Nov 20, 2015

Cody man who threatened wife and shot self sentenced to prison

“I apologize, you know, for trying to shoot myself and all the people that it hurt in the process," Joseph Underwood told the judge. "I just would like to get to treatment to get the help I need."

Underwood, 41, fired a gunshot into his head at the end of a nearly four-hour standoff with Cody police last year. But it was what he did before that — threatening his then-wife and another family member with the gun — that brought Underwood before District Court Judge Steven Cranfill for sentencing last week.

“This is a tragic circumstance, no question about it, but the conduct cannot be ignored,” Deputy Park County Prosecuting Attorney Sam Krone said at the Nov. 13 sentencing. “And the conduct against the family cannot be ignored.”

Cranfill agreed it was a tragic case. He also agreed with Krone that Underwood should receive four to six years in prison for felony aggravated assault and battery (for threatening his now ex-wife with the gun) and misdemeanor battery (for choking his teenage son about a month before the shooting).

Joseph Underwood
“This court believes that you do need treatment, there's no question about that,” Cranfill told Underwood before imposing the sentence. “But the safety of this community is the paramount responsibility of this court.”

Charging documents say Underwood's then-wife went to his E Avenue residence on the morning of Aug. 23, 2014, to gather some of her belongings.

With the help of relative Gary Robson, the woman began getting her stuff out of a trailer on the property that served as a storage unit. Robson later told police that, with the help of his father-in-law and his 14-year-old son, the four began loading the stuff into a truck.

Underwood then approached them and — despite a protection order prohibiting contact with his wife — began pleading with her to talk to him, Robson told Cody Police Sgt. Beau Egger.

Underwood eventually pulled out a revolver and pointed it at his wife, Robson told police. Robson said he moved between the two and and pleaded with Underwood to stop, with Robson's son and father-in-law nearby.

By Robson's recounting, Underwood replied by saying something to the effect of, “If I can’t have her, nobody is.” He later turned the gun on himself and said he was “gonna burn all this (stuff) down,” Robson recounted to police.

Underwood shot himself hours later and had to spend nearly a month in a Billings hospital, receiving substantial medical treatment. When he was released, Underwood was taken into custody. He says he has no recollection of the Aug. 23 stand-off.

Underwood says he has no recollection of the stand-off and his actions that day.

A warrant had been issued for Underwood’s arrest the day before the standoff, on a felony charge of child abuse.

One of Underwood's children, a 15-year-old boy from a previous marriage, had reported to police that Underwood choked him and lifted him up by his shirt on July 27, 2014.

Underwood and his wife initially denied those allegations to Cody police on July 27, but the following day, the wife told police Underwood actually had grabbed and choked the boy.

The woman said she’d initially lied “because Joe (Underwood) is physically and mentally abusive to her and she was scared,” wrote Cody Police Officer Josh Van Auken.

Robson later told police that in the days before the standoff, Underwood repeatedly expressed concern that his wife was going to divorce him.


“He (Underwood) has always told me that he would never let her leave him — that there would be a death in the family before that would happen, and that no woman would ever take his girls from him,” Robson testified in court last week. “I really believe he was going to make good on those statements.”

Robson said Underwood is a hard worker who can be compassionate. But he also described Underwood as having a darker side and posing a danger to himself and to people he feels have wronged him.

Underwood’s son also submitted a statement to the court, saying Underwood’s choking “terrified” him and that his father “should be in prison as long as possible.”

“I think it's telling that his own family members are in support of the state's recommendation (for prison time). The violence has escalated,” Krone said. He noted several altercations with family members that led to misdemeanor charges between 1997 and 2005; that included a 2004 incident where he sprayed bear spray into the car carrying his then-girlfriend, her son and her mother, according to Associated Press reporting.

Underwood's court-appointed attorney, Scott Kath of Powell, argued his client was better off receiving a suspended prison sentence and being put on probation. That, Kath said, would allow Underwood to receive specialized treatment for his mental health and substance abuse problems.

