A look back at 2013

Stories that helped define the Four Corners area

From murders, jail suicides and an illegal gold mill to police corruption, federal land strife, tax windfalls and water shortages, 2013 had its moments in Montezuma County.

But perhaps, it was what did not happen that warrants a banner headline. Despite a prolonged drought that reached a scorchingly dry peak in July, there were no major wildfires in our immediate area last year.

Just when the sizzle of several weeks of 90- to 100-degree weather seemed destined to cause spontaneous combustion in nearby forests, monsoons arrived to drench the land and ease the tense feeling of doom.

August saw steady rain totaling 3.69 inches, or 269 percent of normal. Then September arrived with 2.92 inches of rain, or 223 percent of normal.

Irrigators with local water districts had just 25 percent of their normal share because of low levels at McPhee, Narraguinnep and Groundhog reservoirs. But they saw some relief in the fall for the bean crop and winter wheat germination.

Journal staffers and editors debated the top stories for the year, and came up with the following.

Undersheriff

Corruption charges

Former Montezuma County Undersheriff Robin Cronk was indicted in August on 17 felony counts of embezzlement. Now residing in Phoenix, he is scheduled to go to trial in April.

Cronk was forced to resign his post in June. He faces corruption charges stemming from his alleged abuse of financial accounts starting in February 2011, a month after assuming his post.

Records show Cronk bilked $7,500 for personal items, including firearms, ammunition and gunsmithing services, in 26 months.

Declared indigent and eligible to receive court-appointed counsel, Cronk reportedly earned more than $6,000 a month as undersheriff.

Red Arrow

pollution

The Red Arrow Gold Mine outside of Mancos offered up golden rewards for original founder Raymond Starr. This year, milling operations by current owner Craig Luikko had many residents living in fear.

The good: no elevated concentrations of mercury vapor.

The bad: three soil samples with above-average or excessive mercury levels.

The ugly: nearly a quarter of soil samples with excessive arsenic levels.

In June, the Colorado Department of Reclamation and Mining Safety placed several injunctions against the former mining company.

The illegal mill operated for at least six months in 2013 with a rudimentary ventilation system, but officials said the environmental pollution didn’t create any health hazards to local residents.

Spate of murders

First-degree murder charges were filed in September against 19-year-old Jeroen Begay of Cortez. On the night in question, police allege a masked Begay gunned down Natalie Hatch, 21, inside the doorway of her residence with a 12-gauge shotgun. He reportedly fired additional shots in the home, injuring 18-year-old Quincy Yellow.

Begay is being held without bond, and he is expected to face a jury trial in 2014.

In an unrelated homicide, police also arrested Valerie Espinoza, 38, of Cortez in connection to the stabbing death of Charles Chaves. The 62-year-old victim was reportedly stabbed seven times with a butcher knife.

Facing second-degree murder charges, Espinoza is being held on a $250,000 bond and is expected to start a trial in 2014.

Ute elections

On Oct. 11, Manuel Heart won a landslide victory for tribal chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. Heart served as tribal chairman from 2005 to 2007 and has been a Tribal Council member for 17 years.

Tribal members also voted in three Tribal Council members, representing a shift toward younger, educated professionals: Priscilla Blackhawk-Rentz, a career court employee; Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a computer technology specialist; and Malcolm Lehi, the tribe’s recreation coordinator.

The races had 29 candidates. A record 700 voters turned out.

County tax windfall

On Oct. 27, Kinder Morgan, a local CO2 production company, lost a key tax case brought by Montezuma County, led by outgoing assessor Mark Vanderpool. The county proved that Kinder Morgan owed more in property taxes based on higher assessed values.

During a 2008 company audit, Vanderpool and gas-industry tax experts concluded that the energy company underestimated its assets by $50 million. The county denied a complex deduction made by Kinder Morgan on a tariff it pays to Cortez Pipeline, which delivers carbon dioxide used to pressurize oil wells.

The higher 2008 tax bill equates to a $2 million windfall for the county, with much of it going to schools. The county plans to audit the company for the 2009 to 2013 tax years, potentially resulting in millions more in additional tax dollars for the county. Kinder Morgan is appealing the decision.

Jail deaths

In four months, two inmates died while in custody at Montezuma County jail.

The first inmate to die while in the care of Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell was 61-year-old Edward G. Lyen. In a jailhouse suicide note, Lyen questioned suicide watch protocols after being charged with a single count of sexual assault of a child. He reportedly hanged himself in jail June 13, and a subsequent wrongful death civil case is expected.

The second was 38-year-old Harrison M. Begay of Tonalea, Ariz.. Held on a charge of trespassing, Begay’s Oct. 27 death was the result of natural causes, according to the coroner.

Federal lands

gridlock

Protracted controversy over closed roads and travel restrictions on the San Juan National Forest led to legal appeals and turf wars between federal agencies and the county government.

Lawsuits were filed against the Forest Service’s Boggy-Glade travel management plan, claiming it was too restrictive. A compromise was struck allowing off-road motorized game retrieval during hunting season. The county also moved forward on the legal process of declaring the Dolores-Norwood Road a historic right-of-way because it existed before the designation of the San Juan National Forest.

Dolores Valley

Plan takes hit

The Dolores Valley Plan, a special land-use code targeting properties along the Dolores River, was overruled in part by the Montezuma County commission.

In July, an illegal private deck that violated a 100-foot construction buffer from the river was given an exemption from the land-use code. The owner was fined $500. The deck and its waiver led to ongoing and controversial debate about proper environmental regulations for private land use along the river, the county’s main water source.

Mancos engineer

meets Obama

A 21st century pioneer and entrepreneur, Mancos High School student Easton LaChappelle met President Barack Obama at the White House.

For $250, LaChappelle made all the parts needed for a robotic limb he designed using two 3-D printers inside his bedroom lab. The contraption was featured at the annual White House Science Fair in April.

The arm is controlled by thoughts, different facial expressions and blinking patterns from 10 feet away. LaChappelle and his arm were featured in Popular Mechanics, and he worked with NASA’s robotics team during an internship.

Mancos High School student Easton LaChappelle was featured in the magazine Popular Mechanics for the robotic limb he designed using two 3-D printers inside his bedroom lab. Enlargephoto

Courtesy photo

Mancos High School student Easton LaChappelle was featured in the magazine Popular Mechanics for the robotic limb he designed using two 3-D printers inside his bedroom lab.

Manuel Heart was elected Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman. Enlargephoto

Journal/Sam Green

Manuel Heart was elected Ute Mountain Ute tribal chairman.