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Fires, arrests, policy changes lead the year’s news in La Plata County

Mark Redwine is arrested, EPA chief visits Silverton and notable deaths
Durango Fire Protection District firefighters set up structure protection on June 28 during the Lightner Creek Fire. The fire burned 412 acres but only one home.

In some ways, 2017 seems like a calmer year than 2016 – locally and nationally. Major decisions made last year became more routine stories this year – the La Plata County comprehensive plan, the city’s sewer plant, Lake Nighthorse, homelessness, to name a few. Plus, there was not a presidential election that galvanized civic-minded people to become more politically engaged. We were lucky that the wildfire season was relatively tame, especially because of a dry summer. Firefighters ably kept the Lightner Creek Fire from bearing down on downtown Durango after a house exploded on County Road 207.

There were also the usual suspects in the news, namely bears. When a food-seeking ursine breaks into a Subaru – because what other kind of car do Durangoans drive – and then takes it for a drive, it becomes not just local news but national news. “Bear breaks into SUV, then takes it for a short drive” was the most read story on durangoherald.com this year. That wasn’t the only incident in which a bear trashed a car. It became an oft-used headline, underscoring that La Plata County residents still are slowly learning how to live in bear country.

There was tragedy, too. Stories about deaths and crimes made up the majority of our 50 most-read stories.

Here’s a look at some significant news stories from 2017:

La Plata County

New manager: La Plata County named its first female manager in July. Joanne Spina succeeded Joe Kerby, who had been manager for five years. Kerby left to take a job as county administrator in Corvallis, Oregon. Spina’s appointment came after she had worked for the county for nearly 30 years, most recently as assistant county manager. She took over as manager at a time of a dwindling budget because of declining property tax revenue. It means that Spina will oversee a cutback in many services, even as the county had been preparing for the sharp decline for almost 20 years. Spina says she is prepared for the challenge: “I’ve had some folks say, ‘Are you crazy for taking this on right now?’” Spina told The Durango Herald in September. “But, to me, we need to live within our means, and we’re working hard as an organization to do that.”

Land-use Code:Long-awaited proposed updates to codes that have significant impact on growth and development in the county arrived in early December. The county’s land-use codes have not been revised since the 1980s. Among the biggest changes in the codes are zoning laws – absent until now. The codes should streamline the permitting process for businesses, too. The process is expected to take about a year and cost an estimated $250,000. The county is doing the revisions by module: land use, public process and development standards.

Comprehensive Plan: It’s a story that stays alive, but this year there was some finality. After three years, La Plata County officials adopted an overhauled comprehensive plan. The plan, which hadn’t been revised since 2001, is an advisory, not regulatory, guide for decisions about growth in La Plata County. With 38,000 new residents expected to move into La Plata County over the next 30 years, the comprehensive plan will also serve as a foundation for planned updates to the land-use code. Special attention was given to agricultural use, tourism, recreation and historic preservation.

Budget: Over the next year, the county will be grappling with how to maintain – or cut – services as a result of property tax revenues expected to fall about $500,000, a 3.3 percent decline from 2017, and a 50 percent fall – or $15 million decrease – since 2010. The county adopted a $79.4 million budget earlier this month. The county will leave 19 positions vacant, saving about $1.16 million, and has instituted a 60-day hiring hiatus. County Manager Joanne Spina said cuts could have been worse, but the county has been preparing for the decline of oil and gas prices, which affects the budget.

Police, fire, courts

Mark Redwine, seen in the back of a police car, was taken into custody July 22 in Washington state after a grand jury issued an indictment accusing him of second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death in connection with the 2012 disappearance of his son, Dylan Redwine.

Mark Redwine: After almost five years, a major break occurred in the case of Dylan Redwine’s death. Mark Redwine, Dylan’s father, was arrested in Washington state on July 22 in connection with the incident. A grand jury issued an indictment accusing him of second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Dylan was last seen alive on Nov. 18, 2012, when he arrived by airplane for a court-ordered visit to see his father. He was reported missing the next day. Several searches in the days after were fruitless. The biggest advance in the case came in June 2013, when some of Dylan’s remains were found on Middle Mountain Road near Vallecito Reservoir. His death was ruled a homicide. Law enforcement named Redwine a “person of interest” in August 2015, but the 56-year-old father maintained that he had nothing to do with the disappearance of his then 13-year-old son. If convicted on either count, Redwine faces 16 to 48 years in prison.

