Jul 22, 2016

New wildfire burns through 2,600 acres east of Ten Sleep

A quickly-moving wildfire northeast of Ten Sleep has forced the evacuation of some areas of the Bighorn National Forest and the closure of a portion of U.S. Highway 16.

“This fire is rapidly growing and continues to spread due to dangerous weather conditions,” the Big Horn County Sheriff's Office said in a Friday night Facebook post. While no injuries or other problems have been reported so far, “multiple structures are threatened,” the Sheriff's Office said.

The Hatchery Fire was discovered around 1 p.m. on Friday; by 6 p.m., it had already burned through about 2,600 acres, fire managers said.

The Hatchery Fire, as seen from the air on Friday afternoon. Photo courtesy Bighorn National Forest
On Friday night, the Washakie and Big Horn County sheriffs issued an evacuation order for Meadowlark Lake, the West Tensleep Lake Road corridor, the Deer Haven Lodge and other camps and cabins in the surrounding areas. The Big Horn County Sheriff's Office said people in those areas were being told to evacuate to Buffalo.

A portion of U.S. Highway 16 between Ten Sleep and Buffalo in the Bighorn National Forest has been closed because of the Hatchery Fire. For updates on the road's status, visit wyoroad.info or call 511.

“Please do not attempt to get into this area,” the Big Horn County Sheriff's Office said in its post. “No traffic entry is being allowed in the area until it is deemed safe to do so.”

According to a Friday night news release from the Bighorn National Forest, the fire began on private land near U.S. Highway 16.

Firefighters started working to suppress the Hatchery fire from the time it was reported, the forest's release said. A Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) dropped at least two loads of retardant on the fire on Friday, with additional drops from heavy and single engine air tankers. At least three helicopters and about 60 firefighters have also been working the fire, with more help on the way.

“This is a very dangerous, rapidly unfolding event,” Bighorn National Forest Supervisor Bill Bass said in the release. “Our first concern is for the safety of the firefighters and the public.”

The fire is burning on the north side of Tensleep Canyon, about seven miles east of the town of Ten Sleep. As of Friday night, it was being managed by Washakie County, the Worland Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management, the Wyoming State Forestry Division and the Bighorn National Forest.

Endangered ferrets to be returned to Meeteetse next week

After a nearly three-decade-long absence, black-footed ferrets are being reintroduced to ranch lands west of Meeteetse.

On Tuesday, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department plans to release roughly three dozen of the endangered ferrets across 3,200 acres of prairie dog colonies. The department hopes to re-establish a black-footed ferret population in the area.

The Game and Fish's Nichole Bjornlie releases a prairie dog in this file photo. The department has been studying ways to protect prairie dogs — on which black-footed ferrets rely — from plague. Photo courtesy Wyoming Game and Fish

The species was thought to have been extinct when a ferret colony was found on the Hogg family's Lazy BV Ranch in 1981. The ferrets found there were eventually captured and were used to start a successful breeding program that's boosted the species' population from a couple dozen animals back up into the hundreds.

While ferrets have been reintroduced to other areas in Wyoming and other states, Tuesday's release in Meeteetse will be a little more special.

“It is incredibly exciting for us to be putting ferrets back in a location where we found an animal we thought was extinct. It shows a dedication to conservation and the fact that we have done some excellent work here,” Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott said in a June news release. “It’s a landmark moment to return this species back to Meeteetse.”

“It’s a landmark moment to return this species back to Meeteetse,” said Scott Talbott, the Game and Fish director.

As for what makes a site a good place for black-footed ferrets, Wyoming Game and Fish Nongame Mammal Biologist Nichole Bjornlie says it really comes down to one thing: prairie dogs.

“Because an adult ferret will eat about one prairie dog every three days, an individual ferret can eat over 100 prairie dogs in a single year!” Bjornlie said in a recent Game and Fish Q&A.

At that rate, each ferret needs roughly 50 to 100 acres of prairie dog habitat, she said.

“Not only do ferrets eat almost exclusively prairie dogs (about 90% or more of their diet is prairie dogs), but they also rely on prairie dogs for their burrows, which ferrets use for shelter, safety, and a place to raise young,” Bjornlie explained.

To prepare for the release outside Meeteetse, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service biologists and field specialists applied insecticide to prairie dog burrows at the site. Their aim was to cut down on the number of fleas, which transmit the deadly sylvatic plague that can decimate prairie dog populations.

Game and Fish plans to release a total of 35 ferrets on Tuesday in the Meeteetse area.

