You are the owner of this page.
A1 A1
Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

School Resource Officer Ty Mower walks through the Kelly Walsh High School cafeteria in May. Mower was then one of only two school resource officers in Natrona County schools, but a plan between the school district and police department would increase that number to 10 in the coming years.

Wyoming anti-discrimination bill moves forward despite GOP opposition

CHEYENNE – A legislative committee narrowly voted Friday to advance a LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill to the full House of Representatives, pushing forward what has been one of the more divisive measures in the Wyoming Legislature on the final day for bills to be worked at committee level.

House Bill 230 is markedly different from other, more comprehensive pieces of nondiscrimination legislation attempted in the past, and would apply only to preventing employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, which is currently not protected under state statute.

The final vote was 5-4 in favor of the bill, with limited discussion among the committee before the vote. Aye votes included Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, Rep. Patrick Sweeney, R-Casper, Rep. Joann Dayton Salman, D-Rock Springs, and Rep. Jim Roscoe, I-Wilson.

No votes included Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne, Rep. Timothy Hallinan, R-Gillette, Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell, and Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Sheridan.

Often debated but rarely advanced, a statewide nondiscrimination law has faced numerous barriers since the topic flared in Wyoming after the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard two decades ago. Democratic lawmakers like Laramie Rep. Cathy Connolly have pushed to get a law passed this session, arguing that it was not only a moral obligation, but an economic one that would encourage young people who may have been turned off by the state’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community to move back to the state.

An attempt at compromise

Backers of this year’s bill expressed confidence that they had found a compromise between offering protections for vulnerable populations in the state, while satisfying the concerns of religious conservatives who feared a nondiscrimination ordinance would force them to violate their beliefs.

The bill — and the creation of a new protected class — was necessary, argued Zwonitzer, due to demonstrable incidents of discrimination around the state, as well as a lack of recourse for many members of the LGBTQ community who were discriminated against at work. High profile politicians — including Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, and Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr — testified in favor of the legislation, saying it did not create special protections but rather, equal protections, and that this year’s version of the bill presented a good opportunity to do so, without forcing any employers to do anything.

“All employers should be hiring the best qualified person at all times, and I don’t share the thought that anyone would be forced to do anything under this bill,” said Zwonitzer. “But we should be aware that there are cultural biases in our society. This doesn’t mandate anything – it only means you can bring a specific action if you feel you were discriminated against, if you can prove you were not hired, fired, or didn’t receive a promotion because of your sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s what this does.”

Photos: How Wyoming — and the nation — reacted after the death of Matthew Shepard

“We want what’s fair. We don’t want preference,” said Rep. Sara Burlingame, D-Cheyenne, a co-sponsor of the bill and a director of a group that advocates for members of the LGBTQ community. “We want people to coming to the Equality State knowing that they’ll be protected.”

However, this “happy medium” did not satisfy several groups to testify against the bill early Friday morning, including Republican Party officials and representatives for the Wyoming Pastor’s Network and the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne. While some said the bill’s language presented some ambiguity in interpretation for religious employers who may have faith-based objections to employing members LGBTQ community, others expressed confusion over what gender identity actually meant, and asserted that homosexuality or bisexuality was a lifestyle choice.

“I’m concerned that this bill forces certain individuals to lay down their faith the moment they step outside of the church or their religious organization,” said former state Rep. Nathan Winters, a pastor and Republican. “We want to let people know that we are a people of love, but we are also a people of conscience, and we do not like to see that conscience diminished in any way. I think that bill takes that step when it comes to the workplace.”

Party opposition

On Thursday night, the Wyoming Republican Party – whose platform opposes all legislation related to creating a protected class in Wyoming — released an “action alert” urging its members to oppose the bill, listing the phone numbers and email addresses of all the members of the committee. On Friday morning, Cathy Russell, executive director of the Wyoming Republican Party, testified on the party’s behalf in opposition of the bill, saying the party does not support any legislation with ambiguous language regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, before going on to say that she knew homosexual individuals in her own life whom she did not believe to have been discriminated against.

