COVID-19 Epidemic, Wild Elections, Political Gunfire and Bizarre Crime Spree Dominate Headlines
Trevor Phipps, Rick Langenberg and Bob Volpe
As we conclude our final toasts in bidding good-bye to 2020 (Good riddance,) the toughest year in recent memory for most, here is a synopsis of some of the top news stories and trends that dominated the pages and web-social media postings of TMJ during the last year.
Coronavirus Epidemic Rattles Region, State and Nation
Big surprise. The coronavirus epidemic took center stage as our region’s top story in 2020 Following a bullish couple of early months for 2020, the epidemic rattled Teller County with little mercy. As the virus spread throughout the nation, invading the state, our county got hit with a mandated lockdown in mid-March, starting on St. Patrick’s Day, of all times. This led to the closure of all casinos and non-essential businesses, indoor restaurant dining. It also forced most businesses to close, or operate at a fraction of what they had in the past.
This resulted in the biggest economic calamity in decades, exceeding the impacts of the Great recession of 2007/2008. But area officials responded in an unprecedented fashion by establishing a surge hospital in Woodland Park and establishing relief funds for impacted businesses and residents. The Greater Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce took a lead role in communicating with residents and business operators regarding the new rules and avenues for financial help. Help was also offered by the Cripple Creek Marketing and Special Events Department and by key economic leaders in El Paso County.
However, the stress, caused by the isolation and the closures, became too much for some residents and business owners. The closure orders prompted several signature protests from the mandatory stay-at-home orders. In fact, these efforts were even supported by some local law enforcement leaders, who contended that people’s lives were being destroyed by the state mandates.
The casinos remained shut for three months, a scenario that turned Cripple Creek into a virtual ghost town and clobbering the government of Cripple Creek financially and ending nearly all special events. The region rebounded slightly in late May, only to get hit with a resurgence of cases in late fall and early winter. Teller nearly hit the 1,000 positive-case number by the end of 2020. At the year’s end, Teller County officials were struggling with a new code-colored rating system, which threatened to shut down casinos again, and close indoor dining. Currently, Cripple Creek casinos are allowed to operate, without table games, on a limited basis. Restaurants can have indoor dining in Teller County, but not in neighboring El Paso County. All businesses have capacity limits and public gatherings are strictly reduced. This has led to an invasion of Zoom video-conferencing meetings.
The coronavirus impacts will most likely prevail as a leading story for 2021.
“Mistress of Death” Remains in Prison
In 2019, the biggest story that gave the area national attention was the conviction of murderer Patrick Frazee. This saga, which grabbed national attention, just wouldn’t let us go in 2020. Towards the end of 2019, the man who beat his former fiancée Kelsey Berreth to death with a baseball bat was sentenced to life in prison and then transferred to a prison in Ordway a town east of Pueblo.
In January, the media-proclaimed “Mistress of Death,” Krystal Kenney Lee, Frazee’s former girlfriend, was sentenced for her role in the crime. This included cleaning up the crime scene, helping Frazee retrieve Berreth’s body then burning it, and taking Berreth’s cell phone and handgun to Idaho to make it look like she fled on her own. Due to the plea deal Lee made with District Attorney Dan May, who classified this arrangement as making a “deal with the devil,” the maximum sentence Lee faced was three years behind bars.
In January, she received this sentence, even though many involved in the case thought it was way too lenient. However, shortly after Lee was placed in a women’s prison in Denver, she tried to petition the probation department to let her spend her sentence in a halfway house instead of prison. But her request was denied.
Then in late 2020, Lee had her first parole hearing in which she tried to get released early. But her second effort to get out of prison was again denied by the parole board, as they cited the fact that she exhibited a “poor attitude” while incarcerated.
A Slew of Odd Crimes
When the year first started, there were not a lot of serious crimes striking the region.
But as summer arrived, the region started experiencing a spree of strange crimes that don’t happen very often. In May, Teller County Sheriff Department deputies responded to a call, saying that someone had been shot in the national forest north of Divide. After the investigation was complete, it was determined that two bodies were found dead in a murder-suicide. Later in May, deputies responded to a criminal mischief call on the county’s border with Park County near Lake George. When the deputies found the suspect, the man pulled out a handgun and pointed it at the officers. The deputies ordered the man to put the gun down but then he started walking towards them. As the man came closer to the deputies, one deputy fired one shot and hit the suspect. The suspect recovered from the gunshot wound and in August the District Attorney’s Office announced that no charges would be filed against the deputies.
