Libraries top Oconto County news in 2023

No contest plea in double homicide, new child-care center round out three biggest stories
By: 
NEW Media Staff

For a northern Oconto County library, dreams for the future began to take concrete shape in 2023, while the county launched an effort to secure the future for all libraries in its boundaries.

Groundbreaking of the expansion of Lakes Country Public Library in Lakewood was selected by NEW Media editors as the top Oconto County story in the year just passed, just edging out the more somber story of a Little Suamico man who pleaded no contest to murdering his mother and her husband in 2022.

Other notable news stories included the announcement of a much-needed child-care center in Oconto Falls, the arrest of a suspect in the explosion at a homecoming bonfire near Pulaski and groundbreaking for the long-planned new Oconto Falls Middle School.

The top 10 is rounded out by a visit from the Tournament of Roses Parade president in advance of Pulaski High School marching band’s fourth appearance in Pasadena, California; changes at and near East Side Beach in Oconto Falls caused by the emerald ash borer and budget constraints; County Administrator Erik Pritzl’s decision to step down early in 2024; and no contest pleas from a woman who shot an Oconto Falls police officer and a man arrested driving drunk for the 10th time.

1. Lakewood library breaks ground

The Town of Lakewood and neighboring communities broke ground Sept. 13 on a $1.5 million expansion of a beloved public library that has an abundance of patrons but not of space.

Kathleen Marsh, co-chairwoman for the project and the driving force behind the fundraising, noted that much of the money for the expansion had been raised in 18 months. That surprised her, she said, as she figured she’d need five years to raise the funds.

“Many people told us this day would never come, that we could never raise enough money for this project,” Marsh said. “Here we are, $1.37 million later, and well on our way to our goal. It took more than a village. It took more than a community. It took more than Oconto County to do this.”

Lakewood library officials and representatives from the county’s five other local libraries joined a special planning committee that is developing a five-year plan that could result in formation of a consolidated library system serving the entire county.

The local boards have resisted consolidation in the past because of the potential loss of autonomy. Pritzl said the planning committee meetings have evolved from “positions and stakes and things” to an attitude of collaboration to solve the issues.

“You heard some ‘northern county, southern county’ stuff early on,” Pritzl said. “By (Nov. 15), our most recent meeting, that’s gone. It’s ‘How do we make this work together, we don’t want to leave anyone out to dry, so to speak, we want to make sure that this works for everybody.’ That’s where we always want things to be, to get to that teamwork and collaboration.”

2. Steinmetz pleads to double homicide

The Little Suamico man charged with murdering his mother and stepfather pleaded no contest to the charges Dec. 12 and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 20.

David Steinmetz, 29, was convicted of two counts of first-degree intentional homicide in connection with the Oct. 1, 2022, shooting deaths of his mother, Lori Steinmetz Brennan, 55, and her husband, Paul Brennan, 75. A third charge, possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a felony, was dismissed but read into the record.

The couple’s bodies were found with multiple gunshot wounds outside their home on Melissa Boulevard on the morning of Oct. 2. The investigation determined that the shootings had occurred the previous afternoon, according to the criminal complaint.

3. Encompass announces child-care center plans

Oconto County has been considered a “child care desert” because of a lack of available facilities. That changed dramatically in January when Encompass Early Education and Care Inc. of Green Bay took steps to open a facility in Oconto Falls that is expected to serve up to 140 children.

The Oconto County Board approved a $250,000 grant that will help Encompass bring more child care availability into the county. The funds, approved unanimously Jan. 23, are to come out of an American Rescue Plan Coronavirus Fiscal Recovery allocation of about $460,000 for Health and Human Services projects.

Facilities located in Oconto County currently have a capacity of 270 child care slots for a population of 1,800 children younger than 5, Health and Human Services Director Scott Shackelford said.

“Those are four facilities that are larger that range from 40 to up to 70 children in one place, and then there are eight smaller facilities that have about an eight-child capacity,” he said. “As kids start to get into our schools, we want to make sure that they have a good, solid foundation.”

The availability of child care also is helpful in attracting employees to live and work in the county, Shackelford said.

Encompass staged a “groundbreaking” ceremony Dec. 7 at the old Kaempfer and Associates building at 650 E. Jackson St., which has been vacant for a number of years.

“Our hopes are to wrap our arms around children and families in this community like we’ve done in other communities before us for the last 104 years,” said Missy Schmeling, Encompass’ executive director. “Our dedication to excellence in being a leader in the early education field will be shared in Oconto County, and we welcome and look forward to the great impact that we’re going to have in Oconto Falls.”

4. Arrest man in bonfire explosion

A Green Bay teen was arrested in August and charged with injuring at least 13 people during a bonfire incident in the Town of Maple Grove that took place during Pulaski High School’s homecoming week in October 2022.

Samuel J. Armstrong, 18, faced 13 felony counts of injury by negligent handling of explosives or fire when a diesel and gasoline mixture came in contact with the bonfire and the fire “began shooting out,” according to the criminal complaint.

During a short hearing Dec. 6 in Shawano-Menominee County Circuit Court, defense attorney Greg Petit, appearing via Zoom, told Judge Katherine Sloma that he received a plea agreement offer Dec. 5 from District Attorney Gregory Parker.

