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December 31, 2017 10:00 PM

Top Investigative Stories Of 2017

2017 was a busy year for our KELOLAND Investigates team; from exposing a proposed aquaponics farm as a sham, to helping a Korean War vet finally get his Purple Heart, 66 years after battle.  

Here's a look back the the top KELOLAND News Investigations of the year, beginning with the Zimmer Experience and the couple who keep making the news. 

George and Jennifer Zimmer were explosive in front of our news cameras and the damage they caused to rental homes from South Dakota to Florida was unlike anything else.  

Our investigation found that both had long rap sheets and had defrauded an insurance company, as well as a homeless shelter. 

The Zimmers kept making news all year long for allegedly stealing from local businesses, including being caught on surveillance video taking gift cards from this Pizza Ranch.

In June a three-part KELOLAND New Investigation into a sexual harassment case in the Catholic Diocese found that the priest accused of harassment was reassigned to investigate cases of sexual abuse for the Vatican in Rome.

Initially Lucia Maldonado asked us to hide her identity because she wanted to keep her job as church secretary at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. 
Maldonado took issue with the way the diocese handled her report of sexual harrassment and reassignment of Fr. Wachs. 

We asked Bishop Paul Swain about it.  

Kennecke: You feel you've dealt with it as best you could?  
Swain: Absolutely. In part because we had an outside look at what we did and the result in all major things... Obviously anyone looking back, there's some process things you wish you would have done a little differently. But in terms of the actual, handing of the result, I'm very comfortable with what we did.  

However, after international media picked up on our report, Fr. Wachs resigned from his position as a notary in a high-profile sex abuse case against a Guam Archbishop and took a leave of absence. And Maldonado went public with her identity.  

"It affected me in all aspects of my life--as a woman, as a worker, as a friend--emotionally, physically and all those are a long time, long-term effects. They just don't disappear. I still have everything on me--especially when you feel alone. You feel not heard by the people that were supposed to be there and protect you--when you show them the truth--everything," Maldonado said. 

In August, following our year long investigation into a proposed fish and vegetable farm near Brookings, we exposed that nothing had been built and developers had lied about their backgrounds.  They also told us they'd raised millions for the project. 

"Essentially we are going to build the largest more advanced facility in the world in Aquaponics.  It generates food, water and energy," Tobias Ritesman said. 

Kennecke: Have you gotten all those investors?  Have you gotten $2 million? 
Ritesman: "Oh yeah. We wanted to get as many local people involved in some of our projects and stuff like that." 

We tracked down the real Global Aquaponics owner in Texas who had this to say about the South Dakota project of the same name: 

"In Brookings, South Dakota eight acres and $8 million was gathered using Global Aquaponics name to build a fish farm and I told them it's the first I heard about it.  I didn't know it existed. I didn't know anything about it, so it was news to me. I don't know who these people are.  I'm shocked,"  Adam Harwood said. 

We discovered that former Board of Regents president and state legislator Dean Krogman traded a twin home  he owned to pay for the land the facility was supposed to be built on.  The FBI is investigating the company and its leaders and charges are possible. 

Former South Dakota DCI agent Laura Kaiser was awarded $1.2 million dollars by a jury who agreed that she was retaliated against after reporting sexual harassment.  
Kaiser was reprimanded and demoted when no one believed her claims of harassment by Brown County Sheriff's Deputy Ross Erickson who worked with Kaiser on the Drug Task Force.  

Kaiser: The day I was put on the work improvement plan, I apologized to Ross.  
Kennecke: You apologized to the man who sexually harassed you? 
Kaiser: Yes. 
Kennecke: Why? 
Kaiser: They told me Ross was on the fence as to whether or not he would work with me anymore.  

When Kaiser took he complaint about her demotion and transfer all the way to Attorney General Marty Jackley's office, he denied her grievance. Jackley now says he wasn't getting accurate information from another DCI agent who was later fired.  

66 years after being injured at least three times in the Korean War, Veteran Gene Coyle finally received his Purple Heart following our investigation into why he was denied it in the first place. 

Our story, Forgotten Solider of the Forgotten War found medical records of Coyle sustaining injuries on the battlefield.  We also discovered that all of his Army records had burned in a 1973 fire. 

Even the fact that he had wartime shrapnel removed from his back last summer didn't convince the Army to give him the medal. 

But less than a week after our investigation aired, the Coyle family received word from Washington that the Army had reversed its decision and would give him a Purple Heart. 

After the ceremony at the V.A. Gene told his family, "This was a good day."  

We also continued to follow-up on our GEAR UP investigation in South Dakota in 2017, two years after the deaths of the Westerhuis family. 

We covered former Secretary of Education Melody Schopp's testimony before lawmakers  and had an exclusive interview with a former Director of Indian Education LuAnn Werdel about the warnings she issued early on, regarding the mismanagement and misappropriation of GEAR UP funds.

The three people charged in the criminal GEAR UP case are all scheduled to go on trial in 2018. You can count on KELOLAND Investigates to bring you full coverage of what happens in the courtroom. 
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