Republican Party members in attendance, however, were more blunt. Rep. Roy Edwards, of Gillette, suggested that someone could choose to “flip” their gender after being hired, and sue their employer under the bill’s current language.

Thomas Hutchings, a Republican precinct committeeman in Cheyenne, said that while the bill “may have an appealing name,” employers already have an incentive for hiring the best person for the job, and that discrimination is not a serious issue in the state. He went on to suggest the concept of gender identity was ill-defined and proceeded to suggest one’s sexual orientation was not about whom an individual loved, but “what you’re attracted to,” and began to suggest that homosexuality was akin to a fetish before being cut off by time. Another GOP precinct committee member in Cheyenne, Robin Goodspeed, said she was one of thousands of “ex queers” who eventually found Christ, and said that homosexuality is not only a choice but a mental illness, which transgender individuals try and conform to through “self-mutilation.”

Following her testimony, Western asked Russell if Republicans who supported the bill would face punitive measures from the party in the next election. Saying she did not speak for the entire party, Russell replied that she was speaking to the platform and did not want to speculate on what a “future group” will do following the party’s elections in March.

“So you’re saying there’s a possibility the party will take punitive measures?” he asked.

“That is not what I’m saying,” she replied. “I can’t say anything. I have no knowledge. I couldn’t.”

Noting the concerns about the ambiguity of the sexual orientation and gender identity language in the bill, Rep. Sweeney asked if there was a possibility there could be an amendment striking the phrase “gender orientation” from the bill. However, Amber Pollock, a member of the Endow council from Natrona County, said that removing the gender identity stipulations would remove protections for transgender individuals, stating in her testimony that “one is about who you love, and one is about who you are.”

Committee members later agreed they would update the language around gender identity to conform to the definitions now being employed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which handles all discrimination cases in Wyoming for employers with more than 15 individuals, according to a representative with the state Department of Workforce Services.

Under current state law, employers with under 15 workers currently have no law preventing from discriminating against someone for their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Infrastructure protest bill advances in Wyoming Legislature

CHEYENNE — A legislative committee on Friday advanced a bill that would impose tougher penalties against protesters who intentionally disrupt the operation of refineries, power plants, pipelines, mines and other such facilities in Wyoming and subject groups behind any such acts to fines of up $100,000.

House Bill 10 was recommended by the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee on a 5-4 vote. It now goes to the full House for more debate.

Opponents of the proposal say it would infringe on the rights of protesters and landowners, and current laws address any crimes against facilities. Supporters say no rights would be threatened, and current laws were not adequate in giving authorities the ability to prosecute people who impede the operations of what the bill calls “critical infrastructure.”

The effort to protect what are termed “critical infrastructure” in the legislation rose from the violent protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017 and vandalism of other equipment and facilities in Wyoming and elsewhere

A similar measure passed the Legislature last year. But it was vetoed by former Gov. Matt Mead, who didn’t like how the measure was crafted.

Gov. Mark Gordon, who replaced Mead this year, will review the new bill closely if it passes the Legislature, said Rachel Girt, Gordon’s spokeswoman.

Under the proposed bill, a person who “intentionally or knowingly impedes the operations of a critical infrastructure facility” or trespasses on such a facility can face jail time and fines.

Impeding the operation of a facility includes damaging the facility, blocking construction of a facility and tampering with the facility’s equipment, according to the proposal.

In addition, an organization that “acted with the intent that the crime of impeding critical infrastructure be completed” could be fined up to $100,000.

The measure states that nothing in the proposed law “shall be construed to apply to public demonstrations or other expressions of free speech or free association to the extent that such activity is protected.”

The committee recommended amendments that would add broadband infrastructure and public roads to the list of things that shouldn’t be impeded.

