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July 26, 2016
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Rocky to sell to largest insurer Terms of agreement keep workforce in GJ, provide big financial backing By CHARLES ASHBY and GARY HARMON Charles.Ashby@gjsentinel.com Gary.Harmon@gjsentinel.com
Rocky Mountain Health Plans, Mesa County’s scrappy insurance company that has been a model nationwide, is being sold to the nation’s largest health care provider, company officials told The Daily Sentinel on Monday. In an exclusive interview, Rocky’s president and chief executive officer, Steve ErkenBrack, said the company decided to sell to UnitedHealthcare to restore its capital base and ensure that the company has the assets it needs to continue to be a sustainable health insurance provider. “Typically, when you look at transactions, mergers and acquisitions, it’s a matter of absorbing it in like the Borg,” said ErkenBrack, using a reference to a cybernetic enemy in the “Star Trek, The Next Generation” television show. “That’s not what this is. We’re not unique in this regard. United’s done this with others. They’re a national player, we’re a community player. That’s what we’re trying to marry here. You don’t want to lose the community. In fact, you want to enhance that community piece.” ErkenBrack, who informed his employees about the sale Monday afternoon, said the sale is pending approval by the Colorado Division of Insurance and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. That second approval is required because the 42-year-old plan will be switching from a nonprofit entity to a for-profit business. The Division of Insurance has not received any official notification of the sale, but will review it when that happens, said division spokeswoman Rebecca Laurie, adding that the review would include a public hearing
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SALE OF ROCKY MOUNTAIN HEALTH PLANS What is UnitedHealthcare? ■ UnitedHealthcare is a subsidiary of the Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group, which Fortune 500 ranked just this year as the sixth largest company in the nation. Previously, it was 14th largest. ■ It also is the nation’s largest health care insurer, serving about 70 million individuals nationwide, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. ■ The parent company took in more than $157 billion in gross profits, and $5.8 billion in net income in 2015. For the first quarter of this year, the company had a gross profit of $46.5 billion and $1.75 billion in net income, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. ■ The parent company employs about 200,000 people and has about $111.4 billion in assets, according to Fortune 500. ■ The company was founded in 1977 in Minnetonka, Minnesota, as one of the first health management organizations in the nation.
CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel
Steve ErkenBrack, president and chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Health Plans, said the company decided to sell to UnitedHealthcare to restore its capital base and ensure that the company has the assets it needs to continue to be a sustainable health insurance provider. ErkenBrack said despite the sale, nothing will change when it comes to the insurer’s products or services. on the matter. The terms of the sale of Rocky, which employs about 400 people, are unclear. The amount of money depends on what the two companies determine to be the fair market
value of the plan, which ErkenBrack said right now is somewhere between $35 million and $40 million. ErkenBrack said he hopes the sale will be finalized by year’s end.
Dr. Michael Pramenko, whose Primary Care Physicians practice works closely with Rocky and St. Mary’s Hospital, said the Grand Valley stands to benefit from the bigger financial firepower that
Trial begins nine years after woman disappeared
One person was injured and taken to the hospital after an explosion at a business in Whitewater on Monday afternoon. Strong winds threatened to push the blaze into nearby vegetation. A metal building and two shipping containers were heavily damaged.
By GABRIELLE PORTER
The first-degree murder trial of Lester Jones — nine years, 96 pre-trial motions and innumerable hours in the making — kicked off Monday morning when 102 prospective jurors filed into a Mesa County district courtroom to start PAIGE BIRGFELD the weekDisappeared in long jury 2007; body found selection process. in 2012 Prosecutors will try to prove over the next two months that Jones, 65, kidnapped and murdered Paige
See TRIAL, page 10A ➤
See a timeline of events in the Paige Birgfeld case at GJSentinel.com
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CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel
One person taken to hospital after explosion in Whitewater By ERIN McINTYRE
An explosion at a Whitewater business on Monday afternoon resulted in at least one person being taken to the hospital, the evacuation of the area and the bomb squad being summoned. First responders were dispatched to the scene of the blast shortly before 5 p.m., at 1475 Blair Road. A billowing plume of black smoke rose into the air and firefighters monitored the ensuing blaze to keep it from spreading,
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evacuating the area one-quarter mile from the fire. Grand Junction Fire Department spokesman Sean Hazelhurst confirmed that one person was injured in the explosion and transported to St. Mary’s Hospital. Several MAERSK shipping containers, trailers and sheds dotted the property, but it appeared that most of the damage was done to a metal building and two shipping containers that continued to burn late Monday. Strong winds immediately after the explosion threat-
ened to push the flames into the surrounding vegetation, and fire crews from Land’s End Fire Protection District and Grand Junction were ready for the possibility the fire would spread in the tinder-dry conditions across the more than 40-acre parcel. A few hours later, officials tripled the evacuation perimeter, shut down the road and summoned the bomb squad. Hazelhurst said responders were not sure what materials remained in the buildings and
See EXPLOSION, page 10A ➤
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United brings to the table. He said United “very much” wants to learn about how Rocky does its business.
See ROCKY, page 10A ➤
Why sell? ■ A dramatic increase in the number of individuals covered put a strain on Rocky Mountain Health Plans’ bottom line, forcing it to largely withdraw from the Colorado Health Exchange next year except for individual plans in Mesa County. The sale will help the plan restore its capital base, and help it become more sustainable over the long term. ■ Because the plan will be run locally, the sale means that nothing will change in its coverage or rates. ■ That local management also means that no changes will be made in staffing. Coming Sunday: A more detailed look at the implications of the sale for policyholders
After rough start, Dems aim to unite, strike positive tone By JULIE PACE and KEN THOMAS Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA — Hillary Clinton’s campaign joined forces with former primary rival Bernie Sanders and some of his supporters Monday in a scramble to tamp down a fresh burst of party disunity and give an upbeat tone to the opening night of the Democratic convention. Sanders, one of the night’s featured speakers, sent urgent messages to his backers urging them to avoid protests on the convention floor. The Clinton campaign opened up speaking spots for his supporters who touted his accomplishments, and warned that not backing Clinton would only help Republican Donald Trump. An array of office holders and celebrities hammered home the call for unity, with singer Paul Simon singing his “Bridge Over
Troubled Water” as delegates linked arms and swayed to the music. Former President Bill Clinton smiled and clapped from the audience. First lady Michelle Obama was making her first appearance of the presidential campaign. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a favorite of liberals and one of the party’s toughest critics of Trump, was also taking the stage. “Trump thinks he can win votes by fanning the flames of fear and hatred,” Warren said in excerpts released ahead of her speech. “By turning neighbor against neighbor. By persuading you that the real problem in America is your fellow Americans — people who don’t
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the night’s featured speakers, sent urgent messages to his backers urging them to avoid protests on the convention floor.
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See DEMS, page 10A ➤
The Daily Sentinel • Tuesday, July 26, 2016
ROCKY: No change expected for consumers
TRIAL: Two sides have battled over evidence
➤ Continued from Page One
➤ Continued from Page One
“As much as we would love Rocky to stay nonprofit, that doesn’t fit the model going forward,” Pramenko said. “By the same token, UnitedHealthcare also has much to learn from Rocky Mountain Health Plans. (It is) a successful company that really knows how to do things right.” ErkenBrack said despite the sale, nothing will change when it comes to the insurer’s products or services. As a result, patients, doctors and hospitals in the Grand Valley and elsewhere in the state will continue to deal with the same people and the same plans and pay the same rates. Last month, the plan announced that because of high costs in parts of the Western Slope, it was largely withdrawing from the state’s health insurance exchange in 2017 except for its new Monument Health offering for Mesa County residents, which created a tiered approach to health care providers. That move forced about 10,000 policyholders who reside outside the county to seek health coverage elsewhere. Statewide, the plan serves about 300,000 individuals.
“There’s a lot of consternation that’s swirling out here (in the health care insurance industry),” ErkenBrack said. “That hasn’t subsided at all. If anything, it seems to have gotten more intense. On a national level, you have co-ops that have gone out of business. You have carriers who say, ‘We’re not playing on the exchange.’ You have rates that are going through the roof. “On the state level, you have mountain communities saying, ‘This is not working. We are paying the highest insurance costs in the country,’ ” he added. “On the local level, the collaboration that we have been known for for so many years seems to be fracturing a little bit. Some tension fault lines are appearing. So the question is, how do you make Rocky better? That’s what this does.” ErkenBrack said while the federal Affordable Health Care Act didn’t force this sale, it was a factor, but only one of many. Dr. Gregory Reicks, a family practitioner and member of the Rocky board of directors, said the current health insurance marketplace forced the need to find a partner. “It’s put a lot of strain on Rocky financially,” said Reicks, who also sits on the Mesa Coun-
ty Independent Practice Association board. “I didn’t see from the perspective of the (Rocky) board that it could continue to exist as an independent entity.” Brian Davidson, president of St. Mary’s Hospital, said consolidations such as these are becoming increasingly common in the health care industry, but he’s pleased that United is allowing Rocky to remain locally controlled. “Scale is everything in the health insurance industry,” said Davidson, who was informed of the sale late Monday afternoon. “The more you can spread your overhead, the better you are in the health insurance industry. It will be good because we will be working with the same leadership. They are local people. They understand the market. They understand the needs of the community.” ErkenBrack said the sale should prove to be a boon to the valley, which ultimately could see tremendous improvements in coverage, prices and services because the plan not only will have the capital it needs to operate and the high-tech tools that United uses elsewhere in the country, but it also will help boost competition in the insurance marketplace in the region.
DEMS: Unrest among supporters of Sanders ➤ Continued from Page One look like you, or don’t talk like you, or don’t worship like you.” Clinton’s campaign hoped the nighttime line-up would overshadow a tumultuous start to the four-day convention. The release of hacked party emails revealed the Democratic National Committee had favored Clinton over Sanders in the primary, despite vows of neutrality. The uproar led to the forced resignation of party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. While her ouster was a major victory for Sanders, it wasn’t enough to ease the frustration of his supporters. Inside the arena, chants of “Bernie” echoed through the arena as the convention opened, and boos could be heard at times when Clinton’s name was raised. Outside the convention hall, several hundred Sanders backers marched down Philadelphia’s sweltering streets with signs carrying messages such as “Never Hillary.” Campaigning in North Carolina, Trump seemed to revel in the Democrats’ commotion, telling supporters that Clinton made a mistake by not choosing a more liberal running mate to appease Sanders’ base. “Crazy Bernie’s going crazy right now,” he said. But in Philadelphia, delegates waved “Love Trumps Hate” signs and leapt to their feet as immigration supporters, gay rights advocates, and labor leaders took the stage. Comedian-turned-Sen. Al Franken, a Clinton supporter, and actress Sarah Silverman, a Sanders supporter, made a joint
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Former Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday. Sanders urged his supporters to put aside their disappointment and vote for Hillary Clinton in the November election. appearance to promote party unity. “I am proud to be part of Bernie’s movement,” Silverman said as the crowd roared. “And a vital part of that movement is making absolutely sure Hillary Clinton is our next president of the United States.” Trump was a frequent target throughout the night, though the jabs were often more mocking than mean. The tone was a sharp contrast to the Republican convention, where the attacks against Clinton were bitingly personal, including chants of “Lock her up.” Wasserman Schultz had planned to be among those taking the stage, despite the email hacking controversy. But she stepped aside, bowing to
pressure from Democrats who feared the mere sight of her on stage would prompt strong opposition from Sanders’ backers. The outgoing chairwoman did watch the gathering from a private suite at the arena. Clinton’s team hoped Wasserman Schultz’s resignation — along with an apology from the DNC to Sanders and his supporters — would keep the convention floor calm. Discussions between the two camps prompted Sanders to send emails and text messages to supporters asking them not to protest. “Our credibility as a movement will be damaged by booing, turning of backs, walking out or other similar displays,” Sanders wrote.
