A tragic car accident west of Trinidad leads the list of 2018’s top stories as reported in The Chronicle-News. County Sheriff’s Deputy Sergeant Matthew Moreno, age 37, died while on duty in a tragic traffic accident at about 8 p.m. on Wednesday, December 12 just east of Valdez, approximately 20 miles west of Trinidad. Two other local citizens, Taelor Roybal, age 23, and her son, Ezekiel Valdez, age 1, both of Trinidad, were also fatalities due to the crash. Roybal, who was driving a 2003 Chevrolet sedan, died at the scene, while Valdez was transported to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs.
County Sheriff Derek Navarette said in a Friday, December 14 statement that the tragic loss of life had been very hard on his staff and on county citizens. Two other sheriff’s deputies, Trent Gomez, age 25, and Kenny Lopez, age 22, both of Trinidad, were also injured in the crash.
“This is obviously a very difficult time for the Las Animas County Sheriff’s Office staff, and others who worked with and knew Sgt. Matt Moreno and the two deputies who were injured in Wednesday’s crash,” Sheriff Navarette wrote. “As we mourn our own loss, we are also grieving for the family of Taelor Roybal and Ezekiel Valdez, who were also killed in the crash.”
The accident is still under investigation by the Colorado State Patrol.
Summer wildfires are always a threat to life and property in Southern Colorado and the summer of 2018 was no exception to that rule. The Spring Creek fire broke out on Wednesday, June 27 and became the third-largest wildfire in Colorado history, burning 107,627 acres in nearby Huerfano and Costilla Counties by Wednesday, July 11. At its peak of intensity more than 1,000 firefighters were battling the blaze. At least 143 homes and other structures were destroyed or damaged due to the blaze. Many area individuals, businesses and nonprofits made donations or provided goods needed by firefighters.
A man was arrested for starting the fire and was charged with Arson, but an update from the Costilla County Sheriff’s Office at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 1 said the suspect, 52 year-old Jesper Jorgenson, did not start the fire intentionally. Jorgensen is in custody facing 141 counts of first-degree arson, as well as a hold by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), since he is a Danish National with an expired visa.
Murder in Aguilar
The small town of Aguilar was the backdrop for one of the worst criminal incidents in the area during 2018. A Trinidad man pled not guilty to two counts of First-Degree Murder and not guilty to two counts of First-Degree Kidnapping at his arraignment hearing in Third District Court on Thursday, September 13. Dominic Damelio, age 20, has been charged in the death of Burchard Mitchell, age 39, of Trinidad, whose body was found near County Road 43.7, two miles west of Aguilar on Wednesday, May 9.
On Wednesday, May 23 County Sheriff’s Deputies and Trinidad Police officers arrested Damelio on a warrant at a home in the 100 block of Burlington Street in Trinidad after a brief standoff with deputies and police. The County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) jointly investigated the crime. After recent motions hearings conclude, while a 10-day trial is set to begin at 9 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019.
Tragedy in Weston
Number four on the list of the year’s top stories involved a family tragedy in rural Weston, located west of Trinidad. Felony murder charges were dismissed on Tuesday, July 3 in 3rd District Court against a Weston-area man who shot and killed his son and daughter-in-law during a domestic dispute at his home on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. Third Judicial District Attorney Henry Solano’s motion to dismiss two felony counts of second degree murder against Kenneth Merle Norton, age 64, was granted by District Court Judge Leslie J. Gerbracht on Tuesday, July 3.
Norton was originally charged with causing the deaths of his son, David Lee Norton, and his son’s wife, Destiny Nicole Levario, in the incident at Norton’s home located at 14201 Aspen Drive near Weston. County Sheriff’s Deputies arrested Norton on the day of the incident. Other family members were also present for the tragic incident.
In his motion to dismiss the charges, Solano cited evidence collected after the charges were filed that Norton had good reason to believe that he and his wife, Nydia Norton, were in danger of losing their lives after a domestic dispute escalated dramatically into a life threatening situation for them.
