Year in Review: 2017 in West Michigan

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As 2017 draws to a close, we’re looking back at the stories that shaped the year in West Michigan.

COMMUNITY

FIGHTS SHUT DOWN GRAND HAVEN STATE PARK

On July 3, more than 30 officers were called in to clear Grand Haven State Park after reports that as many as 300 people were playing loud music, drinking alcohol (which is prohibited) and fighting on the beach. Security was tightened for the Fourth of July and there were no problems. Tweets showed the revelers likely picked Grand Haven because of a security crackdown in South Haven, which had a similar problem the previous year.

grand haven state park
Photo: Michigan State Police on the beach at Grand Haven State Park after reports of a large number of people fighting. The park was shut down. (July 3, 2017)

THE CORNER BAR BURNS

Rockford’s iconic Corner Bar caught fire in the early morning of Aug. 14. Soon, it was a massive blaze, burning for hours as an open gas line caused explosions and fueled the flames. By the time crews knocked down the fire, there was almost nothing left. No one was injured and the owners hope to reopen the rebuilt Corner Bar sometime in the summer of 2018.

>>App users: Photos of the fire

A SERIES OF TROUBLES FOR GRAND RAPIDS POLICE

This year brought public outcry against the Grand Rapids Police Department as there were a series of high-profile situations involving the department.

In March, officers ordered five unarmed black children to the ground at gunpoint after they got a report that a teen walking with a group had a gun. GRPD and its officers’ unions defended the officers’ actions, while urban leaders condemned them.

Grand Rapids, teens stopped
Photo: This still taken from Facebook video shows Grand Rapids police hold teen boys at gunpoint. (March 24, 2017)

A traffic stop study released in April found that black drivers were twice as likely as others to be pulled over in the Grand Rapids even though they were not more likely to be carrying contraband. For many in the community, the study was evidence of something they said had long been a problem. GRPD police unions, however, said an independent review found flaws in the way the study was conducted.

The fallout from a wrong-way car crash involving a former Kent County assistant prosecutor continued as Grand Rapids was embroiled in a legal battle over the firing of an officer and recordings from a police phone line that was marked as unrecorded. In September, the recordings from that line were released. In them, three GRPD officers could be heard discussing how to avoid giving the prosecutor a breathalyzer test and how to downplay in reports that he had been drinking.

Photo: The scene of a crash involving a Kent County assistant prosecutor, provided by the victim. (Nov. 19, 2016)

In early December, an 11-year-old black girl named Honestie Hodges was held at gunpoint and handcuffed while police searched for a 40-year-old white woman in connection to an attempted murder. In the end, an internal investigation found the officers involved did not violate department policy and GRPD said they would not be disciplined. However, GRPD also outlined a series of steps aimed at preventing a similar incident, including the creation of an “Honestie policy” for officers’ interactions with children.

GRPD, bodycam, Honestie Hodges
Photo: GRPD bodycam video shows 11-year-old Honestie Hodges being ordered to walk backwards and then handcuffed by officers. (Dec. 6, 2017)

CRIME

THE MURDER OF THERESA LOCKHART

The Schoolcraft teacher hadn’t been seen since May 18, but it wasn’t until two days later that she was reported missing — by her employer, not her husband.

Christopher Lockhart was considered the main person of interest in his wife’s disappearance almost immediately, though he told 24 Hour News 8 in June that he had nothing to do with it. Police couldn’t find the evidence to charge him with anything, even though they spent 29 hours at his home in June conducting an extensive search.

>>Inside woodtv.com: The search for Theresa Lockhart

Then on Oct. 24, officers discovered Lockhart dead of a suicide in his home. They also found a suicide note in which he admitted to choking his wife to death. Following a map Christopher Lockhart had left, investigators uncovered Theresa Lockhart’s body from a shallow grave in the Allegan State Game Area that day.

Theresa Lockhart, Christopher Lockhart
Photo: Police tape and a missing person flyer near the Portage home of Theresa and Christopher Lockhart. (June 7, 2017)

THE SEARCH FOR ANA CARRILLO

The 35-year-old mother of three from Wyoming went missing Sept. 3,  leading to a frantic search by her loved ones.

Carrillo’s ex-boyfriend and the father of her children, Andrew Hudson, was arrested within days on a perjury charge and later charged with her murder. But it was about two months before he directed investigators to the spot on his mother’s property where Carrillo’s body was buried.

