The top stories in Warren County, MO, in 2023 include the Warrenton High School football team, a murder trial, a new judge, the new Wright City high school, county assessments, and election results.
As Warren County residents prepare to ring in the start of a new year, it’s time to take a look back at what happened in 2023.
From the Warrenton High School football team’s historic season, to important court cases, to one of the biggest road projects in Missouri history, it was an incredibly newsy year for the region.
These are some of the biggest stories from the past 12 months.
The Warrenton Warriors began practicing for the 2023 season with high expectations.
“We’ve been working pretty hard this summer, working toward that 1-0 start,” linebacker Kadin Stroer said before the season. “Having a good season this season, I think it’s going to come.”
He couldn’t have been more right.
The Warriors opened the year with a come-from-behind win at Fort Zumwalt South after a one-yard touchdown run from Austin Haas. They followed that up with a tough fight against Washington the next week, and rolled to a 9-0 regular season.
Haas went on to have a huge season as the Warriors won the first outright conference championship since 1995.
Haas racked up 786 rushing yards, 165 receiving yards, and 13 total touchdowns during conference play, earning his player of the year honors.
His coach, Jason Koper, brought home the conference coach of the year title.
Several other Warriors were named to all-conference teams.
“What I told these kids when we broke it down, it’s not the wins and losses. It’s what they’ve done for the community. And I don’t think they’ll understand that for a long time. But I’m seeing the effects firsthand right away and the good they’ve done for our community. This team’s special, no matter what the end result was,” Koper said after the season ended.
The Warriors finished the year 11-1.
Shawn Kavanagh was found guilty of murder in March after a three-day trial following years of delay.
He was convicted of stabbing three people to death and seriously injuring a fourth on Feb. 14, 2014.
Kavanagh was spared the death penalty by St. Charles County Judge Rebecca Navarro-McKelvey, who instead sentenced Kavanagh to life in prison.
It was not a popular decision with the family.
“He doesn’t deserve to live,” said Heather Vandiver, sister-in-law of Lexy Vandiver, one of the three people Kavanagh killed. “He stabbed a little boy. He deserves to die.”
Prosecuting Attorney Kelly King was also disappointed with the judge’s decision. But, she said, “As disappointing as the verdict is, Mr. Kavanagh will spend the rest of his life in prison.”
Kavanagh spoke during the hearing to apologize for his actions.
“I’ve done so much damage and all I can say is, “I’m sorry,’ ” the convicted murderer said.
The sentencing concluded a lengthy case that was mired in delays for nine years for a variety of reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, attorney turnover, medical conditions and other circumstances. The case was heard in St. Charles County after Kavanagh requested a change of venue and waived his right to a jury trial.
Wright City, Warrenton, and Truesdale received new aldermen after the April 2023 election.
Don Andrews defeated Susan Traylor to become the newest Ward 1 alderman in Wright City. Roger Romaker defeated Jeff Jaspering in Warrenton, and Kari Hartley narrowly defeated Christine Hedding to earn a seat on the Truesdale Board of Aldermen.
But an important measure that would have benefitted the Warrenton Fire Protection District failed, despite earning a majority of the vote.
The measure for a $10 million bond for the first district received only 52 percent of the vote. It needed 57.14 percent of the vote to pass.
It wasn’t the only bond measure that failed in April, as Innsbrook residents also rejected a measure that would have allowed the village to collect an online sales tax.
What did pass included marijuana sales taxes in both Warrenton and Warren County, a water and sewer bond in Warrenton, and a sales tax increase in Wright City.
Wright City R-II school district officials had a groundbreaking for the long anticipated new high school on Roelker Road.
But as happy as the community was to see the start of the new school building, city officials soon started getting complaints from residents in the area about serious damage to the road.
At the April 27 meeting, Wright City aldermen discussed the damage and the steel plates that had been put over the road for drivers.
They also learned it would cost more than $100,000 to make a temporary fix to the road. When construction of the school is complete, that section of road will be torn up and redone to add a turn lane.
Alderman balked at the cost of the temporary repairs.
“We’ve got to figure out a different alternative to that,” Alderman Ramiz Hakim said during the meeting.
The city’s public works department did find an alternative, tearing out the damaged section of road and replacing it with gravel.
That fix was holding at the time, city officials said. New gravel continues to be added to the road when necessary, helping to keep it driveable while construction on the school continues.
The new school is expected to be completed in 2025.
An investigation continues into the June 12 fire that destroyed Abundant Life Church in Warrenton.
The fire report indicated that someone had been sleeping in the building, as they discovered a mattress and sleeping bag.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Missouri State Fire Marshals investigated. As of June 20, arson had not been ruled out as the cause.
The day of the fire, an Abundant Life Church attendee, Joe Solomon, told KSDK Channel 5 the fire occurred after an incident at the church the previous day.