New Chief: The Durango Police Department welcomed a new chief of police in April. Kamran Afzal joined the department with more than 25 years of experience in law enforcement. He replaced Jim Spratlen, who had been chief since 2011 and retired in September 2016. Afzal had worked for the Arlington County Police Department in Virginia since 1993. During his time there, Afzal dealt with some of the same issues he will have to address here, mostly an increasing homeless population and a struggle to recruit officers. Durango City Manager Ron LeBlanc said Afzal’s community-oriented policing philosophy made him an attractive hire. Police departments must be transparent with the public, Afzal told the Herald in February. If police don’t inform residents about why they’re doing things a certain way, other people will “fill in the blanks” and guide the message, he said.

Murder Convictions: Four men who were charged with first-degree murder for killing Fort Lewis College student Samuel Gordon in May 2016 were sentenced. The men – all from Arizona – were arrested when they drove away after a home-invasion robbery, where they planned to rob Gordon of 9 pounds of illegal marijuana and $20,000 in cash. One of the robbers apparently became spooked when he saw Gordon leave his room with a flare gun in hand and shot Gordon in the abdomen. Daniel Wright, 21, was sentenced in April to 17 years in prison. Kuauhtleko Garcia, 22, was sentenced in June to 24 years in prison. Alvin Flores, 23, was sentenced in July to 32 years in prison. Kodi “Maz” E. Kuauhtli, 21, was sentenced in October to 20 years in prison.

Two people killed: There were two unrelated killings in the Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park this year. On April 17, Silvino Martinez-Perez, 35, called 911 to say he killed his wife, Crystal Martinez-Perez, 33. He is charged with first-degree murder, three counts of child abuse and one count of abusing a corpse. He pleaded not guilty on Nov. 16. The case appears likely headed to trial in 2018. Friends and neighbors recalled Crystal as a person who loved to dance; she had celebrated her 33rd birthday dancing at Wild Horse Saloon just two days before she was killed. On May 14, David Gaytan, 34, was shot and killed during a marijuana robbery. Three people from Texas, Michael Jones, 19, Kevin Goff, 27, and Alysse Rios, 19, have been charged with first-degree murder. Jones is suspected of firing the gun.

In November, voters passed a property tax increase to raise funding for the Durango Fire Protection District. The tax will bring in about $3 million annually to pay for additional fire staff, new fire stations and a training facility.

Mill levy increase: Voters soundly approved a 2.5 mill property tax increase for land within the Durango Fire Protection District boundaries. Residential property owners will pay an additional $18 per $100,000 worth of value in their home, and commercial property owners will see an increase of $72.50 per $100,000 of value. If a person owns commercial property worth $500,000, he or she would pay an additional $362.50. The tax will draw in $3 million annually. The tax revenue will pay for additional fire staff, new fire stations and a training facility. The increase was needed in part because of the 1982 Gallagher Amendment. The state constitutional amendment lowers the assessment rate for homes when residential values increase faster than nonresidential property values. The additional funding will allow the fire district to work on responding to emergencies more quickly – something needed because of growth within the fire district.


In August, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, center, toured the Gold King Mine in the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund area north of Silverton. Pruitt, who affirmed the agency’s commitment to cleaning up the site, was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, Gov. John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, all on the right, and state Sen. Don Coram, far left. Sen. Michael Bennet, not shown, was also on the tour.

