NEWS BRIEFS for Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019

Man accused of dumping body near Cody appears in Cheyenne

CHEYENNE (WNE) — A man accused of murdering a Cheyenne woman and dumping her body near Cody had his initial appearance Wednesday morning in Laramie County Circuit Court.

Joseph Underwood, 45, is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault, stalking and two counts of applying pressure on the throat or neck. His Park County charges related to disposing of a dead human body have been dropped due to the Laramie County case.

Underwood is accused of murdering Angela Elizondo, 40, of Cheyenne.

At his initial appearance, Underwood was appointed an attorney from the public defender’s office, but when Circuit Judge Thomas Lee asked him if he understood his charges, Underwood said he didn’t understand due to his mental health disability.

His preliminary hearing is scheduled at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in circuit court, and his bond was set at $1 million cash only.

Details of the case aren’t available at this time due to the alleged sexual assault, which means Underwood’s court file is sealed until it gets bound over to Laramie County District Court. At Underwood’s preliminary hearing, the judge will decide if there is probable cause, or enough evidence, to send the case to district court.

If the case reaches district court, it will become unsealed, and details of the case will be made available to the public.

Elizondo’s body was found near Cody by a hunter Nov. 2, and it’s believed she was murdered in Cheyenne before being transported to Cody, according to a Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation news release.


Sheridan College named one of country’s top 150

SHERIDAN (WNE) — The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program named Sheridan College, part of Northern Wyoming Community College District, as one of 150 community colleges eligible to compete for the $1 million Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence.

The nation’s signature recognition of high achievement and performance among America’s community colleges, eligible institutions demonstrate strong and improving student outcomes, including in learning, completion rates, employment rates and earnings, and equity — 15% of community colleges nationwide have been invited to apply for the Aspen Prize.

Since the award’s inception in 2011, Sheridan College is the only Wyoming community college ever named eligible. The Aspen Award is given every two years, and Sheridan College was also invited to apply in 2019.

Student outcomes are at the center of everything we do here at Sheridan College,” said NWCCD President Walt Tribley. “Being selected to be eligible for the Aspen Prize is one of the highest honors a community college can earn, and this recognition is so well deserved by our employees who put students first every day.”

The 150 community colleges named as eligible to compete for the 2021 Aspen Prize were selected from a pool of nearly 1,000 public two-year colleges nationwide using publicly available data on student outcomes.


Work on Kanye’s meditation space halted

POWELL (WNE) — Park County Planning and Zoning officials are telling Kanye West and his representatives to stop work on a large, dome-shaped meditation space he’s seeking to build on his ranch south of Cody.

Frustrated members of the county’s planning board also rejected a permit for the project on Tuesday night. Their no votes came after West’s representatives abruptly announced that the plans are being changed to make the 70,684-square-foot space part of a home for the musician and entrepreneur.

“I'm appalled at the abuse of our regulations and the complete disregard of them. That’s just not OK,” Park County Planning and Zoning Commission member Linda Putney said at the Tuesday meeting. “We have regulations for the public, of the people that live here. And so to come in here and tell us after pages of review, hours, to tell us that it’s not even the same project? That’s just not acceptable to me, at all.”

West’s representatives apologized for the last-minute change in the plans.

“His intent was not to throw a monkey wrench in this and waste people’s time, I assure you that,” said Point Architects owner Kane Morris, who’s working on West’s project. “But the fact of the matter is that he did change his mind. Again, we’re people, we make mistakes, maybe this is the wrong time to do it, but irregardless ... we will talk to him and get that solidified so we’re not wasting time or doing that stuff.”


Yellowstone visitation numbers drop from 2018

CODY (WNE) — Despite continuing discussion about the long-term growth in recreational attendance for Yellowstone National Park, both October visitation and year-to-date totals decreased compared to 2018.

Visitation dropped by about 47,000 people in October of 2019 and the National Park Service attributes some of the decline to 171,339 visits to unplanned entrance and road closures during that period.