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Birgfeld, a Grand Junction mother of three and professional escort, in 2007 in a case that has drawn national attention. Birgfeld, who was last heard from in June 28, 2007, was described by friends and family members as a doting single mother who worked tirelessly for her family. In the days following her disappearance, details surfaced about Birgfeld’s second life, where she moonlighted as an escort who used the name “Carrie.” It wasn’t until March 2012 that Birgfeld’s remains were found in a dry creek bed in Delta County. Jones was arrested in November 2014 and has been charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and kidnapping. In precursory openings to the jury pool, Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Waite said Jones was one of Birgfeld’s clients. “Lester Jones is alleged to have taken steps to conceal his identity from (Birgfeld) and set up a meeting with her, then kidnapped her … killing her and burying her body in a remote location,” Waite said. “Her skeletal remains were found almost five years later in the bed of a dry creek in the Wells Gulch area of Delta County. Lester Jones set fire to her car shortly after kidnapping her and killing her in an effort to cover up evidence in this crime.” Public defender Kara Smith sought to set the trial’s scene with a contrast in character. “Ms. Paige Birgfeld was a prostitute and divorced mother of three,” Smith said. “Mr. Jones is a married mechanic and truck driver.” Smith told potential jurors that law enforcement’s nineyear investigation focused mainly on Jones, who had a history of domestic violence and frequenting prostitutes. She told jurors that some information and evidence from the early parts of the case have been lost, and mentioned names of several alternate suspects that defense attorneys are expected to expand on in later weeks. “The evidence against Mr. Jones is circumstantial and no direct or physical evidence ties him to the disappearance or death of Ms. Birgfeld,” Smith said. Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn presided over several waves of potential jurors who showed up to court Monday after 600 summonses were sent out, according to Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein. Attorneys will spend the next week choosing 12 jurors and three alternates for the trial, which is slated to
➤ Continued from Page One could ignite as the fire burned, and since the blaze wasn’t threatening lives or other structures, officials decided to be cautious and keep everyone back. Information on exactly what caused the explosion and fire was not available Monday night, but two companies in the immediate vicinity deal with explosive and flammable materials. Mesa County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Megan Terlecky confirmed that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was assisting with the investigation. According to Mesa County Assessor’s Office records, the
lists the Blair Road address as its office. Kenneth is also listed as the president of PyroLabs Inc., a research laboratory studying pyrotechnics. According to the journal, the Kosankes operate a pyrotechnic research facility, which includes test ranges and an “explosion chamber.” Calls to the Kosanke residence were not answered Monday night. The company’s website lists inventory including gunpowder meant for re-loading and loose powder and compressed, pre-measured charges used in muzzleloaders and other firearms such as flintlock rifles. Calls to American Pioneer Powder in Boca Raton were not returned Monday night.
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County Sheriff’s Office in response gave his office the funds to cover an extra deputy district attorney’s salary for a year. “It was that time-intensive from the beginning,” Rubinstein said. “(Currently) this is by far my biggest priority … (and) the case I’ve devoted the most hours to — and Dave Waite as well — for the last five months.” Steve Colvin, the head of Grand Junction’s public defender office and Jones’ lead defense attorney, declined to comment for this story. Colvin appeared Monday in court with fellow public defender Smith and an investigator for his office. Colvin also said in court that Denver-based public defender Ann Roan will be assisting “from afar” with the court proceedings. The district attorney’s office plans to call about 150 witnesses, 19 of whom will be coming some distance from places like Paonia or Hotchkiss. Eight more witnesses are traveling from the Front Range, and another 18 are being brought in from out-ofstate. One witness was flown in to be deposed earlier this year before his military redeployment. Rubinstein said calling the prosecution’s witnesses is expected to cost between $20,000 and $25,000, not including the time paid to a staffer in his office who is coordinating witness travel, essentially a full-time assignment for now. Rubinstein said he doesn’t know how many witnesses Colvin’s team plans to call, but said a substantial amount of the defense’s testimony will likely come during cross examination of prosecutors’ witnesses. Birgfeld’s disappearance and murder have been well-publicized over the years, and Jones’ trial is not expected to be an exception. Flynn said Monday several conference rooms in the Mesa County Justice Center have been reserved to accommodate “30 to 40” members of the media, and ABC’s 20/20 is slated to film the trial. Rubinstein said Mesa County residents in particular are heavily invested in the trial. “It’s something that has been in the hearts and on the minds of Grand Junction residents for many, many years,” Rubinstein said. “It will be nice to finally get some closure.”
property at 1475 Blair Road is owned by Wolf River Land Corp. Inc., and listed as a production facility for American Pioneer Powder Inc., a company based in Boca Raton, Florida. According to Colorado Secretary of State business records, the company has operated in Colorado since 2002, the year that assessor records show the property was transferred by Bonnie Kosanke, who owns the property next door at 1775 Blair Road with her husband, Kenneth. The Kosankes are recognized pyrotechnic experts and are listed as the publisher and managing editor of the Journal of Pyrotechnics, according to the publication’s website, which
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last through Sept. 16. Even before the first potential jurors took their seats Monday, Jones’ trial had made Mesa County history. Rubinstein said the Jones case has broken Mesa County records for the number of pre-trial motions filed — 96 — and the most hours spent in arguing those motions in court — 76, according to the Rubinstein’s office’s best estimate. Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the pre-trial process have already battled about what evidence should be admitted — including which alternative suspects can be described, what allegations about Jones’ LESTER JONES character Trial on first-degree and past bemurder charge havior can be made, expected to take and what two months physical evidence can be entered — and about whether the trial should proceed at all. Rubinstein said the prosecution of the case is complicated because Birgfeld’s life was complicated. While the search for Birgfeld was ongoing, investigators found themselves bogged down in a mire of potential suspects who inhabited Grand Junction’s disreputable underworld. “Paige was leading a double life and had this escort business on the side,” said Rubinstein, who has handled about 30 murder cases, including prosecution of three other first-degree murder trials. “The number of people that could have been involved grows.” It also took law enforcement nearly five years to find Birgfeld’s body, partially buried in a creek bed in the Wells Gulch area between Grand Junction and Delta where a couple of hikers stumbled across them. The case has long strained public resources in Mesa County. Early in the investigation, leaders at the district attorney’s office initially told law enforcement they didn’t have the resources to prosecute the case. Rubinstein said the Mesa
EXPLOSION: Cause of blast as yet unknown
July 25, 2016
Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn presided over several waves of potential jurors who showed up to court Monday after 600 summonses were sent out, according to Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein.
Name Airgas AlgntAir ArchCoal BBarrett BP PLC CBRL Grp Chevron ChoiceHtls Cimarex DowChem EnCana Halbrtn Harsco HewlettP HonwlIntl Kroger LockhdM NewmtM MolCoorB NL Inds Safeway Startek ThermoFis US Bancrp UtahMed VailRsrt WellsFargo WmsCos XcelEngy ZionBcp
Div 2.40 1.60 0 N/A 2.40 4.60 4.28 .82 .32 1.84 .06 .72 .00 .50 2.38 .48 6.60 .10 1.64 .00 1 .00 .60 1.02 1.04 3.24 1.52 2.56 1.36 .24
PE N/A 1.50 N/A N/A N/A 2.85 149.16 22.02 N/A 1.17 N/A N/A N/A 7.43 18.27 16.75 21.29 542.30 44.01 N/A N/A N/A 31.59 13.16 2.20 37.23 11.88 N/A 2.97 21.74
Last 142.95 142.81 N/A 5.84 35.87 158.73 105.66 48.42 118.38 53.12 8.24 43.83 9.70 14.11 115.61 35.98 257.31 41.27 101.67 3.02 N/A 4.25 156.89 42.19 66.68 144.53 48.32 24.52 44.32 26.31
Chg YTD%Chg +.00 +.00 -1.42 -.99 +0 +0 -.05 -.86 -.97 -2.70 +2.22 +1.40 -2.59 -2.45 +.11 +.23 -4.69 -3.96 +.15 +.28 -.51 -6.19 -1.29 -2.94 -.14 -1.44 +.05 +.35 -.12 -.10 -.19 -.53 -1.69 -.66 -1.14 -2.76 -.50 -.49 -.07 -2.32 +0 +0 -.05 -1.17 +.09 +.06 -.22 -.52 -.29 -.43 -.21 -.15 -.20 -.41 -.89 -3.63 -.08 -.18 -.01 -.04
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August 2, 2016
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No bond for suspect in girl’s killing By MIKE WIGGINS
A judge on Monday ordered a Grand Junction woman held without bail while she awaits trial in the brutal beating death of a 3-year-old girl last spring. Rebekah Joy Wallin, 31, was advised she could be charged with first-degree murder, child abuse
the crimes charged. He also granted Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle’s request that Wallin have no contact with Shanna Gossett, the co-defendant in the case, and no contact with anyone under the age of 18. Wearing a red jumpsuit — an indication she’s being held in a maximum security pod — Wallin showed no emotion during a brief
resulting in death, second-degree kidnapping and felony imprisonment — all felony counts. Mesa County Court Judge Bruce Raaum granted a rare request from prosecutors to not give Wallin the opportunity to post bond. Colorado law says no-bond holds are allowed in capital cases if “proof is evident” and “presumption is great” that a defendant is guilty of
hearing and said little other than indicating she understood the possible penalties she faces. Defense attorney Stephan Schweissing, who was appointed to handle the case because the public defender’s office is representing Gossett, said he didn’t have any information about the allegations against Wallin and couldn’t make an argument about her bond.
Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle declined after the hearing to discuss the reasons why he asked Wallin be held without bond. Prosecutors have argued for — and were granted — no-bond holds for Gossett and Michael Blagg, who is being retried in the 2001 murder of his wife, Jennifer.
See SUSPECT, page 10A ➤
No quick fix for GJ streets Ex-husband
worried for Birgfeld’s life Wanted her to quit as escort, feared she’d be killed, he says By GABRIELLE PORTER
CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel
First Street, looking north from Ouray Avenue, is one of the stretches of Grand Junction roadway identified as being in need of repair.
Council debating how to pay for road repairs By KATIE LANGFORD
To those who regularly drive over cracked, uneven pavement on Horizon Drive or dodge potholes on First Street, it’s clear that Grand Junction’s roads need significant repairs. City Council members de-
bated Monday how to fund those repairs, and specifically whether residents should vote on using the remaining $11.2 million of the Riverside Parkway debt to do so.
See STREETS, page 10A ➤
Regardless of election, Americans see division in their nation’s future
Condition of city streets deteriorating Pavement Condition Index (PCI) 10-24 serious
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ROBERT GARCÍA/The Daily Sentinel
To unite or divide Poll takers were asked which candidate, if elected, would make the country more united or more divided: Much/somewhat more united Clinton
By CHARLES ASHBY
Neither more united nor divided
Much/somewhat more divided 43 73
Don’t know/refused to answer 1 2 NOTE: Poll of 1,008 adults; margin of error ±4.1 percentage points; conducted June 23-26. SOURCE: The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research
Study: Single rating area won’t cut health-care costs for Western Slope Charles.Ashby@gjsentinel.com
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to be, it’s twice the share received by Trump, the Republican nominee. Some 85 percent of people say they the U.S. is more politically divided than in the past. Eighty percent view Americans as greatly divided on the most important values. The poll of 1,008 adults was conducted June 23-27 — before the political conventions. The margin of error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
AP National Writer
By MATT SEDENSKY NEW YORK — A new poll shows about three out of four Americans believe Donald Trump will further divide the country if elected, but doubts remain about Hillary Clinton’s ability to unite as well. The survey released Monday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found only about a third of people think Clinton, the Democratic nominee, would help unify the country. As low as the number seems
25-39 very poor
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Slain Grand Junction moth- vember 2014 and charged with er and call girl Paige Birgfeld first-degree murder, second-despoke about leaving the adult gree murder and kidnapping. entertainment business for Jones’ jury trial in Mesa County good just hours before her 2007 district court began last week, and is scheduled to disappearance, telling last until Sept. 16. a man she was romanBirgfeld, who was tically involved with married to Beigler for that she would quit if about two years, spent he wanted her to, the most of June 28, 2007, man said during the picnicking with him first day of testimony at a pull-off near a in Birgfeld’s accused stream in Eagle. While killer’s murder trial. Beigler testified that Florida resident Ron he urged Birgfeld to Beigler, an ex-husband of Birgfeld’s with PAIGE BIRGFELD stop working as an Had rekindled escort at her compawhom she had rekinny Models Inc., — and dled a romance in the romance with she said she would months before her ex-husband, who that if he wanted her to — disappearance, said he told her he wanted wanted her to stop he also said he was at some level involved in her to stop working as working as a the business and that an escort because he call girl she was in the process worried “she could get of trying to expand to killed,” he said Monthe Front Range. day in court. Prosecutors on Monday “She said that she would quit if I wanted her to,” Beigler said. kicked off the main part of the Birgfeld disappeared in late trial by introducing the jury to June 2007. Hikers happened Birgfeld’s family: her now-teenacross her skeletal remains in age daughter, who at age 8 rea remote part of Delta County ported her mother missing at nearly five years later. Grand the Mesa County Sheriff’s OfJunction resident Lester Jones, fice, and her parents. 65, a former client of Birgfeld’s with a history of domestic See WORRIED, page 10A ➤ violence, was arrested in No-
If Colorado were to make the entire state a single geographical rating area when it comes to helping determine health care insurance premiums, as opposed to the current nine, it could reduce costs in rural parts of the state that have seen skyrocketing increases in recent years. But to do so would require lower-cost areas, such as the more populous Front Range, to pay a lot more than they are now, according to a study released Monday by the Colorado Division of Insurance. While that may be fine for rural folks, those more populous areas aren’t likely to go
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for the idea of creating a single geographical zone, said state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail. While Donovan acknowledges that things do cost more in rural areas in general, she said the differences in health care costs don’t track with that relatively simple free-market reality. “Rarely does a gallon of milk cost six times what it does in Denver, and that’s what we’re seeing for some of these health care costs,’ ” Donovan said. “Things do cost more outside of urban centers, and then you mark that up another degree for resort communities. But should they cost as much more as they do in the health care world? That’s the next ques-
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tion we have to explore.” The study, called for under a bill introduced by Donovan and two other Western Slope lawmakers, was designed to examine why costs in rural parts of the state, particularly the more mountainous regions, are much higher than those along the Front Range. The short answer was that providers in those areas are charging more and have less competition, according to the study’s researchers. “There are very diverse costs between regions,” said Michael Brown, vice president of Lewis & Ellis, the Denver consulting firm that did the
Vol. 123 No. 257
See HEALTH, page 10A ➤
The Daily Sentinel • Tuesday, August 2, 2016
WORRIED: Her father also took witness stand SUSPECT: Girl abused for last month of life ➤ Continued from Page One Jess Dixon, 17, remembered her mother as a “typical soccer mom” who always put up a big Christmas tree and showered her three children with presents, including a puppy one year. Jess and her two younger brothers — now 15 and 12 — were close as children, spending time playing together outside or playing in the pool at their home on Oleaster Court. “We did everything with her,” Jess said. “We all slept in the same bed with her.” Jess spoke about the last phone call with her mother that she said was at about 8:30 p.m. the day of her disappearance. Jess said she remembers the moment she looked at the clock on the microwave. “That’s kind of ingrained in my memory,” she said. Birgfeld’s father, Frank Birgfeld of Centennial, spoke about the moment he learned his daughter was missing when he received a call from a Mesa County sheriff’s deputy.
