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2013: Uden, EPA ruling, Job Corps top news of year

Dec 31, 2013 - From staff reports

After carrying the knowledge for 33 years, Gerald Uden finally came clean in November, confessing to killing his ex-wife and their two young boys. The saga of the Uden 1980 disappearances, decades of law enforcement investigation, and the killer's bizarre revelations in court was voted the top Fremont County news story of 2013 by The Ranger's news staff.

Eleven staff members sifted through 46 of the year's biggest stories to distill the top 10. No story received votes on every ballot, but the Uden case was on 10 and was ranked high by each.

The Environmental Protection Agency's December hotly disputed ruling that Riverton is on the Wind River Indian Reservation was on nine ballots and ranked high enough on those to earn the No. 2 spot.

Also receiving votes on 10 ballots was the Wind River Jobs Corps breaking ground in Riverton in August. It scored lower on average than the top two stories, however, bringing it in as No. 3 on the year-end news list.

Crime figured large in the year's top stories, with the Uden case at No. 1, and the September killing on the Rails to Trails path trail earning a No. 6 spot.

Issues with government, both local and larger, also figured into the top 10 rankings. Along with the EPA ruling at No. 3, Fremont County government's tumultuous year came in at No. 4. The story of State Superintendent of Education Cindy Hill being stripped of her power was next at No. 5, while issues tied to the Fremont County Attorney's office was No. 8.

Big, new economic development projects also were a big part of the news year. Along with the Job Corps groundbreaking, Central Wyoming College's Health and Science Center opening also made the list, tied for ninth.

Climate and environmental forces, always important in rugged Fremont County, had an impact again this year. Fortunately, the big environmental story of 2013 was positive as opposed to last year, when drought in local areas ranked No. 2. The end of the dry spell tied for ninth place this time around.

Other stories receiving votes but not making the top ten list followed similar themes of crime, government issues, economics and the environment.

-- Eric Blom

1. UDEN CASE BREAKS

It had been 33 years since the disappearance of Riverton resident Virginia Uden and her two sons, Reagan, 10, and Richard, 11. Evidence at the time pointed to murder, but authorities never could find the bodies or prove who did it -- until this fall.

Virginia Uden's ex-husband, and her children's adopted father, Gerald Uden, was arrested Sept. 27 in Chadwick, Mo., on three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of the missing woman and her two boys. He had been living in Missouri with his current wife, Alice .

Uden agreed to plead guilty and admitted to his crimes in court. He shot all three victims in the head with a .22-caliber rifle, Uden said, because he was angry with his ex-wife.

The killer shocked the court when he announced he first had hidden the bodies in an old mine near South Pass, then retrieved the bodies weeks later, hauled them to neighboring Sublette County, stuffed them into barrels, then sank all three bodies to the bottom of Fremont Lake in at least 450 feet of water.

Adding to the interest surrounding the case, Alice Uden was arrested the day before her husband was on a first-degree murder charge out of Laramie County. Prosecutors there allege she killed her then husband in 1974 or 1975 and dumped his body in gold mine. Her case has not been resolved.

Despite Gerald Uden's confession, questions about the case, including whether Alice was involved in Virginia's murder, remain. Fremont County authorities have also promised to try to raise the three bodies from the bottom of Fremont Lake, but how they will do so remains to be seen.

-- Eric Blom

2. EPA RULING

On Dec. 6, the Environmental Protection Agency approved an application from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes requesting Treatment as a State through the Clean Air Act. As part of the decision, the EPA ruled that a 1905 Congressional Act opening tribal lands -- including the city of Riverton -- to homesteading did not diminish the Wind River Indian Reservation boundary north of the Wind River. Under that interpretation, Riverton would be considered part of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

The legal status of the lands has been a sore point between the tribes and state and local governments over taxation and criminal jurisdiction for years. State and federal court rulings repeatedly have quashed tribal claims that Riverton is on the reservation. The land for the Riverton townsite was ceded legally from the reservation in 1905 and opened for settlement in 1906.

