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Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Douglas’ Haedyn Rhoades reacts after the Bearcats scored a point against Rawlins in the state title match of the Wyoming State High School Class 3A Volleyball Championship on Nov. 4, 2017 at the Casper Events Center.

Wyoming parole board will consider commuting sentence for woman convicted of murdering husband

The Wyoming Board of Parole will consider commuting the sentence of an Evansville woman convicted of shooting her husband in his bed nearly 30 years after the crime, according to documents obtained by the Star-Tribune.

Rita A. Humphrey, 66, was convicted of second-degree murder in 2006. Her husband, Jack Humphrey, died from a single gunshot to the head. She was sentenced to 25 to 40 years in prison and has served nearly 12 years in Wyoming Women’s Center.

Because Wyoming requires prisoners to serve two-thirds of their sentences before they are eligible for parole, Rita Humphrey could be eligible to be released in 2019 if her sentence is shortened by five years, as she is requesting.

After serving 10 years in prison, an inmate can petition to be heard for a commutation, according to Ed Risha, parole board executive director.

A panel of three parole board members voted unanimously to have Humphrey’s petition heard June 11 by the full seven-member board, according to documents provided by the Board of Parole. Risha cautioned that the preliminary votes do not indicate how board members plan to vote in June.

A team of staff from the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk wrote a letter in March supporting Humphrey’s petition for a commutation hearing, according to documents provided by the Wyoming Department of Corrections. The letter states Humphrey earned a GED in prison, has not been disciplined during her incarceration and has been employed most of her time inside prison walls. The letter goes on to support a review of her petition.

The corrections department recommendation will be considered by the parole board along with testimony from Jack Humphrey’s family members and testimony from Rita Humphrey, according to a parole board letter sent to a person eligible to testify at the hearing. Sentencing Judge Thomas Sullins and District Attorney Mike Blonigen will also be allowed to present information and opinion to the parole board, Risha said.

Blonigen said Friday afternoon that he had not yet received a letter from the parole board but that he anticipates opposing Humphrey’s request.

The prosecutor said he had anticipated Humphrey would be a good prisoner from the day she was sentenced. He said rehabilitation is not the goal for murder incarceration, however. The goal in such cases is deterrence and the safety of the rest of society, Blonigen said.

“The problem here is this is pretty cold-blooded murder. You blow a man’s head off when he’s sleeping,” he said. “Murder convictions are about punishing people for doing one of the most serious crimes we have.”

If the parole board decides to recommend commutation for Humphrey, Gov. Matt Mead will then decide whether to shorten Rita Humphrey’s sentence. If the parole board or Mead decline the request, Humphrey could be eligible for parole in 2023, corrections department spokesman Mark Horan said.

The earliest possible release dates listed in this article are based on a calculation that takes into account credit for good time served. Wyoming law allows certain prisoners to receive credit for 15 days against their sentences for each month they serve. Horan cautioned that good time is not always awarded and the parole board has no obligation to release a person on parole simply because they are eligible for the early release.

When inmates are released on parole, the Department of Corrections continues to supervise them after they are let out of prison. Horan said that if Humphrey were released in 2023, she would remain under supervision until 2033 at the least.

If Humphrey’s petition is denied, she will not be eligible to petition again for commutation until 2023, Risha said.

The parole board hearing is the latest in a case that has taken significant turns since Jack Humphrey’s death in 1977.

Prosecutors initially considered the possibility Jack Humphrey had died by suicide. However in 1980, prosecutors filed a first-degree murder charge against Rita Humphrey.

Within months a Natrona County Circuit Court judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to arraign Humphrey and dismissed the case.

In 1996, Jack Humphrey’s sister, Bonnie Humphrey, was elected Evansville’s mayor. Zachary Gentile was hired as the town’s police chief three years later.

Gentile started reviewing the case soon after he was hired and by 2003 he was actively interviewing various witnesses connected with it. Prosecutors again filed a first-degree murder charge against Rita Humphrey in 2004.

A Natrona County District Court Judge dismissed the charge in December 2004, ruling that Humphrey’s right to a speedy trial was violated.

The Wyoming Supreme Court overturned that decision and a jury convicted Rita of second-degree murder. She did not testify at trial and maintained her innocence even as she was being sentenced.

Humphrey appealed her conviction to the Wyoming Supreme Court alleging speedy trial and due process violations. In 2008, the court denied that appeal.

Casper's new fire chief aims to groom successor in his time with department

Casper’s new fire chief will be heading his fourth department in a career that spans 40 years. He hopes to continue his career in Casper for another half-decade.