“It’s not going to do any good for the community in the future if Mr. Underwood is just going to do four to six years in the penitentiary,” Kath said. “They (prison staff) may be able to address the substance abuse needs, but frankly, I don't think they can address the whole package.”

“It’s not going to do any good for the community in the future if Mr. Underwood is just going to do four to six years in the penitentiary,” argued defense attorney Scott Kath.

While this case was pending, Kath said Underwood actively researched treatment programs that would match his needs and received counseling.

“He wants to be a better person for himself, his family, for the community,” Kath said. “He recognizes the fact that he was out of control.”

The defense attorney said Underwood likely should have gotten help after a 1992 incident, when he suffered a traumatic head injury that required having to re-learn how to walk, talk and write.

In opting for prison time, Cranfill said he believed the state prison's intensive treatment program could provide the care Underwood is seeking.

As part of a deal with prosecutors, Underwood pleaded no contest to the battery (reduced from felony child abuse) and aggravated assault and battery charges. Misdemeanor counts of reckless endangering and violating a protection order were dismissed.

The 14 months Underwood has spent in jail will count toward his prison sentence.

~By CJ Baker

More salt, some sugar beet juice being used to de-ice local roads

In an effort to make roads drier and safer in winter conditions, the Wyoming Department of Transportation is increasing the amount of salt it puts down on local roads.

WyDOT is increasing the salt content in its mixtures from about 3 percent to 7 percent, said agency spokesman Cody Beers.

The de-icing mixture will help WyDOT crews get back to black pavement sooner. Photo courtesy National Park Service
The new percentage remains significantly lower than other states'.

“There’s some states that use 40 to 70 percent salt, and that’s when you get into the major impacts to vehicles,” Beers said.

WyDOT built a small plant near its Cody shop on Beacon Hill Road to produce salt brine, which is basically salt water, he said.

Over the past few years, WyDOT crews hauled salt brine from Thermopolis to Park County. With the new plant in Cody, "we feel like we're better prepared for the winter this year," Beers said.

"It allows us to be more responsive to storms, to get out there and make our roads safer year-round," he said.

He encourages drivers to wash their vehicles after winter storms.


"If the road is wet and it's under 32 degrees, that probably means we're using some chemicals on the road," Beers said. "So after that storm, when it warms back up, we would just suggest washing them down really good."

Washing vehicles helps neutralize the salt solution.

"If you see a white tinge on your beautiful red car that you're driving, take it in and wash it off," he said.

He said WyDOT washes trucks after storms since salt is corrosive.

"Those chemicals are corrosive by nature, but we are diluting those chemicals and it is allowing us to have safer roads to drive on," he said. "Our No. 1 priority at WyDOT is safety."

When Beers announced the added salt during a recent appearance on KODI-AM’s “Speak Your Piece,” several listeners called in and criticized the plan, citing concern for their vehicles.

“We’re not dumping loads of salt out on the road," Beers emphasized, noting that WyDOT has always used some salt with sand on roads.

The mixture also includes sugar beet juice.

Sugar beets are pictured at a local beet dump. Cody News Co. file photo by Carla Wensky
“Where we do have access to beet juice — it’s a byproduct of sugar beets — we are using it, and it’s helping us to turn our roads back to black pavement sooner. And you know in the wintertime, that’s a good thing,” Beers explained on “Speak Your Piece.”

WyDOT buys the juice for use on area roads during the fall and winter.

"It allows us to coat the road below 32 degrees, and it works really well," Beers said. "It's got a little bit lower freezing point than regular water."

Temperatures must be above zero degrees to apply the solution. After it starts breaking down the ice, a snowplow will come to push the ice off the road, he said.

Salt brine is sprayed on sand and then applied to roads, helping melt the ice more quickly.

“That wet sand that has salt on it sticks to the ice better,” Beers said. “It will melt down into the ice and improve the friction between your tires and the driving surface."