On Dec. 18, Hudson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Carrillo’s death as part of a plea deal, admitting in court that he stabbed her in the throat.

>>Inside woodtv.com: The murder of Ana Carrillo

Ana Carrillo
Photo: Loved ones of Ana Carrillo embrace after finding out her body has been found. (Nov. 9, 2017)

JEFFREY WILLIS STANDS TRIAL

It was a trial Rebekah Bletsch’s family had waited more than three years for, after her June 2014 murder.

Over eight days of testimony, jurors heard details of Bletsch being found lying alongside the road where she often jogged, the alleged attempted abduction of a teen that led to Jeffrey Willis’ arrest, the tens of thousands of murder porn videos on his computer, the digital file titled “VICS” that contained two subfolders labeled with Bletsch’s initials and with the initials of missing Norton Shores woman Jessica Heeringa, and the sex toy and glove found in his minivan that had Bletsch’s DNA on them. Willis even took the stand in his own defense, flatly denying that he killed Bletsch.

>>Inside woodtv.com: The Jeffrey Willis investigation

Jurors didn’t believe him. On Nov. 2, it took them less than 90 minutes to convict him of first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence without parole.

>>App users: Photos of the day Willis was found guilty

On Dec. 18, Willis walked out of his sentencing without hearing from Bletsch’s family, turning back to blow a kiss at the courtroom. However days later, deputies repeatedly played a recording of the family’s emotional messages to Willis as he was moved from Muskegon to Jackson for processing through the prison system.

Photo: Jeffrey Willis blows a kiss while leaving the courtroom ahead of his sentencing for Rebekah Bletsch’s murder on Monday, Dec. 18, 2017.

TARGET 8 INVESTIGATES

DIRTY DINING

Just how clean is your favorite place to eat and what do health officials do if a restaurant isn’t up to snuff? That was the focus of a Target 8 investigation into inspections of Kent County restaurants. The series by Ken Kolker prompted the Kent County Health Department to change the way it tracks restaurants’ violations so they couldn’t hide flaws by using two different names.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Dirty Dining

Photo: Target 8 tests a frog leg at Oriental Asian Buffet in Wyoming. (May 15, 2017)

A KILLER AMONG US

West Michigan, like the rest of the nation, is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Susan Samples led Target 8’s investigation into the crisis in our region, going undercover with a vice team as they busted an admitted heroin dealer, talking with a woman about her downward spiral into addiction and difficulty getting clean, sharing the faces and stories of those killed by opioid overdoses in 2015 — Kent County’s deadliest year yet, and looking at how the Kent County jail is taking steps to stop inmates from overdosing after they are released.

>>Inside woodtv.com: A Killer Among Us

Photo: The faces of those who died of opioid overdoses in Kent County in 2015.

CITY ON FIRE

July 25 marked 50 years since a race riot rocked Grand Rapids. Fueled by discrimination and poverty, rioters set fires throughout a 36-block area on the city’s southeast side and threw rocks and bricks at police officers.

Marking the anniversary of the riot, retired officers, community members and people who were arrested remembered the chaos and violence. Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker also found that as of this year, Grand Rapids has the worst poverty disparity along racial lines of any large Michigan city.

>>App users: Photos of the 1967 Grand Rapids race riot

TOXIC TAP WATER

In January, a Rockford citizens group went to the state, saying an old Wolverine Worldwide landfill on House Street NE in Belmont may be contaminated with the likely carcinogen PFAS. As the year progressed, tests found high levels of the chemical in residential wells, some more than two miles away from the dump. As of November, the state was investigating dozens of reports of waste from the Rockford-based shoe manufacturer dumped in northern Kent County. Wolverine is providing whole-house water filtration systems to hundreds of homes in parts of Plainfield and Algoma townships where PFAS contamination was found.

Target 8 led the way in covering the toxic tap water crisis, speaking with affected residents about their worries and years of health problems, and uncovering several dump sites near the main House Street landfill and elsewhere around Rockford. Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker also found that 3M, which manufactured the Scotchgard used to waterproof Wolverine shoes, warned Wolverine in 1999 that the PFAS in Scotchgard may be dangerous.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Toxic tap water investigation

Plainfield Township, illegal dump site
Photo: A dump site off House Street NE in Plainfield Township. (September 2017)