In a Friday afternoon news conference, City Manager Carter Napier introduced incoming Fire Chief Tom Solberg. When Solberg takes over on April 30, he will be the latest in a series of high-profile hires under Napier’s watch. Napier has overseen the hiring of a police chief, city attorney and chief financial officer — a position that was also created during Napier’s tenure, which began in June.

Solberg, who most recently served as fire chief in Pleasant Hill, Iowa, will help prepare an internal candidate to succeed him while steering Casper Fire-EMS, Napier said Friday.

Speaking after the news conference, Solberg said he expects to stay with the agency for six years. After leaving previous agencies, hometown successors replaced him as chief, Solberg said.

The hire means both of Casper’s emergency response agencies will be headed by recent transplants. Police Chief Keith McPheeters moved to Casper from Farmington, New Mexico to take over his agency.

Solberg has also led agencies in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and Peoria, Arizona.

By joining the department from out-of-town, Solberg will have a unique, outsider’s perspective, he said during the news conference. He acknowledged a lack of institutional knowledge will pose a challenge in the early days of his tenure.

“It’s a double-edged sword coming in as an outsider,” he said.

Kenneth King, Casper’s previous fire chief, retired Dec. 1 following two email controversies.

Solberg said after the conference that he does not expect to encounter problems with morale or department culture related to King’s tenure. The incoming chief cited “quality people” in the department who will aim to move forward without downplaying the past.

King announced his retirement in October 2016, just hours after apologizing for an email regarding 2015’s Cole Creek Fire.

In an email to a subordinate who was collecting video evidence of the fire that destroyed 14 homes, King wrote: “Could you cut out the bad parts, and make sure that no copies are made and only DCI views?”

The email was sent while the fire still blazed, but did not become public until the Star-Tribune published it a year later.

King characterized the email as a “bad joke,” in an interview with the Star-Tribune.

Although King had initially been set to retire in January, he stepped down early. He said he made the change to attend a football game with his son and because his plan to complete a Homeland Security grant fell through.

However, his early exit came after copies of his emails were distributed to a group of firefighters by an unknown source. The emails, which included suggestive messages to a number of women and sexual comments about women’s appearances, sparked weeks of turmoil in the department prior to his retirement.

Although City Manager Carter Napier had initially hoped to fill the position by King’s January retirement date, the hiring process began later than planned and ran three months beyond schedule. Beginning in December, Jason Speiser served as fire chief in an interim capacity.

“Chief Solberg ... is worth the wait,” Napier said Friday.

Trump, China escalate trade dispute as markets tumble

WASHINGTON — Unwilling to yield, President Donald Trump and China’s government escalated their trade clash Friday, with Beijing vowing to “counterattack with great strength” if Trump follows through on threats to impose tariffs on an additional $100 billion in Chinese goods.

Trump made his out-of-the-blue move when China threatened to retaliate for the first round of tariffs planned by the United States. But for someone who has long fashioned himself as a master negotiator, Trump left it unclear whether he was bluffing or willing to enter a protracted trade war pitting the world’s two biggest economies against each other, with steep consequences for consumers, businesses and an already shaken stock market.

“They aren’t going to bully him into backing down,” said Stephen Moore, a former Trump campaign adviser who is now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He said the Chinese “are going to have to make concessions — period.”

The White House sent mixed signals on Friday as financial markets slid from investor concern about a significant trade fight. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC he was “cautiously optimistic” that the U.S. and China could reach an agreement before any tariffs are implemented but added, “there is the potential of a trade war.”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters the U.S. was “not in a trade war,” adding, “China is the problem. Blame China, not Trump.”

Trump’s latest proposal intensified what was already shaping up to be the biggest trade battle for more than a half century. The U.S. bought more than $500 billion in goods from China last year and now is planning or considering penalties on some $150 billion of those imports. The U.S. sold about $130 billion in goods to China in 2017 and faces a potentially devastating hit to its market there if China responds in kind.

Global financial markets have fallen sharply as the world’s two biggest economies squared off — the Dow Jones industrial average sank 572 points Friday.

Trump told advisers Thursday he was unhappy with China’s decision to tax $50 billion in American products, including soybeans and small aircraft, in response to a U.S. move this week to impose tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods.

Rather than waiting weeks for the U.S. tariffs to be implemented, Trump backed a plan by Robert Lighthizer, his trade representative, and was encouraged by Peter Navarro, a top White House trade adviser, to seek the enhanced tariffs, upping the ante.

