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'Person of interest' in custody after 4-year-old found dead in South County home

La PORTE — A “person of interest” has been taken into custody after sheriff’s deputies found a young child dead Monday morning in a home in southern La Porte County, according to police.

About 2:45 a.m. on Oct. 11, La Porte County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a home in the 3100 east block of CR-875S – just east of Kingsford Heights and north of U.S. 6 in rural Union Township – for a report of an unconscious child.

Deputies Michael Sweet and Austin Wells arrived a short time later, and after being unable to contact anyone inside the home, the deputies entered and found the child dead inside, Capt. Derek Allen said in a statement from the Sheriff’s Office.

La Porte County Coroner Lynn Swanson identified the boy as 4-year-old Judah Morgan of Hamlet, and said no cause of death information would be released until an autopsy was completed early Tuesday morning.

After discovering the body, deputies secured the immediate area and detectives from the Criminal Investigations Division were called to the home.

Sheriff’s personnel “quickly developed a person of interest who may have further information regarding the matter,” Allen said.

An alert was issued for 28-year-old Alan Dale Morgan of La Porte, said to be operating a red 2004 Ford Freestar minivan, with both passenger-side hubcaps missing and an expired Indiana temporary license plate, he said.

The alert said Morgan “should be considered armed and dangerous,” and citizens were advised to call 911 and “not approach him or the vehicle.”

The Sheriff’s Office released a surveillance photo of the vehicle, and a photo of Morgan, and hours later announced that he had been located and was in custody.

According to unconfirmed posts on Facebook, Alan Morgan was Judah’s father, and the child had recently been returned to the parents by authorities after being in a foster home for four years.

Morgan remained in custody at the La Porte County Jail as of late Monday afternoon, though no charges had been filed in connection with the death.

Court records show that Morgan currently has charges pending of resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, possession of paraphernalia from an incident in early August and was free on $750 bail. His next hearing on those charges is scheduled for Oct. 20 in La Porte County Circuit Court.

Court records also show he had a 2012 arrest for domestic violence in the presence of a child and strangulation, but those charges were dismissed with prejudice as part of a pre-trial diversion agreement.

The Sheriff’s Office thanked “media partners, the tipsters and our followers on our social media platforms” for circulating the information.

Anyone with further information is asked to call Fugitive Apprehension Street Team Sgt. Brett Swanson at 219-363-9623.

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Michigan City woman's lifelong dream to be realized with grand opening on dance studio

MICHIGAN CITY — A fitness studio unlike any the city’s seen before is inviting the public to its grand opening Spooktacular Extravaganza block party.

First Love, Then Life Dance Studio at 434 Hendricks St. has been a longtime dream for Michigan City native Lacy Westphal Kelly, one sparked by the years she spent working as an exotic dancer in her 20s.

Eventually, Kelly “decided it was time to grow up and get a real job,” so she earned her degree in marketing and began selling radio ads and insurance.

“Then one day, I realized I missed having a pole, and having a job that made me feel powerful and pretty,” she said.

One of her employers at the time asked her to do what she called a “1-3-5” – or set goals for herself at one-year, three-year and five-year intervals.

Initially, Kelly set her mind on opening her own studio at around the five-year mark. But as her passion for the project grew, the idea moved up on her list of priority goals.

As a result, Kelly said, her employer fired her – despite her having been his top salesperson – on the basis that he did not want his business associated with pole dancing.

“At the time, I was livid,” Kelly said. “But it turned out to be a blessing because I didn’t want to work 40 hours behind a desk anyway.

“So, I collected unemployment for three months, and took that time to get my personal instructor, fitness instructor and CPR certifications.”

Kelly and her husband, Nick, who owns Kelly Roofing, then pooled their resources and bought the building on Hendricks Street in December 2019 with the hope of opening the studio to the public by September 2020.

“And then COVID hit,” she said.

She recalled what a major blow the global pandemic was to her dream, as fitness studios weren’t allowed to open to the public for quite some time.

But as she had done before, Kelly adjusted and used the extra time to finish her space and become X-Pole certified, setting her apart from her competitors throughout the region.

She finally opened First Love, Then Life for a private bachelorette party in March 2021 – and never looked back.

Private parties, regimented classes, even a Silver Sneakers endorsement – Kelly and her instructors train dozens of women and even some men on a full-time basis.

And from 1-6 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 30., First Love, Then Life Dance Studio will host a block party.

Throughout the party, Social Que will be cooking up tacos and the barbecue they’ve come to be well known for; various vendors will set up booths to sell their wares and pass out candy to kids in attendance; and Rhymer/Educator will provide musical entertainment.

