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Wyoming News Briefs

Probation recommended for man accused of pointing rifle from car

GILLETTE (WNE) — The man accused of pointing an AR-15-style rifle at a car full of people after cutting them off reached a plea deal that recommends probation on reduced charges.

Christen H. Best, 18, pleaded no contest March 15 to amended counts of possession of a deadly weapon with unlawful intent, a felony and misdemeanor reckless endangerment.

District Judge James M. “Mike” Causey accepted and withheld judgment on the felony plea and found Best guilty of the misdemeanor.

A plea deal recommends Best serve a deferred sentence with two years of supervised probation for the felony and serve 10 days in jail, with the rest of the 180-day sentence suspended, for the misdemeanor.

His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 13.

Best was originally bound over Oct. 20 on four counts of aggravated assault and battery. 

On Aug. 26, Gillette police officers responded to East 12th Street and Highway 59 where a 48-year-old woman reported that the driver of a silver Honda with a Georgia license plate, later identified as Best, cut off the car she was in while driving north on Highway 59.

The Honda cut from the outside lane into the middle lane. When the 41-year-old man driving the Chevrolet full of people switched into the outside lane in response, Best allegedly slowed his car down, rolled down his window and began yelling at the people inside, according to the affidavit of probable cause.

Best allegedly raised a military-style rifle with his right arm across his body, pointing it toward the woman and her four-year-old son in the backseat. He then put the gun down and drove away.

Best told officers he cut off the blue Chevrolet and claimed he was in fear for his life when he was then driving side by side with the car and saw someone in the back seat “reaching.”

Expanded property tax refund program open for applications

CHEYENNE (WNE) – The Wyoming Department of Revenue has announced that the newly expanded property tax relief program for homeowners is now open for applications.

The program assists eligible Wyoming homeowners – especially those with fixed or limited incomes – who are struggling to pay their property taxes.

“With this program, Wyoming is taking a step forward toward helping those who need it most,” Gov. Mark Gordon said in a news release.

Under the expanded program passed by the Wyoming Legislature earlier this year, homeowners can apply for a refund of up to half of the median residential property tax amount or 75% of their property tax bill, whichever is less.

To be eligible, Wyoming homeowners must meet certain income and residency requirements. Applications will be available through the Department of Revenue’s website or local county treasurer offices.

The application deadline for 2022 property taxes is June 5. For more information, including eligibility requirements and how to apply, visit https://wptrs.wyo.gov/.

Aune can’t use Williams’ competency exam in her trial

CODY (WNE) – A Park County District Court judge has ruled that Carolyn Aune, who is charged in the murder of two-year-old Paisleigh Williams, cannot use defendant Moshe Williams’ competency evaluations as evidence during her jury trial.

According to judge Bobbi Overfield’s March 31 order, after reviewing both of Williams’ competency evaluation reports, she did not find any exculpatory evidence that would require the reports be disclosed to Aune and her counsel, Elisabeth Trefonas.

Exculpatory evidence is evidence favorable to defendants, potentially absolving them of guilt.

In her decision, Overfield cited state law that says the report “may not be used in any matter except regarding the issues of [Williams’] mental condition.” She ruled Williams’ competency evaluations would remain confidential and under seal.

Trefonas filed a motion in February requesting the state provide the “specific allegations it will rely on at trial.” The state responded that it “has repeatedly provided its theory of the case and is not required to do more,” the motion said.

Providing a response to those motions, Overfield issued an order in which she stated the charging document and affidavit provided Aune’s counsel with enough information to prepare a defense. But she also wrote she “understands there could be some confusion” on whether Aune is being charged as the principal in the act or as the one who aided and abetted. Overfield ruled that the state should “clarify” how Aune is being charged.

The state was further ordered to make it clear whether Aune was being charged with intentional abuse, reckless acts or both.

Teton County named ‘healthiest’ in state, still lags in some areas

JACKSON (WNE) – Teton County has been crowned the healthiest county in Wyoming for 12 consecutive years, according to one public ranking, and this year’s highlights included fewer ‘poor mental health days’ and lower rates of premature death.

That said, the latest data suggests the county still has room for improvement when it comes to excessive drinking.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a database built by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, assesses health outcomes and health factors of counties across the country in an effort to grow community power and improve health equity. 

According to the 2023 data, adult obesity is 11% lower in Teton County than across the state — at about one in five Jackson Hole residents — and adult smoking is 7% less frequent than the rest of Wyoming.