“We had an intruder that came into the service, and he was very disruptive. We didn’t know what his intentions were,” Solomon said. “When he walked out of the church I followed him out and locked the doors. This intruder came to the pastor’s house two days ago at 5 a.m. unannounced. It was the same man that came to the church Sunday morning.”
There have been no further updates about the fire.
The livestock auction at the 2023 Warren County Fair netted more than $497,000, breaking the record set during the 2021 auction.
“There’s only a record number because of the support from the businesses,” livestock auction board member Wes Colbert said. “We wouldn’t be able to do this for the kids without their support.”
The livestock auction was one of the highlights of this year’s fair.
Another was the coronation of Kelsey Miller as the Warren County Fair queen.
Miller took the crown in a contest that featured five contestants.
But that wasn’t the only crown Miller would win this year.
She went on to become just the third Missouri State Fair queen from Warren County in August.
She credited Warren County with helping her claim the state throne.
“I feel that the community has given me something to look forward to,” she said. “It has helped me get to where I am today by always making sure that I know that someone is pushing me forward. And so I want to make sure that I’m bringing that energy from the Warren County Fair to our Missouri State Fair and helping other people.”
Missouri lawmakers approved $1.4 billion to expand Interstate 70 to three lanes from Wentzville to Blue Springs, and said the project would begin in Warren County in late 2024.
The Missouri Department of Transportation also said the project would be completed by 2030 during meetings with city officials in Warrenton, Wright City, and Truesdale.
“Seven years from today is what we’re looking for completion,” MoDOT area engineer Jeff Niemeyer said during a meeting in Wright City. “So we’re setting a very aggressive time frame.”
MoDOT stresses that the project is just to add a third lane to the interstate highway, but city and county officials in Warren County have asked that overpasses and interchanges also get a look during the massive project.
Improve I-70 program director Eric Kopinski said MoDOT is evaluating many things, including the three Warren County interchanges that will be affected by the highway expansion.
Warren County land values and residential improvements were both increased by 8 percent in 2023 after an order by the Missouri State Tax Commision.
It was the first time assessments increased in the county in at least 10 years, assessor Katie Smith said.
“It’s not the way I wanted things, but the state made me do it,” Smith said.
And despite the 8 percent increase, Smith said assessments remain 30 to 40 percent behind where they should be.
And I’m just trying to catch up,” Smith said. “I can’t do that all in one year. That would not be good for the taxpayers.”
The large increase left some Warren County residents unhappy.
But the increase was good news to local taxing bodies, including the Warren County R-III school district.
Superintendent Dr. Gregg Klinginsmith said the district had lost more than $6 million because of the lack of assessment increases.
Former Warren County Assessor Wendy (Nordwald) Kozma survived a hearing to have her probation revoked after the prosecutor’s office alleged she wasn’t paying the restitution required of her.
Kozma, who was required to pay more than $213,000 in restitution after pleading guilty to 15 charges of felony stealing. She admitted to embezzling more than $250,000 from the Missouri State Assessors Association.
Then-Warren County Prosecuting Attorney Kelly King said Kozma needed to pay more than $3,500 a month in restitution in order to pay what was owed before her probation ended.
But through Sept. 15, Kozma had paid just $1,968.82 of the more than $35,000 she owed at the time.
Osage County Judge Sonya Brandt did scold Kozma for failing to make required payments, but decided not to revoke her probation.
“Ms. Kozma being in prison doesn’t do the victims any good,” Brandt said.
Kozma was then ordered to make monthly payments of $1,200 and surrender any money she receives from Social Security disability if her claim was approved.
“I’m going to give her another shot to make this work,” Brandt said.
Warren County has a new judge and a new prosecuting attorney on the way after major changes at the courthouse in 2023.
In September, it was announced that Warren County Prosecuting Attorney Kelly King had been appointed as a deputy attorney general for Missouri.
“It’s really been my privilege to serve Warren County for 16 years,” she said. “I’m grateful for all of the support I’ve had and the opportunities I’ve had here. It’s been pretty amazing.”
She officially resigned as the county’s prosecuting attorney on Oct. 13.
King was replaced in the interim by Keith Freie, the Montgomery County prosecuting attorney. There has been no time table nor information released about when a permanent prosecuting attorney will be named.
That’s largely because there was also a vacancy on the Warren County bench after Missouri Gov. Mike Parson named Judge Michael S. Wright to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, in September.
He was replaced when Parson named now-former Warrenton attorney Katie Joyce to the bench.
Joyce was officially installed as the newest judge Dec. 4 during a ceremony at the courthouse.
“I am very excited, first and foremost,” Joyce said. “It really is an incredible opportunity and I am excited about what I’ll be able to do with this role for all of Warren County and all the 12th circuit.”
About the author: Jason Koch is the editor of The Warren County Record, and covers local news and government for the newspaper. He has won multiple awards from both the Indiana and Illinois APME and from the Illinois Press Association. He can be reached at 636-456-6397 or at firstname.lastname@example.org