Top stories of 2013

December 29, 2013

Mason County Press recently asked its readers to help rank the top news stories of the year. We listed the eight stories/topics that received the highest views on our site in 2013. We also had a place for write-in votes. Survey participants were asked to select the three stories they thought had the most impact on the community.

The murder of Michigan State Police Trooper Paul Butterfield overwhelmingly was rated the top news story of 2013, by our readers. Followed by the S.S. Badger signing a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, allowing it to continue operations. Third was the ongoing case of missing Baby Kate and the murder charges filed against her father, Sean Phillips. The following are details of each of those top 3, following by a brief description of the other top stories.

Trooper Paul Butterfield

Trooper Paul Butterfield

1. Murder of MSP Trooper Paul Butterfield; 92% of respondents selected this story as one of their three choices.

Monday, Sept. 9 was a warm and humid fall day. In the early evening a motorist traveling on North Custer Road, just north of Townline Road in Free Soil Township, came across a state police trooper lying on the side of the road. The trooper had been shot in the head a few moments before that.

Paul Butterfield was 43-years-old and was described by everyone who knew him as a dedicated law enforcement officer who lived and breathed his job. He was a military veteran, friend to animals and engaged to be married. He was just 20 minutes into his shift, only a few miles from his house in northern Mason County, when he pulled over a truck driven by 19-year-old Eric Knysz of Irons. Knysz was allegedly on his way back from Ludington where he had been selling guns, his wife, Sarah later testified in court. Sarah said her husband, who she said abused her, was looking for trouble that day. He had a history of being in trouble with the law.

Sarah, who at the time was six months pregnant, was his passenger. She said Trooper Butterfield approached the vehicle, and as he was saying hello, Eric shot Butterfield in the head. They then drove off, heading back to Irons in Lake County. There, they picked up Eric’s mother, Tammi Spofford, and went to Branch Township, back in Mason County, where Eric and Sarah stole a car. They then headed back towards Irons, but ended up in Dublin in northeastern Manistee County. It was there where police found them and shot Eric Knysz in the leg.

He was charged in Mason County with murder of a law enforcement officer, along with weapons charges and unlawfully driving away a vehicle. Sarah was charged with accessory to murder and unlawfully driving away a vehicle — charges she has pleaded guilty to and was sentenced 2 to 5 years in prison. Spofford has also been charged with accessory to murder and unlawfully driving away. Eric Knysz also faces charges in Manistee County. Eric faces life in prison. His trial is scheduled to begin in Mason County’s 51st Circuit Court in February.

Trooper Butterfield’s funeral, drew thousands of people, mostly law enforcement officials, along with Gov. Rick Snyder.

Escorting the SS Badger

Escorting the SS Badger

2. S.S. Badger signs consent decree with EPA; 48% of respondents selected this story as one of their three choices.  

The S.S. Badger observed its 60th year this year. The carferry is the last of its kind, carrying on a tradition that has been defined Ludington for over 100 years. At one time, seven ships sailed in and out of Ludington harbor to ports in Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, Kewaunee and Manitowoc. The purpose behind the ships were to transport rail cars across Lake Michigan to avoid the congested tracks of Chicago.

The Ludington carferries were started by the Pere Marquette Railroad, which was absorbed into the C&O Railroad, later becoming the Chessie System and now CSX. One of the major assets of C&O was coal, and therefore while most newer ships built in the mid-20th century were diesel, C&O’s ships were coal powered. This decision, while being more efficient than diesel, has caused some major issues for the last of the railroad carferries.

In the early 1950s, C&O had two new ships built at the Manitowoc shipbuilding yards. The S.S. Spartan made its debut in 1952 with its sister ship, the Badger, beginning service in 1953. Just over a decade earlier, the S.S. Midland 42 was launched. These three ships were the last steamships to sail out of Ludington. Ironically, shortly after the Spartan and Badger made their debut, they were already doomed. C&O had began purchasing track through Chicago and had determined that it was becoming more cost effective to go around the bottom of the lake rather than across it. The company began to dismantle its Ludington fleet, while its competitors did the same in Muskegon and Frankfort. This move was fought every step of the way by labor and the community. After all, the railroad made up 5% of the county’s workforce in the mid-50s.

By the early 1980s, the railroad, now the Chessie System, had won. It had shut down the Spartan in 1979 (an interesting side note, the Spartan has been out of service longer than it was in service).

Some Ludington businessmen created Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Company, which purchased the Badger, Spartan and Midland in 1983. Initially, the Midland — the favorite of the fleet — was used and transported rail cars, vehicles and passengers to Kewaunee. Eventually, after having issues with the ship, the company switched over to the Badger. The service lasted just over 10 years, but ultimately couldn’t stay in business and declared bankruptcy.

