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St. Joseph kids face dangerous amounts of lead

St. Joseph has more kids with high levels of lead in their blood than Flint, Michigan, a city that’s battled poison in its water supply for years.

Unlike in Flint, the problem in St. Joseph isn’t caused by drinking water, but by older homes and certain types of paint. According to the most recent data made available by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, 15 percent of kids 6 years old and younger in St. Joseph have an elevated level of lead in their blood. The national average is 4 percent.

“This is a very critical problem if we have higher lead levels here than in Flint, Michigan, for goodness sake,” St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray said.

A host of government agencies convened in St. Joseph recently to discuss the problem.

Dr. Cynthia Brownfield, a Mosaic Life Care physician, told the panel of agencies that she actually defied the city’s Landmark Commission to replace more than 60 windows in her historic home after her child was found to have a higher-than-average amount of lead in her blood.

McMurray said he’s OK with Brownfield going against the commission, citing a need to balance historic preservation with health concerns.

“We have to temper our desire to be historically accurate with abating lead,” McMurray said.

McMurray said he’s been working with the Environmental Protection Agency and other state and local agencies to lower the amount of lead in the city after he first received word of the problem early in his term.

“Our health department is on that, they’re working on it,” McMurray said. “The older neighborhoods we have to teach people how to do this correctly.”

He said those who cannot afford to replace their own windows, like Brownfield, can contact the city to apply for grants and other assistance.

According to to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning symptoms may include developmental delay, irritability and vomiting.

The EPA’s regional administrator, Jim Gulliford, was at the meeting in St. Joseph. He sought to assure the public that the Trump administration is taking the issue of lead in communities seriously, despite the fact that the president’s proposed budget for 2020 would reduce the EPA’s budget by more a third.

Congress appears to be nearing an overall budget deal that will likely increase the EPA’s funding or at least maintain it at current levels.

Gulliford said there’s a federal regulatory rule in place that requires the safe handling of lead when working on construction projects. He said that while it is more expensive for contractors to follow those procedures, the rule does have an enforcement aspect that the EPA can exercise.

“It is more expensive because you have to put down tarps and limit the access area,” he said. “But at the same time it is a national rule.”

Some of the workers at the most at risk are actually those who go it alone, Gulliford said. He added that those people might not know proper procedures or the dangers associated with lead. More on the safe handling of lead can be found on the EPA’s website,

“I have great confidence that it’s going to be fixed here,” McMurray said. “This is a very serious matter.”

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Commission recommends Save Our Heritage grant funding

The St. Joseph Landmark Commission is recommending that recent applications for grants to work on historic properties be given in the full amount, despite going over the set budget from the City.

In total, four projects requesting $162,254 were seen by the Commission at their meeting Tuesday night, and the Commission voted to recommend that all of them receive their requested grants.

Each fiscal year, the City allows a maximum of $150,000 to be spent through those grants, and any money not spent is not rolled over into the next year.

Chair Cole Woodbury said he is hoping that the City Council will approve the additional money, since the full $150,000 was not spent last year.

“We did have some money leftover from last year’s Save Our Heritage grant funds,” Woodbury said. “We’re hoping the City will see their way clear to allowing the additional $12,000 to be reallocated to come back towards these applicants.”

Royal Packaging requested $28,000 to do masonry facade work on the former Home Style Furniture store at 302 S. Third St.

Frederick Corners, LLC requested $24,500 for facade work at 1201-1207 Frederick Ave.

Kelly and Kathy Crawford requested $78,048 for work on a building at 305 S. Eighth St.

Mary and Leonard Kottenstette requested $31,706 to do work at 208 N. 19th St.

Woodbury said each of these projects is important and deserves the funds they are requesting.

“All four are good, worthy, solid projects that are beneficial to our community,” he said.

In the past, applicants had to match at least 200 percent of the requested amount for a project. This year, that was changed to require only a 100 percent match, making the projects basically a 50-50 split, though many applicants stated they will spend more than their required share.

Woodbury said this change has resulted in applicants requesting more funds quicker.

“Last year I think we went through one, two or three sessions trying to use up the $150,000 with applicants,” he said. “We have our first four applicants and the money’s gone. So, that has made a difference.”

