Top 10 stories of 2017
By the Sanpete Messenger staff
Dec. 28, 2017
In past years, the top stories have often been about infrastructure growth, such as new water systems or road widening.
Some years, people have taken the spotlight, such as a Miss Sanpete County becoming Miss Utah and competing for Miss America, or communities getting behind someone suffering from a life-threatening illness.
But in 2017, municipal government issues, controversies and crime often pushed new facilities and people off the front page.
To identify the top 10, the Messenger started with 19 possible stories. Then four staff members gave numerical ratings to the 19 stories based on reader interest, community impact, and the staff members’ own personal interest.
We added up the numbers and ranked the stories. Here’s how our analysis came out.
Ephraim Police Department controversy
Messenger staff members unanimously ranked the Ephraim police controversy as the top story of the year. The story
included Chief Ron Rasmussen being placed on leave and subsequently being reinstated; the resignation of three officers in protest of the reinstatement; Rasmussen deciding to retire; and, toward the end of the year, a new police chief being sworn in.
The story started on June 9 when Ephraim City Manager Brant Hanson placed Rasmussen, who had been with the police department nearly 28 years, on administrative leave. Several days later, Hanson called in the Utah County Sheriff’s Office to conduct an investigation.
When the investigation was announced, it wasn’t clear whether Rasmussen was the target or whether the probe was about “administrative issues” in the department.
On June 21, the city council held a closed meeting to hear the results of the investigation. The same night, 70 people, many from Rasmussen’s LDS ward, filled the city council chamber to support the chief and call for his reinstatement.
Two days later, Hansen announced that Rasmussen would be reinstated. It was that announcement that kicked off a firestorm and led to revelations of what the investigation had been about.
On June 24, all three of the city’s patrol officers, turned in a mutual resignation letter. Darren Pead, Steven Golding and Jared Hansen said their resignations would be effective on the date Chief Rasmussen actually was reinstated, which was expected to be a few days later. But City Manager Hanson accepted the resignations upon receipt of the letter.
The letter said that for years, Rasmussen had failed to write police reports on his calls. And in interviews, the officers said the absence of reports was often a symptom of shoddy police work and failure to follow up on cases. They cited examples ranging from a child sodomy to a theft in a beauty salon that had been caught on tape.
“We have lost all confidence in our chief,” the letter said. “….”We wish for you, and the community that we have proudly served, to know that we have taken a great risk to our professional careers, including the risk it presents to our families, by ‘blowing the whistle’ on what we believe we were morally, professionally and legally obligated to report. To do anything less is to ignore the oath we took at the inception of our careers as law enforcement officers.”
When the Utah County investigative report was released the next month, investigators reported finding more than 200 open cases in the police computer system where Rasmussen had been the responding officer but where no narrative report had been written.
At the same time, the report also zeroed in on one of the resigning officers, Darren Pead. The report described him as “insubordinate” and suggested he had gathered information in a deliberate effort to get Rasmussen fired, and if possible, prosecuted for “official misconduct.”
The city council decision to reinstate Rasmussen seemed to turn on a finding in the report that Rasmussen’s failure to write reports did not meet the standards of the Utah official-misconduct statute. And City Manager Hanson said that aside from the reporting issue, Rasmussen was “a great chief.”
The case triggered emotional statements on the Sanpete Messenger’s Facebook page. Some supported the chief and lambasted the newspaper; others commended the newspaper for reporting the story.
Rasmussen spent the next couple of months hiring new officers. Then on Sept. 8, at a special city council meeting, he announced he was retiring.
“My family and I have had many challenges and obstacles over the past year,” he said. “Those challenges, in addition to the many years of public service, have influenced this decision. Ephraim City residents will always have a special place in my heart.”
On Dec. 6, Aaron Broomfield, an officer with 18 year of experience with the Salt Lake City Police Department in roles ranging from patrol officer, to SWAT team member, to training administrator, was sworn in as the city’s new police chief. Broomfield’s wife is from Ephraim, and the family had relocated from Salt Lake County to Ephraim a couple of years earlier.
