Sep 3, 2015

New tax on 'Cadillac' insurance plans will hit virtually all Wyoming employers, official says

The so-called “Cadillac tax” — a federal tax that will be imposed on employers who provide “exceptional” health insurance coverage — is raising the ire and concern of some state legislators.

During an Aug. 24 meeting in Lovell, the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Interim Committee learned about problems the tax will pose for Wyoming employers, including the state and local governments, beginning in 2018.

The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, aims at providing access to health insurance for people who had none. But the Cadillac tax — a phrase coined years ago when terms of the act were first outlined — aims at the other side of the equation: employers who provide expensive health insurance benefits for their employees.

The first of some 900 pages in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Nationally, “the anticipated tax that will be pulled from this, the revenue, is right now being estimated at $87 billion,” said Denise Burke, senior policy analyst for the Wyoming Department of Insurance. “This excise tax was intended to be the funding mechanism that would support the other programs within the ACA.”

The Wyoming impact
Beginning in 2018, employers will have to pay a 40 percent excise tax on health insurance premiums that exceed a federal threshold.

For individual policies, the threshold is set at $10,200. For family coverage, it is $27,500. An estimated 10 percent of all health insurance plans will exceed those thresholds in 2018, and, if there are no changes, increasing to 30 percent in 2025.

But in Wyoming, the picture is quite different. Wyoming Insurance Commissioner Tom Glause said virtually all employers in Wyoming who provide good health insurance eventually will be affected by the tax. That is because health care in Wyoming is more expensive than in other states, and, consequently, insurance premiums are higher as well.

The state of Wyoming could have to pay a $4.3 million tax on the insurance it provides to state employees in 2018, he said.

But Burke emphasized that’s just an estimate, because “we don’t have all the rules yet.”

“Trying to gather some solid numbers is a little more difficult than you might think,” she said.

Rep. Lloyd C. Larsen, R-Lander, did a double-take.

“I want to make sure that I’m understanding right,” Larsen said. “The ACA, as it was passed, is intended to help provide insurance for all citizens of the United States. So, now, if you’ve got an employer that is providing an exceptional insurance plan, they will be taxed for providing insurance to citizens of the United States. Is that correct?”

“That is correct,” Burke replied.

“Makes perfect sense,” Larsen quipped, prompting laughter from committee and audience members.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper

Committee Co-chair Charles Scott, R-Casper, said later he believes the Cadillac tax was put in the law to force the country to move toward a single-payer health care system, and its onset delayed until 2018 “to fool people about how much (the ACA) was costing.”

“They set the cost 10 years down the road to show the 10-year cost was neutral,” he said.

'Should we be looking at suing over this?'
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, asked if the state’s budget needs to be increased, or employee benefits reduced, because of the tax.

Ralph Hayes, manager of the Wyoming State Group Insurance Program, said rate projections show the state will hit the Cadillac tax thresholds in 2018 and will have to pay about $4.3 million. 

He said the ACA does not take into account the average cost of care or the average age of the population within each state.

Hayes said the state’s insurance program, which includes coverage for school and college districts, is very efficient.

“We are self-funded for a reason,” he said.

Nonetheless, because of the high cost of care in Wyoming and limitations on how much cost sharing can be pushed onto employees, “we will hit (the threshold), regardless,” he said.

“Should we be looking at suing over this?” Driskill asked Hayes. “This really changes m

y opinion. ... This money is going to come from somewhere. ... This is no longer a Cadillac tax. It’s an actual mandate.”
Filing a suit would be a policy decision that can’t be made by the employees’ group insurance office, Hayes replied.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower
Driskill asked how rates are set, and whether school districts would be affected as well.

For setting rates, “Ultimately, we have to collect enough premiums to pay the medical benefits of the participants out there ... and Wyoming is the most expensive place to get health care,” Hayes said.

As for the impact to schools, their demographics are similar to state employees, and they’re dealing with the state’s higher health costs as well, Hayes said.

“We anticipate that, for the most part, they are going to end up in the same boat that we are,” he said.

Scott suggested adjusting the state’s health insurance benefits or changing deductibles to make the plan less generous, perhaps by encouraging the use of health savings accounts.

“Why couldn’t we do something like that?” he asked.

Hayes replied that contributions employees make to their health savings account are added to the threshold.

