Trevor Phipps, Rick Langenberg and Bob Volpe
As we conclude our final toasts in bidding good-bye to 2021, a year marked by a valiant attempt at returning to semi-normalcy (wrong), here are some prime stories and news trends that dominated the pages and web-social media postings of TMJ during the last year.
Teller County just couldn’t shake the coronavirus bug, with about 50 total deaths, nearly 4,000 cases and a rather deadly late fall period. The Delta variant hit the region hard with a vengeance, similar to other sections of the state.
Still elected officials held tough and resisted efforts to impose any more mandates and impose more rules. They encouraged folks to get vaccinated, but had to grapple with an overall compliance effort of less than 60 percent. The county, with new commissioners Dan Williams and Erik Stone, and veteran member Bob Campbell, wanted a fresh leadership start and made a key personnel change by firing former public health director Jacque Revello and announcing an interim chief, Martha Hubbard, who had long ties with the county. The county eventually hired a veteran nurse practitioner Michelle Wolff. The county tried to focus on sponsoring clinics and publicizing vaccination outlets, rather than advocating masks and more restrictions.
The COVID numbers decreased for a period, but then took a bad turn in October and November, which emerged as the deadliest period of the pandemic locally. But as the year came to a close, the infections waned slightly, but fears of the Omicron variant now persist.
Early Release of “Mistress of Death”
One of the big surprise stories in 2021 dealt with the early release of Krystal Kenney, known as the “Mistress of Death,” for her involvement in the murder of Kelsey Berreth Kenney, a case that grabbed national attention.
In 2020, Kenney was sentenced to the maximum of three years for her role in the brutal slaying of Berreth. Kenney helped convicted murderer Patrick Frazee clean up the crime scene and dispose of the body after he bludgeoned Berreth to death with a baseball bat on Thanksgiving Day 2018.
However, after Kenney spent 14 months of her three year sentence, her case made it to the appellate courts to appeal her sentence. The court ruled that District Judge Scott Sells made a mistake when he gave Kenney the maximum sentence of three years because no “aggravated factors” were found to implement a sentence of more than 18 months.
Since, Kenney had already served 14 months of her new 18 month sentence, she was released during her parole board hearing on March 23. As a part of her sentence, Kenney was ordered to serve a year of parole after being released.
Bizarre Serious Crime Trends Continue
Local law enforcement agencies found themselves dealing with an unusual spree of serious crime cases, somewhat bizarre for Teller County. But officials attribute this to the changing face of Teller County. So much for our former image as Mayberry R.F.D. Those days are gone.
One major story was a police chase that started in Canon City and ended near Victor, leading to the arrest of wanted felon Chancey Colwell. Colwell was charged with attempted murder of law enforcement agents as he shot at officers during the chase.
Then in August, Colwell made headlines once again when he escaped from the Teller County Jail after being sentenced prison time for his crimes. However, Colwell only remained free for a few days as he was arrested in Canon City shortly after his escape due to an anonymous tip.
Another big story that struck nationwide in 2021 was the insurrection on the capitol building on January 6. This had local implications. Shortly after the incident, federal agents arrested Teller County resident Robert Gieswein, nicknamed “Machine Gun Bobby,” for storming the capitol building and allegedly attacking police officers with bear spray and a bat.
Gieswein’s involvement quickly garnered attention from news agencies from across the world. After being arrested without bond, Gieswein’s attorney filed to get the suspect released from jail, but his request for bond was denied. Gieswein remains incarcerated awaiting trial for his crimes.
Once the summer hit, the bizarre local crimes continued. In June, the nonprofit Colorado Ped Patrol helped law enforcement agents arrest Woodland Park resident Robert Elliot.
Members from the nonprofit posed as an underage girl and got Elliot to meet “her” at a coffee shop in Woodland Park. Once Elliot arrived the group called the police. Elliot was then arrested and charged with internet luring of a child and internet sexual exploitation of a child which are class four felonies.
Also in June, Colorado Springs resident Robert Leon was arrested on a slew of charges after stealing a car in Colorado Springs and fleeing police. Leon then drove the vehicle to Woodland Park where he rammed the back of a Teller County Sheriff Deputy’s patrol car.
Leon then fled the scene and was found on the roof of a trailer. He then jumped into another car and took off toward Colorado Springs. Authorities, though, were then able to box in the suspect’s car and arrested him on several charges.
In July, Woodland Park resident Victoria Quinn was arrested on charges related to the pimping of a minor. Quinn allegedly encouraged a minor to sleep with an adult who lived in Quinn’s house in exchange for tobacco products. She also supplied other minors with drugs and alcohol.