He said the program is unique and provides a rare opportunity to keep older structures in good shape.

The City Council will ultimately have to vote on the allocations before the grants can be given. If they decide not to give the additional amount, the Commission may have to decide which projects will see less funding than requested.

Epstein's guards worked extreme OT shifts morning of death

NEW YORK — Guards on Jeffrey Epstein’s unit were working extreme overtime shifts to make up for staffing shortages the morning of his apparent suicide, a person familiar with the jail’s operations told The Associated Press.

The person said that the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s Special Housing Unit was staffed with one guard working a fifth straight day of overtime and another who was working mandatory overtime. The person wasn’t authorized to discuss jail operations publicly and spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity.

The jail staff failed to follow protocols leading up to Epstein’s death , according to a report from The New York Times , deepening the fallout from what led to the highly connected financier’s apparent suicide.

Epstein should have been checked on by guards in his cell every 30 minutes, but that didn’t happen the night before his apparent suicide, a law enforcement official told the Times.

The Times spoke to the official on the condition of anonymity. The Associated Press has not independently confirmed the information.

A law enforcement source also told the Times he was alone in his cell early Saturday after his cellmate was transferred. An official with knowledge of the investigation told the paper that the Justice Department was told Epstein would have a cellmate and be monitored by a guard every 30 minutes.

The mystery surrounding how he was able to kill himself in jail comes as investigators have been digging into allegations of sexual abuse and conspiracy against Epstein . An additional federal investigation was launched Saturday after the Federal Bureau of Prison said Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell at a high-security jail in Manhattan. He was later pronounced dead from an apparent suicide, the BOP said.

New York City’s chief medical examiner released a statement Sunday evening saying an autopsy has been performed on Epstein, but that more information is needed before a cause of death determination is made.

Epstein’s abrupt death cuts short a criminal prosecution that could have pulled back the curtain on the inner workings of the high-flying financier with connections to celebrities and presidents , though prosecutors have vowed to continue investigating.

Epstein had been placed on suicide watch after he was found a little over two weeks ago with bruising on his neck, according to a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly. But he was taken off the watch at the end of July and therefore wasn’t on it at the time of his death, the person said.

Attorney General William Barr, calling for an investigation by the FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office, said he was “appalled” to learn of Epstein’s death while in federal custody.

Epstein, 66, had been denied bail and faced up to 45 years behind bars on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges unsealed last month. He had pleaded not guilty and was awaiting trial.

The federal investigation into the allegations remains ongoing, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said. He noted in a statement Saturday that the indictment against Epstein includes a conspiracy charge, suggesting others could face charges in the case.

Epstein’s death raises questions about how the Bureau of Prisons ensures the welfare of such high-profile inmates. In October, Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was killed in a federal prison in West Virginia where had just been transferred.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote Saturday in a scathing letter to Barr that “heads must roll” after the incident.

“Every single person in the Justice Department — from your Main Justice headquarters staff all the way to the night-shift jailer — knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him,” Sasse wrote.

Epstein’s removal from suicide watch would have been approved by both the warden of the jail and the facility’s chief psychologist, said Jack Donson, a former prison official who worked for the Bureau of Prisons for more than two decades.

On Friday, more than 2,000 pages of documents were released related to a since-settled lawsuit against Epstein’s ex-girlfriend by Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s accusers. The records contain graphic allegations against Epstein, as well as the transcript of a 2016 deposition of Epstein in which he repeatedly refused to answer questions to avoid incriminating himself.

Giuffre, in an interview with The New York Times , said she’s grateful Epstein will never harm anyone again, but is angry that there would be no chance to see him answer for his conduct.

Sigrid McCawley, Giuffre’s attorney, said Epstein’s suicide less than 24 hours after the documents were unsealed “is no coincidence.” McCawley urged authorities to continue their investigation, focusing on Epstein associates who she said “participated and facilitated Epstein’s horrifying sex trafficking scheme.”

Epstein’s arrest drew national attention, particularly focusing on a deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida and avoid more serious federal charges.

Federal prosecutors in New York reopened the probe after investigative reporting by The Miami Herald stirred outrage over that plea bargain.