Using a tanker, WyDOT crews also can shoot the salt brine directly on icepack that builds up on U.S. Highway 14-A between Powell and Cody.

Beers said WyDOT employees take a lot of pride in making roads safe. During storms, crews will work 20 hours a day.

"We're going to do everything we can — within reason and within our budget — to make our highways safe," he said. "Snow removal is a big deal in Wyoming."

Nov 19, 2015

Cody Game and Fish office flew flag to honor veteran hunter

The Cody office of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department got a unique opportunity to honor a veteran last month.

Veterans traditionally receive an American flag when they retire from the Armed Forces and to commemorate the occasion, many have it flown above a government building or a place that's close to their heart.

Hert's flag being raised over the Cody Game and Fish office on Oct. 30. Photo courtesy Game and Fish
In an unusual request, Florida veteran Craig Hert, who hunts in the Cody area each year, asked to have his flag fly above the local Game and Fish office.

“I grew up here (in Cody) and ever since I was little, I remember going hunting. It’s just something I grew up with,” he told the Game and Fish, recalling trips with his family. “No matter where I am, Cody is always home.”

Personnel at the Cody Game and Fish office say they considered the request an honor and flew Hert's flag on Oct. 30.

Hert joined the Navy at the age of 19 and served for 20 years. He currently lives in Jacksonville, Florida, with his wife and two children.

The Cody Game and Fish recounted the story in its November newsletter.

Defense expert says Cody policeman’s 2010 search did not violate suspect's civil rights

A former Cody police officer’s 2010 search of a man who claimed to be a suicide bomber — a search that involved stripping off his clothes and shocking him with a Taser — was not unreasonable, according to a police practices expert.

The expert’s report defends the actions taken by then-Assistant Cody Police Chief George Menig in a September 2010 search of Juan P. Flores.

Flores claims Menig violated his civil rights and is suing him in federal court in Casper.

Thor Eells, a commander with the Colorado Springs Police Department, is defending the actions of former Assistant Cody Police Chief George Menig. Photo courtesy Colorado Springs Police
However, the new report from Colorado Springs Police Department Commander Thor Eells — filed on Menig’s behalf last week — suggests police officers need broad discretion in dealing with suspected suicidal bombers because the threat they pose is so different from typical calls.

Training material from the International Association of Chiefs of Police “stresses the fact that a suspected suicidal bomber always presents an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” and “emphasize the need for law enforcement to consider and use what would normally be unorthodox measures,” Eells writes.

The report rebuts one filed by Flores’ expert — former Bellevue, Washington, Police Chief D.P. Van Blaricom — that concluded Menig did violate Flores’ rights.

According to police reports, Flores flagged down a Park County Sheriff’s Office deputy outside the Cody Law Enforcement center on Sept. 13, 2010. Repeatedly refusing to give his name, Flores claimed to be a member of the Taliban and said he intended to “blow things up.” The deputy and three Cody police officers handcuffed the man and searched him.

He later claimed to have swallowed explosive nitroglycerin to blow himself up. Police found he had a bottle of what was labeled as vodka.

Former Bellevue, Washington, police chief D.P. Van Blaricom is Flores' expert witness. Courtesy photo
Menig was ultimately summoned to the scene, and when he arrived, he forcibly removed Flores’ clothes to look for explosives. When Flores then refused to open his mouth to show if anything was inside, Menig shocked the handcuffed suspect with a Taser to get him to open up.

Van Blaricom — who is Flores’ hired expert — wrote in his September report that the use of the Taser “amounts to coercive torture and is a prohibited police practice.”

Eells, however, reached a different conclusion, noting how the situation differed from typical calls.

While deadly force is generally supposed to be a last resort for officers, “in suicidal bomber calls, it is encouraged as an early option,” Eells writes, interpreting guidelines from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

“In light of the justification for deadly force (for suicide bombers), it is not unreasonable for an officer to believe that a lower level of force, such as the Taser, would be acceptable,” Eells wrote.

