A look back at 2017 in the Valley


VALLEY — The San Luis Valley concluded another year of milestones. Following are some subjects that stood out this year:

Groundbreaking news

Cancer center

ALAMOSA —SLV Health broke ground in June for its $2.5 million expanded cancer center and infusion center at 106 Blanca Avenue, Alamosa. The center is being built out into the parking lot in front of the emergency room. Construction was initially estimated to take a year from the groundbreaking but is ahead of schedule and is now expected to be completed in January with its doors opening as early as February.

The 5,000 square foot expansion will allow for up to 10 patients to be treated simultaneously. Along with chemotherapy, the center can offer other medication delivered by an IV infusion for iron therapy, hepatitis therapy or osteoporosis therapy.

The SLV Health Foundation has raised approximately $1.3 million of the expansion’s estimated $2.5 million total, and fundraising efforts are ongoing.

Ice rink

ALAMOSA — Also breaking ground in June was the City of Alamosa, which is constructing an ice rink/multipurpose pavilion next to the Alamosa Family Recreation Center. The rink/pavilion will provide a place, complete with chiller, where youth can skate all winter and where community members and guests can enjoy other activities the rest of the year.

The city is funding much of the $2.8 million project, with grant support from GOCO (Great Outdoors Colorado), DOLA (Department of Local Affairs), Gates and Daniels Foundations, Colorado Amateur Hockey Association and numerous individuals and groups who provided more than $630,000 towards the project. Alcon Construction is constructing the facility, which is anticipated to open yet this winter.

Justice center

ALAMOSA — On July 19 Alamosa County hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Alamosa County judicial center, which is being funded in part from a “1-cent for justice” sales tax approved by voters.

The new courthouse and probation facility, located just across the street from the county offices, was expected to be finished 15 months following the July groundbreaking. It will replace the original building, located on Fourth Street in Alamosa and built in the 1930s, which has multiple unsecure entrances, insufficient space and no elevators for those with disabilities. In conjunction with the new courthouse, the county is expanding its jail facility.

Reilly Johnson Architecture designed the new building and jail expansion, which has been in the works for four years. GH Phipps Construction Companies is constructing the courthouse, which is funded by the sales tax and grant funding from the Underfunded Courthouse Facility Commission and Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

The entire estimated cost of the justice center and jail expansion is $26,596,358. Van Iwaarden Builders is constructing the jail expansion, which will add 74 beds.

Rio Grande

Hospital

DEL NORTE — The Rio Grande Hospital held a groundbreaking ceremony on November 14 for an expansion. The project is funded through the combined efforts of the hospital board, who held several fundraising events in the last five years, and a low interest loan through the USDA for the $20,840,000 project.

The extension and renovation of the hospital will include an additional building between the main hospital and the Rio Grande Hospital Clinic that will house a new physical therapy department, an expansion on the emergency room that will include a secure location where local law enforcement can bring inmates from the Rio Grande County Jail and a new wound care department that will have a Hyperbaric Chamber and the latest therapy for wound care.

The expansion will also provide room for new specialty clinics such as orthopedic, cardiology, ENT and specialty providers who visit regularly.

The project is estimated to take about a year to complete.

By a vote

Broyles by 1

ALAMOSA — The Alamosa city council election should be a lesson for anyone who thinks his or her vote doesn’t count. In the Ward 2 race, challenger David Broyles won a race against incumbent Kristina Daniel by one vote, which was upheld in a recount following the November election. Broyles won the election 336 to 335.

Daniel wound up back on the council, however, serving in another post. Since new Alamosa Mayor Ty Coleman’s at-large seat was now vacant, the council interviewed about a dozen interested candidates for the post and chose Daniel to fill out Coleman’s term. Coleman unseated incumbent Mayor Josef Lucero in the November election, and Michael Carson also won against incumbent Michael Stefano in Alamosa’s Ward 4.

In good health

Bipartisan win

VALLEY — Governor John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill (SB) 17-267, the Colorado Rural Sustainability Act, into law in June, creating the Hospital Provider Fee enterprise, providing much needed transportation and education funding for rural Colorado and giving medical professionals in the San Luis Valley a cause for celebration.

The Colorado Hospital Association (CHA) and its member hospitals and health systems worked tirelessly during this year’s legislative session (as well as the past three years’ sessions) as a way to avoid managing the state budget through annual cuts to crucial Medicaid funding. The bill received strong bipartisan support in the legislature including support from the Valley’s state legislators Sen. Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) and Donald Valdez (D-La Jara).  In May the Senate passed the legislation by 25-10 votes and the House by 49-16 votes.

Many member hospital representatives witnessed the signing of the bill including SLV Health CEO Konnie Martin and Public Relations Director Donna Wehe. Martin had said that if this legislation did not pass, SLV Health was looking at $3-4 million per year in immediate cuts, which would have resulted in cutting essential services.

