Jan 15, 2015

Assistant Cody police chief accused of excessive force in civil rights lawsuit

Cody’s assistant police chief stands accused of violating a man’s civil rights while searching him for possible explosives four years ago.

In a federal suit filed in September, Juan Paul Flores alleged Assistant Police Chief George Menig “maliciously and without justification or warning, used excessive force ... while Flores was in handcuffs and under arrest.”

Menig had stripped Flores’ clothing and used a Taser after the then-unknown man claimed to have explosives and didn’t cooperate with police; Flores’ civil complaint says those actions were unnecessary and further alleges Menig lifted Flores off the ground by his handcuffs several times during the Sept. 13, 2010, search.

Flores, now 61 and living in North Dakota, says he suffered “severe and permanent injuries and damages” and is seeking an unspecified amount of compensation.

In a response filed in November through his attorneys at the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office, Menig denied violating Flores’ rights and generally rejected the facts as laid out by Flores’ attorney. Menig’s response also says any injuries to Flores were caused by his own actions or existed before the incident.

A federal magistrate judge tentatively scheduled the case for an Oct. 19 trial during a hearing held last week.

Flores had run up to a Park County Sheriff’s deputy’s patrol car near the jail early that 2010 morning to say that he was a member of the Taliban and that he intended to “blow things up.” He repeatedly refused to give his name to police, though at various points he said he was “Johnny Cash” or “Pablo Escobar” and had come into the country from Mexico.

The man — with a long straggly beard, long hair, blue jeans, tan shoes, an oversized white T-shirt, baseball cap and a mostly empty bottle of vodka — also said he was willing to die for the Taliban and planned to blow himself up using nitroglycerin he had swallowed, Cody Police Officer Tom Caudle wrote in his later report. He reportedly told sheriff’s deputy Rayna Wortham that he was from Afghanistan and “wanted ‘us’ to leave them alone.”

He repeatedly refused to give his name to police, though at various points he said he was “Johnny Cash” or “Pablo Escobar” and had come into the country from Mexico.

When Cody Police Officer Josh VanAuken named some Afghanistan provinces and asked which one the man was from, he said he didn’t know, but claimed to have been in the country in 1985 and 1986. VanAuken told the man it was the Mujahideen and not the Taliban who were in Afghanistan at that time.

“The man appeared to have no idea what I was talking about,” VanAuken wrote.

Officers shut off their portable radios and moved back their patrol cars as a precaution for an explosive device, while one officer positioned his vehicle as a kind of barricade. Caudle had handcuffed the man and forced him to sit down. The officer searched the areas around the man’s shirt and waist and found nothing; VanAuken searched the man’s legs, the reports say.

Menig, who had been off-duty, was summoned to the scene shortly before 1 a.m. and was told the man was claiming to have nitroglycerin hidden inside his mouth. The handcuffed man refused to open his mouth.

“At this point, I stripped the male of his clothing to inspect for the presence of components (explosive material and/or a detonator) of an improvised explosive device (IED). Negative results,” Menig wrote in his report.

Cody Police Chief Perry Rockvam (left) and Assistant Cody Police Chief George Menig (right) are shown in this July 2014 photo posted to the department's official Facebook page.
When the man continued to refuse to open his mouth, Menig wrote that he put his Taser up against the man’s torso and applied what’s called a “drive stun” for about three seconds. (A “drive stun” is effectively a less-intense use of a Taser that doesn’t involve any probes being fired; it’s intended to hurt, but not immobilize, a person.) When Menig threatened to apply the Taser a second time, and activated (but did not apply) the device close to the man’s torso, he finally opened his mouth, the report says.

Menig found nothing inside.

After some resistance, the man was formally arrested and taken to the nearby Park County jail. There, he refused to give his name and claimed to be a Taliban member who wanted to kill other people, Caudle wrote. It was only the following morning, around 10:30 a.m., that Flores told officers his real identity and that he was not a member of the Taliban.

Deputy Wortham’s report says Flores also expressed suicidal wishes, including that he just wanted to die and only wanted to blow himself up. Public court records indicate that sometime after his arrest, Flores was involuntarily committed to a mental health care facility as an individual deemed to pose a threat to himself or others as a result of mental illness.