As for the strip search, Eells says IACP guidelines tell officers to have suspected suicide bombers remove their clothing.


Since Flores was not compliant, and since officers may sometimes use the element of surprise, Menig's decision to suddenly pull off Flores' clothing “was also unorthodox, but not unreasonable given the circumstances surrounding this call,” Eells concludes.

In contrast, Van Blaricom wrote in his report that “public strip searches ... are unreasonable per se and a prohibited police practice.” He said an internal Cody Police Department review of Menig’s actions concluded that the strip search violated department policy. Van Blaricom also wrote that the three other Cody officers at the scene had concerns about Menig’s tactics.

Attorneys for Menig and the city of Cody have said Van Blaricom’s report “cherry-picked” information from the confidential internal documents and didn’t tell the full story.

The internal investigation was reportedly conducted three years after the fact, when a concerned Cody police officer brought a video of Menig’s search to the attention of Cody City Attorney Scott Kolpitcke.

Eells reviewed the internal report and the video of the incident before writing his report, though they’re not specifically discussed in his findings.

The Colorado Springs commander rejects the overall picture that Flores and his team have painted of Menig’s search.

“In this day and age, an officer no longer has the luxury of dismissing threats of a bomb. The plaintiff in this case (Flores) presented a real threat until proven otherwise,” wrote Thor Eells.

Flores’ complaint alleges that by the time Menig arrived on scene, Flores was an “a defenseless and already proven harmless, individual;” Van Blaricom similarly argued that Flores was only “intoxicated in public, and more probably than not, mentally ill and/or hallucinating” and “did not pose a reasonable threat to the officers or anyone else.”

Eells, however, says that conclusion downplays Flores’ actions and does exactly what the IACP guidelines warn officers not to do: to assume a suspected suicide bomber is acting innocently and ignore the threats.

“My personal training has included the instruction that often suicidal bombers ingest intoxicating substances to assist them in carrying out their criminal acts,” Eells wrote. “In this day and age, an officer no longer has the luxury of dismissing threats of a bomb. The plaintiff in this case (Flores) presented a real threat until proven otherwise.”

The civil case is currently scheduled for a March trial.

Nov 18, 2015

Trying to register local vehicles in Montana is generally illegal, prosecutor says

Don’t try skipping out on your vehicle’s taxes and registration fees by posing as a Montana business owner.

That’s the warning issued by Park County officials, who believe a small number of local people are using some legal tricks in Montana to avoid paying sales taxes and registration fees in Wyoming.

Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said last week that his office plans to start taking “a more proactive approach” in investigating local vehicles that are questionably registered in Montana.

The sheriff and other county officials had put out a news release back in April aimed at educating people about the problem.

“Park County is losing tens of thousands of dollars from both sales tax revenue and vehicle registration fees,” Park County Treasurer Barb Poley said in the release. “This is unfair to the vast majority of Park County residents who obey the law and pay their fair share.”
Local people who improperly register their vehicles in Montana are costing Park County thousands of dollars, officials say. Courtesy photo

County residents and businesses paid more than $3.5 million in taxes on their new and used vehicles between July 2014 and June 2015, according to data from the treasurer’s office.

Even if only 1 percent of local vehicles are registered in Montana, local and state governments are missing out on more than $36,000 in tax revenue each year — and that doesn’t count the lost annual registration fees.

Poley’s office is responsible for issuing local license plates and she knows there are local residents driving around with Montana plates.

“We've honestly had people in our office that will say they don’t like the price (the 4 percent sales tax) so they say, ‘Fine, we’ll go plate it in Montana,’” Poley said in an April interview.

She’s heard similar stories from local auto dealers, who’ve had prospective customers decide they’d rather buy their vehicle in sales tax-free Montana.

“We've honestly had people in our office that will say they don’t like the price (the 4 percent sales tax) so they say, ‘Fine, we’ll go plate it in Montana,’” said Treasurer Barb Poley.

