A look back at the stories that defined the year in Warren and Center Line

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published January 3, 2018

 Protesters calling for the resignation of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts demonstrate outside the City Council chambers at the Warren Community Center March 28.

Protesters calling for the resignation of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts demonstrate outside the City Council chambers at the Warren Community Center March 28.

File photo by Brian Louwers

WARREN/CENTER LINE — What local news story will you remember most from 2017?

Will it be the flap surrounding Warren Mayor Jim Fouts over audio recordings that sound like his voice disparaging black people, older women and those with special needs, all clips he later alleged were manufactured by enemies bent on his political demise?

Were you, a loved one or a neighbor touched by the scourge of opioid addiction, as emerging statistics show a continued upward trend in the number of overdoses and deaths across the region?

How will Center Line’s recent elections affect residents and businesses in a city looking to champion its “small-town lifestyle in the heart of metro Detroit?”

Like any year, 2017 had its share of good, bad and ugly news. As it fades into history, here’s a look back at some of what happened and where it could all go from here.

Fouts and Hackel go on the ‘record’
The words were ugly and vulgar. The seemingly off-the-cuff remarks — maybe spoken in private, but apparently recorded in secret and leaked to reporters — were harsh, insensitive and racist.

On one recording released in December 2016, a voice that sounds like that of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts refers to a group of Special Olympians as “retards” and “dysfunctional human beings,” before lamenting coldly, “I wish them well in a cage.” Another clip, released in January 2017, features the same voice comparing blacks to chimpanzees. Older women were the subject of yet another recording, in which they were disparaged by the same voice as “dried up ... old and ugly hag(s).”

As 2018 loomed, Fouts remained firm in his position that while it may have been his voice on the recordings, the words were not his.

“I know it’s not me,” Fouts said in December, 53 weeks after the first set of clips was given to a reporter by Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who said they were delivered to him by a third party, who got them from a city employee. “They were manipulated, manufactured, and they were taken out of context, which means it might be my voice, but it was manipulated. No one has been able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that that’s not the case.”

The recordings surfaced during a dispute between Fouts and Hackel over the mayor’s allegations about “illegal dumping” at Freedom Hill County Park in Sterling Heights. Fouts made the claims on Facebook in November 2016 and later alleged that a contractor’s unauthorized placement of soil there disturbed a long-sealed landfill and put Macomb County residents at risk.

Almost six weeks later, another batch of recordings emerged as a group of pastors and black leaders gathered with Fouts at Warren City Hall for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance. The mayor, whose voice compares black people to chimpanzees on a recorded clip, was confronted by hecklers and reporters as he left the City Hall atrium that day. Residents, activists and politicians at all levels of government later spoke out in protest and called on Fouts to resign or, at least, to apologize for, explain or investigate the remarks.

Hackel again recently said that the mayor should call for an investigation of the recordings to determine their authenticity, or lack thereof, once and for all.

“There’s no question those tapes are him. And if they’re not, the mayor just has to do one thing, and that’s call for an investigation,” Hackel said. “There’s no question that’s his language. That’s his voice. Let’s call for an investigation. Let’s put it all on the table.”

Hackel said he believes Fouts knows exactly where the recordings really came from and that his lack of action to pursue an investigation proves that. He suggested that the source’s anonymity — which, if revealed, could authenticate the recordings — could be the result of settlement terms in a civil case.

He added that the mayor’s statements about Freedom Hill were “flat-out wrong,” that no risk existed, and that the ensuing controversy has left chilled relations between the office of the county executive and that of Warren’s mayor.

“There’s no relationship whatsoever. There’s none. We’ll continue to do things that will help the citizens of Warren, but communication and conversations with that office and that mayor, they’re nonexistent. Zero. I have no respect for a guy who speaks like that.”

But Fouts said fallout from the controversy hasn’t affected the city’s ability to function and thrive. He championed development, the city’s financial position and brushed aside the controversy as old news created by his political adversaries.

“There’s no evidence, no credibility whatsoever. I’ve moved on,” Fouts said.

The third-term mayor wouldn’t commit to a 2019 run, but a city charter change approved by the voters in 2016 makes him eligible to serve two more four-year terms.

“Last year was unique. I was facing some unique challenges that no mayor has ever faced, and, of course, my accusers never came forward. They never will,” Fouts said. “I think this is a better year.”

