As we enter a new year, we thought you might like to take a look at some of the stories we covered in 2018 that impacted our community.

They’re not presented in any particular order, and maybe there’s a story you think should be here that isn’t, but we think you’ll find these interesting nonetheless.

Thanks for reading the La Junta Tribune-Democrat, and Happy New Year!

New president at OJC – April 30

Dr. Nancy J. McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, announced that Dr. Timothy Alvarez will be the fifth president of Otero Junior College, ending a five-month search conducted by college and community representatives.

Alvarez is expected to start in mid-July.

“After completing a nationwide search, we are proud to announce the selection of Dr. Alvarez – he is an outstanding leader who is committed to innovation, excellence, and the communities we serve,” said McCallin.

“When we began this process, CCCS identified several criteria for the position, including finding candidates who were recognized leaders in higher education, dedicated to economic and workforce development, and committed to building a thriving community through student success. We are thrilled that Dr. Alvarez has not only met, but has exceeded the high bar we set for this critical position.”

Alvarez has been serving as the Senior Fellow for NASPA Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education for the past four months. From 2014-18, he served as vice president for Student Affairs at North Dakota State University, where he oversaw co-curricular aspects for the Division of Student Affairs for nearly 1,500 students and managed a staff of 350 and a growing $65 million budget.

Prior to his role in North Dakota, Alvarez spent 15 years in various leadership and teaching roles at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he also received his Ph.D. in educational leadership.

During his role as Assistant Vice Chancellor, he focused on multicultural programs and increasing funding for student support services, such as TRiO and Upward Bound. Upon completing his doctoral degree, Alvarez taught for five years as an assistant professor in the department for educational administration.

Having graduated and worked at a community college, Alvarez has a passion and commitment to the community college and its mission of access and success for all students.


Drought top concern for area cattlemen – April 6

The deepening drought is weighing on cow-calf producers in Southeastern Colorado as they prepare for the annual meeting of the Bent-Prowers Cattle and Horse Growers Association in La Junta, according to current president Nolan Davis.

Davis and his family farm near Lamar and run about 60 Angus cows.

“We used to have our annual meeting in March, but we got snow so often that we moved it back to April,” he said. “We’re hoping that’ll keep it from getting snowed out again.” Then he paused. “If it snows, we’d take it,” he said, correcting himself. “If we don’t get some moisture fairly soon, we’ll have to start downsizing our herds.”

Last year there was snow on the ground when the group held its 148th convention, a milestone that marks it as one of the oldest livestock organizations in the country, but turnout was good. The frequent rains that followed during the spring and summer were a boon to Davis’ alfalfa production, the farm’s most important crop, but this year is setting up to be a different story.

“A lot of guys are worried about the grass and whether we’ll have to cut numbers,” he said. “The cow market’s pretty tough right now as far as older cows. We sold a few last week and I think we hit an uptick in it, but overall the market has been challenging.”

“I know a lot of guys don’t want to go through downsizing again because we just went through that a few years ago. A lot of guys want to hang on as long as they can. They are just now getting their herds built back up to where they need to be,” he added.


Cheraw arms school staff – Dec. 5

The town of Cheraw is located nine miles north of North La Junta, and despite regular rounds of its school facilities by Otero County sheriff's deputies, the distance makes a fast response to a school shooter difficult, considering the size of the county.

With that in mind, the local board of education recently approved the carrying of firearms by staff members, including teachers.

As it prepared for that seachange, the Otero County Sheriff's Office became instrumental in bringing the FASTER Colorado weapons training to the attention of the school district.

Representatives of FASTER Colorado made a presentation to the board, whose members had just had their vulnerability made clear to them in a meeting concerning a BEST Grant to improve the school. The board at that time thought it was a sensible idea.

Cost of FASTER training was under $5,000, meaning the board did not have to approve the funds. The board, however, was required to vote on the carry policy, and the motion passed unanimously.

Each person approved by the district to carry a weapon has the firearm concealed on their body at all times while on school property. The guns are never to be put in a desk or anyplace else a curious teenager or child could come across it.

The weapons are the personal property of those carrying them and were not purchased using taxpayer money, district officials told the La Junta Tribune-Democrat.

For their protection, the identity of the concealed carriers is not revealed, but they are distributed throughout the rather spread-out campus.

In drills organized by the OCSO and during FASTER training, concealed carriers were taught the proper way to stand down when the authorities arrive.