Cody woman gets jail time and probation for embezzling $20,000

When Amanda Luther was terminated as a Cody business manager in early 2015, her employers thought they had a couple different reasons for parting ways; among other things, they felt Luther was doing a poor job with sloppy bookkeeping and finances were tight.

However, the owners of Juniper: Bar+Market+Bistro would soon learn the problems were directly related: Luther had covertly embezzled around $20,000 from the establishment over the prior two years.

Amanda Luther
On Monday, the 28-year-old reported to the Park County Detention Center to finish serving a 30-day jail sentence. Luther will also spend the next three years on supervised probation as part of a unique plea agreement that spanned both District and Circuit Courts.

She pleaded guilty to both felony (more than $1,000) and misdemeanor ($1,000 or less) counts of theft, though under a deferred prosecution agreement, she’ll avoid a felony conviction as long as she successfully completes the probation.

District Court Judge Steven Cranfill said he was largely accepting the deferral because Juniper’s owners — Michele and Ruffin Prevost — were in agreement. The judge noted he’s sent people to prison for embezzling.

“I do take it very, very seriously, a breach of that kind of trust,” Cranfill said in May. He told Luther a felony conviction “is something that follows you for the rest of your life and the opportunity to avoid it is significant, and I hope you appreciate that.”

Luther, of Cody, said she was grateful for the opportunity to be a productive member of the community and to set things straight.

“I admit to the guilt in this matter and obviously would like for the victims in this case to be able to move along,” Luther said. She added that she wanted to show “that I am obviously very sorry in this matter and it never should have happened.”

Luther was terminated from Juniper on Feb. 3, 2015, and received one month’s pay as severance, charging documents say.

Cody Police Detective Jason Stafford compiled this list of checks that were issued to Luther, but listed in QuickBooks as having been used for legitimate purchases for Juniper. Juniper's owner later found additional fraudulent transactions.
A couple weeks later, however, an accountant hired to reconcile Juniper’s bank statements found two suspicious checks. Both had been entered into the accounting software as payments to a beverage distributor, but the checks had actually been made out and paid to Luther, said a charging affidavit written by Cody Police Detective Jason Stafford.

The Prevosts ended up discovering dozens of fraudulent transactions between late December 2013 and mid-January 2015. That included a couple instances where Luther had duplicated her payroll check (to pay herself twice) and others where she made it appear as though checks were going toward utility bills, taxes, supplies and even the Park County Animal Shelter, Stafford wrote. In actuality, the detective found Luther was depositing the checks into her bank account or cashing them.

“She covered her tracks in hiding what she stole from us,” Ruffin Prevost said.

The Prevosts initially believed around $17,851.88 had been stolen, but discovered a couple thousand dollars more after the case was filed. For example, they learned Luther had forgiven her personal $437.25 bar tab — which made the basis for a separate misdemeanor theft charge in Circuit Court.

Luther was charged and arrested in March 2015. She served four days in jail before posting bond.

Negotiations between Park County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric and Luther’s defense attorney — Nick Beduhn of Cody — culminated in a deal that was finalized last month.

It included Luther paying back $17,851.88 in May and agreeing to repay the more recently discovered $2,568.33 — plus $435 in court fees — over the coming year.

The prosecution and defense had agreed to let Luther serve her final 26 days of jail time in two separate stints, to accommodate her current work schedule. However, at the second phase of Luther’s sentencing, on June 15 in Circuit Court, Ruffin Prevost asked Judge Bruce Waters to instead require Luther to serve all 26 days at once.

“She lied to us for three years while she was stealing from us and has done pretty much everything to minimize the consequences of her actions from then until now,” Prevost told the judge.

As an example, he took issue with the fact that Luther asked for court permission to leave the country and visit Europe after posting bond in the case. (The request was denied by Judge Cranfill.)

Judge Waters sided with Prevost and declined to let Luther break up her jail time.

“The fact is, if somebody embezzled $20,000 from me, I wouldn’t be very happy about it,” Waters said.

Luther’s supervised probation requires that she obey the law and have no contact with the Prevosts, among other conditions.

~By CJ Baker

Jul 21, 2016

For third time in four years, treasure hunter has North Fork misadventure

The third time was not the charm for a treasure-seeker along the North Fork of the Shoshone River.

After failed attempts to find the famed Fenn treasure in 2013 and 2015, a woman from Virginia again ventured into the backcountry last week. For the third time, her search for fortune resulted in a call to the Park County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue.