“This Cadillac tax really was aimed at a revenue-generating device to pay for the individual market subsidies, and it is going to accomplish that,” he said.

Discouraging employers?
Committee Co-chairwoman Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell, asked what the penalty is for employers who don’t provide insurance.

“Are we driving employers away from providing health insurance?” she asked.

Glause said the penalty starts at $2,000 for employees who do not meet essential health benefits, but the first 30 employees are excluded from that penalty.

“It’s possible ... it could have the impact that you’re suggesting,” Glause said.

“That’s one of the reasons that’s the worst piece of legislation that I could ever imagine,” Scott said.

Rep. Elaine Harvey, R-Lovell
He said Wyoming residents “ought to be concerned, because if they’re getting employer-based insurance, it will be a major obstacle and increase costs, prompting companies to drop insurance.”

“I’m still concerned about what has to be done to avoid being hit with this tax. So you can’t use the health savings account because they count the employees’ contribution. ... If you drop your coverage, you miss one of their 10 essentials. If you go to higher deductibles and higher copayments, does that theoretically get you out from under?”

Hayes said that could minimize some of the taxes, “but I do not anticipate we can avoid them.”

Hayes said government entities in the state of Wyoming will be among the first to hit the Cadillac tax thresholds.

“Wyoming employers, as a whole, will hit the this much sooner than we will see in other states,” he said.

Scott said the Cadillac tax “will be an increasing problem.”

“This one is going to rise up and bite a lot of (state residents),” he said. “You would think that, with something that is causing so much trouble, Congress would fix it; but it’s a major part of how to pay for the ACA system. It’s so much of how their financing works, so they probably can’t fix it with Obama in office.”

Park County woman crowned Miss Rodeo Wyoming

There’s royalty in our midst.

It usually takes a lifetime of work to be crowned Miss Rodeo Wyoming, and Ralston’s Nicki Seckman made it happen in just over three years.

Seckman, 21, currently serves as Miss Cody Stampede Rodeo after a year as lady in waiting. She was crowned Miss Rodeo Wyoming on Aug. 14 at the Wyoming State Fair in Douglas.

“It was surreal, you can dream of something like that for as long as you want, but until you are in the moment, I can’t even describe it,” Seckman said. “Everyone knows how much work you put into it, so it is pretty incredible.”

Seckman, riding in the Cody Stampede earlier this year. Courtesy photo
Seckman will step into her role as Miss Rodeo Wyoming on Jan. 1 and will spend 2016 attending rodeos across the country in preparation for the Miss Rodeo America competition.

“It is a lot of prep work,” Seckman said.

Rodeo queens have to demonstrate advanced skills in horsemanship along with in-depth knowledge of all rodeo events, answer impromptu questions, and give speeches at public appearances.

“The knowledge side of it has so much to learn — like a Coggins Test and what it is used for,” Seckman said. “If you are in the event, you would know it, but the people doing it every day are a good resource. I definitely picked a lot of brains doing that.”

 Nicki Seckman (at left) was crowned Miss Rodeo Wyoming 2016 during the Wyoming State Fair in August. She is succeeding Miss Rodeo Wyoming 2015, Laurel Austin (right). Courtesy photo
Academics also play a role in becoming Miss Rodeo Wyoming, and Seckman’s 4.0 grade point average helped, she said. She was accepted into the dental hygiene program in Sheridan, but decided to take the year off from school to focus on her duties as rodeo queen.

“This is a very big commitment and I would like to take things seriously and put my mind and heart and soul into it,” Seckman said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I might as well enjoy it to its fullest.”

Rodeo queens have to demonstrate their horsemanship on other people’s horses and aren’t allowed to use their own, so Seckman said she is going to continue working on her riding skills.

In the meantime, she also will continue making appearances and giving speeches at public events such as rodeos, school functions and banquets.

Of course, no rodeo queen would be qualified for the crown without an equestrian background. Seckman has been riding her entire life, competed in cattle cutting, and started doing barrel racing jackpots about three-and-a-half years ago.

“It is one of the loves of my life,” Seckman said. “I think rodeo is one of those classic things about America. In my mind I don’t think it is going to go away; it is in our roots and traditions.”