Bill sponsor Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said the law was needed because of the new tactics that protesters have been using to disrupt operations of facilities that they oppose.

Larsen noted that the law will not affect any protesters not hindering a facility’s operations.

In addition, property owners “trying to work out a right-away issue has nothing to do with impeding or trespassing on critical infrastructure,” he said.

Stephanie Kessler of the Wyoming Outdoor Council testified against the proposal Friday, saying it was designed to chill public dissent and was too broad and unnecessary.

After the committee’s action, Kessler noted that civil disobedience was employed in the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements in the past.

“They did that in order to represent their freedom of speech, and they knew full well that they were going to get charged for breaking the law,” Kessler said.

Trump suspends arms treaty to focus on China, Russia threats

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is pulling the plug on a decades-old nuclear arms treaty with Russia, lifting what it sees as unreasonable constraints on competing with a resurgent Russia and a more assertive China. The move announced Friday sets the stage for delicate talks with U.S. allies over potential new American missile deployments.

In explaining his decision, which he had foreshadowed months ago, President Donald Trump accused Moscow of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with “impunity” by deploying banned missiles. Moscow denies it is in violation and has accused Washington of resisting its efforts to resolve the dispute.

Democrats in Congress and some arms control advocates criticized Trump’s decision as opening the door to an arms race.

“The U.S. threat to terminate the treaty will not bring Russia back into compliance and could unleash a dangerous and costly new missile competition between the United States and Russia in Europe and beyond,” the private Arms Control Association said. It argued that Washington had not exhausted options for drawing Russia back into compliance.

Trump said in a statement that the U.S. will “move forward” with developing its own military response options to Russia’s banned deployment of cruise missiles that could target western Europe.

“We cannot be the only country in the world unilaterally bound by this treaty, or any other,” Trump said. Other officials said the treaty could still be saved if Russia reverses course and returns to compliance, but that window of opportunity will close in six months when the American withdrawal is due to take effect.

The Trump decision reflects his administration’s view that the arms treaty was an unacceptable obstacle to more forcefully confronting not only Russia but also China. China’s military has grown mightily since the treaty was signed, and the pact has prevented the U.S. from deploying weapons to counter some of those being developed in Beijing.

Leaving the INF pact, however, risks aggravating relations with European allies, who share the administration’s view that Russia is violating the treaty but who have not endorsed a U.S. withdrawal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to reporters after Trump’s statement, said Russia will be formally notified today that the U.S. is withdrawing from the treaty, effective in six months. In the meantime, starting today, the U.S. will suspend its obligations under the treaty.

Pompeo said that if, in the coming six months, Russia accepts U.S. demands that it verifiably destroy the cruise missiles that Washington claims are a violation, then the treaty can be saved. If it does not, “the treaty terminates,” he said.

Administration officials have dismissed concerns that the treaty’s demise could trigger a race to develop and deploy more intermediate-range missiles. U.S. officials have emphasized their fear that China, which is not party to the treaty, is gaining a significant military advantage in Asia by deploying large numbers of missiles with ranges beyond the treaty’s limit. Whether the U.S. will now respond by deploying INF noncompliant missiles in Asia is unclear. In any case, it seems unlikely Beijing would agree to any negotiated limits on its weaponry.

Russia accused the U.S. of unilaterally seeking to neuter the treaty.

“I ‘congratulate’ the whole world; the United States has taken another step toward its destruction today,” said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.

INF was the first arms control measure to ban an entire class of weapons: ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 310 miles and 3,400 miles. At the time, in the late stages of the Cold War, the U.S. and its allies were mainly concerned by the perceived threat of Russian medium-range nuclear missiles that were targeted at Europe. The U.S. deployed similar missiles in response, in the 1980s, leading to negotiations that produced the INF treaty.

Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat and new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, blasted Trump for raising the risk of nuclear war.

“The administration’s ideological aversion to arms control as a tool for advancing national security is endangering our safety, as well as that of our allies and partners,” Smith said.

