A Family’s Pain

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Some stories are harder to write than others and that was certainly the case with a recent Flathead Beacon cover story, “A Family’s Pain.” Published on Feb. 26, the story follows Carmen Keibler as she searches for answers about what happened to her sister, Nicole Waller, last winter on a lonely stretch of U.S. Highway 2 in eastern Montana. 

Give it a read and, as always, feedback is welcomed…

Carmen Keibler’s dream always begins the same way. She and her younger sister, Nicole Waller, are playing in the backyard as children. It moves on to their weddings and the births of their children. And then the phone rings and Keibler wakes up crying again.

The phone call that changed Keibler and her family forever came on Feb. 18, 2013, four days after her sister’s maroon 1999 Ford Expedition was abandoned along U.S. Highway 2 near Poplar, northwest of Sidney. State and federal law enforcement almost immediately suspected foul play, but the ongoing investigation has revealed few details about what may have happened. 

In November, the Montana Department of Justice announced that it believed Waller, 31, had been murdered, but one year after her disappearance a body has still not been found. 

“I’m exhausted and I’m angry,” Keibler, 34, said last week from her home in Columbia Falls. 

“I’m tired of not having answers.”

Keep Reading Here!

New Year, New Stories

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Jordan Graham is flanked by lawyers and the media as she leaves U.S. District Court on the second day of her murder trial. Photo by Justin Franz.

It’s been a busy few months for me. Between my full time job with the Flathead Beacon and having more and more freelance work, I haven’t had a chance to update my website recently. I hope to amend that in the coming weeks, but until then I thought I would share a few stories I am especially proud of.

Glacier’s Big Burn: Back in August, I wrote an oral history about the wildfires that scorched 13 percent of Glacier National Park in 2003. The story was incredibly popular and even picked up by the Associated Press. It was a fun story to write and the first time I’ve put together an oral history; I hope it’s not the last.

A Murder in Glacier Park: In December I covered the murder trial of Jordan Graham, the women who pushed her husband of eight days off a cliff in Glacier National Park. It was an intense four days and an experience I will never forget. Hours after returning from the trial I wrote this story, pulling from evidence and testimony, to create the first clear picture of what happened to Cody Lee Johnson the night he died. The article has since become one of the most read stories on the Flathead Beacon’s website and even earned me an appearance on Japan’s version of the Today Show. No joke!

Railroading’s Big Oil Boom: More and more oil is traveling on America’s railroads thanks to the North Dakota oil boom. However, a recent rash of accidents – including one that killed 47 people in Quebec – has brought scrutiny to the practice. This story, published on Jan. 8, explains where the oil-by-rail boom came from and what the risks are. I like to think it is one of the most complete accounts to date of the issue and many people have agreed.

That’s all for now. I hope you take a few moments to read these stories and I hope you enjoy them. If you want to see more of my work please look around this site or visit my Pressfolios page, which is updated often.

Thanks for reading!

Justin

Flathead Beacon named best weekly newspaper in Montana

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This weekend, the Flathead Beacon was named the best weekly newspaper in Montana during the Montana Newspaper Association’s annual awards banquet. The paper won 39 different awards, including 15 first-place plaques. 

Two of my stories were among the winners. “Scorched Earth” was published in January 2012 and looked at the bizarre wildfires that ripped across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation last winter. It took first-place in spot news. “Four Decades at the Fair” was an August 2012 profile about Dave Calobeer, who’s worked at the Northwest Montana Fair since 1973. It took first-place in the short feature category. 

Click here for a complete list of the Beacon’s achievements. 

Cover Stories

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There is nothing better than getting a cover story, especially when you work in a great newsroom with some great competition. I was on a little streak in February and March with two big cover stories. One was about a controversial mining project in northwest Montana and the other was about the sequestration and how it could hurt tribal colleges.

So if you have a few minutes to spare, take a look at these recent stories. Thanks!

Ready and Waiting: CEO Glenn Dobbs said work could begin inside the Montanore Mine in 2013, but critics worry about the surrounding wilderness.

High Stakes for Blackfeet Higher Ed: The Blackfeet Community College has grown in the last decade, but could government budget cuts stop progress in its tracks?

Dashing up the North Fork

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Twice a week, Karin Craver starts up her road- and weather-beaten Mitsubishi Montero and dashes up the North Fork, delivering mail to the hearty folks who call that area home.

I wrote a story about Craver shortly before Christmas and it’s obvious that I did not dash to post it here. In fact, I haven’t posted much in the last few months, thanks in part to the holidays. But I hope to change that here in the new year. In fact, I’m currently updating my Flickr and the photography page on this very website, so please, keep an eye out for new photos and stories in the coming days.

For now, enjoy this story of one of America’s most unique postal routes

A Nation Divided

Two trips, 400 miles of driving and dozens of phone calls and interviews resulted in my most recent cover story for the Flathead Beacon. This will most likely be the first of many stories about what is happening just over the divide. Check it out…

A Nation Divided by Justin Franz

BROWNING – Against a fire-red sky, Nathan DeRoche screamed into the summer evening air.

“It’s time to make our voice heard!” he yelled into a hastily set-up microphone. “We won’t stand for corruption!”

The alleged corruption DeRoche and about 30 other tribal members were protesting on Aug. 31 has fractured the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and the nation it serves. Since June, five elected councilors on the nine-member board and more than two-dozen tribal employees have been suspended, expelled or fired.

The five councilors who remain on the board say the recent firings were necessary to preserve the dignity and structure of the reservation’s government. And federal agencies still recognize Chairman Willie Sharp Jr.’s administration.

Protests in Browning have become commonplace, with one resulting in two arrests last month. On Aug. 27, Sharp announced a state of emergency that is still in effect. In interviews both on and off the reservation, some people have said if the situation is not resolved violence could break out.

Others, like former chairman and now-suspended Councilor Bill Old Chief, worry about the long-term effects of the conflict. He said the Blackfeet – once called “the most powerful tribe of Indians on the continent” by author George Catlin in 1866 – will either emerge stronger or permanently scarred.

Read More Here!

Light pollution in the American West

Having lived in either Maine or Montana my entire life, it takes a lot for natural landscapes to blow my mind because I’ve been surrounded by it forever. That being said, Glacier National Park here in northwest Montana always does a pretty good job of impressing me.

But I was speechless this summer when my girlfriend and I went to Glacier’s night sky program. Thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers, visitors are able to use massive telescopes to see things I didn’t even know you could see from earth. It was an awesome experience and one I highly recommend. In fact, I couldn’t stop talking about it when I got into work the next day and it resulted in this cover story… Check it out.

WEST GLACIER – As civil twilight became nautical twilight, and nautical twilight became astronomical twilight, 40 people formed a semi-circle around Dave Ingram in the parking lot of the Apgar Transit Center. With a green laser pointer, Ingram, a volunteer with the International Dark-Sky Association, pointed out all of the stars, planets and galaxies the crowd would see that evening.

In the next three hours there would be 75 to 100 identifiable objects in the sky above, along with 4,000 stars. Early in the evening, as the growing group of 40 arched their necks to the twilight sky, it was hard to believe. For some people it would be the first time they would ever see the Milky Way, including Trish Machuca of Las Vegas.

“We see lots of lights, but we never see the stars,” she said.

Nearly two-thirds of people in the continental United States cannot see the Milky Way from where they live. As cities grow, the number of places where someone can look up and see a true night sky is dwindling. It is especially true in the clear air of the West, where light pollution can affect a night sky nearly 200 miles away.

Read more here!