Top 5 news stories of 2008 |

Top 5 news stories of 2008

Chad Spangler Post Independent

Editor’s Note: Today the top 5 local news stories from 2008 are counted down. On Sunday, stories 6-10 were listed.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Garfield County voters may not again see an election year like they did in 2008.

Outside groups spent tens of thousands of dollars in an attempt to influence their decisions in two competitive county commissioner races. There was a three-vote difference between President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, out of thousands of votes cast. The voters in Garfield County saw a pretty interesting election year.

The competitive election in Garfield County this year largely kicked off after the Aug. 12 primaries and went into high gear in September and October. During that time span, commissioner candidates held several civil and informational debates around the county, where they outlined their priorities for the county in the next four years.

But their campaigning soon became affected by several groups outside of the county that spent more than $50,000 to change the dynamics of the race.

One outside group even produced a fake four-page newspaper that targeted the Democrats in the race.

In the end, Republican John Martin earned a fourth term as a county commissioner by defeating Democrat Stephen Bershenyi in a close 11,148-10,783 finish. In the other commissioner race, Republican Mike Samson defeated Democrat Steve Carter. Samson received 11,265 votes to Carter’s 10,580-vote tally.

Since the election, the Democrats have turned to Colorado Ethics Watch, a non-partisan group in Denver, to possibly file a complaint over outside groups’ spending in this year’s Garfield County commissioner races.

The other interesting development from this year’s Garfield County election was that Garfield County voters favored McCain over President-elect Barack Obama by just two votes. McCain received 11,359 votes and Obama received 11,357 votes in the county, according to final election results.

” By Phillip Yates

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” 2008 is the year energy development in Garfield County saw several important developments. The events that happened this year will largely be the focus of continuing controversy well into next year.

Here are the energy-related issues that dominated the headlines in 2008:

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rules

This year started off with a bang when the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) held a meeting in Battlement Mesa to gain feedback on proposed new rules for the state oil and gas industry. Immediately, industry groups and workers fired back, criticizing the new rules.

During the summer, the COGCC held several hearings and worked with other environmental, industry and other groups to further refine the rules.

The commission then began deliberating on the rules in September and October, tentatively approving large rule revisions. Earlier this month, the commission gave final approval to the changes.

However, several Colorado state Republicans announced challenges to the new rules and promised a strong review of them when the state legislature considers them next year. That is expected to be one of the most closely watched issues of next year’s legislative session.

Leases issued for the Roan Plateau

For seven years, the Roan Plateau was the focus of a heated battle over gas development in the area. But in August, the Bureau of Land Management sold 31 parcels encompassing about 54,600 acres of the Roan Plateau Planning Area during a lease sale that brought in about $114 million. In late September, the BLM issued the disputed Roan leases on the same day that 10 environmental groups went to court seeking to block that move.

The future of the Roan is now in federal court, where U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger is expected to rule on the environmental groups’ lawsuit sometime before June 1.

Actions clear the way for eventual oil shale leasing

Although U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., the future Interior secretary, successfully blocked the BLM from issuing final oil shale regulations for most of the year, he and Sen.-elect Mark Udall, D-Colo., were unable to keep that ban in place in September.

That led the BLM to issue final oil shale regulations in November. Those regulations, which companies researching oil shale extraction technologies had sought, spelled out the royalty rates the companies will have to pay if they ever reach commercial production of the resource.

The regulations came out on the same day that an Interior Department official signed a Record of Decision that opened up 2 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah to potential oil shale development.

Those two actions largely clear the way for eventual oil shale leasing. However, the BLM says that several additional years of additional environmental analysis will have to occur before it conducts any leasing. The Piceance Basin in Colorado, which stretches across Mesa, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, is estimated to hold about 1 trillion barrels of oil.

Earlier this month, several groups have asked the incoming Obama administration to withdraw the oil shale regulations. Additionally, other groups have indicated they might file a lawsuit over allegations the Interior Department broke federal law by not allowing a protest period over its move to open 2 million acres to potential oil shale development.

Companies cut back in the Piceance Basin

Late this year, companies drilling for natural gas in the Piceance Basin announced plans to cut back on their operations for 2009. Many companies cited problems affecting the credit markets, the declining price of natural gas, the limited pipeline capacity in the area and the uncertainty surrounding new rules for the state’s oil and gas industry as reasons for their cutbacks.

” By Phillip Yates

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” The year 2008 proved that Garfield County isn’t recession proof. Tough times hit the region this year in several ways.

Real Estate transactions were down 42 percent through October compared to the same time for 2007 and for the first time in two years, the county more than likely won’t reach the $1 billion mark in total dollar volume.