Flores’ suit, filed by Jackson attorney John Robinson of the firm Jamieson & Robinson, alleges that Menig’s search was unnecessary and excessive.

“At the time Menig arrived, Flores was arrested, handcuffed, had been searched and posed no harm or danger to any officer or person,” Robinson alleges in a portion of the complaint.

Menig’s response says his actions were legal and reasonable in light of his training and the given circumstances.

“Each and every action taken by defendant Menig with respect to the plaintiff (Flores) were undertaken in good faith and were based upon good cause, consistent with the laws of the United States, and Wyoming statutes,” says one of the defenses asserted on Menig’s behalf by Senior Assistant Attorney General Misha Westby.

After the lawsuit’s September filing, Cody Police Chief Perry Rockvam issued a statement denying some of the allegations and saying the city of Cody was looking forward “to complete and accurate facts about the incident coming out in the judicial process.”

The city is not a defendant in the suit.

Juan Paul Flores is shown in this undated booking photo taken from the Park County Sheriff's website.

The interaction between Menig and Flores was recorded by a surveillance camera mounted on the side of the Cody Law Enforcement Center and copies of the video still exist. However, in response to a public records request, Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said his department no longer has the video in its possession; the original footage was lost years ago when a hard drive crashed, he said.

Flores was initially charged with making terroristic threats, a felony, in connection with the incident but that count was dismissed in mid-November 2010 as part of a deal with the Park County Attorney’s Office. Flores instead pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of interference with a peace officer.

Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters, accepting the plea agreement, credited Flores for the 63 days he’d spent in custody and ordered him to pay $190 and serve a year of unsupervised probation. Another 297 days of jail time was suspended, along with the $300 fine that normally accompanies convictions for interference.

Flores left $90 unpaid before dropping out of contact with the court and, as a result, a warrant for his arrest was issued in April 2011. Sheriff’s records show the warrant remains active — meaning that, in theory, Flores could be arrested and brought back to Park County if and when he returns to Wyoming.

How can we stop employees from abusing sick time, county officials wonder

Sick and tired of what they believe are certain employees abusing sick leave, Park County officials are mulling changes to employee benefits.

County commissioners, who set the county’s personnel policies, indicated a willingness to spend the next couple months studying possible ways to curb abuse. Under the options discussed at a Jan. 6 meeting, employees might be able to convert some of their sick leave to either personal time or a cash payment when they retire — if they accumulate a certain amount of sick time first.

Park County Assessor Pat Meyer said most governments provide some kind of incentive.

“I kind of think we should do something to reward people that don’t abuse it,” Commissioner Bucky Hall said during a discussion of the topic last month — though not everyone felt that way.

“It just goes against my grain to reward people for doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” said Commissioner Lee Livingston.

County officials are wondering how to deal with employee abuse of sick time. File photo courtesy Claus Rebler, released under CC BY SA 2.0
However, all the commissioners agreed last week that it was worth looking at changes.

“I think if we fix the system, we’re going to find our employees are remarkably healthy all of a sudden,” Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric predicted during last month’s discussion.

Skoric guessed that around 25 percent — or one out of four — county sick days were illegitimate, but
“it’s hard to call them on it. What are you supposed to do?” He said employees can burn through their sick leave because they can always ask for others to donate time if they run out. Meanwhile, other employees leave the county with hundreds of unused hours.

Park County Sheriff Scott Steward started the discussion about sick time, as he believes it’s “very evident” that around a half-dozen of his employees are abusing it. Both he and Skoric have said it’s unusual how many employees use call in sick on Monday or Fridays.

“Nobody gets sick two minutes before the shift,” Steward said last week. When those last-minute calls come in, “we’re then stuck paying people overtime and it’s a morale issue, because the guys who don’t abuse it are getting ticked — because they see it and there’s nothing we can do.

“How do you prove they’re not (sick)?” Steward asked rhetorically.

