May 9, 2013 - By Mead Gruver, The Associated PressCHUGWATER -- It all began when a man with black shoe polish smeared all over his face exited Interstate 25 and barreled into town one evening last winter.
A witness said John Barberini didn't brake before he crashed into the Horton's Corner convenience store Dec. 30, starting a fire that burned up his sport utility vehicle, burned down the store and caused a massive lingering headache for the 200 people of Chugwater, a prairie community nestled beneath sandstone bluffs in the southeastern corner of Wyoming.
Horton's Corner wasn't just any convenience store, see. It was the only place for miles around to get gas. It was Chugwater's lone grocery store. And it was one of the town's biggest employers. The fire cost a dozen people their jobs. "They're just twiddling their thumbs away, not knowing what to do," said the local mail carrier, Lori Whinery.
The economic ripple extends down the street and around the corner to Chugwater Chili, which sold packets of its award-winning chili mix at Horton's Corner. "Horton's was our biggest customer," said Raece Wilkerson, a co-owner of the chili company that employs 15 people.
As for the gas problem? Four months after the fire, you still have to drive to Wheatland, a 48-mile round trip to the north, or Cheyenne, an 80-mile round trip south, to fill up.
All because of ... Well, the denizens of Chugwater aren't quite sure.
Barberini, 52, of Casper, told police he was headed to San Diego and needed to get there -- a 1,200-mile drive -- by 9 a.m. the next day. He gave conflicting statements to a Platte County sheriff's deputy about what happened after he pulled into Chugwater just after 6 p.m.
First, he said the crash was an accident: His 1998 Chevrolet Blazer plowed into the store after it slid on ice. Later, he told the deputy he crashed into Horton's Corner "because the hot dogs were cold, the chili was cold, the bathrooms were dirty and the girls needed to be warmed up," according to the deputy's affidavit.
A witness told the deputy the Blazer didn't appear to slow down before crashing.
Nobody was hurt. Store clerks pulled Barberini from the wreck, and local Jim Crawford offered to let Barberini warm up at his place. Crawford said he thought Barberini's face was covered with soot so he offered him a washcloth to clean up.
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