U.S. officials say they have little reason to think Moscow will change its stance in the next six months.

“We have raised Russia’s noncompliance with Russian officials — including at the highest levels of government — more than 30 times,” Pompeo said. “We have provided Russia an ample window of time to mend its way. Tomorrow that time runs out.”

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press that Russia can still save the treaty by returning to compliance before the U.S. withdrawal takes effect.

“But at the same time, we have started to assess the consequences, look into options,” Stoltenberg said. “We need to make sure that we respond as an alliance, all 29 allies, because all allies are involved and all allies are affected.”

Investigation says Natrona County School District responded appropriately in bus bullying incident

An independent investigation upheld the Natrona County School District’s handling of an October bullying and fighting incident on a Casper school bus that sent a student to the emergency room and ignited a monthslong disagreement between administrators and the student’s family.

The third-party investigation was itself a winding saga. It was initially conducted by Casper attorney Craig Silva, who then handed the work off to another lawyer here after Silva’s firm was permanently hired by the district. The new attorney’s findings were then reviewed and confirmed by a Powell attorney. That lawyer, Tracy Copenhaver, sent a letter detailing the findings to the district and to the families of the students involved.

The investigation was launched in November after the Star-Tribune reported that the injured child’s mother, Amber O’Donnell, was considering legal action against the district. The family told the Star-Tribune that her daughter, Caitlin Jonckers, had been bullied on a school bus by girls calling her names and throwing trash at her. Once she exited the bus, the family said, Caitlin was attacked by several girls. The family provided medical records to the Star-Tribune that showed Caitlin sustained a concussion and a broken foot.

In November, school district officials said that Caitlin had indeed been bullied on the bus and that it had punished the other students for their role in that. However, officials said video evidence reviewed by the district did not substantiate the family’s account that Caitlin was essentially jumped and attacked after she exited the bus. Officials said Caitlin turned away from home to follow one of her bullies after the bus stopped. A fight ensued, and both Caitlin and the other student were suspended for their role in that altercation.

The entire incident was caught on school bus cameras. O’Donnell was allowed to watch the tape, though she could not keep a copy. Citing student privacy, the district denied the Star-Tribune’s request to view the footage.

In his letter detailing the findings of his investigation, Copenhaver indicated that investigators agreed with how the district interpreted the incident.

“It was determined that two students on the bus engaged in bullying, both of whom received disciplinary suspensions from the bus and from school,” Copenhaver wrote. “It was also determined that after exiting the bus, the victim of the bullying on the bus approached one of the students who had engaged in bullying activities and the two students engaged in a brief altercation during which punches were exchanged, which resulted in both students receiving suspensions from school.”

In a statement emailed to the Star-Tribune on Friday, O’Donnell said she wasn’t surprised by the attorney’s findings but that the facts support Caitlin’s account of the event. She noted Copenhaver is the legal counsel for the Wyoming School Board Association.

“And let’s not forget we still have yet to hear any kind of an apology from these girls or their parents, let alone the district,” O’Donnell wrote. “They all really should be ashamed of themselves in the way they have chosen to handle this.”

Tanya Southerland, the district’s spokeswoman, said in a statement that the district had conducted its own investigation that was then reviewed by high-level administrators. The review conducted by the attorneys “concluded the District’s investigation was appropriate and the conclusions drawn from the investigation were appropriate.”

The district announced in mid-November that it had hired Silva to conduct a third-party review of its handling of the incident. O’Donnell, meanwhile, attended school board and Casper City Council meetings to raise her concerns about bullying in the district. She delivered a petition with more than a hundred signatures to the school board, calling for changes to the bullying policy.

In December, the district announced that it had hired Silva’s firm to represent it in a permanent capacity. O’Donnell quickly raised concerns about the independence of the investigation.

Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, told the Star-Tribune that while officials disagreed with O’Donnell’s suggestion that Silva could not impartially review the district’s investigation, they would honor her request and hand the work to another attorney.

