Category Archives: Elkhart

Cooper ‘wanted to live the American Dream;’ Gary was fleeing gunfire; Hixson recalled after death

Sunday Dec. 18, 2016

Keith Cooper, pictured in Chicago outside his lawyer's office, seeks exoneration in a violent 1996 Elkhart robbery. By Tim Vandenack

Keith Cooper, pictured in Chicago outside his lawyer’s office, seeks exoneration in a violent 1996 Elkhart robbery. By Tim Vandenack

In recent weeks, I’ve covered the death of a woman killed by a stray bullet shot into her home, an officer-involved shooting and a former Elkhart man’s push for exoneration in a violent robbery. Pretty grim stuff.

I traveled to Chicago last month to meet with Keith Cooper, the former Elkhart man who says he was wrongly convicted in a 1996 robbery, which left another man with a gunshot wound.

I’d written about his case. Though now free, he’s seeking a new trial in Elkhart Circuit Court, hoping for exoneration. He’s also sought a pardon from Gov. Mike Pence, so far unsuccessfully.

But I hadn’t met him, so took the opportunity, when I happened to be going to Chicago anyway, to hear from him directly, about how the case has impacted him and what exoneration would mean. There’s some pretty compelling evidence pointing to his innocence.

“I want the world to know that I’m Keith Cooper. Not Keith Cooper the criminal. I’m not a felon. I’m a decent human being who just wanted to live the American Dream,” Cooper, now living outside Chicago in Country Club Hills, told me at his lawyer’s office. “They ripped it from me.”

Here’s the story and a sidebar citing evidence Cooper uses to make his case:

Program from Norman Gary's Dec. 16, 2016, funeral. By Tim Vandenack

Program from Norman Gary’s Dec. 16, 2016, funeral. By Tim Vandenack

An Elkhart man, Norman Gary, died in an officer-involved shooting on Dec. 4. It remains under investigation by Indiana State Police, and the source of the bullet that killed Gary remains unclear. A shoot-out of some sort was taking place when police happened upon the scene in south Elkhart. Officers fired during the melee as well.

Gary’s legal guardian, Margaret Johnson, who considers the man her son, and Sandy Holt, Johnson’s daughter, say Gary wasn’t threatening anybody when the gunfire took place, that he didn’t have a gun and that he was trying to drive away from the chaotic scene to safety. A very confusing situation. I spoke with Johnson and Holt, who grew up with Gary and considers him her brother, last Friday, after Gary’s funeral:

Teketa Hixson, killed after a teen allegedly fired a gun intoher home, in a photo held by her sister, Latoya White. By Tim Vandenack

Teketa Hixson, in a photo held by her sister, Latoya White. By Tim Vandenack

Teketa Hixson died after a 14-year-old fired a gun into her south-central Elkhart home. It’s not clear why the teen, who faces a charge of felony reckless homicide,  did what he did. He was acquainted with Hixson’s family and had spent time at their home.

Whatever the spur, it’s a sad situation. She leaves behind four kids and a fifth she had been caring for. I spoke to Hixson’s mom and sister to learn more about the woman:

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Elkhart man’s fight to fend off deportation enters new phase

Sunday Oct. 30, 2016

Armando Paez, second from left, continues his fight to remain in the United States. Pictured, from left, with daughter Maria, wife Martha and son Juan. By Tim Vandenack

Armando Paez, second from left, continues his fight to remain in the United States. Pictured, from left, with daughter Maria, wife Martha and son Juan. By Tim Vandenack

Armando Paez has fought for years to stay in the United States.

He’s still here, having successfully fought off deportation. So far. His efforts are entering a new phase, though, after U.S. immigration officials last month rejected his latest request to put off a pending order to return to his native Colombia.

I’ve written extensively about Paez and his family, who came here from Colombia in 1999 with visas, but overstayed them. They filed for political asylum, citing fears they’d be persecuted by leftist guerrillas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. But that request was denied and they’ve been fighting for a way to stay.

