2012 TOP STORIES: As always, the region saw its share of news events throughout the year.
The largest issue by far was fire, but just as big and related to fire, was the ongoing drought. With the parched landscape, farmers and ranchers continue to try to adapt. With so little moisture, when the Weber Fire started, there was simply no way to control it once the winds took hold.
The drought will continue to be a major story for this region in 2013.
A Dolores man was murdered and the Hollywood Bar burned down in August, and a contentious race for district attorney saw a newcomer taking the office. Larry Don Suckla won a spot on the county commission board after running as an unaffiliated candidate. And after years of working to get a new high school built, the Montezuma-County School District Re-1 won a BEST grant and the voters overwhelmingly approved a bond.
Here are the recaps of Top 10 stories of 2012 from the Cortez Journal.
1. Weber Fire
In a summer that saw much of tinder-dry Colorado go up in smoke, Montezuma County was not immune from the ravages of wildfire. The skies over the eastern portion of the county held an eerie glow in late June as fire erupted in Weber Canyon, threatening both public and private land near Mancos.
The fire sparked late in the afternoon on June 22 and ripped through the canyon, consuming 10,133 acres and one outbuilding over the course of two tension-filled weeks. Smoke was thick in the Montezuma County sky as area residents watched the fire grow.
The fire spread quickly, driven by hot temperatures, unrelenting winds and dry fuels. Burning near heavily populated areas, the Weber fire prompted mandatory evacuation of 140 homes, while 390 others were given a pre-evacuation notices. Management and suppression efforts by local fire officials as well as a federal Type 2 Incident Management Team succeeded in protecting all homes in the area with no injuries or loss of life. Cost of fighting the local blaze is estimated at $3.2 million.
An ongoing investigation into the cause of the fire resulted in a federal charge of delinquency brought against a juvenile male. The United States Attorney's Office has stated the case is still under investigation and declined to release any more information regarding the suspect or the charges.
Nearly six months after the first sparks flew in Weber Canyon, the fire still burns on some areas of private land, according to Shannon Borders, public affairs specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The small host spots, mostly burning coal piles, pose no danger and have been allowed to smolder the past few months due to their location on steep terrain and the lack of serious risk.
The fire season was far from over when the Weber Fire was contained in early July.
A few days after the Weber Fire started, a lightning strike caused a small blaze just south of Cortez. Resources were pulled from Weber to battle the Escarpment Fire and it was contained fairly quickly.
Then in late October, with the usual fire season long gone, the Roatcap Fire raged out of control. The human-caused fire scorched more than 400 acres and led to the evacuation of a number of homes between Cortez and Dolores.
Roger Stratton, 53, of Dolores has been charged in that blaze.
Montezuma County farmers and ranchers faced a perfect storm of dry conditions in 2012 as a lack of rain and low snowpack led to fears over the state of agriculture in the county and the reality of life in a drought.
Local agriculture producers found themselves in a precarious position in late June, waiting for the monsoonal rains which normally fall in July and August and facing desperately dry conditions on the ground. From Jan. 1 through the end of June, the Cortez area received just 2.59 inches of total precipitation, not quite 48 percent of average. Conditions in the northern part of the county and in Dolores County were even bleaker, with Dove Creek receiving less than 35 percent of average moisture through the first half of the year.
"Everybody knows it is extremely dry," said Dolores County CSU Extension Office Agent Kim Dillivan. "Seeds need some moisture to germinate and there just isn't much moisture out there."
Moisture rates picked up a bit in late summer and early fall, bringing precipitation for the year to 55 percent of normal through Dec. 14. After the county's first real winter storm, Dec. 14-16, county precipitation levels stood at 59 percent of normal.
Low snowpack and instream flows have left a mark on local reservoirs, with both McPhee and Narraguinnep reservoirs recording low numbers. As of Dec. 17, McPhee's active capacity stood at 41,005 acre feet, nearly 100,000 acre feet lower than the same time in 2011.