County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to a trailer home near Weston on the day of the incident on a reported shooting. When deputies responded, Norton contacted them and was taken into custody. During their preliminary investigation deputies found two dead bodies in the home.
Trinidad’s cannabis-related tax revenues continued on their steady upward path in 2018. In a report to City Council at a meeting held on Tuesday, August 18, City Finance Director Cheryl Navarette talked about the increase in cannabis tax revenues through the first six months of 2018.
Marijuana tax revenue collected over that period was $1,578,626, which is $328,626 above the budgeted amount of $1.25 million. “Our marijuana sales tax revenue at the end of June in 2017, when we had 16 stores, was $18.6 million in revenue, of which we collected $1.2 million in tax,” she said. “This year through June there are 20 stores reporting $24.5 million in sales, and we’ve collected $1,579,000. All other revenues in the General Fund are under-collected but only by a combined total of $68,000.”
The general sales tax on marijuana sales is divided between the City and the state, with the City collecting 3-percent while 1-percent goes to the state, she said. The city imposes a 5-percent sales tax on those sales, along with a 4-percent general sales tax. It also receives 1.5-percent in tax rebate revenue from state marijuana taxes, though the state rebate revenues have a one-month lag before the city receives them. That’s a total tax of 10.5-percent. The city also collects licensing fees from marijuana-related businesses.
Through June 30, 2017 the city’s marijuana cultivation fees brought in approximately $18,000, while at the end of June in 2018 the cultivation fees had generated about $69,000 in revenues, she said.
Starting in the spring of 2018, Trinidad’s Mt. San Rafael Hospital will take on a brand new look as a combined renovation and new construction project at an estimated cost of $24 million will begin with an estimated time to completion of 36 months. The hospital’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Tucker and the hospital’s Board Chairperson Carolyn Johnson described the project at the Wednesday, July 5, City Council meeting.
Funding for the two-phase project will come from a low interest U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan, Tucker said, adding that the loan amount would be well below the hospital’s borrowing authority. Johnson added that the hospital would also be going after other sources of financing. Tucker said the hospital would not ask local voters for a tax increase to finance the construction.
Grants from DOLA (the state Department of Local Affairs) would be sought for each phase of the project, Tucker said, along with other sources of grant funding and fundraising on a smaller scale by the hospital’s physicians and other personnel.
“We’re excited,” Tucker said. “We would love the idea of building a new hospital somewhere out along Interstate 25, but we just think that with everything that’s going on in Washington, D.C., we feel this is a more responsible option for our community. It allows us to get everything we wanted for half the price.”
The hospital’s Board, after considering several other options, opted to pursue a “hybrid” option that included approximately 30,000 square feet of new construction on the existing campus, along with the initial renovation of approximately 10,000 square feet of existing hospital space, with potentially more in the future, according to Board information.
Downtown Development Continues
Downtown development continued to be at the heart of the action in Trinidad, as City Council approved the establishment of the La Puerta Business Improvement District (BID) at a council meeting on Tuesday, September 4. A BID is a special district financing tool used to help stakeholders collectively plan, fund, and implement services and improvements to their neighborhood.
While still under development, La Puerta de Colorado sits on a 10-acre parcel of land between I-25 and the Amtrak stop, the Purgatoire River and historic downtown Trinidad. Less than 10 miles from the border of New Mexico, this location is the perfect place for the 3.5 to 4 million travelers to pull off the highway and spend the night, dine or shop. Additionally, habitat restoration and preservation are an integral part of the development plans along the Purgatoire River. This will enable travelers to have easy access to fly fishing, kayaking, tubing and other river recreation.
The La Puerta complex includes the recently opened new Purple Toad eating establishment and the new Phil Long Toyota dealership on Cedar Street that opened for business in 2017, but does not include the historic former Marty Feeds location at 326 N. Commercial St.
The amended resolution to be addressed by Council at its Tuesday, September 18 meeting excludes the former Marty Feeds property from the BID. The development partnership consists of Kip Hampden Properties, a company owned by Trinidad native and Colorado Springs businessman Jay Cimino, and the Trinidad Development Group.