“Man, it’s like a dagger,” he said. “It seemed like the pause took forever. … I said, ‘Missing? What do you mean missing?’” Suzie Birgfeld recalled driving to Grand Junction with her husband that same day, pulling into rest stops off Interstate 70 to look for the red Ford Focus their daughter was driving that day. Public defenders — who aren’t expected to call their witnesses for several more weeks — drilled down into some testimony Monday morning as they laid groundwork to try to impeach some of the prosecution’s witnesses. Exchanges between Frank Birgfeld and Public Defender Steve Colvin were particularly tense, as Frank Birgfeld sought to distance himself from his public critiques of the Sheriff’s Office during the drawnout investigation. Frank Birgfeld in 2009 contacted several media outlets announcing that he had asked the FBI’s Public Corruption Unit to investigate money rumored to be missing from his daughter’s home. The rumors, which were
brought to the forefront after being broadcast on the CBS program “48 Hours,” were never substantiated. Frank Birgfeld claimed Monday in court that he wasn’t dissatisfied with the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation. Rather, he said, he was afraid his daughter’s case would be relegated to a back burner. “I was pushing and prodding and making sure they kept on the case,” he said. When pressed by Colvin to defend letters he sent the agency then headed by Sheriff Stan Hilkey calling investigators’ work “sloppy,” Frank Birgfeld allowed that he had asked for another agency to take over the investigation into his daughter’s disappearance, but said he thought that was appropriate until somebody looked into the allegedly missing cash. “Questioning (the Sheriff’s Office’s) competency and saying they’re lazy — that’s not you being a frustrated father?” Colvin asked. “It really wasn’t,” Frank Birgfeld said.
STREETS: Several options, but no consensus ➤ Continued from Page One Three options for funding road repairs are drawing from existing funds, using the entire parkway debt or putting a sales tax increase on the ballot to increase annual funding for maintenance. Those options include using $3.5 million of the debt to overlay the parkway in 2017, and council members disagreed on whether using the remaining funds should be decided by voters. Councilor Chris Kennedy said he did not want to “punt” the debt question to the ballot. “In my view, we’re not asking for a tax increase at all,” Kennedy said. “We’re charged with being financially responsible with the city’s money, and to me, financial responsibility is making a decision to extend the debt service, use some of that money to get our poor streets up to speed in a way that’s articulated to the city without having to go for a vote to do that, so we can get our infrastructure to a manageable place.”
Greg Lanning, director of public works and utilities, told council members that the current $2.8 million budget for contracted street maintenance isn’t enough. To maintain streets at their current conditions — which are rated fair — contracted street maintenance needs $4 million annually. It would take $6.25 million to improve road conditions. Roads are rated using a pavement condition index that rates roads from 1 to 100. The best include Patterson Road, which rates a 92. First Street, rated a 29, needs to be rebuilt, Lanning said. Others fall in the middle, like Horizon Drive, which rates at 63. Overall, the city has a pavement condition index rating of 69. City staff will organize community meetings in the coming weeks to gather input on whether folks think it’s a good idea to use all of the parkway debt, plus excess funds from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights override, to fund road maintenance. Councilor Marty Chazen said
he “didn’t think it was fair” to use the parkway money to fund non-parkway road repairs without asking voters. Mayor Phyllis Norris said it would be difficult to reach enough people through community meetings to get adequate input. “I’m with Marty, I couldn’t do it without a vote, because I don’t care how many meetings you go out and have, you don’t talk to all the people, you talk to a few,” she said. The City Council is not legally required to ask voters to use the Riverside Parkway debt for other road repairs, City Manager Greg Caton said. Council members would only need to pass a resolution. If councilors passed a resolution to use the remaining debt, it would be spread over three years. That still doesn’t meet the need for additional annual funding, but Councilor Rick Taggart said he wasn’t optimistic about passing a sales tax measure to do so.
➤ Continued from Page One Wallin is accused of killing 3-year-old Bethannie Johnson — the niece of Gossett, Wallin’s then-girlfriend — on March 17. The Mesa County Coroner’s Office determined the toddler died of multiple blunt-force injuries and ruled her death a homicide. Gossett, who was arrested hours after Bethannie’s death and faces the same charges as Wallin, initially told police she had strapped the child in a high chair and kept her in a closet for two weeks, and that Wallin wasn’t aware Bethannie was in the roughly 1,000-squarefoot, three-bedroom home that she rented in the 3000 block of North 14th Street. She changed her story on
Wednesday, telling police in a meeting that Wallin was physically abusive to Bethannie for the last month of the toddler’s life. Court records allege multiple instances in which Wallin inflicted abuse on Bethannie, ranging from making the child run up and down the hallway of the home for exercise, to swinging Bethannie by her ankles and smashing her into various pieces of furniture, to forcing her to eat spicy foods, drink water and sit in tubs of cold water, to strapping her in a high chair and leaving her for hours on end. Gossett described instances in which Wallin punched Bethannie in the face, causing bruises and black eyes just before
the child’s regular doctor appointments. Gossett said she rescheduled the appointments to keep medical staff from seeing the bruises, according to court records. Two days before Bethannie died, Gossett claimed, Wallin swung the child into a shelving unit, then threw her into a wall, causing her to strike her head. Bethannie began jerking and stopped breathing, but Gossett said Wallin refused to call 911 initially because she didn’t want to lose custody of her own three children. It wasn’t until the morning of March 17 — two days later — that Wallin agreed to call 911, according to court records. Wallin is due back in court on Aug. 9.
HEALTH: Western Slope’s costs always highest ➤ Continued from Page One study. “Typically, Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs have lower costs. The other regions excluding the west have higher costs, maybe 10 to 15 percent. The west is much higher. It can be 30, 40 or 50 (percent higher).” The study found that consistently the Western Slope, which is its own region except for Mesa County, had the highest costs nearly across the board. In the four major areas of health care costs — outpatient visits, inpatient admissions, professional visits and prescriptions — the Western Slope had the highest costs per service in all but prescription drugs. But Brown said forcing all insurance carriers into a statewide rating system may spur them to stop offering coverage in Colorado altogether. He said if the state did create a single rating area, costs in the more expensive regions such as the Western Slope could see a 20 percent reduction, while the less expensive regions on the Front Range would see their rates increase by about 9 percent. Instead, he suggested a lot more research needed to be done on what’s really driving those costs. In the meantime, he suggested a few other maneuvers to help reduce those costs, including improve transparency in what providers are charging and make sure patients know it. Doing so might cause them to go elsewhere for services, and force some providers to lower their costs because of that increased competition, Brown said. Other statewide groups following the issue agreed with the study’s assessment. “Health insurance coverage is clearly too expensive in western Colorado, but moving to a single geographic rating area could disrupt Colorado’s health insurance market and reduce competition,” said Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement for the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, a health advocacy group. “We need to strike a balance between helping to lower costs and maintaining a competitive marketplace, and focus more on costs and how patients are using health care.”
Comparing health costs by region Cost per service A Colorado Division of Insurance study on why healthcare costs are so much higher in rural parts of the state concluded that the issue can't be fixed merely by combining the entire state into a single geographic area, as opposed to the current nine regions. While the study said rural costs could be reduced by creating a single region, it would come at the expense of lower-cost areas of the state. Inpatient admits
Outpatient visits Grand Junction
Source: Colorado Division of Insurance
Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar said the state tried reducing the number of regions in 2013, only to see rates on the Western Slope continue to rise. “My concern is that moving to a single geographic rating area could end up harming the very citizens it is trying to help,” she said. “People in the mountain areas could be facing even higher premiums, or could be left without any insurance options. A move to a single geographical rating area would be an attempt to treat a symptom rather than finding a cure.” To address that, Salazar said Gov. John Hickenlooper has directed her office to study the is-
ROBERT GARCÍA/The Daily Sentinel sue further, ordering her to come back with more recommendations by the end of the year. Carbondale Republican Rep. Bob Rankin, who introduced the bill calling for the study with Donovan and Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco, said the citizens on the Western Slope can’t wait much longer for solutions. “Rural Colorado is suffering,” Rankin said. “We are not sharing in the prosperity of the Front Range of Colorado. This issue is probably the most significant and important issue in western Colorado, and our citizens are outraged. They’re very close to carrying pitchforks and torches in the streets. The status quo is not acceptable.”
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SANCHEZ AND SIEMIAN TAKE QB SKILLS TO CHICAGO PAGE 1B
August 12, 2016
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Bottger hangs up robes D51 pupils
trail state in test scores Some post good results; sophomores lag slightly By GARY HARMON
CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel
Chief Judge David Bottger retires this afternoon after 30-plus years on the bench. He said most days he’s been happy to come to work, although the job itself is not always fun. “Not many people come to court for a happy reason,” Bottger said.
Compassion, fairness cited in his three decades on bench By GABRIELLE PORTER
When Virginia walked into Mesa County Chief Judge David Bottger’s courtroom two years ago, she knew she might be facing a prison sentence. The now-41-year-old Grand Junction woman, who had a well-documented history of getting into legal trouble, appeared in custody for sentencing after she had pleaded guilty in a
drug-related case. “He just gave me the opportunity to take probation and rehab, and it really just saved my life,” said Virginia, who asked that her last name not be used. “He was stern about it. … (But) he took the chance with me, and I’ve proved to him that people really can change.” Three months later, when Virginia appeared before Bottger again, he wanted details on how her recovery was going.