Animal activists target Norbest
Thanksgiving is a high point for Norbest every year, but in 2017, the company faced an expose of one of their turkey growers by a group of animal rights activists.
The California-based group, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) sneaked onto a Norbest-contracted farm in Moroni to film turkey living conditions and health problems. Members of the group went so far as to remove turkeys they claimed were sick and in need of rescue.
After the DxE videos and investigation report were released online, Norbest CEO Matt Cook released an apology letter saying the grower (who both Norbest and DxE declined to name) was not keeping his operation up to Norbest standards. Cook said Norbest had known about the problems before the DxE report was released, had confiscated the grower’s birds and had suspended his turkey-growing contract.
DxE’s photos and report made national news. The Associated Press issued a story that appeared in many newspapers. A number of broadcast networks ran stories. When DxE disrupted Gov. Gary Herbert, who was “pardoning” a turkey at the Utah State Capitol, the story got extensive coverage in Utah.
But locally, people were angry about the activists’ sneaky methods. In social media and letters to the editor of the Messenger, they condemned DxE for its actions.
But there was also negative feedback about the way Norbest handled the situation. Many felt Norbest used the single grower as a scapegoat.
A few weeks after the incident, the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office said it was trying to identify the persons who sneaked onto the turkey farm in violation of poultry security signs. Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel said his office was standing by to prosecute persons so identified.
Four children rescued from
religious sect compound
An Amber Alert, a fleet of helicopters searching for kidnapped children and a self-proclaimed prophet were a few of the highlights in a saga kicked off by a child custody battle.
Police allege John Coltharp, 33, of Spring City took his children to live among members of a religious sect called “Knights of the Crystal Blade.” The group was founded by Samuel Shaffer, 34, a man who preached the merits of polygamy and child marriage on his website.
In September, Coltharp took the children to a tiny community in Iron County. Because John Coltharp and the children’s mother, Micah Soble (formerly Coltharp) were still legally married, she was not able to prevent him, along with his parents, Keith and Catherine Coltharp, also of Spring City, from taking the children to Iron County.
However, Soble filed for a divorce and received full custody of the children. Once the divorce decree was final, a Provo court issued a writ of assistance calling on law enforcement throughout the state to find and return the four Coltharp children, William, 7; Seth, 6; Dinah, 8; and Hattie, 4, to their mother.
On Dec. 1, tips from the public sent Spring City Police Chief Clarke Christensen to the Coltharp residence in Spring City, where he found John Coltharp and Shaffer. The police chief asked Coltharp where the children were. He refused to say.
At that point, Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel, decided the case would be treated as child kidnapping, a felony, as opposed to custodial interference, a misdemeanor. Christensen arrested Coltharp and had him was booked into the Sanpete County Jail on a $50,000 cash bail.
The search for the children built steam quickly. Cell phone records pulled from Coltharp’s phone narrowed down the search area to the tiny community of Lund, Iron County.
Working with Christensen, Keisel and the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office, Iron County sheriff’s deputies descended on a compound consisting mostly of shipping containers converted to living quarters. There they found two missing Coltharp boys. But Shaffer had fled into the desert with the girls.
Meanwhile, there were fears John Coltharp might be able to make the $50,000 bail. So Soble’s divorce lawyer got an out-of-the-ordinary civil court ruling, which bumped Coltharp’s bail amount up to $150,000, cash only.
An Amber Alert was put out on the two girls, and tips flowed in. Before long, helicopters from Southern Utah University aviation, the Utah Department of Public Safety, Gold Cross Ambulance and Intermountain Life Flight were swarming the skies above the Iron County desert looking for the missing girls.
One of the tips led Iron County officers to Shaffer, who was arrested. He revealed the whereabouts of Hattie Coltharp. She was found locked in a water barrel along with Shaffer’s daughter, Lily. The two had been subjected to subfreezing temperatures for more than 24 hours.