The sheriff actually answered that question roughly a year ago: when Steward suspected one employee was abusing sick time, he had them tailed by an unmarked vehicle. The employee was caught in downtown Cody and wasn’t employed by the county after that, he said. Steward said that incident cut down on the abuse for about six months, but other instances are “almost impossible to catch.”

“I think if we fix the system, we’re going to find our employees are remarkably healthy all of a sudden,” said Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric.
Skoric noted last month that county supervisors can demand a doctor’s note for sick time, though Clerk of District Court Patra Lindenthal said she doesn’t really like that option.

“If you can’t trust your employees ... I think that’s like telling your employees you think they’re liars,” Lindenthal said.

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf said last week that there is an alternative to providing new incentives: “we make the issue of sick leave as a performance-related issue to employment.” In other words, an employee could be fired if they’re missing a lot of work.

Steward, meanwhile, suggested that whenever an employee asks for donated sick time, their name be disclosed to their co-workers. He said if some members of his department knew who was receiving their donated time, “they wouldn’t be donating.”

Skoric said he could provide an analysis as to whether sharing the employees name would be allowed under federal healthcare privacy laws.

Tilden new chairman of Park County Commission

Commissioner Joe Tilden will lead the Park County Commission in 2015.

Tilden was formally voted in as the commission’s chairman at the board’s Jan. 6 meeting, though commissioners had informally made the decision weeks earlier.

“I hope I can do as good a job as Commissioner Hall has,” said Tilden, referring to Hall’s leadership of the commission in 2014.

Hall and the commissioners' executive assistant, Peggy Ruble, spent the weeks leading up to the January meeting prepping Tilden for the new job “so at least he won’t get totally blind-sided,” Hall said.

Tilden, who’s just starting his second four-year term on the commission, had spent the past two years as the board’s vice-chairman. He had declined the position of chairman last year.

As chairman, Tilden is in charge of setting the board’s weekly agenda and serves as the board’s figurehead and as the first point of contact. The chairman typically only votes in the event of a tie between the other four commissioners.

Commissioner Loren Grosskopf was among those who thanked Hall for his service last year.

“We all know how much effort it is and we really appreciate it,” Grosskopf said.

Commissioner Lee Livingston was elected as the board’s vice chairman in 2015, meaning he’ll fill in whenever Tilden is away.

County health officer stays, temporarily

Park County continues to search for its new public health officer, but in the meantime, the outgoing health officer has agreed to stay in his post until a replacement is found.

Dr. Charles Jamieson chose not to seek re-appointment as the county health officer after 24 years in the post.

Things were thrown into some disarray when no other doctor applied for the position and it went unfilled into the start of 2015.

Dr. Charles Jamieson is temporarily staying on as the county's health officer. Photo courtesy West Park Hospital
As an example, Park County’s health officer is tasked with signing birth and death certificates for the state health department. Those forms were already stacking up on Jamieson’s desk by the commission’s Jan. 6 meeting, with no replacement in sight.

Jamieson, a Cody pediatrician, told the board last week he’d be happy to stay on temporarily to ensure continuity. Beyond signing certificates, the health officer’s duties include reviewing parents’ requests to have their children exempted from county schools’ mandatory immunizations, determining when quarantines are necessary, signing off on the medications dispensed by Park County Public Health and giving permission for dead bodies to cross county lines (such as for burial somewhere else).

“It’s a huge spectrum of who you’re responsible for, which didn’t used to be that way,” Jamieson said. “You’re pulled in a lot of different directions.”

He offered to help commissioners craft a job description. He also had some recommendations on improving the position, but wanted to discuss those critical thoughts in private.

“I don’t know that those things need to be brought out in the public,” Jamieson said.

Deputy County Attorney Jim Davis told commissioners he didn’t think they could legally meet with Jamieson in a closed-door executive session, as Wyoming law generally requires government meetings to be open to the public.

Commissioners got around the law by having an unofficial private meeting with Jamieson on Jan. 7. Commissioners continued to discuss the public health officer position during a public work session on Tuesday.

Hospitals to lawmakers: Expand Medicaid

Leaders of five of the six hospitals in the Big Horn Basin had a united message for area legislators on Thursday: We need Medicaid expansion.

