COVID-19 tops list of major 2020 stories

John Richmeier
The Leavenworth Times
A sign directs visitors to a COVID-19 testing site set up on the campus of the University of Saint Mary.

It was not hard to pick which story should top Leavenworth Times’ year in review for 2020. COVID-19 impacted just about everything this past year from the economy to how people work and attend school.

The virus and its impact tops the list of 10 of the major stories covered by the Leavenworth Times in 2020. The other stories are not ranked in any particular order.

COVID-19 – As of Wednesday afternoon, there have been a total 4,829 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Leavenworth County since the pandemic began. Thirty-eight residents of the county have died from complications from COVID-19, according to the Leavenworth County Health Department.

The county’s first two positive cases of COVID-19 were reported March 18. The county’s first death was reported April 3.

Gov. Laura Kelly ordered school buildings across the state to close March 17 for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. Students finished the school year utilizing remote instruction.

Leavenworth County Health Officer Jamie Miller issued an emergency health order March 17 prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. Restaurants, bars and movie theaters also were ordered closed except for those establishments that could provide carryout, drive-thru or delivery services or could maintain 10 or fewer people who were socially distanced.

On March 21, Miller issued a stay-at-home order for the county. Kelly issued a statewide stay home order March 28, which replaced the county’s order. A statewide phased reopening plan went into effect May 4. On May 26, Kelly announced that her reopening plan would no longer be mandatory but serve as guidance. This left the authority for imposing new orders with county health officers.

Miller announced the following day that he did not intend to issue a new health order at that time, leaving no mandatory restrictions in place.

So far this school year, students in local school districts have received instruction through a mix of in-person classes and remote instruction.

Local health workers have started to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

The Centennial Bridge is closed as law enforcement officers conduct an investigation following a May 27 shooting.

Bridge shooting – On May 27, a man reportedly opened fire on occupied vehicles on the Centennial Bridge, which stretches across the Missouri River from Leavenworth to Platte County, Missouri.

At least 15 shots were fired from a handgun and at least 23 rounds were fired from a rifle, according to a probable cause affidavit.

One person was wounded by gunfire during the incident, and multiple vehicles were struck by bullets.

The shooting suspect was identified as Jason R. Westrem, Houston Lake, Missouri.

Westrem was injured during the incident when he was struck by a vehicle.

David Royer, who was a master sergeant in the Army at the time, was credited with stopping the shooting incident by striking the suspect with his pickup truck.

Westrem faces nine felony counts including attempted first-degree murder. He is next scheduled to appear in court Jan. 6 for a status hearing.

Double homicide in county – A Leavenworth County man is facing a charge of capital murder for allegedly shooting his two sons.

The bodies of the two boys, ages 12 and 14, were found Oct. 24 at a residence on Hillside Road near Lansing.

An Amber Alert was issued for two girls who were believed to be with Jackson.

Jackson was apprehended that same day in Oklahoma. The two girls were said to be safe.

Jackson is next scheduled to appear in court Feb. 18 for a status hearing.

Saint Luke's Cushing Hospital is now closed. The building has been donated to the Leavenworth County government.

Cushing closes – Saint Luke’s Cushing Hospital closed its doors in October.

Hospital officials cited the financial impact of COVID-19 as the reason for the decision to close the hospital, which was established in 1894 by Harriet Cushing.

In 2019, the hospital transitioned to what officials called a community hospital model. Services were scaled back at that time, but the hospital continued to offer emergency department services.

After the hospital closed in October, the building was donated to the Leavenworth County government.

Saint John Hospital is now the only hospital in Leavenworth County that is open to the general public.

3 homicides in 4 months – Three homicides were reported within a four-month period in the city of Leavenworth in 2020.

The Leavenworth Police Department typically investigates only one or two murders in a year.

The first of the three homicides was reported July 18. Sanquan M. Brooks died as a result of a shooting on North 13th Terrace. Cody J. Nichols has been charged with what is known as felony murder, which is a form of first-degree murder, in connection to Brooks’ death.