On every hour and half hour, the dance studio will conduct demonstrations of each of its classes, which include yoga, gentle stretch, senior fitness, senior yoga, Burlesquercize, Tabata, chair routine, pole choreography, pole conditioning and more.

And a stage pole valued at $1,000 will be up for raffle.

The Michigan City Chamber of Commerce will be on hand to do an official ribbon-cutting ceremony at 3 p.m.

At 7 p.m., the party will move inside the studio, where several women will participate in a pole competition in the hopes of winning a cash prize, crown, sash, and either a studio membership or party package for 10.

“I get so much joy out of watching someone complete their first six-week class, or touch the ceiling for the first time, or just make progress,” Kelly said.

“I’ve got a 94-year-old man who told me that because of my stretch class, he can look over his shoulder when reversing his car out of his driveway now, and not have to rely on his camera like he was. That meant so much to me,” she said.

“Those kinds of stories always make me happy because it’s their hard work, I just guide them through the process. But it is so powerful. I get so much satisfaction out of what I do.

“So, maybe I’m a little passionate about it, maybe I fill my day too much with it. But it makes me so happy. And doesn’t everyone want to live happy? …

“That’s what First Love, Then Life is about – me being able to give that feeling to somebody else, provide a space where people feel safe and encouraged, and they don’t feel judged or self-conscious.”

For more information on the dance studio or its grand opening Spooktacular Extravaganza block party and pole competition applications, visit firstlovethen lifedance.com.

La Porte Community Schools sued for allegedly strapping autistic student into restraint device

SOUTH BEND — Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday in a civil trial in which a La Porte County couple claims a special education teacher at Kingsford Heights Elementary School strapped their 7-year-old autistic daughter into a restraining chair in class.

Charles and Heather Castle filed the federal lawsuit in June 2018, alleging the teacher and two paraprofessionals tied their daughter, K.C., down to a plywood chair with a belt, causing bruises and abrasions to her body.

The suit calls the practice a “sinister, sadistic, cruel and malicious exploitation of a child with a disability ...”

In the complaint, they claim the school corporation had a policy in place regarding restraining, but that students without disabilities weren’t subjected to the same treatment. They claim the policy was “intentionally discriminatory” toward a student with a disability.

The suit names the La Porte Community School Corp. and claims the district violated its own policies regarding student restraint and never informed the parents their daughter was being placed in the device.

Also named in the suit are the South La Porte County Special Education Cooperative and its administration; Kingsford Heights principal Marcia Alexander and administrative assistant Natasha Henry, who also served as a substitute teacher in the Life Skills classroom; teacher Jennifer Oberle, and paraprofessionals Teresa Vinson and Katrina Magill.

None of those named are still employed at the school, according to its online staff list.

In the suit, the Castles say their daughter, now 10, “while intelligent and physically capable, was nonverbal at the time of the events” and “was unable to effectively communicate her thoughts, emotions or daily activities to others.”

She is on the autism spectrum and suffers from ADHD, and, according to the suit, “does not have any orthopedic impairments or physical limitations that prevent her from independently sitting in a non-modified school desk.”

The suit also states no doctor or mental health care professional “has ever recommended the use of restraint or a modified desk” for the girl.

While K.C. had attended KH Elementary since preschool at age 3, the parents claim they started to have concerns about their daughter’s care when she was in first and second grade under Oberle’s care.

In January 2016, the girl came home with a “scratch and bruise on the side of her neck,” and when they asked the school, were told Henry had “accidentally” scratched her.

In April 2017, K.C. came home from school “wearing no shoes, no socks and no coat,” and when asked, the bus driver said she had gotten on the bus without those items.

And in May 2017, she came home with “bruises on her cheek and elbow,” and the parents were told she had “fallen into the corner of a desk.”

They grew more suspicious in the fall of 2017, the suit claims, when in September, K.C. came home “with abrasions to the front thigh area on each leg of her pants, consistent with the use of a restraint belt.

“She was also filthy, with dirt on her face, hands and elbows. Her pants, which were new, were also dirty, and “her parents did not receive an explanation for her condition or the abrasions...”

The suit claims the parents also started to notice “troubling changes in her behavior,” saying she “began to isolate herself in her room and cry inconsolably after arriving home from school” and “began to have nightmares and extreme behavioral meltdowns” unlike any they’d seen before.

She also began to refuse to buckle herself into her car seat. Around the same time, the suit claims, her parents “noticed bruises and abrasions to her hips, back and arms.”

The suit claims the girl’s father walked into the classroom on Sept. 25, 2017, and was “shocked” to see a homemade wooden restraint desk with his daughter’s name on it and a tan belt next to it, the lawsuit contends.

It claims Oberle, Vinson and Magill “regularly seized K.C.and forcibly confined her in the restraint chair, including with a belt or belts, for extended periods of time over a period of approximately three school weeks.”