Madalina L. Taylor, 41, of Lynchburg, Virginia, was reported as an overdue hiker on Monday afternoon, the Park County Sheriff’s Office said.

A resident told the Sheriff’s Office that, on Friday, he’d seen a woman who appeared ill-equipped for the backcountry at the Jim Mountain trailhead; as of Monday, it appeared the woman’s Dodge SUV had not moved, the resident reported.

The Sheriff’s Office determined the vehicle belonged to Taylor, who has a history with the Search and Rescue Unit.

In June 2013, she and her companion, Frank Eugene Rose Jr., were rescued after being lost in the Big Creek area for four days and suffering from exposure.

When the couple returned to the area in June 2015, Taylor had to be airlifted from the North Fork after falling and breaking her ankle.

They told authorities they’d been in the area seeking the Fenn treasure — a box containing more than $1 million worth of valuables that arts and antiques dealer Forrest Fenn says he’s hidden somewhere in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado or New Mexico. Some people think the treasure lies near Yellowstone National Park.

Despite being warned last year to not return to this area without proper training in environmental survival skills, and warned they would be arrested for trespassing if caught on private property, it appeared that Taylor had indeed returned, wrote Lance Mathess, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, in a news release.

On Monday, Search and Rescue crews did an aerial search of the Jim Mountain trails and areas where Taylor and Rose had previously been found.

“After nearly two hours in the air without spotting Taylor, the search was called off,” Mathess said. “There was simply no way to determine which direction Taylor went or if she was even still in the backcountry.”

At around 10 p.m. Monday, Taylor emerged from the backcountry near the Grizzly Ranch, unhurt.

“She commented that she had seen the search plane, but because she didn’t consider herself to be lost, she never signaled it,” Mathess wrote.

Taylor also said she had three encounters with grizzly bears and that she “had had enough,” Mathess said.

The ranch owners gave Taylor a ride back to her vehicle.

According to Mathess, “She was headed back east with no intentions of ever returning.”

“I think many are plainly tired of their foolishness,” prominent Fenn treasure seeker Dal Neitzel said of the recent news.

The Fenn treasure has attracted thousands of enthusiasts who comb over the various clues Fenn has shared. He first described his hiding of the treasure — and laid out a cryptic, poetic path to it — in a 2010 memoir titled, “The Thrill of the Chase.”

Part of his aim was to encourage more Americans to get into the outdoors, though “it is unfortunate that some searchers go into the mountains unprepared for what they find,” Fenn said last year.

Dal Neitzel, a dedicated seeker of the Fenn treasure, posted the news of Taylor's most recent misadventure on his website.

“I think many are plainly tired of their foolishness,” Neitzel wrote of the general feeling around the treasure-hunting community.

“Fenn people are nothing if not persistent,” added a website commenter who identified theirself as E.C. Waters. “Well, maybe we’re also nutters. And fools. And what’s that word for doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result?”

Man facing nine charges after high-speed chase in stolen vehicle

A 26-year-old man is facing nine criminal charges after allegedly stealing one truck, driving a different one stolen from Billings and leading police on a high-speed chase in Cody early Tuesday morning.

John T. Johnson has been charged with felony counts of burglary, theft of more than $1,000 and receiving or concealing stolen property valued at more than $1,000. He also faces misdemeanor counts of reckless driving, failing to report a crash to police, fleeing or eluding police, interference with a peace officer, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and driving without a license.

John T. Johnson
Johnson — who has said he has no home address or possessions — remained in the Park County Detention Center on Wednesday with bail set at $35,000 cash.

Things started shortly before 1 a.m. Tuesday, when a man on Cody’s 13th Street reported his Chevrolet truck had been stolen. The man told police he’d heard his locked truck’s alarm and went outside to find it was gone, according to a charging affidavit written by Cody Police Officer Blake Stinson; the truck owner said someone must have stolen a spare key from inside the vehicle earlier in the night.

At about 2:15 a.m., the stolen Chevy was found about a mile and a half away, abandoned on Blackburn Avenue; a mountain bike which had been stashed in the bed of the truck was missing, Stinson wrote.

Police caught a break soon after that, when a green Ford Ranger truck being driven by Johnson came right into the area officers were searching, the charges allege. Cody police say the Ranger had several mountain bikes — including the one taken from the Chevy — in its bed; the Ranger itself had been reported as stolen in Billings.

Upon seeing the officers, Johnson immediately turned around and fled on Blackburn Avenue, charging documents allege.