More recently, a police chase that started in Park County in Woodland Park at the intersection of Hwys.24 and 67. Officers stopped the car using a spike strip and the suspect then fled on foot. After a short chase, the suspect who was wanted for several felonies out of Fountain was taken into custody on multiple charges.
ACLU/Sheriff Battle Alive and Well
A big legal fight over the last few years, involving a squabble pitting a score of Teller residents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the Teller County Sheriff, has shown no signs of easing up. This trend continued again this year. This involves the sheriff’s department’s participation in the 287g agreement with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency for holding inmates at the jail. Last year, District Judge Scott Sells dismissed the lawsuit saying that since the jail funds itself through an enterprise fund, taxpayer dollars were not being used to pay for the ICE agreement.
However, after Sells made his decision the six tax payers and the ACLU appealed the decision and brought the case to the appellate courts. Earlier this month, a panel of three judges overturned Sells’ decision ruling that taxpayer dollars were being used to fund the sheriff’s office and the jail. (See related article.)
The case will now be brought back to the district courts. The sheriff could choose to appeal the appellate court’s decision and bring the case to the Colorado Supreme Court, but no decision has been made regarding his next legal actions.
School District Reform Changes
The Woodland Park RE-2 School District has experienced a number of changes with the exit of their former superintendent and then the school board president. On the administrative front, Dr. Mathew Neal was hired in 2021 to become the new superintendent.
Then in the fall, the school board races turned into the biggest and most contentious in the last decade. For the first time in more than ten years, election for the school board occurred. And better yet, a record nine candidates ran to fill the four open seats. This followed a trend that occurred throughout the region and country with more parents getting involved in school district affairs.
When it got close to election time, the race quickly became divided as four candidates came out and said that they were the “Conservative choice” for the school board. The race got heated as verbal punches were thrown during the candidate forums and on local social media pages.
The arguments stemmed from the rejection of the Merit Academy charter school application and the fact that the four conservative candidates didn’t want certain sensitive subject matter taught in schools. The other four candidates (two of which were previous school board members) stayed strong in their stance that not much needed to change within the district.
At the end of the election, the four conservatives proved victorious. At the first school board meeting, David Rusterholtz was appointed board president and David Illingworth II was chosen to be the vice president.
The newly-elected school board has me twice and the meetings have gotten quite heated especially, with capacity-level crowds and a barrage of vocal comments
Police Department Overhaul
The forced exit of Woodland Park Police Chief Miles DeYoung, along with investigations against several top commanders, turned into a big evolving story that city leaders wanted to end. They may finally get their wish as the department is now concluding its reorganization plans (see related story in this week’s issue.)
DDA Soap Opera Continues
It’s been another year of failed negotiations and progress on the development of Woodland Station for the Downtown Development Authority.
The year began with hopes of a major project on the property being dashed when developer Mike Williams failed to secure investors for his grand multi-use project he called “The Rendezvous.”
The DDA board then came up with alternate possibilities which included subdividing the property and continue enhancing the site’s appearance and function by making surface improvements such as grass, feature boulders, gravel paths, etc. and to provide a more usable outdoor space for the community.
In August city council appointed three new members to the board that met with some controversy. Long- time member of the board, Tanner Coy was ousted, as was Nick Pinell. Ellen Carrick also resigned recently, leaving another unfilled position on the board.
The new members include; Arden Weatherford, Tony Perry, and Jon Gemelke. Shortly after those appointments, David Mijares and Matt McCracken were also appointed to the board. Councilman Rusty Neal was also appointed liaison to the board.
Some new members of the board have been vocal critics of how the DDA conducted its business in the past and last November voted to fire the DDA’s long time attorney Paul Benedetti.
Williams came back with a new plan and new investors in November, once again raising hopes that Woodland Station would finally be developed. Williams now says investors are well versed in large development and well-funded. He asked the board for a 90-day exclusive agreement without the possibility of another developer coming up with an alternative plan for the property. The board reluctantly granted the exclusive agreement, but the board is tentatively exploring other options for the property.
WP Council Changes
The year for city council started much as 2020 ended. Deadlocks, petty arguments, and a lack of consensus on appointing members to boards and committees.
Much of the council’s early issues revolved around a controversial member, Jim Pfaff. Pfaff aligned himself with a few newly elected members and clashed with some of the old school veterans on council. In April, Pfaff saw the writing on the wall and resigned after a citizen’s groups began investigating his past and eligibility to be on council.