She invited him to her rehab graduation. A few days before the celebration, Virginia got a card in the mail full of congratulations from Bottger, and regrets that he wouldn’t be there. “He told me I was doing a good job and he was proud of me,” said Virginia, who now runs her own painting company. “At the time, at my lowest of lows, that was a big deal to me. … Made me feel like, ‘I don’t want to let this guy down.’ ”
Virginia, along with a number of Mesa County criminal justice leaders, said compassion and fairness are the most defining qualities for Bottger, who is retiring today after more than three decades on the bench. Bottger plans to board a flight Saturday to rejoin his wife in Austin, Texas, for a retirement he said will include model
See BOTTGER, page 5A ➤
School District 51 sopho- their peers statewide, accordmores who took the Prelimi- ing to test results. Students improved the disnary Scholastic Aptitude Test lagged slightly behind their trict’s average composite score peers statewide in a preview of from 19.7 posted the previous how they might perform when year to 19.8 this time around. The statewide composite avthe state switches to the SAT erage was 20.4. next year. Palisade High School exDistrict 51 juniors who took ceeded the state average with the ACT in the fall posted an an average composite improvement over score of 20.5, but was their predecessors SCHOOL outstripped by Mesa while lagging slightRANKINGS Valley Community ly behind their School, which posted peers, according See how each an average composto the Colorado individual school ite score of 22.5. Department of ranked, 4A Fruita Monument Education, which High School put up released the results an average composite of 20.3 of several tests on Thursday. In general, the district re- while Grand Junction High sults “are pretty much in line School’s was 20.2. Fruita Monument, Grand with the last 10 years,” said Matt Diers, executive director Junction, Central, Mesa Valof high schools for the district. ley, Grand River Academy and The overall PSAT average R-5 high schools all increased score for District 51 students their average composite scores was 924.2 with a participation year over year, while Palisade tied with the Bulldogs’ 2014 rate of 86.9 percent. The overall average score score after setting a 21.1 mark statewide was 944 with a par- last year. “The big emphasis is how to ticipation rate of 88.3 percent. Last year’s sophomores took increase participation” in the the Colorado Measures of Ac- tests in coming years so teachademic Success test, so there ers and administrators can is no year-to-year comparison, better prepare students for the but the students who took the exams, Diers said. The test results are importPSAT this year will take the ant to curriculum developSAT next year. Juniors who took the ACT ment and while the district has this year, meanwhile, made internal information, the state progress over their predecesSee TEST, page 4A ➤ sors, but still lagged behind
Interview: Jones can’t recall actions on key night By GABRIELLE PORTER
Lester Jones told investigators in 2007 that he couldn’t remember what he was doing the night then-missing Grand Junction mother and call girl Paige Birgfeld disappeared; that he was sure he hadn’t called her escort business that day; and
that the night her torched car was found in a parking lot near his work he didn’t notice the burning car, although he was in the area around the time it was reported. Jurors on Thursday watched video of law enforcement interviewing Jones in the days following Birgfeld’s disappearance June 28, 2007, at the end
of the second week of evidence presented in Jones’ first-degree murder trial. Birgfeld’s disappearance prompted major search efforts in the Grand Valley, and Jones, a former client of her escort business, surfaced early on as a suspect. It wasn’t until 2012 that hikers came across Birgfeld’s skeletal remains in a remote
area in Delta County. Jones was charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and kidnapping, and is in the midst of a trial expected to run through mid-September. Mesa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Wayne Weyler, who in 2007 headed the department’s complex crimes unit, can be seen in the video trying to pin down
Jones’ version of the week leading up to Birgfeld’s disappearance in the interview. Jones said he called Models, Inc., Wednesday, June 27 – the day before Birgfeld disappeared – and was given a massage by a woman who called herself “Gail.” However, in the interview he repeatedly denied that he called Birgfeld again the next
Pot stays Schedule I drug Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has decided marijuana will remain on the list of most dangerous drugs, fully rebuffing growing support across the country for broad legalization, but said it will allow more research into its medical uses. The decision to expand research into marijuana’s medical potential could pave the way for the drug to be moved to a lesser category. Heroin, peyote and marijuana, among others, are considered Schedule
GJSentinel.com HOME PAGE OF WESTERN COLORADO
I drugs because they have no medical application; cocaine and opiates, for example, have medical uses and, while still illegal for recreational use, are designated Schedule II drugs. The Drug Enforcement Administration said the agency’s decision came after a lengthy review and consultation with the Health and Human Services Department, which said marijuana “has a high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use.” The decision means that pot will remain illegal for any purpose under federal law, despite laws in 25 states and District of Columbia
High 90, Low 60 COMPLETE FORECAST ON 2A
that have legalized pot for either medicinal or recreational use. Advocates have long pushed for the federal government to follow suit. “If the scientific understanding about marijuana changes — and it could change — then the decision could change,” DEA acting administrator Chuck Rosenberg wrote in a letter to the governors of Rhode Island and Washington, who sought the review of marijuana’s classification in 2011. “But we will remain tethered
See POT, page 4A ➤
Commentary................. 6A Business .............. ........ 8A
See JONES, page 4A ➤
Energy group: Feds sabotage leasing sales
DEA, though, loosens rules on marijuana research By ALICIA A. CALDWELL
day, or that he saw her. Prosecutors also showed surveillance footage of Jones buying a pre-paid TracFone from Walmart June 26, 2007 – two days before Birgfeld went missing. The phone was activated early the next morning, accord-
By MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
A Lakewood Police Department officer blocks a door so a protester cannot enter the lobby of a hotel during an attempt to disrupt a federal auction of drilling rights in May of this year. More than 200 people turned out to protest the Bureau of Land Management sale. Sports ........................ . 1B Movies .......... Out&About
Comics ...................... 6B Obituaries ................. 8A
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BILLINGS, Mont. — A trade group for the energy industry accused federal officials Thursday of illegally canceling or postponing the sale of more than two dozen oil and gas leases over the past two years. The Western Energy Alliance sued the Obama administration in U.S. District Court in New Mexico, seeking to force officials to hold
See ENERGY, page 4A ➤ Vol. 123 No. 267
The Daily Sentinel • Friday, August 12, 2016
POT: Research limited to only 1 university ➤ Continued from Page One to science, as we must, and as the statute demands. It certainly would be odd to rely on science when it suits us and ignore it otherwise.” Rosenberg said designating marijuana a Schedule I drug does not necessarily mean it is as dangerous as other drugs. “It is best not to think of drug scheduling as an escalating ‘danger’ scale — rather, specific statutory criteria (based on medical and scientific evidence) determine into which schedule
a substance is placed,” Rosenberg wrote. The Food and Drug Administration said agency officials reviewed more than 500 studies on the use of medical marijuana, identifying only 11 that met the agency standards for “legitimate testing.” For various reasons, none of the trials demonstrated “an accepted medical use,” the agency concluded. The FDA last evaluated marijuana for medical use in 2006 and said in its latest review that the available research “has
progressed,” but does not meet federal standards of safety or effectiveness. While the DEA won’t reclassify marijuana, the agency did announce plans to make it easier for researchers to study pot’s possible medical benefits by expanding the number of entities that can legally grow marijuana for research purposes. Currently only researchers at the University of Mississippi are allowed to grow marijuana, as part of a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Case made for food stamp fraud By BRADY McCOMBS Associated Press
SALT LAKE CITY — Lyle Jeffs and other polygamous sect leaders carried out a multi-million dollar food stamp fraud scheme so they could live lavish lifestyles while low-ranking followers lived on rice, tomato sauce and plain toast, federal prosecutors contended in a new court filing Thursday. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah pushed back in the filing against the assertion made by Jeffs and 10 other suspects that they shared the food stamps as part of their communal living practices that are protected by religious rights. Attorneys for the suspects — indicted in February on fraud and money laundering charges — said in a court brief in July that pooling the food stamps benefited the group because
they got more food for less money by buying in bulk. Prosecutors scoffed at that theory in their brief, writing: “Jeffs’ proffered vision of the scheme is not the reality.” Jeffs and 10 other sect members are accused of buying items with their food stamp cards and taking them to a church warehouse where leaders decided how to distribute the products to followers in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. Authorities also say food stamps were cashed at sectowned stores without the users getting anything in return. The money was then diverted to front companies and used to pay for a tractor, truck and other items, prosecutors say. Investigators found that the warehouse hardly ever had enough food to provide all members with a nutritious diet. Fol-
TEST SCORES SPRING 2016 ACHIEVEMENT RATES* Key: School name, CMAS participation rate, 2015 mean scale score, 2016 mean scale score
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Appleton Elementary, Grade 5 Fruita 8/9 School, Grade 8 Rim Rock Elementary, Grade 5 Pear Park Elementary, Grade 5 Bookcliff Middle, Grade 8 Broadway Elementary, Grade 5 Chatfield Elementary, Grade 5 Chipeta Elementary, Grade 5 Clifton Elementary, Grade 5 Independence Academy, Grade 5 Dos Rios Elementary, Grade 5 Dual Immersion Academy, Grade 5 East Middle School, Grade 8 New Emerson School, Grade 5 Fruitvale Elementary School, Grade 5 Grand Mesa Middle School, Grade 8 Lincoln Orchard Mesa Elementary, Grade 5 Loma Elementary School, Grade 5 Mesa Valley Community School, Grade 5 Mesa Valley Community School, Grade 8 Mesa View Elementary School, Grade 5 Mount Garfield Middle School, Grade 8 Nisley Elementary School, Grade 5 Orchard Avenue Elementary, Grade 5 Orchard Mesa Middle School, Grade 8 Pomona Elementary School, Grade 5 Redlands Middle School, Grade 8 Rocky Mountain Elementary, Grade 5 Shelledy Elementary School, Grade 5 Taylor Elementary School, Grade 5 Thunder Mountain Elementary, Grade 5 Tope Elementary Grade 5 West Middle School, Grade 8 Scenic Elementary School, Grade 5 Wingate Elementary School, Grade 5
77.1 60.6 78.6 92.1 68.9 78.6 98.5 88.9 96.8 82.2 84.3 95.7 89 100 87.2 71.6 83.9 76.7 80 80.8 80.3 76.6 81.9 80.6 71.2 81.8 80.8 98.8 92 69.8 80.5 90.9 63.6 85.1 87.5
659 583 615 562 588 615 583 578 557 632 568 576 591 676 569 551 601 574 604 604 611 563 555 631 569 637 654 556 571 636 611 554 553 655 633
643 564 599 557 579 599 549 552 567 638 535 633 604 675 544 553 581 565 598 598 564 565 525 650 555 586 645 547 605 613 590 576 507 627 641
All District 51 schools, Grade 5 All District 51 schools, Grade 8
*Where available Source: Colorado Department of Education
lowers often went without meat, fruit or vegetables while leaders ate well and laundered money to buy the vehicles and other things, prosecutors say, contending that at least one child had severe health issues as a result. Prosecutors took specific aim at Lyle Jeffs and John Wayman in the latest filing, saying the two men were motivated by profit, not religious beliefs, and that their families directly benefited by getting preferential treatment at the storehouse and other benefits from the scheme. Lyle Jeffs is a fugitive after slipping off his GPS ankle monitor in late June and escaping home confinement in Salt Lake City. His brother Warren Jeffs sits in a Texas prison serving a life sentence after being convicted of sexually assaulting girls he considered brides.
TEST: Lower participation ➤ Continued from Page One data also is important. On the Colorado Measures of Academic Success test, 27.6 percent of District 51 fifth-graders “met or exceeded expectations,” which was down 3.3 percentage points from 2015. Eighth-graders, however, posted improved marks, up 4.4 percentage points from the 2015 mark to 28.3 percent who met or exceeded expectations. High school juniors didn’t take the science test in 2015, and of those who took it in 2016, 23.7 percent met or exceeded expectations. All of the students who took the CMAS science test this year were seeing it for the first time. Participation rates among fifth-graders in District 51 slipped from 91.8 percent in 2015 to 86 percent taking the science test in 2016. Among eighth-graders, participation dropped from 77.7 percent in 2015 to 72.2 percent in 2016. Just over a third of juniors, 36.8 percent, took the CMAS science test this year. Increased participation is also an emphasis in the elementary and middle schools, said Steve States, executive director of elementary schools. “We certainly are going to be looking at individual student results,” but without higher participation rates, it’s difficult to draw overall conclusions, States said. “One thing this does is point to the need to continue (the district’s) transformation efforts,” States said. “It doesn’t necessarily guarantee improvement, but ultimately we believe it will help perform better.”
ENERGY: Sales called off, industry complains ➤ Continued from Page One lease sales four times a year as required under the federal Mineral Leasing Act. The group said sales have been called off in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. U.S. officials have blamed at least some cancellations on companies’ limited interest, citing low oil and gas prices that have drastically slowed exploration over the past two years. Of more than 2.2 million federal acres offered for sale last
year, just over a half-million acres received bids, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management. Mark Barron, lead attorney on the lawsuit, said the leasing cancellations have extended even into oil and gas fields where operating costs are low and companies can still make a profit, such as the Permian Basin of New Mexico and Texas. “There’s a simple requirement under the Mineral Leasing Act. They are not adhering to it at this point and our question simply is why,” Barron said. Interior Department spokes-
woman Amanda Digraph said the agency was aware of Thursday’s lawsuit but does not comment on pending litigation. Less frequent lease sales can hit smaller companies particularly hard, said Jerry McHugh Jr., founder of San Juan Resources, a Denver-based company that operates several dozen wells in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. McHugh said low oil prices can drive down lease prices, presenting an opportunity to build up inventory. If lease sales are held in other areas but not regularly in the San Juan Basin, that does his company little good.
JONES: Admits hiring Birgfeld for a massage ➤ Continued from Page One
ing to a TracFone Wireless staff member who testified. Prosecutors have asserted that Jones used a TracFone to call Birgfeld repeatedly the day she disappeared, and in opening arguments said he took steps to hide his identity from her. Public Defender Steve Colvin asked Weyler whether evidence about the TracFone was “a key piece of evidence that a man with a history of visiting prostitutes visits prostitutes.” “He’s a guy that’s minimizing his history with prostitutes,” Colvin said. Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein pointed out through Weyler that Jones had used his regular cellphone to contact prostitutes on many occasions. When asked by Weyler in the taped interview what cellphones he used, Jones didn’t
mention the TracFone. Sunday night that week — July 1, 2007 — Jones told investigators what he had told his wife: that he drove to his workplace at Bob Scott RV because he was worried he might have left some lights on in the shop. In the time he was gone, passers-by reported what turned out to be Birgfeld’s car, on fire in a nearby parking lot. Jones told investigators in the taped interview that he didn’t see the car when he was passing by. “The first time I was aware of anything there was when it was Monday and all the traffic was there,” Jones said. “I didn’t see the car on fire, and I don’t even know if I looked that way.” Weyler also pressed Jones about his relationship with Birgfeld. Jones admitted early on that he had hired Birgfeld for an erotic massage about a year before she disappeared, and said he recognized her during
the appointment as the ex-wife of Rob Dixon, a person he knew slightly. Jones said he didn’t hire the service again until the night before Birgfeld went missing, although he told investigators that he had called the service back numerous times in 2007. In the taped interview, Jones refused to explain why he called back. “You’ve got my records,” Jones says in the interview. “I called them and I talked to whoever answered the phone. And that was it.” Weyler pointed out that Jones already knew Birgfeld’s price, as he had paid $400 about a year earlier for the nude massage with some sex-related services. “Why the obsession with calling?” Weyler asked in the interview. “I don’t know that I was ‘obsessed’…, ” Jones answered. “I was just curious.”
