Top 10 Stories of 2019
By Suzanne Dean
Most of the stories Sanpete Messenger editors selected for the Top 10 this year stretched out over a long time.
All of the topics were reported in multiple issues of the newspaper. A number of them started in 2018 but lapped over, and generally got resolved, in 2019.
This year, two stories tied for first place in Messenger rankings. One was the jarring crash in May that killed three teenagers, two North Sanpete High School students and a boy from Ephraim. The fallout from the tragedy continued until late in the year.
The other story, which had been evolving for some time, was Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox’s announcement that he is running for governor. That opened the specter not only of a governor from rural Utah but one from Sanpete County.
Here’s the full rundown:
No. 1 (tie)
Teen deaths and moves to modify Power Plant Road
On a Friday evening toward the end of the school year, a group of teens, most students at North Sanpete High School, gathered at Power Plant Park east of Mt. Pleasant for a cookout.
About the same time, some other students were “mud bogging,” spinning the tires on a flatbed pickup truck, in a yet-to-fill retention pond a little off the road leading to the park.
It was youth from these two activities who would meet calamitously that night.
Four of the teens at the park—Ryan Lyman of Ephraim, McKenzie Farnsworth of Milburn, and Julie Oldroyd and Kodi Wheeler of Fountain Green—got into Farnsworth’s 2005 Hyundai Elantra to head back into Mt. Pleasant to pick up another teen.
Two boys who had been mud bogging pulled onto Power Plant Road and stopped in a traffic lane to talk to teens in a third vehicle that had pulled off onto the shoulder.
Power Plant Road, a county road, is hilly. One hill is so high drivers can’t see the road ahead until they get to the top of it.
The Elantra, driven by McKenzie Farnsworth, traveled up the hill at what the Utah Highway Patrol later said was about 90 miles per hour. As the car came down the other side, it was unable to stop in time to avoid crashing into the pickup stopped on the road.
Ryan Lyman and Julie Oldroyd were dead at the scene. Kodi Wheeler died en route to the hospital. McKenzie Farnsworth, the only teen wearing a seatbelt, and the two teens in the pickup, were not seriously injured.
The response to the tragedy was enormous, starting that night as North Sanpete High School students crowded the corridors of Sanpete Valley Hospital to comfort families of the teens and each other.
The next day, McKenzie Farnsworth, the driver, started organizing a candlelight memorial. The event Sunday night drew 150 people to the Mt. Pleasant City Park.
Meanwhile, the North Sanpete student body president got word out through Facebook that the school would observe a “Best Dress” day (skirts, shirts and ties) on Monday in honor of the teens who had died.
By Monday, Juab, Emery, Manti, GunnisonValley and Richfield high schools had also organized Best Dress days.
In August, McKenzie Farnsworth was charged in juvenile court with reckless driving and reckless endangerment. The two boys who had been driving the pickup were charged with reckless endangerment and stopping on the road. One of the boys was charged with driving without a license.
All of them ended up pleading guilty to reduced charges.
Meanwhile, Vern Fisher, grandfather of July Oldroyd, appeared before the Mr. Pleasant City Council and Sanpete County Commission to make a passionate plea to level out the blind hill on Power Plant Road. He said his research showed there had been at least 20 crashes in the past 20 years near where his granddaughter had died.
The county commission asked the Utah Department of Transportation to study what could be done. Consulting engineers working on a $15 million Mt. Pleasant City project to build a dam and retention pond in the same area promised to look at whether modifications to the road could be incorporated into the project.
No. 1 (tie)
Favorite son makes a run for governor
It’s been decades since Utah had a governor from off the Wasatch Front. And Utah has never had a governor from Sanpete County.
So when Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, a seventh generation resident of Fairview, a former mayor of the town, a former Sanpete County commissioner and a former state legislator representing the county, announced his candidacy in May, it created a stir locally.
In a video announcing his candidacy, Cox talked about the fact that when Gov. Gary Herbert appointed him as lieutenant governor, he and his family decided to stay in Fairview, even though it means Cox must commute more than 100 miles to the State Capitol in Salt Lake City.