The county has also seen a rise in residential and development foreclosures from 2007 to 2008. Most recently, three development loans were opened for foreclosure in early December, including a second mortgage on the largest subdivision project in Silt ” Mira Loma.

Glenwood Springs also saw the closure of two automobile dealerships. In September, Roaring Fork Volvo closed it’s retail department, but managed to keep the maintenance department open for business. Less than two months later, Glenwood Springs Chrysler Dodge closed its doors for good in November.

In December, Vista Auto group dropped its plans to build a larger dealership where two hotels were demolished in West Glenwood. The empty lots where the 1st Choice inn and Budget Host motel once stood are now up for sale.

Garfield County Human Services Director Lynn Renick saw a huge increase in applications for the County’s Self Sufficiency Programs. Some programs, like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program, saw a 40 percent increase in applications from January to November of 2008.

Sales tax revenue for Glenwood Springs was reportedly down 1.07 percent in October from the same month in 2007. Sales tax revenues have slipped since May this year compared to 2007, however the year-to-date totals remained up 0.5 percent over 2007.

Garfield County’s unemployment rate rose to 3.4 percent in October, up from 2.3 percent from the same time in 2007. However, it remained the 11th lowest rate in the state’s 64 counties.

” By John Gardner

RIFLE ” Ten days before Christmas, one man allegedly shot his older brother in the back of the head with a shotgun at their rented single-family home at 721 East Avenue in Rifle.

Police responded to a call of a shooting at 7:23 p.m. and discovered that Samuel Johnston, 26, had been shot in the head.

Police arrested Heath Edward Johnston, 20, a short time later.

According to the arrest affidavit and witnesses, Heath Johnston allegedly shot his brother after Sam Johnston begged to be killed to put him out of his misery due to a bad marital situation.

Johnston has been charged with first degree murder and is being held on a $2 million bond at the Garfield County Jail.

If convicted, Johnston could face a presumptive sentence of life in prison or the death penalty.

Heath Johnston has been accused in prior criminal cases of burglary in Silt, trespassing and burglary in Rifle and failure to appear in motor vehicle cases in Silt and Rifle last year.

2007 Murder

The last murder in Garfield County was in June 2007. That case saw its conclusion in 2008.

In April, Jesus Hernandez de Jesus was sentenced to 30 years in prison in the shooting death of his nephew.

Hernandez de Jesus pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and admitted to killing his 20-year-old nephew, Ricardo Navarrete Prudencio at the Ponderosa Lodge in West Glenwood Springs.

” By Heidi Rice

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” More than two years after former Colorado State Patrol Trooper Brian Koch was shot, the criminal cases of three suspects charged as accessories reached an end Dec. 5.

But the memory of the shooting may be with Koch forever. He has permanent injuries from the bullet that hit his arm and said, during a trial in May, that his hand always feels like it’s burning. He has left the CSP and took a job as a safety consultant with ConocoPhillips.

Cori Graham, 29, of DeBeque, was sentenced Dec. 5 to four years of probation and 80 hours of community service. She had pleaded guilty to one count of being an accessory to the shooting in exchange for dismissal of three other charges and no jail or prison beyond the two days she’d already served. Graham insisted she was innocent and pleaded guilty only because she couldn’t risk jail time away from her three kids.

Police said Steven Appl, a 33-year-old methamphetamine dealer, shot Koch during a traffic stop near Silt on Oct. 24, 2006. Graham drove Appl in a truck to a police checkpoint where he killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot. Graham said that Appl had a gun and forced her to drive after she gave a friend a ride home, not knowing he was there.

Nichole Brownell, 41, received a five-year prison sentence in September after being convicted of trying to help Appl escape. Police said she let Appl stay in her home and arranged a ride for him. Brownell was arrested at the Denver International Airport not long before receiving her sentence. Police said she tried to abscond with a one-way ticket to Puerto Rico.

Wayne Hangs, a 46-year-old truck driver who owned the home Brownell lived in, was also accused as an accessory to the shooting. He struck a plea deal with prosecutors that could lead to the case against him being dismissed after an 18-month term of probation under a deferred judgment and sentence.

Glenwood shooting case

While one local shooting case came to an end, another investigation continues. The July 29, 2007 shooting of a Glenwood Springs police officer is still unresolved. In August, authorities refused to discuss why two men were arrested on suspicion of the shooting then released weeks later for a lack of evidence.

Authorities also wouldn’t rule out either man as a possible suspect. Search and arrest warrant affidavits which were expected to shed light on the reasoning behind the arrests remain under seal and hidden from public view.

The police officer was shot near the Glenwood Airport at a vehicle impound lot. The bullet struck the officer in the chest but he was wearing a bulletproof vest, which likely saved his life.

” By Pete Fowler

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