EPA Visits Gold King Mine: In August, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, along with state and local politicians, toured the Gold King Mine north of Silverton. Pruitt told them repeatedly that there was “total commitment” to continue to fund the cleanup of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund area. The district was designated a Superfund site in September 2016, a year after EPA contractors accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of mine wastewater into the Animas River in August 2015. During the tour, Pruitt said that the Obama administration “failed those who counted on them to protect the environment” but, as EPA chief, he would hold the EPA to the same standards as companies the agency regulates. He also vowed to re-evaluate 73 claims totaling $1.2 billion in rejected damage compensation. Earlier this month, the EPA pegged the Bonita district as one of its top priorities among Superfund sites across the country.

Village at Wolf Creek: In the decades-long effort of a Texas billionaire to build a village of 1,700 units atop Wolf Creek Pass, a federal judge once again blocked a land exchange between the Forest Service and Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture. Judge Richard P. Matsch denied a request from lawyers representing the proposed development to reconsider a decision he issued in May. At issue is Rio Grande Forest Service Supervisor Dan Dallas’ approval of a land exchange in 2015. The exchange gave developer B.J. “Red” McCombs land adjacent to U.S. Highway 160, and in the swap, the Forest Service received land that included wetlands below Wolf Creek Ski Area. For two years, a coalition of environmental groups has challenged the Forest Service’s decision, arguing the agency unlawfully limited the scope of an environmental analysis and was unduly influenced by McCombs and his political pressure throughout the process. The judge agreed. Then, in November, the Forest Service appealed the ruling, arguing that the decision was steeped in “predictive bias” and was “contrary to law.”

After a development project fell through, Durango philanthropists Jane and Mark Katz stepped in to purchase 190 acres adjacent to the Durango Nordic Center. The purchase will allow the center to preserve and improve its trail system.

Durango Nordic Center: In May, San Juan County planning commissioners approved a 166-unit luxury RV Park on 54 acres along U.S. Highway 550 near Purgatory Resort and recommended to San Juan County commissioners that they also approve it. The project drew much criticism because of its size and density, and because it would have eliminated three to five miles of the Nordic Center’s 14 miles of cross-country terrain. But in May, the project was put on hold because of a contract dispute between developers and the landowner, Durango Mountain Holdings. That dispute eventually killed the project in July. The next month, to the pleasure of Nordic skiers and others who felt the project was too much, the Katz family bought 190 acres next to the center to “preserve and improve the existing Nordic ski trail system.” Jane and Marc Katz are Durango philanthropists. Marc Katz is also co-founder of Mercury Payment Systems, now Vantiv, which he sold in 2014.

City of Durango

In 2017, the city of Durango broke ground on a $58 million sewage treatment plant at Santa Rita Park.

Sewer Plant: Construction began on the sewer plant remodel at Santa Rita Park after voter approval of $68 million in debt-financing for the project in November 2015. The $58 million plant remodel is among the largest projects in the city’s history.

Public art: The infamous Arc of History sculpture at the intersection of U.S. Highway 550/160 went up in 2014 and two years later was taken down after being vandalized. During its two-year stand in the median of one of the most-traveled intersections in La Plata County, the public art was both loved and maligned. In November, the city of Durango announced it had received a $25,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which officials said will be used to fund an art project in one of the medians at the highway intersection. The city plans to match the NEA grant with $25,000 in cash and in-kind contributions. Then weeks later, the city said it is considering applying for a second $25,000 matching grant from the NEA. That means the budget for a piece of public art could be as much as $100,000. The grants can be used only for public art and require the amount be matched with other funding.

To manage the homeless population in Durango and the surrounding area, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office took a new approach in 2017, allowing campers to stay in a designated campsite west of Durango in exchange for some self-policing.

Homeless camp: Over the last several years, some homeless people set up camps near the Tech Center west of downtown. The camps created friction between residents who feel the camps are magnets for crime and fire and safety hazards. As city, county and business leaders continue to plan how to address the growing homeless population in La Plata County, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office took a different approach by allowing campers to stay in exchange for some self-policing. Sheriff’s Lt. Ed Aber acts as liaison to the homeless camp. In November, Aber said the model is working so far.


Fort Lewis College President Dene Thomas announced she will retire in June 2018. Thomas, who came to FLC in 2010, was the first woman to serve in the role.