That message was voiced by Eric Boley, past chairman of the Wyoming Hospital Association, during the Big Horn Basin Healthcare Legislative Forum in Powell.

“We have 26 states in the country that have adopted Medicaid expansion,” Boley said. “Those states that have adopted Medicaid expansion, their hospitals are doing much better. Charity care, uncompensated care, has dropped drastically in those states.”

Lawmakers, in turn, assured attendees that they are working on a plan that could be in place as early as April. The forum, which took place in the Yellowstone Building at Northwest College, was planned and organized by Powell Valley Healthcare.

“We’re at an important point in time,” said Bill Patten, PVHC chief executive officer. “We thought it would be a good idea for the folks who are in a position to both oversee and impact healthcare in our state, in our area, to have a chance to get together to talk about the issues.”

The goal, he said, was for everyone “to walk away with an understanding of the things that, from a health care facility perspective, we would appreciate our elected officials pursuing.”


Pat McConnell (left) and Dr. Lenox Baker, representing West Park Hospital, examine handouts during the Big Horn Basin Healthcare Forum, hosted by Powell Valley Healthcare on Jan. 8. Photo by Ilene Olson
The meeting was attended by representatives of West Park Hospital in Cody, North Big Horn Hospital in Lovell, South Big Horn Hospital in Basin and Hot Springs Memorial Hospital in Thermopolis. Legislators attending were Reps. David Northrup and Dan Laursen, both R-Powell, Rep. Elaine Harvey, R- Lovell and Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley.

Boley said hospitals in Wyoming provided $232 million worth of uncompensated care in fiscal year 2013, at an estimated cost of $125 million.

“Those are our costs, not charges,” he said.

Of the total, $76 million was charity care for people with low incomes. Statistics show 60 percent of them are employed but can’t afford insurance, he said.

 “This is a problem that is not going to go away,” he said. “I think it is time in our state that we do something here.”

Medicaid expansion could relieve some of that financial stress, he said. In addition, it would allow people to receive care on a preventative basis, before medical problems becomes so severe that they require a visit to the emergency room, he said.

“I don’t really care which plan passes. I just think we need a plan passed that will take care of these uninsured people,” said Eric Boley, past chairman of the Wyoming Hospital Association.
Medicaid expansion is going to be a hot topic and a tough one in the Legislature, Boley said. He noted that debate on an alternative plan similar to Indiana’s will start in the Senate, where it will be explained by Sen. Charlie Scott of Casper.

In addition, although the proposed Share Plan failed the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee on a 7-7 vote, “I have heard that there are some representatives that are going to introduce that individually, and it will be looked at during the Legislature,” Boley said.

“I don’t really care which plan passes,” he said. “I just think we need a plan passed that will take care of these uninsured people.”

Peterson and Harvey, both of whom serve on the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee, said work on an alternative plan is progressing.

“Wyoming has the advantage of three years of studying,” Peterson said. “This alternative plan is our best solution so far. ... It’s a good fit, the Wyoming way ... something that’s realistic.”

Because it has waited, “Wyoming has the advantage of having the ability to see effects (of Medicaid expansion) in other states,” Peterson said. “These states are feeling some strong-arming of the government. Costs are uncontainable. ... When the federal government does pull out — and they will, they always have — we’re going to be left holding the bag. Where is that money going to come from?”

As examples, he cited of abandoned mine lands (AML) funding and coal severance taxes, both of which have been withheld from the state by the federal government.

“That’s half a billion (dollars),” he said.

Peterson said it was no great surprise that the Share Plan died in committee, as a similar proposal was defeated last year.
Hospitals in Wyoming provided $232 million worth of uncompensated care in fiscal year 2013 at an estimated cost of $125 million.
Harvey, who co-chairs the Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee with Sen. Scott, said the Legislature, as a last resort last year, directed the Wyoming Department of Health in a budget bill footnote to come up with a plan to be negotiated with the federal government.

“Of the things in the budget bill, only half of those things were addressed in the Share Plan,” she said. The department provided its report the day before Thanksgiving, and the committee hasn’t had time to formalize the envisioned plan, she said. “We have talked with people on the ground (who) have seen firsthand what the unintended consequences are. We have ... looked at many different plans and picked the things that we liked from other states. ... We couldn’t publicly come out and say we think we got it.