Then in June, Florissant pharmacist Brent Stein was arrested on sexual assault charges after a woman went to the hospital in Woodland Park and filed a complaint. The woman claimed that the pharmacist had lured her into his home from another state saying that he could help cure her from a medical condition she was suffering from. He then allegedly gave her a number of medications that incapacitated the victim. The victim claimed that Stein then sexually assaulted her several times while she was incapacitated.
After the first arrest, detectives found other victims who claimed that Stein assaulted them in similar ways. As result of more victims coming forward the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office re-opened a sexual assault case involving Stein. On the downside, this led to the closure of Florissant’s sole pharmacy.
Then in July, things started to get a bit crazier when the sheriff’s department acted on tips of an illegal marijuana-grow operation. During the investigation, three different grow operations were found across the state which accounted for the biggest drug bust ever made by the local department.
In mid-July, the Teller County Jail was the home to the county’s first protest. A group of peaceful protesters came to Divide to ask for the release of an inmate that was being held for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency. The protesters were then met by a group of people supporting the police and a fist fight ended up breaking out. However, no charges were filed against anyone at the protest.
Later on, in the month, deputies responded to a home in Florissant when they received a call that a man was worried about his dogs that were being left under the care of his roommate. When deputies arrived, they found one dog deceased and evidence that another dog was brutally mutilated. The deputies then put out a search for the suspect that received statewide attention. The suspect, Matthew Dieringer, was eventually found in the Denver area and arrested on animal abuse charges.
The year 2020 also brought a couple of other animal abuse incidents. A dog was found brutally beaten in a subdivision on the west side of Woodland Park and no suspects were named in the case. Later in the year, another dog was found beaten in the center of the city, but the owners or person responsible for the abuse were not found.
Crimes started to slow down a little until the last part of the year when local law enforcement agencies were tested again. In late November, Teller deputies received a call from the Canon City Police department, saying that a man had led them on a chase and the suspect fled on Shelf Road towards Cripple Creek. While deputies were chasing the suspect, Chancey Colwell, 36, the man fired shots at the police vehicles. Colwell then ran to Skagway Reservoir where he crashed his car and then ran into the woods. The deputies found him the next day when they saw smoke coming out of an abandoned cabin. After a short foot chase, deputies arrested the armed man who was a convicted felon from assaulting the police chief of Florence.
The bizarre crime spree continued in December when police arrested two people in Woodland Park, Stephen McMahon, who had used counterfeit $20 bills at several locations in the area. Once arrested, they were also found in possession of two stolen cars.
Robberies also seemed to spike in 2020 as multiple businesses and homes reported break-ins. One incident in Divide led to the arrest of two people on theft and burglary charges. An armed robbery at Alpine Firearms also led to the arrest of three convicted felons.
Charis Bible College Battles with County Over Coronavirus Restrictions
During 2020, controversy erupted surrounding the state’s COVID restriction orders, which shuttered businesses and reduced indoor capacity limits. In July, the Colorado Attorney General’s office sent a letter to the Charis Bible College, asking them to reduce the size of a family bible conference being held at the facility.
Andrew Wommack Ministries International (AWMI), which operates Charis Bible College, refused to reduce capacity limits and then filed a lawsuit against the state and county health departments. The lawsuit wanted a court injunction to let them operate at full capacity, saying it violated the First Amendment.
A local judge ruled against AWMI, which prompted them to bring the case to the appeals court. The appellate court then ruled against AWMI once more. After that, AWMI dropped their lawsuit, which brought up a case against them by the state and county health department.
A judge ruled in the favor of the county and granted a cease-and-desist order to shut down a conference being held at the college. However, by the time the order made it to the college, the conference was already over.
The county health departments then fought back when they filed another injunction in court to force the college to abide by the state regulated capacity limits. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the state of New York, saying that the government could not place capacity limits on places of worship, Colorado Governor Jared Polis had a sudden change of heart.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling, Polis changed the public health order to make place of worship “critical,” thus eliminating any state-mandated capacity limits on worship services. As a result of the governor changing the health order, the county dismissed its lawsuit against AWMI.
