Mar 31, 2015

For first time in more than 10 years, county population sinks

Park County has shrunk a little.

New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau say Park County’s population dipped by .2 percent, or 165 people, between July 2013 and July 2014.

The bureau figures the county’s population stood at 28,989 people last July, down from 29,154 the year before.

There were more births than deaths over the course of the year, but that was outpaced by the people who moved away, the bureau said in data released Thursday.

Though slight, it was the first decline in population in more than a decade for Park County.

Wyoming’s overall population increased by .2 percent (to 584,153) in that time frame, but 12 of the state’s 23 counties — including all four in the Big Horn Basin — lost residents.

Wenlin Liu, principal economist with the state’s Economic Analysis Division, said changes in the state’s population follow changes in the job market.

“Mainly due to the severe drop in natural gas price in early 2012, the mineral extraction industry lost jobs and there was minuscule total employment growth during the second half of 2012 and most of 2013,” Liu said in a news release.

Meanwhile, in that same timeframe, oil exploration shot up in states like North Dakota, Texas and Colorado. That drew away many Wyoming energy workers and residents, Liu said. (For example, the Census Bureau says Williams County, N.D., remained the country’s fastest-growing, its population shooting up by another 8.7 percent.)

However, Wyoming’s economy gradually regained strength in 2014, “thanks to the strong expansion of oil drilling, rebounding construction and the strength of the service-providing industries,” Liu said.

“There was minuscule total employment growth during the second half of 2012 and most of 2013,” Liu said.

He expects to see faster population growth when estimates for July 2015 are released next year.
Teton County grew the fastest between 2013 and 2014, according to the Census Bureau’s estimates. It grew at a 2.5 percent clip to reach 22,930 residents.

Niobrara County, already the state’s least populated, suffered th

e steepest, 3.4 percent loss to sink to 2,463 residents.
Laramie County remained the state’s most populous, with 96,389 inhabitants.

To put that in a national context, Los Angeles County, Calif., weighed in as the country’s most populated, with 10.1 million residents.

A total of 318.4 million people are believed to be living in the U.S.

Population estimates for cities and towns will be released at a later date.

Local GOP elects new leaders, looks to unite

As they picked a new roster of leaders on Saturday morning, Park County Republicans all agreed they need to move past their differences and unite.

Camara Clifton shares a laugh with Colin Simpson after the two made their pitches to be the local GOP's next leader. In the background, outgoing party chairman Larry French delivers voting instructions.
Now it's up to those leaders, starting with new chairman Colin Simpson of Cody, to find a way to do that over the next two years.

Simpson pledged to draw the party closer together, to bring in more youth, to reinvigorate party fundraising and to include everyone who wants to be involved.

"We can agree on 80 percent of the stuff 100 percent of the time, but don't let the other 20 percent be so divisive that we can't even be in the same room with each other," Simpson said to the gathered precinct committeemen and women who make up the party's central committee. "This is a great group of people. This is a wonderful representation of Park County and let's keep it unified as much as we can and move forward and acknowledge that we're all kind of moving the same direction — as much as 90 people can move in the same direction."

Dissatisfied with the leadership of the past two years, Simpson had chaired a political action committee called "Republicans for Unity" that helped elect some new people to the central committee last year and the "Unity" leaders put forward a slate of candidates for Saturday's election.

Saturday vote totals: Chairman: Colin Simpson 50, Camara Clifton 32; Vice Chairman: David Northrup 52, Martin Kimmet 30; State Committeeman: Richard George 43, Terry Hinkle 39; State Committeewoman: Echo Renner 53, Jo Walker 29; Treasurer: Joyce Boyer 54, Kathy Jacobsen 28Despite opposition from outgoing chairman Larry French leading up to the meeting (he'd said the "Unity" group was trying to "ruin" the party), four of the "Unity" group's five nominees were elected to the Park County Republican Party's leadership.

In addition to Simpson, state Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, was elected vice chairman, Echo Renner of Meeteetse was re-elected as state committeewoman and Joyce Boyer of Cody was voted in as treasurer. Each got 50 or more votes (upwards of 60 percent) of the 82 cast.

Meanwhile, political newcomer Richard George of Cody defeated "Unity" group leader Terry Hinkle of Cody by a 43-39 margin to become state committeeman.

State committeeman Richard George
In his pitch to the party faithful, George highlighted his youth (at 31, he'll be one of the youngest leaders in some time) and said he simply wants to serve. He said he had no "alliances," having never been to a tea party rally and having skipped a meeting "Unity" group leaders called earlier this month.

"I think it's too bad, because here we are, in a state that's considered conservative, and yet we're divided, in a county that is considered conservative," George said, saying Wyoming should be the standard and pinnacle of conservatism in the nation but is not.

"This party in Park County needs to be united," George said.

Outside of Renner, who clashed with the party's previous leaders at various times over the past two years, none of the incumbents ran for re-election.

French called his time as chairman both wonderful and "a pain in the butt."

"My hope and my prayer and my plea to you is let's stop this crap that's going on. Let's stop it; bite it in the bud, quit it," French said, adding, "Please agree to disagree politely. Discussion is wonderful, and we need to do that, (but) the part that really is offensive and should be — even to Democrats — is when we lapse into personal attacks."

Much of the division followed an effort led by outgoing state committeeman Bob Berry and others to censure state Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, last year for various actions they disagreed with. That included an attempt to strip the superintendent of public instruction of most of her powers.

Coe responded by pledging to "take back" the party from what he called right-wing extremists, which, in turn, prompted French and the party leadership to respond.

Party fundraising became collateral damage in the conflict.

"My hope and my prayer and my plea to you is let's stop this crap that's going on," French said.

While everyone called for unity on Saturday, clear disagreements remained about what the county GOP should do to keep elected officials accountable and whether the party will be best served by staying away from social issues or by sticking to its principles.

Simpson indicated he has some changes planned, including making party meetings every other month instead of monthly and making them less formal.

Mar 27, 2015

Three people charged in Badger Basin homicide

Charges were filed Thursday against three suspects in connection with the murder of Juan Antonio Guerra-Torres, whose decapitated body was found on Jan. 9, 2014, on Little Sand Coulee Road in Badger Basin.

The Park County Sheriff's Office said all three were in custody for alleged roles in Guerra-Torres's murder: John Louis Marquez, 51, Sandra Garcia, 27  a former Powell resident who was reportedly Guerra-Torres' girlfriend at the time of his murder and the mother of his children  and Pedro Garcia Jr., a 28-year-old former Powell resident and Sandra Garcia's brother.

Juan Antonio Guerra-Torres
Charging documents allege that, after being arrested in Georgia, Pedro Garcia said he'd directed and paid Marquez to kill Guerra-Torres and helped move his body. Pedro Garcia allegedly said he'd done so at the request of Sandra Garcia, who'd said Guerra-Torres had become deeply indebted to dangerous "people in Mexico."

Sandra Garcia refused to speak to law enforcement officers after her arrest this week, but has previously said she dropped Guerra-Torres at a spot near Cody for a meeting with someone nicknamed "Crocodile" and never saw him again, according to an affidavit filed in support of the charges by Park County Sheriff's Investigator Joe Torczon.

Marquez was arrested in Bonham, Texas by members of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and Texas Rangers, Sheriff Scott Steward said in a Friday news release. Marquez was still being held in Texas on Friday.

Sandra Garcia was taken into custody in Effingham County, Ga., by investigators from the Park County Sheriff’s Office, Effingham County Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Bureau of Investigations and the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, Steward said.

She remained in custody in Georgia on Friday. Pedro Garcia was also arrested in Effingham County, Ga. and waived extradition back to Wyoming on unrelated charges of allowing children to be in a dwelling or room where methamphetamine was being stored, Steward said.

Marquez is charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree and murder in the first degree in connection with Guerra-Torres' murder, while Sandra Garcia and Pedro Garcia, Jr. are each charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree and aiding and abetting murder in the first degree.

Pedro Garcia Jr. said a meeting was set up were Sandra Garcia could explain to Marquez "how she needed proof that Guerra-Torres was dead to show the people in Mexico," charging documents say.