“Charlie (Scott) and I put together our notes, and I took those notes to Washington, D.C., and met with the director of (Health and Human Services),” she said. “Only one thing is a bit controversial. Everything else, the HHS has passed in some state. When you hear, ‘Oh, they’ll never accept that,' or ‘It will take months to negotiate.' Well, it’s already been negotiated. I was told in Washington, D.C., if we pass a bill in February, there is no reason we can’t have Medicaid expansion in practice in April.”

One of the sticking points, Harvey said, is determining who contributes to health savings accounts.

“That’s going to be the individual and Medicaid,” she said. “It’s already happening in other states. I just want to let you know that we are with you here. We’re going to give people a hand up. We don’t have a bill yet, but I promise you it’s coming. We’re going to stay with you, and what it’s going to take is communication.”

Convalescent care

Another topic of discussion at the meeting was a bill that would allow surgical centers to provide up to three days of convalescent care, making it possible for them perform do joint replacements and other more complicated surgeries. Currently, surgery centers can keep patients for only one day, after which patients must be moved to hospitals.
“This would devastate West Park Hospital,” said hospital CFO Pat McConnell.
Boley said the Wyoming Hospital Association opposes the bill because it gives an unfair advantage to surgical centers, which erode the bottom line for hospitals by “cherry-picking” — taking the most profitable surgical procedures away from hospitals without the need of providing emergency room service or charity care.

“They’re claiming they can do it cheaper,” he said. “They would discharge the patient to a motel, then have a nurse go in and check on them. It’s cheaper ... because they don’t have the overhead.

“If there were safety nets where they had to take care of emergencies, the uninsured, etc., I don’t think we would have as much concern,” he added.

Boley noted that surgery centers are not allowed to care for Medicare patients, who must be undergo surgery in hospitals.

“We would be able to keep those — the lowest-paying (patients),” he said.

Pat McConnell, chief finance officer for West Park Hospital, said, “This would devastate West Park Hospital. Right now, that’s the majority of surgeries we do, those categories. there is a strong financial incentive for those surgeons to move to centers they have part ownership in. I would have to advise my board that we would have to curtail certain services we provide at a loss. The community would lose those services.”

Patten said a hospital he formerly managed was 90 miles from an ambulatory surgery center, and even from that distance, it affected the hospital.

“The surgery center had to call 911 to transfer patients to a hospital when they couldn’t care for them. We couldn’t call 911 — we are 911. I would suggest a convalescent care center is a surgery center on steroids,” he said. “Make sure there is a level playing field — that’s
all we ask.”

Protect critical access hospitals

A list of health care priorities also asked lawmakers to help strengthen small hospitals. Boley said critical access hospitals — hospitals with 25 or fewer beds, including all hospitals in the Basin — are financially fragile now, and 12 of the 16 critical access hospitals in Wyoming are losing money, largely due to changes in federal health care regulations. He asked lawmakers to do what they can to protect critical access hospitals, which are vital to small communities in the state.
The hospital association says 12 of the 16 critical access hospitals in Wyoming are losing money.
Harvey said the federal government’s health care rules don’t work for small, rural frontier states. Those rules aim at streamlining medical delivery and getting rid of critical access hospitals in favor of economy of scale.

“It works great in New York and California. It doesn’t work in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana or Colorado,” Harvey said. “I think that we are being set up to fail on multiple levels.”

Steve Bahmer, vice president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, summed it up: “If we lose hospitals, we lose lives.”

The Big Horn Basin's hospitals' ‘Top 10’ legislative priorities

  1. We ask that you find a way to support the expansion of the Wyoming Medicaid program.

  2. Title 25 regulations (governing involuntary hospitalizations) need to be clarified and properly funded.

  3. Health care services should receive the lions’s share of any tobacco tax.

  4. Unless there is a level playing field (no cherry-picking of payer type, similar quality and staffing requirements, etc.) we ask that you oppose the Convalescent Care Bill.

