Year 2002 erupts in tragedy, rebounds with generosity

Oregon State Police officers man a barricade at Laycock Creek Road in February during a manhunt for murderer Almeron "Willie" Hinton. Hinton was apprehended after he drove a truck into the front of the Grant County Criminal Justice Facility. File photo

Editor's note: Following is the first quarter of the Blue Mountain Eagle's annual retrospective. The second half of a look at 2002 will appear next week.

JANUARY

• The Rural Frontier Deliver program, which trains nurses in Eastern Oregon and has been a nationwide leader in promoting outreaches into rural areas, was faced with legislative budget cuts. Budget shortfalls that cut the RFD program were addressed by Oregon Health Sciences University representatives; they met with administrators at regional hospitals who made a commitment to trainees currently enrolled in the program. Funding was shifted to cover juniors and seniors who will complete their studies in 2003. The program is secured for now, but the future of RFD is uncertain.

• Environmental groups filed suit in December against the Forest Service to prevent post-fire logging on the Prineville Ranger District in the Ochoco National Forest. The complaint, filed in federal district court in Portland, alleged that the Forest Service ignored what the groups called "the available science that cautions against logging after wildfire because of likely significant impacts on already sensitive soils and watersheds." In Fall 2000, the Hash Rock Fire burned a total of 18,500 acres northeast of Prineville on the Ochoco National Forest. In an attempt to recoup the economic value of the burned timber, the Forest Service proposed to log 4.7 million board feet of trees through a timber sale to high bidder, D.R. Johnson Timber Co. Dan Bishop, a timber purchaser for D.R. Johnson Timber Co.'s Prairie Wood Products and Grant Western Lumber Co., said the litigation did not surprise him. "They have a mission, the preservationist community ... and it's to shut us down, and not harvest any timber on our national forest," he said. U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty on Jan. 29 halted logging on the sale with his decision.

• The deadline was extended for public input for the SB1010 rules, which will govern water issues in the North and Middle Forks John Day River Agricultural Water Quality Management Area. Meetings about how the regulations will effect users have led to some lively discussions.

• Grant County Court acted within the Emergency Access Plan, which had been implemented in 1998, that allowed county crews to plow stranded cattle out of Logan Valley belonging to Prairie City rancher John Coombs. Three cow/calf pairs were missing on Coombs' private property after the rest of the herd had been moved to lower feeding grounds and eventually were spotted stuck in 3 to 4 feet of snow by snowmobilers. With approval of the Grant County Snowballers, who had been grooming the road for winter recreation use, the road was plowed with the Grant County Road Department's four-wheel-drive grader from Summit Prairie to Logan Valley, which took about four hours. Coombs was charged by the county for the time expense which amounted to about $300. Grant County Judge Dennis Reynolds stated that the Emergency Access Plan was implemented to accommodate situations beyond the normal scope of plowing activities.

• Oregon State Police, John Day Police and Grant County Sheriff's Department participated in a multi-agency drug raid which resulted in the seizure of guns, marijuana and other drug paraphernalia, and the arrest of Robert Dean Craig of Mt. Vernon. Officers than proceeded to the home of Robert Donald Mayhugh at Dayville, where they served a search warrant. A safe removed from Mayhugh's residence by Grant County Sheriff's Department later revealed 27 pounds of marijuana. Mayhugh was not at home, and was being sought by law enforcement officers.

• Plans are under way to construct an athletic complex at Prairie City School's football field. Funding for the project are underway with proceeds from Cycle Oregon and a planned 78-mile relay race.

• An ambitious plan to renovate the Grant County Fairgrounds anticipated installation of a youth agricultural facility by the end of June. The funding source was the private Grant County Family Heritage Foundation, established in 1999 by Arlene Oliver, a member of a longtime ranching family in Grant County. The projected cost was $460,367 for erection of a basic building. However, the heritage foundation board approved an additional $70,000 to pay for a clerestory, a raised structure at the peak of the roof that provides lighting and ventilation and an improved appearance. At the Jan. 9 meeting of Grant County Court, Grant County Road Department roadmaster Jim Walker outlined the schedule for erection of the building. Walker, who will serve as project manager, said the entire project should last 19 weeks, from Feb. 17 to June 30.

