Top 10 Stories of 2018
Four wildfires during August and September forced hundreds of Sanpete County residents, and thousands living just beyond the county boundaries, to evacuate.
Virtually all firefighters and a large contingent of law enforcement officers from throughout the county were pressed into service. They emerged as heroes.
The scariest fire for county residents was the Hilltop fire, which broke out the afternoon of Aug. 6, a Monday. The fire started in Blackhawk Estates, a mountain-type development between Indianola and Milburn, and traveled south along a ridge into the Milburn Valley.
On Monday night, 50-foot flames were heading toward upscale homes in the Milburn area. Within 24 hours, the fire grew from 50 acres to 1,400 acres with zero percent containment.
Privately owned and government-owned bulldozers started building berms around homes to keep the fire away. Forest Service planes dipped into an irrigation pond on the west side of Milburn to fill huge buckets and then dropped the water around the berms to wet down vegetation. Other planes swooped down dropping loads of red retardant.
Referring to the bulldozer operators, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who lives in Fairview a few miles south of Milburn, quipped, “This is not clearing land for a Walmart.”
By Tuesday morning, 95 local fire fighters, 16 engines and four bulldozers were fighting the fire. Sheriff Brian Nielson called in nearly all his deputes and all 40 members of Sanpete Search and Rescue. Reinforcements arrived from the Utah Highway Patrol. In all, there were 137 officers on the scene directing traffic and going door-to-door to warn people to evacuate.
About 350 residents in Blackhawk Estates, Hideaway Valley and half of Milburn were evacuated. The Red Cross set up a “reception center” at the Indianola Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
During the day Tuesday, some of the evacuees stood across the road from the Indianola Fire Station watching the air attack on the fire. One gestured toward a plane. “Without those, nothing’s going to stop it,” she said. “Yesterday, they saved us.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Sanpete County Fire Warden Tom Peterson decided to use a “hand crew” that had come in from the Logan City Fire Department to do a risky “back burn.” They went to where the fire was advancing and lit vegetation on fire. It worked. The advance of the flames and smoke slowed down significantly.
Nonetheless, the Hilltop Fire smoldered for days. By Friday, it was 60 percent contained. Early the next week, 100 percent containment was reached.
There were no injuries and no homes were lost. “The footprint of this fire, in the location that it is, to be in the position we’re in with the limited amount of loss, is incredible,” Sheriff Nielson told a community meeting.
But there was a lot more to come. As U.S. Forest Service teams and local firefighters were wrapping up Hilltop, the Coal Hollow Fire was exploding in the Manti-LaSal National Forest near the junction of U.S. 89 and U.S. 6. Ultimately, it grew to 30,000 acres.
At different times, the fire forced closure of U.S. 6. Once, it jumped the highway to the north side of the road. The Forest Service sent in a Type 1 Incident Team—the type of crew that fights the most serious fires.
Then on Sept. 6, the Pole Creek Fire started. It traveled through parts of Utah, Sanpete and Juab counties, ultimately growing to 100,000 acres. Most of the burned areas had little population.
Near the same time, the Bald Mountain Fire started burning in the Wasatch Mountains east of highly populated areas of Utah County. The Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires burned together to become the biggest fire in the United States at the time.
U.S. 89 was closed at the Sanpete County-Utah County line. More than 6,000 people living in 2,000 homes, mostly in Utah County, were evacuated.
While not directly affected, Sanpete got involved, because for some of the evacuees, the closest shelter was the Indianola Ward. And firefighters from Fountain Green, Wales, Sterling, Manti, Mt. Pleasant and Ephraim were called in to help state and federal fire crews.
Late in the year, the Utah Division of Fire, Forestry and State Lands reported on results of an investigation into the Hilltop Fire. The cause was children playing with matches. The state decided it would not pursue any charges or seek any compensation in the case.
2. Water Woes
The past year has been described as the driest on record since 1977. That was more than 40 years ago.
In May, the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) reported snowpack in the mountains above the Sanpitch River Basin was 8 percent of normal and reservoir storage in Sanpete County was 9 percent of normal.
Norman Jensen of Centerfield, a large hay producer, said the Gunnison Valley Irrigation Co. normally delivers 1.25 to 1.5 acre feet of water per water share. The company told him to expect less than 0.5 acre feet in 2018.