  5. We ask that you find a way to fund a student loan repayment program for providers.

  6. Support all efforts to repeal the 96-hour certification rule, the 2-midnight rule and the direct supervision requirement.

  7. Make sure that the designation of our 16 critical access hospitals is not jeopardized.

  8. Adjust Medicaid payments for nursing home/long-term care rates to better reflect cost of care.

  9. Do all you can to reduce the amount of burdensome regulations.

  10. Provide whatever support you can to make sure we stay open and can remain financially viable. 

Why don't local deputies have body cameras?

Park County Sheriff’s deputies would wear body cameras if cost wasn’t such a factor, the sheriff says.

Body cameras — small devices worn on an officers’ shirt, vest or glasses that record video and audio of all actions — have become a national issue in light of some police shootings during 2014.

At least one Wyoming law enforcement agency, the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, wears the devices. Campbell County obtained 52 of the devices through a $46,000 federal grant and deputies have been wearing them since April.

“The reality is that if this can help show that they are consistently doing things the right way, then I see it as a good thing,” said Campbell County Sheriff’s Capt. Roy Seeman.

Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said cost is his sole consideration.

“The purchase of such technology can also be cost-prohibitive especially for smaller agencies,” Steward said late last year. “And while there are federal dollars available, the current initiative under President Obama is targeted for larger metropolitan agencies. And even if the Park County Sheriff’s Office were to qualify for grant monies, we must consider that these dollars are for the initial purchase only. Necessary infrastructure, subsequent maintenance, and replacements are left up to the agency which means an additional burden on the taxpayers.”

Sheriff Scott Steward
The sheriff said he does feel body cameras can play a useful role for law enforcement staffers as well as the people they serve.

“I believe they not only protect the officer from unjustified complaints, but also might prevent actions on the part of the officer that may be inappropriate or contrary to department policy,” Steward said. “They also provide additional evidence that can be used in subsequent trials or at the very least, enhance the documentation of criminal investigations.”


“The cameras also provide enhanced opportunities for training and self-evaluation on proper tactics,” he said. “However, we must also be aware that video from body cameras do not always tell the whole story due to the narrow field of view and sometimes lack of audio. The videos may also be edited and content taken out of context for the sake of sensationalism.”

Steward said he doesn’t feel his department needs the cameras to protect people who interact with his deputies but he will re-evaluate his position if there seems to be a need for them.

“Currently I feel our patrol deputies perform their required duties with the utmost professionalism and courtesy,” he said. “Our department has not experienced an overabundance of complaints against our personnel and I am confident in their continued adherence to departmental policies and regulations. Therefore, I am not convinced that body cameras are necessary for our deputies at this time.”

~By Tom Lawrence, with Associated Press contributions

Jan 13, 2015

Old Faithful proposal witnessed around the world

Zac Finley proposed to his girlfriend in front of the Old Faithful web camera so he could share the moment with their loved ones back home. As it turns out, their family members weren’t the only ones watching on Saturday evening.

Well wishes for Finley and his now-fiancee, Laura Parkes, poured in from across the globe after a webcam screenshot showing him kneeling in front of her was shared on Yellowstone National Park’s official Facebook page on Sunday.

A man's marriage proposal drew international interest when did so in front of Yellowstone National Park’s webcam of Old Faithful. The scene was captured for posterity in this screenshot, captured by Kate McLaughlin and later shared on Yellowstone’s Facebook page. (She said yes.)

Parkes said yes and close to 13,000 people had “liked” the image by noon Monday.

Posted a woman from Arizona: “Congratulations, may your marriage be as steadfast as Old Faithful!”

Several of the Facebook users shared their own stories of getting engaged in Yellowstone, while people from West Virginia, Missouri and the United Kingdom wrote to say they’d just happened to be watching the geyser camera when Finley proposed.

Finley described using a bit of trickery to get Parkes in front of the camera.

“She thought we were just getting outside before dinner to wave to her and I’s family back home via the webcam,” he posted.

 While Finley said he hadn’t thought about the hundreds of others who’d be watching the moment, he thanked everyone for the well wishes.

“Obviously this was a special moment for us, and continues to grow even more special,” Finley wrote in one post. “Now this would-be short moment, is lasting longer than we ever expected!”