Save the Southwest Chief – Aug. 2

La Junta City Manager Rick Klein was excited yesterday afternoon, having heard that the voice of the people has been heard through the senators and they are requiring Amtrak to meet its obligations to the Southwest Chief.

Klein, famous for his never-say-die attitude, has stuck it out through two TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants scraped together with the help of all the towns along the Chief’s route in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, some so small it was hard to raise $1,200.

All the towns did what they could to save their train, a vital connection to the outside world.

The National Association of Rail Passengers and individual Southwest Chief supporters put forth enormous effort on social media, through written letters, and with personal contact to save the Southwest Chief.

They were heard, and the senators are carrying the ball now.

An amendment to maintain Amtrak train services along the established long-distance passenger rail route of the Southwest Chief, #3665, was included in the 2018 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies appropriations bill that passed the Senate on 92-6 vote.

On Dec. 20, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet announced $9.16 million in federal funding to install Positive Train Control (PTC) along the Southwest Chief rail line between Dodge City, Kan., and Las Animas. The funding was awarded through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Grant Program. The Colorado Department of Transportation applied for the grant with the Kansas Department of Transportation, local governments in Colorado and Kansas, and Amtrak.

“This federal investment will help to make critical safety improvements along the Southwest Chief line,” said Bennet. “Our federal, state, and local governments are committed to preserving this vital component to Southeastern Colorado's economy, and we will continue to partner with them and Amtrak to keep the route running."


Microburst hits downtown La Junta – June 7

At about 5:30 p.m. on the evening of June 6, a terrific blast of wind ripped through downtown La Junta, west to east.

“That was insane!” said Tracey Salzbrenner of La Junta Trading.

“We’re staying open late so people can get wood if they need it.”

The first call was an electrical fire at First and San Juan. A part of a tin roof had draped itself over an electrical transformer right outside NAPA Auto Parts.

Going on up the street south, Ron Hall pointed out the whole roof was off the building next to NAPA, not just one section. Then Hall said, “Look up the street at Ruby’s!”

The front section was blown out of Ruby’s Auto Repair at Third and San Juan.

Then a man came by, saying, “It was crazy - it blew my mom right out of her lawn chair and blew trees down all along the street!”

Sure enough, it was as he said from Third to Second on Belleview.

The next street over, on San Juan, lawn chairs were blown over and a big piece of a tree was down next door.

Salzbrenner added as I encountered her again, “The door blew open and the ceiling was sucked out at the beauty shop.”

That was quite a whirlwind, but nobody was hurt and the crew was on the job restoring electricity.


Goodwin receives Dana Crawford award – May 11

Rebecca Goodwin of La Junta was honored with the highest award for excellence in historic preservation by Colorado Preservation, Inc. - the Dana Crawford Award.

Goodwin was honored not only for her role in local area preservation, but for her work throughout the state. She has traveled throughout Colorado promoting preservation in rural communities, encouraging local preservation board and government involvement in Section 106 compliance consultation (think Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site), county involvement in the Certified Local Government program, and building relationships with Colorado Preservation, Inc.

She was actively involved in the efforts to pass and reauthorize the 2014 Colorado Main Street Revitalization and Job Creation Act, which has recently been passed by the legislature to be in effect for 10 more years, ensuring tax credit financial arrangements.

She was instrumental in stopping the expansion of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site and initiating the massive projects to document the biological and cultural resources on participating private lands in the Purgatoire River Region. Goodwin is a member of the first Colorado Centennial farm/ranch family.

“Preservation matters,” said Goodwin: “It’s about the people.”

The group traveling to Denver to cheer Goodwin on included Mayor Jeffri Pruyn, La Junta Eonomic Development/Urban Renewal Director Cynthis Nieb, Cheryl Linder, Beverly Babb, Nancy Bennett, and of course her husband, Otero County Commissioner Keith Goodwin.


Otero County joins opioid lawsuit – June 13

Otero County has joined the fight against the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers, teaming up with four other Colorado counties and the City of Alamosa in a lawsuit claiming big pharmaceutical companies knowingly fueled an increase in overdoses and deaths in Otero County and rural Colorado.

Otero County is joined by Alamosa, Chaffee, Las Animas and Conejos counties, who filed a joint lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Denver against pharmaceutical giants Cephalon Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, and the Purdue Frederick Company.

Notably, the joint suit targets the companies’ perceived deceptive tactics, claiming they sold prescription opioid pain medications, including Percodan, OxyContin and Percocet, using deceptive marketing, which doctors prescribed to patients in excess, causing addiction and death.