INSIDE: ANCIENT CUPPING PRACTICE FLARES UP HEALTH&WELLNESS ALSO INSIDE GJ ROCKIES, CHUKARS GO DOWN TO THE WIRE SPORTS 1B
August 23, 2016
Your community news source since 1893
‘A monster did this’ ‘to my granddaughter’
For the killing of 2-year-old, Junction man gets 32 years
By GABRIELLE PORTER
By ERIN McINTYRE
A 22-year-old Grand Junction man was sentenced to 32 years in prison Monday for killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter last year. Mesa County District Judge Thomas Deister handed down the sentence to Isaac Ortiz after listening to hours of arguments from the prosecution and the public defender, watching a slideshow of Ortiz’s life presented by the defense, and hearing personal testimony from family members related to Ortiz and the deceased child, Lyla Blackwood. “A monster did this to my granddaughter,” said Grant Schumann, whose daughter, Hannah, is mother to both the deceased victim and her younger half-sister fathered by Ortiz before Lyla’s death. “The maximum you can give him isn’t enough.” Lyla Blackwood died after multiple blows to the head and neck, evident by as many as 10 separate bruises the coroner documented in his autopsy of her body. Mesa County Coroner Dean Havlik, the prosecution’s sole witness at the sentencing hearing, told the court that Blackwood died as a result of blunt-force trauma to the head and neck, struck by most likely a hand or fist, or both. Havlik told the court that he also found evidence of compression on the child’s neck, indicating she also had wounds consistent with strangulation. Lyla Blackwood died on July 29, 2015, as a result of Ortiz’s physical discipline, which he detailed in a confession to investigators. Ortiz said she was cranky and he “knocked her on the head,” according to law enforcement records. He characterized the blow as “kind of like a chop” and also said he grabbed her face and told her to knock it off. Later that evening, Ortiz
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Amber Ortiz reaches toward her son, Isaac Ortiz, as he is taken from a Mesa County courtroom Monday after receiving a 32-year prison sentence for killing his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter, Lyla Blackwood, last year. The girl died July 29, 2015, from blunt-force trauma to the head and neck, struck by most likely a hand or fist, or both. The coroner also found evidence of wounds consistent with strangulation. called 911, reporting that Lyla wasn’t breathing. Deister said no one really knows exactly what happened in that “horrible moment” when Lyla was fatally injured, except “you, and Lyla and God,” he told Ortiz. A plea agreement recommended the judge consider a sentence between 20 and 40 years for a conviction of child abuse resulting in death. A more serious charge of second-degree murder was dropped as part of a plea agreement. Public Defender Scott Burrill asked the judge to consider a sentence of 22 years, considering Ortiz’s lack of experience in parenting, his cognitive abilities, and his age, among other factors. Burrill called Ortiz a personal friend and said he regretted what happened. Deister invited Ortiz to speak to the court, but he declined. The defense portrayed Ortiz as a man who didn’t know his own strength, who was under financial stress and had made a mistake at the “worst moment of his entire life.”
“This is something far beyond poor judgment, a mistake or an accident,” said Mesa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Trish Mahre, noting that Ortiz was unable to cope with a child’s behavior and beat a toddler who weighed only 23 pounds when she died. Lyla also had various undiagnosed health problems characterized as “failure to thrive” issues including hair loss and digestion difficulties.
Isaac Ortiz, right, consults with his attorney, Scott Burrill, during court Monday before Mesa County District Judge Thomas Deister. The judge invited Ortiz to speak to the court, but he declined. The actions that caused Lyla’s death were out of character for someone who was otherwise known as a role model and a “gentle soul,” Burrill told the court. Ortiz’s mother, Amber, told stories of his childhood and how he was a good older brother while the defense presented a slideshow of his baby photos. “This is something far beyond poor
judgment, a mistake or an accident,” Mesa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Trish Mahre said, noting that Ortiz was unable to cope with a child’s behavior and beat a toddler who weighed only 23 pounds when she died. Lyla also had various undiagnosed
See MONSTER, page 5A ➤
Man suspected of making hash oil, igniting fire By MIKE WIGGINS
A Fruita man was arrested after he allegedly sparked a fire at his home earlier this month by making marijuana concentrate in the bedroom of his two children. Billy G. Beebe, 22, was advised in court Monday that he could be charged with felony counts of unlicensed manufacture of marijuana concentrate using a hazardous substance and fourth-degree arson and misdemeanor counts of child abuse and reckless endangerment. A Fruita police officer responded shortly before 1 a.m. Aug. 1 to Beebe’s home in the 500 block of West Aspen Avenue and reported smelling smoke and spotting a small fire in front of the
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Ex-wife: Jones tried to kill me in 1999
Beebe, who had left the home. residence, returned with his The officer spoke to Beebe, girlfriend, Brittany, and their who said something caught two children, ages 2 and 11 on fire and he threw it outside months. He and his girlfriend in the yard and was trying to agreed to be interviewed by put it out with a garden hose, police. according to an arrest affidavit. Beebe told police he was The officer approached the making hash oil — a process burned item and discovered it that involves using butane was a long glass pipe packed to extract THC, the primary BILLY BEEBE with what appeared to be psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. marijuana, from the plant A Lower Valley firefighter pointed — in his children’s bedroom the prethe officer inside to the children’s bed- vious morning while his girlfriend room, which was destroyed by heat and and kids were asleep in the couple’s fire. The officer noticed inside the bed- bedroom. room several cans of butane, a broken He said he was running late for work glass plate and a gold-colored liquid and forgot to clean up the materials the officer determined to be hash oil, used to make the hash oil. according to the affidavit. Beebe said he came home about
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10:30 p.m. and was making some dinner when the fire started in the bedroom. He said he grabbed the glass pipe that was on fire, threw it outside and ran back inside to try to put out the fire in the bedroom. Beebe yelled for his girlfriend, Brittany, to get the kids and herself out of the house, according to the affidavit. Brittany, who told police Beebe is her first cousin, said she was not aware that Beebe was making hash oil but knows he smokes marijuana. She said she had gone to sleep about 8 p.m. and woke up to smoke, saw a flame and heard Beebe yell at her to grab the kids and get out of the house. She denied any involvement with the hash oil, according to the affidavit. A judge signed a warrant for Beebe’s arrest on Thursday.
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Jurors heard Monday how Lester Jones in 1999 followed his ex-wife and the man she was dating in a car, chased them from Lazear to Paonia, ran them off the road, rammed the car they were driving and shot twice at the man, grazing his head, as he tried to run away. Jones, who in an entirely separate case is accused of killing Grand Junction single mother and call girl Paige Birgfeld in 2007, is standing trial for first-degree murder, second-degree murder and kidnapping. Birgfeld, who Jones hired for an erotic LESTER JONES message at Jurors heard least once in the year before her from his ex-wife disappearance, Lisa Nance was last heard from June 28, 2007. Her car was found on fire three days later near the business where Jones worked at the time. Lisa Nance, who was married to Jones for about two years in the late 1990s, spoke Monday about several frightening experiences she had with Jones sometime after the pair had separated. One early morning in January 1999, Nance said she was leaving her Lazear home with Joe Bear, a man she was dating, and heading to Paonia, where Bear lived and worked. Nance told jurors that while she was still inside her home, she noticed the dome light was on in her car, and she could see Jones “going through my car.” Nance said she and Bear waited until they saw Jones walk away before going out to her car. “It wasn’t long that … we saw a car come following us,” Nance said. “We got to Hotchkiss and I notice that it was (Jones) behind us.” Nance said Jones pulled up alongside her car and asked her to stop and talk to him. She refused, and tried to drive away, but Jones kept following, she said. “He chased us all the way to Paonia,” Nance said. Driving fast, Nance turned onto a side road trying to get away. Jones reportedly forced Nance’s car into a ditch on the side of the road, according to Nance and Bear, who also testified Monday. Jones pulled his car in front of them and rammed them from the front hard enough to set off airbags, they said. Nance said the doors to the car were jammed shut, and she thought her nose was broken. Jones had gotten out of the car, and Nance said she could see a gun in his hand. “Joe (Bear) said, ‘Oh my God, he’s got a gun,’ ” Nance said. Bear tried to pull Nance with him out the passenger window, but Nance claimed that Jones held onto her and kept her in the car. “I heard two gunshots over the top of the car,” Nance said. “I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, he probably shot him.’ ” Bear testified that one shot grazed the back of his head. Jones put his ex-wife in the passenger seat of his own car. Nance said she asked him to put the gun down, which he did, and to go get something to drink to calm down. Once the pair had reached a shop to buy coffee, Nance said she told Jones she was going to call somebody about her car. Instead, she called 911, she said. In another incident, Nance said
See EX-WIFE, page 5A ➤ Vol. 123 No. 278
The Daily Sentinel • Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Texas judge blocks Obama’s transgender rules By PAUL J. WEBER Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge in Texas has blocked the Obama administration’s order that requires public schools to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their chosen gender identity. In a temporary injunction signed Sunday, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the federal education law
known as Title IX “is not ambiguous” about sex being defined as “the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth.” The judge said the order would apply nationwide. The ruling, he said, was not about the policy issues of transgender rights but about his conclusion that federal officials simply did not follow rules that required an opportunity for comment before such directives are issued.
“This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students’ rights and that of personal privacy ... while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school,” he wrote. The ruling was the second recent setback for transgender advocates. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Virginia school board can block for now a transgender male from using the boys’ restroom while justices decide whether to
Couple weds to sweet sound of tornado sirens in Michigan By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Not even tornado sirens could stop a Michigan couple from saying “I do.” As the sirens blared across Grand Rapids, Brandon Warner married Breane Proctor in front of family members and guests at a church. Despite the storm threat, Warner decided to proceed with Saturday’s ceremony. “Bree is ready and we’re all here. Let’s go through with this,” he said. “Let’s make it happen. I figured if we were going to get hit, maybe it was meant to be.” “We just kind of shrugged our shoulders and went down the aisle,” said Proctor. After exchanging vows, storm sirens sounded again and everyone stood beneath the church’s balconies, away from its stained-glass windows. A little less than an hour after they said “I do,” a tornado reportedly touched down less than three miles away. “The church seemed so big and massive and sturdy,” Brandon said. “I truly did not know how
she was alone in her mobile home at night and on the phone with a girlfriend. She walked into her kitchen to get a drink of water, turned, and saw Jones sitting on her couch in the dark with mussed hair and a sweaty face. “It startled me,” Nance said. “He just didn’t look right.” Nance said Jones “wouldn’t say a lot,” but at one point he repeated back to her nearly word for word the conversation she had been having on the phone — both her end and her friend who was on the phone. “He named off every single thing that she said,” Nance said. In an effort to get Jones into a public place, Nance said she suggested they leave the house and go somewhere to eat. Jones agreed and put Nance into the passenger seat of her own car before driving away, taking backroads the whole time. Nance said she tried to talk to him while he drove. “He wouldn’t talk …” she said. “All he wanted to do was rub the back of my head and say ‘It’s all going to be OK.’ ” Nance said when Jones didn’t stop in Cedaredge as she expected, she asked him if they weren’t going to eat. When Jones said no, Nance asked him what they were doing. “He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to kill you,’ ” Nance said, adding that Jones started slapping her repeatedly, and she tasted blood. “I asked him to please stop, and then he started driving crazy as we went up the hill (to Grand Mesa),” Nance said. “He told me he was going to put me in the bottom of the lake where no one would find me.”
health problems which the defense characterized as “failure to thrive” issues including hair loss and digestion difficulties at the time. Mahre asked the court to consider a sentence close to 40 years. Preston Blackwood, Lyla’s father, indicated he was upset with the plea agreement limiting the possible sentence to 40 years and asked for the maximum sentence to send a message to the community. “It ain’t clear enough in this town that we don’t tolerate this in Mesa County,” he said, noting that more names have been added to the memorial for child abuse victims in front of the Mesa County Courthouse since Lyla’s death. “No amount of time in prison
which is why we took action to protect states and school districts.” The Justice Department issued a brief statement saying it was disappointed in the ruling and was reviewing its options. If the Obama administration challenges the injunction, the case would head next to the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Texas alone gets roughly $10 billion in federal education funds.