A Cody hunter and his son discovered Guerra-Torres' mutilated body along the remote dirt road informally known as Little Sand Coulee Road, about a mile and a half west of Wyo. Highway 294. The body was missing the head and left arm, among other damage.

Authorities working the case — chiefly the sheriff’s office and the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation — had determined the man was shot to death and, using methods that haven't been disclosed, identified him as the 30-year-old Guerra-Torres.

While there was public speculation that Guerra-Torres’ murder was done by a foreign drug cartel, Sheriff Steward said earlier this year that he didn’t believe that was the case.

Sandra Garcia had been identified as a person of interest in the homicide last year.

Pedro Garcia reportedly told Torczon, in interviews conducted over the course of two days this week, that Sandra Garcia, had asked for help in "taking care of" Guerra-Torres.

According to Torczon's recounting of the interviews contained in charging documents, Pedro Garcia said his sister told him Guerra-Torres owed $30,000 to $40,000 to people in Mexico and that those people were going to come kill her and her entire family.

Pedro Garcia said he had initially declined to help, but agreed after learning the family might be in danger, Torczon wrote. Pedro Garcia then approached Marquez about "taking out" Guerra-Torres and Marquez agreed, Torczon wrote of Garcia's account.

Pedro Garcia said he'd paid Marquez around $700 in cash and a few grams of methamphetamine that had been on Guerra-Torres' body, later paying Marquez a few hundred dollars more, charging documents allege.

Pedro Garcia Jr. said a meeting was set up were Sandra Garcia could explain to Marquez "how she needed proof that Guerra-Torres was dead to show the people in Mexico," Torczon recounted in the affidavit.

Ultimately, a meeting was reportedly set up between Guerra-Torres and Marquez, under the auspices of conducting a drug deal, Torczon said of what he was told by Pedro Garcia.

According to Pedro Garcia's reported account, he and Marquez met up with Guerra-Torres and Sandra Garcia near the Badger Basin Highway. As Marquez got out of Pedro Garcia's pick-up truck, Pedro Garcia said he heard three or four shots and Guerra-Torres dropped to the ground, the affidavit says. Pedro Garcia said Sandra Garcia then left and he helped Marquez load Guerra-Torres' body into the pick-up truck, Torczon wrote.

Pedro Garcia said he then led Marquez to the remote spot where Guerra-Torres' body was later found and Marquez dismembered the body with an ax, the charging affidavit alleges. Pedro Garcia described paying Marquez with around $700 in cash and a few grams of methamphetamine that had been on Guerra-Torres' body, Torczon said of what he was told, and later paid Marquez a few hundred dollars more.

Sandra Garcia refused to speak to law enforcement after being picked up in Georgia, but previously said she'd dropped off Guerra-Torres at a spot near Cody on Jan. 5 and never saw him again, Torczon wrote. Sandra Garcia reportedly said in the earlier interview that Guerra-Torres had planned to meet a guy nicknamed "Crocodile," who worked for a man named "Don Cheto," who Guerra-Torres owed money, the affidavit says.

However, investigator Torczon said Sandra Garcia had given different stories to her family — telling her mother that Guerra-Torres had been arrested and telling her father that she'd put Guerra-Torres on a bus to Mexico. Torczon also said Sandra Garcia, who never reported Guerra-Torres as missing, described him as having been an abusive boyfriend.

Steward stated in Friday's release that the investigation is continuing and all suspects are presumed to be innocent until proven otherwise.

Mar 26, 2015

Rust-colored conifer trees, shrubs may recover from winter damage

Many evergreen plants around the area look like Christmas trees kept until Easter: brown, dry and dead.

But that doesn’t mean the rust-colored conifer trees and shrubs have died or that they’re a lost cause.
Plants that suffered winter damage may recover with proper care, according to local plant experts.

Dramatic temperature changes last autumn’s likely are to blame for the winter injuries, said Del Barton, parks superintendent and arborist for the city of Powell.

Does your evergreen look sickly? Don't give up on it yet.
“We had some really warm days, so a lot of the trees and shrubs were coming out of dormancy, and then we had an extreme drop in temperatures, well below freezing,” Barton said.

In just a span of a few days in mid-November, county temperates went from a high of 57 degrees to an overnight low of 7 degrees below zero.

When the weather is warm, trees try to begin the photosynthesis process, which includes drawing nutrients and water from the ground, Barton said.

“But if the ground is frozen, because of the cold temperatures in winter, the water is not available,” he said. “So what begins to happen is the trees and shrubs start to die because they can’t get the nutrients and water that they need to survive.”

Winter winds didn’t help.

“When you get these cold, dry winds, they actually increase the dryness, and the needles tend to dry out quicker and turn brown,” Barton said. “When you get that combination effect of the dry winds, lack of moisture and nutrients, that tends to create an additional hardship on the plants.”

The winter damage to evergreens is widespread throughout the region.

“A lot of the arborvitae shrubs and Ponderosa pines and Austrian pines seemed to suffer the brunt of it,” Barton said. “I’ve seen a lot of homeowners where their arborvitae shrubs are just totally brown.”

It’s important to resist the urge to prune and remove the rust-colored areas right now.

“First of all, put away the pruners!” wrote Suzanne Larsen, a master gardener in Cody, in a recent gardening article. “All of the information I have been able to find on this subject says we have to wait and see how these plants recover from last fall’s drastic weather change and temperature drop. The most important thing to do now is wait.”

“If you want to assess the damage to your plants, you can gently bend a branch and see if it is still flexible. If this is the case, this means that new growth is possible, so just wait and see how it recovers,” Larsen wrote.

With spring’s arrival, folks are anxious to start yard work and gardening, Barton said.

“Sometimes these plants that have gone through the winter injuries take longer to recover, so rather than to rush out and cut everything down, usually if you wait until right after the last frost — that’s usually about May 15 — you’re going to know the extent of the damage on the plants,” Barton said. “You’ll have a better determination if the plant is beginning to green up or if it needs to be trimmed back — sometimes only parts of the plant will die off and some may survive.”

Look for signs of new growth this spring.

“If you want to assess the damage to your plants, you can gently bend a branch and see if it is still flexible. If this is the case, this means that new growth is possible, so just wait and see how it recovers,” Larsen wrote.

You don't have to look far to see trees damaged by last year's rollercoaster weather.
Barton suggested taking a small pocket knife and scraping lightly underneath the bark or surface of the twigs to see if there’s a green tinge to indicate new growth. If the plant is turning green and its branches are flexible, it’s probably going to be OK, “but it takes time,” he said.

“If it’s hardened off and real fragile and breaks off, then it’s dead,” Barton said.

The plant will eventually shed the dry, brown needles.

“If the sight of all the rusty looking foliage is too much to bear, you can take a broom and gently sweep over the shrubs to loosen some of the dead-looking growth,” Larsen wrote.

In some cases, only part of the plant died, and it can be pruned later this spring.

“Of course, people want it to look nice, so if you end up trimming out half of your shrubs because it’s half-dead, it might be better to remove the whole thing and start over,” Barton said. “It’s better to not just rush into removing everything until after the last frost.”

Until then, it’s important to continue watering the plants.

“In the near future, water the damaged shrubs and trees and try to not think about the fact that they look like they are dead or dying,” Larsen wrote. “With any luck at all, they will recover in time.”

Barton said to water at the base of trees or shrubs. Mulch around the base also helps plants absorb water.

“As a general rule of thumb, when you get three or more days where it’s above 55 degrees, the plant is going to begin to come out of dormancy, so that’s an opportunity to go ahead and water around the base of that tree,” he said.

He said not to rely only on sprinkler systems to water trees, since they may not provide adequate water at the base.

“As a general rule of thumb, when you get three or more days where it’s above 55 degrees, the plant is going to begin to come out of dormancy, so that’s an opportunity to go ahead and water around the base of that tree,” Barton said.

Don’t put fertilizer on the plants at this time, Barton said.

“That’s the worst possible thing you could do,” he said. “Fertilizers will often accelerate the growth of plants, so if you apply a fertilizer right now, and then we get a real hard freeze, all of the new growth is going to freeze and die.”