Here’s the latest in the efforts:

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PETA blasts duck treatment, the Elkhart high school saga, Main Street rubble

Monday Oct. 17, 2016

Top right: Jan Hardy surveys the rubble remaining from the Main Street building next door to his, which burned down last July. Top right: Elkhart police investigators peer into the car containing the bodies of two children allegedly killed by their mother. Bottom: Elkhart school officials discuss the proposed reorganization of the district. By Tim Vandenack

Top left: Jan Hardy surveys the rubble remaining from the Main Street building next door to his, which burned down last July. Top right: Elkhart police investigators peer into the car containing the bodies of two children allegedly killed by their mother. Bottom: Elkhart school officials discuss the proposed reorganization of the district. By Tim Vandenack

Never a dull moment.

With our bare bones staff, I cover a lot of territory — animal rights activism, the double murder of two kids by their mom and moves to radically reshape the Elkhart school district, to name a few topics of late. To wit:

Inhumane duck treatment: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released a video depicting harsh treatment of ducks at a duck farm in Elkhart County and the agency asked Indiana State Police to investigate its contention that workers violated Indiana animal cruelty laws, “PETA charges Middlebury-based Culver Duck Farms with inhumanely treating ducks,” Oct. 13, 2016.

Fallout from the killing of two children: I was winding down my day on Sept. 26, 2016, when a strange, scary message came across the scanner — two dead kids had been found in a car. Turns out it was behind the police department and a woman had flagged down an officer to inform him of the children in the back seat of her auto. She later confessed to killing them, authorities say, and she now faces two murder charges. I spent around five hours that first day camped out behind the police department, where the cordoned-off car sat, awaiting any scrap of news from police. I ended up helping dig into the sad, tragic story, among many on the staff, and attended a memorial for the children, Liliana Hernandez, 7, and Rene Pasztor, 6, both of Fort Wayne. For one story, I spoke to family from the father’s side of the family, also from Fort Wayne, who spoke of the hard feelings they felt and their suspicions surrounding the case, “After kids found dead in Elkhart: pain, sorrow and anger for family left behind,” Sept. 30, 2016.

School reorganization: Talk has been swirling for months about merging the two high schools here in the Elkhart school district, creating one super high school. A preliminary proposal came out last April and then officials in late September, after months of debate and discussion, solidified the plan with a more formal plan, which still has to be ratified. I wrote a story detailing the new proposal, published just ahead of its unveiling, “Elkhart high school consolidation still on table in latest draft of reorganization plan,” Sept. 28, 2016, then did a follow-up story that same day after the formal announcement, “New unified Elkhart high School could open in 2019, per proposal.”

Torched building: I’ve followed the seemingly slow process to remove the rubble of a building that burned down last July on Main Street in the heart of the downtown area. For my latest installment, I focused on the efforts of the next-door neighbor, the operator of a bar, to get his building back into shape and reopen the business, pulling together a quick update, “Hardy’s Bar owner anxious to reopen as clean-up of burned building next door edges forward,” Oct. 6, 2016.

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Theft of Elkhart man’s identity by undocumented immigrants leads to headaches, bankruptcy, frustration

Wednesday Oct. 5, 2016

In this archive Elkhart Truth photo, an Elkhart police officer holds false identity cards confiscated by the department.

In this archive Elkhart Truth photo, an Elkhart police officer holds false identity cards confiscated by the department.

Stealing IDs takes a toll.

I wrote late last month (look at this blog entry) about an undocumented immigrant arrested for identity theft, Candida Rosete. She was brought here as a child by her parents, and she defended her place here, saying the United States is her country, even if she doesn’t have papers to be here.

It was in the context of a spate of arrests by the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department of people who used fake IDs to get work and calls for tips about other suspected undocumented immigrants. The sheriff’s department actions generated a lot of criticism from immigrant advocates.

Last week I went for the other side of things and spoke to a man, Joshua Buelna, whose identity had been stolen by an undocumented immigrant. Life has been terrible for him, and he ultimately had to file bankruptcy because of all the debt incurred illegally in his name. Others used his Social Security number to rent homes, get cars, acquire mobile phone contracts and more and he was left to deal with the fallout after they skipped out on the bills.

As with the first story about Candida, the story about Joshua generated a strong response, many sympathetic with his plight:

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Ex-Elkhart man’s advocates turn to Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill in push for pardon

Thursday Sept. 29, 2016

Screen grab of online Sept. 22, 2016, Elkhart Truth story about Keith Cooper.

