From bridge work to bighorn sheep, 2016 in review
Here’s a chronological look at some of the big stories around Garfield County in 2016.
Bridge construction starts
After four years of planning, construction finally began in late January on the massive, $125.6 million Colorado Department of Transportation-led replacement of the Grand Avenue bridge over the Colorado River linking Colorado 82 with Interstate 70.
The start of construction ushered in a full year of disruptions and noise in and around the work zone, as joint venture contractor Granite/RL Wadsworth began the process of erecting a realigned highway bridge, along with a new pedestrian bridge connecting the main part of downtown with north Glenwood.
As of year’s end, the pedestrian bridge was on track for a March 2017 opening, after which all of the focus will shift to completing the new highway span from Grand Avenue to a reconfigured I-70 interchange and roundabout at Laurel and Sixth streets.
New Montessori building
Ross Montessori School in Carbondale christened its new building on Jan. 6, a notable day in Montessori education history when, in 1907, founder Maria Montessori opened the first Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in Rome. The new Carbondale school building culminated a 10-year fundraising and planning effort for the K-8 state public charter school.
Bye-bye hot pots
A plan by the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool to move its outflow pipe farther downstream on the Colorado River meant the end of the famed “hot pots.”
For decades, the series of cascading pools along the north riverbank beneath the hot pool’s concrete outflow pipe had been a popular, if illegal and dangerous, attraction for those looking to get a free soak.
RFHS goes solar
The Roaring Fork High School Energy Club dedicated the school’s new 385-kilowatt solar array on a cold but sunny February day. The 1,242 solar panels situated on the south lawn now power 100 percent of the Carbondale school building’s annual electric needs.
Rifle remembers Coach Smith
Laughter overcame tears at times, as more than 300 people turned out at Rifle High School on an early Saturday in February to remember coaching legend Jack Smith, whose legacy in western Colorado athletics spanned more than five decades. He died Jan. 16 at the age of 80.
Garfield County’s oldest resident dies
Ida Toniolli, Garfield County’s oldest known resident and the longtime owner of the Western Hotel on Cooper Avenue in Glenwood Springs, died soon after her 105th birthday. Toniolli was born on Jan. 2, 1911 in the Star Hotel (now the Hotel Denver).
Meanwhile, Toniolli’s Western Hotel was formally listed on the National Register of Historic places after being nominated by the Glenwood Springs Historic Preservation Committee. The hotel on Cooper Avenue had served as a boarding house for most of the middle part of the 20th century, and before that had been a bar, restaurant and most likely a brothel soon after it was built in the late 1880s.
Rockfall closes canyon
A pair of major rockfalls west of the Hanging Lake Tunnels in Glenwood Canyon on Feb. 15 forced a near week-long closure of Interstate 70. The rockfall, triggered by a midwinter thaw and wet snow and rain, caused significant damage to the roadway, costing nearly $5 million for repairs and subsequent rockfall mitigation work throughout the year.
The I-70 closure was one of the longest on record for the Glenwood Canyon section of the state’s main east-west thoroughfare, and it forced cross-state motorists and truckers to take long detours across the northern part of Colorado on U.S. 40 or south via U.S. 50 and 24.
The lengthy interstate closure also had an economic impact on the Roaring Fork Valley, prompting renewed talks about the expensive proposition of upgrading county roads over Cottonwood Pass to become a year-round route, at least for passenger cars and smaller delivery trucks.
New Re-2 superintendent
The Garfield School District Re-2 Board of Education in March unanimously approved a three-year contract with new district Superintendent Brent Curtice. He was selected to replace former superintendent Susan Birdsey and lead a district that serves more than 4,800 students in Rifle, Silt and New Castle.
Pressler convicted for theft
The long-delayed trial for New Castle resident Erin Pressler concluded in late January with a jury convicting her of stealing as much as $180,000 from her former employer, Designer Door Hardware, between 2009 and 2012, as well as illegally collecting Social Security disability payments and filing false tax returns. Pressler was sentenced in March to four years in prison.
Mom sentenced in baby death
Phyllis “Amy” Wyatt was sentenced in February to eight years in prison for her part in her now ex-husband Matthew Ogden’s killing of their month-old child, Sarah Ogden, in their Parachute apartment in June 2015. The father ultimately pleaded guilty to reckless child abuse resulting in death, and is due to be sentenced in early February 2017.
TRAIN VERSUS TRUCK
Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr struck a truck on the tracks at South Canyon, though the driver escaped with only minor injuries.
His truck was struck on its side and dragged about 500 feet, but the driver reportedly crawled and walked away from his demolished 2011 Dodge Ram 3500 and was later taken to Valley View Hospital. While none of the 191 passengers on the California Zephyr was injured, the hours of delay sent many scrambling for alternative transportation.
The local housing crisis gained an unexpectedly public poster child when Carbondale Trustee Katrina Byars disclosed that her family was homeless after their rental house was sold.
Byars, a longtime advocate for affordable housing in Carbondale, shared with the Post Independent in April how she and her two teenage children were hopping from house to house where friends were willing to put them up for the night. The trustee also faced the threat of losing her position on the town council if she moved into housing outside of the town limits, though eventually she was able to secure a rental in Carbondale. She ran for mayor but lost to Dan Richardson in November.