It’s better to wait to fertilize until May or June, he said.

Larsen said if you cannot determine how much winter damage your trees or shrubs have, then get another opinion from an arborist or nursery in the area.

Barton encouraged residents to take their time and seek out information about their plants before determining the next course of action.

“If they ask the right questions of the right people, they can save themselves some money and time by helping the plants along,” he said.

When planting new trees and shrubs, it’s important to choose the right plants for Wyoming’s climate, which is hardiness zones 3 and 4, Barton added.

For more information about the winter damage and other tree issues, visit the Parks Department page on the city of Powell’s website.

Meeteetse businesswoman named county’s events coordinator

Prepare to say goodbye to the Park County fair director and hello to the Park County events coordinator.

On Tuesday, Park County commissioners announced and formalized their hire of Echo Renner, a Meeteetse businesswoman and rancher, as the county’s first events coordinator.

In the post, Renner will not only be responsible for overseeing the fairgrounds, as the fair director currently does, but will also be charged with coordinating and seeking out public events at other county facilities.

“I think Echo will do a marvelous job,” Commission Chairman Joe Tilden said at Tuesday’s meeting, to agreement from his fellow commissioners.

Renner said in a later interview that she was drawn to the job by the prospect of planning events, something she loves to do.

Echo Renner
“And of course, the fair was a huge draw, because I love the fair and 4-H and FFA — and I love working with young people,” she said adding, “It’s such a fun and positive experience for people ... and I’m really excited about that opportunity.”

The decision also means that Park County Fair Director Jennifer Lohrenz is officially out of a job at the end of June.

“I was publicly asked to apply by commissioners but I was not asked to interview,” Lohrenz said Wednesday. “I anticipate there will be changes in the future. I have thoroughly enjoyed managing the fair and I wish only the best for its future.”

Commissioners said 15 people applied for the post and they chose five finalists; Lohrenz was not among them.

“We had an excellent group of candidates. It was a very difficult decision,” Tilden said of making a hire.

The relationship between the fair board and commission became strained in recent years, in part because of conflict over who was in charge of making decisions on the fairgrounds: Should it be fair board-directed fair staff like Lohrenz, who managed the facilities, or commission-directed buildings and grounds staffers, who maintained them?

The new events coordinator ultimately answers to the commission and not the fair board, a change in structure that rankled some board members.

Fair board members and commissioners have blamed each other for the conflict.

“I just want to give everyone the opportunity to let me know their position and the things that they would like and expect — and I want to know how we can work together, because I'm very willing to do that,” Renner said.

Commissioner Bucky Hall said Tuesday that commissioners are trying to mend fences and get along with the fair board members.

“Their roles will not change,” Hall said. “They just don’t have that quote, headache, unquote, of an employee any longer.”

“Well said,” added Commissioner Loren Grosskopf.

Asked about the conflict, Renner said she wants to meet “with everyone involved and anyone who wants to visit me” about the fair or any of the past issues.

“I want to hear all sides, and I want to hear people’s grievances and their ideas for improvement,” Renner said. “I guess I just want to give everyone the opportunity to let me know their position and the things that they would like and expect — and I want to know how we can work together, because I'm very willing to do that.”

She will be paid $48,000 — the same pay that Lohrenz was receiving — in the expanded position.

Tilden expects the county will need to add a marketing budget for Renner. He said the county wanted “somebody that’s going to go out and actively market what we have” and was impressed with Renner’s marketing experience.

Renner said she wants to meet “with everyone involved and anyone who wants to visit me” about the fair or any of the past issues.

She did writing, editing, marketing and event planning for about a decade through her own business, Wood River Marketing Co., and previously led the Meeteetse visitor center and museum. She’s planned fundraisers, historic ranch tours, family reunions and all kinds of parties and gatherings.

Renner also has first-hand experience with events on Park County property, having run a festival/flea market called the Gypsy Market on the grounds of the Park County Complex last year. Part of the commissioners’ reasoning for creating the new, expanded position was because of a rising number of public events on county property — and they had specifically mentioned the Gypsy Market as being one of them.

Beyond that, Renner’s past experience includes working as a 4-H and Montana State University Extension agent, serving as a 4-H leader in Nebraska and Wyoming and helping the Meeteetse FFA for the past several years.

She and her husband own and manage Mountain West Screen Printers and Embroidery in Cody.

Commissioners said Renner eventually will be based in Powell, but when she starts on April 7, she’ll work from a spare desk in the county’s Planning and Zoning Department at the Park County Courthouse in Cody.

Local Republicans to elect new leaders on Saturday

Division within the Park County Republican Party will be put to a vote on Saturday, when party members choose their leaders for the next two years.

A group fronted by Colin Simpson of Cody, former Wyoming Speaker of the House, is seeking election to the county party’s leadership. The group is calling for a change from the direction that the party’s more active and conservative leadership has taken in the last two years.

Meanwhile, current Park County Republican Party Chairman Larry French — who is not seeking re-election — says the group Simpson represents is trying to “ruin” the party.

Members of each “side” say the opposing group represents the minority; they each also accuse the other of being the source of the continuing division.

Saturday’s meeting is set to begin at 10 a.m. at the Holiday Inn in Cody. All Republicans and members of the public are welcome to observe the proceedings, but only precinct committeemen and women (chosen during last year’s primary election) are allowed to participate. The races for the county party’s five elected positions — chairman, vice chairman, state committeeman, state committeewoman and treasurer — all are expected to be contested.

Some of the conflict was outlined at a March 10 meeting at the Park County Library, where representatives of both GOP factions spoke of personality conflicts, disagreement over the role the party should play in local politics and division over more moderate and more conservative Republican beliefs.

Colin Simpson addresses some of his fellow Republicans during an informal March 10 meeting at the Park County Library. He’s running for chair of the county party, as is Camara Clifton of Powell. Photo by CJ Baker
The discord can be traced back for many years, but one trigger point came a year ago, when a group of Republicans attempted to censure state Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, for several actions they disagreed with. Chief among their complaints was Coe’s role in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to strip most of the powers of the state's elected superintendent of public instruction and give them to an education director appointed by the governor.

In mid-February 2014, a group that included the county GOP’s state committeeman, Bob Berry, took out an ad in the Cody Enterprise titled, “Coe Must Go.” A majority of Republicans voted to censure Coe at the party's convention that March, but it fell short of a required two-thirds vote.

Coe was incensed by the effort, saying in an Enterprise ad of his own that the party had been “targeted for take-over by a group of rightwing activists,” and pledged to lead an effort to “take back” the party.

Simpson and others put together a political action committee that called itself “Republicans for Unity.” They sent mailers calling on Republicans to vote for 39 specific precinct committee people in the August primary. Twenty-nine of the candidates endorsed by the group were elected, as was Sen. Coe himself.

For his part, French took issue with “Republicans for Unity,” saying in a letter to party members this month that the group “divided the Central Committee not unified it. By the actions of that (Political Action Committee), it drove a wedge deep into the party.”

French sent the letter after learning that one of the “Unity” group’s leaders, Terry Hinkle, had invited certain Republicans to the March 10 meeting to prepare for the upcoming party elections.

Although Hinkle had explicitly said the meeting was unofficial and informal, French decried it as a violation of the party’s bylaws, which restricts who can call official GOP meetings. French also said inviting only some members of the central committee smacked of “elitism” and described it as an attempt by a special interest group to take control of the party.

With the cat out of the bag, members of both factions attended the March 10 meeting, where they expressed differing views about whether the past two years of leadership had been an improvement or a step backward.

“There’s been a lot of angst on both sides, a lot of things that have been said on both sides, that have been, I think, at times poisonous,” said Jo Walker of Powell.

Members of the more moderate camp complained party meetings have been too formal, ran too long and, at once a month, were too frequent, while the more conservative camp’s members praised the more active and inclusive party meetings and faulted those who didn’t attend.

Both sides also expressed dismay about the ongoing division.