Eventually, Shaffer gave up the location of two the other girls. They were found in an abandoned trailer, dehydrated and lethargic.
Coltharp and Shaffer both face charges of child kidnapping, among other serious charges. Coltharp appeared in court for a preliminary hearing on Dec. 13, but Deputy County Attorney Kevin Daniels asked for a continuance, citing developments in the ongoing investigation that might lead to more charges.
The hearing for Coltharp was rescheduled for Jan. 3 in 6th District Court.
Kammy Edmunds domestic violence homicide
On March 31, police discovered the bloody body of Kammy Edmunds, 34, a mother of two, in the bathtub of her home in Mt. Pleasant.
A man described as her finacee, Anthony Christensen, 35, had called the police. He said he had gone to bed the night before while Edmunds and a friend stayed up drinking.
Christensen said he woke up to find Edmunds in the tub. He said he suspected she had crashed her car, been injured, walked home and collapsed. But when officers started looking into the story, it didn’t add up.
The car was found in Power Plant Park east of Mt. Pleasant, and cell phone records showed Christensen had been in the car at the time he said he had been sleeping. Sanpete County detectives found muddy footprints in the bathroom made by Christensen’s shoes and blood on the shoes themselves. Officers found other evidence of a person being dragged through the house.
Christensen was arrested and subsequently charged with homicide, obstruction of justice and desecration of a body. Later, a medical examiner’s report found Edmunds had been beaten. The report listed the cause of death as strangulation.
Within days after the death, there was a community response, not just to the brutal death but to the apparent underlying cause—domestic violence.
Five days after Edmunds’ death, dozens of people, many wearing purple ribbons or purple clothing, the color of the anti-domestic violence movement, attended a candlelight memorial.
At Edmunds’ funeral the Saturday after her death, Wendy Powell, a friend, said, “I think Kammy wants us to be angry. A good angry. The world continues to be evil because it isn’t angry enough. Kammy, we will change this world. We will fight hard, but we will be humble, and we will be kind.”
The day after the funeral, Edmunds’ mother, Tammy Coates of Spring City, publicly resolved to do what she could to increase public awareness of domestic violence and let victims know it is possible to escape.
“My daughter did not die in vain,” Coates told a Messenger reporter, her voice cracking. “She’s not going to be silenced by this. We are going to be her voice. I’m not letting this happen to someone else if I can stop it.”
Within a couple of months, the Kammy Mae Foundation had been established and was making its presence felt. Anti-domestic violence floats appeared in July Fourth parades in the county. An event that included food booths and music was held at the Spring City Park.
In October, Domestic Violence Month, the foundation hung purple ribbons all over downtown Mt. Pleasant, the town where Edmunds died, and then held a battle-of-the-bands fundraiser at the Con Toy Arena.
According to one of the organizers, the long-term goals of the Kammy Mae Foundation include “providing education, resources, emergency services, career services, shelter, clothing, food, necessities, daycare and additional resources to those in need.”
Christensen has pleaded not guilty to charges against him. A preliminary hearing is pending.
“Old motel” comes down
Over the 15 years it was vacant, the dilapidated Travel Inn at 330 N. Main became a symbol of blight in Ephraim. Finally,
in May, 2017, two months after a final, extended deadline, the “old motel” came down.
One of the first to speak out about the 40-room structure with broken windows and obscenities written on the walls was former Councilman Don Olson, who at a 2011 city council meeting said if the building couldn’t be brought up to code, “it needs to come down.”
The council talked about the building again and again. In February 2014, Councilman Terry Lund said, “We’ve been dealing with this forever, and it bothers me that we don’t ever get (it) resolved, and it just continually gets worse and worse. ”
Later in 2014, Mayor Richard Squire reported that the city could not find a legal justification for condemning the building. Years of attempts to get the absentee owner to do something had not produced results, the mayor said.
