2021: Year in review

Thursday, December 30, 2021
2021: Year in review

The twisted and burned aftermath of a massive crash on I-90. Photo Bud Chenault

2021: Year in review

A helicopter dips its bucket in the Stillwater River while fighting the Trout Creek fire in August. Photo By Tyler Rel

2021: Year in review

The Park City High School football team celebrate a play-off win in honor of teammate Jed Hoffman. Photo Bud Chenault

2021: Year in review

Kali Hood Courtesy photo

2021: Year in review

Jerry Ashcroft (top) and Dale Ketola. Courtesy photo

2021: Year in review

The following is a non-inclusive list of some of Stillwater County’s biggest news items this past year in random order:

NEW GOVERNOR, NEW APPROACH TO PANDEMIC

The year started out with a big change as Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte took over for Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock. Gianforte almost immediately changed the way the state was responding the COVID-19 pandemic. He rescinded the mask mandate statewide that had been in place for months, altered Phase 1B of the vaccination distribution and repealed a directive that restricted the hours of operation of businesses and capacity limitations. All these changes were felt locally. Also felt locally was the more than $3.9 million in CARES Act money obtained through grants for the county and the city.

DELTA SURGE

COVID-19 vaccine had arrived locally in December 2020 and to date, 41 percent of the eligible population in Stillwater County has been vaccinated. That compares to 53 percent statewide.

By September, the Delta variant surge was in full force, with Stillwater County having triple-digit active cases for weeks and hospitals around the state reporting at or near capacity patient loads. At the same time, local deaths began to rise with a concerning trend — it was a younger sect that was dying, primarily those in their 60s. Specifically, six deaths occurred locally in October, four of which were people in their 60s. At the same time, residents hospitalized numbered 14 with at least nine in ICU units and at least half of those on vents. That trend has now changed substantially with no active cases in Stillwater County and the death count holding steady at 29.

NO FELONY CHARGE IN DOUBLE-FATALITY

The driver responsible for the deaths of Hansers Tow Truck drivers William Casie Allen of Reed Point and Nicholas Ryan Visser of Billings on Oct. 25, 2020, at an I-90 accident scene was charged with a misdemeanor due to what prosecutors described as mitigating factors revealed in the investigation conducted by the Montana Highway Patrol. Carlyn Samual Jessop pleaded guilty to misdemeanor Careless Driving Involving a Death and received a 6-month suspended jail sentence.

The first emergency crew on scene of the double-fatality had been Columbus Fire Chief Rick Cowger, who had previously been trying to get law makers to toughen up the state’s Move Over law based on this type of accident. In May, Cow ger went to Helena and stood with the Visser and Allen families as the governor signed into law something with sharper teeth. The new law changed the offense from careless endangerment of a highway worker to reckless endangerment of a highway worker. Law enforcement can now reduce speeds around a scene to what they deem to be “safe and prudent.”

70 CRASHES IN FOUR DAYS ON ICY WINTER ROADS

In early February, four days of snow, ice, extreme cold and a measure of inattentive driving resulted in at least 70 crashes in Stillwater County in a 4-day period. Two crashes involved multiple vehicles and shut down I-90 for several hours. First came a 15-car pile-up on I-90 near Park City that when all sorted out, was actually six separate crashes at the same scene as vehicle after vehicle was unable to slow down and ended up piling into a heap. The next day brought a fiery 7-car crash near Park City involving two pickup trucks pulling campers that spun out on a bridge deck, and two semi trucks behind them were unable to stop and up jackknifed. A total of three more semis also failed to stop, crashing into the two already crashed, resulting in a fire that left two of the vehicles burned. One semi driver was knocked unconsciousness and was pulled from his burning cab by another driver. A second semi driver was crushed in the crash and had to be extricated and flown to Billings from the scene.

GEORGIA FUGITIVE SHOT DEAD ON I-90

In late March, a Georgia fugitive lead multiple law enforcement agencies on a two-county chase that reached speeds of 100 mph and ended with him being shot dead by U.S. Marshals on the twin bridges on I-90. The dramatic series of events began to unfold in Billings at 9:27 a.m. when U.S. Marshals Violent Offender Task Force attempted to make a traffic stop. Christopher Earl Cook was shot when he got out of his truck and brandished a firearm while refusing to comply with commands. According to the HeardCitizen. com in Franklin, Ga., police had been looking for Cook since at least March 20. A warrant for aggravated stalking was issued for Cook on March 10.

Cook also had an outstanding charge of making terroristic threats, according to the HeardCitizen.com. This was the second officer involved shooting to occur in Stillwater County in five months.

SPORTS

TRAGEDY IN PARK CITY

In early November, 15-year-old Park City High School football player Jed Hoffman collapsed on the practice field and died a handful of days later in a Billings hospital. The team, which was one of the strongest in Class C 8-Man, played on in Jed’s memory, reaching the final 4. A traumatized school and community were quickly wrapped up in support and care by friends and strangers alike. The Scobey football players wore Jed’s number, No. 17, on their helmets when they played the Panthers in the first play-off game. Absarokee and Columbus schools also wore red and black in honor or Hoffman and the Panthers.