“Highway 50 has long served as a corridor for opioid transportation and has resulted in significant costs to Otero County related to traffic stops and housing of inmates,” said Otero County Administrator Jean Hinkle.

“The commissioners have decided that we want to be on the front end of this issue. The State of Colorado has chosen not to pursue litigation at this time, but Otero County wants to ensure that they recoup some of the expenses when this is finalized. We currently house inmates, many of them opioid-related traffic offenders, in Bent, Prowers and even Parker counties. It gets costly to transport them back and forth to court.”

Furthermore, the counties allege the number of opioid prescriptions in the five counties exceeded the number of residents.


Opioid prevention project launched – Nov. 28

Colorado has been feeling the effects of the national opioid crisis, particularly in rural areas.

Colorado State University has received about $1.4 million in federal grants for a project in which community professionals — including CSU Extension agents — will work with rural-area youths age 10-14 and their families to prevent drug experimentation before it starts.

As part of the program, Extension agents will receive specialized training on dealing with opioid abuse, in an approach that uses existing community relationships and networks instead of sending in outsiders who don’t know the families or the culture of the area.

Abby Weber, a family and consumer sciences agent with CSU Extension and 4-H in Bent County, has seen the problems with opioids and other drugs firsthand.

“Some adults trade their food stamps for drugs, so they and their kids don’t eat,” said Weber, who has worked in both social services and the judicial system.

“If a parent is using drugs and the child knows, the roles reverse and the child becomes the caregiver, so the child is not only trying to self-protect, but protect the parent. It’s hard to watch these kids trying to make sure that they, their siblings and their parents are okay.”

Training these community professionals is only one arm of the three-pronged project.

The effort will also involve implementing the Strengthening Families Program for Parents and Youth, a seven-week program that engages youth and their families to help them build parenting, substance refusal and family strengthening skills.

The third prong consists of using media and social media to distribute data-informed messages to raise public awareness about the danger of using opioids like heroin and oxycodone and to help youth develop correct perceptions about substance use.


Weapons, drugs seized in undercover operation – June 28

An eight-month investigation into illegal drug activity in the Lower Arkansas Valley has been completed and has resulted in over 31 arrests or active warrants involving drug and weapon charges.

Operation Prairie Snow was started by the 16th Judicial Drug Task Force in October 2017. The 16th Judicial Drug Task Force is made up of regional law enforcement agencies, and Operation Prairie Snow was conducted with the assistance of the Bent County Sheriff’s Office, La Junta Police Department, the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office and the Crowley County Sheriff’s Office.

As a result of the investigation, warrants for the arrest of multiple individuals were issued and arrests were made with the assistance of the Bent County Sheriff’s Office, the La Junta Police Department, the Otero County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado State Patrol.

Bent County Sheriff Dave Encinias who was actively involved in the investigation, said that law enforcement throughout the Lower Arkansas Valley has continued to address and battle illegal drugs in the area.

“We are constantly trying to battle the problem” Encinias stated, “But they’re always watching us while we are watching them, which makes it tough. We just want the public to know that we are always doing something, we just can’t always make it public.”

Encinias said he contacted La Junta Police Chief Todd Quick about working together to combat the problem. They then joined forces with the 16th Judicial Drug Task Force. An undercover police officer was hired and for the next eight months, the undercover police officer purchased illegal drugs leading to the 30 plus arrests.

District Attorney Investigator Vincent Fraker reported that as a result of Operation Prairie Snow, 31 arrest warrants had been requested with 29 felony defendants.

The investigation resulted in the purchase of 50 prescription pills, 3.2 grams of marijuana, 35 grams of methamphetamine, 1.1 grams of heroin and .4 grams of cocaine.

Also purchased during the operation was one handgun, one rifle and one stolen chainsaw.

As a result of Operation Prairie Snow, there was 61 undercover operations on 33 defendants which resulted in criminal charges, to include unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, possession of a firearm by a previous offender, sale of firearms without background checks, theft, marijuana offenses and child abuse.

As a direct result of Operation Prairie Snow and the undercover officers’ efforts, there have been other criminal cases investigated and brought by local authorities in Bent and Otero Counties resulting in additional arrests and charges.


Medical air transport comes to La Junta – April 5

The City of La Junta covers people who live in the city limits for air transport from the hospital to another hospital or from any place in Otero County to a hospital.