In July, 2015, City Planner Bryan Kimball told the city council he had good news: The property had been sold at auction. Zions Bank had purchased it and resold it to Branden Kirk, a Spanish Fork realtor. And Kirk had asked for help from the city to tear the motel down.
In 2016, the city council turned up the heat. Council members openly challenged the new city manager, Brant Hanson, to get the building down by the end of the year.
The city hired Sunrise Engineering to do an inspection. Inspectors reported there was little chance the building could be rehabilitated and brought up to code.
At year-end, Kirk, the owner, told the city council he needed three more months to work out a solution. The city council set a new deadline of March 31. Then on March 15, Kirk appeared before the council to ask for a 6-8 week delay.
Finally, the city agreed to front the demolition costs. One morning about 8, Todd Alder Construction showed up with its heavy equipment. By 10 a.m., the structure was down. Within a few days the debris had been hauled off. Finally, even the old sign, the only remnant of the property remaining after the demolition, disappeared.
At a city council meeting following the demolition, Mayor Richard Squire said the city would recover its costs in the long run when a residential or business structure went in and property taxes started being paid.
In July, Bryan Kimball, the city planner, reported owner Branden Kirk planned to sell the land to a developer. Kimball said plans were afoot to develop multi-story condominiums on the site.
gets life in prison
A tragedy that began just before New Year’s in 2011 came to an end on Jan. 25, 2017 when Logan McFarland, a former resident of Wales and Moroni, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Back on Dec. 29, 2011, McFarland, who was living in Moroni in what can only be described as a drug house, went into Mt. Pleasant in search of money for drugs. No one knows exactly what happened. But by the next day, LeRoy Fullwood, 70, and his wife, Dorthea, 69, had been found dead in their home from gunshot wounds.
Within a day, McFarland and Angela Atwood, a woman in the same drug-using group as McFarland, left Sanpete County on a crime spree.
They took a car belonging to Allison Boudreaux, the owner of the house where they were staying. In Santaquin, they ditched the Boudreaux car and stole a Saturn.
They drove to West Wendover, Nev., where they tried to carjack a vehicle owed by a local woman, Rattana Keomanivong. Atwood ended up shooting and critically wounding Keomanivong. The victim reported she will have problems growing out of the shooting for years afterword.
The pair went on to Wells, where they stole a third car, a Volkwagon Jetta, from a motel parking lot. They headed into the desert on dirt roads, wrecked the car, and started out on the desert on foot.
On Jan. 3, five days after the Fullwood murders, a rancher searching for livestock from his airplane spotted them and notified authorities. McFarland and Atwood were taken into custody.
Getting the cases through Nevada courts and bringing McFarland and Atwood back to Sanpete County to face charges in the Fullwood case took more than four years.
In 2013, Atwood pleaded guilty to robbery, burglary and kidnapping and was sentenced to 30 years in prison in Nevada. Authorities said she would not be eligible for parole for 11 years.
In 2014, McFarland’s Nevada case went to a jury, which found him guilty of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, kidnapping, robbery, burglary, grand larceny of a motor vehicle and committing an offense involving a stolen car. He was sentenced to 56 years in prison, which meant he would not be eligible for parole for 21 years.
In 2016, after extended efforts by the Sanpete County Attorney’s Office, state crime lab and other law enforcement agencies to gather and preserve evidence related to the Fullwood murders, both McFarland and Hill were brought back to Central Utah.
At one point, Sanpete County Attorney Brody Kiesel had said he would seek the death penalty for McFarland.
“After talking with the family, they concluded the death penalty was too good for McFarland,” Keisel said after the sentencing. “They saw it as an easy way out, and they wanted him to sit in a prison cell and think about how he took the lives of two very fine people for every day of the rest of his life.”
Keisel added, “McFarland’s plea avoids, under our present legal system, perhaps two additional decades of appeals. We hope the plea will close a difficult chapter.”
