A look back at the Craig Press stories that defined 2017
Editor’s note: Following is a look back at the biggest Moffat County stories of 2017. These are the stories that made us laugh and cry and defined the challenges faced and struggles overcome by our community.
Empire Strikes Back
Nov. 20: In a final show of strength, the silo at the old Empire Mine south of Craig refused to collapse during demolition that was attempted just after 9 a.m. Nov. 20. Formerly owned by the Silengo brothers, Empire Mine was once a major employer for Moffat County, with a staff of more than 200 before it ceased operations in 1995.
Moffat County ablaze
Oct. 30: A series of intense wildfires blazed across Northwest Colorado this year, sparing homes but causing an unusual amount of damage to local electric infrastructure. Three large fires sent more than 25,000 acres up in flames across Moffat County between July and September, and nearly 18,000 acres burned in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties in June’s Dead Dog Fire.
March 14: A head-on collision near Boulder killed 19-year-old Moffat County High School graduate Clayton Moon. He was remembered by his friends, teachers and peers as funny, hard-working, mature beyond his years and able to bring a smile to anybody’s face.
March 28: Pancreatic cancer proved too aggressive for businesswoman Chris Muzik, who succumbed to the disease in March. She was proud to call Craig home, and serving people at her store — Spirit Pass — was a source of joy for Muzik.
July 21: Craig man Mike Brinks died on July 15 during a trip on the Yampa River. Boating on the river was a passion for the retired accountant, who will be missed for his big heart.
Aug. 8: A trip to Steamboat Springs for a birthday party turned tragic when a rollover accident resulted in the death of Craig man Corban Shipman, 20, and injuries to his stepfather Troy Henderson, 46. Shipman’s mother, Brandi Shipman, was driving a Dodge Ram truck in wet conditions when the vehicle hydroplaned off the road. Of the six passengers, two — Corban Shipman and Henderson — were not wearing seatbelts and were ejected.
Nov. 1: Britni Harrington, 22, and unborn infant son, Ezra Saber Blaze Ferreira, died at their home Oct. 29. Harrington was born and grew up in Craig. She was known as a loving mother.
Nov. 14: Former Colorado State Extension Agent Richard Haslem, who battled myleofibrosis for nine years, died at his home at age 64. He was an active participant and supporter of the 4-H Program and Moffat County Fair, the Craig Ram Sale, Craig Kiwanis Club and National Western Stock Show.
Sept. 28: A night of drinking culminated in a fight between two power plant contract workers, resulting in the death of one man. Justin Blodgett, 26, allegedly punched his 36-year-old co-worker, Raymond Terrill, once in the head. After investigation, 14th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Brett Barkey filed a motion to dismiss the case Sept. 22 on the grounds that defendant Justin Blodgett acted in self-defense and also that his actions that night weren’t enough to cause a “substantial” risk of death.
Oct. 6: Heavy drinking and “messing around” with a gun proved a fatal combination for 48-year-old Michael Adam Freese, who was celebrating a new job in Craig and ended up dying of a gunshot wound. His wife, 40-year-old Rachel Ann Niemeyer, was charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault, two counts of prohibited use of a weapon and second-degree assault of a police officer. The case is expected in court in 2018.
March 14, March 20, April 25: Complications of post traumatic stress disorder resulted in a fright for family and friends of Iraq War veteran and Craig native Cory Hixson, when he went missing from his home near Broomfield. A change in medication left him disoriented and wandering in cold, wet conditions. He entered the garage of an elderly woman in rural Erie, Colorado, and took a red stocking cap, a blue sweater and a container of Cool Whip. He left his Broncos cap in exchange for the items, said wife Shala Hixson. Hixson was arrested and charged with second-degree burglary. Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke later dropped the charges. The ordeal garnered attention on the struggle many veterans face to receive PTSD treatment. The family received promises of support from Colorado senators and congressmen and the Wounded Warriors Project, as well as an outpouring of love and support from friends and family.
o May 8: Compelled to show support for a fellow veteran he’d never met, Craig veteran Will Montgomery strapped on his walking shoes and decided to walk from Craig to Hayden in order to raise awareness for post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. “I’ve been wanting to do something for a long time … and said, ‘I should just do this walk,'” Montgomery said. “Cory (Hixson) is having a hard time, and I should just do it to let Cory know he’s not the only one.”
o Sept. 25: Veteran Cory Hixson shared his belief on social media that athletes who kneel during the national anthem are creating further division in the county. “I am not disputing the right to protest and your freedoms, but to some, the flag and anthem represent a significant importance, and to stand by and protest one injustice while creating another is not creating change. It only divides us further,” he wrote. “Many Americans look to American traditions like the NFL to unite us, a place to put aside your differences and cheer for your teams. If the issue they protest is important to them, why not use their time, the game, rather than something that should be about those that sacrificed their lives for their protest?”
