Top headlines for the week

July 12, 2014 10:15 am  • 

View the most-read headlines from the week ending July 11.

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  • CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The ever-changing thermal geology of Yellowstone National Park has created a hot spot that melted an asphalt road and closed access to popular geysers and other attractions at the height of tourist season, officials said Thursday.

    As they examined possible fixes, park officials warned visitors not to hike into the affected area, where the danger of stepping through solid-looking soil into boiling-hot water was high.

    “There are plenty of other great places to see thermal features in the park,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash said. “I wouldn’t risk personal injury to see these during this temporary closure.”

    Naturally changing thermal features often damage Yellowstone’s roads and boardwalks. Steaming potholes in asphalt roads and parking lots — marked off by traffic cones — are fairly common curiosities.

    However, the damage to Firehole Lake Drive is unusually severe and could take several days to fix. The 3.3-mile loop six miles north of Old Faithful takes visitors past Great Fountain Geyser, White Dome Geyser and Firehole Lake.

    Unusually warm weather for Yellowstone — with high temperatures in the mid-80s — has contributed to turning the road into a hot, sticky mess.

    “We’ve got some ideas. We’re going to try them. Our maintenance staff has really looked at the issue,” Nash said.

  • The Peterson family left for the Fourth of July weekend to go camping.

    They packed everything they needed, but left their dogs at their Lockwood home, where they had a family member and a neighbor looking after the dogs.

    They checked on the dogs every hour. Cory Peterson said his mother last checked at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 5.

    As the Petersons came into cell reception on their return home Sunday, they received a message from a neighbor saying their dog Zeus was laying in their yard, not moving.

    Zeus was dead.

    “It didn’t add up,” Cory Peterson said. “How could he just die? He was healthy and had plenty of food and water.”

    When the family arrived home on Sunday, Peterson planned to bury Zeus. He noticed the dog’s body was riddled with small holes. Peterson suspected it was from a gunshot.

    He called the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s office and filed a report. But with no witnesses and little evidence, not much can be done. It was, however, concluded that the dog was shot with a shotgun.

    But the Petersons aren’t ready to give up on discovering who killed their dog. They are offering a $2,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in Zeus’s death. Peterson said members of the community have come together to give the family money for the reward.

    “The community has come around us and helped out,” Peterson said.

    Peterson has no idea why Zeus was killed.

    “He was just one of our dogs,” Peterson said. “Why did they just choose him out of the other three dogs? It doesn’t make sense.”

    Peterson said his dogs can use doggy doors to go back and forth between the yard and house.

    Zeus would have turned 3 in December. Peterson said his daughter, Jaelynn, was devastated to find out their dog had been killed.

    “He was a part of our family.” Peterson said. “He meant a lot to us.”

    Peterson said not much can be done about the criminal investigation at this point.

    “If we just have this one piece of the puzzle, there isn’t much we can do,” Peterson said. “It would be a different story if a person was killed. But as far as a lot of people are concerned, it’s just another dead dog. He isn’t another dead dog to us.”

    Peterson hopes the reward will bring someone to justice.

    “If someone is found, it won’t take back what happened,” Peterson said. “There would be a little relief, but what is done is done, and it doesn’t make up for it.”

    The Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office said the case is probably stalled without more information.

    Anyone with any information is asked to call the sheriff’s office at 256-2929.

  • A woman received a 20-year sentence for committing a string of casino robberies last October that prosecutors say was an attempt to raise bail money for a man with the street name “Darkness.”

    District Judge Russell C. Fagg sentenced 42-year-old Karen Kay Damron on three counts of robbery and two counts of attempted robbery. The charges bring her felony conviction count to 11, according to prosecutors.

    Charging documents say Damron robbed or tried to rob five casinos in the Billings area over about 24 hours on Oct. 18 and 19. Prosecutors say she was trying to raise bail money for a man later identified as James Vincent Cracraft, who was in the county jail and has since been convicted of multiple felonies.

    At each casino, Damron walked in and asked an attendant to make change, court records say. When the attendant pulled out money, Damron either grabbed the cash or demanded the attendant hand it over. Three times, she left with money. Attendants at two casinos refused to hand it over.

    The judge ordered her to pay more than $4,300 in restitution. 

    Damron’s attorney, Paula Saye, said her client has the “saddest story” and has suffered mental and physical abuse since childhood. Damron was given marijuana by her mother at age 9 and was injected with heroin at age 13 by her father, Saye said, adding that Damron was also sexually abused as a child.

    “She’s been through so much,” Saye said. “She doesn’t seem to be getting the mental health treatment that she needs.”

    “I don’t have a problem doing incarceration,” Damron told Fagg. “It’s society I have a problem with.”

    She said when she isn’t incarcerated she isolates herself until she relapse into substance abuse.

    “I caused an atrocity in this town because I relapsed,” Damron said, adding, “I’m not a victim of my childhood, I’m a survivor of it … that’s all I have to say, and I’m sorry. These were just the crimes I was caught and charged for."