According to the suit, they put her in the “the homemade device because they knew her disability prevented her from reporting the abuse to anyone.”

It claims the “use of restraint and confinement here was motivated by malice and was done with callous and deliberate indifference towards the harm it was causing K.C.” and the girl “sustained physical harm and lasting psychological trauma.”

The girl’s individualized education plan did not allow for the use of a restraint chair, and the Castles said they never received an incident report detailing use of restraint, as required by state law.

The parents met with school officials a week later, when they were told that an attorney for the district said “they had not done anything wrong” and that the teacher’s father had built the chair, one of two in use in the Life Skills classroom, the lawsuit states.

It also claims the principal had knowledge of the restraint, and the defendants “conspired to conceal their use of the restraint chair by preventing K.C.’s father from entering the classroom to discover its use.”

Indiana Administrative Code prohibits the use physical restraint in schools, except where “the student’s behavior poses imminent risk of injury to self or others.”

It prohibits using all “mechanical restraints,” or devices attached to or adjacent to a student’s body so that the student cannot remove them.

Neither the school district, nor the cooperative commented on the suit at the time it was filed.

It claims violation of the 4th Amendment freedom from unlawful seizure; deprivation of liberty without due process; deprivation of the right to education and care; violation of the 15th Amendment’s equal protection clause; conspiracy to deprive civil rights; violation of the Rehabilitative Act; violation of the ADA; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

It seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

The trial will be conducted in the courtroom of Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Lowell Miller Jr. at the Robert A. Grant Federal Courthouse at 204 South Main St. in South Bend. Jury selection is scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m. (ET).

Cole Raymond celebrates as he nears the finish of Saturday’s New Prairie Sectional with La Porte teammate Jay Pillai close behind.

Masks apparently helping as La Porte Schools continue to monitor impacts of COVID-19
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La PORTE — With the La Porte Community School Corp. nearly a month into its face-covering mandate and COVID-19 numbers trending downward, the school administration is continuing to monitor how the virus is impacting the district.

“I think the important thing for us is to try to stay steady with our approaches and not knee-jerk react as these things go up or down,” Supt. Mark Francesconi told the La Porte Community Schools Board of Trustees on Oct. 4.

“Who knows what the future lies as far as another spike or how this trend is going. Right now, it’s on a downward trend, but a slow downward trend.”

On Sept. 15, the district went to a mask mandate requiring that face coverings be worn in all corporation buildings when social distancing of 6 feet cannot be maintained.

The requirement will remain in effect at any time in which the La Porte County COVID-19 Advisory level is yellow, orange or red.

The requirement is effective indoors for all buildings in the school corporation, but does not extend to extracurricular activities conducted by the corporation.

At the start of the school year, face coverings had been recommended, but not required.

“We’re very interested in following the numbers of positive cases that we’ve had since then in comparison to prior to having a mask mandate. This is going to be important data points for us to look at in the future,” Francesconi said.

The county’s advisory level is currently orange and the county’s percentage of positive tests dropped to 8.57 percent.

“We saw those numbers drop below 10 percent last week, which is certainly good and certainly would keep us out of the red if we continue that trend,” Francesconi said.

The district, he said, is monitoring the positive case data. He told the board that throughout last year and this year, they have seen some correlation between the county spread and the number of cases in the corporation’s buildings.

“This year has not quite fallen along those same lines. We had a week in the yellow spread level which was our highest ever. That was 46 positive cases in the corporation.

“Since then, we’ve been in the orange for three or four weeks, now. The numbers have been dropping steadily during the orange. That’s sort of been an anomaly for us,” Francesconi said.

For the week of Oct. 4, there were eight positive cases reported in the school district. The week prior saw 17.

Francesconi said when they look at numbers of positive cases, they are not seeing spread levels within the schools.

“In other words, we’re not seeing those students or staff that are exposed or close contacts to a positive case that was in the school, we’re not seeing those individuals turn into positive cases.

“We’ve watched that throughout last year and as well as this year – mask or no mask – is what we’ve seen. We’ll continue to monitor that as we go,” he said.

Because the school corporation has a mask policy, Francesconi said they have been able to minimize the number of students that get close contact quarantined and sent home.

“Just since implementing that ... we’ve already averted 142 students or staff from sending them home because we had a mask policy. We’ll continue to monitor those numbers as we progress through the school year,” Francesconi said.

Since the last board meeting in September, Francesconi said there were not a lot of updates regarding announcements or changes in procedures.

“We don’t anticipate any sort of changes in the CDC guidance to come our way or changes to come in the form of an executive order,” he said.

The governor’s executive order was extended, but there were no changes.

“There’s nothing for us to prepare for,” Francesconi said.