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Judge gives Bark River man 22 years in father’s murder

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MENOMINEE—Gary Phillips-Donovan, 37, of Bark River was sentenced to 22 ½ to 40 years in prison Tuesday in the beating death of his father, 74-year-old Michael Donovan of Harris Township.

Before Judge Christopher Ninomiya imposed the sentence for second-degree murder and granted Phillips-Donovan 749 days of time served, he heard three of Donovan’s relatives describe their anger and grief.

“The pain was palpable in this courtroom in terms of how this criminal has affect the entire family,” Ninomiya said. Phillips-Donovan was present via Zoom and declined the opportunity to speak before the judge or to express remorse to the family members.

Donovan’s granddaughter Jeralynn Alexander wiped tears from her eyes and needed time to gain composure before speaking at the courtroom podium about how she missed her grandfather. “I am angry that you took away my best friend and father figure,” she said facing the large screen where Phillips-Donovan’s image was displayed. “I feel like I have no one now. He was the one person I told everything to,” Alexander said. She called Phillips-Donovan “selfish” for taking Donovan’s life.

Michael Donovan Jr., son of the victim, blamed Phillips-Donovan for taking his father away before he had the chance to reconcile with him. He reminded Phillips-Donovan that his parents adopted him and went out of their way for him. “After they spent their entire life giving you chance after chance, you brutally murdered the one who helped you out for another quick fix or whatever.”

He noted Phillips-Donovan’s lack of remorse or emotion and said, “It just shows me you’re a cold, hard person.”

“I pity the world you’ll come out of if you manage to survive prison. You’re just amoral. I don’t think you should ever get out,” Donovan said.

Phillips-Donovan was originally charged with open murder and two counts of home invasion in the Nov. 19, 2019 crime. A trial was scheduled for Oct. 25, but Phillips-Donovan accepted a plea agreement of 2nd degree murder in the bludgeoning death of his father.

Phillips-Donovan’s mother Patricia found the elder Donovan lying on the ground with trauma to the head in a detached garage at W546 Old-U.S. 2/41, where he apparently had been beaten with a shovel.

No one saw the actual crime being committed, which could have been a factor in the decision to allow Phillips-Donovan to plead “no contest” to 2nd-degree murder and two counts of home invasion.

Menominee County Prosecuting Attorney Jeffrey Rogg said he was concerned about the toll a jury trial would take on the Patricia Donovan, who “would have been a star witness.” But she also was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for breast cancer while recovering from her husband’s murder, Rogg said. “She just did not want to endure a trial,” he said.

Rogg said he didn’t want Patricia and her granddaughter to have to testify before a jury. “We can plead our cases through circumstantial evidence. This was a very good circumstantial case,” Rogg said.

Phillips-Donovan had previous convictions for sexually abusing a minor in 2005 and for three offenses related to an attempted armed burglary in 2014, according to media reports. As a habitual offender, Phillips-Donovan could have received a life sentence in the Harris Township murder.

Menominee County Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Gerald Karafa said Phillips-Donovan wasn’t welcome at the Donovans’ home but arrived there on Nov. 19, 2019, allegedly with the intent to steal. A 9-year-old grandchild was home at the time Phillips-Donovan arrived at the Donovan’s home, Rogg said, or they might not have noticed he had entered the house.

A short time later, Phillips-Donovan was going through drawers. “The police surmised he was after money. He had a history of alcohol and drug abuse over the years,” Rogg said.

At one point, Phillips-Donovan’s father told him to leave. He left from the front door.

A few minutes later, Donovan told Patricia he was going out to the garage. “I think he was suspicious Gary might have gone back there,” Karafa said.

While a tracking dog verified Phillips-Donovan was there, no one saw the actual bludgeoning with the shovel, Rogg said.

Area coffee shops—like Starbucks on Roosevelt Road in Marinette—continued to cater to those venturing into the thick snowfall Sunday morning, which managed to hold off until the day after Marinette’s annual Christmas festivity. According to the National Weather Service, Marinette received 10 inches of snow, the most in the area. Peshtigo and Athelstane were next with 9 inches each.

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Stakeholders participate in first water discussion

EagleHerald Staff Writer

MARINETTE—Stakeholders participated in a virtual water summit Monday, kicking off a series of facilitated discussions regarding a permanent water solution for Town of Peshtigo residents impacted by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) contamination.