When rodeos provide people with their first experience with ranch-related activity, that’s the most exciting part of the rodeo queen’s job as an ambassador of the sport, Seckman said.

“I think rodeo is one of those classic things about America. In my mind I don’t think it is going to go away; it is in our roots and traditions,” Seckman said.

“We get people excited to be there and are the connection between rodeo and the fans,” Seckman said as she described the meet and greets before and after rodeos. “The competitors go so fast to try and make money that sometimes they don’t have time for that.”

Of course, being a rodeo queen means serving as a role model for young girls.

“That is why I am doing this,” Seckman said. “There is so much stuff in our world that aren’t the best for them to look up to — I want to be a good guide and have them say ‘that is what I want to be and how I want to act.’”

Seckman’s coronation will be held on Oct. 31 with a Halloween theme and fundraiser to help finance her year of traveling as Miss Rodeo Wyoming vying for Miss Rodeo America. The time and location have not yet been decided.

Seckman wasn’t sure how much she will need to raise, but estimated it will cost somewhere between $20,000 and $30,000 with sponsors helping as well.

“That is a big part of it,” Seckman said, noting that she didn’t want to rely on just her family to help make it happen.

Sheriff warns residents of possible door-to-door asphalt scam

The Park County Sheriff's Office is warning people to be on the lookout for a possible scam involving asphalt paving.

Sheriff's office spokesman Lance Mathess said several county residents have complained about the tactics of work crews who are going door-to-door and offering to pave driveways.

The crews offer exceptionally low prices, claiming that the asphalt is left over from a previous job, 
Mathess explained in a Thursday news release. However, once the work is done, the crew raises the price and, in several instances, the work has been substandard, he said.

Make sure you're using a reputable paving crew, like the one shown above in Wapiti. Cody News Co. file photo by CJ Baker
In one instance, a local man agreed to have the crew pave his driveway for $3 per square foot, but then quadrupled the rate to $12 per square foot when they finished, Mathess said. The crew reportedly got away with it because they approached the resident's wife for payment. Because she hadn't known about the original agreement, she paid them in cash and they went on their way.

In the news release, Sheriff Scott Steward warned residents to always do business with a reputable company and always get a written estimate and/or contract prior to any work being started. He also says to be wary of door-to-door contractors who offer services at a extremely low prices, as most reputable companies don't do business that way.

“The bottom line: if it appears to be too good to be true, it usually isn’t (true),” Steward said in the release.

There are varying descriptions of the vehicles and persons involved in the scam, Mathess said.

If you're approached by these contractors, you can report them to the sheriff’s dispatch center at 307-527-8700.

Sep 2, 2015

Bears becoming more active in rural areas surrounding Cody

As fall approaches, black and grizzly bears are becoming more active in the rural areas surrounding Cody, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department says. For that reason, the department is reminding landowners and outdoor enthusiasts to be bear aware and to take preventative actions to avoid conflicts with bears.

Bear wise community coordinator Dusty Lasseter said that bears have been very active along valley floors and river corridors at lower elevations.

Officials say bruins, like this black bear in Yellowstone National Park, are active around Cody. File photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
“Recent bear activity includes sightings of bears on public and private land on the North Fork and South Fork of the Shoshone River valleys, areas around Clark and Meeteetse,” Lasseter said in a Wednesday news release.

The Shoshone National Forest announced last week that it was temporarily requiring hard-sided campers at three North Fork campsites because of unusually high bear activity in the area.

Game and Fish advises rural residents to secure all attractants like garbage, pet food, and livestock feed to cut down on the chance of a problem.

“Bird feeders should either be put away for the rest of the summer or hung at least 10 feet high and four feet from supporting structures,” Lasseter advises. “Barbeque grills should be kept clean or stored in a garage or shed if possible.”

If you live in the rural areas around Cody, officials recommend putting away your bird feeder and grill so as not to attract bears.

Residents should remain alert, watch for evidence of bear activity such as tracks, scat and diggings and be especially cautious along creeks and rivers, the Game and Fish said.

Hikers, anglers, hunters, or anyone else recreating in areas that could be occupied by bears should take precautions and carry a deterrent such as bear spray, the department says.

More information about staying safe in bear country is available on the department's website, including tips for hunters.

The Game and Fish asks anyone who spots a bear in or near a residential areas to immediately call the department at 307-527-7125.

