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Medical examiner in autopsy controversy resigning

Posted by: Maya Rao Updated: March 11, 2015 - 11:13 AM

The St. Louis County medical examiner is resigning, weeks after protests that he tried to perform autopsies on American Indians in violation of their families’ religious beliefs.

Thomas Uncini told county officials that he would leave the role after 17 years. On Tuesday, commissioners approved an extension of his contract through the end of June to allow for time to find a successor. A county spokesperson didn’t say why he stepped down, and Uncini hasn’t spoken with the media since the controversies erupted last month.

The families of Mushkoob Aubid, a spiritual leader of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and Autumn Martineau, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, obtained court orders to prevent Uncini from performing autopsies after they died in separate car crashes.

In both cases, the deceased and their families practiced Midewiwin, a religion that requires a body to be preserved intact for burial four days after death. The belief system isn’t well known outside of tribal communities, and advocates for the families said the medical examiner’s office didn’t believe them when they tried to explain. After community protests, there has been talk of increasing education of traditional American Indian practices in local governments.

Livestock continue dying in barn fires

Posted by: Maya Rao Updated: January 19, 2015 - 5:17 PM

The Upper Midwest continues to see massive casualties of livestock in barn fires, three weeks after we reported that such blazes killed more than 25,000 animals last year.

On Sunday night, 19,000 turkeys died at a barn owned by Jennie-O in Swanville in northwest Minnesota. Firefighters from Swanville, Grey Eagle and Flensburg rushed to the scene.

Swanville Fire Chief Jerry Hollermann said he was called to the scene around 9:30 Sunday night and fought the blaze along with about 40 other firefighters for six hours.

“The barn is standing, but it’s pretty extensive damage,” he said.

“They’re pretty small birds, so they were probably all gone when we got there,” said Hollermann. “Because just the smoke in the barn, the barns are pretty sealed up -- so when they have a fire in them, the smoke pretty well kills them right away.”

In December, 7,500 turkeys perished in a fire near Worthington; in October, 13,000 hogs died near Truman, Minn. Casualties were huge last winter and spring, when 300,000 hens perished in La Grange, Wis. and 150,000 hens died in a Galt, Iowa, fire.

5-year-old mayor loses election

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: August 5, 2014 - 11:09 AM

Minnesota's youngest mayor is now its youngest ex-mayor.

Robert "Bobby" Tufts, age 5, lost his bid for a third term as mayor of tiny Dorset, Minn., this Sunday. Instead, voters at the Taste of Dorset festival threw their support behind a candidate three times his age -- 16-year-old Eric Mueller.

Despite losing the office he'd held for almost half his life, Tufts accepted his first electoral defeat with grace.

"It was fun, but it's time to pass on the vote," Bobby told The Associated Press. He's ready to pass the political mantle to the next generation -- his little brother. "I'm gonna let James do it. He's 2."

Bobby leaves behind a record of mayoral accomplishments that include tossing candy at parades and moving ice cream to the top of the food pyramid, the AP reports. He also leveraged the publicity his election generated to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Red River Valley in Fargo.

Dorset, with a population of around 25, has no formal government and its mayoral elections are a decidedly informal affair. Taste of Dorset festival-goers pay $1 per ballot and can vote as often as they like, with all the proceeds going to support the festival.

Mayor Bobby worked the crowds, gladhandling in a tiny tie and fedora, but this was Eric Mueller's year. When the time came to pull the winning mayor's name out of a hat, the honor went to the high school junior from Mendota Heights, who told the AP that the idea to run for higher office came to him after he ate five fried ice creams in a row.

For now, Bobby's mother, Emma Tufts, says her son is looking forward to being just another kid in the crowd at the festival, catching candy instead of throwing it.

"He really enjoyed being a kid in some festivals, not having to perform," she told the AP.

It's official: Rukavina files paperwork for his return to politics

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: May 20, 2014 - 4:48 PM


Two years after he bowed out of the political arena, former state lawmaker Tom Rukavina is jumping back in.


"I missed it, to be honest with you. I just missed being able to work a room and I missed being with people," said Rukavina, one of three candidates vying for a nonpartisan seat on the St. Louis County Board. 

Rukavina, a Democrat, retired from the Legislature in 2012, stepping down from the seat he held for 26 years. He filed the paperwork for his new campaign on Tuesday morning.

"For the past year and a half, people would come up to me and say, 'Oh, Rukavina, thank you for your service. We really wish you were still in politics.' So I'm going to see if they really meant it or not," he said with a laugh.

The Mesabi Daily News reports that he faces former Cook City Councilwoman Kirsten Reichel and Vermilion Lake Township resident Christina Hujanen in the nonpartisan election. The job offers a full-time salary of about $55,000 and, Rukavina said, the opportunity "to be home every night with my wife," after two and a half decades of shuttling back and forth to St. Paul.

Rukavina, whose past campaigns have ranged from Minnesota governor to the Virginia school board, was a fierce, funny force on the state political scene. During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, he gave out underpants emblazoned with the slogan "Refreshingly Honest."

In his farewell message to his colleagues, he lamented "the changing atmosphere at the Capitol."

“I recall a kinder and gentler time here when even the most conservative members of our body still believed government could do good things for our people," he wrote at the time. "But times have changed and I haven’t so it’s time for a new direction.”

County government, he said, is another story -- a nonpartisan office and a chance to help constituents at the ground level.

"I left because it had gotten a little out of hand in St. Paul. I'm hoping it will be a little tamer and nicer in Duluth and in Ely and Virginia and Hibbing," he said.

Rukavina, 63, had been eyeing the seat of retiring St. Louis County commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely for some time. The Duluth News Tribune dubbed his campaign plans "the worst-kept secret on the Iron Range."

Rukavina has been working as an Iron Range staffer for Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan but says he will step down from that post around July, as his own campaign heats up.

"That way, if I put my foot in my mouth, I won't put my foot in his mouth," he said, laughing again.

Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler

Former Mille Lacs deputy pleads guilty to child molestion

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: March 21, 2014 - 3:17 PM

A former Mille Lacs County sheriff's deputy pleaded guilty Friday to molesting young boys at an Otter Tail County summer camp where he was a volunteer.

Aaron Joseph Heuer faces up to 33 years in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct against five different victims, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

The charges stem from June 2013, when Heuer was volunteering as a fishing guide at Lutheran Island Camp in Henning. He pleaded guilty to sexual contact with young boys at the camp, all between the ages of 8 and 10. Investigators believe he knew the children prior to the incidents, which included a separate fishing trip in Aitkin County that was unrelated to the camp.

Heuer, a resident of Isle, also pleaded guilty to one count of criminal sexual conduct in Mille Lacs County. The plea agreement calls for a sentence of 396 months in prison. His sentencing is scheduled for May 8 in Otter Tail County District Court.


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