Jail saga tops among Montana stories in 2009

AP News
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Posted: Dec 28, 2009 10:58 AM

The often bizarre tale of Hardin's effort to turn its empty jail over to an international police force _ capped by the revelation that the uniform-clad savior was a California con man _ was chosen by members of The Associated Press as the top news story in Montana for 2009.

Second place went to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus' role at the epicenter of the nation's health care debate.

Hardin's beleaguered hopes of filling an empty jail with inmates _ and cashing in with local jobs _ was the clear favorite of Associated Press members.

Hardin and its jail were in the news long before American Police Force appeared in town in September, such as with an earlier plan to take prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. The jail's backers became increasingly desperate as their economic development venture failed to land contracts for state or federal prisoners.

American Police Force's Michael Hilton, dressed in a paramilitary uniform, promised to fill the 464-bed facility and more. Town officials embraced the company and promised skeptics that the venture was real.

"It will gradually be more clear as things go along," a company spokesman said as reporters questioned the claims, including that the firm had ties to a major international security and weapons firm.

But the company's offices turned out to be "virtual" office space, its bank account near empty and federal databases showed no record of the firm. Within weeks, news reports revealed Hilton as a California con man with a history of felonies and prison time.

The Two Rivers Detention Center, built two years ago as the area's largest economic development project in decades, now remains vacant.

Hilton returned to California to face court hearings over past debts, and testified that he was out of money, never had the corporate backing he claimed and was even struggling to pay rent on his apartment.

Other top stories:

2 _ Baucus was at the epicenter of the nation's health care debate during a critical August congressional recess as he tried to draft a health care overhaul bill capable of getting bipartisan support. The state saw another visit from President Barack Obama, who went to Bozeman to talk about health care reform, during the critical month. Baucus, who faced criticism from both the left and the right, got his plan out of committee in Washington D.C. _ but saw his approval rating in Montana slide.

3 _ State Sen. Greg Barkus' late night boat crash into the Flathead Lake rocks _ with U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and staffers aboard _ gripped headlines for weeks and sparked a state conversation about drinking and boating. Barkus faces felony charges, and denies he was intoxicated as prosecutors charge. Rehberg suffered a broken ankle, while his state director suffered a serious brain injury.

4 _ A deadly natural gas explosion rocked downtown Bozeman in March, destroying several buildings and killing a woman. The blast was blamed on a separation in a two-inch NorthWestern Energy natural gas service line between the main gas line and the meter for the Montana Trails Gallery.

5 _ W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives were acquitted of federal charges that they knowingly allowed residents of a northwestern Montana town to be exposed to asbestos from its vermiculite mine.

6 _ A single engine turboprop airplane nose-dived into a Butte cemetery as it approached the Butte airport in March, killing all 14 people aboard, half of them children.

7 _ Wolves in Montana and Idaho came off the endangered species list, paving the way for those states to host their first public hunts for the animals this fall following a lengthy restoration effort.

8 _ Montana's economy, state budget scenario and unemployment rate all fare far better than the rest of the nation amid the ongoing recession.

9 _ The messy bankruptcy of The Yellowstone Club, an exclusive haven for the ultrarich, continued to play out in public with former owners Edra and Tim Blixseth trading accusations over misuse of millions of dollars.

10 _ U.S. Sen. Jon Tester tries to unite wilderness advocates, loggers, hikers, bikers, and off-road vehicle users behind a single piece of legislation and a plan to both create more wilderness area and more logging.