SLV Health receives an average of $7-8 million per year back from the provider fee.

Crime report

Triple homicide

CAPULIN — The new year had hardly begun when the San Luis Valley experienced one if its most tragic homicides with three victims shot to death on Sunday, January 15 in Capulin. A fourth victim of the shooting survived.

At the time of the shooting, Guadalupe “Lupe” Cervantes had been celebrating his 57th birthday, first at the town bar and then at his house. When deputies arrived, Cervantes and Jose M. “Joey” Archuleta, 54, were found dead at the scene. Marissa Herrera, 30, also died after she was flown out to Denver with serious injuries. Don L. Martinez, 34, suffered a gunshot wound but survived.

Santos Nevares, 25, of La Jara, also known as Santos Rameriz and other aliases, was charged with the triple homicides. He remains in custody on multiple murder and assault charges. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for February 13 and 14.

Rust case

resolved

SAGUACHE — Belated justice was served late this year in the murder of Michael Rust who went missing in 2009 after confronting one ore more persons at his rural Saguache area home. His blood stained motorbike was later found, but his remains were not recovered until January of 2016 and not confirmed through DNA until April of that year.

Rust was a well-known crafter of “shorty” mountain bikes and a metal craftsman who was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 1991. He moved to northern Saguache County in 1994 to build a sustainable solar home out of recycled materials.

Charles Moises Gonzales, 47, was charged with Rust’s murder, and a jury in December found Gonzales guilty. He was sentenced to two life sentences without the possibility of parole to run concurrently on first-degree murder without deliberation and first-degree felony murder charges. Gonzales was also sentenced to 12 years for burglary, 18 months for tampering with evidence and 12 months for both theft and abuse of a corpse, to run concurrently in county jail.

McBride murder

ALAMOSA — A homicide case with about a dozen codefendants worked its way through the courts this year as those directly or peripherally associated with the June 23, 2016 shooting death of Dale Floyd McBride, 52, pleaded to their part and were sentenced.

Lonnie Cooper, 44, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for firing the shot that caused McBride’s fatal wound. On October 25, he was sentenced to 42 years on the murder charge and 20 years on a drug charge not associated with the McBride homicide. Three of his family members had also been charged to varying degrees in the McBride case: his wife Shannon, 35, charged with conspiracy in connection with the McBride homicide, but that case was dismissed; son Devin, 20, who was sentenced to 12 years on an accessory charge for his part in the McBride case, basically driving McBride (who may have been dead at the time) away from the scene and helping to bury and re-bury his body afterwards; and son Brian, 25, whose stabbing by McBride apparently prompted Lonnie Cooper to take revenge by shooting McBride and who was initially charged with felony accessory to a crime after the fact, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to commit murder, but charges against Brian Cooper connected with the McBride case were dismissed.

Others coming before the court this year in connection with the McBride murder were:

• Cristo Esquibel, 37, who was sentenced to seven years in prison on a felony conspiracy to commit first-degree assault charge (accompanied Lonnie Cooper to the location where McBride was and lost an eye when the bullet ricocheted after hitting McBride);

• David Silvas, 40, sentenced as an accessory to a crime (giving a ride to Lonnie Cooper on the day of the shooting);

• Kelvin Ruybal, 35, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on a second-degree kidnapping charge related to the McBride murder (Ruybal helped load McBride into a van after the shooting while McBride was losing blood and begging for his life, and helped bury McBride’s body later);

• Brian Cooper’s girlfriend Naomi Olguin, 22, who was sentenced to four years in Community Corrections (she was with Lonnie Cooper when McBride was transported from the initial shooting scene to the Cooper residence where he eventually bled to death);

• and Theodora Travers, 29, one of the first to plead in the case and who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for her part (essentially wiping up a pool of blood after McBride was shot.) Several co-defendants indicated their actions or inaction related to the McBride shooting were out of fear of Lonnie Cooper.

Voss case

dismissed

ALAMOSA — In an even older case, determining ineffective trial counsel, Chief District Judge Pattie Swift in August decided that Krystal Voss, 43, was entitled to a new trial regarding the death of her son Kyran, 19 months. She had been convicted by a jury in 2004 of felony child abuse causing death and was sentenced to 20 years. The judge granted a new trial, but citing a lack of resources and evidence deteriorated with time, 12th Judicial District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen asked District Judge Martin Gonzales to dismiss the case, which he did on September 8.

Murder in the

family

ROMEO — In one of the more bizarre homicides currently in the court system, Michael John Robinson, 32, is accused of is bludgeoning his step grandfather James H. Sprouse, 77, to death sometime between June 3 and 12, 2016 at the residence they shared for a time behind a small former grocery store in Romeo, wrapping his body in plastic and stuffing the body into an unused freezer and taking off with Sprouse’s vehicle.