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bad it was until everyone got on their cellphones and looked at the maps.” After the storm passed, the wedding party rode around to look at some of the storm damage. Some trees were knocked over and power lines were downed. No injuries were reported.
Nance said in an effort to survive, she told Jones she still loved him. He told her to prove it by having sex with him. Nance said she tried, but there was no room in her small car. “I said, ‘Can we please just go get a motel room and we can just work it out?’ ” Nance said. Jones reportedly agreed, and drove to a motel near Delta. He pulled in, looked at Nance and asked her to promise that she would wait here, Nance said. She agreed, and he went into the motel’s office. “I climbed over (to the driver’s side) and I took off,” Nance said. Nance said she drove as fast as she could in hopes of being pulled over. She was, and told the officer what had happened. Jones eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree assault in heat of passion and attempted kidnapping with a deadly weapon in the shooting incident, and to a felony count of violating bail-bond conditions in the second incident, and later served time in a state prison, according to court records. Jurors on Monday were cautioned that they could only use testimony from Nance and Bear to evaluate Jones’ possible motive, not as evidence of a bad character. Joel Bishop, a manager with Mesa County Criminal Justice Services, worked with Jones after his release from prison when he was in community corrections. He testified Monday that Jones denied for several years that he had sexually assaulted Nance, but eventually admitted that he believed she was afraid for her life. Prosecutors in Jones’ trial
rested their case late Monday morning at the start of the fourth week of testimony. State Deputy Public Defender Kara Smith called the defense’s first witnesses Monday afternoon and spent considerable time grilling a former Mesa County sheriff’s investigator with injury-induced memory problems about her conduct during the investigation. Former Investigator Beverly Jarrell, who led the efforts to find Birgfeld for several years, testified that she suffered from memory problems after an accident in 2010. “Would you agree that you made more mistakes than you should have in this case?” Smith asked. “Based on the complexity, I’m sure that there were a number of mistakes made, yes,” said Jarrell, who said repeatedly during her testimony that she simply couldn’t remember certain interviews and details from the investigation. Smith also called two witnesses who reported tips about Birgfeld’s disappearance that pointed to other potential suspects, but who said they felt that their information was dismissed. Defense attorneys who have so far focused efforts largely on pointing out the lack of forensic evidence tying Jones to Birgfeld’s death, and on all the investigative efforts that weren’t focused on other suspects, are expected to pivot to focus attention on several alternate suspects in Birgfeld’s death. Jones’ trial was originally scheduled to last through mid-September, although Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said the prosecution was about four days ahead of schedule Monday.
MONSTER: Judge advises bereaved mother to choose men more wisely in the future ➤ Continued from Page One
risked losing federal education dollars if they did not comply. Federal officials did not explicitly make that threat upon issuing the directive, although they also never ruled out the possibility. “This president is attempting to rewrite the laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people and is threating to take away federal funding from schools to force them to conform,” Paxton said. “That cannot be allowed to continue,
A downed tree sits on a fence Saturday in Wyoming, Mich., after a tornado swept through the area.
EX-WIFE: Former investigator grilled on memory ➤ Continued from Page One
fully intervene. Texas and 12 other states challenged the White House directive as unconstitutional. The judge also sided with Republican state leaders who argued that schools should have been allowed to weigh in before the White House mandate was announced in May. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, had argued that halting the Obama order before school began was necessary because districts
is gonna bring my daughter back, that’s the worst part,” said Hannah Schumann, Lyla’s mother, as she sobbed in front of the court. Deister said he’s seen too many cases like this during his career, and although Ortiz had done good things in his life, he also killed a “defenseless, fragile, health-compromised child.” “What a horrible, ironic turn of events,” Deister said, noting that Ortiz was raised without his own father and struggled with feelings of abandonment, but this act had left his own 14-month-old daughter, Ariana, in the same situation. “Now your own child is going to be raised by someone else, another man, possibly. What a shame.” Deister also cautioned Lyla and Ariana’s mother to be more careful about her choice
of companion and said he hoped she would choose to spend her life with someone less angry and with more self-control, for the sake of her child who is still alive. “Ms. Schumann, I’m just asking you to choose wisely,” he said. When Deister issued the sentence to Ortiz, his mother wailed and reached out to him as he was led from the courtroom, yelling, “No! I love you!” Deister also ordered Ortiz to pay for all counseling needed by Lyla’s parents as well as restitution, including the cost of the funeral and emergency responders. He also ordered him to take parenting classes, have a mental health evaluation, and receive cognitive behavior treatment and anger management therapy.
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August 25, 2016
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Keeping blue yonder safe
Drainage fee issue is going to court
Commercial drone pilots anticipate, fret about, new FAA rules
District judge sets trial for June 2017
By CHARLES ASHBY
Commercial drone pilots won’t have to fly through as many government hoops thanks to new rules that will be going into effect at the end of the month. Instead of getting what basically amounts to a pilot’s license to fly unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes, all those drone pilots need to do under new Federal Aviation Administration rules is pass a “knowledge test.” While some Grand Valley residents say that is a good thing, others are still a bit wary about what it all will mean. Erika Jones, marketing director for Skycam Marketing Consultants, says it’s not the current commercial fliers who she’s worried about. It’s everyone else. “The new rules definitely help keep what we do legit,” said Jones, whose employer has been using drones and cameras for such business clients as Bray Real Estate to help sell homes. “Not every Tom, Dick and Harry can run down to the hobby store and buy one and say, ‘Hey, I’m a drone pilot.’ The regulations help, but as far as changing anything that we’ve done ... as far as safety we’ve always followed our own common sense and extreme safety rules. Now they’re coming out with safety rules, and that’s nice, but it’s what we’ve always done.” The new rules require commercial drone pilots only to take a test to demonstrate that they know what they are doing, and to obtain a remote pilot certificate afterward, one that they will have to keep updated every few years. That test, which won’t be available until Aug. 29, will cost people $150 to take, but there are only a few places in the state where they can do that. According to the FAA, there are 12 such certified testing
places, only two of which are on the Western Slope: The Colorado Flight Center, 800 Heritage Way, in Grand Junction, and the Northwest Colorado Community College, 500 Kennedy Drive, in Rangely. A spokeswoman for the flight center said test-takers have two hours to take the online test, but if they fail they have to wait two weeks to take it again and pay the same $150 cost. Jones said there are already numerous people who want to take it, saying the first scheduled test is already booked solid. The problem, Jones says, is the fact that the new rules don’t apply to recreational drone flyers, many of whom aren’t as aware as she thinks they should be when it comes to safety. Unlike model airplane enthusiasts, who have long learned the lessons of flying safely and not endangering people on the ground, drones are different because they don’t require the same takeoff and landing areas. Many don’t know that they aren’t supposed to fly near airports or over ball fields or even people on the ground, Jones said. “It’s people like that who make what we do difficult,” Jones said. “We don’t fly for fun. We’ve got tens of thousands of dollars invested in our equipment. We make sure we are up to par, but there are just idiots out there who are giving the drone industry in general a really bad name.” Jones said she’s seen footage, for example, from drone cameras showing Mount Garfield that clearly are going right through the flight path for the Grand Junction Regional Airport. While the new FAA rules don’t apply to drone enthu-
By GARY HARMON
A trial set 10 months off could decide whether the Grand Valley Drainage District can continue charging its $3-a-month stormwater fee to residents and businesses. A ruling is imperative for the district, said General Manager Tim Ryan, even as Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis said he hoped a settlement could be reached. A fourday trial SHOULD beginning YOU PAY? June 5, 2017, In Friday’s edition, is now set The Sentinel explores before Mesa the issue in an County Diseditorial. trict Judge Lance Timbreza. Residents of the drainage district need a decision, said Ryan, scoffing at the idea of a settlement LANCE TIMBREZA between the district and the two organizations that filed suit against it, Mesa County and the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, to halt the fee. By the time the trial rolls around, the district already will have sent out its second year of invoices. Most homeowners will receive $36 bills each year and businesses will be billed $36 per 2,500 square feet of surfaces that shed rather than absorb water, such as roofs and concrete. Based on conversations with residents who call in to discuss the charge, “Our consensus is that the public wants a conclusion, a court ruling,” Ryan said. “It’s to everybody’s benefit to resolve this” and the extended time until the trial could help
ABOVE: Matt Jones with Skycam Marketing Consultants flies a drone in a neighborhood on Orchard Mesa. His company provides commercial flights for real estate sales and other uses. RIGHT: Jones views the images captured by his drone. Photos by DEAN HUMPHREY/The Daily Sentinel
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Jones trial witness: Sex client spoke of victim, made threats By GABRIELLE PORTER
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Turkey’s military launched an operation before dawn Wednesday to clear a Syrian border town of militants.
Turkey makes major strike in Syria By SUZAN FRASER and ZEINA KARAM Associated Press
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey on Wednesday launched its first major ground assault into Syria since the country’s civil war began, sending in tanks and special forces backed by U.S.
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airstrikes to help Syrian rebels retake a border town from Islamic State militants. The surprise incursion to capture the town of Jarablus was a dramatic escalation of Turkey’s role in Syria’s war. But its objective went beyond fighting extremists. Turkey is
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also aiming to contain expansion by Syria’s Kurds, who are also backed by the United States and have used the fight against IS and the chaos of the civil war to seize nearly the entire stretch
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A former Grand Valley call girl testified Wednesday that a john told her sometime before 2011 that he had killed Paige Birgfeld and could do the same to her, although the woman admitted she was high on cocaine with the man during the conversation and law enforcement said they don’t believe he was connected to Birgfeld’s death. Kristy Steves on Wednesday told jurors hearing Lester Jones’ murder trial that former client Wayne D’Amico, a car salesman who had also paid for Birgfeld’s escort services in the past, was “obsessive” and controlling, and that he threatened
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her while the two of them were alone at his workplace. “He had told me that he knows how to get rid of a body without anybody finding it. … He told me he could put my body through a wood chipper and nobody would find it,” Steves said. “I believed him to my core. I got chills. I typically have a good intuition; I was under the influence of drugs … but I believed him.” Defense attorneys for Jones on Wednesday presented D’Amico as a potential alternate suspect in Birgfeld’s disappearance and death. Birgfeld, who in addition to running an escort business was a single mother of three, was last heard from June 28,
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2007. Three days later, her car was found on fire in a parking lot not far from the Grand Junction business where Jones worked at the time. An accelerant — gasoline — was found to have been used in the blaze. Investigators found an empty gas can at Jones’ work station, which company officials said didn’t belong to the business. Birgfeld’s body was discovered in 2012, partially buried in a dry creek wash in Delta County’s Wells Gulch. Jones, a former client of Birgfeld’s who was identified as a suspect early in the investigation, was arrested in November 2014 and is currently standing trial for
Vol. 123 No. 280
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The Daily Sentinel • Thursday, August 25, 2016
Obama creates national monument in Maine RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA New York Times
President Barack Obama turned a vast stretch of Maine woods into the nation’s newest federal parkland on Wednesday, siding with conservationists who want the wild lands protected, over residents and officials who oppose intrusion from Washington and restrictions on use of the land. Obama designated more than 87,500 acres of rugged terrain, donated by a founder of the
Burt’s Bees product line, as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, administered by the National Park Service, a day before the service’s 100th anniversary. It became by far the largest region of federal parkland in Maine, surpassing the 48,900-acre Acadia National Park on the coast. It takes an act of Congress to create a national park, but under a 1906 federal law, the Antiquities Act, a president can act unilaterally to establish a
JONES: ‘Close friend’ of victim ➤ Continued from Page One charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and kidnapping. Jurors heard from two of D’Amico’s ex-wives, who talked about episodes of domestic conflict and violence. D’Amico himself took the stand Wednesday as well, admitting that he knew Birgfeld but denying that he killed her. D’Amico said his comments to Steves about both Birgfeld and the wood chipper were “totally misconstrued,” and that he would take them back if he could. “I said – out of context – had I (killed Birgfeld), they wouldn’t find her because I’d have used a wood chipper,” D’Amico said Wednesday. “This is going to get blown out of context, I know it is. … I know I didn’t hurt Paige.” D’Amico spoke of Birgfeld as a “good person” and a close friend, but said when she disappeared, the two of them had fallen out of touch. He also said he uses “clichés” about wood chippers, a reference to the movie “Fargo,” on a somewhat regular basis.