Screen grab of online Sept. 22, 2016, Elkhart Truth story about Keith Cooper.

The Indianapolis Star and Chicago Tribune have followed the case of a former Elkhart man seeking exoneration in a 1996 armed robbery here, recounting the the twists and turns that led to his unjust conviction and, ultimately, his release in 2006.

The trial and fight for his release all occurred before my time here at The Elkhart Truth and I’ve not done much crime stuff, in general, until the last year or so.

But when I learned of a new push by Cooper’s advocates to get him pardoned, I figured it was time that we, as the hometown newspaper where everything went down, look into the story. I didn’t repeat the digging done by the Indianapolis Star or Chicago Tribune — they’ve done some intense work — but I quickly got up to speed, reading their archives, talking to one of the advocates, looking into recent turns in the push.

Gov. Mike Pence also came out, saying he wasn’t prepared to pardon Cooper, who was let go from prison early based on proof pointing to his innocence but never exonerated. It turned into a pretty decent story, I think:

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Elkhart County push against undocumented immigrants stirs controversy

Monday Sept. 26, 2016

Candida Rosete was one of several suspects arrested by the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department for charges related to identity fraud for using false documents to get work. The arrests have generated criticism from immigrant advocates. By Tim Vandenack

Candida Rosete was one of several suspects arrested by the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department for charges related to identity fraud for using false documents to get work. The arrests have generated criticism from immigrant advocates. By Tim Vandenack

With a sizable population of Latino newcomers here, many from Mexico, immigration is a big topic in Elkhart County.

There are many advocates for Latinos and, on the flip side, many who clamor for stronger action against undocumented immigrants. Thus, when the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department started cracking down on suspected undocumented immigrants, asking for tips via Facebook, the issue escalated.

We in the newsroom had been noticing a steady stream of arrests of people allegedly using fake and fraudulent identity cards and we jumped on it, tying it to the Facebook posts. Many in the Latino community had also noticed, and I pulled together a story, contrasting criticism of Latino advocates who saw the law enforcement action as overzealous and Sheriff Brad Rogers, who defended the moves as upholding the law and standing up for victims of identity theft:

I got a lead on one of the women arrested, Candida Rosete, and followed that story with a piece on her, offering up her viewpoint of being undocumented. Now, 36, she was brought here when she was 6-years-old, has a 15-year-old U.S.-b0rn son and sees the United States as her home:

Even Univision, the Spanish-language television, jumped on the issue.

I’m now working on a story offering up the perspective of those who have had their identities stolen, the hassles and problems they face.

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Elkhart schools mull overhaul of system, parents propose alternative

Wednesday Sept. 14, 2016

Elkhart Schools Superintendent Robert Haworth, who helped pull together the proposed overhaul of Elkhart Community Schools. By Tim Vandenack

Elkhart Schools Superintendent Robert Haworth, who helped pull together the proposed overhaul of Elkhart Community Schools. By Tim Vandenack

ELKHART — One of the current burning topics of debate, at least among many parents and Elkhart school officials — the proposed overhaul of Elkhart Community Schools.

ECS leadership unveiled a proposal last April to revamp the two high schools in Elkhart, with one, Elkhart Memorial, serving 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, and Elkhart Central serving ninth-graders. Many view it as high school unification. The plan also outlines changes to the middle schools and one elementary school and many other tweaks in the school system, aiming to better school kids and prevent transfers out of the district, a big problem that results in loss of state funding.

Needless to say, it’s got many wondering what it all means, what would become of the high schools, whether it would really work and keep kids here. But it’s complicated.

I’ve taken on a role trying to grasp and understand the topic, a pretty hefty one, and pulled together a pair of stories that ran as a package on Monday (though one posted online on Sunday). One focused on a counter-proposal put forward by three parents following the process and their calls for more ideas from the public:

The other offered an update on the decision-making process timeline:

I wrote a pair of stories on the topic last month, too, one parsing the the high school unification issue (here), the other offering a more general look at the debate and issues at stake (here).

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Elkhart homicides, violence — unfortunate norm, on the rise?

