SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — From cases of fraud to sex abuse to accountability in government programs and with state officials, 2021 was a major year for KELOLAND News Investigations. Here are the highlights from Angela Kennecke’s reports, including two investigations that were nominated for Upper Midwest Emmy Awards.
KELOLAND Investigates kicked off 2021 with a report called “Payback Time,” which brought you the stories of people who were told they had to pay back unemployment benefits they collected during the pandemic.
The South Dakota Department of Labor claimed it overpaid $2.7 million in unemployment benefits and was demanding the money back.
“I don’t know anyone who it wouldn’t be a hardship on to get an unexpected $10,000 bill in the mail,” Haigh said.
Jena Haigh won on appeal and only had to pay back $35. Sarah Knutson, who was told she owed nearly $6,000, will only have to pay back $1,035. on appeal.
Fake Farms: The New Cash Crop
In March, KELOLAND Investigates tracked down dozens of cases of fraud in a Small Business Administration program called the Emergency Injury Disaster Loans or EIDL for short. In South Dakota, nearly 8,000 businesses received $463.5 million. But KELOLAND Investigates uncovered that some of those businesses turned out to be fake farms with addresses smack dab in the middle of South Dakota towns.
Angela Kennecke: So is this Beth MB Potato Farm?
Beth Boyens: No.
Angela Kennecke: No potato farm here?
Beth Boyens: No potato farm here.
Our investigation uncovered at least 29 cases of fraud, mostly fake farms, equaling $1.14 million. The SBA says it’s working with the justice department to track down the fraudsters and recover the money.
The Dumping Ground
KELOLAND Investigates also made a trip to the Rosebud Reservation, to follow up on the open death case of 15-year-old Alize Millard. His family spoke for the first time and provided us with evidence in the case. According to his death certificate, Alize was hanged and then set on fire.
“The information is there, so what’s holding up the investigation? And that’s the bit that’s really frustrating with a capital F,” Gibbs said.
More than two years after his death, the FBI says the Alize Millard case remains open.
Cold Cases in KELOLAND
In the spring of 2021, KELOLAND Investigates looked into a series of cold cases. We uncovered new evidence and interviewed people who had never spoken publicly about the cases before, including the retired investigators in the death of 18-year-old Dana Adamson of Centerville.
“Well, that depends on whether or not you believe what he says or you believe what the crime scene tells you. Two different stories contradict each other,” Retired DCI Agent, Jim Severson said.
KELOLAND Investigates also uncovered new details about the events leading up to the 2015 death of Alicia Hummel on the banks of the Missouri River, and what evidence was left behind. Then just this month, we found out that investigators were in possession of Hummel’s cell phone, which was long thought to be lost.
History of Hiawatha:
In July our KELOLAND News investigation looked into the “threat behind the boarding schools” and the unmarked graves discovered at the old Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum site, now in the middle of the Canton public golf course.
“It’s not an insane asylum, it’s a prison. People are shackled to beds with chamber pots, even though it was state of the art with toilets and running water. The place was caked in soot. People were lying in their feces; maggots crawling on them,” Anne Dilenschneider said.
Only two grave markers have surfaced and while the burial map lists 121 names, ground-sensing technology, indicates there may be even more bodies.
Prison Sentences in 2021
Three major KELOLAND News Investigations, dating as far back as 2017, resulted in criminal charges, guilty pleas, and prison sentences in 2021.
Jared Steffensen, of H&I Grain, was selling grain without paying farmers and then gambled away as much as $10 million dollars, hedging commodities. His wife Tami and his mother JoAnn both pleaded guilty to helping to cover up the crimes. All three were ordered to pay $5 million in restitution to the victims. JoAnn Steffensen got 120 days in county jail, while Tami and Jared received 5 years in prison.
In 2019, KELOLAND Investigates told you about farmers in the Corsica area who lost $24 million dollars in a cattle Ponzi scheme. The man behind the scam, Robert Blom, was sentenced in November to 7.5 years in federal prison; ordered to pay $24 million for defrauding his friends, family and neighbors.
A former, long-time Indian Health Services doctor who worked on the Yankton Sioux Reservation will spend 10 years in federal prison for sexually abusing his patients. Dr. Pedro Ibarra-Perocier pleaded guilty to sexually abusing several adult Native American women patients in Wagner.
We also brought you a series of investigations into victims being denied their rights in South Dakota, along with serious flaws in the victim notification system, known as SAVIN. The parole board decided to release child killer Debra Jenner from prison in September, but her parole hearing was not listed on a public agenda. We also talked with victims frustrated with the lack of notification. Dawn Aspaas, who was tortured and kidnapped along with her 11-year-old daughter, three-decades ago, was never informed of the status of the offenders of the crime. One had absconded while on parole and the other was up for parole.
“He said, ‘No matter what, I’ll get you someday, You won’t know when. You won’t know where. It might be 20 years from now, but I’ll get you,'” Aspaas said.
Locked Down and Lonely at the State Veterans Home
And this month KELOLAND Investigates exposed problems at the Michael J. Fitzmaurice South Dakota Veterans Home. Families say their loved ones have been put under extreme and unnecessary lockdowns and restrictions. Some of the residents’ rights guaranteed by federal law have been violated and we exposed the toll on veterans and their spouses who live in this state facility in Hot Springs.
“We’re human beings. We require physical contact. And these lockdowns are causing so much depression. This is the type of stuff that terrorists pull–locking people in cells and causing isolation causes so many mental issues,” Argabright said.
Several lawmakers are looking into legislation in 2022, to try to improve conditions at the State Veterans Home.
To see all of our KELOLAND News Investigations, just go to the Investigates page on KELOLAND.com and if you have a story you’d like us to look into, just fill out the form on the page.