“It comes out more than it probably should,” D’Amico said. Mesa County Sheriff’s Investigator Jim Hebenstreit testified Wednesday that law enforcement officers weren’t able to confirm an alibi for D’Amico for either the night Birgfeld disappeared or the night her torched car was found. However, Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said, investigators who followed up on Steves’ tip weren’t able to link D’Amico to the crime. “There is not a single other thing that you can connect Mr. D’Amico to at all within the two months of her disappearance?” Rubinstein asked Hebenstreit, who agreed. “Nothing that you could find anywhere of anything.” Defense attorneys are expected to bring forward testimony about several other potential alternate suspects in the coming days, including the late George Coraluzzo, a drug user with a history of violent crime, and Steven Heald, who was reportedly being blackmailed by Birgfeld, according to earlier reports.
national monument, a power that Obama has used to build a major part of his environmental legacy. He has created two dozen national monuments, more than any previous president, ranging from small sites like the Stonewall Inn, a gay rights landmark in Manhattan, to more than 300,000 acres in the mountains east of Los Angeles. The designations prevent new mining and drilling operations, and sometimes curtail logging, grazing, road-building,
hunting and recreation — limits that in some rural areas, particularly in the West, are bitterly resented by residents and business people who say their regions’ economies depend on use of the land. Roxanne Quimby, a founder of Burt’s Bees, had been buying property in northeastern Maine for years and accelerated her purchases after selling the company in 2007. But she stoked the anger of Maine residents by closing the land to hunting and
snowmobiling. When she announced plans to turn it into a national park, the idea ran into fierce opposition. Her son, Lucas St. Clair, took over the campaign, allowing hunters and snowmobilers to return to part of the area. He and Obama administration officials vowed that the land would remain open to recreation if it was given to the government. The family donated $20 million for park development and maintenance, and pledged another
$20 million. After it became clear that Congress would not approve a national park, conservation groups lobbied the administration for a national monument designation. St. Clair won over some former opponents, but resistance has remained strong. In a struggling region that has long relied on shrinking timber-related businesses, many residents fear that a national monument could eventually mean new air pollution controls.
With new face, he’s happy with his life By RACHELLE BLIDNER Associated Press
NEW YORK — A Mississippi firefighter who received the world’s most extensive face transplant after a burning building collapsed on him said Wednesday that he feels like “a normal guy” for the first time in 15 years. Patrick Hardison, 42, said he can now eat, see, hear and breathe normally, thanks to last year’s surgery. He has a full head of hair and hits the gym twice a week. “Before the transplant, every day I had to wake up and get myself motivated to face the world,” Hardison told reporters at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Now I don’t worry about people pointing and staring or kids running away crying. ... I’m happy.” Hardison was a volunteer firefighter in Senatobia, Mississippi, when a building collapsed on him in 2001. He had 71 reconstructive surgeries before the transplant. While there have been nearly 40 face transplant surgeries
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Former Mississippi firefighter Patrick Hardison, 42, gets teary-eyed under television lights, during a news conference Wednesday marking one year after his face transplant at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York. since 2005, Hardison’s was the first to include a scalp and functioning eyelids. Doctors have since fixed up some features and removed his breathing and
feeding tubes. Hardison has no scars on his face, and although he resembles his old self, some of his features are different. His eyes are small-
er and his face is rounder, but he still has sandy brown hair. The divorced father of five said one of the best moments of his life was seeing his children for the first time after the August 2015 surgery. His 21-year-old daughter, Alison, said she cried after seeing him because she was so relieved. “I walked into the room and I was just speechless,” she said. “He gave me a hug and our cheeks touched, and his cheeks were kind of warm, and that was something I hadn’t felt in 14 years.” She said her father “wasn’t normal on the inside” before the surgery. “He was very unhappy,” Alison Hardison said. “Now he’s happy with himself and happy with life.” Patrick Hardison can finally drive and live independently thanks to his new field of vision. Previously, he could see only through “pinholes” because doctors had sewed his eyelids partially shut to protect his eyes, he said.
SYRIA: Will stay until imminent threat to Turkey is neutralized, according to Turkish official ➤ Continued from Page One of the border with Turkey in northern Syria. That raises the potential for explosive frictions between two American allies. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden flew into Ankara hours after the offensive, and he backed Turkey with a stern warning to the Kurds to stay east of the Euphrates River, which crosses from Turkey into Syria at Jarablus. Kurdish forces “must move back across the Euphrates River. They cannot, will not, under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment,” he said. The Turkish assault, launched in retaliation after a string of militant bombings in Turkey, adds yet another powerhouse force on the ground in an already complicated war. It appeared Turkish forces would remain for at least the near term. A senior Turkish official told journalists that operations would continue until “we are convinced” imminent
Turkey targets IS Turkey launched new strikes at Islamic State militants in Syria, prompting bordering towns on either side to increase security measures and prepare for attacks. TURKEY Karkamis Jarablus SYRI A IRAQ Damascus JORDAN
100 mi 100 km AP
threats to Turkey are neutralized. He said the aim is to create a “terror-free zone” in northern Syria to prevent militants from entering Turkey. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations. The Turkish assault began
around 4 a.m. with a furious barrage by artillery and warplanes. Then around 20 Turkish tanks, a team of Turkish special forces, and hundreds of Syrian rebels surged across the border, according to Turkish media and Syrian opposition activists. Only hours later, the rebels burst into Jarablus, posting photos from the town’s center. IS militants withdrew apparently without a fight, retreating to the IS-held town of al-Bab further south. In the evening, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that rebels had retaken the city, saying they seized “government and official residences.” He spoke alongside Biden, who said Washington backed the offensive with airstrikes, adding, “We believe very strongly that the Turkish border should be controlled by Turkey.” Much of what happens next depends on whether the Turkish offensive goes deeper and what they move against: ISheld towns or nearby Kurdish-
controlled areas, including the town of Manbij which Kurdish forces retook from IS earlier this month. Manbij lies west of the Euphrates, and Ankara has demanded the Kurds hand it over to Syrian rebels and withdraw. Turkey has been deeply concerned by the advances along the border of the main U.S.backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, fearing it is setting up a Kurdish entity. The YPG is also linked to Kurdish rebels waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey. Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, said Turkey is trying to “block the ultimate creation of a contiguous zone of territorial control under the authority of the PYD,” using the acronym for the Democratic Union Party, the YPG’s political arm. Earlier, Erdogan said the military operation aims to prevent threats from “terror” groups, pointing specifically to the Islamic State group and the PYD.
He said the operation was in response to a string of attacks in Turkey, including an IS suicide bombing at a wedding party near the border that killed 54 people. Saleh Muslim, the co-president of the PYD, warned that Turkey will pay the price, tweeting that “Turkey is in Syrian Quagmire. Will be defeated as Daesh” will be. He used the Arabic language acronym for IS. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu shot back saying Muslim’s opposition to the operations proved the PYD’s “secret agenda” to form a Kurdish state. Despite the tough talk, the Kurds may decide to pull back from Manbij to appease their U.S. allies, handing it over to the so-called Manbij Military Council. The predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces created the council to lead the battle for Manbij, giving it an Arab and local membership to assuage Ankara’s concerns. Jarablus is a key lynchpin in the Turkish-Kurdish rivalry.
The town lies on the western bank of the Euphrates River at the Turkish border in a pocket controlled by the Islamic State group. The YPG and other Syrian Kurds stand on the east bank of the river, and from there they hold the entire border with Turkey all the way to Iraq. They also hold parts of the border further west, so if they ever took control of Jarablus, they would control almost the entire stretch. Pointedly, Turkey codenamed its cross-border assault “Euphrates Shield,” suggesting the aim was to keep the YPG east of the Euphrates River. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that in Biden’s talks in Ankara, the two sides reached agreement that that the Syrian Kurdish forces “should never spread west of the Euphrates and not enter any kind of activity there.” Cavusoglu said Syrian Kurdish forces must cross back to the east side of the Euphrates as soon as possible.
DRONE: FAA has created a website for safety ➤ Continued from Page One siasts, they still have to follow simple safety rules, such as making sure their crafts are always within sight, fly at low altitudes and don’t fly into restricted air space, such as airports or into areas where there’s an active forest fire. To help people know all that, the FAA has created a special website — www.faa.gov/uas — to tell them the do’s and don’ts of drone flying. The site also offers a free smartphone app called, B4UFLY, to help unmanned aircraft operators determine if there are any restrictions or special requirements in effect at the location they are flying their drones. Rich Alward, a Grand Junction environmental geologist, isn’t using drones in his con-
sulting business, but is considering it. Up until now, Alward, a former member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has only been a recreational user of drones, spending the past year learning about them, and even joining a local model airplane club to help him do that. But because Alward has been considering integrating drone technology in his business, he’s become very aware of the new FAA rules, and likes what he sees. “It’s been quite a while in coming to having workable rules, but I think what they’ve proposed is really pretty good,” Alward said. “There are reasonable requirements, reasonable restrictions as far as over people and in populated areas, staying below where airplanes
are allowed to fly.” Until he decides whether he will integrate drones into his business, he’s still having some fun with flying drones recreationally, all the time learning more about how to use them responsibly. Alward agrees with Jones in that people who want to fly drones should learn to be more responsible, but added that if the abuse were as wide as some believe, the Colorado Legislature would pass its own set of laws and regulations governing their use, which it hasn’t. “Ideally, you should fly under the auspices of a model airplane club or something like that where there are expected ways of behaving and responsibility levels,” Alward said. “Folks who fly really high or in dangerous situations, they make it tougher for everyone else.”
DRAINAGE: County has issues with organization ➤ Continued from Page One
the parties to come together, McInnis said. All sides were working together until the county voiced its insistence on a change of governance, McInnis said. The county has sought for the establishment of a larger area in which stormwater projects can be built, such as the 900-square-mile area of the 5-21 Drainage Authority, which takes in land on both sides of
the Colorado River. The Grand Valley Drainage District takes in the most densely populated area of Mesa County in 90 square miles on the north side of the Colorado River from Palisade to Loma. When the county raised governance issues, the discussions turned into a “head-on collision,” McInnis said. The drainage district is headed by a three-member elected board that McInnis has criticized as being self-perpetuating
because elections are often canceled for lack of opposition. The chamber has criticized the drainage district’s fee structure, especially impact fees on new development, that it says will harm the valley’s economic recovery. A decision could be rendered on motions long before the trial date, said Diane Schwenke, chamber president and CEO. “I’m hopeful there will be a decision much sooner” than the trial date, Schwenke said.
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September 10, 2016
Your community news source since 1893
Mistrial in Jones’ murder case 3 jurors: Physical evidence lacking
Court has 3 months to set new trial date By GABRIELLE PORTER
28, 2007, has been described as a devoted single mother who ran several businesses in her effort to provide for her three children. In the days following her disappearance, details surfaced about Birgfeld’s second life, where she moonlighted as an escort known as “Carrie” to her various clients, which included Jones. On July 1, 2007, three days after she disappeared, Birgfeld’s car was found on fire in a park-
A judge declared a mistrial in the case against murder suspect Lester Jones on Friday when a deadlocked jury told the court it was unable to come to a unanimous verdict despite nearly four full days of deliberations. The 12-person jury, which took the case Sept. 2 after five weeks of testimony, could not agree whether to convict Jones in the 2007 kidnapping and slaying of Grand Junction mother Paige Birgfeld. Birgfeld, who was 34 when she was last heard from June
By GABRIELLE PORTER
The 12-person jury that heard five weeks of testimony in the murder trial of Paige Birgfeld’s accused killer might have been hung, but its members were all in agreement on one thing — the evidence, as it was, pointed at Lester Ralph Jones and at no one else. Nobody on the jury thought Jones was innocent of wrongdoing in the 2007 disappearance and death of Birgfeld, a Grand Junction soccer mom by day who moonlighted as an escort, according to five jurors who agreed to speak publicly to the media Friday, after Mesa County District Court Judge Brian Flynn officially declared a mistrial in the case because of the jury’s inability to reach a unanimous verdict. “By no means does anybody really think that he didn’t do this …,” said juror Bobbi Sanabria, who herself was one of three jurors in favor of acquitting Jones. “It’s the fact that there was not enough evidence for them to get past the reasonable doubt. … (The prosecution) didn’t prove it.” Jurors commented on several aspects of the trial, including what evidence they found compelling — like phone records — or not credible — like testimony from self-confessed former drug
See TRIAL, page 7A ➤
See video of jurors and other reaction to the Jones mistrial online at GJSentinel.com.
CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel
Lester Jones appears in court on Friday just before the jury’s decision was read in his murder trial. The jury deadlocked and was unable to reach a unanimous verdict in Jones’ case. Both District Attorney Dan Rubinstein and Public Defender Steve Colvin asked for a mistrial, which Judge Brian Flynn granted. The jury was ultimately split with nine for conviction and three for acquittal, according to a panel of several jurors who spoke to media Friday. Those who held out for an acquittal cited a lack of physical evidence tying Jones to the crime. The court has 90 days to set a new trial for Jones, who is still being held, although the sides agreed to add a week to that See JURORS, page 7A ➤ time frame to allow attorney teams to regroup.
GRETEL DAUGHERTY/The Daily Sentinel
Visibly upset, Paige Birgfeld’s father, Frank, pauses for a moment to calm himself as he speaks to the media after a deadlock was declared by the jury Friday in the trial of Lester Jones.
