag ends in crash, fatalities

The pursuit of an individual with outstanding warrants ended with a collision that caused two fatalities Oct. 2.

Otter Tail County deputies were in pursuit of Cody James Freitag, 30, on outstanding warrants. The warrants included felony drug crimes, felony theft, felony fleeing, domestic assault and obstructing the legal process.

Upon contact, Freitag fled in a vehicle, a 2007 Chrysler Town and Country minivan, with the deputies pursuing on the north edge of the city of Fergus Falls. One deputy’s vehicle became disabled during the pursuit, while the second deputy continued to pursue the suspect back toward downtown. While eastbound on Cavour Avenue, the minivan ran a stop sign and collided with a northbound car at the intersection of Cavour and Union avenues. The impact of the crash sent the suspect’s vehicle into a light pole and the passenger vehicle, a 2007 Toyota Camry, into an adjacent parking lot.

The two occupants of the car, identified as Steven Christianson, 72, and Diane Christianson, 71, were killed in the collision.

Freitag is charged with two counts of causing a homicide while fleeing a peace officer and two counts of criminal vehicular homicide. Bail was set at $1 million without conditions and $750,000 with conditions.

4. Tornadoes

Tornadoes swept through the community of Dalton on July 8 causing damage to a number of homes in the area and killing one.

The tornado was first reported at 5:08 p.m., 6 miles south of Dalton. A second tornado was spotted at 5:11 p.m., with the tornados leaving a 6- to 9-mile path of damage and debris. Seth Nelson, 30, of Battle Lake, was killed in the tornado while working at a machine shop 3 miles southeast of Dalton.

“I would like to thank all those that quickly responded to assist,” Otter Tail County Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons said. “Multiple law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services and many other volunteers responded to the area and assisted with the search and rescue, ensuring those injured were quickly evacuated and transported.”

5. Comments see backlash

After the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the state of Minnesota saw a lot of national attention due to the response, protests, riots and aftermath of the situation.

Locally, an Underwood business owner’s racist comments about the actions in Minneapolis caused public backlash. The owner’s comments, Bruce Huseth, were posted then shared on social media where they were reported. Huseth later apologized for the comments saying he “made a poor decision.”

“The public callout culture essentially is a way for people to performatively speak out against racism while there is still the vast majority of the underlying work to be done,” Abby Kocher, chair of the Fergus Falls Human Rights Commission said in an interview in June. “I think our community is really beautiful in a lot of ways, I also think we have a long way to go in a lot of ways.”

6. Fire on West Alcott

The Fergus Falls Fire Department, Fergus Falls Police Department and Ringdahl Ambulance responded to a fire on the 400 block of West Alcott Avenue in Fergus Falls at 5:26 p.m. May 21.

According to Fergus Falls Fire Chief Ryan Muchow, two cars and a garage were lost in the fire, while a neighboring garage’s siding was melted by the flames. No one was injured.

7. Ashby man charged with murder

Victor Manuel Marales, an Ashby man, was charged with two counts of murder and a charge of arson in the death of Encarncion Gutierrez Quixan, 47.

The fire took place on Dec. 2 with Ashby firefighters discovering a woman in an upstairs apartment building. According to firefighters Quixan appeared to have been assaulted. The main fire damage was confined to one apartment; with three to five people in the building’s other three apartments displaced but not injured.

Marales was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree arson. The maximum penalty for second-degree murder is 40 years in prison. The arson charge carries a 20-year prison sentence and/or a $20,000 fine.

8. Harlan indicted on hit-and-run death of FF grad

After being arrested in 2019 for the 2016 death of Fergus Falls graduate David Grotberg, 19, Tammy Renee Blankenship Harlan was charged with second-degree manslaughter and leaving the scene of a crash in June.

Grotberg was struck while riding his bicycle the night of Oct. 6, 2016, on Franklin Avenue near 32nd Street. His girlfriend was riding alongside him but she was not injured.

According to an arrest affidavit, witnesses who saw the SUV strike Grotberg at about 10 p.m. reported the vehicle going “very fast and did not stop after striking Grotberg.”

Waco police received an anonymous letter in September 2018 that claimed Harlan was speeding and drinking when she hit Grotberg. An informant followed the SUV the next day to Marlin, where the vehicle remained until it was repaired, according to police reports.

A search warrant for Harlan’s phone revealed she filed an insurance claim on the vehicle on Oct. 29, 2016. She said the damage was done after she hit a stop sign on University Parks Drive the previous day.

Based on the photos of Harlan’s car, police determined the damage was more consistent with hitting a person than a stop sign. When detectives interviewed Harlan in October 2018, she said she hit a sign after attending a gathering in Woodway, where she had been drinking wine.

Harlan told police she thought she hit a stop sign and later said she thought she may have hit a homeless person, according to arrest records.

9. Food truck fun at Walmart

With the pandemic wiping out several area festivals and closing restaurants, several food trucks decided to host a three-day event in the Fergus Falls Walmart parking lot June 26-28.

“With all the different events getting canceled this year, the county fair and (Summerfest), so we were trying to give them an outlet, just to help support local, help each other out when we’re available,” Walmart human resource representative Alex Manning said. “We do have access to a large group of people coming through our store everyday, so while we can’t buy all the food we can provide access to our audience.”

Twelve food trucks participated in the event including Fish Factor 108, Big J’s Smokehouse, Ole & Lena’s Pizzeria, Don Pablo’s, Townsend Concessions, Hansen Concessions and Mini Donuts by Denise.

10. Remembering educator and civil rights activist Carol Leafblad

Carol Leafblad, teacher and civil rights activist, passed away June 22. Leafblad left a strong mark on the community of Fergus Falls and Lowndes County, Alabama.

Leafblad started two funds, which were consolidated into the Until Freedom organization. Through fundraising, they raised money to buy materials for playground equipment, supplies for a volleyball court and picnic tables at Mosses Community Park, purchased shelving and mailed donated books to the first public library in Lowndes County and funded materials and trips for summer school children and scholarships.

In 1988, the National Education Association (NEA) awarded Leafblad with the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Award, “Presented for leadership and perseverance in applying the nonviolent philosophy and techniques of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., toward the achievement of human relations and civil rights goals.”

“She was my hero, she was the reason that you look at teachers and think they can change lives. I look at her as a teacher that truly changed my life,” Linda Bjork, former student and colleague, said. “She had no idea, at that time, the impact she had on me.”

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