Ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances produced some of the Inland Northwest’s most compelling stories of 1996.
In late January, a Pullman teenager accidentally skied out of bounds at Silver Mountain, then survived two nights in freezing temperatures before being rescued.
In February, a Spokane restaurant manager preparing for the lunch rush was shot and severely wounded by a crazed elderly man with a bag full of guns.
In June, a pregnant Richland woman went into labor at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital. Two months later, she and her husband took home the last of their quintuplets.
Such tales were the talk of the Inland Northwest for a few days or weeks in 1996 before fading into memories when the spotlight shifted to hotter topics.
The Spokesman-Review tracked down a few of the people who made news last year to see how they’re faring as they head into 1997.
Andy Zeller, winter survivor
The Pullman teenager became the focus of a massive search and thousands of prayers in late January after he got lost on North Idaho’s Silver Mountain.
On only his second ski trip, Zeller accidentally skied off the wrong side of the mountain and spent two nights in temperatures that dipped as low as 10 degrees.
Rescuers finally found him frostbitten, hungry and swearing off skiing nearly 45 hours after he disappeared.
Today, the 17-year-old Zeller is finishing up his senior year in high school, working a part-time job and preparing to pick a college, said his father, Jeff Zeller.
“He is not held back by it at all,” Jeff Zeller said of his son’s ordeal.
Still, some after-effects remain.
Zeller’s feet, one of which was frostbitten during his odyssey, are extremely sensitive to the cold. He’s forced to wear extra heavy-duty boots when he goes out in cold weather, his father said.
“He went through several months of recovery and is still in recovery,” Jeff Zeller said.
There also have been psychological impacts. Zeller hasn’t strayed far from home this winter, his father said.
“He goes out in his car, but he sticks mainly around town,” Jeff Zeller said.
But the ordeal also brought positives.
“He’s lost the ability to do some things, like the skiing,” his father said. “But that’s a small price to pay for his life. He’s much the wiser now. He’s very cognizant to the frailty of life.”
The Bowman quintuplets
Christmas was a big jumbled mess of joy at Roger and Joyce Bowman’s house in Richland.
“It was quite a treat,” Roger Bowman said. “We had all our presents right here without even going shopping.”
Of course, everything’s been a big jumbled mess of joy since the Bowmans brought the last of their quintuplets home from the hospital in August.
The babies were born 22 weeks premature in June at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center. They are thought to be the first live quintuplets ever born in the state of Washington.
Four of them spent time on ventilators, but all are doing fine now, their father said. The four girls (Rachel, Randi, Sierra, Danielle) and one boy (Clint) are growing rapidly, he said.
The Bowman babies weighed between 1 pound, 11 ounces to 3 pounds, 12 ounces at birth.
Today, the smallest child weighs 11 pounds, the largest about 15.
“The doctors say they’re all on the normal growth curve,” Roger Bowman said. “They say they’re catching up with the non-preemie babies.”
The quintuplets prompted a blur of family and friends to visit the Bowman home this year.
The New Year promises to be busy as well, Roger Bowman said.
“We’re going to have a bunch of babies who are a lot more mobile,” he said. “We’re going to be spending a lot of time baby-proofing the house.”
A (temporarily) wrecked marriage
Priest River, Idaho, resident Amanda Jones excused herself and giggled. Her baby, Ski, was playing with dirt in her house plants.
These days Jones thrives on such innocuous, familial moments. They remind her how much she almost lost four months ago.
The young parent, her boyfriend and the child they share each spent a month in the hospital last summer following one of the most bizarre automobile accidents in Idaho history.
On Aug. 16, Jones and Ski were driving east into town along a rural highway to meet Jones’ fiance, Benjamin Ells. She pulled into the westbound lane to pass a truck and collided head-on with another car.
The other driver: Ells, who was headed home to meet her.
Jones suffered broken facial bones, a broken femur, a crushed left heel. Ells dislocated a hip, shattered a knee and underwent emergency surgery for an infection. The baby broke a leg, a finger and suffered a skull fracture.
Today, Ells and Ski have fully recovered, said Ells’ grandmother.
Jones “still limps quite badly, but her facial wounds have healed,” Lois Ells said. “Things are almost back to normal.”
The accident taught the couple much.
“I take more time to do things,” Jones said. “Of course I’m slowed down a bit, but I don’t take things for granted.
“We just feel lucky that we’re all alive and together,” Jones said.
The couple plans to wed in a quiet service in July.
The (invisible) lion
Suffering safaris, Batman, there’s a lion loose in Spokane!
It was early June, and the news whipped the community into a big-game frenzy. A woman on her way to work reported seeing a 500-pound male African lion ambling down the street in west Spokane.
Animal control officers - worried that a large, hungry predator might be roaming the suburbs of the Lilac City - immediately launched an all-out offensive to locate the beast.
For nearly a week, authorities combed side streets, brushy vacant lots and rimrock looking for the lion. Sheriff’s deputies called “kitty, kitty” through bull horns. Animal control director Nancy Sattin baited a large trap with cat food and waited.
Despite dozens and dozens of tips and reported sightings, the lion remained at large. Then the reports died out, and so did the interest.
Sattin said recently she’s heard rumors the lion was reclaimed by its owner shortly after the hubbub began.
“I ran into a veterinarian a month or two ago who got some information from a client that someone had their lion get loose, and that person got the lion back before we got to it,” she said. “Of course that’s what, third or fourth hand information?”