Teton County Health Department Director Jodie Pond noted the local sexually transmitted infection rate, although lower than the state and country, is in the red.

“I heard from the sexual health program yesterday how many people got tested in the first quarter,” Pond said, “and there were quite a few positives.”

Pond also noted how Jackson Hole logged fewer “poor mental health days” than the state and nation. Nonetheless, Jackson’s suicide rate did not fall from last year, while the state’s did by 22%.

Excessive drinking continues to be one of the greatest challenges the “healthiest county in Wyoming” faces. At 3% over the state and nation’s numbers, more than one in five adults in Jackson reported binge or heavy drinking.

While the local Community Prevention Coalition has a government grant for combating excessive drinking, Pond called it “an ongoing issue around a party, resort-town atmosphere.” 

Wildlife fencing projects continue in Sheridan County

SHERIDAN (WNE) – The Bighorn Fencing Initiative exists to connect different agencies and identify and accomplish wildlife conservation projects through fence modifications or removal. 

This summer, three projects are planned to remove fencing in Sheridan and Johnson counties.

The Bighorn Fencing Initiative is comprised of the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming Mule Deer Foundation, Sheridan Community Land Trust and other organizations.

The initiative is geared toward repairing, modifying and removing fences on public and private lands to reduce wildlife deaths and help sustain wildlife migration. It relies on volunteers in the community to help complete projects. 

Fences can have a significant impact on wildlife, as animals can become entangled in the wire or be unable to cross, which can lead to starvation. This happens due to loose wires or fences designed without wildlife in mind.

“For every two and a half miles per fence, they found on average that one ungulate dies getting tangled up every year,” SCLT Conservation Program Manager Meghan Kent said.

For the same span of fence, an average of two ungulates also die from not being able to cross or getting separated from their mothers.

Modifications include expanding the space to at least 12 inches between the top two wires, regulating fence height for wildlife to jump over and adding a “goat rail,” which is a PVC pipe used to secure the bottom wire to the post to allow for animals like young wildlife to cross under the fence.

The projects the wildlife fencing initiative undertakes encompass this work but mainly involve removing fencing that is no longer used or is damaged.

“There are tons of modifications to make fences wildlife friendly while still providing its original purpose,” Kent said.

Two women arrested for meth possession with intent to deliver

GILLETTE (WNE) – Two women were arrested for felony possession of meth with intent to deliver Thursday night.

The women, 39 and 33, were in a 2013 Honda when they were stopped in the 900 block of East Second Street for a headlight violation and swerving, said Police Capt. Jason Marcus.

Police could smell weed in the car, and after searching the vehicle they found 5.1 grams of meth, including packaging, 1.5 grams of weed, small jeweler’s baggies and a box for a scale, Marcus said.

The 39-year-old, Jessica Olmedo said she also had drugs on her, and an additional 5 grams of meth in packaging was found. The 33-year-old, Jolie Bryant, had an active county warrant for failure to provide proof of counseling.

Both women were arrested for possession of meth with intent to deliver, which is a felony, as well as misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

Hightman sentencing set for June

GILLETTE (WNE) — A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for the man who pleaded guilty to charges that he stole money from his missing fiancé’s bank account, ran up her credit cards and deleted her email account in the days and weeks after she was last heard from.

Nathan J. Hightman, 39, is scheduled to appear before District Judge James M. “Mike” Causey for a sentencing hearing on his three felony convictions at 9:45 a.m. June 14.

Hightman pleaded guilty March 28 to felony counts of theft, unlawful use of a credit card and crimes against intellectual property for taking $3666.46 from Irene Gakwa’s bank account, charging $3230.65 to two of her credit cards and deleting her Gmail account without permission.

Gakwa was last heard from on a video call with family on Feb. 24, 2022. The crimes Hightman pleaded guilty to occurred between Feb. 25 and March 19 of the same year. The investigation into Gakwa’s disappearance began a day later, March 20.

In plea negotiations, Hightman agreed to pay restitution totaling almost $7,000 for the money stolen from Gakwa’s bank account and charged to her credit cards.

Collectively, Hightman could face up to 23 years in prison and $23,000 in fines.

He remains in the Campbell County Jail, said Undersheriff Quentin Reynolds.

Gillette police continue to investigate Gakwa’s missing person case, and Hightman remains a person of interest who has not faced charges directly related to her disappearance.