In 1991, Ludington native and Holland millionaire Charles Conrad purchased the three ships and created Lake Michigan Carferry Service. He declared that the Badger would be the primary vessel and would not be transporting rail. Instead, the company would turn the cross lake journey into an experience, concentrating on customer service. Conrad died in 1995 but his son-in-law Bob Manglitz continues to be the president and CEO. In 1997 the Midland was converted into a barge and is now known as the PM 41. It is owned by Pere Marquette Shipping, a subsidiary of LMC.

Since 1992, the Badger has been sailing from Ludington to Manitowoc. Today, the ship is responsible for pumping millions of dollars into each towns’ economies. It also serves as an alternative form of transportation for many commercial haulers, allowing them to avoid driving through Chicago.

The ship employs dozens of full-time employees and many more season employees. But, it continues to be challenged by the C&O decision to fuel it with coal. It operates with a lifetime emission exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, its competitors and politicians most recently put pressure of the EPA to shut down the Badger’s discharging of coal ash. LMC claims its discharge causes very minimal pollution. After the threat of being shut down, the carferry service reached an agreement with the federal government to come up with an on-shore alternative to the ash. In the fall a consent decree was signed, allowing the Badger to operate another season before it can no longer discharge into the lake. LMC is now working on that alternative solution and thousands of passengers and millions of dollars will now continue to make their way to Ludington and Manitowoc.

Sean Phillips during his 2012 trial

Sean Phillips during his 2012 trial

3. Murder charges filed against Sean Michael Phillips, father of Baby Kate; 41% of respondents selected this story as one of their top 3 choices. 

On June 29, 2011, Victory Township resident Sean Michael Phillips and his estranged girlfriend, Ariel Courtland, got into an argument outside of Ariel’s Ludington apartment about their 4-month-old infant daughter. Phillips, 21-years-old at the time, had been challenging his paternity of the girl. The couple, barely adults, already had another daughter. Earlier that morning Phillips took a court-ordered paternity test. The duo had been seen at the health department and the hospital.

A few hours later, they would get into an argument in the parking lot of Ariel’s apartment on Tinkham Avenue. While Ariel went into the apartment to get a stroller, Phillips drove off, with the baby. He drove to Wendy’s, where he went in and grabbed a sandwich. He then made his way to northern parts of Mason County, eventually returning to his parent’s home — where he was living — on West Millerton Road. Baby Kate did not return with him and has not been seen since.

Hundreds of people spent weeks searching for the baby. Phillips was charged with involuntary imprisonment. In April 2012, a jury found him guilty. Judge Richard Cooper, 51st Circuit Court, sentenced Phillips to 10 to 15 years in prison, though the state guidelines recommended 3 years minimum for the charge.

Immediately after the sentencing, Ludington Police Chief Mark Barnett announced that LPD and the Mason County Sheriff’s Office had opened up a murder investigation and Phillips was the prime suspect. In September of this year, Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola, along with Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, announced they were charging Phillips with open murder for the death of Katherine Phillips.

While some believe the couple adopted out or sold the baby, law enforcement officials believe she was murdered by Phillips and the body was left somewhere in northwestern Mason County. Earlier in the summer, dozens of volunteers searched Grant Township for specific plant combinations that matched the materials found on Phillips’ shoes.

Further, last year, a letter was leaked to the media that was supposedly written by Phillips confessing to accidentally killing the baby. In the letter, he said he threw the carseat in the Wendy’s parking lot, unaware that Baby Kate was in the seat. The case made national attention, even catching the eye of talk show host Dr. Phil, who rejected the theory that Phillips didn’t know the baby was in the carseat.

Sean Phillips is scheduled to appear in Mason County’s 79th District Court on Jan. 9, where he will have a preliminary examination to determine if there is enough evidence to turn the matter over to circuit court.

Other stories that received high volume of hits on our site and are worth mentioning: 

4. Deaths of community leaders in Custer and Scottville. This fall saw the sudden deaths of three prominent community leaders: Custer Fire Chief John Allison, Road Commission supervisor Steve Stickney and Bob Smith, owner of Smith and Eddy Insurance.

5. Fatal car crashes. As of this posting, eight people had lost their lives on Mason County roads in 2013, including 11-year-old Garrett Lake, Branch Township boy whose faith and gifts inspired his peers, his family and adults. Lake died following a crash, caused by icy roads, on U.S. 10 in Branch Township. A few weeks earlier, just a few miles away, probably one of the most shocking traffic incidences occurred. A 37-year-old Branch woman attempted to kill herself by driving her vehicle into the path of an on-coming semi. After that attempt failed, she got out of her vehicle and stepped into the path of a vehicle. She later died.

6. Mayor Ryan Cox. After 12 years of service to the community, Ludington Mayor John Henderson was term-limited. He is being succeeded by 31-year-old Ryan Cox.

7. Scottville mayor resigns. In October 2012 Scottville Mayor Joe Baxter drove his vehicle into a gully near his home. Police determined that he was drunk and charged him accordingly. In March, after being arrested a second time for violating the terms of his sentence by purchasing alcohol, he resigned.

8. Memorial Medical Center becomes Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, submitted by readers.

9. Oasis Bar in Branch burns.

WSCC: I am