“There’s been a lot of angst on both sides, a lot of things that have been said on both sides, that have been, I think, at times poisonous. Lot of people's feelings hurt, lot of strong things said, lot of truth said,” said Jo Walker, a Tea Party supporter. “To me, what’s really important is these next two years.”

County Republicans will resume the discussion Saturday.

Mar 24, 2015

Concealed carry bill will pop up again, legislator predicts

A bill to allow concealed-carry guns into schools and public meetings was defeated in the Wyoming Legislature this year, but supporters aim to reload and fire away again, local legislators predicted Friday.

Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell
“It’ll be here next year, guaranteed,” state Rep. David Northrup said. “It’ll be back.”

And the Powell Republican, who represent the eastern part of Cody, said he expects it to become law, in some form and at some time. The people pushing for it will not stop until that happens, he said.

“This bill will get passed,” Northrup predicted during a town hall meeting at The Depot in downtown Powell.

Gib Condie of Powell asked why the Legislature was considering allowing guns in classrooms but not in courtrooms. Condie said people accept limits on the speed they drive and when and where tobacco can be used.

“Why not accept a limit on being able to carry a concealed weapon into a school?” he asked.

Northrup said he feels such a limit is reasonable. He said he bases his view in part on his prior service on the Powell school board. Educators should be aware of what’s happening in their environment, Northrup said.

“Gosh, if I was a principal, I would like to know if there is a gun in my building,” he said.

But Northrup said he was also aware of the concerns of small, rural school districts that are several minutes away from the nearest law enforcement office. He spoke with representatives of some of those districts, including staff at Ten Sleep.

“Gosh, if I was a principal, I would like to know if there is a gun in my building,” Northrup said.

Perhaps school staffers, such as principals or janitors, could be properly trained and equipped with guns, he said.

State Rep. Dan Laursen said he favors allowing concealed carry guns into almost every setting, including schools and courtrooms.

“I’m in favor of it,” Laursen said, noting Utah has allowed concealed carry guns in public places for 15 years without any problems.

“I think our schools would be safer ...” he said.

Several other bills and topics were discussed during the 75-minute meeting:

• While an effort to call for a convention of the states to pass a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget failed, Laursen said it will rise once more in Cheyenne.

Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell
Two bills focused on the topic, he said, and he was the cosponsor of one of them. The House approved a bill calling for the convention but he said the Senate “picked it apart” and added stipulations. The Senate fears a runaway convention that could make major changes in the American political system, but Laursen and Northrup said that would not happen.

They said such a gathering would be designed as a single-purpose convention. Under a bill Laursen proposed, Wyoming delegates would face a $10,000 fine and year in jail if they got off track.

States need to demand more power in government, Laursen said. So far, 26 states support calling the convention; if 34 do so, it would happen, although it would take the support of 38 delegations to pass a constitutional amendment.

He said the federal government is “pushing the states around more than they should.”

Both legislators said they feel the federal government will get more responsive if the states shows a determination to act, which is what happened in the 1960s when civil rights legislation was being considered at both the state and federal levels.

“It died in Senate anyway — and I was happy. We need to do it right,” Laursen said. “I’ll pick it up again and bring it up. We’ll bring it back. The Senate was being kinda ornery.”

“We’ll bring it back,” Rep. Laursen said of an effort to require Congress to balance its budgets. “The Senate was being kinda ornery.”

• Local governments are not getting as much money as Gov. Matt Mead pledged to deliver during his 2014 re-election campaign.

Mead said he wanted to provide $25 million to county, city and town governments in the 2015 supplemental budget. That was quickly reduced to $12.5 million and in the end, $8 million was budgeted for local governments.

Powell Mayor Don Hillman confirmed that number during the meeting.

• Condie asked if the lawmakers supported Medicaid expansion.

They said the concern was still that the federal government, which has promised to pay 90 percent of the costs, may not deliver the money.

“If Medicaid expansion does happen, it would definitely benefit hospitals and providers,” Northrup said. “I think Wyoming is going to wait and see what will happen on the federal level.”

Condie suggested using profits from the Wyoming Lottery to cover any gap. He said since the lottery is a “regressive tax” that takes money from the poor; it would be wise to use any revenue derived from it to help people.

“If Medicaid expansion does happen, it would definitely benefit hospitals and providers,” Northrup said. “I think Wyoming is going to wait and see what will happen on the federal level.”

• Placing federal land under the control of the state would bolster Wyoming state government, the legislators said.

Northrup said $900 million in royalties to the federal government and gets $200 million back each year. That’s why people want federal lands converted to state control, especially Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, he said.

Northrup said he worries that the land might be sold to private interests. 

“That’s my concern,” he said. “That’s why I can’t support it.”

• Rural Powell farmer Lyle Evelo repeatedly asked Northrup and Laursen to “rein in” the Environmental Protection Agency.

What can change the EPA is a “change in administration,” Laursen said.

Evelo said the EPA is growing in size, employees and regulatory authority.

Laursen said he knew what could change things: a “change in administration.”

• The representatives were asked about the anti-discrimination bill that failed in the House after passing in the Senate. Both voted against it.

“I just don’t think we need a bill,” Laursen said.

Northrup said he wanted to see all protected classes, which includes religion and age, among others, treated the same.

“Let’s treat it fairly ...” he said.

• Northrup said Clark is pushing for a share of recreation mill levy. It’s an issue that will be studied.

“They would like to get their fair share,” he said.

The Legislature will study whether communities like Clark should be able to form their own recreation districts.

He will serve on the Joint Agriculture State and Public Lands and Water Resources Interim Committee.

Gov. Mead is pushing for the state to build 10 reservoirs in 10 years, the legislators said as they reviewed items to be studied during the interim.

Among other topics to be looked at are conservation district mill levies, pesticide training and safety, a federal lands study, Wyoming State Fair planning, costs and fees, and GMO (genetically modified organisms) organizations and products, regulations and related issues.

The Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources Interim Committee, which Laursen serves on, will look at the Game and Fish Department’s budget and structure; poaching regulations; antler and bone collection; special management area permits; and the Division of State Parks, Historic Sites and Trails Central Construction Office.

It also will study bicycle tourism and recreation, including a long-range plan for bike pathways, while seeking a safety report from WYDOT.

Slowly but surely, Meeteetse library replacing books

Two years after a mistakenly activated sprinkler system ruined roughly 4,000 books at the Meeteetse library, about a quarter of them have been replaced.

“It’s been a slow process because we’re trying to be careful and not replace redundant stuff but really get good, new stuff,” Park County Library Director Frances Clymer told commissioners last week, adding, “We’re gearing up to do some serious ordering in the next few months.”

The February 2013 flood claimed a lot of books at the Meeteetse library. File photo courtesy Frances Clymer
Commissioners gave Clymer permission to keep using money from the roughly $173,000 insurance settlement the library received for the lost books to buy the new ones.

A temporary, full-time staffer was hired with the settlement money last year to help handle the influx of new books.

“She’s working through ordering, receiving, processing, cataloging and so forth, so it’s a time-consuming process,” Clymer said.

The Meeteetse branch library is inside the Meeteetse school, which lost around 1,100 of its own books in the sprinkler deluge.

County eyes $1 million in cuts, worried about dwindling dollars

Fearing fewer dollars from the federal government and fewer taxes from the slumping oil and gas industry, Park County commissioners are hoping to trim $1 million from the county’s budget.

At a preliminary budget meeting last week, commissioners directed county departments to cut their non-personnel expenses by 4 percent.

“We know next year’s (budgeting process) could be brutal, with oil fast approaching the $30 (a barrel) range,” said Commissioner Tim French, adding that the area's oil fetches lower than average prices. Oil and gas accounts for roughly half of the county's tax base, Park County Assessor Pat Meyer has said.

French described 4 percent cuts as “somewhere to start.”

The county's general budget for the current fiscal year — which funds entities ranging from the sheriff's office to the annual Park County Fair — is just over $28 million.

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf said 4 percent cuts may not be large enough.

“Go ahead and do more; we’re not going to turn you down,” quipped Commissioner Lee Livingston.

County officials will know a lot more as the end of the fiscal year, June 30, draws a little closer.