City Manager Rick Klein explained his interest in buying a contract for the citizens of La Junta.

“I was tired of seeing people being transported by air being charged so much they lost their homes.”

“The average cost of air medical transportation is $25,000,” said Local Membership Sales Manager Bob Walter. “If you are flown from within Otero County and live within the city limits of La Junta, and you have insurance, you pay nothing. If you don’t have insurance, you are charged the Medicare allowable.”

The distance is the major factor in cost; a bill from here has run as high as $78,000.

Until June, the rate for La Juntans being covered anywhere in AirMedCare territory for one year is $35. After that date, it will go to $45.


Election 2018 results – various dates


John Hostetler (R)– 4,258

Cody Ridennoure (D) – 3,183


Glenna Potts (D) – 3,251

Lynda “Lyn” Scott ® - 4,123


Dennis Smith ® - ran unopposed.


Ken Hood (R) - ran


Shawn Mobley (R) - ran unopposed.


Robert Fowler (D) – ran unopposed

COUNTY COURT JUDGE – retain Doug Manley

Yes – 5,511

No – 1,614


Otero County posed one question to its residents, which appeared on the ballot as Question 1A and asked residents if Otero County should be permitted under the law to partner and otherwise provide services to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the interest of helping providers establish broadband internet infrastructure throughout the county.

Yes/For – 4,490

No/Against – 2,532


Ballot question 7A (should term limits in the 16th Judicial District be extended to three terms?)

Yes – 2,920

No – 4,108

Ballot Question 7B (should term limits for District Attorneys in the 16th Judicial District should be eliminated completely?) -

Yes/For – 2,235

No/Against – 4,768


Ballot Question 5A (should Manzanola School District increase its debt and increase district taxes in order to pay for matching grants of approximately $30.747 million under Colorado’s BEST Grant program?)

Yes/For - 178

No/Against – 237


GOP questions District 47 count - Dec. 6

Pueblo County Republicans aren't looking for a recount of the votes in the House District 47 election, but they do want an accounting of all the ballots used in the election, Chairwoman Marla Reichert said in text messages Tuesday.

That race was especially close, with Democrat Brianna Buentello defeating Republican Don Bendell by a 321-vote margin. Buentello had 16,324 votes to Bendell's 16,003.

In Otero County, Bendell garnered 3,838 votes, while Buentello received 3,489.

It was a dramatic election with Bendell being slightly ahead on election night, but Pueblo County had thousands of uncounted ballots left to tally during the week. During Thursday's and Friday's counting, her vote totals caught and then passed Bendell.

Reichert said local Republicans have asked Pueblo County Clerk Gilbert "Bo" Ortiz for an accounting of all the ballots that were processed by the county's signature-reading technology, as well as an inventory of all the ballots used in the election — ballots voted, returned, damaged, and unused.

"No decision has been made yet pending the completion of our investigation," she said in a message Tuesday afternoon. "We are following up on irregularities reported by some judges and watchers."

Ortiz said the audits being requested aren't standard post-election election reports and would need to be specially created.

Ortiz was reprimanded by state officials after the election for being slow in notifying voters whose ballots had been set aside because of signature or other problems. A Nov. 20 letter from the secretary of state's office said it was clear that Ortiz's office had not sent out any letters to voters to 'cure' ballots during the week of Nov. 1-7, a gap that likely guaranteed that "dozens of votes" would not be counted because voters wouldn't be notified in time to come confirm their votes.

Ortiz said that 675 of those "uncured" ballots remained after the election was over.

Republicans also challenged Ortiz about why GOP "watchers" — people appointed by the party to watching vote counting— weren't told about the ballot counting done on Nov. 8 and 9.

Ortiz replied that his office is required to hire pairs of Republican and Democratic judges to open, handle and process ballots, and they did that on the days in question. He has sent Reichert a required security video of the counting done on those days.

Reichert said the purpose of the GOP inquiry is to "make certain that every legitimate vote was counted."


Fire chief suspended, faces charges

As the year ended, the story of Aaron Eveatt of the La Junta fire Department and Rural Fire Protection District began to unfold.

Eveatt, who has served the departments as chief since 2004, was suspended in early December and is due in court on Jan. 25, where he will be advised of 22 charges filed against him by the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

The allegations span a time frame of more than three years and include embezzlement and theft, as well as misconduct by a government official.

Capt. Joey Gacnik has been appointed to the job of interim fire chief while the legalities are sorted out.