A look back at a newsy, sometimes scary, 2014 | PostIndependent.com

A look back at a newsy, sometimes scary, 2014

Randy Essex
ressex@postindependent.com

At about 9 a.m. May 8, two state troopers en route to Glenwood Springs for training spotted a red 2006 BMW parked on the side of the road in Glenwood Canyon about a mile west of the Garfield-Eagle county line.

The troopers, Eugene Hofacker and Shane Gosnell, pulled over, following a policy regarding stopped vehicles in the canyon.

All hell broke loose. The driver of the BMW, Thomas Ornelas, 40, of Montrose, turned out to be drunk, transporting cocaine and armed. Out on bond awaiting trial in Mesa County on attempted murder and other charges, Ornelas opened fire on Hofacker, hitting him three times.

Gosnell, hearing shots, came around the patrol car and fired 14 shots, hitting Ornelas 11 times and killing him.

By almost any measure, the shoot-out is the top story of 2014 for the Post Independent. As bad as it was, it could have been much worse.

By Hofacker's own account, "I should have lost my life. The doctors can't understand why I'm alive."

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It was a newsy year in Garfield County, from this and other tragedies and crime stories, to Glenwood Springs' ongoing debate about replacing the Grand Avenue bridge, a strong tourist season, legal marijuana, a Forest Service decision against gas exploration in Thompson Divide and a story about Shooters Grill in Rifle that became a national sensation.

Turn inside for a review.

Tragedies that took lives too early

Air crashes here and abroad stunned Garfield County residents.

HELICOPTER CRASH: A routine aerial inspection of power lines south of Silt went horribly wrong on Jan. 27. The helicopter crashed, killing all three men on board, including renowned pilot Doug Sheffer of Basalt, longtime Holy Cross Energy worker Larry Shaffer of Rifle and Christopher Gaskill of Aurora, an infrared specialist with HotShot Infrared Inspections who was checking for trouble spots along the power lines. A National Transportation Safety Board report ultimately concluded that the crash occurred when the Bell model 206L-3 belonging to Sheffer's DBS Helicopters out of Rifle hooked an upper "static" line that was part of a separate set of Xcel energy transmission lines located above the chopper, as the crew was checking the lower lines belonging to Holy Cross.

TOP GUN DIES: In December, Air Force Capt. Will DuBois, a New Castle native and Rifle High School graduate, was killed when his F-16 went down in Jordan during a flight that started out as an attack on ISIS. DuBois, the newlywed son of William "Ham" and Donna DuBois, was a "top gun" pilot off to a stellar start to his Air Force career. An aerospace engineering graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder, he was honored Dec. 14 at Rifle High in a service that included a 21-gun salute and "missing man" F-16 flyover.

Other unpredictable losses hit the region, including:

• Claudia Ruiz of Silt, a mother and wife with a history of mental illness, went missing May 17. Her family and church members searched frantically for her, putting up handbills throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, along Highway 133 and Interstate 70. She was found dead in a pond in rugged ranchland south of Emma on May 23.

• Carbondale resident Uriah Shaffer was washed under while kayaking in the Crystal River near Marble in late May; his body was recovered in July.

• District Attorney Sherry Caloia determined that no crime was committed in the April 15 shooting death of Audrey Lowndes. Lowndes had shut herself in a bedroom and her boyfriend James "McCabe" Mallin discovered her there holding a rifle. When he tried to get it away from her, it fired and the round struck her head. "This was a horrible accident that unfortunately is all too common in our world," Caloia's office said.

Killing and theft mar the year

HOMICIDE: Garfield County has only one active murder case from a death in 2014, that of Anthony Padia of Silt. He is charged with second-degree murder and faces a mental competency exam in the death of his father, Leon, on Dec. 17.

Other homicides that rattled residents in 2014 occurred in other counties: Williams Amaya faces first-degree murder charges in Eagle County for the killing of his aunt and uncle in El Jebel in July; a 14-year-old boy pleaded guilty in Eagle County to killing his father in April; and William Styler pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the February slaying of Nancy Pfister in Pitkin County.

Fredy Cabrera in August pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 2013 slaying of his stepdaughter's boyfriend, Douglas Menjivar. Cabrera was reportedly upset that Leydy Trejo, who was still 18 and in high school, had moved in with the 22-year-old Menjivar, an employee of Cabrera's Carbondale restaurant. Cabrera was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

EMBEZZLING: The Garfield County Clerk and Recorder's Office exposed evidence of a major, years-long embezzling operation by one of its own. Robin McMillan of Rifle, a longtime clerk's employee who had helped investigate an embezzling case in the office in 2012, is charged with theft now believed to be more than $400,000 since 2009. After the two theft cases, Garfield County has tightened procedures, and in October heard from a fraud examiner about possible further steps.