After Sprouse’s body was found this spring, Robinson was arrested April 28 of this year in Indio, California on first-degree murder and related charges. A preliminary hearing was held in November, and Robinson’s case was moved forward into district court.

Homicide updates

VALLEY — In other homicide cases:

• George Richard Rostad, 45, was sentenced to 24 years in prison in August for the shooting death of his uncle, Randolph Thatcher on June 23, 2015 in Mesita;

• A February trial has been set for Perry Hotz, 21, charged with murder in the 2016 death of his 5 1/2 month old daughter;

• The case is still pending against Angel Nieto, 31, Alamosa, charged with vehicular homicide in connection with the January 16th death of Marcie Quintana, 24, of Alamosa, a passenger in the car he was driving when it was involved in a collision near Alamosa;

• The case is still pending against Bob Greenlee, of Boulder, charged with vehicular homicide  and other charges for his role in a five-car crash that claimed the life of Pat Lucero, 70, on La Veta Pass Dec. 28 of last year;

• A trial was postponed this fall for Carol Carpenter 70, Blanca, who has been charged with the death of her 27-year-old disabled son, Corey, on Oct. 23, 2015;

• And Jose Perez, 27, is scheduled for sentencing in January in connection with the January 2016 death of Ivan Antonio Alforo-Sanchez, 26, in Center.


Educationally speaking

What’s BEST for the kids

VALLEY — Two San Luis Valley schools are looking forward to building new facilities thanks to successful bond elections this November. Both bond ballot measures to provide matching funds for BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) grants to build new school facilities passed in the Del Norte and Mountain Valley school districts on November 7.

Mountain Valley’s bond question passed by about 100 votes. The Mountain Valley School District has been awarded a $27 million BEST grant towards a new school and received voter approval for a $3.72 million bond issue to match the BEST grant.

Del Norte’s bond measure also passed handily. Del Norte has a $27 million BEST grant and received voter approval for a $17.95 million bond issue as the local match for a new K-12 school campus in Del Norte next to the football field.

ASU faces

challenges

ALAMOSA — Adams State University faced financial challenges this year and enters 2018 with perhaps some difficult decisions to make, if additional resources are not procured. During their December meeting the ASU board of trustees approved a set of criteria that will help prioritize where to possibly make layoffs, budget cuts and other financial fixes in a move the university calls “right-sizing.”

Though the exact dollar amount is a moving target, ASU needs roughly $3 million annually in revenue or savings to become financially sound. That estimate includes the university’s $800,000 deficit and salary adjustments needed to align their compensation to that of their peer institutions.

Low enrollment, less state funding and academic probation have contributed to the challenges the university currently faces. For example, the university is currently staffed to manage 3,000 undergrad students but only has 1,600. Also, the Higher Learning Commission putting the university on academic probation has hurt the reputation of ASU and affected recruitment.

The trustees in December passed a resolution to start a dialogue with ASU’s foundation to perhaps assist in resolving the financial troubles.

On the pot

Nipped in the bud

VALLEY — While marijuana grows have continued to bloom in Saguache County, two communities in the San Luis Valley soundly shut out marijuana enterprises. During the November 7 election, voters in both Alamosa and Monte Vista defeated measures to allow retail and medical marijuana businesses in their city limits.

Alamosa had three marijuana questions on the ballot, one asking if residents wanted to allow medical marijuana stores in the city limits, one asking the same for recreational marijuana stores, and another asking for a tax on recreational marijuana sales, if that ballot question passed. Voters denied the medical and retail marijuana shops but approved a tax on retail marijuana sales, a moot point since the retail marijuana issue did not pass.

The Alamosa city council has prohibited medical and retail marijuana and is currently considering a permanent prohibition of marijuana consumption clubs.

Monte Vista voters soundly defeated a measure seeking permission to allow marijuana facilities in the city limits. Unlike Alamosa, the marijuana questions before Monte Vista voters on November 7 were rolled into one ballot initiative asking if voters wanted to allow medical and retail marijuana sales within the city. With about 65 percent voting against the ballot question, it failed by nearly 300 votes.

Saguache County continues to approve marijuana grow operations, with the most recent involving four applications approved by the Saguache County Planning Commission on December 14. The applications now go to the Saguache County commissioners.

As of the end of May, Saguache County had 17 approved marijuana grow operations.

Even with many legitimate operations in the county, Saguache County authorities continue to deal with illegal ones. In September a joint operation by Saguache County and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), assisted by the Southern Colorado Drug Task Force, confiscated 1,500-2,000 illegally-grown marijuana plants, many in full bud, in rural Bonanza. The crop was estimated to be worth about $5 million.

Law enforcement officials cut, then hauled the crop in 10-12 pick-up trucks from a remote hillside to Road LL56, emptying the plants into a dump truck provided by Saguache County Road and Bridge Department later taken to an undisclosed location to be destroyed.