In a separate hearing, Atwood pleaded guilty to burglary of a dwelling and attempted aggravated burglary.
Atwood told the judge, “I was high, on drugs, I was selfish.” She said she had not known a murder had been committed until she saw it on the news. After she was taken into custody, she said, she had tried to cooperate with the authorities as soon as she could.
Nonetheless, Judge Marvin Bagley sentenced her to serve time in Utah after finishing her term in Nevada.
Two men armed with a handgun and a knife held up a clerk at the Mt. Pleasant Maverik store on Oct. 9 and got away with
what a source said was about $300. But it wasn’t your garden-variety armed robbery.
The crime spree began in the early morning hours as at least three men reportedly stole a Honda Civic from Utah County, and then drove to Ephraim.
In Ephraim, they also stole a white 2011 Kia Optima, reportedly belonging to Derek Wright, a Snow football player from Sterling. They also broke into another vehicle owned by another Snow student and stole rifles.
They then went to Mt. Pleasant and committed the robbery, including pointing a handgun at a clerk’s chest. The Honda was found a few blocks from the store, and it had been set on fire.
“It’s not every morning you wake up to a car being set on fire in front your house,” Mt. Pleasant resident Rachelle Outzen wrote on Facebook. “I just hope they find whoever did this before they set another car on fire or rob somewhere else. What is this world coming to? It’s becoming so scary even in our little community.”
Later in the day, Lt. Warren Foster from the Springville Police Department confirmed that after an attempted traffic stop in Orem had led to a pursuit down I-15, the Kia Optima had been recovered in Springville.
Foster said the suspects had left the car in a church parking lot and taken off on foot into fields west of I-15. “With witnesses’ help and a high volume of law enforcement, we were able to, we believe,
take two of the three individuals who were in that vehicle,” he said.
On Nov. 1, Luis David Cuevas of Payson pleaded guilty in 6th District Court to aggravated robbery, theft, arson, burglary of a vehicle and obstruction of justice. His sentencing is pending.
On Dec. 13, Jesus Emmanuel Carrasco, 18, of South Jordan, appeared in the 6th District Court on charges of aggravated robbery, theft, obstruction of justice and arson. He waived a preliminary hearing.
Arrests of other suspects and sentencing of the two men who have been charged is pending.
Gunnison and Centerfield
merge police departments
During 2017, the Centerfield and Gunnison City police departments were unified into the Gunnison Valley Police Department, a governing board formed and a new police chief appointed.
The combined department was a long time in the making, and the process of organizing its bylaws and governing structure was complicated, but leaders saw the process through to create a police department that was better equipped to handle the law enforcement needs of the Gunnison Valley.
The original hope was for one department serving the whole valley. But Mayfield and Fayette, which receive free coverage from the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office, said they could not afford to participate.
Two important members of the Gunnison Valley Police Department’s (GVPD) governing board are the mayors from the participating cities—Gunnison’s Bruce Blackham (at least until mayor-elect Lori Nay is sworn in), and Centerfield’s Tom Sorensen.
In addition to the mayors, the board has community members appointed by the mayors. Trevor Powell, Gunnison Valley High School principal, was appointed as the Gunnison City community representative. Centerfield’s community representative is Councilman Keith Garff.
Centerfield police chief Brett McCall was appointed as chief of the unified force. Gunnison’s police chief, Trent Halliday, dropped out of the running because he was being treated for stage-4 cancer.
McCall had built the Centerfield Police Department from the ground up, and the GVPD board felt that experience would be an asset in the unified department position.
“This is a partnership with our community to try and keep everyone safe, and we need as much help from them as they do from us,” McCall told the Messenger after being appointed.
“We need to keep drugs off the street, burglars out of homes, robbers out of stores. Its need to be a partnership with everyone in the valley. Business, residents, everybody.”
Since its formation, the GVPD has dealt with some difficult cases, including an influx of counterfeit money into the community, a mysterious but accidental death, and returning a minor home safely in what was effectively a kidnapping case.