Chronicle-News has New Owners
The Chronicle-News of Trinidad has been in continuous publication for the past 141 years, and Eric Jon Monson highlighted ownership changes at the newspaper at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon held on Wednesday, October 17 at Trinidad State Junior College.
He talked about the changing face of the newspaper industry across the United States. “We’re rediscovering ourselves and rediscovering what we’re capable of and what the possibilities are. Revenue streams, advertising, digital media, audio, video are parts of it and there’s literally nothing we can’t do. The only restrictions on us are space and time. Space can be bought with your money.”
An editor’s job was to serve as the caretaker of a community’s history, he said. “We’re there for the tough times and the good, and a newspaper rises and falls right along with its city. Just like the city, we’re getting out of some tough times and we’re coming back very strong. It’s a very exciting time to be part of a newspaper, and we’re very proud of the work we do. We know you’re going to yell at us, we expect it and it’s also one of our jobs. A lot of times people just need someone to talk to, and as a small town newspaperman you’re also a part-time psychologist. We always have an open door policy at the newspaper, and if you need to come in and yell at somebody, there’s nobody better than us.”
Monson said that as part of the transition, every part of the newspaper had been reevaluated. “People think a lot of our job is just the stories we write and how we fill the front page every day. If I’ve learned anything over the years, its that there’s a lot more to it, from legal ads to classified advertising.”
The Shearman family of Louisiana had owned the newspaper for the past 75 years, and he said it was unusual to see so much ownership stability in a small town newspaper. He praised his co-workers at the newspaper, especially Food and Features Editor Catherine J. Moser. “Without Cathy we couldn’t get it done.”
He described a newspaper design process that would lead readers from the stories on the front page to the inside pages, where most of the advertising was located. He urged the local businesspeople at the luncheon to come along for the ride, buy more advertising and attract new customers through a full print and online digital media presence with a strong local focus.
“Our design approach since I’ve been here is to have a newspaper that’s pleasing to the eye above the fold and we’re designing it to get you to pick it up out of the rack. After that we’re trying to lead people to your advertisements, which are usually on the inside. We’ve been adding more advertising spots by using top and bottom banners. We’re trying to get more of these on-ramps to an informational highway. We’re trying to get people into one of these stories as an insert point for us and get them to an inside page. We’ll usually have three or more stories as insert points for people.”
Summer events — Blues Fest, ArtoCade, Roundup Rodeo, LA County Fair
Summer events continued to attract locals and visitors in large numbers. The Trinidaddio Blues Fest, the ArtoCade Festival, the Annual Roundup Rodeo and the Las Animas County Fair were all successful events in 2018, with their organizers hoping for even greater success in coming years.
Longtime Judges Retire
On the judicial front, 2018 saw some major changes at the end of the year. Third Judicial District Chief Judge Claude W. Appel announced his retirement after serving 34 years on the bench of the Third Judicial District, which encompasses both Las Animas and Huerfano Counties, at a retirement ceremony held on Tuesday, November 20 in the Las Animas County Courthouse.
Fellow District Court Judge Leslie J. Gerbracht, who will succeed Judge Appel as Chief District Court Judge, told the crowd of well-wishers at the ceremony how nervous she was as a rookie lawyer appearing for the first time in Appel’s courtroom, but also how he put her at her ease, and when she was later appointed to serve on the bench, how he leaned over toward her and said, “You can call me Claude.” She spoke of her admiration for the colleague who helped her along the way.
“It was a long time before I felt comfortable calling him Claude, but now I call him my friend,” Judge Gerbracht said. “Sometimes the thought of retirement is really frightening, but it’s not so scary if you think about it this way. This is a time for you to do what you want to do, when you want to do it, where you want to do it and how you want to do it. I know that you and your wife, Michele, are going to have so many great adventures. Maybe you’ll try some new ones. Maybe you’ll send us pictures. I hope you will do so, so embrace your retirement and enjoy it.”
District Court Judge Bruce Billings has also his retirement as County Court Judge.
All in all it was an eventful year for the people of Trinidad and Las Animas County.