Top Stories of 2013: Numbers 2 though 5
Of all the stories reported in the pages of The Daily Sentinel this past calendar year, these are the ones ranked No. 2 to No. 5 on the Top Stories of 2013 list, as determined by the Sentinel newsroom. The top story of the year will be revealed in Wednesday’s edition.
Number 2: HEATHER JENSEN ARRESTED; CASE AGAINST HER IS BUILT
Within hours of a Mesa County judge signing off on an arrest warrant on Jan. 16, Heather Jensen was in handcuffs at her mother’s home in Florida.
So began the Grand Valley’s highest profile prosecution of 2013 and the continuation of a story that saw paternal grandparents of young William and Tyler Jensen eventually winning a legal battle for the right to bury the boys.
It’s a case with bizarre allegations of graveside mischief and a last-minute legal delay that sent Jensen’s criminal case up — at least for seven days — to the Colorado Supreme Court.
William, 2, and Tyler, 4, were buried Feb. 7 next to their father, Eric Jensen, at Palisade Municipal Cemetery, which was days after Robert and Diane Mathena were awarded legal right for disposition of the boys remains.
Months later, the Mathenas were pointing fingers at the boys’ jailed mother, suggesting she was responsible for third-party delivery of unwelcome birthday gifts and cards at the gravesite. The matter was referred for investigation to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, which has declined subsequent comment.
Rejecting a plea offer on the table from the Mesa County District Attorney’s office, Jensen, 25, pleaded not guilty June 13 to charges of criminally negligent homicide, child abuse resulting in death and false reporting in connection with her sons’ deaths. The boys died as a result of overheating in their mother’s Toyota 4Runner after they were left alone in the vehicle on the night of Nov. 27, 2012, on Grand Mesa, as their mother allegedly had sex with a man in another vehicle nearby.
Days before the original scheduled start of Jensen’s trial in October, District Judge Valerie Robison granted a defense request for continuance to pursue an appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. The defense had disputed a ruling from Robison, restricting the trial testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Robert Kurtzman.
The high court, which offered no comment on the merit of the defense arguments, refused to take up the matter.
Jensen’s trial is scheduled to run over two weeks starting Jan. 21.
— Paul Shockley
Number 3: Mixed bag of news at Grand Junction Regional Airport
There were some ups and some downs at the Grand Junction Regional Airport this year.
Things were looking up earlier this year when West Star Aviation announced plans to build a paint and maintenance hanger, saying it would boost economic development at the airport and add some 150 high-paying jobs.
Then things look a turn for the worse when, in early November, agents for the FBI and U.S. Department of Transportation executed a search warrant of airport financial records, saying only it was investigating possible fraud.
But because that search warrant was immediately sealed, no one, not even members of the seven-person Airport Authority board who oversee the facility, knows for sure what the agents are investigating.
As a result, the federal probe has put a cloud over the airport and could have an impact on future development plans, including the West Star project.
While West Star officials have said the probe doesn’t impact them, it has impacted the authority’s ability to sell the bonds it needs to purchase — for $8 million — the new hangar once its built and lease it back to the company, as is planned.
To add more fog to the situation, in December the seven-member authority board decided to launch its own probe of the situation and then suspend, with pay, Director of Aviation Rex Tippetts, only to outright fire him two weeks later.
Tippetts, who has operated the facility since 2005, has already retained legal representation, who has said the aviation director has done nothing wrong.
Meanwhile, Moody’s Investors Service said the impact of an FBI fraud investigation on the airport’s credit rating was “unclear,” but could place $77 million in federal grants in jeopardy.
The investigation also could delay a project to replace the airport’s aging runway. That project, which was built primarily with Federal Aviation Administration grants, is estimated to cost about $94 million and take about 10 years to construct.
— Charles Ashby
Number 4: Brainard leaves council after recall threat
Elected to the Grand Junction City Council in April, Rick Brainard resigned in July after he was threatened with recall.
Brainard ousted Mayor Bill Pitts for an at-large seat in the April 2 election, garnering 57 percent of the vote.
Brainard spent the Saturday after his election, however, in the Mesa County Jail after his live-in girlfriend of eight months told police they had argued since the Tuesday election about communication to Brainard by a past girlfriend.
“There was some discussion about this and a physical altercation in the bedroom ... (woman) stated she was pushed into the dresser by her chest several times, her hair was pulled and she was grabbed by the arm and her face was grabbed,” an affidavit said.
Brainard, according to another affidavit, said in an interview with police that he slapped his girlfriend “because she needed to ‘shut her mouth.’ Rick stated that (girlfriend) had said something so offensive that he had to slap her.”
By April 13, not even two weeks after his election, Brainard was the focus of demonstrations at Grand Junction City Hall, where protesters demanded that his ouster was a “no-brainard.”
He was sworn in on the same day as his first appearance on two misdemeanor domestic-violence charges.
Brainard’s difficulties extended beyond the city. He also lost his job at West Star Aviation and pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, receiving an 18-month deferred judgment.
Brainard resigned, but not before taking credit for his vote to proceed with expansion and refurbishment of the Avalon Theatre.
— Gary Harmon
Number 5: Dewey compensated for wrongful conviction
Seventeen years and 12 days of wrongful imprisonment in Mesa County was valued at $1.2 million.
In a historic order issued by Mesa County District Judge Richard Gurley on Aug. 28, Robert “Rider” Dewey, 52, became the first Colorado resident to receive compensation under a bill inspired by Dewey’s case and signed into law in June by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The mechanism for compensation required Gurley to make a series of findings of fact, while the judge’s order went beyond just clearing Dewey for direct involvement in the June 1994 murder of 19-year-old Palisade resident Jacie Taylor.
“(Dewey) has presented reliable evidence he was actually innocent from any participation in the crimes at issue and that he did not attempt, solicit, conspire, act as a complicitor or act as an accessory to the crimes charged, or the commission of a crime or any crimes factually related to the crimes at issue,” Gurley wrote in an eight-page ruling.
Up until Gurley’s order, Dewey had received $280 from Colorado’s judicial system — a refund of court costs — since he was released from prison in April 2012.
The compensation package directed Colorado to pay Dewey at a rate of $100,000 per year, minus taxes and adjusted for inflation, provided he complete a financial management course and obtain health insurance. The state can withdraw from the deal if Dewey is convicted of a class 1 or 2 felony.
Gurley, however, declined a request from Dewey’s attorneys to order the expungement of all records in the Dewey-Taylor investigation, which are still in the possession of law enforcement. The state has already removed Dewey’s DNA from a state-run offender database.
Dewey was convicted by a Mesa County jury in 1996 of first-degree murder and sexual assault in connection with Taylor’s killing, but exonerated in 2012 after DNA evidence implicated another suspect, 41-year-old Douglas Thames.
In court filings, and during a hearing last month, Thames’ attorneys said they consider Dewey a possible alternative suspect who had some involvement in Taylor’s death.
— Paul Shockley