Sheriff Wins ACLU Battle and Starts Construction of Their New “Taj Mahal” Facility
The battle continued between the sheriff and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) with a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, saying that their relationship with ICE (U.S. Immigration of Customs Enforcement) was unconstitutional. The sheriff then responded by asking the courts to dismiss the case saying that their 287g contract with ICE was perfectly legal. During the first part of 2020, a judge ruled in the sheriff’s favor and dismissed the lawsuit.
The focus then started on building the sheriff’s new $7 million-plus office expansion. The construction started early in the year and it has mainly been on schedule with just a few setbacks. The completion date is now scheduled for the first part of 2021.
The sheriff’s office also saw a shift in leadership in 2020 when longtime local law enforcer Undersheriff John Gomes decided to thrown in the towel and retire. Once Gomes retired Jail Commander Stan Bishop was then promoted to the undersheriff position for the second time in his career. The sheriff’s office then promoted Lad Sullivan into the jail commander position.
New Teller County Commissioners Elected
Teller County hosted its first competitive battle for two new commissioners. Due to term limits, veteran commissioners Norm Steen and Marc Dettenrieder, who served for eight years, couldn’t seek re-election again.
This sparked a hefty battle for these seats, a spirited competition that was determined at the GOP primary in June. After much speculation, four solid candidates secured spots on the GOP ballot for these seats. Dan Williams, a Teller County planner, and Erik Stone, the former chairman of the Teller County Republican Party, emerged as the winners. They will be sworn into office in early January.
Like most races in 2020, this competition got impacted by the coronavirus epidemic, which limited public campaign events.
The Council Elections of 2020
The city of Woodland Park experienced two elections, a first for the City Above the Clouds. The election season kicked off in last April, with a battle for mayor and three council seats.
The April election fielded four candidates to fill outgoing Mayor Neal Levy’s seat and five candidates to fill the three vacant council seats. Mayor Pro Tem Val Carr came out on top for the mayor’s position and Rusty Neal, Robert Zuluaga, and Jim Pfaff prevailed in the race for council.
A surprising development occurred when Noel Sawyer, who still had time left on his council seat decided to retire after losing his bid for mayor. This led to one empty seat on council. Sawyer’s empty chair left the city with a six-person governing board, which in turn, resulted in there often being a tie vote on key issues, board, and committee assignments.
As council tried unsuccessfully to fill Sawyer’s seat several times, the seat was kicked down the road to the November general election. This was the first time in recent history, a city race occurred in November. This time Stephanie Alfieri, who has been involved with a spree of community organizations, beat two other candidates to finally fill Sawyer’s seat and complete the council slate, with seven members.
Can’t We Just Get Along
2020 was a year of great division and disarray for the Woodland Park City Council.
With Noel Sawyer’s retirement after losing his bid for mayor in the April election, the council was left with a governing board of six members. With three new council members, long time councilman and now mayor, Val Carr, and incumbent council members, Hilary LaBarre and Kellie Case, political philosophies often clashed. Council became split 3-3 on many appointments and votes on issues facing the city until the election of Stephanie Alfieri in November.
As is often the case with new council members some failed to do their homework on certain issues, which resulted in question-and-answer periods that made meetings last four to five hours. Some of the new members also used valuable time espousing their own political and religious views in rants that went way off of the topic at hand. The council meetings became a prime entertainment show, with many leaders from other communities making jokes about Woodland Park meetings.
This was also a year of extreme tension between some members on council. Opposing views on issues and personality conflicts often sparked verbal altercations between members.
The most pressing issue for council was the budget for 2021. Council struggled to come up with a budget that reflected the priorities of members and the reality of dealing with unforeseen consequences of the COVID pandemic. Countless work sessions and special meetings were held to iron out details in the budget. The hope was to have a flat budget which focused on paying down the city’s debt. Ultimately, the budget passed with an increase of $693,059 over the 2020. The council also agreed to lower the mill levy for the first time since the early 1990s, when the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, went into effect.
The year of political turmoil also ended with a pending recall campaign against Councilman Pfaff, organized by a group of former and current civic leaders. The group, called Woodland Park Concerned Citizens, is accusing the councilman of questionable behavior and the pursuit of issues that clash with the interests of WP citizens, and possibly not meeting residency requirements.
If pursued, this could become the first recall of a city council member in years.
Woodland Station Blues
2020 was a year of action and inaction by the Downtown Development Authority. (DDA)
As with so many years prior, the main objective of the DDA was the development of the Woodland Station property. By December of 2019 a large development proposal for the property fell through. The Tava House, a multi-use development project and event center, pulled their proposal and decided to build on another site in the city.