    Fagg said he appreciated her sincerity. “I also have to appreciate these are serious charges,” he said.

    At Damron’s request, the judge recommended she be admitted to the culinary arts program at the Montana Women’s Prison.

    “And, Ms. Damron, I wish you the very best,” he said.

    Damron’s robberies and attempted robberies happened at the Nickel Ante Casino, 2646 Grand Ave.; the Cedar Ridge Casino in Laurel; Lucky Lil’s Casino, 2711 N. Frontage Road; the Diamond Jubilee Casino, 1214 Main St.; and Doc and Eddy’s Casino, 927 S. 32nd St. W.

  • The iconic Granary restaurant in Billings has a new owner, a new focus and — within the next month — a new name.

    Jim Bos and his son, Kevin Bos, bought the restaurant at 1500 Poly Drive last week from a partnership led by Aaron Sparboe. It closed July 1 for renovations and will reopen next month as Bistecca at the Granary, serving Italian and American food. “Bistecca” is Italian for steak.

    The new owners plan to expand the bar, shrink the dining area and add a tap room with 20 beers, mostly local and regional microbrews.

    “It’s exciting. We hope that we do it justice. We’re going to work extremely hard to make it right and to make it work,” said Jim Bos, 69, a Billings architect affiliated with restaurants in Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell.

    The deal closed last week after about six months of talks. Bos did not disclose the price.

    Built in 1935, the restaurant was originally the milling department for Billings Polytechnic Institute, now Rocky Mountain College. It was vacant for decades before opening as a restaurant in 1976.

    The Granary had last closed in 2004 when Sparboe and John Scott bought the business and ordered a major, six-month renovation. It’s been known as a high-end steak and seafood eatery, with a bar, upstairs banquet hall and basement meeting area.

    “There was a little angst out there with some people. Are we going to totally throw away the history? We’re not. We’re going to respect it. We’re going to respect the previous owners,” Bos said.

    The Granary had 33 employees when it closed. Bos said he will try to hire back most of them. The new restaurant will have 45 total employees, he said. Kevin Bos is leaving his job as an appraiser to be general manager.

    Popular items, such as the nachos, will remain on the menu, Bos said. Although executive chef Alan Sparboe, Aaron Sparboe’s brother, isn’t staying, the restaurant will still serve quality American food, Bos said.

    But the atmosphere will be more casual. The tablecloths are out. The larger bar and tap room will encourage more movement and interaction among customers, Bos said. The Bistecca at the Granary will have much in common with microbreweries, which have helped transform downtown Billings into a more attractive destination spot.

    “The younger generation, I think, has really embraced the microbrewery scene,” Bos said, adding, “We’re trying to go a bit more casual. People really respond. They like to eat in your bar, lounges.”

  • A 4-year-old Billings girl died Wednesday when the vehicle she was in caught fire on Interstate 90 West between Big Timber and Livingston. Three others were injured.

    The cause of the fire was a punctured gas tank, according to Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Eric Fetterhoff.

    The 2002 Subaru Impreza occupied by five people erupted in flames a little before 6 p.m. on Wednesday as two Billings families were driving separately to Oregon for vacation.

    The Impreza was occupied by a 40-year-old woman. Her 14-year-old daughter was in the passenger seat, and her 4-year-old daughter was in the back in a forward-facing car seat. Two girls, 7 and 9, sat beside the 4-year-old.

    Their father was following in an SUV.

    Fetterhoff said the father radioed to the woman driving the car that he could smell gas and told her to pull over. The father later told Fetterhoff that he recognized the smell from when his house burned down two months ago.

    She did, and only a couple seconds later the vehicle went up in flames.

    Fetterhoff said the father opened the back door and grabbed his kids out and suffered severe burns in the process. The woman and her 14-year-old daughter were able to escape, but they weren’t able to save the 4-year-old girl.

    Park County Coroner Al Jenkins identified her as Zaria Santos. An autopsy is scheduled for later this week.

    The 9-year-old girl who was sitting by the window was transported by Summit Air Ambulance out of Bozeman to St. Vincent Healthcare. Fetterhoff said she was in ICU as of midnight Wednesday.

    An ambulance transported her 7-year-old sister with burns on her feet to Livingston Memorial Hospital along with the father who suffered severe burns to his arms and face.

    Fetterhoff said the cause of the fire was a dime-sized hole in the fuel tank that caused fuel to puddle up after the vehicle stopped, which, he said, heat from the car ignited. It didn’t take long, just a couple seconds.

    There will be a critical incident stress debriefing in Livingston on Friday at 5 p.m. The event will offer people the opportunity to talk about what they saw, Fetterhoff said.

    “Nobody in the world should have to see something like that,” he said.

    The incident is still under investigation.

  • A man and woman appeared in court Tuesday on felony drug charges after police said meth was found at the vacant house in which the two were reportedly squatting.