Hackel, meanwhile, said without mentioning names that he’s been approached by and would potentially back a viable candidate against Fouts in the next mayoral race.

“There are some reputable people that would be interested, and I’d support them,” Hackel said.

The local cost of a national epidemic
The numbers are staggering, even more so when you realize the dead come from all walks of life. They’re women and men, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Some had jobs and went to get high before or after work. Many lost everything to feed their addiction. Each and every one of them was someone’s child.

According to numbers from the office of the Macomb County medical examiner, provided by Warren Police Commissioner William Dwyer, there were 71 drug-related deaths in the city of Warren in 2015, including 59 that were attributed to opioid overdoses. In 2016, that number grew to 83 opioid overdose deaths out of a total of 100 drug-related fatalities.

While complete statistics and verified numbers were not yet available for 2017, Warren officially had 78 drug-related deaths as of Dec. 12, with another 100 cases open without a final classification.

If even a quarter of those are confirmed as opioid-related, it would surpass last year’s total and continue a deadly trend.

“Opioid-related deaths are trending upward for the entire county, including Warren,” Dwyer said. “Opioid deaths in Macomb County impact persons from all walks of life, in every age group. The (medical examiner’s) office has noted that older victims of overdoses generally have a drug history, leading to the overdose event. Younger persons generally have a pre-existing condition or prior injury that leads to an overdose event.”

Dwyer said Warren has taken several steps to address problems with drugs since he returned to lead the department in August.

Warren’s patrol officers now carry the Narcan nasal spray used to counteract an opioid overdose.

“Since I’ve been here in August and we put it out, we have administered Narcan to 24 individuals,” Dwyer said. “We have saved 19 lives so far.”

In the first 12 days of December alone, he said Warren officers administered 11 Narcan doses to six people. Some of them needed more than one dose to bring them back from the brink of death.

Lt. Mark Okray, of the Warren Police Department’s Special Investigations Division, leads a team of detectives and undercover officers combating the flow of narcotics in Warren. Trends come and go, but he said heroin, by far, is the most troubling drug on the street right now. Okray said it’s responsible for the most overdoses and deaths.

What’s more, he said heroin can be cut with cheaper and more powerful synthetic opioids, with extremely dangerous results. Most of the heroin originates in Colombia or Mexico. A synthetic like fentanyl can be manufactured in China, bought by dealers with bitcoin online through the “dark web” and shipped anywhere, including metro Detroit.

“It’s just everywhere,” Okray said. “And it’s cheap.”

Fentanyl can be up to 100 times more potent than heroin, yet it costs a fraction of the price. Carfentanil is even stronger. Okray said manufacturers can tweak the chemistry to keep supplies flowing even when the laws that regulate them overseas change. Once a supply is dropped into the local market, he said users flock to the strongest products, often ignoring the risks in a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

“We’ve bought dope from guys before and they say, ‘Hey, be careful with this one,’ knowing that it’s mixed with fentanyl,” Okray said.

When word gets out on the street that it’s available, Okray said that’s the kind of thing some users want to buy.

Some of them enter the gateway into the world of drugs by partying with alcohol or marijuana. Others start out on prescription pills after an injury and move on to opioids. Some just give into peer pressure and get in trouble with addiction.

Sometimes an overdose occurs through poly-drug use, and people die with dangerous combinations of drugs in their system, like cocaine mixed with heroin or fentanyl. Sometimes the opioids cut on the street are just too much for their body to handle.

Tim Pasternacki, an evidence technician with the Warren Police Department, said he administered Narcan in October after a woman in her mid-20s passed out in the back seat of her friend’s car outside Comerica Bank on Van Dyke. Pasternacki said the woman was blue when they arrived. His partner gave her a dose of Narcan, and he administered two more.

“She was pretty out of it. I didn’t even know she made it,” Pasternacki said. “I went to the hospital for a follow-up. She was pretty upset about the whole deal. We wrecked her buzz.”

Officer Kelly Davis said she administered Narcan after she was dispatched to a home on Chalmers this fall.

“I pull up. I start walking in. I’m the first one there with my Narcan kit, and a girl I went to high school with was walking out of the house saying her little sister just overdosed on heroin,” Davis said.