Monday Sept. 12, 2016

Elkhart police stand guard outside the home of a July 31, 2016, triple homicide. By Tim Vandenack

Elkhart police stand guard outside the home of a July 31, 2016, triple homicide. By Tim Vandenack

There have been eight homicides in Elkhart so far this year, including a July 31 triple homicide, the latest. That’s more than any year as a whole (with more time to go in 2016) dating to at least 2012

There have also been 28 armed robberies.

It all begs the question — is violence running amok?

I called some area leaders, pulled together some figures (including gunshot reports) to write a quick analysis of the situation. People are buzzing about crime — it’s come up at two recent town hall-style meetings I’ve attended — but it’s not clear how to get a grip on it. I tied it all in with a young man’s impromptu memorial to gun victims earlier this year, something I also wrote about.

Here’s the latest story, with the homicide victims and robberies in an accompanying sidebar:

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Elkhart’s homeless prodded out of Tent City

Sunday Sept. 4, 2016

The Elkhart homeless camp known as Tent City, located on city-owned property. This photo is from June 8, 2016, before the city prodded them off, Aug. 31, 2016. By Tim Vandenack

The Elkhart homeless camp known as Tent City, located on city-owned property. This photo is from June 8, 2016, before the city prodded them off, Aug. 31, 2016. By Tim Vandenack

The controversy over a homeless encampment in a wooded area on city-owned property came to an uneventful conclusion with the peaceful departure of the contingent last Wednesday.

I first wrote about the issue in June after Mayor Tim Neese offered jobs to some of the homeless, hoping to prod them off the land into homes, finding three takers. The city had announced plans to clear a portion of the property and wanted the homeless to leave.

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, left, listens to Michael Parker, who had been living in the Tent City homeless encampment on Sept. 1, 2016, at St. James AME Church, Elkhart. Parker left the encampment and lives with two others in a home now. By Tim Vandenack

Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, left, listens to Michael Parker, who had been living in the Tent City homeless encampment, on Sept. 1, 2016, at St. James AME Church, Elkhart. Parker left the encampment and lives with two others in a home now. By Tim Vandenack

I tracked back to see if the three were still working for the city. Turns out they weren’t, I couldn’t find them:

Meantime, the deadline loomed for others still living there to leave, Aug. 31, and that turned into the focus of coverage last week by fellow Elkhart Truth reporter Ben Quiggle and I. I wrote this:

Ben handled the main departure day story (here). Neese and homeless advocates found those who were still there places to stay and things ended happily ever after, momentarily, anyway.

I wrote another story last year (here) about a homeless man who was living in the encampment, called Tent City.

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Libertarians give Elkhart County voters a third choice, Coleman says Walorski is inaccessible

Saturday Sept. 3, 2016

Libertarian candidates Ethan Legg, left, who's running for the District 21 seat in the Indiana House, and Ron Cenkush, who's running for the 2nd District U.S. House seat. Photos supplied

Libertarian candidates Ethan Legg, left, who’s running for the District 21 seat in the Indiana House, and Ron Cenkush, who’s running for the 2nd District U.S. House seat. Photos supplied

Labor Day will soon be here, which means even more election coverage.

But we’ve already been doing plenty of it at The Elkhart Truth. U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican, and her Democratic challenger Lynn Coleman are in the midst of debating whether, when and where to debate, which I used as an opportunity to delve into Coleman’s charges that Walorski is inaccessible. Walorski is holding off on committing to a debate, same as she did two years ago, and Coleman maintains that she doesn’t mix sufficiently with constituents:

Same day that appeared in print, Walorski held a gathering — with a group of business leaders in Elkhart County (look here), hearing their lament that there aren’t enough workers. She regularly meets privately with small groups, her Facebook feed shows, but hasn’t had a town hall or public listening tour of late.

Turns out there are a pair of Libertarians on the ballot, one vying for Walorski’s seat, Ron Cenkush, and the other, Ethan Legg, running for an Indiana House seat that serves part of Elkhart County. I wrote about them, noting that voters here will have more than just Democrats and Republicans to choose from:

There will also be three Libertarians further up the ballot, for governor. U.S. Senator and president.

This, I reckon, is only the beginning of our political coverage…

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