“The suspect narrowly missed houses, vehicles, and campers, placing the citizens of Cody in grave danger,” wrote Officer Blake Stinson.

Turning onto Bighorn Avenue, he hit a dumpster and accelerated to speeds of up to 80 mph, Stinson wrote.

It was the start of a roughly eight-minute pursuit in which Johnson allegedly drove to 19th Street, Sheridan Avenue, North Street, Cougar Avenue and 23rd Street.

A rough outline of Tuesday's pursuit, as described in charging documents.
While driving on Cougar Avenue — at around 60 mph — Johnson shut off his lights and he later sped through the parking lot of an assisted living facility, Stinson said.

“The suspect narrowly missed houses, vehicles, and campers, placing the citizens of Cody in grave danger,” the officer wrote.

Johnson eventually crashed the truck in a drainage ditch. After a foot chase, Stinson was able to catch and subdue the man on the bank of the ditch.

A preliminary hearing where a judge will weigh the evidence against Johnson is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.

The incident was the second high-speed chase to take place in the Cody area over the past week.

On July 14, a 28-year-old Billings woman reportedly refused to pull over for a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper on U.S. Highway 14-16-20 east of Cody. Trooper John Hoffman clocked her going as fast as 111 mph.

The “extremely intoxicated” woman later told troopers she’d been taking pills and drinking alcohol in an attempt to kill herself, Hoffman wrote in a charging affidavit. She was taken to West Park Hospital to be treated for an overdose and for a mental health evaluation.

The woman has been charged with misdemeanor counts of driving while under the influence, fleeing or eluding police, reckless driving, passing in a no-passing zone, improper lane use and speeding. She’s tentatively scheduled to make her first court appearance on Friday morning.

~By CJ Baker

Jul 20, 2016

Cody shifting court costs to county; county looks to shift them back

To cut costs, the city of Cody has decided it will only prosecute the most minor offenses committed inside city limits and leave the rest to the Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Cody leaders expect to save around $24,000 a year by shuffling more serious cases out of its municipal court and into Circuit Court — effectively shifting the costs of prosecuting and punishing those offenses to the state of Wyoming and Park County.

However, Park County commissioners are now looking for a way to shift some of those costs back to the city of Cody.
Recent changes to the city of Cody's ordinances mean the city will no longer have to pay to house inmates at the county jail. Courtesy photo

Until the recent changes, Cody’s ordinances allowed its city attorney to seek up to six months of jail time for a handful of misdemeanor offenses (such as drunk driving and drug possession) in the city's municipal court.

However, each time the government prosecutes an offense with a potential for jail time, the defendant is entitled to a defense attorney. If they can’t afford one, the government — in this case, the city — has to pay for that attorney. Further, if a person receives jail time in a Cody municipal court proceeding, the city must pay the county $30 per day to hold them in the detention center.

Cody City Attorney Scott Kolpitcke said Municipal Court Judge Ed Webster typically orders defendants to repay the city for its costs, but “unfortunately, a lot of times, those are very difficult to collect.”

“A lot of the defendants who are sentenced to those penalties ... are frequently unemployed, or in many cases, they take years to pay back these fines at $50 a month or $100 a month,” Kolpitcke said at June council meeting.

The city says around $286,000 of attorney costs and jail fees have gone unpaid since 2002.
Cody’s City Council decided to stop accruing those costs on July 5 by specifying that — from now on — the maximum penalty for any violation of city code is a $750 fine. Jail time is no longer a possibility.

Commissioners say they may start charging the city to use the Circuit Courtroom.
Cody Mayor Nancy Tia Brown said the change was something city leaders had been considering for years.

Most of the offenses laid out in city ordinance also are crimes under state law, so if a Cody police officer believes that a person should face jail time, they now just need to cite them into Circuit Court, Kolpitcke said.

The difference is that offenses in Circuit Court will be prosecuted by the county attorney’s office (rather than the Cody city attorney), indigent defendants will have their attorneys paid for by the state (rather than the city), incarcerated defendants will be brought to and from court by the Park County Sheriff’s Office (rather than city police) and the county will absorb the full cost of housing any of the defendants in jail.

“The idea is that eventually you’ll see those costs at least come to an end, and maybe the city will see some equalization in the revenues versus the costs in municipal court,” Kolpitcke told the Cody council last month.

Park County commissioners, however, didn’t appreciate the work and costs being shifted to the county.