Paramedics arrived shortly thereafter and told Davis the Narcan she gave the woman in her 30s was working. She noted other empty boxes of Narcan in the house where the women lived.

“(She) wasn’t angry when she woke up. She was more like embarrassed, from everyone standing around her,” Davis said. “She was more worried if we were going to tell CPS, for her kids. She didn’t want the neighbors to see her.”

Officer Michelle Martinez administered Narcan to a man in his late 20s at the Days Inn at Van Dyke and Convention Boulevard this fall. She said his girlfriend claimed that he had a history of heroin use.

“He told her that he had been clean for a while, but when she got out of the bathroom she found him unresponsive on the floor,” Martinez said. “He wasn’t breathing at all. He had a very weak pulse.”

Martinez administered two doses of Narcan, and paramedics gave the man in his late 20s a third when they arrived, before they drove him to the hospital.

In 2017, Warren also launched the People Against Illegal Drugs, or PAID, initiative to generate tips from the public about drug activity in the neighborhoods. Dwyer said the program had generated 120 tips as of Dec. 12, including 92 about activities in Warren.

Thus far, the city has paid out one $500 reward for information about narcotics activity, with funds available from drug case forfeitures.


A vote of confidence in Center Line
Center Line residents are heading into 2018 with two new elected leaders on the City Council. The council, likewise, will enter the year with an administrative team it apparently feels comfortable with, after its members recently approved raises for the city manager, treasurer and public safety director.    

That will all mean good things for Center Line in the months to come, City Manager Dennis Champine said Dec. 27.

“I think it’s obvious with regards to the opportunity to move the city forward, especially with the downtown redevelopment and the creation of a downtown that is walkable, pedestrian-friendly, the residents of our city voted for individuals who are supportive of that direction,” Champine said. “I think the two candidates who were elected are two individuals who are a part of this community for a couple generations now. They understand what needed to be done to continue Center Line’s uniqueness as a small town.”

Richard Moeller and Peter Harenski were elected to four-year terms Nov. 7 by significant margins over longtime former Mayor Mary Ann Zielinski and incumbent Councilwoman Mary Hafner.

“I’m trying to learn the ropes. We’re looking to improve the city and move forward,” Harenski said Dec. 18. “We can just build off what we left off with in 2017, without a doubt.”

He said he’d like to see more business development in Center Line, and that’s what Champine said the administration will focus on in the coming year.

“They (Moeller and Harenski) are supportive of the efforts that we’ve made over the last two years, with regards to creating an even more unique commercial environment in our city,” Champine said. “Since the election, they have shown their support.”

Champine said investments are already starting to fall into place for commercial properties.

“That is going to be 2018’s identity,” he added, noting that a three-phase development at Essco Square on the northwest corner of 10 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue is expected to kick off in the coming year. He said he hopes to see more new development follow at the adjacent plaza, and further up and down Van Dyke in what is called the Van Dyke Downtown District, from Stephens to Engleman.

“The businesses that are currently here are very supportive of it. They have worked real hard toward spreading this message,” Champine said.

 Zoning changes to encourage development include form-based municipal coding and Redevelopment Ready Certification.

“Economic strategies are being figured out and base codes are being drafted for our City Council to consider for the amendment of our current zoning code, to again be able to move forward on the mixed-use development plan for the downtown,” Champine said. “Now with these new council members, I think we have a real strong consensus to continue doing that.”

Councilman Ron Lapham said he’d like to see more walkable shopping return to the area of 10 Mile and Van Dyke, where many seniors would benefit from access to walkable commercial destinations for groceries and other necessities.

“I’m hoping we get a shopping market there this year,” Lapham said. “I think we are coming along slowly, but surely. I’m a little more cautious than a lot of people. I’m hoping that these new ones (council members) are going to do a good job and not be under anybody’s thumb.”

Election Day 2017 in Center Line marked the end of a campaign that heated up before the primary in August, after literature from a group called the Center Line Watchdogs arrived in mailboxes and promoted just two candidates: Moeller and Harenski. Both denied any ties to the piece, which Zielinski called a “scurrilous piece of trash.”

Both Moeller and Harenski advanced to the general election after finishing first and second, respectively, in the primary. Zielinski finished third, followed by Hafner, who advanced by just two votes over Jane Lapham.

The close result led Lapham to request a recount, which was conducted on Aug. 23 and resulted in no change in the outcome.