Kirk Blunck’s family sues, says architect was murdered. Is Teachout sale near? Register circulation plummets.

Civic Skinny

DES MOINES CITY VIEW

The sad tale of Kirk Blunck drags on.      

The police have gathered all they could gather about that Sunday afternoon in January 2016 when the often-praised and often-sued architect and landlord fell or was shoved to his death in a stairwell of the Teachout Building he owned in the East Village. The Polk County Medical Examiner said Blunck died of “multiple blunt force trauma, manner undetermined.”

But there’s apparently not enough evidence to bring charges.

And the complicated estate — with the judgments against it, with debt-laden real-estate, with unsettled lawsuits and with valuable art and an expensive home — is only a bit less complicated than it was on the day of his death.

Now his widow and children have filed a civil suit against 27-year-old Zachary Allen Gaskill, alleging what Blunck’s friends have been saying since his death: That the 62-year-old architect was murdered.

The police have never publicly named Gaskill as a suspect, but a previously undisclosed August 2016 probation-violation report says the police were questioning him in connection with the death. That probation report also says Gaskill conceded he was drinking on that day at the Americana bar on Locust Street, a mile or so west of the Teachout Building. Drinking is a violation of the parole.

The Blunck family’s suit cites no circumstances, though the talk around the East Village was that Blunck had stopped into his building and confronted a young couple who appeared to be casing the place. The family’s suit, alleging battery and negligence against the 6-foot 2-inch, 215-pound Gaskill, seeks compensation for the family’s loss — for pain and suffering, for lost earning power, for funeral expenses, for loss of consortium and the like. The estate is paying lawyer Steve Wandro and his associates up to $300 an hour to pursue the suit.

But it looks more like an effort somehow to clear the name of Blunck. For Zachary Gaskill doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who is loaded down with assets. The parole-violation report of August 2016 notes that he still owed $12,213.25 in restitution, court costs and fines from a December 2014 conviction for three counts of attempted burglary of a nutrition store in West Des Moines. As part of a plea deal, he was given a suspended sentence of six years, was placed on probation for two years and was ordered to make restitution. His probation still had a month to go at the time of Blunck’s death. Because of the violation, the probation was continued until Dec. 10 of this year.

Gaskill also is behind on child-support payments, according to records in Polk County District Court, and his wages have been garnished. He also was convicted of burglary in 2011 and was dealt with under the state’s youthful-offender program. And in 2012 he was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia, which ended in another plea agreement.

Meantime, the estate expects to sell the Teachout Building — the site of the death — and the neighboring Hohberger Building before the end of the year, meeting a deadline established a year ago in an agreement with the city. Blunck was one of the early investors in a once-shabby East Village, and Des Moines had loaned him money to help finance the rehabilitation of those two buildings. But he was woefully behind in paying the money back.

The city had lent him $700,000 in two loans, at zero interest, in 1999, and the loans were to have been paid off by 2009. In 2010, the city declared both loans in default and put on an interest rate of 12 percent. Fourteen months ago, the city made a new deal, cutting the interest rate, getting better collateral — the loans were not personally guaranteed by Blunck — and getting an agreement that the estate would pay $1,500 monthly and seek to sell the properties by the end of this year. If the buildings aren’t sold by year-end, the interest rate goes back to 12 percent.

LOYD OGLE, a lawyer for the estate, says the estate is making the $1,500 payments and a sale is expected by year-end. Combined, the two buildings are assessed at $2,110,000. The outstanding principal owed the city is $682,500. In 1999, Blunck also took out two mortgages, totaling nearly $2 million, on the property.

Blunck’s business dealings were a mess. He ignored bills, ran up debts, didn’t pay his lawyers or the property taxes on his $715,000 home on Waterbury Road. He let an apartment building he owned in Sherman Hill become all but a slum.

The estate has been selling off properties and slowly settling some claims. In August, it paid $4,260 to Bank of America on a credit-card claim, and in July it paid $17,330 to Drake Roofing. But apart from the money he owes the city, at least two large claims still seem to be pending: $557,214 from Rolling Hills Bank and Trust of Atlantic and $171,125 from the Jeffrey Tyler family of Des Moines.

A final accounting for the estate has not been filed.

CIRCULATION OF the print edition of The Des Moines Sunday Register is about to cross 100,000 — in the wrong direction. In the first quarter of this year — the latest period for which audited figures are available — print circulation of the Sunday paper averaged 105,371, down 14 percent from the 122,508 of a year earlier.

It has been close to 100 years since the circulation was that low. It peaked at 553,000 in 1951.

The number of digital subscribers has been rising, but it’s still relatively insignificant. In the latest quarter, 3,631 persons bought the digital version that is a replica of the print version — that is, it contains all the ads. That’s up from 2,582 a year earlier. The Register also has 4,995 subscribers to a “non-replica” digital edition, which carries fewer ads (and thus produces less revenue).

