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Wyoming News Briefs NOVEMBER 13

Investigation continues into apparent murder-suicide

AFTON (WNE) — The investigation into an apparent murder-suicide in the Town of Star Valley Ranch continues this week.

According to information provided by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Monday, Nov. 4 a request for a welfare check came in to the dispatch center.

“We received a call from an individual who had not heard from their family members in a little while and was concerned,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Shane Johnson. “Deputies went out on a welfare check and discovered a crime scene with two individuals who had passed away from gunshot wounds. A firearm was also found at the scene.”

The deceased individuals were identified as Gary Dale Hodges, 71, and Memorie Jean Hodges, 46.

According to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, “at this time it does not appear that any other individuals are connected to the incident.”

The case continues to be investigated by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, with assistance from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.

“We’ve seen some suicides lately and those are a hard thing for the family and community,” Sheriff Johnson said. “There are questions like ‘could we have been doing something differently.”


Coal production continued at mines despite shutdown

GILLETTE (WNE) — With skeleton crews working the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines during the third quarter of 2019 as former owner Blackjewel LLC navigated a choppy Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Campbell County operator still managed to mine and ship nearly 1.5 million tons of coal.

Blackjewel filed bankruptcy July 1 and shut down its 32 operations across Wyoming, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, including Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte, respectively the nation’s fourth- and sixth-leading coal producing mines in 2018.

In figures published recently by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, the 39 people working at Belle Ayr produced about 470,000 tons in the quarter, a 91.2% drop from the nearly 5.4 million it produced in the third quarter of 2018. Similarly, Eagle Butte’s 829,000 tons were 86.6% less than the 4.66 million tons mined the previous year.

The reports confirm speculation over the summer that Blackjewel was still managing to ship a little coal while going through bankruptcy and that other Powder River Basin coal producers took advantage of the situation by adding staff and picking up their production, said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming’s College of Business.

Despite the Blackjewel drop, the basin’s 12 mines overall only dipped by 9.1% for the quarter with several showing significant increases in production, Godby said.


Settlement reached in trench death lawsuit

JACKSON (WNE) — Wilson developer Jamie Mackay and representatives of the men who died on his property have reached a settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The settlement, filed last week in Teton County District Court, is under seal, meaning its contents are confidential.

Representatives for Juan Baez-Sanchez, 42, and Victoriano Garcia-Perez, 56, who suffocated when a trench collapsed on top of them on Sept. 28, 2018, said in a suit filed in June that Fireside Resort owner Jamie Mackay was to blame.

“Their deaths were entirely preventable and caused by dangerous work conditions and a complete and abject failure to provide reasonably safe methods and reasonably safe protection for the kind of work they were hired to perform,” the complaint stated.

The “amount in controversy” listed in court files is $1 million, but the amount of money Mackay paid the plaintiffs to resolve the case is unknown.

“The case has resolved,” plaintiff’s attorney Mark Aronowitz told the News&Guide.

Attorneys could not provide more information because of confidentiality.

The men’s families sued Mackay claiming his “failures and negligence” caused their loved ones’ deaths. The men died while working in a 12-foot-deep trench at a construction site at 120 S. Indian Springs Drive, a property owned by Mackay. Wyoming’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the site and cited Mackay for a lack of adequate cave-in protection, according to public records.

“No support systems, shield systems or other protective systems were being used,” the OSHA citation stated.


Cheyenne council approves resolution to repay grant money

CHEYENNE (WNE) — With support from the Cheyenne City Council, the city is continuing the process of repaying Bloomberg Philanthropies more than half of a $100,000 Mayor’s Challenge grant.

The council approved a resolution Tuesday that outlines how the city will pay back the funds and reclassify spending, although some council members were not completely sold on the resolution.

“Like everyone else sitting on this dais, I certainly understand the gravity of the situation,” Council Vice President Bryan Cook said.

Back in spring 2018, the city was awarded the $100,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to create a website that connects owners of underutilized properties with those interested in developing said properties.

The grant was supposed to be spent by October 2018, at which point about $43,000 was spent related to the project. In the months that followed, the mayor’s office used about $23,000 of the grant money for Christmas decorations for the Municipal Building, business travel expenses and catering for city events.

That $23,000 will be returned to Bloomberg for improper use related to the grant, along with the $33,000 that was not used at all.

The idea didn’t sit well with Councilman Dicky Shanor either, but he said there weren’t any other options.

“I don’t like the fact that we’re putting the taxpayers out there to foot the bill until we figure this out, but I think it’s the only choice we have right now,” Shanor said.


Sheridan enjoys strong tourism year

SHERIDAN (WNE) — Sheridan tourism is coming off a strong year, having pulled in about $650,000 in collections; this means fiscal year 2018-2019 is the second most successful year for Sheridan tourism on record, Sheridan Travel and Tourism Director Shawn Parker told local legislators at the Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce’s legislative forum last week.

“Our national profile really continues to rise as we continue to work on the Discovery Channel, Fox Sports and PBS,” Parker said.

That growth was spurred on by new events hosted during times that have traditionally been considered the off-season for tourism, such as the WYO Winter Rodeo. That event in particular managed to bring about 3,500 to town in the middle of February, Parker said.

“We picked our worst-performing day from a tourism perspective,” Parker said. “…And we set revenue records at at least seven downtown businesses that day.”

The Sheridan WYO Film Festival, which recently concluded its second annual event, also succeeded in bringing tourists to Sheridan during the off-season, Parker said.

From a legislative perspective, after a statewide lodging tax appeared poised to pass during the Legislature’s last general session, only to be defeated in the Senate, Parker said the state tourism industry would not be pushing for a similar tax this coming session, but would continue working on the idea to craft a proposal that will be more popular.