Aug. 23: A Moffat County teacher and coach faced felony charges in a sexting case. Justin Folley, 35, was placed on administrative leave from the school district in May pending an investigation. He was arrested in August. The affidavit described an alleged pattern of exploitation that included exchanging nude images with a minor. Folley was released on bail and allowed to leave the state pending further investigation and a trial expected in 2018.
There be monsters
o Oct. 7: A young local angler hooked and released a “monster” 40-inch northern pike from the reservoir at Elk Head State Park in September. Josh Turner is hopeful that, by releasing the fish, he or someone else will have another chance at the catch of a lifetime.
o April 4: City elections saw a tax measure fail, John Ponikvar become mayor and Andrea Camp, Tony Bohrer, Chris Nichols and Jarrod Ogden also win seats on the Craig City Council.
o Nov. 7: Moffat County Voters narrowly approved a 1.75 percent city sales tax increase while voting down a proposed 5 mill property tax increase to support Colorado Northwestern Community College. Voters also elected new representatives to the Moffat School Board of Education.
Economic Development flounders
Dec. 7: After months of discussions about an idea to merge several entities responsible for economic development, four of seven board members of the Moffat County Local Marketing District resigned. Departing board members felt “micro-managed” by ex-officio Moffat County Commissioner Frank Moe. In his defense, Moe said he felt a merger and change in board dynamics might be helpful in moving forward to improve the local economy.
March 21: A $1.3 million loss in revenue prompted Colorado Northwestern Community College to restructure during the summer. “We feel these changes will have little to no impact on student’s academics and help put CNCC in a good financial position moving forward,” said CNCC President Ron Granger in a news release.
Oct. 10, Dec. 7, Dec. 12: Moffat County proposed more than $2 million in budget cuts to balance the budget after steep declines in tax revenues. Another $400,000 in cuts were made in the final budget. The Moffat County Board of County Commissioners turned to a new process — Priority Based Budgeting — a method that will allow the county to develop a long-term budget and proactively face future fiscal challenges.
Oct. 26: The city held the line, keeping budget tight as tax revenues continue on a downward trend. With revenues projected to be a full $2 million less in 2018, as compared to 2008, the city had cut 12 full-time positions in the past four years and delayed millions of dollars in capital projects. “If you look at the cost of goods going up, we could have easily been spending $11.8 million, but we’ve held it down to $8.7 million, so we really haven’t kept up with inflation,” City Director of Finance Bruce Nelson said, comparing the city’s expenditures to the consumer price index. “When people say, ‘You’ve been spending so much money,’ we really haven’t. We’ve been holding the line.” The city decided to ask the voters a second time for an increase in sales taxes, which ultimately passed.
Changing of the guard
Aug. 4: Police chief Walt Vannatta retired under pressure from the city, marking the end of a 47-year career in law enforcement for Vanatta, 19 of which were spent serving as the Craig Police Department’s chief.
Who let the cows out?
Nov. 13 A rollover crash of a stock truck on Colorado Highway 13, about four miles north of Craig, resulted in minor injuries to the driver and the death of six cattle. The highway was closed for about four hours as Colorado State Patrol, Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, Craig Fire/Rescue, Colorado Department of Transportation, Memorial Regional Health Emergency Services, the Community Animal Response Team and volunteers all responded to the scene.
School to close
Dec. 14 Declining enrollment and a desire to better serve students with limited resources promoted the Moffat County School Board of Education to consider the closure of one of its four elementary schools in Craig. After months of research by The Blythe Group, a consulting firm, East Elementary School was chosen as the school that will close in 2018.
Shake rattle and roll
April 25, Oct. 27: At least three earthquakes rolled through Northwest Colorado in 2017. “The bed started shaking, and the pull cord on the lamp started hitting the lamp, and they woke me up. It kind of scared me, because I didn’t know what was happening. It’s actually the first one I’ve felt,” said Becky Plummer, of Craig, who was asleep when she felt the 3.9 magnitude earthquake that struck about 22 miles west of Craig a few days before Earth Day. The other two quakes of similar magnitude were centered a few miles from Rangely.