State lawmakers plan to oppose the EPA's decision, exploring legislative opportunities to reverse the ruling and possibly setting aside a litigation budget to address the issue. Gov. Matt Mead told the EPA that Wyoming won't honor the agency's recent determination, and he has asked Wyoming's attorney general to take "aggressive steps" to overturn the decision.

Riverton city officials said questions about the boundary of the WRIR must be resolved in court, but EPA officials and tribal leaders disagreed. However, EPA officials said their decision "does not affect the jurisdiction of federal courts to adjudicate issues properly raised for their consideration."

Soon after the EPA decision was publicized, Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Darrell O'Neal wrote to Riverton Mayor Ron Warpness to begin a conversation about the meaning of the EPA ruling.

The EPA's action does not affect the land referred to as the "1953 Act area" encompassing property from Morton to Boysen Reservoir including the town of Pavillion.

-- Katie Roenigk

3. WIND RIVER JOB CORPS

A decade of waiting finally came to an end in 2013 when the U.S. Department of Labor released a pre-solicitation notice in February for the construction of the federal Job Corps Center in Wyoming. Details of the 162,000 square-foot, seven-building structure Wind River Job Corps to be built in Riverton were provided in April, and DOL met with contractors for a pre-bid conference in May.

The need for the center was first expressed in 2004 by the Fremont County Board of Cooperative Educational Services and then received a bigger push from the city of Riverton in 2006. DOL first announced that the center would be completed in 2011 but plans were delayed for various reasons until this year when in July, the lowest bidder Rafter H Construction in Idaho, was awarded the $41.3 million project now set to be completed in 2015.

A groundbreaking ceremony in August gathered a number of key groups and individuals, recognizing planners for helping move the project forward through the years of tedious paperwork and applications. Engineers and surveyors were initiating work at the site off of Airport Road as early as September, and at year's end the first buildings were taking shape.

-- Alejandra Silva

4. COUNTY

GOVERNMENT

Upheavals and controversies affected many departments of Fremont County government in 2013.

Matt Nojonen resigned unexpectedly as Fremont County Library System director in May after serving for eight months and overseeing the controversial firing of a Dubois librarian. The Fremont County Library Board in September decided not to hire either of two finalists for the job, relaunched a search, and hired a new director in December.

The Fremont County Museums Board saw similar disarray while it working to create a central director for its system and looking to fill two site director positions. One chairman stepped down, and the board ousted his successor citing "neglect and misconduct" a few months later.

Adding to the unrest, the director and curator of the Dubois Museum both resigned in December.

A plan by the Fremont County Commission to build a new Riverton justice center sputtered, stopped and restarted several times as commissioners decided to investigate new options or developed new concerns.

Fremont County Coroner Ed McAuslan's and the county board's tiff over vehicle decals ended in May when McAuslan agreed to install the graphics Commissioners had requested. The argument had stretched over 16 months.

Earlier that month, however, county employees removed decals the coroner had previously installed, one of which bore the words "State of Wisconsin" instead of "Wyoming."

Long-serving Clerk of District Court Katie Brodie Meredith resigned in April, and commissioners appointed her deputy. Kristi Green. to fill the position.

A 2005 lawsuit hit Fremont County one last time when in November commissioners agreed to pay $85,000 for the plaintiff's attorney fees. And solid waste issues continued to stir controversy as consumers and agencies dealt with changes in county waste disposal that resulted in dramatically reduced hours as most trash stations.

-- Eric Blom

5. CINDY HILL

One of the state's top news stories of 2013 had local implications as well. In January, the Wyoming Legislature moved at breakneck speed to introduce, debate and pass Senate File 104, a bill removing State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill as the director of the Wyoming Department of Education. Gov. Matt Mead appointed an Arizona man, Richard Crandall, as the head of the department, while Hill was ordered to vacate her office suite.