Representatives of the Town of Peshtigo, the City of Peshtigo, the City of Marinette, Johnson Controls, Inc. subsidiary Tyco Fire Products (JCI/Tyco) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) attended the meeting.

Planning for the long-awaited water discussions began in July when the Town of Peshtigo Board met with Vice President and Chief Sustainability, Government and Regulatory Affairs Officer of JCI Kathleen McGinty to discuss mitigation options for the local PFAS contamination caused by the historic activities of Tyco Fire Products.

During that meeting, the Town of Peshtigo Board asked JCI/Tyco, along with the DNR, to participate in a water summit to discuss long-term water options for impacted town residents, some of whom have been using bottled water for three years since discovering PFAS contamination in their wells.

In October, the DNR selected Rob Olian, founder of Chicago-based envADR, to facilitate the discussions.

Olian said in an interview with the EagleHerald that the initial meeting was productive and that all parties seemed intent on continuing their participation in the discussions. Several parties came away from the meeting with assignments to complete before the next meeting, which Olian said he expects to take place sometime shortly after the New Year.

The meetings are not open to the public, and at this time, all participants have formally agreed to keep the information discussed during the mediated sessions confidential. “The reason for this is so that people can speak freely (during the session) and don’t feel compelled to posture about their position,” Olian explained.

He said, however, that there may be a point at which an interim agreement will have to come out of the discussion to be considered before a city council or town board.

Landing on an effective water solution will likely be a multi-session process. At the moment, it’s uncertain how many times stakeholders will meet or when they expect to reach a consensus on a water solution.

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New date set for Brian Helfert trial
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EagleHerald Editor

MENOMINEE—Former Menominee County Sheriff’s deputy Brian Helfert will go to trial on sexual assault charges at the end of February.

Menominee County Circuit Judge Mary Brouillette Barglind set the new date at a pretrial hearing Monday in her courtroom. The trial will begin the morning of Feb. 22, 2022, (a Tuesday) and could run for six days through March 2. It will be held in the 41st Circuit Court under the direction of Barglind. The 41st Circuit Court encompasses Menominee, Dickinson and Iron counties.

The trial is not starting on Feb. 21, 2022, because that is Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday. It was originally scheduled for early November, but was delayed because of a COVID outbreak at the courthouse.

Additionally, motion hearings will take place in January.

Helfert, 57, Menominee, faces more than a dozen felony charges of repeated sexual assault of a teenage boy. The 16 charges against Helfert include eight counts of criminal sexual conduct—first degree. The maximum penalty for each of those counts is life in prison.

The defendant, who also served as a school liaison officer, is out on a personal recognizance (PR) bond. He can’t have any contact with the alleged victims or any minors.

“We had no choice on the bond,” Menominee County Prosecutor Jeffrey Rogg said last month. “Defendants in custody are required to be tried within six months. We can’t do that now. Thus the PR bond.”

At the preliminary hearing in May in Menominee County District Court, the court heard from two witnesses—a 23-year-old man who said he was in a sexually abusive relationship with Helfert for about six years and the man’s mother. The EagleHerald does not print the names of possible sexual assault victims without their consent.

The alleged victim—who had aspirations of becoming a police officer—told how the former deputy allegedly groped him in his squad car during “ride alongs” while out in the county and on a police boat, just offshore during the city’s Waterfront Festival and how Helfert and he allegedly had sexual relations dozens, if not hundreds, of times in a spare bedroom of Helfert’s Menominee home.

At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, Menominee County District Judge Robert J. Jamo dismissed two charges from an 11-count felony complaint, but he added seven more charges to bring the total to 16.

A preliminary examination is a sort of mini trial, where the prosecution is required to show that there is probable cause that the charged crime was committed and that it is more likely than not that the accused committed that crime. Jamo had the option to: bind the defendant over for trial, bind some of the charges over for trial or dismiss all of the charges.

Helfert completed a six-month jail sentence last May for attempted accosting of different male boy for immoral purposes while he was a resource officer at Menominee High School.

On June 7, Helfert stood mute and formally waived his arraignment in writing as Judge Barglind entered not guilty pleas on his behalf.

At the June arraignment, Rogg responded to the plea deal reached with the first victim. “The reason that plea was entered and agreed to by me—and blessed by the victim—is because the victim did not want to endure any more participation in the court system and be re-victimized. That’s the reason it was done. Not because Mr. Helfert’s conduct was somehow less culpable than what he was charged with.”

Trenton Stupak, an attorney from Escanaba, is handling the defense.