FLC President: Dene Thomas, president of Fort Lewis College since 2010, announced in May that she will retire June 30, 2018. Thomas was the first woman to serve in the role. She said a priority during her final year is developing an enrollment process that will shape the institution for the future. The college has struggled with fluctuating enrollment the last eight years.

New charter: The Juniper School, chartered through Durango School District 9-R, opened for its first school year. The kindergarten through fifth-grade elementary school combines “Montessori-, inquiry- and project-based learning,” said Head of School Katie McCullough-Vanbuskirk.


protests: Large, politically fueled marches marked the beginning of the year, and on Inauguration Day, more than 100 Durangoans from a coalition of groups marched in downtown Durango to express disapproval of President Donald Trump. Durango police officers worked to control the crowd and direct traffic. Portions of Main Avenue and Camino del Rio were intermittently closed. Durango Police Cmdr. Ray Shupe said the marchers did not apply for a permit, which is necessary to march on a public street. But police allowed the march to proceed as long as it didn’t completely block traffic. There were similar protests across the nation. Police later cited Anthony Nocella, an assistant professor at Fort Lewis College, for obstructing streets and parading without a permit. They accused him of organizing the march. A Durango city prosecutor dropped the charges, saying it would have been too costly and time-consuming to pursue the case.

Business and real estate

Twin Buttes: Construction began in May on the first house in the Twin Buttes subdivision west of downtown Durango. When complete, about 655 homes and an additional 135 secondary apartments will be built in the city subdivision along U.S. Highway 160 west. A community center, two schools, a resort hotel and restaurants are part of the development’s plan. Despite a flurry of construction in some areas of La Plata County, developers are not keeping up with the housing demand, as proved by an average home price of $415,063 in March.

Durango Herald: In March, we announced one of the biggest changes to our newspaper in decades – eliminating three print editions per week. The change took effect April 1; the print edition is published and delivered on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The website is updated continually throughout the day, every day of the week. The change was in response to the shifting of the economic foundation of our media company and the news-consumption habits of readers. “Much of the content we produce today is consumed through online searches and social media interactions that do not generate sufficient revenue to pay for the cost of writing, printing and delivering a daily newspaper,” Doug Bennett, CEO of Ballantine Communications Inc., said in announcing the change. Ballantine Communications is the parent company of the newspaper.


In the early morning darkness of June 14, a fire at Tercero Townhomes in the 2100 block of West Third Avenue displaced 20 residents and killed one man. Kevin Abeyta initially evacuated his unit then went back into the burning building to rescue a mother and her two children. They escaped, but Abeyta did not. Fire investigators later declared Abeyta a hero.

Tercero Townhomes: In the early hours of June 14, a deadly fire broke out at Tercero Townhomes at 2123 West Third Ave. Firefighters responded to the call at 1:48 a.m. The fire broke out in a center unit, sandwiched by other apartments. About 20 permanent residents of the nine-unit complex were displaced. But one man died trying to help a mother and her two children escape. Kevin Abeyta lived in one townhome with his husband, Tonny Del Solar. Abeyta and Solar initially got out of their unit when the fire was burning. But once outside, Abeyta ran back inside to help save Grisela Picasso and her two young boys, Ira and Rivers. Abeyta never re-emerged. Picasso suffered respiratory injuries. Ira suffered second-degree burns and respiratory injuries. Rivers suffered minor cuts, burns and smoke inhalation. Abeyta and Del Solar owned Los Amigos Del Sur restaurant in the Main Mall. In June, fire investigators said Abeyta was a hero for helping save Picasso and her children.

Lightner Creek Fire:Firefighters battled a wildfire that started June 28 when a house in the 1200 block of Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207) caught fire and spread to surrounding wildland. The fire ran up the hill on the west side of the canyon before “spotting” to the east side of the canyon. The home, which belonged to Christine Polinsky, was the only one to burn. The fire caused 170 homes to be evacuated and ultimately burned 412 acres. Firefighters are uncertain what caused the fire inside Polinsky’s house.

Flames engulfed a vacated building at 1111 Camino del Rio in May, where a 90-room hotel is slated to be built.

