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September 16, 2016 06:00 PM

Church Group Has Successful Bid On Westerhuis Property

Platte, SD

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the tragedy in Platte that rocked the entire state. 

On September 17, 2015, hours after the State Department of Education pulled the GEAR UP grant from Mid Central Education Cooperative following a troubled audit, Mid Central's business manager Scott Westerhuis shot and killed his wife and children, set his house on fire and turned the gun on himself.

In the last year, our KELOLAND investigation exposed a lack of oversight on the millions of dollars in grant money, all kinds of possible conflicts of interest, mismanagement of funds and promises made in the grant that were never kept. 

But perhaps one of the most outrageous things of all was the extravagant way Scott and Nicole Westerhuis were living on their compound just outside of Platte.

Investigators say the Westerhuises stole as much as $2 million in grant money. 

On Friday, the Westerhuis property went on the auction block to pay off creditors. 

The online auction of 259 items, mostly expensive gym equipment, wrapped up this week bringing in $120,000.  

On Friday, the million-dollar gym, along with the 44-acre property, were sold for a fraction of what it was worth.  The group with the highest bid of $370,000 says it plans to turn it from a place of horror to one of hope. 

Several hundred people gathered at the Westerhuis compound just south of Platte. Some were here to buy a vehicle or recreational item. Others just came out to see, with their own eyes, where the unfathomable happened. 

A group of ministers is on a mission.  They spent the last several weeks raising money to buy the buildings and land in order to give it new life. 

"This week has just been phenomenal as the pledges started coming in.  It was overwhelming; it was humbling and overwhelming," Rev. Harry Koops said.

Just a couple of others were bidding and the price began to rise.  Then at $375,000, the other bidders dropped out and the ministers rejoiced. 

"We look at this as really a miracle.  Then it was, 'Okay, this is our cap; if it goes under this, then you want us to have it Lord.  If it goes over, then we know it's a sign from you this wasn't for us.'  Obviously it stayed under our cap and our hearts are filled with gratitude and praise," Koops said.

The Platte Ministerial Association plans to transform the property into a church camp and retreat center for the area. They also purchased the gym floor and basketball hoops for about another $10,000. They say the idea was also endorsed by both Nicole and Scott Westerhuis' families.

"And that means a lot to us; that means a lot to us," Koops said.

Dave and Luke Barnes are among those family members.  They came out to see who would end up with the property.

"We were going to be in town anyway to visit family for the anniversary of what happened," Luke Barnes said.

15-year-old Luke's memories of this gym are playing with his cousin Connor, who was his same age.  

Angela Kennecke: Seeing it go for a church camp like this, what do you think of the idea? 
Barnes: I think it's a good idea, a church camp—it's better than—it's like a place of healing.  You don't remember all the hurt—you'll still remember the hurt, but it will help get through that.
Kennecke: Will you ever be able to come here and not think about what happened here?
Barnes: 
No, I don't think I will.

People may always associate this property with the Westerhuises and the horrific tragedy that happened here, but the ministers are hoping with this change, something more positive can rise from the ashes

"And yes, we can say that's where that tragedy happened, but look at today and what God has done in his grace," Koops said.

The Platte homecoming parade was going on at the same time as the auction.  It included 
tributes to number 28, Michael Westerhuis, who played on the football team.

The community is raising money this weekend for the memorial to the two Westerhuis boys at the football field and the family is running in a 5K Saturday night in memory of Nicole and all four children. 

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