For example, commissioners have been concerned that the county is getting about $250,000 less than expected from the federal government's Secure Rural Schools program. However, early indications are that the county should eventually get about $1 million more than expected in federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes — meaning the county could actually end up $750,000 ahead on federal dollars.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the impact from the recent drop in oil and gas values won't really be felt at the county government level until next year.

For that reason, Commissioner Bucky Hall said it may be OK if a department can't make 4 percent cuts this year, but that might mean more severe cuts a year from now.

Park County Complex getting new parking lot

The Park County Complex is getting a new and improved parking lot for a lower price than the county expected.

Potholes like these are part of the reason why the parking lot is being redone.
Commissioners on Tuesday accepted a $260,781 bid from Harris Trucking of Cody to remove and replace around 12,000 square yards of asphalt and put in new curb and gutter.

Harris Trucking's bid was nearly $80,500 cheaper than the other bidder, Warton Asphalt of Billings, and close to $30,000 less than what the county staff had guessed it would cost.

“That’s excellent,” said Commission Chairman Joe Tilden.

The county had considered doing part of the asphalt removal and hauling with its own road and bridge crews, but ultimately found wouldn’t have been any cheaper, said staff engineer Jeremy Quist.

Commissioner Bucky Hall noted that doing the work in-house would have also taken the county crews away from their normal jobs.

Six injured in Wind River Canyon crash, including four Cody High School wrestlers

Six people, including four members of the Cody High School wrestling team, were injured when after a 1999 Jeep collided with a rock and flipped over on US Highway 20 in the Wind River Canyon on Sunday.

The crash occurred at approximately 10 p.m. near mile post 117 on US 20 in Fremont County, north of the tunnels in the Wind River Canyon, according to a report from the Wyoming Highway Patrol.

Six people were injured when this vehicle hit a rock and flipped in the Wind River Canyon. Courtesy photo
The Jeep, owned by Charles B. Flickinger of Cody, was travelling northbound when the vehicle's left front tire struck a rock on the roadway. After colliding with the rock, the vehicle left the roadway, rolled onto its roof and hit the cliff wall, coming to rest in the northbound emergency lane of US 20, facing north, the report said.

Shannon Canfield of Cody, whose son Carson Canfield is on the wrestling squad but was not in the vehicle, said she has exchanged text messages with the parents of the injured people. She provided the following information on their conditions:

  • Benjamin Flickinger, 18, a Cody High School senior and wrester who was driving the vehicle, was treated and released from Sage Hospital in Riverton.
  • Passenger Dan Beaudrie, a Cody wrestler, suffered compression fractures to his spine, broken orbital sockets and bones under his nose. He reportedly lost most of his teeth and has severe facial fractures and lacerations, as well as a bruised and punctured lung. He was listed in critical condition at Billings Clinic Hospital on Monday.
  • Passengers Charles Flickinger, 58, and Anna Flickinger, 9, were transported by air ambulance to Denver. Both have two broken legs.
  • Passengers David Plumer and Jon Sanchez, also Cody wrestlers, are being treated at a Denver hospital. Plumer suffered a broken nose, broken toes and a fractured bone in his back; Sanchez has three breaks to his collarbone and bruising to his lungs.

The Highway Patrol report said it is believed all of the occupants of the vehicle were restrained by seat belts with the exception of Anna Flickinger.

The highway was closed from 11:40 p.m. until 1:07 a.m. due to the crash. The crash was still under investigation Monday, the report said.

A benefit fund has been established to assist the families. For more information, call Canfield at 307-899-6066.

Cody filmmaker's classic-style Western movie shorts ride into region

Fans of classic American Westerns are invited to a screening of two movies at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Vali Twin Cinema in Powell that follows a successful showing in Cody.

The films are the “Absaroka saga,” two short Western films shot almost exclusively in this neck of Wyoming.

“I’m really excited to be doing this and showcasing Wyoming,” said Patrick Mignano of Hurricane Deck Productions.
It’s right wintery in the mountains of Wyoming when ‘Absaroka’ series heroes take to the trail to catch killers. From left are Sheriff Wilbur Crowley (played by Clay Gibbons), Lucius Blackledge (Patrick Mignano) and Monty Wilson (Kyle Oliver). Courtesy photo

The first film, “Absaroka,” runs 20 minutes. It won the 2010 Wyoming Short Film Contest as well as Best Western at the 2011 Trail Dance Film Festival.

The second, “Absaroka Sins,” is 45 minutes.

“Absaroka” was shown last week at Big Horn Cinemas in Cody as part of showings around the region.

Both “Absaroka” and “Absaroka Sins” have been featured on Wyoming PBS and Mignano hopes to develop it into a television series.

“Absaroka” is set in 1881 territorial Wyoming.

Lucius Blackledge (Mignano) and his sidekick, Howard Prescott (Rob Story) are cowhands wintering in a line shack. When they decide to ride into town, they find a fatally wounded wagoneer. In his dying breaths, the man says gunmen snatched his wife and child, Mignano explains.

Blackledge and Prescott ride to rescue mother and child from the hands of villainy. Justice is served, but it takes an emotional toll on reluctant hero Blackledge, Mignano said.

In “Sins,” a sheriff’s deputy is brazenly shot down in cold blood in the sheriff’s office. The sheriff, Wilbur Crowley (Clay Gibbons), lights out to catch the killer. While in pursuit, his other deputy is killed, so Crowley enlists Blackledge and Prescott to join his posse.

Tracking the desperadoes leads to a surprising series of events for the cowhands turned lawmen, Mignano said.

On the trail of outlaws in ‘Absaroka Sins’ are, from left, Howard Prescott (Rob Story), Lucius Blackledge (Patrick Mignano), Monty Wilson (Kyle Oliver) and Sheriff Wilbur Crowley (Clay Gibbons). Courtesy photo
There will be no admission fee at the Powell screening, but a $10 donation will gladly be accepted to support additional screenings and “Absaroka” filming, Mignano said.

He’s watched all the Western genre greats on the big and small screens: John Wayne, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner and others. “I’m a student of the Western,” Mignano said. “These (Absaroka series) hold up to any of those movies.”

It shows — Mignano ain’t no Easterner.

He grew up in Star Valley and has a home in Cody, he said.

He is pleased to show his films to neighbors featuring realistic Old West characters and sweeping cinematography of Wyoming that locals and movie fans will recognize, Mignano said.

He’s looking forward to his Powell visit.

“Absaroka” was filmed in and around Cody. “Sins” was shot in the Big Horn Mountains near Hyattville, Wapiti Canyon and Mooncrest Ranch, The TE Ranch on the South Fork of Shoshone River and Nevada City, Mont.

The filmmaker is on a screening tour of Wyoming, Montana and Colorado during March and April. Go to to follow links for tour locations, trailers and other interesting tidbits. Like them on Facebook at

Hurricane Deck Productions is a small film production company founded in 2010. "Absaroka" was its first film.

Mar 17, 2015

Downturn in the oil patch brings layoffs

Wyomingites may be grinning at gas pumps, but lower gasoline prices mean people in the oil patch are out of work while the state of Wyoming reels in less oil revenue.

Thirty-two oil rigs were drilling in Wyoming on March 10, compared to 55 to 57 rigs on average in 2014, according to Bruce Hinchey, president of Petroleum Association of Wyoming in Casper.
Falling gas prices have resulted in reductions in oil field jobs.

“We’ve laid off probably 50 percent,” said Jerry Herweyer, manager of J & R Well Service in Powell.

Between 30 and 40 J & R Powell area employees recently have been laid off, and more layoffs are likely.

Greg Lynch, owner of Northstate Corp, an oil field service company in Powell, said he has laid off 11 employees.

“We are definitely seeing the layoffs in oil and gas,” said David Bullard, senior economist with Wyoming Department of Workforce Services office in Casper. “Clearly, the claims are way up, and we’re seeing layoffs around the state.”

In February, 906 people filed unemployment insurance claims in the natural resources and mining sector around the state, compared to 250 claims at the same time a year earlier, according to Workforce figures.

The natural resources and mining category includes some agriculture, mining such as coal, trona and uranium and oil and gas. But job losses were centered in one area.