“It was important that we didn’t change, that we didn’t become something else,” Cox said in the video, “and we knew that if we stayed here, that would be easier, because quite frankly, people don’t care that I’m lieutenant governor, and they don’t look at me any differently, and I love that.”
Cox pledged to visit all 248 municipalities in Utah. He and his wife, Abby, pledged to do community service in many of the towns. They headed out in an RV painted green with the names of the all the towns painted on the back. By September, Cox had visited 100 towns and had 148 to go.
Gov. Herbert endorsed Cox. And in November, the campaign announced 125 mayor had endorsed him.
Fund raising seemed to be going reasonably well. A month after Cox announced, the campaign said he had receive 1,000 on-line contributions totaling $250,000. He raised $100,000 in one day when Herbert gave him $50,000 from his own political action committee and sponsored a golf tournament that raised another $50,000.
Then Jon Huntsman Jr., a former governor and recent ambassador to the Soviet Union, announced his candidacy. Huntsman is the son and heir of the late Jon Huntsman, who became a billionaire in the petrochemical industry.
A Deseret News poll in late October showed Cox running ahead of Huntsman among likely Republican voters, which is important, because Cox undoubtedly will have to win a primary to get the Republican nomination. However, Huntsman was ahead of Cox among all likely voters.
Write-in candidate elected mayor of Mt. Pleasant
Going back to 2017, Mt. Pleasant City government has been a hotbed of conflict. Most of the difficulty has been between mayors and top staff, and the city council, particularly Councilmen Kevin Stallings and Justin Atkinson.
In 2017, Mayor David Blackham resigned for what he said were health reasons. Later, word got out that an employee had accused him of sexual harassment, a charge he denies. The city council had confronted him about the allegations in a closed meeting. The allegations and confrontation had contributed to his decision to step down.
The in 2018, four officials resigned. They were Jane Banks, city recorder; Sandra Bigler, who had been appointed mayor replacing Blackham; Sam Draper, long-time public works director; and Laurie Hansen, long-time library director.
All said the city council was interfering with day-to-day administration of the city and/or creating a hostile work environment.
A few months later, Blackham, Bigler, Banks and Draper filed a 37-page lawsuit against Mt. Pleasant City and the city council. They lost the suit on technical grounds. Then Blackham filed a defamation suit naming some of the same defendants. That action is still pending.
Meanwhile, Dan Anderson, a former electrical superintendent for the city and a councilman who not been at the center of the conflicts, was appointed mayor replacing Sandra Bigler.
In 2019, Anderson ran for a full-term as mayor. Draper, the former public works director, ran for city council.
Then, after the filing deadline, Michael Olsen, a Sanpete Valley Hospital employee, mounted a write-in campaign for mayor. Voter turnout was 61 percent. Olsen got 58 percent of the vote, Anderson 29 percent and a third candidate 13 percent.
Draper was elected to the council to serve alongside his nemeses Stallings and Atkinson.
“People were tired of the drama,” said a source close to the long-running controversies said. “People at Terrel’s and all over town where saying they were sick of the drama and wanted change.”
Bradley Cook named
president at Snow College
In January, the Utah State Board of Regents appointed Bradley J. Cook, provost at Southern Utah University, as the 17th president of Snow College replacing Gary Carlston, who had announced his retirement.
Cook got the job over three other finalists—Steven Hood, academic vice president at Snow; Val Peterson, vie president of finance and administration at Utah Valley University; and Courtney White, chief of staff at Dixie State College.
Cook grew up in Sevier County and received an associate degree from Snow. He was quarterback on the Snow football team. He got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Stanford and a doctorate from Oxford.
Before joining SUU, Cook was vice president of academic affairs at Utah Valley University and preisdent of Abu Dhabi Women’s College in the United Arab Emirates.
At the Board of Regents meeting where his selection was announced, Cook said, “This college took me in and helped me see there were some possibilities. So let’s be bold. Let’s be imaginative. Let’s be creative and innovative. Let’s be smart. Let’s work hard. And let’s continue to keep students and their successes at the heart of our enterprise.”
In November, Cook was officially inaugurated at an impressive, carefully orchestrated ceremony that filled the Jorgensen Concert Hall in the Eccles Center.