However, water managers say a good winter could get the area back on track with moisture.
"If we don't see some major storms, we are going to have to plan for a tight water year," said Mike Preston, manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. "It could go either way. It is too early to panic, but we will be prepared."
3. 3B bond passes
The necessity for a new Montezuma-Cortez High School building is what voters decided on Nov. 6, but the process to convince voters to vote yes on a tax increase was far from an easy one. After applying for a Building Excellent Schools Today grant to pay for more than half of the cost of the new school, Superintendent Alex Carter and school board member Jack Schuenemeyer flew to Denver in late June to give a quick presentation on why the new high school was so important. Once the BEST board approved the $22.7 million grant on June 28, it was then up to voters in the school district. The grant was contingent on the school district coming up with $21.25 million, and that would require residents to vote for a tax increase. A 3B bond committee was formed and was chaired by Becky Brunk and Orly Lucero to get the word out on the need for a new high school. Numerous meetings were held and tours of the high school were given to undecided voters to show them the condition of the current building.
An intense political campaign was launched with media advertising and hundreds of signs urging people to vote for 3B. All total the bond committee raised more than $22,000 for the successful campaign. The high school is expected to be a 162,500 square-foot building that will be on a 35-acre parcel south of Walmart off Sligo and Seventh streets. Voters easily approved the tax increases by a vote of 5,106 voting for and 3,070 voting against the 20-year bond. According to school district officials and the 3B bond committee, a new school is needed because the current school has security and safety issues, lack of adequate heating/cooling infrastructure, lack of space and lack of modern technology. Athletic facilities are included in the new high school plan and will be located to the new building which will also have energy-savings attributes due to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications. The start date for the construction of the new high school will be in 2014 and is expected to be completed and ready for the 2015-2016 school year. The current high school will be demolished, and the lot will be sold with the proceeds going back to the school district.
4. Furse wins DA seat
Nineteen votes in the June Republican primary decided who would be the next district attorney for the 22nd Judicial District.
Challenger Will Furse, a local defense attorney, received 1,942 votes to the 1,923 that incumbent Russell Wasley received.
Furse was unopposed in the November general election, so the top vote getter in the Republican primary won the seat.
Due to the razor-thin margin of the Republican primary, uncounted ballots needed to be tabulated before a winner could be announced. After those votes were counted more than a week later, Furse's winning margin had increased from nine to 18 votes.
The race between the two candidates was often contentious with Wasley pointing to Furse's inexperience and Furse mentioning the incumbent's track record, including being ordered by a judge to take classes on discovery issues after failing to turn over evidence to the defense in a high-profile case.
Furse was accused by his opposition of changing his party affiliation to Republican from Democrat to have a better chance of winning the election.
Wasley also had to file petitions with the secretary of state to allow his name to be placed on the ballot. He needed 869 valid signatures and collected 1,358.
Furse had been a surprise victor at the local Republican assembly in February. His landslide victory gave him the top spot on the primary ballot. Wasley was forced to petition his way onto the primary ballot following the assembly.
Furse will take over as the DA for the 22nd Judicial District on Jan. 8.
5. Luther Hampson murder case
Luther Hampson is accused of killing of 27-year-old Jonathan Hayes of Dolores, who was found dead Jan. 14 in the hills near Dolores.
Hampson, 27, is charged with first-degree murder, and four sentence-enhancing counts of crime of violence and being a habitual criminal. He is currently awaiting trial.
According to a complaint filed by the 22nd Judicial District Attorney's Office, Hayes was killed Jan. 6.
Hampson's trial is scheduled to begin April 1 with a pre-trial meeting set for March 18..
At Hampson's preliminary hearing in late May, Montezuma County Sheriff's Detective Tyson Cox said evidence and witness statements indicated Hampson and Hayes had a verbal argument some time around Dec. 31. On Jan. 6, the two men were dropped off on County Road T after Hampson said they should go for a walk.