“The increase is within oil and gas,” Bullard said.

The number of unemployment insurance claims filed last month rivals the number filed during the 2009 recession, Bullard said.

In February 2009, there were 1,094 claims in natural resources and mining, according to Workforce figures.

“Every oilfield business in the Big Horn Basin has been affected by the oil prices,” Herweyer said. “Everybody is pretty much in the same boat.”

“It’s going to have a pretty good ripple effect through the area — the whole state, really,” Herweyer said.

Wyoming’s average cost for a gallon of regular gas was $2.17 per gallon compared to the United States median of $2.42 on Monday, according to

“On the New York Mercantile Exchange, crude oil for delivery in April plunged $2.21, or 4.7 percent, on Friday to end the week at $44.84 a barrel,” according to a March 15 Nasdaq article.

Cheap gas is good for consumers, but bad for Wyoming’s economy, Hinchey said.

“Four-dollar gas is a lot better for Wyoming than $2 gas,” said Lynch.

Cheaper gas prices also mean less tax revenue to the state and its counties.

“We’re down about 4 percent (in county revenue) right now,” said Pat Meyer, Park County Assessor.

Assessed valuation for this year will not see severe reductions, but next year may. He’ll know more about 2015 later this spring, and more about 2016 this fall, Meyer said.

Projected mineral severance tax revenue from crude oil in fiscal year 2015 is $248 million, while it was more than $322 million in FY 2014, according to Wyoming State Government Revenue Forecast fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2020.

In FY 2014, cities and towns were guaranteed a little more than $14.3 million, and counties a little more than $6 million, from state mineral severance taxes. For FY 2015, which ends June 30, cities and towns are guaranteed about the same amounts, according to the Wyoming Consensus Revenue Estimating Group’s revenue forecast.

“They get the money first,” said Wenlin Liu, principal economist with the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division. “The decline in severance taxes won’t affect them for this distribution.”

In addition, municipalities and counties are getting more in state appropriations this year.

Ironically, oil is plentiful at this time, Herweyer said.

Oil production has not slowed in the U.S., but oil exploration probably has, said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst in Gaithersburg, Md. The U.S. had 449 million barrels of oil in its inventory on Wednesday; that is 79 million barrels more than a year earlier, on March 11, 2014.

Herweyer said he does not anticipate oil prices rising in the near future. “I’m thinking we’re in this for two years, at least,” he said.

Slumping oil prices are not prevalent in just Wyoming.

“It’s a global thing,” Lynch said.

DeHaan said there is less demand for oil, in part because China is in recession and demanding less oil.

Oil prices dropped in 1982, and it wasn’t until nearly year 2000 before the price of oil increased.

“I don’t want to see it like that again,” Hinchey said.

Commissioner's negotiating saves county $1,500

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf recently saved Park County $1,500 through some negotiating with its auditor.

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf
Last year, CliftonLarsonAllen threatened to back out of its auditing contract with the county. The firm’s primary complaint was they didn’t want to have to have to convert the county’s financial statements from a cash basis to the accrual basis required by governmental accounting standards, as it basically forces the firm to audit its own work.

CliftonLarsonAllen agreed to stay on when the county committed to improvements and agreed to as much as $7,500, on top of the $36,000 called for by the contract.

CliftonLarsonAllen ultimately billed the county an extra $6,500, but Grosskopf, a former certified public accountant, convinced the firm to drop the charge to $5,000.

The auditing firm wants further improvements to the county’s financial procedures, but the firm will be back next year, Grosskopf said at the commission's March 10 meeting.

“There will be absolutely no question about that,” he said.

Offered Commissioner Lee Livingston, “Good work.”

New building on track for fair, commissioners told

Work on a new multi-use facility for the Park County Fairgrounds hasn’t gone according to schedule, but the contractor still believes it can finish the building before the 2015 fair.

Cold weather set in before most of the concrete could be poured last fall, which delayed general contractor Synergy Construction’s initial plans.

However, “They’re sticking to their original schedule,” Ron Yount, the project architect with Plan One Architects, told county commissioners last week.

“They (Synergy officials) have in the past expressed that they would be manning the job as necessary to work that original completion date,” Yount said of finishing by fair. “So they’ve committed to that, still.”

Yount said all the concrete for the main area and south wing of the building had been poured, with the final concrete in the north end to come as soon as underground plumbing is completed there. The main metal frame was erected earlier this month, and minor framing was underway last week.

The new multi-use building is seen on Monday, March 16. Photo by Toby Bonner
“It’s obviously been a frustrating weather schedule that’s been happening, but they (Synergy) have made a lot of progress since that concrete has been down,” Yount said.

“A lot of good weather,” added Commissioner Tim French.

The commissioners welcomed the report. They also remained bully on what the new 16,103 square foot, $3.1 million facility will mean for the area.

“That building down there, the events that are going to come into the town of Powell could be amazing,” French said.

Commissioner Bucky Hall believes the completed facility will have the only publicly available commercial kitchen in the city.

“That will be pretty significant,” Hall said. “If all of sudden someone over there bites the bullet and adds on or builds a nice new big motel, that will change the landscape of people coming to Park County for events — because it will be the nicest events place in the whole Big Horn Basin.”

Mar 12, 2015

Events coordinator to get same pay as fair director

Park County Commissioners are expanding and changing the job description of the fair director, but they don’t want to change the position’s pay.

Commissioners decided last week to set the salary of the new county events coordinator at roughly $48,000 — about the same amount currently paid to Park County Fair Director Jennifer Lohrenz, whose position is being scrapped at the end of June in favor of the new post.

“I think what we’ve told the public in previous meetings (is) that this would be cost neutral,” Commissioner Loren Grosskopf said March 3, to unanimous agreement from his fellow commissioners.

The events coordinator will oversee the Park County Fairgrounds in Powell year-round — as the fair director currently does — and will have the added task of handling all large public events held on county properties — such as on the grounds of the Park County Complex in Cody.

Commissioners have said the change was made necessary, in part, by a rising number of public events. There’s also been conflict between the fair board-directed fair staff who manage the grounds and commission-directed buildings and grounds department staffers who maintain them.

Under the new structure, all fair staffers ultimately will answer to commissioners rather than to the fair board.

Some fair board members feel that taking away all board-controlled staff minimizes their role in the fair’s management. Fair Board Chairman Mike Demoney called the change “really messed up,” and Vice Chairman Linda Nielsen said it felt like “our legs were kind of cut out from underneath of us.”
Commissioners insist that little will be different.

“The way I see it, the fair board’s function is not going to change,” Commission Chairman Joe Tilden told Nielsen last week. “You’re still going to be charged with the production of the fair and any other help that you can be for additional functions that we have down there.”

The job description for the events coordinator says they will “assume full management and leadership of the Park County Fair in cooperation and conjunction with the Park County Fair Board.”

“We’re not cutting you out of giving input,” Commissioner Tim French told Nielsen. “Will you make the final decisions? I don’t know about that, but you will have direct input into the events coordinator.”

Beyond the concern with the change in structure, Nielsen again expressed worries that the commissioners are asking too much by expanding the position beyond the fair.

“It seems like it’s an awful lot for one person to handle, knowing what Jennifer (Lohrenz) handles on her own throughout the year,” Nielsen said.

She said it’s not a three-month-a-year job, but a full-time one, “and it is a little scary for us, because sometimes you look at Jen and say, ‘You need a break.’”

“It’s a position that ultimately is going to evolve,” responded Commission Bucky Hall, adding, “The possibility exists that this person might ultimately need a full-time staff assistant. I mean, it might evolve that way.”

Hall and French said Tuesday that they expect the coordinator will have little free time in the summer, but should see things slow down in the winter.

“There are some of us (on the fair board) that I guess are a little bit, hostile, I guess you would say,” said fair board member Linda Nielsen.

“I would attest to that, you’re absolutely correct,” said Commissioner Tim French.

A total of 14 people applied for the post by Monday’s deadline. The pool includes current fair director Lohrenz.

French said the board likely will whittle the field down to five or six candidates and then conduct interviews.