Kmart drops appeals of its property taxes

There will be no blue light special on property taxes this year.

The owners of the Cody Kmart had planned to ask Park County commissioners to slash the taxable value of their property and, in turn, save the company a few thousand dollars in taxes. However, they changed their mind at the last minute, meaning no property tax appeals were heard by commissioners this year.

Kmart’s owners had argued that the Park County Assessor’s office is drastically overvaluing the land that houses the store.

The Cody Kmart. Cody News Co. photo by CJ Baker
The assessor’s office concluded that, for tax purposes, the 5.27 acres are worth about $914,000. Kmart’s representatives, meanwhile, said the land’s only worth about half that, around $459,000.

An attorney for Kmart parent company Sears Holdings, Kyle Sheehan, reached that reduced figure by comparing Kmart’s property to Walmart’s. The county has valued Walmart’s 17.99 acres of land at around $1.75 million — well above the overall value of Kmart’s land, but less per square foot. In a letter to the assessor, Sheehan said Kmart’s property should be actually be cheaper per square foot because its location isn’t as good as Walmart’s.

Walmart “currently sits on a more retail-centric corridor, making it more valuable as a retail piece of land,” Sheehan wrote. To support that argument, he noted that Walmart built its store on West Yellowstone Avenue years after Kmart built its business on 17th Street.

“The (Walmart) property was more recently developed, indicating where the more valuable retail land is," Sheehan wrote.

Assessor Pat Meyer has a different take.

“That's a valuable piece of property,” Meyer said of Kmart’s land.

A Kmart representative argued that the store's property should be valued less than Walmart's, saying Walmart has the better location. 

He said people traveling in or out of Cody from the south or east pass Kmart, while traffic on the west side of town near Walmart tends to slow down in the winter.

As for comparing Kmart’s and Walmart’s values on a per-square-foot basis, Meyer said as a general rule, larger pieces of property (like Walmart’s) tend to fetch less per square foot than smaller parcels.

The assessor’s office and Kmart representatives were scheduled to take their cases to the commissioners at an Aug. 18 hearing, but Kmart dropped the appeal the day before.

If Kmart had gone through with its tax protest and convinced commissioners to slash the property’s fair market value, the business would have saved around $3,000 in property taxes this year.

Kmart did not object to the assessor’s $1.7 million valuation of the store itself.

~By CJ Baker

Sep 1, 2015

Fourth-graders can get free passes to Yellowstone, other national parks

If you’re in the fourth grade, you’re in luck.

Starting this week, every fourth-grader — and their family — can receive a free annual pass to America’s national parks, the National Park Service announced Tuesday.

As part of the Every Kid in a Park initiative, the free passes are a way to get kids into the national park system to experience the outdoors and learn a little history and culture. Families without a fourth
Kids are pictured at Everglades National Park. Photo courtesy NPS
grader must pay $80 for the annual pass, unless the family includes a senior citizen or member of the military.

To get your free pass, go to and have your fourth-grader answer a few questions about outdoor adventures. After that, you'll get a paper pass that you can print out and use — or trade in for a plastic annual pass that is the size of a credit card.

Fourth-grade teachers also can download and print paper passes for each of their students, and all teachers can get free lesson plans.

Even if a kid isn't a natural outdoors enthusiast, being part of the Every Kid in a Park initiative can be a fun and easy activity for the whole family.

Local families can drive east or west and find themselves at a national recreation area or park.

To the east, the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area offers more than 120,000 acres full of diversity in ecosystems, wildlife and more than 10,000 years of human history.

To the west is America’s first national park: Yellowstone. It’s a wonderland to explore, with geysers, mountain wilderness and wildlife. (To the southwest lies another famed destination, Grand Teton National Park.)

Here’s a list of possible summer activities for kids in Yellowstone:

Old Faithful Geyser. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco, National Park Service
• Watch Old Faithful erupt: Check out the other nearby hydrothermal features like mud pots and
find out what the “rotten egg” smell is. Preview the eruption on our live Old Faithful Geyser webcam and predict the next eruption.

• Become a Yellowstone Junior Ranger: Stop by any visitor center to purchase a Junior Ranger activity booklet for $3. To earn a Yellowstone Junior Ranger patch, you need to hike on a park trail or boardwalk, complete the age-appropriate activities, and attend a ranger activity, such as a talk, guided walk, or evening campfire program.