The low snowpack affected springs and wells that supply culinary water for towns. Fairview, Spring City, Ephraim, Sterling and Mayfield, among others, reported the volume of water running into their culinary systems had plummeted. Ephraim said flow was down 1,000 gallons per minute compared to past years.
Projects to upgrade retention ponds, springs, wells and water delivery lines got underway, or moved from the back burner to front burner. Among towns launching or planning major projects were Fairview, Mt. Pleasant, Spring City, Sterling and Mayfield.
As if the water shortage wasn’t enough, serious maintenance issues cropped up. In June, two water line breaks in the mountains east of Ephraim caused the city to lose 1 million gallons.
In July, Ephraim imposed outdoor watering restrictions for the first time in memory. In September, the pump on the Ephraim well went out. The well is the only backup source when water from mountain springs is not sufficient. The city immediately banned all outdoor watering for the rest of the year.
Likewise in Fairview, watering restrictions were in place when the pump went out on the Sammy Well, an important source of culinary water during the summer. The city asked residents to stop all outdoor watering. Citizens complied and water consumption dropped. The pump was fixed in about three weeks.
At year end, the NRCS reported snow accumulation in October and November in the San Pitch River Basin was above normal for the 2019 water year.
That snow is critically needed, Justin Jackson, water supervisor in Fairview, told the Fairview City Council. “If we do not get a heavy snowfall this winter, Fairview City will never have experienced the type of restrictions that will go into effect next year. Hold onto your belts. I hope nobody loves their lawn that much.”
3. Coltharp-Shaffer child kidnapping and sex abuse case
A story that broke in December 2017 about a Spring City man, Jon Coltharp, 34, and his associate Samuel Shaffer, 35, played out in court through much of 2018.
Coltharp and Shaffer were founders of a religious group called Knights of the Crystal Blade that advocated polygamy and child marriage.
At the end of 2017, Coltharp’s four children were rescued from western Iron County and returned to their mother, who was divorced from Coltharp. The children were found in large, unheated storage containers.
In January, Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels said an investigation had found Coltharp and Shaffer had “married” each other’s daughters and then done “sexual married things” with the 8-year-old girls.”
Coltharp was charged with one count of kidnapping and one count of sodomy, both first-degree felonies; and one count of obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony.
Shaffer was charged with two counts of sodomy, both first-degree felonies; one count of obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony; and one count of lewdness with a child, a Class A misdemeanor.
In June, a plea deal was reached. Coltharp pleaded guilty to one count of child sodomy, a first-degree felony, and one count of child bigamy, a second-degree felony. A kidnapping charge and an obstruction of justice charge were dismissed.
Shortly afterward, Shaffer pleaded guilty to one count of sodomy on a child, also a first-degree felony.
Daniels said he had reduced Shaffer’s charges more than Coltharp’s because Shaffer had provided information helpful in prosecuting Coltharp and had agreed to testify against him.
At a sentencing hearing in August, Daniels described the impact of Coltharp’s actions on two of Shaffer’s girls.
Daniels reported the girls had trouble eating, did not speak to other children and had misunderstandings about personal relationships.
The grandfather of the Coltharp children quoted statements from the children about their father. One said, “I hate him so much.”
“I know my religious views are not shared by society, and that puts me in the minority,” Coltharp said in court. “But that’s exactly where God’s chosen few have always found themselves—in the minority.”
The judge sentenced Coltharp to 26 years to life in prison on the sodomy charge, to be followed by 15 years to life for obstruction of justice.
In an interview with the Messenger after sentencing, Coltharp said he believed in the work of Joseph Smith “and I believe I have been called to pick up where he left off.”
He claimed his and Shaffer’s daughters had consented to being married, and that he and Shaffer had received revelations that the marriages needed to be consummated.
He also said he didn’t expect to serve his full sentences because he expected the world to end or to be killed in prison before the sentences were up.
At Shaffer’s sentencing hearing, he said he realized sexual activity with the young girls had harmed them and had decided it was wrong. He was sentenced to 1-15 years in prison.
4. Shakeup in Mt. Pleasant city government
During 2018, the Mt. Pleasant City Council started exercising what in the past had been executive functions performed by the mayor.
On grounds the city wasn’t running efficiently, different council members started supervising city departments. The council hired two new supervisory employees.
There was a little discussion of possible organizational changes in council meetings. The council’s initiatives didn’t really come into focus until Mayor Sandra Bigler and the public works director, Sam Day, resigned.