In his inaugural address, he announced five initiatives: $5 million in new need-based scholarships; a partnership with a private software coding school on Silicon Slopes to help students move into tech careers; a Center for Rural Studies and Community Entrepreneurship; the GRIT Center for Rural Entrepreneurship (GRIT stands for grassroots, resourceful, innovating and tenacious); and a Mormon Pioneer Heritage Festival on campus during the summer aimed at attracting tourist traffic that formerly came to the Mormon Miracle Pageant.
Resolution of sex abuse case
This story also started in the previous year. In September, 2018, a freshman on the Gunnison Valley High School football team. who agreed to be identified publicly as “Greg,” reported to the school resource officer that one day after practice, two team members had held him down while a 16-year-old player pulled down his pants and rubbed his genitals in his face.
An investigation found that 16-year-old had been the perpetrator in sexually oriented incidents at Gunnison Valley Middle School and Gunnison Valley High School going back at least two years. There were about 15 victims. But none of them had ever reported the attacks, partly out of fear of further harassment.
In March, in an emotional hearing in 6th District Juvenile Court, six boys and one girl gave victim impact statements describing what they said the 16-year-old had done to them.
Judge Brody Keisel said some of the statements “made me queasy.”
The most dramatic one was from a boy who said the defendant had held him down on the matt in wrestling practice and squeezed and twisted his testicles.
“I have never felt so much pain in my life,” the boy said. “I begged him to stop, but he wouldn’t. I kind of knew he would eventually let go because I’d seen him do the same thing on the bus.”
The next day, the boy couldn’t get out of be and was urinating blood. He ended up at Primary Children’s Hospital. He never told anyone about the attack.
“Kids had told on (he named the defendant) in the past, but he would always get away with it, so I knew there was no point telling what he had done to me,” he told the court. “It would only make life harder for me at school.”
The 16-year-old defendant pleaded guilty to eight second-degree felonies. Judge Keisel ordered him to move to his grandparents home in St. George, attend an alternative school and complete 288 hours of community service in the next six months.
The judge also ordered him
to complete a program of individual, group and family therapy for youth sex offenders. He said if the defendant wasn’t making satisfactory progress in therapy in 90 days, he would be moved to a group home for a more intensive level of treatment.
Judge Keisel also ordered him not to go on the Gunnison Valley High School campus or have contact with any of his victims.
Meanwhile, Misty Cox, Greg’s mother, filed a civil rights suit in U.S. District Court for Utah. The suit said administrators at Gunnison Valley High School had known about the defendant’s behavior for years but taken no action. It also claimed the South Sanpete School District fostered a cavalier attitude toward bullying and sexual assault.
The suit was settled Dec. 17 with the school district paying $48,000. Of that, $30,000 went to the attorney, Robert Sykes of Salt Lake City, and $18,000 into a trust fund. Greg will be able to access the money after he turns 18.
Fayette Town responds to embezzlement
This story seemed to end in November, 2018 when Tracy Mellor, long-time clerk of Fayette, one of the county’s smallest municipalities, pleaded guilty to three counts of misuse of public money, all third-degree felonies. But it turned out the story another chapter.
Mellor had originally been charged with nine counts of misuse of funds. And a Sheriff’s Office investigation found she had stolen at least $229,000 from the town. Moreover, when confronted, she had altered documents to try to cover up the thefts.
So when she was sentenced to just 45 days in jail and ordered to pay $153,000 in restitution, some Fayette residents got angry. They circulated an anonymous letter saying the sentence was far too lenient.
Kevin Daniels, county attorney, and Wes Mangum, deputy county attorney, went to a Fayette town meeting to talk about the sentence. It appeared a good share of adults in Fayette were present for the meeting.
The prosecutors said the sentence had been lighter than they had requested. But they noted that a pre-sentence report from Adult Probation and Parole (AP&P) had recommended no jail time.
Daniels said new sentencing guidelines had come down from the state that judges, AP&P and even county attorneys are expected to follow.
“The reduced sentences we are seeing are not the result of lenient judges, the reductions are a byproduct of a change to the sentencing guidelines,” he said.
A couple of weeks after the meeting, the Utah State Auditor’s Office issued a report on its investigation of the case.