NEW MEETING SPACE
The often-touted Federal Mineral Lease District, a funding mechanism that has funneled millions of dollars into local infrastructure projects, dished out its biggest grant yet to Cooper Commons.
The project is a joint effort between Colorado Mountain College and Garfield County libraries to build out the second level of Glenwood Springs’ Cooper Commons building, a 13,000-square-foot area. This area will be a flexible meeting, program, classroom, gallery and office space built to accommodate up to 480 people.
A jury found Arturo Navarrete-Portillo guilty of first-degree murder in the 2015 machete slaying of his wife in Carbondale. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
This disturbing case first came to light after the defendant slammed his SUV into the back of a cattle truck in an apparent suicide attempt one February morning in 2015. While being transported via medical flight for his injuries, Navarrete-Portillo told medical professionals that he’d killed his wife, sending Carbondale police on a frantic search for the victim in its first homicide in more than a decade.
Revered ER physician Bill Bevins, known for his dedication to working in developing counties and as an avid outdoorsman, died from a head injury after a fall on Grizzly Creek Trail. Bevins had worked in the Valley View Hospital emergency room for about 12 years. But he had more recently been working at Grand River Health, where more than 150 people gathered for a memorial service following his death.
MOUNTAIN LION ATTACK
A Pitkin County mother saved the life of her 5-year-old son by prying the jaws of a young mountain lion off her son’s head following an attack in the family’s backyard near Woody Creek in mid-June.
Hearing her son screaming from the backyard, the mother ran to her son, pulled one of the lion’s paws off the boy and saw that the animal had the child’s head completely in its mouth, Pitkin County Deputy Michael Buglione said. The mother then reached into the lion’s mouth, pried its jaws off the boy’s head, scooped him up and ran away.
According to police reports, the child suffered a deep laceration to his cheek, had an eye swollen shut and had part of his scalp pulled back during the attack. The lion was killed on site, while local and state wildlife officials tracked down and killed another young lion seen in the vicinity of the attack.
Following an incident on July 5 in which authorities were notified of “several” young adults who had been allegedly heavily drinking were involved in an accident near Lead King Loop.
With one Jeep stuck on the side of the road, a second Jeep arrived to try and tow the other to safety, but both vehicles ended up tumbling roughly 130 feet down an embankment into the Crystal River headwaters below. According to reports, both Jeeps were equipped with street tires, which weren’t sufficient enough for backcountry driving. It took nearly a month for the Jeeps to be removed from the river.
Vectra Bank robbed
Around 5:30 p.m. on Friday, July 29, Vectra Bank was robbed during a busy time in one of the busiest intersections on Grand Avenue.
According to Glenwood Police Chief Terry Wilson, a white man “wearing a really odd straw bucket hat and big sunglasses, so he was very concealed” walked in the front entrance of the bank. One of his hands was concealed, Wilson said, and “he implied he had a weapon.” The man was able to get away with an undisclosed sum of money, the first time since 2014 that a bank robbery had occurred in the valley.
The Glenwood Vaudeville Revue expanded its repertoire with its first full theatrical production, Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” just in time for Halloween. Director John Goss expressed a desire to bring plays to the former Springs Theater stage on at least an annual basis. Meanwhile, prominent vaudevillian Jonathan Gorst brought a piano bar scene to Glenwood through new involvement with the historic Riviera Supper Club.
In the first homicide case in Garfield County for the year, 27-year-old Gustavo Olivo-Tellez was arrested on a first-degree murder charge in October for the shooting death of his ex-girlfriend, Blanca Judith Salas-Jurado. The Garfield County Sheriff’s office characterized the incident as “a case of extreme domestic violence,” and believed that Olivo-Tellez had planned the crime several days in advance. Also charged as an accessory to the crime was Olivo-Tellez’s girlfriend Michelle Castillo.
John Martin handily won re-election to his sixth term as county commissioner despite accusations of embezzlement by area Democrats. Ninth District Attorney Sherry Caloia requested a special prosecutor to review the allegations, with a ruling still pending. Caloia herself was replaced in the election by Republican Jeff Cheney in a three-way race with independent Chip McCrory.
The Bureau of Land Management formally canceled 25 undeveloped oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale in November. The move was met with enthusiasm by local conservation groups, but controversy continues as energy companies contemplate taking the issue to federal court.
Two prominent area landmarks ended up in local hands. An agreement is pending for the purchase of The Hotel Colorado by the owners of the Glenwood Hot Springs. The Osgood Mansion, better known as the Redstone Castle, went to auction in November and was sold to the owners of the Hotel Denver.
Declining tax revenues, largely from reduced oil and gas extraction, resulted in steep cuts in the Garfield County Library District budget. In December, the district announced layoffs and reduced hours. Some minor hiccups — such as the Glenwood Springs Branch opening late — have already resulted, though the full impact remains to be seen.
A herd of bighorn sheep took up residence in north Glenwood in early December. It proved a boon for visitors and wildlife watchers but a headache in terms of enforcement, particularly when one large ram decided to smash a door at Blue Sky Adventures at Hotel Colorado.
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Garfield County’s unemployment currently sits about 1% below the state average, according to data provided by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.