ROBBERY: On June 30, the Alpine Bank in West Glenwood was robbed by a man wearing a ballcap but otherwise no disguise. It turned out that Jack Lee Wright of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a suspect in robberies in Florida and Texas, and he had skipped out on a motel bill in Rifle. Photos from bank cameras published in the Post Independent led the motel operator to call police, and Wright eventually was arrested in Maryland. He pleaded guilty in December and is to be sentenced in February in federal court.

Debate rages over new bridge

Ongoing planning to replace the Grand Avenue/Highway 82 Bridge dominated much of the news this past year. Early progress included a decision to use elevators instead of a ramp for handicap access to a new pedestrian bridge at Seventh Street, as well as plans to create a new Eighth Street connection to Midland Avenue for an eventual detour route.

Mounting project costs also prompted the Colorado Department of Transportation to ask local governments to help make up an anticipated $10 million to $15 million shortfall. The city and Garfield County obliged to commit $3 million each to help cover the estimated $110 million-plus bridge replacement.

Meanwhile, critics continued to voice their opinion that, rather than replacing the 61-year-old bridge, the city and CDOT should instead plan a highway bypass that would remove through traffic from Grand Avenue.

In late October, CDOT released a draft Environmental Assessment for the bridge project. A formal public comment period ended on the final day of the year.

Economy and commerce — rebound and divide

OIL AND GAS: Two big developments affecting Garfield County natural gas occurred in 2014. First, the state and Bureau of Land Management blessed an agreement between industry and environmental groups on exploration of the Roan Plateau. The deal protects most of the public lands on top of Roan while allowing development to continue on other leases in the area, including those at the base of the Roan.

Some see it as a potential template for a deal on the Thompson Divide south of Glenwood Springs, where the BLM is reviewing previously issued leases. In that dispute, the chief of the White River National Forest barred the so-called divide from new leasing in the forest's new oil and gas master plan, while the industry filed a sweeping federal Freedom of Information Act request hinting at a political conspiracy between environmentalists and government agencies.

SALES TAX: Colorado towns are heavily dependent on sales tax revenue, and this year has been a good one for Glenwood Springs, which through October recorded a 7 percent increase from 2013. It's been the best year since 2008 as the economy has struggled to recover from the recession in subsequent years. Accommodations, automotive sales and building materials were strong categories headed into the critical holiday season. Rifle, hurt by a drop in gas exploration in recent years, had recorded only a slight increase.

MARIJUANA: Pot became legal for people older than 21 in Colorado, and Garfield County jumped in with the rest of the state. Glenwood Springs opened its first retail marijuana shop in May and now has three stores. Carbondale has three and Silt has one. The stores are thought to have helped fuel this year's sales tax growth, along with strong tourism and general economic recovery. Criminal issues locally have been few, though a store in Carbondale is among 57 medical and recreational shops closed this year by state regulators.

Jankovsky holds off election challenge

It was a relatively light year politically in Garfield County, with only one county commission seat up for election and most other posts unopposed in November's election.

Republican County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky easily won re-election over Democrat Michael Sullivan in the Nov. 4 election, garnering 58 percent of the vote countywide to win a second term in office.

The fall election also ushered in two new county officials who ran uncontested, including Treasurer Karla Bagley, who replaced retiring Treasurer Georgia Chamberlain, and Coroner Robb Glassmire, who ousted longtime Coroner Trey Holt for the Republican nomination in the spring.

Also uncontested for another four years in office were Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, Assessor Jim Yellico and Clerk and Recorder Jean Alberico, while county Surveyor Scott Aibner survived an election challenge from Sam Phelps, who had previously held the post.

Statewide, Gov. John Hickenlooper withstood the nation's Republican tide, holding off Bob Beauprez in a tight race, but U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner helped Republicans win control of the U.S. Senate, ousting Sen. Mark Udall. Propositions calling for labeling of genetically modified foods and allowing casino gambling at a horse track in Aurora were soundly defeated, as was another effort to pass a personhood amendment to the state Constitution.

Glenwood remembers Storm King 14

Glenwood Springs showed once again that it will keep its vow to never forget the 14 wildland firefighters killed in 1994 on Storm King Mountain just west of town. The town hosted a moving commemorative ceremony in Two Rivers Park on July 6 to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. "This is a beautiful, courageous town," said Ralph Holtby, whose daughter, Bonnie Jean, was among the fallen firefighters.

