Wyoming News Briefs AUGUST 8


August 8, 2019

Former tribal judge pleads guilty to drug charges

CASPER (WNE) — The former chief judge of the Wind River Tribal Court pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two federal drug felonies.

Judge Terri Smith entered the guilty pleas to a single count each of cocaine distribution and conspiracy to distribute oxycodone, a prescription opioid painkiller, according to documents filed Tuesday in federal court.

Smith pleaded as part of an agreement with prosecutors, the filings state. However, no description of the plea deal was available in public records on Wednesday afternoon.

Prosecutors will dismiss at sentencing a single count Smith faces of use of a communication facility to commit a drug felony, the documents state.

Smith’s attorney, Colin Simpson, declined to characterize terms of the plea agreement that will circumscribe sentencing or to comment on the case further. He said by phone Wednesday that his client had resigned her judgeship earlier this year.

She became the court’s chief judge in January 2018 and the crimes took place while she served on the bench, according to court documents filed by prosecutors. The conspiracy spanned between November 2017 and November 2018, according to prosecutors. The cocaine distribution charge dates to June 2018.

The judge is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 29 in Cheyenne. She remains free on bond.

Federal law does not require Smith be incarcerated for either conviction. Sentences for the crimes are each limited by law to 20 years of imprisonment.


Campbell Co. looks into charges for former Blackjewel CEO

GILLETTE (WNE) — Campbell County Commissioners have fielded many questions about the Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy, and one that keeps coming up is if the county will pursue criminal charges against Jeff Hoops Sr., the company’s former CEO and president.

At the Commission’s monthly meeting with elected officials Monday, Commissioner Mark Christensen told County Attorney Ron Wirthwein to look into how the county could prosecute Hoops criminally.

“There’s got to be tons of statutes that apply. There’s easily fraud,” Christensen said.

Nearly 600 of Blackjewel’s 1,700 employees in four states were locked out of their jobs at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Campbell County on July 1 hours after the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Most are still owed for time worked between their last paycheck and the mines shutting down while nearly $1.5 million representing multiple employee contributions to their own 401(k) and health savings accounts were not made.

Sheriff Scott Matheny said someone needs to file a complaint for there to be an investigation. So far, no complaints have been filed.

“Then it has to be, what jurisdiction did that crime occur in? In this instance, it might be more appropriate for a federal charge,” said Deputy County Attorney Carol Seeger. “(Right) now, none of us have any hard facts to know what, if anything, might have happened.”

Commission Chairman Rusty Bell said Seeger told him that if any illegal activity has been committed, it will be still illegal a month from now.

“Sometimes you have to be a little bit patient,” he said. “Let this bankruptcy part get hashed out, let’s get people back to work.”


Settlement sought in lawsuit over kayaker’s death

POWELL (WNE) — The family of a kayak guide who died in Yellowstone Lake in 2017 and the company that employed him are hoping to reach an out-of-court settlement in connection with his death.

Timothy Conant’s mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the outfitting company OARS and several of its employees and representatives in Park County’s District Court in June. Conant attempted to rescue a capsized client during a kayaking tour of the West Thumb Geyser Basin when he himself fell into the water. His fellow guides reportedly thought that Conant would be able to rescue himself and left him. But Conant never made it back into his kayak, becoming hypothermic and drowning before others could save him.

The Salt Lake City resident was 23. The lawsuit filed alleges that Conant would still be alive if not for negligence on the part of OARS and its employees. His mother, Molly James, alleges that the company failed to warn her son about the dangers of the job, failed to give him proper training and equipment and sent him into windy, dangerous conditions that afternoon.

OARS and the other named defendants in the suit — including company officers Tyler and Christopher Wendt — had been due to file formal answers to the complaint soon. However, in a Tuesday filing, the parties said they’ve instead agreed to work toward an “informal resolution” of the lawsuit “and all other matters related to the June 14, 2017 death of Timothy Conant.”


Crook Co. sees first West Nile case in years

SUNDANCE (WNE) — The first human case of West Nile virus in a number of years has been reported in Crook County. The presence of the disease is thought to be a result of the wet spring and summer, which has created a perfect breeding environment for local mosquitoes.

“This is the first time since I’ve been here, in seven years, that we’ve had a human case in Crook County,” says Public Health Director Becky Tinsley.

“There was one other human case reported a few weeks ago and that was in Campbell County, so it’s all in our little corner of the world.”

Though the disease is often so mild that a person never even knows they contracted it, the symptoms can also be extremely severe. No fatalities have been reported in Wyoming, but Tinsley cautions that it’s still something to be aware of.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends avoiding bites by applying an EPA-registered insect repellent on exposed skin; covering up with long-sleeve shirts and long pants; and limiting time outdoors between dusk and dawn. Homes can be mosquito-proofed by installing screens, draining standing water, unclogging gutters, covering wells and stored water and checking for possible breeding places, which can be as small as buckets, cans and pet water bowls.

Tinsley recommends these precautions no matter where in the county you live.

“We’re a small county, so honestly it could happen anywhere. They’re nasty little buggers and it spreads like wildfire amongst mosquitoes, so it could crop up anywhere in the county,” she says.


Man sentenced to jail for starting Yellowstone fire

JACKSON (WNE) — A seasonal employee has pleaded guilty to starting a fire at the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the park announced.

Curtis J Faustich, a seasonal concessionaire employee in the park, admitted to dropping a lit cigarette on the ground while sitting at a picnic table and igniting the fire, a park news release said. He has been sentenced to three months in jail.

Faustich appeared Tuesday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Carman at the Yellowstone Justice Center in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming. While in court, Faustich pleaded guilty to the charge.

In addition to jail time, his sentence includes $5,000 in restitution and two years of unsupervised probation. He will be prohibited from entering Yellowstone for two years, the news release said.

The fire started at about 6:00 p.m. July 26 and spread across 4 acres of grass and sage between the North Entrance Station and Gardner River.

Crews from Yellowstone, the town of Gardiner and Paradise Valley contained blaze, including a half-acre spot fire on the other side of the river. The quick response prevented threats to visitors and buildings, the park said.


Yellowstone Airport sets passenger record

POWELL (WNE) — A record number of people flew out of Yellowstone Regional Airport in both June and July.

In June, a total of 4,979 passengers were “enplaned” at the Cody airport, up slightly from the record set last year.

But July was even better. Some 6,521 passengers boarded a plane at the Cody airport last month. That broke the prior record by more than 9 percent while marking the first time that the airport has recorded more than 6,000 enplanements in any month, ever.

Yellowstone Regional Airport Director Bob Hooper attributed the increased passenger numbers to improved flight schedules and competitive fares being offered by both United and Delta Airlines. He also noted that seasonal weekend service between Cody and Chicago, offered by United, returned in June.

A total of 39,494 people caught a flight out of YRA last year, down just slightly from 2017. Out of the 568 airports in the United States that offer commercial air service, Cody’s enplanements ranked 296th.

Jackson is Wyoming’s busiest airport by a long ways, recording 383,178 enplanements last year (ranking 144th). Casper followed with 87,031 passengers, while Cody ranked third, ahead of Gillette, Rock Springs, Laramie, Sheridan, Riverton and finally Cheyenne, which had only 3,262 commercial enplanements.


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