McCall, who has 22 years of experience in law enforcement, said, “In five years, I would like this department to be running smoothly and in a place where I could consider retiring. At that point I could step out of a law enforcement role, having mentored these officers into a position of leadership, and make someone capable of stepping into this position after me.”
David Blackham resigns as
Mt Pleasant mayor
On June 1, Mayor David Blackham of Mt. Pleasant resigned about six months short of his four-year term as mayor. In a
letter to the city council, he cited health problems. But later in the year, it appeared the resignation might have been more complicated than that.
In his resignation letter, Blackham, who also owns Skyline Pharmacy, said “standing, walking and carrying out my responsibilities at the pharmacy, farm and city grow more difficult each day.”
A few months earlier, Blackham had a knee replaced and now needed to have the other knee replaced. He said he also suffered from a bulging disc and recently experienced drop foot, which can be a sign of nerve damage.
In his resignation letter, Blackham outlined some of his accomplishments as mayor, including road improvements totaling $2.1 million; development of the splash pad and the new aquatic center; a $100,000 expansion of the industrial park; and $5,000 per year toward beautification and weed removal.
Later in June, the Mt. Pleasant City Council voted 3-2 to appoint former mayor Sandra Bigler as interim mayor until the November election. Votes were split between Bigler, a fomer mayor who had also served many years on the city council, and Dan Simons, a former councilman who had filed to run for mayor.
But between Blackham’s resignation and the election, word got out that while he was mayor, a female city employee had filed a sexual harassment claim against him with the Utah Labor Commission. She withdrew the complaint after he resigned.
The sexual harassment issue spilled over into the municipal election. Blackham hoped Bigler, the new interim mayor would take his side in the dispute with the employee and clear his name. When she refused to talk with him about the harassment issue, he endorsed and paid for ads for Simons. But Bigler ended up winning the election with 58 percent of the vote.
In November, after the Messenger put quite a lot of time into investigating the sexual harassment charges, publisher Suzanne Dean wrote a column about the newspaper’s findings.
She said no inappropriate touching was ever alleged—only verbal statements. She reported that the whole sexual harassment matter had been aired in a closed-door meeting, and that during the meeting, the city council had unanimously asked Blackham to finish out his term as mayor. But several days later, he decided to resign, primarily because of his health issues.
Meanwhile, Mt. Pleasant City had designated an ombudsman and set up a grievance procedure so employees would have a defined channel for expressing workplace concerns or complaints.
Fatal trailer fire in Fairview
On Oct. 5, a Fairview man, Gary Danner, died in a fire that burned his camp trailer to the ground within minutes and then spread to another trailer in a crowded trailer park on Milburn Road.
Based on everything the Messenger was able to learn, it was the first fire death in Sanpete County in at least 20 years.
Danner was using an oxygen tank and it appeared the oxygen could have accelerated the fire.
The victim’s son, Bryan, who lived in a different trailer in the same park, was forced to look on helplessly as flames engulfed his father’s trailer.
“When we first arrived, the camp trailer was fully engulfed, and the fire had already spread to the adjacent mobile home,” said Chief Nathan Miner of the Fairview Fire Department, who has been fighting fires for 19 years.
Within 5 minutes of the Fire Department’s arrival, the fire was controlled, but it was too late. However, fire fighters were able to extinguish the fire at the adjacent unit. No one in that unit was injured.
More than 25 emergency responders were at the scene, including the Fairview and Mt. Pleasant fire departments, EMTs from the North Sanpete Ambulance Association, Fairview police and the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office.
A large crowd gathered along the perimeter as fire fighters extinguished the fire.
The week the Messenger reported the fire, the newspaper ran an editorial reiterating concerns it had expressed previously about unacceptable conditions in rural trailer courts.
The editorial mentioned tight spacing of units, which, in the Fairview case and a previous fire in Ephraim, enabled a fire to jump from one trailer to the next.