A Wyoming resident who buys a car or RV in Montana is supposed to register it here — and pay Wyoming’s 4 percent tax when they do.

However, some people have been getting around that by setting up what’s sometimes referred to as a “shell business” in Montana — a limited liability company (LLC) that exists only to hold assets. They then buy the vehicle in the shell business’ name so that, on paper, the truck or camper is not owned by a Wyoming resident but by a Montana company.

That enables the owner to avoid paying Wyoming’s sales taxes and lets them pay Montana’s generally cheaper registration fees each year. It represents thousands of dollars of savings.


But Park County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric says it’s also illegal.

Skoric notes that state law generally says you must register your vehicle in Wyoming if you’ve lived here for 120 days or more, are living here for work, are registered to vote here, hold a resident hunting or fishing license or meet any of several other qualifications.

In Skoric’s eyes, a limited liability company that exists only to avoid Wyoming taxes and fees was formed for an illegal purpose — meaning it won’t shield a vehicle owner from the state’s laws.

“If the only thing that LLC does is own a vehicle, and there’s no legitimate purpose to that LLC, I think they have an issue,” Skoric said.

Others, however, have said the practice is OK.

In 2014, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that a resident who created a Montana LLC for the sole purpose of avoiding Louisiana’s sales taxes had followed the law. The justices specifically rejected the idea that the resident’s LLC was formed for an unlawful purpose.

“Use of particular business entities to avoid taxes and other liabilities, far from being fraudulent, is a common and legal practice,” the court wrote in a decision specific to Louisiana law.

The Wyoming Legislature is currently looking at how it might crack down on the practice.
According to a draft bill being considered by the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee, if a resident has a vehicle registered to an out-of-state shell business, it will be presumed that “the resident is the actual owner of the vehicle” and they’ll have to pay all the usual Wyoming taxes and fees.

“It’s got to be in millions of dollars the state’s losing,” said Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric.

Skoric thinks the current laws already makes the practice illegal; a Frannie resident was recently convicted of improperly having Montana plates on his pickup. However, Skoric would also welcome the draft bill if it makes Wyoming’s laws more clear and draws more attention to the issue.

“It’s got to be in millions of dollars the state’s losing,” he said.

Beyond the legality, Skoric sees it as a matter of fairness.

“You want to be able to take advantage of everything Wyoming has to offer in terms of its low tax rate overall, but yet you want to not pay anything into roads and schools and anything down here,” he said in an April interview. “It’s just not the right thing to be doing.”

Park County officials say locals shouldn't try putting Montana plates on their new vehicles. Courtesy photo
Sheriff Steward added, “They're also taking money out of the dealers here, too.”

Setting up LLCs in Montana is something of its own industry, with many different businesses offering to create LLCs on your behalf; Poley said some Montana auto dealers used to openly advertise such services on their websites.

The site for one business that promotes the practice — All Day $49 Montana Registered Agent LLC — downplays the regulations that some local governments impose to encourage licensing vehicles locally.

“The reality is that most (of) our clients don’t really care and will never get in trouble,” says the site. “They’ve been getting screwed by the laws that make the rich richer and the middle class poorer and they think it’s cool to finally play a little tax avoidance game like all the rich people do.”

However, you can count the local sheriff as among those who care about the registration laws.

“There’s a lot of people that we know of that are still driving around with those registrations,” Steward said recently. “It’s just a matter of catching them moving.”

Trout Unlimited rescues 2,200 trout from area's irrigation canals

Trout trapped in drying irrigation canals got a new lease on life thanks to a lot of elbow grease from the Yellowstone chapter of Trout Unlimited and their volunteers.

Trout Unlimited member Dave Sweet explained the procedure standing above a Garland Canal drop structure on a frigid Nov. 4 morning.