'Super nice guy' gets super rich

Al George of Rifle, a longtime tow-truck driver well-known and well-liked around town, in August won a $90 million Powerball jackpot, the biggest lottery prize ever in Colorado. The ticket was sold at the Kum & Go convenience store in town, which collected $50,000 for selling the winner. "He's a super nice guy," Jody Winkler, the Rifle mayor's wife, said of George, 53.

Bad news bear year

Late-spring freezes made for a bad crop of service berries and other natural bear food, making summer encounters with bears common from Aspen to Grand Junction. Glenwood Springs saw its worst bear year in memory, with one animal being put down after it crashed from a night of garbage eating just a block from town's new outdoor dining strip. Wildlife officials are concerned that bears are becoming increasingly accustomed to the easy pickings of trash, prompting Glenwood Springs and Carbondale to look at tougher ordinances to require secure garage containers.

America drops by Shooters in Rifle

Shooters Grill in June advertised in the PI that it would offer concealed carry training with dinner, leading a reporter and photographer to the Rifle restaurant. There, they discovered servers carrying loaded guns and signs encouraging open carry. That led to a flood of stories, with CBS, ABC, USA Today, the Washington Post, Fox News, CNN and more following the PI story. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel weighed in, and the restaurant continues to be packed and to get media calls. It sells T-shirts now and has more than 8,000 Facebook fans. "We're just small-town folks serving small-town folks, and America stopped in for a visit," owner Lauren Boebert said.

Glenwood loses beloved runner, theater figure

Bob Willey, a longtime running and theater icon, succumbed to lung cancer in July. He had suffered a severe stroke in June, but still made in a wheelchair to his beloved Strawberry Shortcut race, and then to the Willey Coyote 5K fundraiser run July 20 along one of his favorite routes in West Glenwood. "He left this Earth with a lot of love and peace. He taught us all a lot," said Abbey Walters, who helped put together the fundraiser.

Fetal defects investigated

A sudden increase in rare fetal birth defects detected in routine prenatal exams among pregnant women at two Glenwood Springs clinics in late 2013 prompted a state health department investigation. But an 11-page investigation report issued in early May 2014 found no common denominators among the 22 separate cases that were reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The investigation involved mothers from a geographic area stretching from Carbondale to Rifle, as well as from outside the county in Snowmass Village and Meeker.

After the Post Independent broke the news of the state's involvement, public speculation turned to whether the defects could be associated with oil and gas drilling activity in Garfield County.

The health department report determined neither proximity to active oil and gas wells nor 11 other potential factors that were investigated were common among the cases.

Unaffordable health insurance

Concerns emanating from Garfield County in particular about inordinately high resort-area health insurance rates helped influence the Colorado Division of Insurance in May to restructure the rating system to include a larger western Colorado rating area. The result was an average 7.4 percent reduction in health insurance rates for 2015 for individual health plans offered under Obamacare. Garfield County commissioners at one point early in the year had threatened to sue state and federal insurance regulators over the resort rates that had been set for Garfield, Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties, which according to some reports were the highest in the United States.

Top stories by web traffic

Using Google Analytics to measure readership, these stories and their follow-ups had the most traffic on Postindependent.com in 2014.

1. Shooter's Grill in Rifle, more than 40,000 page views

2. Helicopter crash near Silt in January, about 38,000

3. The F-16 crash Dec. 1 that killed Air Force Capt. Will DuBois, 30,000

4. May 8 Glenwood Canyon shoot-out, 25,000

5. Rifle's Al George wins Powerball, in August, 19,000

6. Two good Samaritans killed on I-70 helping change tire in November, 17,000

7. Claudia Ruiz is found dead in May, 15,000

8. Community columnist assaulted in parking lot in October, 14,000

9. Woman shot near New Castle in July, a mystery about which details never emerged, 13,000

10. "It's OK. There are angels in here." 10,000 page views

RING OUT THE OLD,

RING IN THE NEW

Over the next few days, the Post Independent will look back at 2014’s top stories.

Today we provide an overview. Friday, John Stroud will review Glenwood’s year; Saturday, Heidi Rice will look at 2014 in Rifle, Silt and New Castle; and Sunday, Will Grandbois will look back at Carbondale’s year.

We don’t try to rank stories and we are likely to omit something you would include.

Send an email to the editor to second guess us if you’d like. We particularly urge you to send in thoughts and predictions about what’s ahead for the new year.