“I don’t want to be a hard-ass here, but they’re kind of playing games with us, it seems,” said Commission Chairman Tim French.

The county has allowed the city of Cody to freely use the courthouse’s Circuit Courtroom for its municipal court, and commissioners say they may start charging the city.

“If they’re going to stop doing their part and make us start doing it, there might be a need for a charge for the space — or they can hold it (municipal court) down at City Hall,” Commission Chairman Tim French said at a late June budget meeting, adding, “I don’t want to be a hard-ass here, but they’re kind of playing games with us, it seems.”

“Especially when they’ve transferred the legal work to our staff,” said Commissioner Loren Grosskopf, referring to the County Attorney’s Office.

Commissioner Joe Tilden said he agreed with the idea of charging Cody whatever the added cost is to Park County.

The city of Powell made the same change to its ordinances many years ago. The county allows the city of Powell to hold its municipal court at the Circuit Courtroom in Powell at no cost.

Jul 19, 2016

One county commission candidate drops out of the race

John Marsh — a 59-year-old building contractor who's lived in Cody, Powell and now Meeteetse — has dropped out of the race for the Park County Commission.

Marsh's departure leaves five other Republicans running for two available positions on the commission. They'll face off in the Aug. 16 primary election.

John Marsh has suspended his campaign.
In a statement issued to media outlets on Friday, Marsh noted his longtime residency across Park County, his decades of business experience, his and his wife’s raising of three boys who became presidential honor students, and his past memberships in the Cody and Powell chambers of commerce.

“I feel that these achievements put me in a unique position to best serve the citizens of Park County,” Marsh wrote. “In spite of all of this, I have decided to suspend my campaign for personal reasons.”

He thanked his family, friends and supporters and also the Park County Commission “for doing a tough and thankless job.”

Marsh’s statement went on to criticize unnamed county employees for various misconduct he says he witnessed during his March 2011 to April 2015 tenure as a Park County employee. He said the commission should exercise more oversight of its staff and supervisors. His full statement appears below.

Meanwhile, Powell mayoral candidate Amber Yager-Wall notified the county elections office on July 7 that she was withdrawing from that race. The 26-year-old said she was doing so “because of sensitive personal matters.”

Primary election ballots have already been printed — in fact, absentee voting started July 1 — so both Marsh’s and Yager-Wall’s names will remain on the ballot.

Park County elections staff are putting up signs at the polls notifying voters that Yager-Wall has withdrawn from the race; they’ll add Marsh’s name to the signs if and when he formally notifies the office that he’s dropped out, said elections deputy Teecee Barrett.

The five Republicans now running for the commission are: Jake Fulkerson of Cody, Richard George of Cody, current commissioner Lee Livingston of Wapiti, Bob Ruckman of Cody and Boone Tidwell of Cody. Barring an independent, third-party or write-in campaign, the two top GOP vote-getters in the primary election will be unopposed in the general election and shoo-ins for the offices.

The three remaining Powell mayoral candidates are: James Andrews, current mayor Don Hillman and Dawson Wolff. The top two vote getters in the primary will advance to the general election for what will effectively be a run-off.

To whom it may concern:

As a 56-year Park County resident, with over 30 years business experience, I have resided in Cody for over 40 years, Powell for 12 years, and now live in Meeteetse.

I also worked for Park County for four years. I have been married to my wonderful wife Judy for 38 years. Together we raised three great boys, all of whom were presidential honor students. I have also been a member of Cody and Powell chambers of commerce.

I feel that these achievements put me in a unique position to best serve the citizens of Park County. In spite of all of this, I have decided to suspend my campaign for personal reasons. I would like to thank my family, friends, and supporters. I also thank our commission for doing a tough and thankless job.

I have a few suggestions for the commission based on personal observations while working for Park County. I have witnessed a county employee drinking alcohol in the county parking lot during business hours dozens of times, and smelled alcohol on two employees’ breath while they were operating county vehicles and equipment, so I strongly recommend random mandatory drug testing. I also witnessed a department head and an employee spending hour after hour on online dating sites.

The way the present system works is that the commission only knows what the department heads want them to hear. I believe more oversight is needed. Most the department heads are well-qualified and do a great job, but I have seen how unqualified people have cost taxpayers thousands of dollars. I have witnessed a county supervisor use county labor, equipment and money for their own benefit.

It would be my greatest hope that the commission not allow department heads and supervisors to use taxpayers’ money and assets for their sole benefit.

Thank you all.   

John Marsh

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