Communication between the board and commission has been strained for some time. Nielsen said she learned of the commission’s plans to shuffle the fair staff when she read about it in the Cody Enterprise.

Nielsen said last week she plans to attend all the commission’s discussions about the events coordinator going forward.

“There are some of us (on the fair board) that I guess are a little bit, hostile, I guess you would say,” Nielsen started. “But I don’t see why ...”

“I would attest to that, you’re absolutely correct,” French jumped in.

Both he and Nielsen said they hope to see less hostility going forward.

Mar 10, 2015

Former Cody woman in prison for repeatedly defrauding family, friends

Connie O’Connor stood before the judge last April and was posed a relatively straightforward question about the nearly $365,000 she’d taken from friends and family.

“What did you do with all the money?” District Court Judge Robert Skar asked.

“Bought people’s love,” O’Connor responded.

Connie O'Connor in 2014
Not the answer he was looking for, the judge pressed for specifics.

“I mean, we’re talking a total restitution of 300-some-thousand dollars,” Skar said. “Where did it go?”

There’s no definitive accounting in court records of exactly where all the money went — though some portion apparently went to new clothes, a rental car and bar tabs for O’Connor.

Much more clear, however, is where the money came from: a mix of people close to the 55-year-old former Cody resident who she misled or defrauded between 2005 and 2012.

• A couple she had worked for had loaned $190,000 to O’Connor in August 2005. O’Connor repaid them with a $205,000 check the following year, but it bounced. Despite that, the couple dug deeper into their retirement savings and loaned her another $140,000 over the next two years, which also went unpaid.
“Unquestionably we were probably naive,” the Cody couple later wrote to the judge. “But we really thought we could help her by not pressing the financial issues, and maybe we could help her change her life.”

• O’Connor wracked up $1,900 on a credit card she fraudulently opened in an ex-husband’s name in July 2011; he learned about the charges a few months later, when Capital One called to say he was in default.

• She charged upwards of $18,000 to her dementia-stricken mother’s credit card in late 2011 and early 2012.

Charging documents say O’Connor used deception to prolong the schemes.

O’Connor’s ex-husband told police he suspected she had intercepted Capital One’s mailings to him about the debt.

She reportedly lied to convince the Cody couple to loan her the $345,000; in their letter to Skar, the couple said the hardest part of their eight-year relationship with O’Connor was learning numerous things she told them about her life, her job and her plans to repay them were untrue.

O’Connor’s family said her lies included claiming to have cancer.

“Speaking for our family, she really needs to spend time in prison,. She’s never been held accountable for her actions and decisions,” said O'Connor's niece.

When Park County Sheriff’s Sgt. Chad McKinney began investigating how O’Connor was able to rent a car with her ill mother’s credit card for an extended period of time, a manager at the rental company explained they’d called the elderly woman and gotten her permission each time the rental period needed to be extended; McKinney discovered they’d actually been tricked into calling and speaking to O’Connor.

Her family told Skar there are others she has manipulated, including romantic partners.

Court records show O’Connor forged an earlier ex-husband’s name to run up some $66,000 worth of credit card debt between 1991 and 1996. That resulted in a felony conviction in Park County in 2000.

In addition, a boyfriend alleged in a civil lawsuit that O’Connor had taken him for $150,000 in 2008. The former Billings resident said he’d been tricked into thinking he was helping save O’Connor’s home from foreclosure and that he’d get a big return on the loan when O’Connor received some kind of insurance payout. O’Connor claimed the money had been actually been a gift, but a judge ordered her to pay back $145,000 in 2010.

“Speaking for our family, she really needs to spend time in prison,”  O’Connor’s niece wrote to Judge Skar last year. “She’s never been held accountable for her actions and decisions.”

In O’Connor’s defense, she and her court-appointed defense attorney, Brigita Krisjansons, argued she’d learned her lesson and changed her life after being arrested in 2012. They also noted she paid back the money illegally rung up on her mother’s credit card.

“The Connie O’Connor that stands before you today is a very different woman than what you would have seen four years ago,” Krisjansons told Judge Skar last April.

“That woman was all glitz, fancy clothes, fancy car ... someone with entitlement and money, pedicures, manicures — not someone would be out in the middle of a ranch shoveling manure,” she said, referring to work that a “contrite and remorseful” O’Connor was doing at a ranch outside Kemmerer.

O’Connor said the 110 days she spent in jail after being arrested on the new charges were “the worst days of my life.”

However, she had said similar things about the “life-changing” experience of being jailed back in 2000.

“I have found out that credit cards, money, possessions, nothing is as important as my husband, my family, my employer. They love me, they have forgiven me, they stand behind me,” O’Connor told then-Judge Gary Hartman in August 2000, as she wrapped up a 60-day jail sentence for defrauding the earlier ex-husband.

Her parents helped pay off the $66,000 she’d fraudulently charged to that man, and her mother testified to her good character.

Judge Hartman thought the jail time had made a lasting impression and — citing in part the “tremendous” support of her family — believed O’Connor would live a law-abiding life.

But some 14 years later, O’Connor was back in Park County District Court on the new felony charges.

“People took advantage of me. I mean, I don’t want to come across as the victim — I don’t — but ... but the people that owe me money, I don’t see them in court,” Connie O'Connor said.

In response to Judge Skar’s question about where the roughly $365,000 had gone, O’Connor said she spent it on others in an attempt to buy love she hadn’t received as a child.

“People took advantage of me,” O’Connor said last April. “I mean, I don’t want to come across as the victim — I don’t — but I had somebody living with me that took advantage, I’ve made loans to people and, your honor, not to be disrespectful, but the people that owe me money, I don’t see them in court.”

The judge took offense.

“Can you even think for a moment what it would be like to have all of your retirement monies, or a good portion of them, depleted on the prayer and the promise that you are going to repay over the rest of your life at 50-some years old?” Skar asked. “Do you know how you’ve affected their lives?”

“I understand that, your honor, and if I could die today I would, if that would help it,” she said.

“That’s not the issue, is it?” Skar replied, to agreement from O’Connor.

The judge rejected the probation O’Connor had requested.

“I don’t hear remorse,” Skar said. “I hear, ‘Damn it, this happened again. I’m in trouble again and I have to do everything in my power to get out of it.’”

The Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office had asked for no more than three to five years of prison time for O’Connor as part of a plea agreement, but Skar instead imposed four to eight years.
O’Connor recently asked Skar to reconsider and reduce her sentence.

“I don’t hear remorse. I hear, ‘Damn it, this happened again. I’m in trouble again and I have to do everything in my power to get out of it,’” Judge Robert Skar said.

The couple who loaned O’Connor the $340,000 supported having her released. They said they wanted to be paid back and O’Connor said she could pay off the debt “in a couple years” by working and selling off some property.

At a Jan. 8 hearing, O’Connor said she’d learned much from being imprisoned in Torrington.

“Thank you for allowing me to experience the hurt,” O’Connor told Skar. “I needed to feel the pain.”

She apologized for the pain and hurt she’s caused. Unlike the past, where she looked to others to pay her debts, “I want to be the one to have the job to pay back (the money),” O’Connor said. “I’m not looking for a quick fix like I used to.”

She said she’s been helping fellow inmates and hopes to write a book and become an inspirational speaker to help others avoid the mistakes she’s made.

Skar appreciated the good job O’Connor was doing at the penitentiary, but noted it was her second fraud conviction.

“I have my doubts whether you’ll be able to repay a substantial amount of that $300,000 (loan) anyways,” Skar said, leaving the prison time in place. “But I do want to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Game and Fish capture Big Horn Mountains’ bighorn sheep for transplant

A couple dozen more Big Horn Mountain bighorn sheep are making a new home in the Seminoe Mountains.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department captured the 25 sheep on Friday morning from the Devils Canyon herd in the Big Horn Mountains. They'll supplement the Seminoe Mountain herd north of Sinclair.

Greg Hiatt, Game and Fish wildlife biologist in Sinclair, said the goal was accomplished: 21 ewes, one lamb and three young rams.

The sun gradually warms the staging area at the Cottonwood Creek trailhead when the first batch of bighorn sheep arrive tethered to a helicopter.