A couple of volunteers from Marathon Oil, Brian Sheets and Mike Williams, pull some fish from the Garland Canal during Trout Unlimited's recent rescue effort. Cody News Co. photo by Gib Mathers
All summer, fish inadvertently enter the canal. When the irrigation water is turned off, the fish are trapped in receding pools. He isn’t faulting the irrigation district. A $1.5 million screen could divert fish from the canal, but raising $1.5 million is not an easy task, Sweet said.

So, each fall, Trout Unlimited catches the fish and returns them to the Shoshone River from local irrigation canals using an electro fish method. A 60-pound battery pack attached to a long wand delivers about a 1 amp electrical shock, temporarily stunning the fish. The fish are caught with long nets and transfered to buckets. From the buckets, the fish are placed in an oxygenated tank. From the tank, they are returned to the Shoshone River, Sweet said.

“One thing is certain,” Sweet said. “If we don’t get them, they’re going to die.”

It’s a cold day as random snow flakes slant from a leaden sky, but the people were eager as they waded the frigid, sometimes nearly chest-deep water. Others along the canal bank waited with empty buckets to trade for buckets filled with trout.

Sweet guided his group into the and deep, choppy water, rendered a gloomy green beneath an oppressive sky. They worked diligently, probing every corner of the concrete box. Soon, stunned fish floated to the surface. But they weren’t too dazed; they thrashed vigorously in the nets.

Bob Capron, East Yellowstone chapter Trout Unlimited conservation chairman, who has been running the canal rescue for at least 20 years, prepared to ease a nice trout into an oxygenated tank.

“Brown,” he said to Linda Taylor, a Cody Marathon Oil Corporation employee, keeping a tally of the number and species of caught.

From left, Jake Blakesley (Marathon Oil Corporation), Dave Sweet (Trout Unlimited), Travis Schramm (Trout Unlimited), Gregg Bierie (Trout Unlimited) and Mike Williams (Marathon) work to rescue trout from a canal on Nov. 4. Cody News co. photo by Gib Mathers
“We’ve worked with Trout Unlimited for a couple of years,” said Mike Williams, Marathon senior environmental professional. With the understanding that Trout Unlimited would extend its search to the Sidon Canal, more Marathon employees volunteered.

There were 18 Marathon employees who had to work late or assure a fellow employee would cover for them while they saved fish, Williams said.

The Sidon Canal near Byron was the final search on Nov. 9. It was so cold that they had to break ice with shovels before the trout could be caught, Capron said.

Having Marathon employees rescue trout from Sidon was a lesson in land stewardship and to understand the ecosystem they work in. The hope is Marathon employees will bring their spouses and children to future conservation projects to better appreciate and preserve their environment, Williams said.

TROUT TALLY

This year, Trout Unlimited and volunteers captured and released more than 2,200 trout. Around 4,000 were caught and released last year, Capron said.


This year, they worked the Willwood, Garland, Cody, Lake View (South Fork of the Shoshone River) and Sidon (Byron area) canals and the North Fork Ditch (west of Cody). It was a 10-day endeavor averaging seven hours per day, Capron said. He estimated they walked approximately 80 miles of canals.

SUCKER ENDOWMENT

Some anglers may turn their nose at suckers, but those with beaks find them edible.

Susan Ahalt, known as the Bird Lady, runs Ironside Bird Rescue, Inc. just outside Cody. For nearly 30 years Ahalt has rescued injured birds. If possible, she heals the wounded avians to release them back into the wild. If a bird’s injuries are too severe, they spend their lives in her sprawling aviary.

Ahalt accompanied Unlimited on one fish rescue day to collect the suckers. Another day, Trout Unlimited delivered suckers to her to feed a bald eagle she hopes to release soon, Capron said.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West also received a catch of suckers to feed its live birds for its raptor program, Capron said. 

GRATIFICATION
Among other organizations, Marathon employees have helped the Bureau of Land Management, Friends Of A Legacy (McCullough Peaks wild horse support group) and The Nature Conservancy in conservation projects.

Releasing trout back to the Shoshone increases spawners exponentially.

“That turns into hundreds of thousands of trout the next year,” Williams said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”

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