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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