Subsequently, Laurie Hansen, the long-time librarian also resigned. The library was one of the city departments that had fallen under the jurisdiction of a council member.
In Bigler’s resignation letter, she said she had served 21 years in city government, including many years on the city council, two partial terms as mayor and one full, elected term as mayor. She had been elected to a second full term as mayor in 2017.
“During the eight months since I was most recently elected, I tried to function as the chief executive, as I had during my previous service as mayor,” her letter wrote. “The council and I disagree on my role as chief executive, which has made it difficult for me to operate as mayor. Therefore, for the good of the city, I decided to resign.”
Councilman Kevin Stallings, the lead city council figure in the controversy, said the council would issue a statement explaining its actions at meeting on Sept. 11.
But the thing that stood out about the statement, which was read by Councilwoman Heidi Kelso, was criticism of former Mayor David Blackham over an employee’s allegations more than a year earlier that he had sexually harassed her.
On Oct. 9, Bigler, Blackham and Draper filed suit in 6th District Court claiming that beginning while Blackham was mayor, and continuing after Bigler took over, the council had illegally usurped the executive powers of the mayor.
The complaint said council members, in violation of state law and city ordinances, began “inserting” themselves into day-to-day oversight, “creating conflict with department heads.”
On Nov. 6, the city council appointed Dan Anderson, a councilman, as interim mayor until the next election in 2020. Russell Keisel, who is retired from Rocky Mountain Power, was appointed to fill Anderson’s council seat.
5. Fayette clerk convicted of theft of public funds
Early in the year, Tracy Mellor, who had been Fayette town clerk since the early 2000s, resigned after being confronted by Brenda Liefson, the town’s new mayor.
Liefson had found checks dating back to 2009 written to R&T’s, a home-based business owned by Mellor’s husband. The mayor could not find any invoices showing any work R&T’s had done for the town.
The Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation. Detectives reported finding $220,000 in checks from Fayette Town to R&T’s written between 2014 and 2018. The town budget is about $100,000 per year, so it appeared Mellor had taken the equivalent of two year’s receipts.
The sheriff’s investigation also found that after being confronted, Mellor had attempted to alter the payee name on some cancelled checks to remove R&T’s name and substitute names of vendors who frequently provided services to the city, such as Rocky Mountain Power.
As the case proceeded, the amount Mellor was officially charged with taking was dropped to $153,000 because the statute of limitations had run out on some of the transactions.
Mellor was charged with nine counts of misuse of public money. She pleaded guilty to three counts.
But Wes Mangum, deputy county attorney, said he was “shocked” when a presentence report recommended no jail time because Mellor had no prior record. While prosecutors are discouraged from deviating from presentence reports, Mangum asked for 60 days in jail.
Judge Wallace Lee ended up sentencing her to 45 days of jail and three years’ probation. He also ordered her to pay back $153,000.
Patricia Murphy, a town board member who represented the town in court, said, “The town has been extremely violated by this, because our trust was violated.”
The sentence triggered public indignation. An anonymous letter was sent to every household in Fayette asking residents to make their feelings about the sentence known to the judge.
6. Sexual assaults at Gunnison Valley High School
In a case that made statewide news and divided the Gunnison Valley community, three football players at Gunnison Valley High School were charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old freshman player before football practice.
Misty Cox, the parent of the 14-year-old victim, said two of the boys had held down her son, while a third pulled down his pants and rubbed his buttocks and genitals in her son’s face.
In a TV interview, the 14-year-old said, “I wanted it to be stopped. I didn’t want somebody else to go through that, because that’s just wrong. I decided I needed to talk about it.”
After Cox and her son reported the incident, Officer Carl Wimmer, the school resource officer, launched and investigation. More than a dozen Gunnison Valley students, including males and females, told him they had been the targets of similar assaults.
The students said the primary perpetrator in the assaults had been the same sophomore student who had exposed himself to Cox’s son.
The sophomore was charged with six counts of object rape, all first-degree felonies, and four counts of forcible sexual abuse, which are second-degree felonies.
The boys who held the freshman player down during the assault were each charged with one count of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony.
In late October, Cox and her son filed a civil rights suit in federal court claiming Kent Larsen, superintendent of the South Sanpete School District; Trevor Powell, principal at Gunnison Valley High School; and Ryan Anderson, the athletic director (since resigned) knew the assaults were going on, but did nothing to stop them.