    Scott Marshall Hofferber, 28, Ashley Michelle Backman, also 28, both appeared in Yellowstone County Justice Court on felony charges alleging they had methamphetamine. Backman also faces charges accusing her of having a benzodiazepine pill and a marijuana pipe.

    Police arrested the two after responding at about 10:45 a.m. Monday to 916 N. 19th Street.

    Officers were responding to two complaints, according to Billings Police Lt. Kevin Iffland. He said one caller, an occupant at the house, had complained about having property stolen, and in another complaint a neighbor had reported drug use and squatters at the house, which is bank-owned and was supposed to be vacant.

    Police checked with the bank that owns the house. The bank confirmed nobody should be living there and gave police authority to enter the home and clear it.

    Several officers responded to help clear the home and deal with the disturbance, Iffland said. A pit bull was also at the house and animal control arrived to remove it.

    After searching the house, officers reported finding a syringe that tested positive for meth, several small baggies with meth residue, a pipe that smelled of marijuana and a baggie with a pill identified as benzodiazepine.

    Judge David A. Carter allowed Hofferber to be released from jail without bail, and set bond at $2,500 for Backman, who a prosecutor said has 11 prior warrants for failing to appear in court as ordered.

    As conditions for their release from jail, both were ordered to wear patches that detect drug use.

    “Methamphetamine on the street today is very strong,” the judge noted.

    Hofferber and Backman are scheduled to be arraigned district court on Friday.

  • Musselshell County officials continue to investigate the unusual circumstances that surround the death of a woman who was found dead off Dean Creek Road on private property. 

    "It's a tough one to explain," said Musselshell County Sheriff Woodrow Weitzeil. "There were no witnesses."

    The investigation has led officials to believe that she may have tried to stop her car from rolling away after she parked it. According to Weitzeil she did not live on the property, but was maintaining gardens on the land. 

    Her identity is being withheld until family is notified, he said. 

    It appears that she was unable to get back into the car, and she was dragged probably 100 feet from where the car was parked. She eventually was freed from the vehicle before it went to the bottom of the hill. 

    Her body was discovered by the landowner who lives on the property. Authorities responded at 3:37 p.m. on Monday. 

    She died on the scene. 

    It is believed the woman's cause of death was blunt force trauma because of being hit by the vehicle, but an autopsy planned for Wednesday morning will hopefully shed more light on the incident, Weitzeil said. 

  • After an exchange of gunfire, Billings police apprehended a male suspect after an officer-involved shooting around 8 a.m. Sunday.

    No one was hurt in the incident, which occurred along the 600 block of Main Street. Billings police closed a section of the street off for investigation after the incident.

    Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said in a press conference on Sunday that the suspect was lingering outside of the Sonic on Main Street and was trying to get in the building before business hours. Employees told the man the business was not open and turned him away.

    St. John said that a Sonic employee later went to the Albertsons across the street to get supplies for the store when the same person, now in a car, approached the employee and asked for money. The employee started to run when the suspect took out a semi-automatic pistol and fired at least one shot at the employee.

    According to St. John, officer Shane Weinreis, who was in the area, heard the shot, thought it was a firework and went to investigate.

    After Weinreis saw the Sonic employee running across the street away from the suspect and the gunfire, Weinreis drove to intercept the shooter.

    St. John said the suspect drove over the median on Main Street and into the Sonic parking lot. Weinreis met the suspect’s vehicle at a 90-degree angle. The suspect then fired at the police car.

    Weinreis got out of his vehicle, took up a defensive position behind his car door and returned fire.

    St. John said after both the officer and the suspect exchanged gunfire, the suspect’s gun jammed and it was either thrown away or put down. After seeing this, Weinreis advanced and tackled the suspect.

    “I couldn’t be prouder of the way our officer reacted,” St. John said.

    St. John said the scene will be under investigation to determine how the shooting unfolded.

    The Sonic restaurant sustained minor damage, as did a storage facility near the parking lot, which had multiple bullet holes.

    Sonic will reopen Monday at 6 a.m.

    St. John said charges are pending, but the man could face attempted robbery charges, among others. Police suspect drugs were a factor in the shooting, St. John said.

    More information will be available at a press conference Monday at 10 a.m.

  • LOVELL, Wyo. — A falling rock measuring a couple of feet wide and weighing about 50 pounds has killed a 4-year-old girl in what investigators say was a freak accident in northern Wyoming.

    It happened Saturday afternoon near a campground 22 miles east of Lovell.

    Kaylee Spomer, 4, was hiking with relatives when the rock came loose from a cliff about 20 feet overhead. Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn says the falling rock hit Kaylee in the head.

    Deputies were on the scene near the Five Springs Falls campground within minutes. The girl died at a hospital a couple hours later.

    Investigators say no people were present at the spot where the rock came loose and they say the girl's family did nothing wrong.

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