1111 Camino del Rio fire:Flames engulfed a building at 1111 Camino del Rio in the middle of the night May 22. Firefighters arrived less than two minutes after the fire was reported to find much of the structure ablaze. About a dozen businesses had vacated the building just a week before the fire broke out. The building was slated to be demolished in early June to make way for a 90-room hotel. Nobody was injured in the fire. The exact cause remains undetermined.


“Bridge to nowhere”: The Colorado Department of Transportation said in late November that all funding pieces are in place to connect U.S. Highway 550 south of Durango with the Grandview interchange. The project has about $100 million in financial commitments from various funding sources. CDOT said it will be one of the biggest road infrastructure projects the region will ever see. The realignment will allow CDOT to abandon Farmington Hill, a one-mile stretch of Highway 550 that is on a steep grade that hugs a mountainside to connect with Highway 160. Motorists arriving from the south will instead drive through the Webb Ranch with scenic mountain views before connecting with the Grandview interchange. Major construction could begin as soon as summer 2019.


Suicides: The community struggled this year with a high number of people who died by suicide: Nineteen people ranging in age from 14 to 77. The number has galvanized mental-health experts to review local resources, promote health and wellness, improve suicide-prevention awareness and training, and increase communication. San Juan Basin Public Health held a suicide prevention summit in May, which drew more than 800 community members. “No one is going to solve this alone,” San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon told attendees. In the five-county region of Southwest Colorado, the annual suicide rate is 28 deaths per 100,000 people, said keynote speaker Susan Becker, a psychology professor at Colorado Mesa University. Nationally, the suicide rate is 13 deaths per 100,000 people annually.

The Rev. Larry Gallegos:The longtime priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church died June 9 at the age of 78. He had served as a priest for 49 years. Gallegos became ill in the spring and oversaw his last Mass on April 2. He began his service at Sacred Heart in 1986, where he stayed off and on, also spending a few years in Cortez. Gallegos was known for starting his sermons with some link to the Peanuts cartoon series.

Ruedi Bear: The former owner of Trimble Hot Springs and champion skier died in a one-car crash south of Mancos on April 20. He was 72. A native of Switzerland, Bear moved to Durango to coach skiing at Purgatory and later bought and rebuilt Trimble. When he was 16, he was the Junior European Champion in downhill and combination. A friend said Bear’s three favorite things in his life were jazz music, skiing and being an entrepreneur.

Beverly Darmour: The longtime community volunteer was a key player in Durango Public Library, Hospice of Mercy, Meals on Wheels and the community Thanksgiving dinner. She died Jan. 9 at age 92. Darmour and her second husband, Myron, started hospice in their living room in the early 1980s. She was on the library’s board of directors for 10 years and she volunteered at the Methodist Thrift Shop until late 2016. “Words for her were almost living, breathing things, like a favorite friend. ... She would get into the essence of savoring what a word meant,” her son, Fitz Neal, said.

David Dickinson: The retired District Court judge died Sept. 8. He was 71. He served as judge in the 6th Judicial District Court for 14 years. Before becoming a judge, he was in private practice in Durango, specializing in real estate, commercial and business litigation and local government law. His daughter, Shari McDonald, said her father’s favorite part of the job was marriages and adoptions. After adoption hearings, he’d let children pick a stuffed animal from a basket, saying it would be their responsibility to care for it.

Mischa Semanitzky: The founding member and conductor of Music in the Mountains died at 89 in Phoenix on Dec. 3. He was instrumental in helping the annual music festival rise to a world-class event. What started out as a small festival has grown over the past 32 years – encompassing not only performances under the festival tent at Purgatory, but also including Music in the Mountains Goes to School program, the Conservatory in the Mountains for young musicians, a family evening at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College and more. “He was a very nice, optimistic, loving man,” his wife, Jenny St. John, said. “As a matter of fact, he said, toward the end of his life, he’d had a wonderful life of music and love, and what more could you ask?”

An earlier version of this story misstated the projected property tax decline for La Plata County government.

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