Mellor had been town clerk for nearly 20 years, but the state auditor only looked at records going back 10 years. The auditor found not $150,000 missing, not $229,000, but $303,000.
And the report said it was the state auditor’s opinion that Mellor’s misappropriation of funds, mostly by writing checks to a dummy company owned by her husband and herself, had started more than 10 years earlier.
The auditor’s report blasted previous mayors and town board members for not exercising better oversight over town finances. It even suggested the town should consider going out of business.
If the town continued to operate, the report said, it needed to designate someone to review every proposed check, with the associated invoices, before the item was submitted to the town board for approval.
Above all, the report said, there needed to be separation of duties between the clerk who received and deposited money, and the treasurer who paid bills.
In February, in what wasn’t a huge surprise, Mayor Brenda Leifson, the first elected official to discover the thefts and call in the Sheriff’s Office, resigned.
While State Auditor John Dougall praised her by name in his report, some in town who had connections with Mellor had attacked her. At one point, there were even complaints to the Sheriff’s Office that Leifson herself was misusing funds (Nothing came of the allegations.)
At the next town board meeting, the board grappled with how to implement separation of duties as demanded by the state auditor. They also talked about finding a new mayor.
“If someone is interested in applying and assuming that responsibility, you need to come forward and let the council know,” board member Brandon Jensen said. “We want people to know and have the opportunity to volunteer.”
By May, Scott Bartholomew, a town board member, who is son of Sanpete County Commission Chairman Scott Bartholomew and an Iraq veteran, had stepped up to mayor. In November, he was elected to a permanent four-year term.
The town had hired a CPA firm to review pending payments and make sure money was allocated properly.
Kathi Williams had been hired as part-time town clerk. She was functioning as both clerk and auditor because the town didn’t have the funds to hire two separate people, as recommended by the state auditor.
The town had received $100,000 from its bonding company to cover some of Mellor’s thefts. Mellor had paid the town an additional $23,000. At this time, the money is behind held in reserve with no specific plans for spending it.
Flush water year
After nearly a decade of drought, including one of the driest years in memory in 2018, things turned around in 2019.
In February, precipitation in the Sanpitch River Basin was 159 percent of normal. Troy Roston of the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service reported that soil moisture was 68 percent, compared to 52 percent the previous year.
In March, Roston reported that snowpack in the Sanpitch Basin was 127 percent of normal compared to 54 percent at the same time in 2018. That offered hope, he said, that the nearly empty Gunnison Reservoir might be replenished.
“We have twice as much snowpack at this time as last year,” David Cox, of the Manti Creek Water Users Association, said. “I don’t want to make promises, but conditions are good.”
In fact, by April, Bryan Kimball, Ephraim city engineer, said the county was getting close to an all-time record for precipitation. He expressed concern about flooding. In June, minor flooding did occur along the Sanpitch and Sevier Rivers.
Over the summer, the tide turned somewhat as the National Weather Service issued Red Flag Warnings, which mean high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, a recipe for wildfires. Between July 1 and Labor Day, fires did break out in Centerfield, Wales and Ephraim Canyon.
Forest Service launches huge project to clear
deadwood from forest
In May, Gov. Gary Herbert and Secretary Agriculture Sonny Purdue signed a “shared stewardship” agreement designed to facilitate more cooperation and shared use of resources between the U.S. Forest Service and State of Utah in taking care of forests in the state.
Shortly afterward, Kyle Beagley, Sanpete District ranger for the Manti-LaSal National Forest, announced the Forest Service would advertise timber sales with the goal of recruiting companies to clear 36,000 acres of dead, dense, standing and downed spruce in forests on the eastern spine of Sanpete County.
“Some people ask me why this wasn’t done 20 years ago,” Beagley said. “I wish it had been…Now I think the Forest Service is ready to think big picture. And we hope to support industry to every extent possible while implementing this important project responsibly.”
Beagley said clearing out dead trees would help prevent mega-fires, improve watershed health and encourage a healthier composition of forest species.
In October, the Forest Service awarded a timber sale to Timberline Firewood Bundles, based in Moroni, to remove 140,000 cubic feet of dead and downed timber,
The company planned to convert the timber into firewood bundles that are sold at convenience stores throughout Utah. It also planned to create shavings for turkey barns.