The second homicide was reported Aug. 16 on Eisenhower Road. Matthew Smith was fatally shot while driving a pickup truck. This case remains unsolved.

The third homicide was reported Oct. 30. The body of Joshua Gilson was found at a home in the 800 block of Kiowa Street. His wife, Alexandra Gilson, is charged with first-degree murder and two counts of interference with law enforcement.

Deputy, firefighter killed in line of duty – A member of the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the Easton Township Fire Department were killed in separate car crashes that occurred about a week apart.

Detective Cpl. Dan Abramovitz was killed Oct. 30 when the unmarked Sheriff’s Office vehicle he was driving collided with a school bus at 211th Street and McIntyre Road. The driver of the bus allegedly failed to yield to the other vehicle, according to a report from the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Volunteer firefighter Johnny Ivison Jr. was killed in a single-vehicle crash Nov. 8 south of Easton on 231st Street. Ivison was on his way to the scene of a fire at the time of the accident.

Election outcomes – Several local incumbents were unseated in elections in 2020.

Incumbent state Rep. Jim Karleskint was defeated by Lance W. Neelly in the Aug. 4 Republican primary. Neelly faced no Democratic opposition in the Nov. 3 general election and was elected to represent the 42nd District of the Kansas House of Representatives.

The 42nd District includes the cities of Easton and Tonganoxie.

In the November general election, Democrat Jeff Pittman, who was serving in the Kansas House, defeated incumbent state Sen. Kevin Braun, a Republican.

Pittman will now represent the state Senate’s 5th District, which includes the cities of Leavenworth and Lansing.

Willie Dove, a Republican who represented the cities of Basehor and Linwood in the Kansas House, made a run for the Kansas Senate in 2020. But he lost in the general election to incumbent state Sen. Tom Holland, a Democrat.

Holland represents the Kansas Senate’s 3rd District, which includes the cities of Easton, Basehor and Tonganoxie.

Longtime Leavenworth County of Register of Deeds Stacy Driscoll, a Democrat, was defeated by Republican TerriLois Mashburn in a close race in the general election.

Hundreds of people turn out for a Unity Walk in June in Leavenworth.

Unity Walk – Hundreds gathered June 6 to participate in a Unity Walk in Leavenworth.

The event, which organizers called a peaceful protest, followed the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis. His death sparked protests across the United States.

The Unity Walk was kicked off with a ceremony at the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum.

Following remarks by speakers and a musical performance, those in attendance began what also was referred to as a United for Peace Walk. The walk ended at Bob Dougherty Park.

Leavenworth Deputy Police Chief Dan Nicodemus estimated that between 600 and 750 people turned out for the Unity Walk.

New federal prison – In June, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, confirmed that full funding was secured for a new federal prison in Leavenworth.

Plans call for a Federal Correctional Institution and Federal Prison Camp to be built on the grounds of the existing U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth.

The FCI will replace the existing penitentiary. But BOP officials have said they want to find a new use for the old prison.

The FCI will be designed to house about 1,152 medium-security male inmates. The camp will be designed to house about 256 minimum-security male inmates. Allocated funding for the new prison and satellite camp totals $356 million.

Mask ordinances are in place in the cities of Leavenworth, Lansing and Tonganoxie.

Mask debate – One of the many facets of the COVID-19 pandemic is a debate that has developed regarding mandates that require people to wear masks in public spaces.

The Leavenworth County Commission has twice voted to exempt the county from mask orders issued by the governor, but commissioners encourage people to wear masks to limit the spread of the virus.

In November, members of the Leavenworth City Commission approved an ordinance that requires people to wear masks in public spaces within the city.

The city councils of Lansing and Tonganoxie later approved similar ordinances.

The mask ordinances for the three cities are scheduled to expire Jan. 31, but they can be extended.

A group of people calling themselves We the People of Leavenworth County has started collecting signatures in an effort to repeal the ordinances.