Print circulation of the Daily Register in the latest quarter averaged 59,365, down 11 percent from the 66,700 of a year before. Counting replica digital subscriptions as well as print, circulation in the latest quarter was 65,476, down from 71,829 a year before. There were another 6,882 “non-replica” digital subscribers in the latest quarter; there is no available year-ago figure.

In the Register’s main market — Polk, Dallas, Warren and Story counties — Sunday print circulation dropped to 61,173 from 69,703 a year before. Monday-through-Friday print circulation fell to 37,894 from 41,608 a year earlier.

Ten years ago, the Sunday circulation of the Register was 233,229, the daily circulation 146,050.

In 1925, the Sunday circulation was 146,751. Two years earlier, the newspaper proclaimed in an ad that “The Sunday Register has a larger circulation than any newspaper in the world published in a city the size of Des Moines.”

FEW PEOPLE — especially young people — bothered to vote in the Sept. 12 school board election in Des Moines, according to Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald. There are 12,816 registered voters in Des Moines between the ages of 18 and 24. One-hundred-seven of them voted. There are 28,348 registered voters between 25 and 34; of those, 685 voted.

The other demographics: Ages 35 to 49 — 29,181 registered voters, 1,277 ballots cast; ages 50 to 64 — 29,728 registered voters, 1,473 ballots cast; ages 65 and older — 23,479 registered voters, 2,045 ballots cast.

The percentage turnout ranged from 0.83 percent among the youngest voters to 8.71 percent among the oldest.

MATT WHITTAKER, who in previously lives has been a football star and a U.S. attorney and an unsuccessful political candidate and a CNN legal commentator, is the new chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

HEATHER RYAN, the outspoken and combative candidate for the Democratic nomination for Congress from the Third District, has sued Polk County Democratic Chair Sean Bagniewski in small claims court. She alleges Bagniewski committed libel and slander in “spreading falsehoods in an attempt to damage [Ryan’s] political campaign, perception of party loyalty and personal reputation.” She wants $5,000.

EDDIE MAURO, who also is seeking the Democratic nomination, sent an email the other day noting that he had more cash on hand than any of his party opponents. He said he had $161,889.06, more than the $147,651.61 of Theresa Greenfield and the $104,642.67 of Cindy Axne. Well, yes, but there’s more to the story: Mauro’s total includes $100,000 that he loaned to himself. Neither Greenfield nor Axne reported any loans.

Seven Democrats are seeking the right to run against Republican incumbent David Young, who raised about $620,000 in the first nine months of this year and who has about $600,000 on hand.♦

A shame and a sham

Everyone who cares has known for months that Mark Braun was going to be the new executive director of the Board of Regents.

He had been doing the job for more than a year. He was the guy the new leadership of the Regents wanted to replace Bob Donley, who disappeared shortly after the new board leadership came in. The Regents like him, the universities like him, and legislators like him. And he wanted the job.

He was a shoo-in.

And yet the board appointed a search committee. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 42 persons applied. The committee narrowed the field to five. Then — in secret — it sent just one name to the full board.

And then the board met in secret.

The whole process was a waste of time and money and a dirty trick to pull on 41 other people. And the secret meeting was probably illegal. According to a Regents document, the session was closed “to evaluate the professional competency of Mark Braun,” and the document noted he had requested the secret meeting.

But you can’t meet in secret to evaluate an employee unless the employee requests it — as Braun did — and unless someone determines that meeting in the open would cause “needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation.” No one made that claim, which would have been ridiculous.

At any rate, Braun is the new executive director of the Regents. One of his early tasks might be to caution his bosses against sham searches. Another might be to give them copies of the Iowa Open Meetings Law.

Oh, my

Wendy Wintersteen is the new president of Iowa State University.

Wendy Wintersteen as Dean of Agriculture at Iowa State is the person who didn’t rise up to defend the university’s Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, which the legislature has all but killed.

Wendy Wintersteen is the person who signed her name to the “memorandum of understanding” that would have barred scholars at the Harkin Institute from using the papers of Sen. Tom Harkin — longtime chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee — for agriculture research. It was that memo suppressing academic freedom that drove Harkin to walk away from his alma mater and set up the unfettered — and now highly successful — Harkin Institute at Drake.

Wendy Wintersteen stood by — silently and approvingly — when former Gov. Terry Branstad said Iowa State should speak with “one voice” and have “one mission” when it comes to agriculture, a preposterous statement in a state where agriculture has many voices and many missions.

Wendy Wintersteen is on the board of the Agribusiness Association of Iowa along with representatives of Monsanto, of the Koch Brothers, of DuPont Pioneer. The Agribusiness Association of Iowa funded the fight against the Des Moines Water Works, which sued drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties to force them to control the nitrates they were pouring into the water that ended up in Des Moines. It’s a powerful vehicle for Big Ag.

Wendy Wintersteen, through her ties to the Agribusiness Association, has thumbed her nose at the very idea of open records — despite the Iowa Open Records law.

Wendy Wintersteen speaks with one voice — the voice of the Farm Bureau and of Big Ag.

Wendy Wintersteen is the wrong person to be president of Iowa State University.

— Michael Gartner