Laura Starnes-Wells’ voice wavered and broke as she asked Judge Daniel Forgey to sentence her to probation.
“I’ve lost my kids, my house, my job and my good name,” the former Casper police officer told the judge.
After she finished her comments, Forgey obliged, placing Starnes-Wells on one to five years of probation for child abuse. If she violates the terms of her probation during the first year, she could serve a year in jail.
Starnes-Wells pleaded guilty in November to felony child abuse and misdemeanor child endangerment charges tied to allegations she mistreated her two adopted children.
As part of a deal with prosecutors, Starnes-Wells’ guilty plea to the felony charge will not be entered into the court record. If she successfully completes probation, the felony charge will be dropped.
Speaking at Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutor Dan Itzen said Starnes-Wells had lost custody of her children as a result of the case. He said she had initially “intended to do well,” in attempting to discipline her children.
“In short, she’s a bad parent,” Itzen said.
Laramie defense attorney Thomas Fleener noted the case was Starnes-Wells’ first criminal offense. Fleener said the plea agreement negotiation was difficult but said the sentence was appropriate.
“It leaves a bitter taste in (Itzen’s) mouth and my mouth,” Fleener said. “Which means it’s probably the right answer.”
Starnes-Wells then spoke on her own behalf. She said she had chosen to relinquish her parental rights to her children, and said parenting is difficult.
“While I was hard on them, I truly do love them,” she said.
When reached by phone after the 15-minute hearing, Fleener declined to comment.
The plea deal, which was accepted by Forgey on Wednesday, also calls for Starnes-Wells to serve one year of probation for the misdemeanor charge. It will run at the same time as the felony probation and a violation is punishable by jail time.
In a November court appearance, Starnes-Wells admitted to inflicting mental injuries on one of her children by acting recklessly. She also admitted to negligently endangering the health of the other child.
Starnes-Wells was arrested and charged with felony child abuse in February 2017. During previous hearings, investigators and prosecutors outlined instances of “extreme” punishment Starnes-Wells allegedly used to discipline the children. They also allege Starnes-Wells did not meet the mental health needs of the kids.
The case began in May 2016 when the officer’s adopted daughter told officials at her school that Starnes-Wells “had battered her,” court documents allege. Investigators wrote that the girl came to school with a partially bruised eye and swollen lip.
The girl told investigators with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office that Starnes-Wells had slapped and punched her on multiple occasions, according to court documents.
Starnes-Wells was previously a school resource officer at Centennial Junior High.
Former Casper Police Chief Jim Wetzel said in February that Starnes-Wells was placed on administrative leave in November 2016 when the department became aware of the criminal investigation. He said at the time that she would remain on administrative leave throughout proceedings in the criminal cases, as is standard policy.
City Manager Carter Napier said in November that Starnes-Wells was back working for the department in an administrative capacity. Tracey Belser, support services director for the city’s human resources department, declined to say why Starnes-Wells had returned to work for the department because it was a personnel matter.
Napier told a reporter days before her plea deal that Starnes-Wells had subsequently resigned from the department.
Prosecutors initially filed a misdemeanor child abuse charge against Starnes-Wells’s husband, Sgt. Todd Wells. That charge was later dropped. Wells is still working for the police department.
A 40-year-old fire station in Casper is one step closer to being replaced.
The Casper City Council authorized a nearly $3 million agreement with Caspar Building Services for the Fire-EMS Station No. 5 project at its Tuesday night meeting.
The new facility will be located at the intersection of Landmark and Pay It Forward drives.
“We believe it will serve the community well,” Dan Griswold, the fire department’s deputy chief of operations and training, said Wednesday.
Griswold said construction is expected to begin in the next month or two. Department officials are hoping to move into the new station by April 2019.
The facility’s new location and larger size will help the department work more effectively, said Griswold.
Former Fire Chief Kenneth King told the Star-Tribune last summer that the department desperately needed a larger facility. At roughly 9,000 square feet, the new building will be approximately three times larger than the current station.
The new address will also help to improve the department’s response times, said King. Station No. 5’s current location — at the intersection of East 15th Street and Carriage Lane — isn’t ideal because it’s near Fire Station No. 3.
The aging station has a variety of other problems, such as cracking concrete floors.
The current station will remain open until the new facility is fully operational.
The new station will be paid for by one cent funds, according to a recent memo from the Public Services Department to City Manager Carter Napier.
Other public safety departments are also in need of new infrastructure.
The Casper Police Department moved into its current headquarters on David Street in 1976 and former Police Chief Jim Wetzel told the Star-Tribune last spring that the building is too small to meet its current needs.
The City Council discussed replacing the police station during a two-day strategic planning workshop last week at the Casper Events Center. Council members decided they will explore potential locations and funding sources for a new police station this year.
Former Casper Police Chief Jim Wetzel agreed not to take legal action related to his dismissal against the city of Casper or its insurer if the city allowed him to buy out his retirement.
The city manager’s office released the terms of the agreement Wednesday. The settlement, finalized on Dec. 22, means Wetzel cannot sue the city or the Wyoming Association of Risk Management for any alleged damages that occurred as a result of his claim that he was wrongfully terminated from the city.
The agreement also states that the city is allowing Wetzel to make a service purchase into the Wyoming Retirement System.
“It’s understood and agreed that this settlement is a compromise of disputed claims and that the consideration given in connection with this settlement is not intended, nor will be construed, as any admission of liability on the part of the Releases, by each of whom liability is expressly denied,” the document reads.
City Manager Carter Napier confirmed in January that the city had reached an agreement with former police chief but declined to provide further details at that time due to a confidentiality clause. The city manager said Wednesday that both parties have since agreed that the settlement document can be released.
The city is pleased with the terms of the agreement, according to Napier.
“I think it’s a good conclusion,” he said.
The former police chief was dismissed from his position last May after internal turmoil with the Casper Police Department became public. Casper officials have repeatedly refused to provide a direct reason for Wetzel’s departure and the city’s lawyers have rejected the Star-Tribune’s requests for documents related to the investigation.
The decision came about a month after a survey conducted by the Casper Fraternal Order of Police found a toxic work environment inside the department.
Two weeks after his dismissal, Wetzel spoke at a City Council meeting and publicly criticized city leadership. It was the only time he has spoken publicly since his dismissal.
Wetzel stated at the meeting that the FOP survey was conducted to “deliberately trash the chief of police” and said those who criticized him were driven by a “hate-filled personal motive.”
The Casper City Council released a joint statement about the settlement on Wednesday.
“All matters between Chief Wetzel and the City have been resolved,” it states. “The settlement agreement lays out all terms and conditions of the agreement.”
Keith McPheeters, who previously worked a deputy police chief in New Mexico, was appointed as Casper’s new police chief in December.