“I’ve talked to my client, and we would like to set this matter for a plea hearing,” Petit said.

He asked that the hearing be scheduled for early February. Sloma set the hearing for 3 p.m. Feb. 5 and ordered a pre-sentence investigation.

5. Ground broken for Oconto Falls Middle School

About 200 Oconto Falls School District students, parents, staff and administrators were on hand Sept. 27 at a formal groundbreaking ceremony for the district’s new middle school. The $35 million project was approved by referendum in November 2022.

Superintendent Dean Hess told the crowd the event is the culmination of years of work to replace aging Washington Middle School, some areas of which were built during World War I.

“It didn’t pass the first time,” Hess said, referring to a failed April 2022 referendum. “It took a lot of folks thinking about OK, what do we need to do, what do we need to adjust. To me, that’s another example of teamwork, another example of grit.”

The school board voted Aug. 14 not to retain the name Washington Middle School for the new structure, which is due to open in fall 2025. Following the pattern of the district’s high school and elementary schools, it will be known simply as Oconto Falls Middle School.

6. Pulaski High School marches in Rose Parade

Tournament of Roses President Alex Aghajanian has seen many amazing bands during his tenure with the iconic parade, but one thing he was impressed with when seeing Pulaski High School’s marching band was that it had a member playing an accordion.

“Pulaski brings a special element in celebrating their community, like accordions and concertinas,” Aghajanian said. “They’re very musical, very precise. It is the dedication of these kids to their craft that really impressed me.”

The Pulaski marching band made its fourth trip to the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day, and it’s bringing the high school choir for its first trip. The high school held a dinner and polka fundraiser June 28 at the Barn at Sunset Acres in Pulaski, and Aghajanian and his wife, Paula, were the guests of honor at the event.

7. Ash borer defoliates North Main Street

The Oconto Falls Avenue of Lights was scaled back after trees along North Main Street were removed as part of the battle against an invasive beetle

After the emerald ash borer was discovered in the city, the state Department of Natural Resources recommended removing trees that could be affected to stop the spread of the pest.

“The DNR recommended removing the trees right away, so we started basically as soon as the lights came off in the spring,” City Administrator Peter Wills said Nov. 13. “We removed around 65 trees, not just in the East Side Beach area but throughout the city.”

The Lioness Club continued the tradition of decorating the beach area and Lotter Park with figurines and lights, but the club did not seek sponsorships or put out signs this year.

“We hope to bring back the Avenue of Lights in its full splendor very soon and appreciate your understanding while we navigate the changes we need to make to adapt to the ever-changing landscape,” the club’s announcement said.

8. County administrator announces resignation

Pritzl, who has served as county administrator since the beginning of 2022, informed the county board in November that he would be leaving the post in February. A month later, the Brown County Board approved his return to Green Bay as director of Health and Human Services, the job he had left to take the Oconto County job.

“I am honored to have been able to work with so many wonderful people during the past two years, and I appreciate having this opportunity,” Pritzl said. “I will assist in any way I can in the recruitment of a new county administrator and the transition of leadership … I think it’s a wonderful position for someone to step into.”

9. Plea entered in officer shooting

The woman who shot and wounded an Oconto Falls police officer in 2021 has pleaded no contest to four felony charges.

During an appearance Aug. 25 in Oconto County Circuit Court, Alisha Kocken, 31, did not withdraw her plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. A trial is currently scheduled April 1-4 to determine her state of mind Aug. 6, 2021, when Kocken seized Officer Nicole Blaskowski’s service weapon during a struggle and fired three shots, wounding the officer.

“This plea only regards the factual background of this case,” Judge Michael Judge said, reading from the plea agreement filed at the hearing. “The defendant re-asserts that she is not guilty of any crime as a matter of law. The state and the defendant hereby agree that the defendant’s culpability is still an area of legal dispute.”

The 2021 incident occurred at the apartment complex where Kocken lived on Elm Avenue in Oconto Falls.

10. Prison term for 10th OWI

Oconto County Circuit Court Judge Jay Conley on Oct. 16 sentenced Martin Cooper, 54, of Mountain, to 10 years in prison, followed by five years of extended supervision, after he pleaded no contest to operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated for the 10th time.

The conviction stemmed from a December 2020 incident in which Cooper was driving 80 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone with a blood-alcohol content measured at 0.174, more than twice the legal limit.

Conley told Cooper that he took no joy in sending the man to prison, but he had to protect the community.

“Just the fact that you have people here that love and care about you, says that you touched some people’s lives, and I’ve seen some fundamental honesties in you. So I’m not going to call all bad or a monster,” the judge said, “but if you drink and drive, some day you could end up doing a monstrous thing, and that’s highly foreseeable and probable if you keep doing this — and you’ve done it for 30 years.”

Once the 10-year prison term is up, Conley ruled that Cooper’s license will be revoked for 36 months, and he must undergo an AODA assessment and treatment. He ruled that Cooper is eligible for the prison Substance Abuse Program, which can lead to early release upon completion, but not until he has served eight years of the sentence.