According to the lawsuit, Cox met with Larsen, who told her the assault on her son was a case of “boys being boys” and was simply a hazing incident that “went too far.”
On Nov. 14, about 70 people, mostly parents of students, attended a South Sanpete School Board meeting at the high school. The most vocal parent said he had heard the school board was going to try to have Wimmer, who works for the Gunnison Valley Police Department, removed from the investigation.
Kim Pickett, chairman of the school board, said there were no plans to try to remove Wimmer from his post.
Subsequently, anonymous callers to the Sanpete Messenger, said most of the people at the meeting were there to support the parents of the boy facing the most charges. The callers said most of the people at the meeting wanted Wimmer removed, although no one spoke up to say so.
The callers claimed Cox was a member of a religious congregation Wimmer heads in Gunnison. They charged Wimmer was biased in the investigation.
As the year ended, Wes Mangum, deputy county attorney, who is prosecuting the case, denied any bias. “Nobody in Gunnison except me and the police have the facts,” he said.
He added that some people might claim the sexual abuse incidents weren’t serious. “We know otherwise,” he said.
7. Pitman Farms of California buys Norbest, saving company from possible liquidation.
In late 2017, the Messenger heard talk that Norbest, owner of the turkey processing plants in Moroni and Salina that employ more than 300 people, was facing bankruptcy and possible liquidation.
Then in January, Pitman Family Farms, a chicken and turkey growing operation in Fresno County, Calif., announced it had purchased the company.
Apparently, key people in the turkey industry, who were never identified, had brokered the deal and very possibly saved the Sanpete County turkey industry.
The Pitmans were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Pitman and Norbest had similar mission statements emphasizing humane treatment of animals and avoiding use of antibiotics in poultry.
8. Mormon Miracle Pageant to come to an end
In early November, President Mark Olson of the Manti Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that after 51 years, the 2019 performance would be “the end of the pageant as we know it.”
Olson’s comments followed an announcement on the church website saying local celebrations of history and culture may be appropriate, but “larger productions such as pageants are discouraged.”
Olson said a local committee would consider whether the stake should substitute the pageant with a locally funded program. As of year end, there has been no report on those discussions.
The same narration tape recorded in the 1960s was still being used for the Mormon Miracle Pageant. Ivo Peterson, a former pageant director who has a professional theater background, said the church was at a point where it needed to invest time and money in rewriting the pageant, or discontinue it.
“Ultimately, the church is looking to reduce and simplify programs and take away heavy responsibilities from individuals and families,” Olson said.
He added that “the church had taken a serious look at the sacredness of the temple grounds” where the pageant had been performed since the 1970s, and decided the pageant might not be a fit for the location.
9. Boom year for Sanpete economy
Looking back on 2018, there is cause to celebrate because the Sanpete County economy keeps getting better.
Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) statistics showed Sanpete going into 2018 strong and coming out in even better shape.
“There is little to criticize in Sanpete County’s current economy,” DWS economist Lecia Langston said. “Job growth remains strong with many industries participating in the expansion.”
The most recent job growth figures released by the DWS show about 4.5 percent growth from the previous year. That compares to 3.3 percent statewide and just 1.7 percent in the nation as a whole.
Manufacturing led the job-creation sectors in Sanpete, accounting for more than 200 of the county’s 370 new jobs.
Langston says Sanpete’s strong labor market has put upward pressure on wages, with the countywide average monthly wage last reported at $2,502; information, technology and professional/business services led the way on average monthly wages at $4,840.
Langston says the county’s unemployment rate is holding steady at 3.7 percent, which is equal to nationwide unemployment.
The countywide gross taxable sales are showing a healthy 7 percent increase in the most recent DWS data. Business investment in manufacturing coupled, with retail growth pushing the sales up.
10. New faces in county government
This year saw a changing of the guard after Claudia Jarrett, who had served four terms as county commissioner, announced her retirement.
A few months earlier, Jarrett had passed the chairmanship of the county commission to Scott Bartholomew.
In April, Jarrett took a stab at Utah House District 58, which includes Sanpete and Juab counties, and at incumbent Derrin Owens. But at the Republican State Convention on April 21, Owens got 36 delegate votes to Jarrett’s 16.
Later, in the Republican primary in June, Edwin Sunderland of Chester defeated Justin Atkinson of Mt. Pleasant for the Republican nomination to Jarrett’s seat by a 55 to 45 percent margin.