With the ongoing bickering between members, meetings often lasted up to 4-hours, sometimes going off subject and interjecting personal viewpoints.
Tragically, Mayor, Val Carr succumbed to COVID 19 and died in February. In many ways, Carr was the gel that held the council together, despite sometimes allowing arguments to go on too long. With Carr’s passing, a string of options to fill his seat were explored. Eventually, Mayor Pro Tem Hilary LaBarre would continue to serve in her position until the first meeting following the next regular election.
Further controversy arose when Catherine Nakai, who lost in a previous election, was appointed to an appointed seat since she had the second highest vote total. Some critics favored having a special election.
For years, the dream of turning Cripple Creek into a destination tourist resort area and mini-vacation spot was that: an idle dream.
But in 2021, this drive took on special meaning as the town’s push for casino hotels started to become a reality. The Wildwood casino opened up the first new hotel addition last summer, offering 100-plus rooms and many suites and prime meeting areas. This project, similar to many in Cripple Creek, experienced delays with the pandemic.
This set the stage for a phenomenal amount of new construction works. Bronco Billy’s unveiled revised plans for its $100-million-plus expansion, capped by a 300-room hotel and mega parking garage. These plans were swiftly approved by city leaders, marking an expansion from an earlier proposal, okayed in 2018. The new project, called the Chamonix resort, broke ground and began the initial stages of construction, with a projected opening in 2023. The sight of a huge crane overlooking Cripple Creek became a sight signaling a new era for Cripple Creek. Plans also were getting firmed up for the new Triple Crown Casinos hotel project.
And the city also opened the door for more affordable housing units with a new development incentives program. Unlike last efforts, this time it worked as the city was presented with a record number of projects for modular units and smaller homes.
Cripple Creek in 2021 reaped the benefits of a new voter-approved law doing away with single-bet limits on wagers. This helped fuel a huge expansion of betting activity, as the local gaming community had one of their best seasons in 10-plus years. The new ban against betting limits really improved the prospects for table games. This gaming jackpot got a helping hand from state regulators who removed the coronavirus restrictions that imposed capacity and mask restrictions. This marked a much different scenario from 2020, when the casinos were shut down for three months.
On the downside, the city of Cripple Creek did not experience a similar financial windfall, as most casinos operated with fewer betting devices, equating to less revenue for the city. The city, though, proposed a budget similar to its pre-coronavirus period, but axed any monies for sponsoring special events.
Elections of 2021
While voters in other parts of the county opted for change, Cripple Creek residents favored experience, with incumbent council member Melissa Trenary winning another term as an elected leader, easily beating challenger Les Batson. In the other council seat up for grabs, Mark Green, who has worked with the Two Mile High Club, was elected, facing no opposition. He got the seat previously held by Meghan Rozell, who decided to step down. This could change the face of the council, as Rozell had emerged as one of the more vocal council members for the previous four years. The city, though, has struggled in filling key positions, such as a permanent city boss. Ray White, who originally agreed to a temporary contract, has served in this position since July 2020.
Green Mountain Falls
A bold plan and the implementation of a paid-parking system in downtown Green Mountain Falls ignited a huge controversy. This sparked much debate at board of trustee meetings. But the contract with the Interstate Parking Company, which works with many communities in Colorado, was pursued during the weekends. It was designed to collect money for hikers, tourists and those doing extended visits. The plan, though, got a cold response by local business operators, restaurant/bar owners and by many locals. City officials and the elected leaders, though, defended the effort, saying the town had a problem with its managed parking system, and that the town was being loved to death by trail and outdoor buffs. Opposition, though, got hostile at times, with several parking kiosk machines getting destroyed and vocal threats aired against the marshal’s office and other officials. Comments on social media outlets exploded.
The program, though, came to an apparent standstill, when the town’s most popular hiking route, Catamount Trail, got shut down due to a property dispute. But a recent agreement between the property owner and the Historic Green Mountain Falls Foundation, may reopen this route. The paid-parking program is slated to resume next spring.
On a sad note, Green Mountain Falls lost several of its acclaimed veteran civic leaders in 2021, such as former mayor and trustee Dick Bratton and business and long-time resident Kat Bridenbaker. Bratton, Bridenbaker and other key community figures passed away.
Revolving Door of Managers
The city also continued to experience much turnover at the administrative level, with town clerk Matt Gordon and head manager Angie Sprang, quitting by the end of 2021. They both took jobs in other communities. Both conceded that the volatile political atmosphere in GMF played a role in their decisions. In addition, Virgil Hodges, the marshal of GMF for several years, has announced future plans to retire, but has not given a specific date.