• Sit on the shore of Yellowstone Lake: The largest high-elevation lake in the lower 48 states. Feel smooth driftwood and stones and dip your toes in the cold water. Picnic tables are available at many pull-outs along the lake shore.

• Bike to Morning Glory Pool: Bikes are allowed on the paved path between the Old Faithful Lodge and Morning Glory Pool. Take this 2-mile round-trip paved path and make three stops: one at Castle Geyser—possibly one of the oldest geysers in the basin; next at Daisy Geyser, one of the most predictable geysers in Yellowstone; and third — at Riverside Geyser, a cone geyser on the bank of the Firehole River. Bikes are not allowed on the boardwalks, but there are several racks where you can park your bike while you explore.

• Take a short walk to Artist’s Point: Watch the Yellowstone River cascade down Lower Falls through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

While you’re in the area, go to the Canyon Visitor Education Center and learn about the geology behind the canyon and Yellowstone’s super volcano.

Milky Way near Mammoth Hot Springs. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
• Stay up late and watch the stars: Look for constellations, the Milky Way, and craters on the moon from your campsite. Field guides to the night sky and astronomy are available from the Yellowstone Association bookstores.

Stargazing programs are occasionally available in the summer at the Madison Information Station and the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center.

• Attend a ranger program: Meet at the Junior Ranger Station at Madison Junction and learn about Yellowstone’s wildlife, geysers, history and much more! This is a great opportunity to complete the ranger activity needed to earn your Junior Ranger patch. These 30-minute family programs are geared toward kids ages 5 to 12. Accessible with assistance. Check dates on the program schedule or at visitor centers.

• Watch wildlife: Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are great places to see wildlife. Animals are easier to see in the early morning and evening when they tend to be feeding. Remember, the numbers and variety of animals you see are largely a matter of luck and coincidence.

Bison in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
Get a mammal checklist when you enter the park and record your sightings. Check at visitor centers for recent sightings and receive a sticker for your efforts. Do not approach bears or wolves on foot within 100 yards or other wildlife within 25 yards.

Keep a safe distance from all wildlife. Each year, park visitors are injured by wildlife when approaching too closely.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Cody Labs’ owner is nation’s fastest-growing company, magazine says

One of the most rapidly growing businesses in the United States can be found right here in Cody.

Fortune Magazine recently named Cody Laboratories’ owner — Lannett Company — as the country’s fastest-growing company. Lannett develops, manufactures and distributes generic pharmaceuticals through its facilities in Cody, Philadelphia and, most recently, Carmel, New York.

Cody Labs cut the ribbon on a new warehouse in June. Cody News Co. photo by CJ Baker
“Lannett’s outstanding growth is a credit to a confluence of factors: rising health care spending, an aging population, and growing prices for generic drugs,” wrote Fortune reporter Laura Lorenzetti on Aug. 19.

“All of us at Lannett appreciate the honor and look forward to maintaining this status,” Lannett President and CEO Arthur Bedrosian said last week, as he announced the company’s most recent financial results.

The Philadelphia-based company had 502 employees as of the end of June, including roughly 130 people at Cody Labs.

To come up with its annual rankings, Fortune analyzes publicly traded companies’ growth in sales, profit and stock returns.

One reason that Lannett — which has had nine straight quarters of record net sales — topped the business magazine’s list is that its earnings per share have risen by roughly 314 percent each year over the past three years.

In its annual earnings report, the company called the July 2014-June 2015 fiscal year “another extraordinary year for Lannett.”

The company’s net sales — of products ranging from thyroid, allergy and antipsychotic medications to painkillers — totaled $406.8 million, up 49 percent from the year before. Lannett reported a gross profit of $306.4 million, or 75 percent of net sales.

Lannett had ranked No. 29 on Fortune’s 2014 edition of the 100 Fastest-Growing Companies.
“We think of it as sort of a snapshot of America’s economy. It tends to show which sectors in the economy are doing really well and which sectors are not so well,” said Fortune Assistant Managing Editor Nicholas Varchaver in a video accompanying the 2015 rankings.
Cody Labs’ Ryan Osborne (center) speaks with visitors during a June 1 walk-through of its new warehouse. Cody News Co. photo by CJ Baker

Lannett was one of nine pharmaceutical companies on the list and was joined in the top 10 by Gilead Sciences. (Facebook came in at No. 10.)