Fortunately, another developer who initially partnered with the proposed Tava House project decided they would continue to pursue their project into 2020. Until January, the Williams/Christian project details had been kept secret. It wasn’t until August of 2020 that Williams/Christian gave the DDA a major update on the project. Even now, as we approach 2021, Woodland Station remains an empty field.
The DDA did have some success with their wish list in 2020. After much debate and battles with city council, the DDA managed to reach an agreement with the city on plans for a retail vendor’s fee and lowering the city’s business license fee. Plus, its budget for next year, called for an increase.
Professional and Prep Sports Encounter Major Schedule Changes
As everyone knows the world was struck by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 which threw just about everything into turmoil including sports. In March, all professional sports were put to a halt at first until leagues like NASCAR, the NBA and the NHL figured out how to hold competitions safely without spectators.
Last spring, however, colleges and high schools cancelled all of their sports and it was unsure if any college or prep sports would be played in the year 2020. When fall started the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA) announced that they were going to postpone fall sports and hold them in the spring instead.
But, after several families protested about not having football in the fall, the school district devised a plan to have golf, football and softball in the fall season. And, after a slight delay, most college football leagues decided to play.
In Woodland Park, the golf season went on as usual with the several players on the team doing quite well. One golfer, Evan Sisneros, competed in the state championship tournament for the second year in a row.
For the girls, the softball season was shortened but they still played 16 games. The girls started off to a rocky start with losing many of their first games. But then, the team gained a little traction towards the last part of the season but it proved to be too little too late to earn them a playoff spot. The girls finished their season with a 6-10 overall record and a 6-7 league record.
For football, the Woodland Park Panthers’ season started late and they were scheduled to play many teams they had not previously faced. Their season started out great when they won their first two games and many thought they were playoff-bound. The team’s coach, Joe Roskam, even won the Broncos High School Coach of the Week Award after their victory in Alamosa.
But then, the team’s abnormal schedule seemed to get the best of them. The boys ended up losing their last four games and missing the playoffs with a 2-4 record.
In other sports, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb was postponed from its usual start date in late June until late August. The organization then decided to hold the race but without spectators for the first time ever. During the race, local racing legend Clint Vahsholtz got the quickest time up the racetrack which earned him the “King of the Mountain” title for the first time in his racing career.
Bring On the High Rollers
The presidential election of Nov.3 was a mega national event, producing a record turnout. Locally and throughout the state, this trend was even more pronounced. Not only did voters play a role in deciding the next commander-in-chief and key state/national figures, but they cast tallies on another spree of ballot issues.
When the dust was settled, Election 2020 emerged as a big win for Cripple Creek and all three Colorado gaming communities Voters gave the okay by a nearly 60 percent margin to Amendment 77, which set the stage for eliminating the $100 single-bet wagers and adding a vast array of new games. A similar-worded issue was approved in Cripple Creek by a 75 percent margin. This would allow unlimited bets and opened the door for more play by “High Rollers,” who may now spend more time gambling in the Creek, instead of flying to Las Vegas. It will definitely add much more excitement to table games. Conservative estimates indicate the local gaming revenue will grow initially by 5 to 10 percent a year. The vote followed an aggressive campaign by a group called Local Choice, headed by a few former leaders, including Mayor Bruce Brown. The Cripple Creek City Council tagged onto the momentum from these votes by passing an ordinance recently, doing away with any bet limits and adding many more games. The new change is expected to help in the ongoing bid to turn Cripple Creek more into a several-day tourist/gaming destination area. It goes into effect in early May 2021.
Special Event Calamity
Cripple Creek and southern Teller is a huge magnet for special events and festivals that highlight the district’s heritage and offer summer family fun.
The coronavirus epidemic changed that scenario drastically in 2020. And following the highly successful Ice Fest in February, town leaders were forced to eliminate virtually all local festivals and events, except for the July 4th celebration. The most grueling special event executions dealt with Donkey Derby Days and the Salute to American Veterans Rally and motorcycle ride. The latter event appeared to have a chance of proceeding. The council actually gave the event promoters, ProPromotions, the go ahead, with a reduced funding allotment. But a COVID rebound in late summer forced the council’s hand, as they cancelled the event in the 11th hour to the dismay of military/veteran group supporters and past Salute supporters. The same scenario occurred for the Butte Theater, as director Mel Moser had hopes of still putting on summer shows. However, the COVID restrictions made this task next to impossible. This no-event policy continued through the 2021 budget discussions, with the city opting to ax all monies for events/festivals for 2021.