IMPORTANT EVENTS IN THE PAIGE BIRGFELD INVESTIGATION JUNE 28, 2007 Paige Birgfeld meets first husband, Howard Beigler, in Eagle.
JULY 1, 2007 Birgfeld’s burned-out Ford Focus is found in a parking lot at 727 23 Road, about two miles from her home.
JUNE 30, 2007 Family members report Birgfeld, a 34-year-old mother of three, missing. Investigators use bloodhounds around her home.
JULY 15, 2007 Searchers find checks and a movie-rental card belonging to Birgfeld on U.S. Highway 50.
JULY 7, 2007 Investigators first suspect foul play, say Birgfeld’s involvement in an escort service as an adult entertainer adds complexity to case.
AUG. 5, 2007 Search dogs track a scent from Birgfeld’s burned car to the front door of a business where Jones works.
JULY 18, 2007 Authorities search home at 3072 Hill Ave. for at least the second time looking for clues in the case and determine Lester Ralph Jones, 57, is a person of interest.
MAY 12, 2008 Family sells Birgfeld’s north Grand Junction home for just under $1 million.
JANUARY 2011 Investigators re-energize case, interview Jones' former co-workers, friends and relatives, resume surveillance of Jones and his house.
SEPT. 2, 2007 Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey names Jones as the sole suspect. Other potential suspects, such as ex-husband Rob Dixon and Beigler, are no longer considered suspects.
SEPT. 12, 2013 Case evidence presented to Colorado Bureau of Investigation cold-case team.
MAY 4, 2015 Judge orders Jones to stand trial in Birgfeld's death.
MARCH 6, 2012 Paige’s skeletal remains found by hikers on Wells Gulch Road approximately one mile east of U.S. Highway 50 in Delta County.
JULY 25, 2016 One-hundred prospective jurors file into courtroom for start of jury selection.
NOV. 21, 2014 Jones, 63, arrested and accused of Birgfeld's murder.
DEC. 7, 2015 Jones pleads not guilty to all charges. Eight-week trial scheduled.
SEPT. 9, 2016 Judge declares mistrial after jury deadlocks.
ROBERT GARCÍA/The Daily Sentinel
Bill would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia By RICHARD LARDNER Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Congress sent President Barack Obama a bipartisan bill that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, putting lawmakers on a collision course with the White House on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the attacks. The House passed the legislation Friday by voice vote, about four months after the measure cleared the Senate despite vehement objections from Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijack-
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House sends bipartisan measure to Obama, who has threatened a veto ers were Saudi nationals. The legislation gives victims’ families the right to sue in U.S. court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks that killed thousands in New York, the Washington, D.C., area and Pennsylvania. The White House has signaled Obama would veto the legislation over the potential for it to backfire and apprehension about undermining a longstanding yet
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strained relationship with a critical U.S. ally in the Middle East. The Obama administration has warned that if U.S. citizens can take the Saudis to court, then a foreign country could in turn sue the United States. Votes from two-thirds of the members in the House and Senate would be needed to override a veto. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said the U.S. government should be more concerned about the fam-
ilies of the victims than “diplomatic niceties.” Poe said he doesn’t know if the Saudi government had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. “That’s for a jury of Americans to decide,” Poe said. There was no immediate comment from Saudi Arabia. The timing of the vote could be seen as an additional slap at the kingdom, which was preparing for the annual hajj pilgrimage beginning today. But a sponsor
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of the bill, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said lawmakers were focused only on the symbolism of bringing the bill to the floor as close to the 15th anniversary as possible. Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, both Democrats, called on Obama to sign the bill. “If Saudi Arabia had no involvement with the attacks, it has nothing to fear from litigation,” they wrote in a letter
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Friday. The bill’s proponents disputed the argument that there will be a boomerang effect if the measure is signed into law. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., another sponsor, said foreign governments cannot look the other way if terrorist activities are being plotted or launched from their countries. Terry Strada, national head of 9/11 Families United For Justice Against Terrorism, dismissed fears the U.S. could be the target of lawsuits.
See VICTIMS, page 7A ➤ Vol. 123 No. 296
The Daily Sentinel • Saturday, September 10, 2016
VICTIMS: Would turn international law ‘into the law of the jungle,’ Saudi spokesman says ➤ Continued from Page One “If we’re not funding terrorist organizations and killing people, then we don’t have anything to worry about,” she said. The vote came after House members from both parties briefly adjourned to commemorate the anniversary of the at-
tacks. House Speaker Paul Ryan led a moment of silence on the Capitol steps, and lawmakers sang “God Bless America” in remembrance of 9/11, when lawmakers gathered in the same location to sing the song immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington. The Justice Against Sponsors
of Terrorism Act had triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the U.S. economy if the legislation is enacted. But Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir denied in May that the kingdom made any threats. He said Riyadh had warned that investor confidence in the U.S. would
shrink if the bill became law. “In fact what they (Congress) are doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities, which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle,” Al-Jubeir said. The House vote came two months after Congress released 28 declassified pages from a con-
gressional report into 9/11 that reignited speculation over links at least a few of the attackers had to Saudis, including government officials. The allegations were never substantiated by later U.S. investigations into the terrorist attacks. Brian McGlinchey, director of advocacy website 28pages.
TRIAL: Attorneys will reconvene to discuss next step in case
org, said making the documents public “strengthened the resolve of 9/11 families and other advocates of justice to bring about the enactment” of the bill. A decision by Obama to veto legislation “that would give 9/11 families their well-deserved day in court would truly stain his legacy,” McGlinchey said.
➤ Continued from Page One ing lot near Jones’ workplace. It wasn’t until March 2012 that Birgfeld’s remains were found partially buried in a Delta County gully. Jones, who has continuously denied any involvement, was arrested in November 2014 and was charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and kidnapping. During the five weeks of testimony, prosecutors laid out Jones’ alleged obsession with Birgfeld, his suspicious behavior the week of her disappearance and his past episodes of violence against women. Jones’ cellphone put him near Wells Gulch, where Birgfeld’s body was eventually found, two days before she went missing; he bought a prepaid cellphone that was only used to call her; and that week he set up an appointment with her, only to have an older woman show up in Birgfeld’s stead. Jones himself told law enforcement that he had paid $400 for an erotic massage from Birgfeld a year earlier, and that he had been thinking about calling again ever since. Defense attorneys pointed at missteps in the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation, including evidence and reports that were lost by the lead investigator originally assigned to the case. They said law enforcement was fixated on Jones as a suspect despite a lack of physical evidence, and the behaviors of five other potential alternate suspects who might have killed Birgfeld. The jury was ultimately split with nine for conviction and three for acquittal, according to a panel of several jurors who spoke to media Friday. Those
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users. Jones didn’t have an alibi for the night of June 28, 2007, when Birgfeld went missing, when his wife was out of town, or July 1, 2007, the night when Birgfeld’s car was found on fire near his work late at night. In the time frame when Birgfeld’s car was found, Jones had left his house, telling his wife he had to go check to see whether the shop lights were on at his work. He told investigators he didn’t notice a car fire, although other witnesses testified that towering flames would have been shooting out of the car at about the same time that he would have driven past. Jones also lied several times to law enforcement about his acquisition of a pre-paid TracFone, which he bought several days before Birgfeld’s disappearance, and only used to call her. It was also one of the last numbers to have been in touch with Birgfeld before she went missing, according to evidence brought forward in trial. For juror Will (he did not provide his last name), the evidence was clear. “Nobody has that bad of luck in one week,” said Will, who voted to convict Jones. “It just doesn’t — it doesn’t add up.” Prosecutors also pointed to a
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Former District Attorney Pete Hautzinger: “I’m certainly disappointed in the lack of a verdict. I think all concerned deserved some finality and closure,
CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON/The Daily Sentinel
Lester Jones, center, sits with his defense attorneys Friday morning at the Mesa County Justice Center. who held out for an acquittal cited a lack of physical evidence tying Jones to the crime. Both District Attorney Dan Rubinstein and Public Defender Steve Colvin asked for a mistrial. Frank Birgfeld, Paige Birgfeld’s father, who has been present for the entire trial along with his wife, Suzie Birgfeld, said following the hearing that while he thought both sides did their job well, it wasn’t the resolution he was looking for. “It’s like a book that the last few chapters aren’t there,” he said. “But that’s the process, and I’m not unpleased with it. … I’d rather have (the verdict
be) guilty. But there’s an opportunity to re-do the whole thing. … We’ll see what happens.” Frank Birgfeld said most of the testimony was what he expected it to be. “There were a couple spots that were really hard …,” he said. “At the end they showed a nice picture of Paige — that all kind of came down.” Jones’ family declined to comment on the result, as did Colvin. The court has 90 days to set a new trial for Jones, who is still being held, although the sides agreed to add a week to that time frame to allow attorney teams to regroup. The teams
break in Jones’ habit of viewing pornography on his computer at about the same time each night as evidence that he could have been elsewhere — Sanabria said she didn’t find it convincing, however. “It had too many other scenarios that could have happened,” she said. “He could have been watching TV instead of sitting at his computer.” Jury foreman Lance Erdmann, who voted to convict Jones, said the pro-acquittal minority was concerned that only circumstantial evidence tied Jones to Birgfeld’s disappearance and death. “It makes sense, I mean, if you’re going to commit a crime like this, you’re not going to do it under cameras or watchful eyes… ,” he said. “Is there something we wish we had? Yeah, we wish we had direct evidence. We wish we had more evidence.” Juror Judd Swihart said he was surprised at the amount of evidence presented. “When the prosecution rested, I was just stunned,” Swihart said. “I said, ‘This is all you got?’ … I was disappointed with that.” The jury panel described reaching deadlock — which originally started with 10 jurors in favor of conviction and two for acquittal — as “extremely aggravating.”
“Like talking to a brick wall,” Will said. “It was very emotional toward the end… ,” Sanabria said. “People cried in deliberations. There were actually people that cried because it was to that point that we … exhausted everything.” Juror Ramel Zotto, who voted to convict Jones, said the outcome was a let-down because of the energy the jury invested in the case. “It was disappointing for sure. You put so much time and effort into trying to make the best decision you possibly can …,” Zotto said, adding that he has invested so much that he’ll continue to follow the case as it moves forward and is potentially assigned to another jury. “I will follow this all the way to the end.” Swihart said that, despite his disappointment with the lack of physical evidence, he voted to convict Jones, and said he tried to persuade the pro-acquittal holdouts by comparing the prosecution’s case to a piece of Swiss cheese: full of holes, but still a cohesive piece. “I’m sorry,” Swihart said during the interview, addressing Birgfeld’s family in the courtroom. “I saw you all during the trial and I see the agony and what you’re going through, and your grandchildren, and I am sorry.”
REACTION IN THE WAKE OF THE LESTER JONES MISTRIAL Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis: “I am very disappointed. A lot of time, effort and energy went into this and now we’ve got some decisions to make as to what we do next.” “My staff is amazing and it’s not just the pressure they experienced with this trial, but all the work that they MATT LEWIS put in since the beginning of this case. ... When and if it comes time to do it again, we will put forth the same effort and the same energy.”
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which is obviously not going to happen quite yet. It was clear to me from following the trial and the press that Dan and his team did an excellent job. “At the PETE HAUTZINGER same time, I cannot say I’m shocked, given the inherent difficulties with the case. From the first moment I heard about Ms. Birgfeld’s double life, I knew that proof beyond a reasonable doubt might be a lot more difficult here than in most other cases.” Frank Birgfeld, talking about the trial and verdict: “This was a massive effort. It was well done. The public defender did his job, it wasn’t personal toward us. ... It wasn’t not guilty. I’d rather have it guilty.”
Juror Bobbi Sanabria, who voted to acquit: “(Birgfeld) was a very intelligent woman. She was very business-savvy, she was an exceptional mother. ... I want to know why (she was killed).” Jury foreman Lance Erdmann, who voted to convict Jones: “I felt like the defense did a good job in displaying some shortcomings of the sheriff’s office, that’s for sure. But in my head I know there was more that went on than that — that it wasn’t complete incompetence.” Juror Will, who voted to convict, talking about Lester Jones’ behavior: “Him continuously lying about the TracFone was a huge thing for me. His wife already knows about the hookers, she knows about everything except for the TracFone. ... If he was really innocent, why didn’t he say he had a TracFone?”
will convene next week before the same judge, Brian Flynn, to discuss their next steps. A new trial could begin this winter. Rubinstein said a plea agreement is still theoretically an option, although he said his office would take the Birgfeld family’s thoughts into consideration. “We wouldn’t do anything that the family isn’t on board for,” he said. “But doing another extended trial is not just hard on the lawyers who try the case and the judge who tries the case, it’s very difficult on the family. … They want closure, they want certainty, and the same thing goes for Mr. Jones and for his family, his wife.”
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