Associated Press  

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads in Spanish ‘Ricky: Maduro: Quit now’ referring to Puerto Rico Governor and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, during a protest march on Las Americas highway demanding the resignation of governor Rossello on Monday in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Associated Press  

Kansas City Chiefs running back Josh Caldwell carries the ball for a 47-yard gain during the second half against the Cincinnati Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium.

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Missouri Western Fine Arts founding dean retires

Dr. Robert Willenbrink, founding dean of Missouri Western's School of Fine Arts

The retirement of Missouri Western’s Dean of Fine Arts will leave a lasting legacy and a renewed sense of commitment to students pursuing theater.

Serving as the head of the Theater and Dance Department and Founding Dean of Fine Arts, Bob Willenbrink helped usher the department into a new era, earning it accreditation and a renovation project that will expand Potter Hall, the central location for the department’s classes and performances.

“There’s a lot of accomplishments and a lot of things that went on that I’ve very proud of,” he said.

Willenbrink retired in July, leaving behind a legacy of passionate work dedicated to improving the experience and opportunities offered to Missouri Western students.

A Bowling Green State University graduate, Willenbrink previously served as a Chairperson in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Missouri State University, as well as jobs at Morehead State University in Kentucky and the University of Central Arkansas.

When he came to Missouri Western, Willenbrink said he was attracted to the idea of a challenge.

“What brought me here was the challenge of a couple of things: The challenge of starting a new college and setting up those procedures and working with the people that were there. I wanted to have all the programs accredited,” he said.

Accreditation helps prove certain education programs are meeting a standard of quality to help bring students to the college.

He also helped create the equity summer theater program, Western Playhouse, that performed productions like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Music Man.” Budget cuts caused it to be suspended in 2017.

“Sadly, Western Playhouse was one of the ones too, that brought me here the opportunity to work with that ... It’s kind of a combination of all types of things as a new challenge with new people and new programs, and new opportunities. And at that stage of my career, that’s just sounded like a great opportunity,” he said.

Working with Willenbrink both behind the scenes and onstage, Jessica Agnew, administrative coordinator for Missouri Western’s Fine Arts program, said his passion and empathy for students was apparent the moment you met him.

“He had such knowledge of theater and art and wanting to (bring) that out into the community. That was always his goal — ‘What can be the next thing that reached the next person? How can we get more people here to show them what we have?’” she said.

Willenbrink’s retirement coincides with that of several other Missouri Western theater veterans, including the college’s president Dr. Robert Vartabedian, a prominent supporter of the college’s theater program and his wife Dr. Laurel Vartabedian, who wrote the play “Mother Divine,” that was performed by Western Playhouse in 2014. Also exiting in the past year were directors Tee Quillin and Morgan Mallory.

Agnew said Willenbrink’s influence, along with the others leaving, will be felt in the upcoming season in a good way, as they aspire to reach the heights they achieved.

“It’s always our goal to be better than the year before ... Because no matter what, it’s about providing a quality, safe education here in St. Joe. Here at Missouri Western, they’re going to do what’s in the best interest of the students,” she said.

Willenbrink agrees that it will be different, but the change will be positive.

“The whole university is going to change. There’s a new president, there’s an interim provost who’s ... been there a year. There’s four deans that have left in the past year, either through retirement or a new job. So it’s going to be a different place,” he said.

In Willenbrink’s case, his presence will linger with an outdoor production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,” being performed at 6 p.m. on Aug. 16-17 at Coleman Hawkins Park at Felix Street Square. The show is a creative partnership between Patrick Modlin and Willenbrink to have Missouri Western’s Fine Arts Program perform a free musical for anyone that wants to see it.

“I’m very proud of (doing this) before I retired ... I think it’s a great collaboration,” he said.

As Willenbrink settles in with his wife in his new home in Havre de Grace, Maryland, where he’s closer to his family, he looks back fondly on his time at Missouri Western. As he talks about helping other students and the memories of that six-year span, he chokes up.

“It was a great tribute to me when I posted that I was retiring, how many responses I got back from students. It’s kind of a converse — they say I made a difference in their lives. But they made a difference in mine and that’s what I’m going to miss the most,” he said.

jessicakopp / Jessica Kopp | News-Press NOW  

Pony Express Community Bank has announced a proposed merger with First Option Bank.