As a result, GMF will see some new faces, such as Becky Frank and Nathan Scott. At the close of 2021, they were appointed as the town manager and clerk respectively.
New Tiny Home Furor
Plans for an unprecedented tiny home development project, called the Bonsai Village, proposed near the Ute Pass Elementary School, became the talk of the Ute Pass area in late 2021. Opposition signs, dotting the landscape, invaded the region with a furor never witnessed before, along with an anti-Bonsai petition drive. This project calls for several hundred small homes, aimed at capturing a growing demand for smaller units by retirees and young people. But area residents say the project will destroy the area and strain local resources. Most of the opposition stems from the number of proposed units and concerns about turning the area into a trailer park dump. Project proponents, though, say these types of units are needed in Colorado, and cite the location as ideal for a tiny home development.
A meet and greet forum with the developers got ugly, turning into a verbal shouting match last fall. Despite all of the verbal fireworks, no actual plans were submitted to the El Paso County Planning Department by the end of the year.
The Return of High School Sports
The world of sports got all messed up due to shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, girls’ volleyball took place in spring 2021 instead of fall 2020.
After having a previous year of success, the Lady Panthers finished their ’20-’21 season with a 9-2 overall record and a 7-1 league record. The team placed second in their league and were rewarded a chance to play in the regional tournament. However, the ladies were eliminated when they lost at the regionals against Palisade.
In 2021, volleyball came back to the fall season and the girls played a different schedule with tougher non-league teams. The girls finished the season with a 14-11 overall record and a 6-0 league record.
The team won their league and went on to play in the regional tournament. However, the Lady Panthers were eliminated once again when they lost at the regional tournament against Thompson Valley and Golden.
Also, earlier this year, the Woodland Park High School Wrestling team made the news when star wrestler Brady Hankin won the state title for the third time in a row. So far Hankin has won the state title each year of his high school career. Now that he is a senior, Hankin is looking to become one of about 30 wrestlers in state history to win a state title all four years of his high school wrestling career.
Last fall, the Woodland Park Panther football team gained a new coach after veteran head coach Joe Roskam resigned at the end of the ’20-’21 school year. The new coach Chad Drummond brought in a new philosophy to game play as he implemented a Pittsburgh-style “ground and pound” offense which relied heavily on the run game.
The new game plan seemed to work well against some opponents but did not seem to be effective against the tougher teams in the state. The Panthers did however win all of their games they played at home.
In the end, the Panthers finished at .500 with a 4-4 overall record and a 2-2 league record. The team barely missed a chance at the playoffs due to losing to key matches at the end of the season against The Classical Academy and La Junta.
Also in high school sports, the golf team won their league, but their top golfer just missed a chance to play in the state tournament. The girls’ cross country team also won their league and earned a spot in the state championship tournament.
The high school marching band also had a good season as they qualified for the state championship for the first time in several years. The high school cheerleading team improved this year immensely as they won their league, took second at the state championship, and qualified for the national championship (see related article).
Bronco Playoff Hopes Dashed
On the NFL football front, it was supposed to be the beginning of the return of the Denver Broncos to relevance and the playoffs, after five years of post season drought. Many local fans were excited about these prospects.
With the return of the 2020 draft class for a second season, the Broncos had high hopes for a winning season. Unfortunately, 2020 draft pick Wide Receiver, K.J. Hamler went down with a season ending injury early in the year. After a a long pre-season battle between quarterbacks, Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater, Bridgewater was selected to be the team’s starting quarterback.
The season ending injury bug bit hard on the Bronco’s linebacker corps. Inside Linebacker, Josey Jewell was the first to fall in September. Inside Linebacker, A.J. Johnson went down in October. It was a next man up roller coaster ride throughout the season at the linebacker position as the Broncos lost one after another to injuries. The Broncos started off the season with 3-wins against subpar teams and hopes were high, but reality came home to roost when the team started playing higher caliber teams. With 4-straight loses, hopes began to fade as inept coaching and poor play execution plagued the team.
Oddly enough, the Broncos managed to beat the high rolling Dallas Cowboys convincingly, but that too was just a fluke. After that win, the Broncos lost 3 more games in a row.
As the team suffered loss after loss, the fan base began to call for the heads of Head Coach, Vic Fangio and Offensive Coordinator, Pat Shurmur. Shurmur in particular felt the wrath of the fans. His lack of creativity and easily read play calling were blamed for much of the team’s woes. It seemed Shurmur was intent on running the ball, while outstanding receivers, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Noah Fant, and Albert Okwuegbunam went hungry.
There is always next year.