The district then hired Casper lawyer Anna Reeves Olson, who “confirmed that the investigation was appropriate and the conclusions drawn from the investigation were appropriate,” according to the letter from Copenhaver, the Powell attorney who reviewed Olson’s work.

Earlier this week, O’Donnell’s petition was considered by three board members. The trustees determined that the district’s current bullying policy was adequate to meet the needs of Natrona County students.

In first test of 'stand your ground' law, Natrona County judge dismisses murder case

In the first judicial test of Wyoming’s new “stand your ground” law, a Natrona County judge on Friday dismissed a first-degree murder case, but implored prosecutors to appeal to the state’s highest court.

Judge Catherine Wilking handed down the ruling following a two-and-a-half-hour hearing, the bulk of which she ruled was required by the new law. Under the law, a person who is attacked at a place where he is legally allowed to be has no obligation to retreat, so long as he is not the initial aggressor or breaking any laws. A person who meets those criteria cannot be criminally prosecuted.

Jason T. John, who had faced a single count of murder after he shot a man entering his north Casper house in August, left the courthouse in the car of his attorney, Tim Cotton. Cotton declined to comment after the hearing, except to say that he expects the public defender’s Cheyenne appellate office to handle the appeal. Cotton said he may be prepared to make a statement early next week.

District Attorney Dan Itzen said he would take Wilking’s advice and appeal the case in conjunction with the Attorney General’s office. The law took effect in July, only about a month before John shot Wesley Willow, Jr. at around 4 a.m. on Aug. 3 at a trailer home on the 1200 block of North Center Street.

When the hearing began at 1:30 p.m., the courtroom audience included a judge, a judge’s clerk, multiple private attorneys unaffiliated with the case and John’s family. Cotton and Assistant District Attorney Kevin Taheri began with arguments over the necessity of a hearing to decide whether John’s case should be dismissed.

The judge said she had reviewed law in Colorado, Florida, Kentucky and Kansas, and all four states require a dismissal hearing in cases that could involve immunity similar to that created by the new law. She decided to rule against prosecutors, concluding they needed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that John was not immune from prosecution. She then made her second of many admonishments to appeal.

“I think it’s imperative that this matter be appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court” Wilking said.

Wyoming’s first dismissal hearing of its kind then began.

Taheri called Detective Anthony Stedellie to testify, and he remained on the stand for the bulk of the remainder of the hearing. For nearly an hour, he responded to questions from Taheri, saying that John shot Willow as he ran toward John’s trailer home.

John shot Willow nine times with an AR-15, Stedellie said, after exchanging cell phone messages with a woman who had dated John before taking up again with Willow. Multiple rounds hit Willow in the back, the detective said, and John fired one into the back of Willow’s head. Stedellie said a medical examiner ruled that John had likely fired the gun into Willow as he lay face down on the ground.

Under Cotton’s cross-examination, the detective said Willow had threatened to beat up John when they spoke on the phone about a half-hour prior to the shooting. When Willow and two other people arrived at John’s house, he told Willow to leave, the detective testified.

After a 15-minute break, attorneys made their closing arguments. Taheri said John lured Willow to his house in order to kill him and the statute did not protect him. John sought combat with Willow and didn’t consider alternatives, the prosecutor said.

“The alternative he wants is for Wesley Willow to come over so he can shoot him,” Taheri said.

Cotton then argued that nobody was invited into John’s home and, when Willow tried to enter uninvited and looking to fight, John could protect himself.

“He is immune, your honor,” Cotton said, stressing the third word in his sentence.

The judge then ruled that John warned Willow to stay back but Willow still came into John’s home. Willow instigated the violence, Wilking said, and John had no duty to retreat. She dismissed the case and once again implored prosecutors to appeal. The decision came less than two weeks before John was set to stand trial.

The case is still a long way from finished, Itzen said on his way out of the courthouse:

“It’s halftime.”