Agreed Parkes, in another post: “(Saturday) was a very special day for us, but I have to say that waking up to Zac saying, ‘You have to see this’ and finding out that so many people were watching or looking at this picture on the (Yellowstone National Park Facebook) page, was pretty special as well.”

The two work as snow coach drivers for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, Yellowstone’s concessionaire.

More than 3.5 million people visited Yellowstone last year

A skier is pictured in the Hoodoos in Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park this winter. More than 3.5 million people flocked to the park last year, making it the second-highest visitation year on record. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
Visitation to Yellowstone National Park in 2014 topped the 3 million mark for the eighth straight year.

Overall visitation to Yellowstone for 2014 was 3,513,486, up 10.21 percent from 2013 and making it the second-highest visitation year on record, according to park officials.

Nearly 1.44 million people came into Yellowstone through the park’s West Entrance in 2014, which also saw the greatest percentage increase in visitors among the park’s five main gates, up more than 14 percent from 2013 levels.

December visitation to Yellowstone was up 5.53 percent compared to year ago levels, with 18,340 visitors recorded in 2014 compared to 17,378 during the same period in 2013. In December, 10,778 visitors came into the park’s North Entrance by wheeled vehicles.

Limited snowpack at the start of the oversnow winter season prohibited some snowmobile access for several days, restricting visitor travel on some road segments to snowcoach or commercial wheeled vehicles until conditions improved. For the month, 5,004 visitors entered the interior of the park by snowcoach or commercial wheeled vehicle, while 3,614 entered on guided snowmobile trips.

The last time the park recorded fewer than 3 million annual recreational visits was in 2006, with 2.87 million visits.

Detailed park visitation information and additional information on how these statistics are calculated is available online at National Park Service website.

NWC president ‘really hopeful’ about Obama's free community college proposal

In this Jan. 9 photo, President Barack Obama listens to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., aboard Air Force One en route to Knoxville, Tenn., where the president proposed making community college tuition free. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is second from left. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama’s proposal to offer two years free tuition at community colleges was welcomed by Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa, albeit with a note of caution.

“I’m really hopeful. At this point it is hard for me to provide a thorough response/educated opinion, as there are so many unknown details — like how will the proposal be funded,” Hicswa said. “Philosophically, I am always excited about proposals to decrease financial barriers for education. It just depends on how it is all implemented.”

She discussed how other nations are now offering free higher education to citizens and, in the case of Norway, anyone who wants to study online. Nations realize they must have a well-educated population and workforce, Hicswa said.

“That’s my cocktail party speech. That’s my elevator speech,” she said. “The United States keeps falling behind in education. We’ve got to keep looking at initiatives to aid education.”

However, she noted that Wyoming “has done a great job to provide affordable higher educational opportunities in our state” and offers one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation.

“The United States keeps falling behind in education. We’ve got to keep looking at initiatives to aid education,” Hicswa said.

The Hathaway scholarship program demonstrates the governor’s and Legislature’s commitment to higher education. The program, which started in 2006, provides scholarships for Wyoming students to attend Wyoming community colleges and the University of Wyoming for up to four years. The program provides three tiers of scholarships, based on student achievement in high school.

Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa
“Through a multitude of financial aid and assistance programs, most students find NWC to be very affordable,” Hicswa said.

She also offered a historical perspective on the creation of community colleges.

“In 1947, the Truman Commission called for establishing a network of public community colleges that would extend free public education through the 13th and 14th grades,” the NWC president said. “It evolved to community colleges charging little or no tuition, a concept which the state of California adhered to until recently. For years, the California community college system charged $5 per credit.”

Obama announced the proposal in Knoxville, Tenn., Friday, saying the federal and state governments would need to invest $60 billion over 10 years to pay for it. The federal government would pay 75 percent and participating states the remaining 25 percent, Obama said, and all Americans, not just recent high school graduates, are eligible to take part in it. He said a high school diploma is no longer enough for American workers to compete in the global economy and that a college degree is “the surest ticket to the middle class.”