Benched

Trouble in the court

ALAMOSA/MONTE VISTA — Following a derogatory October report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado entitled “Justice Derailed: A case study of abusive and unconstitutional practices in Colorado city courts,” specifically targeting Alamosa and Monte Vista Municipal Judge Daniel Powell, Judge Powell declined to continue his contracts with both community court systems and retired in December after 34 years in the legal profession.

Monte Vista selected Barbara Zollars to replace Powell on the bench, and Alamosa chose Gunnison Municipal Judge James McDonald to fill Powell’s vacancy.

Judge Powell, supported by Alamosa police, the city prosecutor and others, contended the report was not an accurate portrayal of his courtroom decorum. The report stated that Judge Powell “systematically violates the constitutional rights of its mainly impoverished criminal defendants.” Judge Powell responded that that allegation in particular “wounded me to the core,” since he personally understood poverty very well, being raised in it. He said he holds people accountable for their actions, but “that does not mean, however, that I am unsympathetic to the plight of those who are impoverished. I have lived it.”

He added that the ACLU report did not take into account improvements put into place in the Alamosa municipal court before any complaints were registered with the city.

Village or not?

Wolf Creek fight not over

VALLEY — In the ongoing legal battle over the proposed Village at Wolf Creek development:

• U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez ruled on Jan. 27 that in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Rocky Mountain Wild the U.S. Forest Service did not have to provide third-party contractors’ documents that had never been shared with the Forest Service.

• A coalition of conservation organizations, who have long been fighting against the proposed Village at Wolf Creek, submitted final arguments and filings to Judge Richard P. Matsch. The lawsuit aims to reverse a 2015 decision by the Forest Service to approve a land exchange providing road access needed for the proposed development.

• A judge on May 19 blocked a land deal that would have cleared the way for an extensive residential and commercial complex near Wolf Creek, saying the federal government had not carefully considered the impact or listened to public concerns. Judge Matsch also said the U.S. Forest Service appeared to have a bias toward approving the land swap with Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture because the agency relied on the work of contractors paid by the developer to study the deal.

• On September 14, a federal court again rejected pleas by the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture and the Forest Service to allow the controversial Village at Wolf Creek to go forward. Judge Matsch denied a motion by the Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture to reconsider his earlier decision from May that overturned the Forest Service’s approval of a land exchange to make possible the proposed development.

• The U.S. Forest Service is challenging a federal judge’s ruling from earlier this year that its Rio Grande office’s approval of the Village at Wolf Creek was steeped in “predictive bias” and was “contrary to law.” The U.S. Forest Service, through the U.S. Department of Justice, filed a notice of appeal with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The developers of the proposed resort, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, also appealed.

Odds and ends

Twice lost

SAND DUNES — One of the oddly ironic stories of 2017 was the instance of a hiker lost at the Great Sand Dunes National Park — twice. Bryan Skilinski from New York went missing at the park in February and spent five nights out in the elements with little winter gear before being successful rescued in relatively good health on February 17. The same hiker from New York went missing again at the dunes in May with tragic results the second time out. On June 25 hikers discovered Skilinski’s body near Milwaukee Peak in the national preserve, and the following day Search and Rescue crews recovered his body. He had last been seen on May 8 leaving the Sand Pit Picnic Area parking lot.

A look at the sun

VALLEY — The solar eclipse that drew national attention also drew local attention, with folks all over the Valley donning special glasses to view the unique event on August 21. For example, hundreds of observers flocked to Adams State University and its Zacheis Planetarium to view the eclipse through a hydrogen-alpha telescope. This was the first solar eclipse visible in the United States since 1979.

Though Alamosa wasn’t in the path of totality, the sun became approximately 83.1-85 percent obscured.

Millionaire ranching

COSTILLA COUNTY — An 83,000-acre ranch with its own private fourteener went up for sale this year and was bought by Texas oil heir William Bruce Harrison. Cielo Vista Ranch — that includes 14,053-foot-tall Culebra Peak — was on the market for $105 million. The August sale was the largest U.S. ranch sale in 2017.

The new owner was listed as a Delaware-registered limited liability company named Cielo Vista Ranch II. The company traces back to the Houston office of Cathexis Oil & Gas LLC, an investment firm founded by Harrison in 2010.

Caption: Joel Sebald of construction company GH Phipps, Mike Malloy of RTA Architects, San Luis Valley Health Foundation Director Kelly Gurule, SLV Health CEO Konnie Martin, SLV Health Board of Directors Vice President Jan Gay, Alamosa Mayor Josef Lucero and SLV Health Foundation Board President Sheila Hicks break ground with golden shovels at the San Luis Valley Health parking lot on June 6 for the new cancer center./Courier photo by Jefferson Geiger