Sattin, who’s taken a ribbing for her zealous pursuit of the beast, still keeps her lion file active. She’s not ready to let go of the possibility that the king of beasts really was loose in her jurisdiction.
“The first lady that reported it that morning, I totally, honestly believed her,” she said. “Everything that happened after that, I’m not so sure of.”
The house that floods bought
It’s been almost a year since Orofino, Idaho, officials destroyed Cindy Wilson’s home.
It was February and a swollen Orofino Creek had washed earth from beneath the house. Fearing floodwaters would carry it downstream, city workers tore it down and torched the remains.
No one, it seemed, would pay for it.
“We moved five times in four months,” Wilson said. “I can’t even imagine ever going through that again.”
They shouldn’t have to.
Today, the Wilson family lives in a new house on an Orofino hillside, well above the creek.
After months of negotiating, city officials finally found a federal grant to buy out the Wilsons’ $66,000 mortgage. The grant paid for three other homes and a creekside church.
“We’re really happy where we are,” Wilson said. “We were able to completely pay off our old mortgage.”
The site of their old home will now be a park.
“We were so lucky. Just talking about it chokes me up,” she said. “It changed the way we look at things.”
For Christmas, the family wasn’t interested in buying things, she said. She and husband Wayne, a logger, also feel more “mindful of others in need,” she said.
Wilson took a year off from teaching high school to make the new house livable. Their lives are almost back to normal - “just in time for flood season.”
But if waters rise this year, the Wilsons won’t be tying down their foundation.
Instead, “we’ll be out there helping anybody else who needs it. We have a lot of favors to return.”
Mary MacInnes, still mourning
The Vancouver, B.C., grandmother hoped 1996 would be a year of justice. It turned into nothing but heartache.
In January, MacInnes watched unbelieving as a Spokane judge sentenced the man convicted of murdering her daughter, Cookie Birnel, to only five years in prison.
“I am horrified and so, so angry,” she said of the sentence handed to her son-in-law, Thomas “Rick” Birnel.
That horror grew when Judge Kathleen O’Connor later allowed Birnel, who stabbed his wife more than 30 times with a butcher knife, to go free on bond while he appealed his conviction.
Birnel is still out of jail, running his Valley carpeting business and taking care of the couple’s five children.
This fall, MacInnes’ life turned into a mind-numbing nightmare when Birnel successfully petitioned for a protection order that prohibits her from seeing her daughter’s children.
Birnel said in court documents supporting his petition that MacInnes threatened to kill him, scared his children and intimidated his co-workers.
The 66-year-old grandmother admitted threatening Birnel, but denies the other charges.
“I had some wine one night and said some things over the phone that I shouldn’t have, and he taped it,” she said. “That was a mistake.”
The past year ruined her health - she’s on medication to treat a mood disorder - and made her consider going back to Vancouver. “My nerves are shot,” she said. “It just makes you want to give up.”
But now, she’s resolved to stay and fight to make sure Birnel’s appeal is denied and that her grandchildren are cared for when he goes to prison.
“I’m not going to let this beat me,” she said.
The little candidate who couldn’t
If at first you don’t succeed … change the rules. It’s better than suing.
That’s what 19-year-old Joshua Buehner’s been thinking since learning in March he was too young to run for state representative.
“I decided it wasn’t worth a legal battle,” the political prodigy said.
Buehner, some may recall, ran a half-day campaign in March 1996 to unseat Rep. Wayne Meyer, R-Rathdrum. In one afternoon, the Lakeland High School honors student announced his candidacy only to learn legislators must be 21.
It knocked the energetic teenager down, but not out.
He spent the rest of the political season working for congressional candidate Dan Williams and Democratic legislative contenders.
Since election day, he has taken it easy, acting a little more his age. He’s planning a trip to Seattle and just saw the new Tom Cruise movie, “Jerry Maguire.”
“I am a skier,” he said. “I do the Internet stuff.”
This year he hopes to help draft a bill that would allow 18-year-olds to run for state office in Idaho.
Since graduating from high school he has enrolled at North Idaho College where he’s studying - surprise, surprise - political science.
“I do hope to get into public office someday and I want to do it in Idaho,” he said.
Ron MacDonald, Ridpath recovery
The manager of the Silver Grill restaurant at Spokane’s Ridpath Hotel answered the telephone on the first ring and made it clear he couldn’t stay on long.
“We’re real busy,” MacDonald said as the sounds of clinking dishes and talking customers threatened to drown out his voice.
Ten months after a crazed gunman nearly killed him at the downtown restaurant, MacDonald’s hectic life is returning to normal.
MacDonald and waitress Marie Van Slate were gunned down in February by 78-year-old Orville Sassen as they prepared for the lunch rush.
Van Slate died of her wounds.
MacDonald was severely wounded when Sassen fired a .357-caliber handgun into his back at close range. The bullet ripped through his back and shoulder before lodging in his right arm.
He still is recovering.
“I’ve still got some nerve problems in my right hand, and my fingers are still causing a little difficulty, but it’s getting better,” MacDonald said.
The psychological wounds - the bad dreams and flashbacks - are beginning to heal, too.
“I’m back at work, so that helps,” he said. “And I’ve gotten a lot of support, calls and letters from people I haven’t heard from in years.”
Customers and employees were waiting, so he prepared to hang up.
“Well, thanks for calling. I’m still here, so I guess I’m going to make it,” he said. “That’s what they tell me anyway.”
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