COLUMBUS HIGH SCHOOL HISTORY MAKER

In late February, Columbuswrestler Kali Hood made school history by becoming the first female wrestler to compete at state. Not only did hood compete, she came home with a second place finish in the 285-pound weight division. Right behind her was CAP wrestler Jordyn Wolf who went 2-for-2 in the 115-pound weight division before missing the podium by just one match.

CHS GOLF BRINGS HOME GIRLS AND BOYS CHAMPIONSHIPS

The CHS girls and boys golf teams each captured the Class B champion title. It was the first time the girls had ever won the title. Coach Jeromey Burke was also named Coach of the Year.

11 YEARS FOR 78 POUNDS OF METH

In March, the Florida man caught with 78 pounds of methamphetamine on I-90 during a Stillwater County traffic stop was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. The U.S. Attorney’s Office estimated the street value of the drugs at between $624,000 and $1.2 million. A Drug Enforcement Administration lab determined that the meth was 98 percent pure and equaled more than a quarter million doses. The man had been stopped for speeding. It is the state’s largest meth case from a traffic stop.

DOUBLE FATALITY AT SIBANYE-STILLWATER

Tragedy struck at the Sibanye-Stillwater Nye mine site in June when two miners — Jerry Ashlock and Dale Ketola — were killed when the Kubota in which they were travelling was hit by a 20-ton locomotive. The Mining Safety and Health Administration has yet to issue a final report.

MOLT TEACHER NAMED RURAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR

THE YEAR Molt school teacher Debra Flynn was named the state’s Rural Teacher of the Year.

WEATHER

A bone-dry summer ushered in drought conditions that put the county in fire restrictions for nearly the entire summer. Temperatures in the triple-digits were hit more than once. Luckily, the county did not see it’s first sizable wildfire until August when the Trout Creek Fire in Nye burned 8,300 acres and forced evacuations.

In November, fire returned with the wind-driven Rosebud Fire that burned 1,000 acres and again forced evacuations. Then came December, and with a couple of big storms, left Columbus with already more than three times the normal amount of snow.

COURTHOUSE COMMOTION

2021 was an eventful year for the Stillwater County commissioners.

Commissioner Steve Riveland took his place aside Commissioners Mark Crago and Tyrel Hamilton. Crago is 5 years into his first 6-year term and recently announced he does not intend to seek office again. Hamilton is also in his first term. Riveland, who sits on the DUI Task Force, was cited for DUI in August and has pleaded not guilty.

Early in the year, the commission found itself under heavy fire from a small group of citizens who were making claims that the commission was not being transparent regarding a stipend given to all county employees — including the commission — as well as Facilities Capital Improvement Plan (FCIP) project.

The FCIP was developed over the course of several years and specifically fine-tuned by a committee consisting of citizens and county officials, utilizing multiple forms of public input in every community. The noise made by the small group caused the commissioners to step back from the project, table a fairground project and send out a mailer to gauge public input. The commission is now going forward with a Law and Justice building.

On the personnel side of things, an anonymous employee survey generated by the county’s own software system identified possible perceived leadership issues, with 46 of the county’s 107 employees responding and more than half of those reported negative comments. Of those with negative comments, 61.5 percent were specific criticism of the county’s leadership, namely the commissioners. The commission discontinued the surveys and said it was looking for ways to move forward with employees.

In August, a forensic audit was performed at the request of resident Brandon Garoutte, who suspected potential misuse of taxpayer money by Commissioners Hamilton and Crago. The audit cleared both commissioners and left taxpayers with a $5,000 bill.

Also of note is the more than 32 job openings the county has posted this year, which includes the departure of five department heads. The number will soon rise to six. The commission said some of the department head departures were planned. Joe Morse, who retired last month after 18 years, publically expressed frustration with the commission not acting as one for the good of the county.

BEARTOOTH FRONT COALITION ZONE VOTED DOWN

The Stillwater County Commission unanimously voted against the creation of the Beartooth Front Coalition zone. Efforts to have the zone created dated back to 2014 when citizens in southern Stillwater County sought to create a zone that would protect their properties from potential damages related to oil and gas drilling by establishing stricter standards and guidelines than what already exist. The objective was to establish regulations that would not ban development but would minimize impacts to surface owners.

The Beartooth Front Coalition collected more than 550 landowner signatures, but in August 2017, the county notified the petitioners that they would also have to collect signatures from 60 percent of mineral rights owners. The citizens contested the county’s requirements, resulting in several years of procedures and pressure for a court ruling. In September 2020, District Judge Matt Wald ruled in favor of the Beartooth Front Coalition and put the matter back into the hands of the commissioners.