The bill was the source of red-hot controversy from the start, as lawmakers directed damaging but vague allegations against the elected superintendent. They ranged from the serious (Hill misused state funds) to the absurd (Hill didn't have enough birthday cake to go around at an office party).

One charge claimed that Hill used state money improperly in instituting an intensive reading tutoring program at Fremont County School District 38 in Arapahoe. Hill denied the accusation, asking, as always, to see specifics. Meanwhile the accusers' case was made more difficult by the success of the tutoring, which raised reading performance scores dramatically in District 38.

Fremont County lawmakers were split on the bill, with some doggedly sticking to the majority position and others decrying the legislation as an affront too the voters who elected Hill.

Legislators who spearheaded SF104 denied having a personal vendetta against Hill, a Republican, but many in Wyoming saw it differently, claiming Hill was victimized by a "good ol' boys" mentality in Cheyenne and rallying to the superintendent's defense in an unusual breadth of alliances ranging from the Fremont County Democratic Party to numerous tea party activists.

Top legislators pushed the issued further, convening a special investigative committee to probe allegations against Hill with an eye on impeachment, but momentum in that direction appeared to slow later in the year, and Hill remains in her elected office as 2014 begins.

The investigative meets again early in January. Hill, meanwhile, said intends to run for governor in 2014.

-- Steve Peck

6. RAILS TO TRAILS KILLING

A deceased man and a critically injured woman were found on the Rails to Trails pathway north of Riverton on the morning of Sept. 4.

An investigation resulted in the arrest of two Riverton boys in connection with the incident: John Potter, 15, and Santana Mendoza, 16.

The teens, who are being tried as adults, pleaded not guilty to killing David Ronald Moss, 25, and beating Aleeah Crispin, a woman in her late 30s.

Both boys face one count of second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder, crimes punishable by imprisonment for 20 years or life. A jury trial is set for Jan. 13.

In an interview with investigators, Mendoza said he had been jogging on the path Sept. 3 when he saw Potter, who pointed out Moss and Crispin nearby. The victims reportedly had been "talking poorly" about the boys' families, so the teens decided to assault Moss and Crispin.

Potter got a metal baseball bat and a set of brass knuckles and engaged the victims in conversation before kicking Moss and Crispin in the face. Mendoza said he also took part in the assault by kicking Moss in the head.

Mendoza said Moss was breathing after the assault, but an autopsy states the man died of manual strangulation as well as blunt-force head injuries.

Officials said Crispin was flown to the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, where she remained in a coma for at least a week, suffering bleeding within her skull that required surgery. She returned home in October.

-- Katie Roenigk

7. AIR SERVICE TROUBLES

City-owned Riverton Regional Airport had a lot to deal with this year as its only airline deals with new Federal Aviation Administration regulations requiring co-pilots to have a higher minimum of flight hours than required previously.

Even before the new rules settled in, Great Lakes Airlines was having trouble with frequent aircraft mechanical problems, a shortage of airplanes, weather-related issues, route changes and high fuel costs -- all of which were causing reliability issues at Fremont County's only commercial airport.

The chief executive officer of Great Lakes, Chuck Howell, visited the airport board in May to share some changes the airline was undergoing and pledged to improve service at Riverton Regional.

As the FAA regulations became effective in August, Great Lakes was faced with a new, bigger problem. Co-pilots now have to have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time before being able to fly for a regional airliner -- a number that was originally just 250 hours.

Larger airlines offer better pay to pilots who have their 1,500 hours, whereas less-experienced crew that once were employed by small airlines such as like Great Lakes no longer can be hired, leaving Great Lakes with fewer pilots. Flight cancellations appear to have increased since the ruling.

The airport board has discussed solutions to the reliability issues, including new marketing initiatives, a hangar to hold aircraft overnight, having an aircraft mechanic on site, recruiting a second airline, and settling for fewer daily flights. In November, the board sent Howell a including concerns from local businesses on how the reliability issue is affecting them.