Lannett is a relatively small company, Fortune noted, comparing the $274 million it collected in 2014 to generic industry giants like Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (which brought in $20.3 billion).

It’s typical for companies in the healthcare industry to make Fortune’s list, but “one thing that we’re not really seeing is oil firms — and that’s because the price of oil is through the floor,” Associate Editor Anne VanderMey said in the video.

Fortune noted that much of Lannett’s growth has come from higher prices on generic drugs — and that regulators have been probing whether generic drug manufacturers are running afoul of anti-monopoly laws.

Cody Labs is at the core of Lannett's plans.

“The company believes that under the current regulatory environment, the generic pharmaceutical industry as a whole will be the target of increased governmental scrutiny, especially with respect to state and federal anti-trust and price fixing claims,” Lannett wrote in last week’s annual report.

The company’s plans for future growth include a greater focus on pain-killing drugs, as they generally have higher profit margins and are expected to be in higher demand as the U.S. population ages.

Lannett says Cody Labs is “at the core” of its strategy, noting its local subsidiary has a rare license to import poppy straw — a raw ingredient used in many different narcotics.

Cody Labs cut the ribbon on a new 11,000 square-foot warehouse on Road 2AB in June, aided by what is basically a low-interest loan from the state of Wyoming. State and local economic development advocates hope the warehouse is just the first piece of a much larger manufacturing complex.

Cody man facing three felony charges for alleged stabbing and threats

Cody police say a man used a knife to stab his roommate, threaten two other people and damage some furniture on Wednesday night.

Jason Johnson, 46, stands charged with three felony counts of aggravated assault and battery and a misdemeanor count of property destruction in connection with the incident.

The Cody resident remained jailed in the Park County Detention Center on Monday, with bail set at $50,000 cash. In court on Friday, Johnson told Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters that he has a mental disability and would not be able to post that amount of money.

Cody police had been called to the E Avenue home where Johnson was living just before 7:45 p.m. Wednesday.

The caller said that a man, later identified as Johnson, was yelling and screaming at people and attacking furniture with a large knife, Cody Police Officer Josh Van Auken wrote in an affidavit filed in support of the case.

Van Auken found Johnson across the street.
Jason Johnson

"He was unable to speak intelligible sentences, but I was able to ascertain that he was upset because 'they' were trying steal his sister's ... belongings," Van Auken wrote.

Concerned that the homeowner might be hurt, police entered the residence and found the man lying on his bed with his shirt covered in blood, Van Auken wrote. The 54-year-old homeowner appeared to have a stab wound to his chest, the officer wrote.

The homeowner appeared highly intoxicated, eventually saying "he knew one thing that happened and then stated, 'murder'," Van Auken wrote.

A woman who'd been with the homeowner and Johnson that day told police the two men had drank about a gallon of vodka and some whiskey.

The woman reportedly told Van Auken that Johnson became very angry and started talking about killing people and cutting off a dog's head as he played with a knife.

The woman said Johnson then began talking about killing her. When she told Johnson he was scaring her, "Johnson replied that if he killed her, she would not have to worry anymore," Van Auken wrote of the woman's account.

Another man at the home reportedly told Van Auken that Johnson had started freaking out for no apparent reason.

The man said Johnson began stabbing furniture, including a couch where the homeowner had passed out, Van Auken recounted.

The man said Johnson later chased him with the weapon, but he locked himself in another room and left.

Van Auken concluded that, in addition to seriously injuring the homeowner, "it was evident that Johnson threatened several people with a knife and put them in enough fear that they had to flee the residence."

"It was evident that Johnson threatened several people with a knife and put them in enough fear that they had to flee the residence," wrote Cody Police Officer Josh Van Auken.

When police arrested Johnson, he said he hated the homeowner and called him an expletive, Van Auken wrote.

Deputy Park County Prosecuting Attorney Sam Krone successfully argued for bond to be set at $50,000 cash, citing past criminal convictions and noting that someone was injured in last week's incident.

A preliminary hearing, to determine if there's enough evidence for the case to proceed to District Court, is tentatively set for Thursday.