Surviving on a Financial Lifeline
2020 became a year to forget financially for the city of Cripple Creek.
With the closure of the casinos for three months due to the pandemic, the city was forced to sharpen its fiscal blade and cut expenses by $2.2 million, as they lost their main revenue source. Betting device fees paid by the casinos support the bulk of city programs and services. Each month the casinos were closed equated to a loss of $300,000-plus for the city in fees.
The end result generated huge reductions in marketing/special events, parks, and recreation and basically all the fun stuff the city offers. Cripple Creek almost resembled a ghost town. Core services were not cut, and the city was able to do a huge infrastructure project on Bennett Avenue, dealing with improving their water lines. But the city grappled with a different form of financial reality. Oddly enough, no personnel cuts were delivered, However, the city had to put on hold their selections for a permanent city administrator and a fire chief. During budget discussions at the end of the year, the city finalized its most lean budget in 25 years.
Green Mountain Falls
Trail Wars and Committee Reshuffling
Nope, Green Mountain Falls’ regular lively town meetings were no competition for the entertainment flair in Woodland Park in 2020. But GMF may have carded a runner-up spot for resident angst, with huge concerns over their trail situation. At the request of Governor Jared Polis, Coloradoans were advised to enjoy the outdoors in their areas during the stay-at-home orders. This turned into a bonanza of visitors and hikers into GMF, often regarded as a secret hiking paradise in the Pikes Peak region. Not anymore.
The trails were bombarded with users, a scenario that had town leaders considering shutting down the trail system altogether. Plus, some leaders and officials weren’t happy with the freedom exerted by a local trails committee, which played a big role in improving and extending these hiking routes. A series of high-spirited meetings ended with the town agreeing to keep the trails open, but to launch a trails ambassador and education program to inform hikers of the dos and don’ts of their hiking network The former trails group was canned, and instead, the town formed a new parks, trails and recreation advisory committee. Tensions, though, continued between town leaders and some veteran volunteers. One of the more outspoken trail group leaders, Rocco Blasi, was fired from the planning commission. Blasi hasn’t been shy about criticizing the current administration, headed by Town Manager Angie Sprang.
The GMF Art Boom Escalates
The continued effort to turn Green Mountain Falls into more of an artistic boom town took a big step forward in 2020.
Following months of speculation, the stage was finally set for the town to start considering the annexation of 30-plus acres to accommodate a multimillion-dollar art installation and overall year-round attraction, rounded out by nature trails, a horse grazing area, restrooms and a viewing spot.
Proposed by the Historic Green Mountain Falls Foundation and the Green Box Arts group, the project would feature a James Turrell Skyspace installation, which would resemble a unique observatory-like facility to view the stars and skyline. There are 85 of these facilities in the world, but this would mark the first one of its kind in Colorado. At the end of 2020, plans started getting formalized for this project, expected to turn GMF into a year-round destination. In order to move forward, town leaders would have to agree to annex the Red Devil Mountain area and former Joyland Church parcels.
If everything proceeds as planned, the new artistic facility could make a debut in the summer of 2021
Other notable stories for 2020:
*The severing of ties between Cripple Creek leaders and former City Administrator Mark Campbell, who hails from Northern Ireland. This resulted in the hiring again of interim Administrator Ray White on a part-time basis. White has filled this role several times in the past.
*The removal of Woodland Park RE-2 School District Superintendent Steve Woolf, following his initial arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol during an accident stop. Both the school board and Woolf agreed on a separation deal.
*The exit of Woodland Park City Manager Darrin Tangeman from his head post as WP city boss to the East Coast, after only a short several-year period in manning the city’s managerial ropes.
*The unfortunate death of former mayor, baseball coach, restaurant owner and Woodland Park ambassador Neil Levy.
*The development of new businesses and eateries/bars in Woodland Park, despite the coronavirus epidemic.
*The changing of the guard in the head police ranks for the city of Cripple Creek, with veteran chief Mike Rulo stepping down and the promotion of Bud Bright to the head law enforcement spot.
*The battle between Russ’ Place and the Teller County Health Department over COVID restrictions.
*The predominance of virtual Zoom meetings, and the end to in-person government sessions.