Republican lawmakers were cool to the idea.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who flew to Knoxville with the president along with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said he wasn’t sure Obama’s plan is the best way to educate more Americans.

“You’re always better off letting states mimic each other,” he said before the president spoke.

Alexander wrote an opinion piece, which was published before the speech, saying states should handle the program.

Obama’s proposal is based in part on community college programs started in Tennessee and Chicago.

On Friday afternoon, Hicswa said she was waiting to see how the political sands shift.

“I hate to get too excited,” she said. “This is just an idea at this point. It may never come to fruition, as is being said today.”

Photo: Barley bull

This elk bull was photographed by Lisa Carter on New Year’s Day in the Heart Mountain area between Road 20 and Road 21 off Lane 10. It was in a barley field harvested last summer, said Ben McDonald.

“We normally have elk about one or two miles away up on the mountain this time of year,” McDonald said. “I imagine this bull is just ranging looking for easy winter feed. This is the first elk we have seen on our property in the nine years that we have lived there.”

Vehicle, home windows shot out in Cody

A vandal or vandals shot out windows in more than two dozen vehicles and houses on Friday night or Saturday morning in Cody.

Cody Police Officer and agency spokesman John Harris said the thousands of dollars worth of damage was dealt with a BB or pellet gun.

One of the damaged vehicles. Photo courtesy Cody police
Reports continued to come in over the weekend as the damage was discovered, with police announcing Monday afternoon that they’d received 25 such reports; most of the damage was dealt to vehicles.

Harris said the weekend spree of property crime appeared to be related to a similar Jan. 5 incident, where someone shot out a vehicle window in the 900 block of Spruce Drive.

Police logs indicate broken windows were reported across a broad area of the city over the weekend, ranging from the northeast (Kent Avenue, Twin Creek Trail Avenue, C Street and Robert Street) to the northwest (Elm Avenue, River View Drive, Canyon View Avenue) to the more central portions (Salsbury Avenue and Sheridan Avenue) and the south (Meadow Lane Avenue, Casper Drive, and 11th Street). The department compiled a map of the reports, pictured below:

The agency is asking anyone with information about the vandalism to contact them by either calling 307-527-8700 or sending them a private message via the Cody Police Department Facebook page.

New online service tracks nearby sex offenders

There’s a new way to track registered sex offenders in your neighborhood and around the state.

The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation recently launched an updated version of its online sex offender registry, switching to a system called OffenderWatch. It allows citizens to search for sex offenders by name, city or by a general area.

You can use the Park County version of the site to check for offenders within a quarter-mile to two-mile radius of any address (such as your home) and get an email alert if any sex offenders move into the area.

“Our citizens have a right to know who may be living near them and could potentially pose a threat to their families,” said Park County Sheriff Scott Steward in a statement announcing the upgraded service.

Steward said the program provides him with the most up-to-date information available on registered offenders, enabling him to easily check that offenders aren’t living too close to protected places like schools.

Offenders are checked between one and four times a year, depending on their “risk” level and are — unless they want to risk a new felony conviction — required to keep current addresses with their local sheriff’s office.

Records accessed on the site last week showed 17 registered sex offenders in the Cody area and 14 around Powell.

All of the state’s sheriffs are participating in OffenderWatch. They join a national network of more than 5,000 law enforcement agencies.

You can access the service by clicking here or visiting the Park County Sheriff's website and hitting the link in the upper right corner labeled, “Sex Offender Registry.”

The service — which comes at no cost to Park County — includes safety tips and information about sex offenders.

For example, “There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ sex offender,” the site advises. “However, all tend to be manipulative, deceptive and secretive.”

Among the list of reasons of why notifications are important, the site says:

  • 75 percent of victims of sexual assault know their attacker
  • Nearly half of victims are under the age of 12
  • More than half of assaults happen within a mile of the victim’s home
  • Sex offenders come from all backgrounds, ages, income levels and professions
Other information on the site includes a list of what behaviors and physical signs can indicate a child’s been abused and a list of things that can indicate an adult or child is showing sexual interest in children.

It also includes tips for talking to children about sex offenders, such as showing them the photos of nearby offenders and telling them to stay away from those people.

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