-- Alejandra Silva

8. COUNTY ATTORNEY ISSUES

Fremont County Commissioners in February appointed Michael Bennett to succeed resigning Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn, despite Varn grooming his chief deputy, Patrick LeBrun, for the job.

Since then, Bennett's office produced a slew of controversial decisions. Prosecutors caught flak from the family of Leroy Hoster after Bennett dropped charges against his killer. Gabriel Drennen was serving life in prison for the act but this year won an appeal requiring a new trial in the case.

But in December, Bennett decided Drennen had acted in self defense and dropped all charges. Drennen walked out of prison a free man the next day. Bennett, who did not take office until after the Drennen case was prosecuted, said he had reviewed the evidence and agreed with the defense.

A judge in September rejected a plea agreement Bennett's office signed with a man accused of shooting at three unarmed young adults in Sinks Canyon in January. The judge said the agreement did not take into account all three victims as it only included two charges.

The same judge reluctantly agreed in December to a plea deal Bennett signed with a 29-year-old man who had sex with a 16-year-old girl he had met working as a church youth leader. Under the agreement, the defendant, Zachary Furhiman, would serve several years probation but no jail time.

The girl's parents spoke out in court, saying the deal was too lenient.

Former deputy county attorney Kathy Cavanaugh criticized Bennett in front of the commission for not prosecuting anyone in the April death of a 4-year-old boy, which the county coroner had ruled a homicide.

Bennett's seat is up for election in November 2014.

-- Eric Blom

9-10. HEALTH/SCIENCE CENTER

In September, Central Wyoming College and the Fremont County community celebrated the completion of the Health and Science Center on the Riverton campus.

The 52,342-square-foot building was paid for through an $11.5 million bond proposal passed by 54.3 percent of local voters in November 2010, as well as $6.55 million in matching funds from the Wyoming Legislature.

The first floor of the facility includes research laboratories as well as separate spaces for lessons in geology, biology, physics, chemistry and other sciences.

On the second floor, nursing classrooms include a simulated emergency room, where students are videotaped and timed while they work on manikin patients.

Future nurses have the opportunity to dissect and study human cadavers in the anatomy lab.

The mini-hospital can also be used by the public in case of an emergency necessitating extra space.

Many of the classrooms and lab spaces were equipped with large windows, so tour groups can see students at work at CWC. Administrators hope the Health and Science Center will encourage more residents to enroll at the college.

Faculty said the new space allows for more cooperative work between departments and will lead to more synergies among the science and health disciplines.

-- Katie Roenigk

9-10. END OF DROUGHT

Resident learned early in 2013 that 2012 had been the warmest year in recorded history in Fremont County. Drought conditions had existed for most of the previous year, and spring 2013 arrived ominously as land managers, farmers and stockgrowers contemplated another hot, dry year

But a string of snowstorms arrived in quick succession in April, and spring stayed cooler than it had in 2012, easing immediate drought concerns as summer arrived.

Summer was hot, but water users nursed the available supply all season long, and the growing season was a good one thanks to well-timed heat and cooling and the infusion of water from the April storms. Water restrictions were a continuing possibility, but no significant supply interruptions proved necessary.

The situation changed dramatically again in late September. Just two days after the official end of summer, a big snowstorm arrived, downing power lines and snapping thousands of still-leafy tree limbs. Property damage was significant, but so was the water content. A community-wide volunteer effort helped many residents clear their property of debris.

Then it snowed again. And again. And again. Fremont County got a series of snowstorms through October that took away much of the typical sunny, mild weather of the season, but the snow improved soil moisture content dramatically as the season deepened, and reservoirs began filling again after irrigation ceased.

Sugar beet growers enjoyed a heavy harvest, but most said sugar content in the crop didn't match the tonnage.

With snowpack well ahead of 30-year averages heading into winter, officials in charge of drought designation declared the county drought-free.

-- Steve Peck

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