The helicopter herds the sheep to a safe location where the gunner shoots a net over the sheep, where a net-gun capture crew catch the sheep. The crew consists of a pilot, gunner and animal handlers, known as “muggers.” The muggers disembark the helicopter to calm each animal by placing a blindfold over its eyes while freeing it from the net. They hobble the animals and place them in a large mesh bag for quick transport to the staging/processing area.

With the sound like a rolled up newspaper swatting a kitchen counter, the helicopter’s rotors slap the sky. Dangling beneath the helicopter, as though enveloped in cocoons, are four blindfolded bighorns. The pilot eases his machine over the staging area and gently lowers his live cargo to the ground.

Like the actors during the opening credits of the TV show MASH, Game and Fish personnel dash to landing zone to carry the sheep back in tarps that resemble stretchers. Then the crew lay the animals on the ground to examine the sheep.

After being examined, the sheep get a radio collar and are carried to a straw-padded horse trailer, called a “Ewe Haul.”

They collect blood samples and other biological samples, according to a handout provided by Tara Hodges, Game and Fish information and education specialist.

Once the exam is completed, a radio collar is attached and the sheep are carried to a straw-padded horse trailer, called a “Ewe Haul.”

From there, they are transported to Rawlins and held overnight. On Saturday morning, the animals were taken to the Seminoes for release, according to the handout.

The Devils Canyon herd population objective is 200. A summer count estimated the population at 212 sheep, Hiatt said.

Game and Fish wants to maintain a population of 200 so the sheep don’t overpopulate, causing them to mingle with domestic sheep, according to the handout.

Sometimes a combination of the germs and pathogens domestic sheep carry can kill bighorn sheep, Hiatt said.

The Seminoe herd population objective is 300 sheep, Hiatt said. There were between 60 and 70 sheep in the Seminoe Mountains prior to Friday’s capture.

Game and Fish prefer Devils Canyon sheep for Seminoe relocations because both mountain ranges have similar terrain and climate. And, the Devils Canyon sheep lamb in late April or early May. That is an opportune time to deliver newborns while the Seminoe area is still green, Hiatt said.

In the late 1970s, sheep from Whiskey Mountain near Dubois were relocated to the Seminoes, but Game and Fish has not confirmed that any of those animals survived. In 2009, 20 bighorns were transplanted from Oregon. Another 20 arrived in 2010 from Oregon. Also in 2010, 12 bighorns were relocated from Devils Canyon, Hiatt said.

Presumably to keep animals calm, the people ministering to the sheep speak in hushed tones. The small crowd gathered to watch remain quiet too, fascinated with the proceedings.

For the most part, the wild ungulates weather their captivity with relative calm. As the morning warms, personnel place the sheep in shallow snow drifts to keep them cool during their examination. Once the sheep are deposited in trailers, they remain docile except to occasionally kick the stall walls like horses waiting to unload at a choice pasture.

A number of volunteers assist the Game and Fish biologists in tending the bighorns.

Wendy Smith, Powell High School environmental science teacher, brought her students out to the site. Soon, they too are helping Game and Fish personnel examine the sheep.

Smith’s students handle the sheep with care.

“I was pretty impressed,” Hiatt said. “It was a good class.”

Meeteetse high schooler Jamey Olson came to assist her father, Jim Olson, a Game and Fish game warden based in Meeteetse.

Olson said she is happy to help and to be near the sheep. “Seeing them like this is pretty cool.”

One ewe’s ear tore during capture, but the veterinarian on site at Devils Canyon gave her a sedative and stitched her up, Hiatt said.

“The release went well,” Hiatt said. The bighorns headed right into the Seminoes when they were dropped off near their new home Saturday “and immediately started feeding.”

~Story and photos by Gib Mathers

Commissioners dislike online info

Public information shouldn’t be too public, a couple Park County commissioners say.

Commissioners Lee Livingston and Tim French said last week that they wish information about property ownership within the county wasn’t online.

The information, which includes homes’ assessed values, taxes and sketch plans, was put on the county’s website four years ago by Park County Assessor Pat Meyer and Treasurer Barb Poley.

A couple Park County commissioners don't like the public information that's displayed on the county's MapServer service.
“I just think, if you allow that stuff to be easily accessible via the Internet, you’re just compounding the potential for abuse and wrecks on down the road,” Livingston said.

“It’s all public information,” Poley noted later.

“I still don’t have to agree with it,” responded French. He suggested the commissioners may speak with Meyer about the online access.

The subject came up because the county is mulling how best to digitize and preserve its massive collection of old, deteriorating paper records in the clerk’s office (things like deeds, liens and mortgages). Converting the paper records to digital ones will likely cost more than $100,000.

Livingston and French said they support preserving the records, but don’t support making them available to the public over the Internet.

Commissioner Bucky Hall wondered if he’ll end up being the determining vote among the five commissioners.

Clerk’s records for more recent years are already in a digital format. Online access to the iDoc database costs $100 a year or can be accessed for free with computers in the clerk’s office.

Clerk Colleen Renner has said she’d like to restore free online access to the database.

Does Park County need the state's permission to take Montana inmates?

An obscure Wyoming law is holding up a possible deal that would have Carbon County, Mont., inmates held in the Park County Detention Center.

There’s no jail in Carbon County, so officials there need someplace else to lock-up their defendants who can’t make bail while awaiting trial or who are sentenced to jail time.

The Park County Detention Center is housed in this building
Carbon County officials have been sending their inmates to the Yellowstone County, Mont., Detention Facility in Billings, but they began looking elsewhere after Billings’ rate jumped to $100 per inmate a day.

Park County Sheriff Scott Steward has said the county’s detention center can house Carbon County’s defendants for $60 to $65 a day and still make money. With an average of a half-dozen inmates a day from Red Lodge, Bridger, Fromberg and other Carbon County locales, it could mean six figures of revenue for Park County.

But an unclear section of state law is complicating a possible deal.

The law says, in part, that “Prisoners or inmates of out-of-state, nonfederal jurisdictions shall not be incarcerated in any facility operated by a local government entity under this article without the consent of the majority of the five elected officials of this state.”

That would seem to suggest Park County needs the approval of at least three of the statewide officials (governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction) to go forward, but on the other hand, the law is under a chapter specific to privately run correctional facilities.

“Everybody agrees that whole law is just weird,” said Steward of the mix of legal language at the commission’s March 3 meeting.

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric has requested a legal opinion from Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael as to whether the law applies to Park County taking on Carbon County’s inmates.

“If we’re going to be doing it, we want to be doing it legally,” Skoric said in an interview.

Michael’s determination is expected in coming weeks.

Regardless of what happens with Park County’s jail, people convicted of the most serious crimes and sentenced to prison time in Carbon County will continue to serve those sentences in Montana’s corrections system.

Taxpayers to help local graduates celebrate

A total of $1,250 of county dollars will help this year’s high school seniors in Powell, Cody and Meeteetse celebrate their graduations.

Commissioners approved giving $500 to Powell and Cody high schools’ senior parties, with $250 for Meeteetse’s. The county has contributed the same amount in past years for the alcohol- and drug-free events.

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf, as he has in the past, cast a lone dissenting vote on the funding.

“I seriously doubt they (the high school seniors) would even notice if we gave that money to the senior center (or) somebody else,” said Commissioner Loren Grosskopf.

“We don’t do that for anybody else,” Grosskopf said of the parties.

Commissioner Tim French noted the commission does host an annual appreciation dinner for the county’s volunteer board members.

“If that ain’t a party, I don’t know what is,” French said.

Grosskopf also argued youth have a relatively easy time raising money.

“I seriously doubt they (the high school seniors) would even notice if we gave that money to the senior center (or) somebody else,” he said.

“That could apply to every group out there, couldn’t it?” countered French, noting other groups the county supports.

Commissioner Lee Livingston said he might have some reservations about the party funding if he’d received complaints, but “I haven’t had any push-back from any of the constituents out there about not wanting us to do it.”

“Actually, I’ve had parents out there say, ‘Thank you,’” French said.

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