White House chief of staff John Kelly and Mnuchin concurred with the move, as did Kudlow, who traveled with the president to West Virginia.

China said negotiations were impossible under the circumstances but Trump officials said the president and his team remained in contact with President Xi Jinping and expressed hope to him of resolving the dispute through talks. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the two sides remained in “routine contact.”

In Beijing, a Commerce Ministry spokesman said China doesn’t want a trade war — but isn’t afraid to fight one.

“If the U.S. side announces the list of products for $100 billion in tariffs, the Chinese side has fully prepared and will without hesitation counterattack with great strength,” spokesman Gao Feng said. He gave no indication what measures Beijing might take.

Trump has also pushed for a crackdown on China’s theft of U.S. intellectual property, and he criticized the World Trade Organization, an arbiter of trade disputes, in a tweet Friday for allegedly favoring China. Trump asserted the WTO gives the Asian superpower “tremendous perks and advantages, especially over the U.S.”

U.S. officials have played down the threat of a broader trade dispute, saying a negotiated outcome is still possible. But economists warn that the tit-for-tat moves bear the hallmarks of a classic trade rift that could keep growing. Worry is intensifying among Republicans, who traditionally have favored liberalized trade.

“The administration needs to be thinking about the unintended consequences and what are those ripple effects, those domino effects, and what are the retaliatory actions that are likely to be taken,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the Senate’s No. 3 Republican, in an interview with KDLT-TV in Sioux Falls.

The standoff over the trade penalties began last month when the U.S. slapped tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. China countered by announcing tariffs on $3 billion worth of U.S. products. The next day, the United States proposed the $50 billion in duties on Chinese imports, and Beijing lashed back within hours with a threat of further tariffs of its own.

Further escalation could be in the offing. The U.S. Treasury is working on plans to restrict Chinese technology investments in the United States. And there’s talk that the U.S. could also put limits on visas for Chinese who want to visit or study in this country.

Kudlow told reporters the U.S. may provide a list of suggestions to China “as to what we would like to have come out of this,” and those issues were under discussion.

Yellowstone busy hiring 400 summer employees — more than doubling its workforce

Yellowstone National Park’s human resources staff is deep in the throes of hiring up to 400 summer workers for its hectic tourism season.

“They’re really, really busy this time of year because everyone starts at the same time,” said Linda Veress, a Yellowstone spokeswoman.

One Wyoming seasonal worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said in an email that he’s worried the employee processing is too slow. He was supposed to start in seven weeks, but no background check — a standard procedure — had yet been initiated. Those checks typically take anywhere from six to eight weeks, he said.

Veress said some park seasonal employees are processed quicker than others. It all depends on how many people apply for a position, when employment offers are made and how quickly employees fill out the required paperwork.

“Some are on track, some are delayed,” Veress said, but it’s nothing compared to last year when the park was dealing with a hiring freeze under the new administration, she added.

“This year is pretty standard.”

Background Checks

Veress said most temporary employees are required to undergo background checks, which are conducted by the Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C. In 2016, the OPM subcontracted much of that work to the newly formed National Background Investigations Bureau.

According to its website, NBIB is the “first line of defense against insider threats to safeguard the integrity and trustworthiness of the Federal workforce. Over 95 percent of the Government’s background checks are provided by NBIB.”

OPM’s annual performance report shows the agency conducted more than 2.43 million background investigations in 2017.

Yellowstone is almost equally divided between permanent staff and seasonal workers. According to the park’s website, as of 2015 the park employed 330 permanent staff, only 176 of which were considered full-time. Another 146 are considered “subject to furlough” while eight are part time.

Veress said seasonal workers can be employed for only six months. “So most people don’t want to bring them on too early or they’ll have to quit before the season is done.”

Peak time

Yellowstone’s peak visitation months are June through September, with July being typically the busiest month. Last year the park counted more than 4.1 million people, the second-busiest year on record. More than half of those people visited in June, July and August. That’s about one park employee for every 5,600 visitors.

Whether visitation will increase again this year is uncertain. On Monday the Washington Post reported that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke may be backing away from substantially increasing park entrance fees at places like Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Had the fees risen as originally suggested, some visitors said they would not visit.

A study published last year by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana showed increasing the national park entrance fee from $30 to $70 for a seven-day pass likely could cost Yellowstone’s gateway communities $3.4 million annually.

With the increase in fees the National Park Service estimated it would increase its revenues by $69 million.