Hayes was found dead by hikers on Jan. 14 near where the men had been dropped off. He appeared to have sustained multiple blunt blows to the face and a wound to the neck.
At the preliminary hearing prosecutors argued that Hampson was angry at Hayes. Hampson's attorney Justin Bogan argued the prosecution had failed to meet their burden of proof, and asked the first-degree murder charge be dropped.
At first, Hampson said he suffered an injury to his hand from falling down. Cox said Hampson later changed his story and said he sustained the injury when he was attacked by an unknown assailant and assumed Hayes had escaped. A relative of Hayes told investigators that Hampson carried a straight-edged razor in his back pocket.
The handle of such a razor was found approximately 150 yards from the body, but the blade was never recovered, Cox said.
Hampson has a history of theft, methamphetamine possession, possession of burglary tools, parole violation and careless driving, but no violent crimes.
6. Hollywood BAR BURNS DOWN
Just the words left longtime residents stunned and saddened - "The Hollywood Bar burned down!"
The historic Dolores bar and eatery, which was a town mainstay for more than 110 years, along with an adjoining art studio were destroyed in a fire on August 1-2.
Investigators immediately said the fire was the result of arson. The investigation is still ongoing and few leads have come to light since the destructive blaze.
The fire started after 11 p.m. shortly after the Hollywood closed for the night. By morning, a large crowd had gathered to watch the mop-up operation, sharing stories and memories of the old gathering place that impacted so many lives in the area.
As many as 50 firefighters from the area resounded to the blaze. The Dolores Fire Department even strung fire hoses together running them all the way to the Dolores River to pull water from.
In March, the Hollywood Bar was named the Dolores Business of the Year. The bar's owner purchased the establishment about two years ago and a number of changes had been made.
The owner has said they plan to rebuild.
The Fusion Studio, owned by Beth Hensen, was also destroyed.
Ironically, Dolores was hosting a firefighting convention that weekend with more than 15 fire agencies from Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado taking part. None of the visiting agencies assisted in fighting the blaze.
7. Re-1 Changes
From new leadership to an old schedule, 2012 brought numerous changes to Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1.
The year started with a bang when a newly seated school board requested the resignation of then-Superintendent Stacy Houser during an executive session on Jan. 10. The mid-year leadership change came with no warning from the board and resulted in weeks of legal negotiations between the district and Houser, who began his tenure with the district in 2005.
Two weeks after the surprise decision, the district named former Telluride superintendent Mary Rubadeau as the district's interim-superintendent. Rubadeau, a former consultant with Re-1, came out of retirement to accept the position, and stated her primary goal was to establish a system to welcome a permanent superintendent.
Using criteria created by focus groups composed of staff and community members to select the best possible candidates for the job, the Re-1 school board named Alex Carter the new head of the district in April. Carter, a former high school principal in Telluride, had worked under Rubadeau during her tenure in the mountain town, and said he looked forward to implementing some of Rubadeau's strategies in Cortez.
More changes: Before selecting a new superintendent, however, the school board instituted another large change, voting in March to return the district to a five-day school week. The 4-3 vote angered many in the community who had grown accustomed to the Monday-Thursday school schedule implemented in 2009. School board members who voted for the change argued a need for increased student-teacher contact time and noted a lack of monetary savings on the four-day week schedule and the Colorado Department of Education's oversight of the district, currently in year three of a five-year improvement plan.
"If in two or three years we lose accreditation, then everyone in this community will be affected," said board member Jack Schuenemeyer. "The problem is a flawed system that doesn't enable teachers to do their best. I've spent 50 years of my life as a student or a teacher, and 10 hours a day does not lead to quality education."
Students went back to school in August on a modified five-day schedule, with early releases on Wednesdays scheduled for staff development.
8. Dylan Kuhn sentenced
Dylan Kuhn, a 19-year-old Dolores man was sentenced to 90 days in jail for killing his infant daughter, which created a lot of interest around here and around the nation.