Last Mormon Miracle
In late 2018, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints posted a message on its website announcing that from then on, large productions such as pageants “are discouraged.” The message said the church would be working with local leaders to “appropriately end, modify or continue these productions.”
Shortly afterward, President Mark Olson of the Manti Stake announced that after 51 years, the 2019 performance “would be the end of the (Mormon Miracle) Pageant as we know it.”
That set the stage for a nostalgic final run of the pageant.
The cast had 1,000 members, the largest ever. “We will have over 400 angels for the final scene, and that’s the most ever,” Pageant President Milton Olson said.
Early on, it was evident the final pageant would attract the biggest crowds in a decade.
Katelon Rey-Grant, owner of Yardley Inn in Manti, said her phone started ringing right after the church announcement. Callers were saying, “We just have to come because I got my testimony (at the Pageant) when I was 13” or “My husband proposed to me during the Pageant and we got married in the Manti Temple.”
Leila Jacobsen, manager of Willow Creek Inn in Ephraim said she her hotel had a waiting list. “Everything in a 50-mile radius is booked,” she said.
After the first week, Travis Miller, owner of Miller’s Bakery in Manti said, “I knew it would be big, but it has been overwhelming. We’ve had a hard time handling the volume. We’ve been ordering tons and tons of food to keep up with the demand, but the lines to get food have been going out the door.”
The final attendance number was 153,500, just about double the previous year. Likewise, the number of Pageant dinners served at the Utah National Guard Armory in Manti was about double 2018.
Manti City Manager Kent Barton, who had been in charge of the dinners for several years, said that on the last night, after helping clean up the armory, he joined his wife and some of his adult children to watch the Pageant.
“As I was walking home,” he said, “I had a somber moment when I realized I had seen the very first pageant” (as a youth more than 50 years ago) and the last one, too.”
Raul Vidrio sentenced
in brutal murder of
Mt. Pleasant man
In May, Raul Vidrio, 22-year-old gang member, was sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of Wesley Nay of Mt. Pleasant, who was 22 at the time of his death.
He was also sentenced to 1-15 years for obstruction of justice and 0-5 years for desecration of a body.
The sentences will run back to back, which means even if Vidrio serves the minimum time on each charge, he will be in prison 16 years.
Vidrio forced Nay to dig his own grave and made a video of him doing so. Then he stabbed him to death, put the body in the grave, lit it on fire with gasoline, and after it had burned, covered it with a few inch of dirt.
Nay’s parents had reported him missing and had asked for help from the community to find him before the grave was discovered by hunt
ers in a meadow north of Indianola near the Sanpete-Utah County line.
Police solved the crime partly by finding the video of Nay digging his grave on Vidrio’s phone. They also found shovels, a pick and gas jugs, items Vidrio apparently used in the forced grave-digging and the murder, in a pickup truck Vidrio had stolen. Witness testimony and DNA also helped break the case.
“This particular case is an unusually heinous killing,”4th District Judge James Taylor said. “It was calculated, it was planned and it involved him digging his own grave. It involved murdering him in a heinous and callous way.”
A Sanpete County sheriff’s detective played a key role in solving the murder.
Ephraim Market Fresh, formerly Kent’s Market, closes its doors
In mid-July, after a lot of rumors, a sign went up on the marquee in front of Ephraim Market Fresh announcing the store, a fixture in the county for 25 years, was liquidating.
Tyler Merrill, who bought the store in 2014, attributed the closure to “the market and the industry.”
Even as part of the larger Kent’s Market chain before Merrill purchased it, the store was marginal after Walmart opened in 2000, presenting competition the store had not had before.
About the time of closure, McKinsey & Company, grocery industry analysts, reported the growth age in the industry had slowed down and profits were dropping industry-wide.
The day of the announcement, long-time customers came in to buy meat and other products at 25 percent off.
Cathy Fox, who had worked at the store for 21 years, shared some memories, including about the day she got married standing in her check stand.
A couple of lead employees from Ephraim Market Fresh have transferred to Merrill’s store in Manti, but most were laid off. The Ephraim Market Fresh pharmacy is still open in the same location.