“Due to snow throughout the month, some entrance stations and park roads were temporarily closed,” a statement from officials read. “These closures likely contributed to the decrease in visitation.”

At the conclusion of the first 10 months of the year, Park attendance stood at 3,979,154, the first time since 2014 visitation has not topped 4 million by then.

The total visitation last year was 4,115,000.

The summer season has ended in the Park, with most roads closed for the year. The Park will reopen for over-snow use in mid-December.

The November and December attendance totals have yet to be tabulated. Last year, park visitation was 13,849 in November and 22,380 in December.

Similar totals would again put the annual attendance over 4 million.


Lovell ACT scores top in state

LOVELL (WNE) — With a drop in ACT scores seen throughout the state of Wyoming, the graduating students of Lovell High School bucked the trend in 2019.

In an October College Readiness Letter for Big Horn School District No. 2, it was revealed that seniors last year found themselves testing above the state in every category last year.

While the state tested at an average of 18.8 in English last year, the district scored an average of 21.8. In mathematics, the state scored an average of 19.4, while the district scored an average of 21.0. In reading, the state had an average of 20.4 while the district scored a 23.3. In Science, the district scored an average of 21.9 while state scored a 20.0. Overall, the state had an average composite score of 19.8, down 0.2 from 2018, while the district’s composite rose from 20.7 in 2018 to 22.1 in 2019. 

“To see our students improve this significantly when the rigor of the test has increased and scores have trended downward is a point of pride for our district,” Superintendent Rick Woodford said. 


Johnson County rejects tax protest

BUFFALO (WNE) — The Johnson County Board of Equalization voted unanimously Monday morning to uphold the county assessor's work for another year of tax protests from the Powder River Basin's last remaining coalbed methane magnates, Carbon Creek Energy and Powder River Midstream.

"I think it's a true and valid assessment," said County Commissioner Linda Greenough. “(The assessors) have done their due diligence, and we have no further options." 

The dispute began three years ago. With each passing tax cycle, as the county and companies wrestle the cases through the Wyoming court system, their burden grows heavier: The original $1.6 million in disputed 2016 tax bills has grown to more than $7 million in cumulative disputed tax debt.

According to County Treasurer Carla Bishop, $3.3 million of that is in the county escrow account and will remain there as long as the dispute drags on. The balance  roughly $4.3 million  simply hasn’t been paid, Bishop said.

The arguments remain effectively the same: Carbon Creek and Powder River Midstream claim that in 2016 then-Assessor Cindy Barlow overvalued their newly acquired property, purchased in a 2015 sell-off that included more than 70% of the wells in Johnson County.

The county argued that Barlow's assessment was sound.

“The taxpayer did not meet the burden of proof,” said Commissioner Bill Novotny on Monday. “Nor did the taxpayer produce unredacted copies of the contract. Therefore, I think we've got to rule in favor of the assessor and move this forward.”


Newcastle cell phone ban a success

NEWCASTLE (WNE) — At the beginning of the 2019 school year, Newcastle Middle School adopted a no cell phone policy, with the support of Superintendent Brad LaCroix and the Weston County School District No. 1 board of trustees. According to Principal Tyler Bartlett, the positives that resulted from the new policy have been immense. 

“I am hard pressed to find any negatives,” Bartlett said.

Since the beginning of the year, only 25 students out of the 182 students in the school have had to have their phones confiscated and most of those, Bartlett said, occurred in the first two months of school. None of the phones confiscated have belonged sixth grade students, who are new to the school this year, he said. Most issues with phones have been with eighth grade students, who have been allowed to use their phone at school the past two years. 

Only five students have had issues on more than one occasion, he said. 

Bartlett and some of the teachers believe the positives coming from this new policy are great in various ways.

According to Bartlett, the biggest positive impact has been that students are more focused and paying better attention in class. The school has also seen fewer conflicts and issues among students. 

“The issues coming into the office, there was a pattern and that was so and so said this on Snapchat or in a text message. That thing then becomes something bigger,” Bartlett said. “It is hard to monitor what is happening on cell phones.”