Kuhn had pleaded guilty to manslaughter in September in the death of his 6-month-old daughter in November of 2011.
Kuhn was accused of slamming his daughter on a bed, which caused head injuries that resulted in the girl's death.
The 90-day sentence prompted talk show host Nancy Grace to film a segment on the case in which she criticized the judge for what she believed was a too lenient sentence.
In the show Grace repeated numerous times that she was calling out the judge before flashing a picture of him on the screen. The case got off to a rocky start when the district attorney's office failed to turn over discovery evidence to the defense team.
Much of the prosecution's case in September's sentencing hearing focused on a November 2011 video taped interview between Kuhn and Montezuma County Sheriff Detective Jason Spruell.
Kuhn had faced up to four years in prison under the plea agreement, and District Attorney Russell Wasley urged. District Court Judge Douglas Walker to give Kuhn the maximum prison sentence allowed.
Under the plea agreement the charge of child abuse was dropped, which also eliminated a mandatory prison sentence.
According to court documents, police said Kuhn admitted to slamming his infant daughter down on a bed in the early hours of Nov. 1 after a night of partying on Halloween.
The alleged admission came after a medical doctor ruled that the death appeared to be caused by the infant being slammed against a soft, but unyielding surface.
Kuhn initially told investigators that his daughter had accidentally fallen off a couch.
Walker also sentenced Kuhn to four years probation, mental health and substance evaluation and treatment, a parenting class, and not to be allowed to be alone with children under the age of 10. 9.
9. County Commissioner race
Larry Don Suckla had a plan. And it worked to perfection.
The Cortez native and Suckla Auctions co-owner decided to petition his way onto the District 2 Montezuma County Commissioner ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.
Dewayne Findley was an easy winner over Casey McClellan in June's Republican primary for the District 2 seat, but then had to face Suckla and Greg Kemp, who also petitioned his way onto the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate, in the November election.
The general election was a run-away victory for Suckla, who defeated Findley by nearly 700 votes. Kemp was a distant third but still gained more than 1,600 votes.
Keenan Ertel, whose family has owned and operated Ertel Funeral Home for more than 90 years in Cortez, defeated Bud Garner and Pat DeGagne-Rule in the District 3 Republican primary. Ertel ran unopposed in the general election.
Suckla and Ertel will take office on Jan. 8, replacing Larrie Rule and Gerald Koppenhafer, who were both term limited.
In other election news, Cortez native, Scott Tipton earned a second term in Congress with an easy win over Democrat Sal Pace. Even through Montezuma County voted against the measure, Colorado passed a law legalizing the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Colorado and Washington are the only states where the drug is now legal.
With the redrawn district lines, Montezuma and Dolores counties will now have Republican Don Coram out of Montrose representing House District 58.
10. Ute Settlement money
Back in April, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe was part of an enormous financial settlement from the federal government.
The settlement included 41 tribes from around the nation and totaled $1 billion. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe was awarded $43 million.
The lawsuit alleged that the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury had mismanaged monetary assists and natural resources held in trust by the U.S. The settlement resolved claims dating back more than 100 years.
Following the announcement that the settlement money would be awarded to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, a battle over how much the tribe would distribute to each of its 2,100 members broke out.
Originally, tribe members were to receive $2,000 for each adult and $1,000 to children.
Following a wave of frustration and resentment from tribe members over the amount, which they deemed too low, the Ute Mountain Ute council agreed to up the distribution total.
Each tribe member received $12,500 following an agreement between tribe members and the tribe's council.
The incident even led to a failed recall effort of one of the council members.
When the money was distributed in July, armored trucks delivered the cash and tribe members lined up outside to get their money.
The settlement money led to a large economic boom for many Cortez business, including the car dealerships, which reported a huge jump in sales following the distribution of money.
One dealership reported selling 17 vehicles in one day.