~ By CJ Baker

Saturday fire on South Fork started by two juveniles, fire marshal says

A Saturday afternoon fire that burned through more than 140 acres in the South Fork area was started "by two juvenile males playing with fire," Park County Fire Marshal Russ Wenke said Tuesday morning.

"Because they are juveniles we will not be releasing any additional information," Wenke said.

The fire was first reported around 1:15 p.m. near 167 Road 6WX, just southwest of Cody. It consumed about 145 acres along the South Fork Highway and the eastern side of Cedar Mountain before crews from the Cody Volunteer Fire Department, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Shoshone National Forest contained it Saturday night, Wenke said.

An air tanker drops fire retardant on a blaze that burned the eastern side of Cedar Mountain on Saturday. Aaron Mulkey is pictured in the foreground. Photo courtesy Kelly Dedel
Dubbed the Red Lakes Fire, the blaze threatened two homes as well as the Shoshone Water Treatment Plant and several communication towers for law enforcement, radio stations and cell phone companies, Wenke said.

The Cody Volunteer Fire Department sent seven trucks and 28 firefighters and Park County provided a bulldozer, but some areas were so steep and rocky that men and equipment couldn’t get to them to fight the fire, Wenke said.

“That was a real problem for us,” he said.

That’s when the call went out for additional firefighting resources. In response, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service provided 11 additional firefighters as well as a helicopter and two large air tankers out of Billings, and two smaller air tankers from Casper, Wenke said. 

Mutual aid also was provided by Powell volunteer firefighters, who stood by at the Cody Fire Hall in case other fire calls came through.

“The great story is, it was a success. We did get it stopped with very little damage," Wenke said.

By 7:15 p.m., crews had contained the fire and the South Fork Highway was reopened — it had been closed intermittently during the fire.

“We held it to around 145 acres and worked through the night,” he said.

Four fire engines and 17 firefighters worked on Sunday to douse hotspots, but no air support was needed at that point. A few firefighters will continue to monitor the area over coming days to make sure nothing flares up near the edges of the fire, he said.

“The great story is, it was a success,” Wenke said. “We did get it stopped with very little damage."

Only one power pole and a few power lines were burned, despite the fact that the area was under a red-flag warning for high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity, he said.

“It was just a great example of cooperation between our fire district, the BLM and then the Shoshone National Forest,” Wenke said.

The fire marshal did say that things could have turned out differently, a private citizen apparently launched a drone.

"Luckily a woman who knows how serious this can be for our air resources asked the gentleman to land the drone and he did," Wenke said. "If a drone is observed over the incident all of the air resources are grounded until we can verify the drone is no longer in the area. If we had lost the air support, the outcome of this incident would have been much worse."

The original caller described the fire as an out-of-control agricultural burn, but the fire investigator ultimately determined it was caused by the two juveniles.

Aug 31, 2015

Cody motorcyclist dies in Saturday morning crash outside Powell

A Cody man was killed Saturday morning when his motorcycle collided with a Suburban at an intersection just west of Powell, the Park County Sheriff's Office says.

In a Monday morning news release, the sheriff's office identified the motorcyclist as Edward Eugene Miller, 76, of Cody.

The 2000 Honda motorcycle was headed west on Lane 9 when — at the lane's intersection with Road 11 — a northbound Suburban driven by Morgan W. Christensen, 27, of Billings, pulled out in front of Miller's bike, the sheriff's office said.

Miller collided with the Suburban's front passenger side at a speed of 45 to 50 miles an hour and was thrown off the bike, the sheriff's office said.

A Powell Valley Healthcare EMS crew responded to the scene, and Miller — who was not wearing a helmet — was pronounced dead at Powell Valley Hospital, the sheriff's office said.

The crash was reported at 11:13 a.m.

According to the sheriff's office, Christensen initially stopped for the stop sign at Road 11's junction with Lane 9. However, Christensen did not see the oncoming motorcycle at first and drove forward, the release said. At the last minute, Christensen spotted the approaching bike, applied the brakes and stopped partway into the intersection, where the collision occurred, the sheriff's office said.

No citations have been issued, though the sheriff's office said the crash remains under investigation.

In addition to the EMS crew, sheriff's deputies and Powell Volunteer Fire Department personnel responded to the scene.

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