• Canyon City City Council gave final approval for Canyon Mountain Heights subdivision, which includes 88 lots on 28.62 acres on the hill overlooking Humbolt Elementary School. Developer David Fields will be allowed to sell lots once the plat is filed. The city council also accepted engineer Doug Ferguson's review of the development. The city owns the road, water and sewer systems leading to the lots. Approval of the subdivision had been delayed when property owners David and Cynthia Hydes expressed concern about the access road, which borders their Canyon City property near Humbolt School. On the west end of the development, the county agreed to take ownership of a key access road. Charlie Stinnett of Canyon City, the owner of Little Canyon Heights, a proposed eight-lot, 6.7-acre subdivision, and other residents petitioned Grant County Court to establish county ownership of Elk View Drive. This thoroughfare connects West Bench Road to Nugget Street. On Jan. 16, the County Court agreed to the residents' petition.

• Grant County District Attorney Nancy Nickel was recalled by a vote of 1,372 in favor to 1,154 opposed. Nickel had been appointed to the DA position after the exit of Tom Howes. She faced voter ambivalence in May 2000 in the primary election when she received 1,460 votes in contrast to 1,154 votes cast for Tom Cutsforth, who had publicly withdrawn from the race. Reasons for the recall campaign were listed as: lacking competence for administering the office; practicing unequal application of the law by picking and choosing cases to prosecute based on personal reasons; failing to gain the trust of local citizens and law enforcement; appearing unprepared and uncomfortable in court; buckling under pressure; and choosing unpalatable solutions to criminal cases. Following the recall, applications for the position were sought by the Oregon Governor and Brenda Rocklin temporarily filled the void.

• Tim Collins of Baker City carried the Olympic Torch on its last leg of the Baker City Olympic Torch Relay on its way to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

• On Jan. 16, a Grant County jury exonerated Dayville rancher Robert Allan Humphreys Jr. of the most serious charges stemming from an Aug. 21, 2001, confrontation with police when police responded to the Humphreys residence off Highway 19 about two miles north of the junction of Highway 26 near Dayville. Dispatchers had warned officers of an armed suspect involved in a dispute over cattle. Police reported that upon arrival, a shot from a high-powered rifle was fired in their direction. An Oregon State Police SWAT team and local police converged on the scene and took Humphreys into custody without incident the following day. Humphreys was found guilty on a charge of unlawful use of a weapon against another, which is a Class C felony; guilty on three charges of menacing, which are Class A misdemeanors; and guilty on all four charges of recklessly endangering another, which are also Class A misdemeanors.

• Mt. Vernon Fire Department added Jaws of Life to its response equipment. The life-saving device is used to cut through metal and speed up extrication time from vehicles should a life-threatening situation present itself after an accident.

• Grant County leaders were wrestling with $380,058 in budget cuts. The combination of flat property values and a drop in bed rentals at the Grant County Justice Facility helped to create a grim budget forecast for next fiscal year. Based on initial budget requests, the county faced a $380,058 overrun on its anticipated revenue for fiscal year 2002-2003. Economic conditions in addition to property tax appeals and increases in health insurance costs have played a role. Even though only modest increases in county spending were anticipated, revenue is down, leaving the balance at a deficit, which is not allowed. The blame for the coming year's budget problems can be traced to increased insurance and utility costs and drops in county revenue, notably at the sheriff's department, where lost bed-rental revenue contributed to a $160,000 shortfall, Reynolds explained.

FEBRUARY

• Mt. Vernon residents Herb Brusman and Dave Traylor submitted language to Grant County Clerk's office for a pair of ballot measures pertaining to local government control of natural resources and decision-making. The first proposed ballot measure asks citizens to decide: "Shall Grant County declare a right of citizens to participate in stewardship of natural resources on public lands?" The second proposed ballot measure asks citizens to decide: "Shall Grant County declare that no United Nations action may take place within the county's borders?"

• A stroll down Main Street in John Day revealed a full line of business fronts, so that prompted the question "How is business in Grant County?" During a random survey of 16 Grant County businesses (mostly retail and three restaurants), owners and managers shared their views about the business climate during the past holiday season. With high unemployment rates, an uncertain local and national economy and many working families displaced by the ailing timber industry, most area business operators revealed that they still hold an optimistic view for the future.

• On Feb. 17, longtime residents Al and Irene Hinton, ages 76 and 65, were shot and killed at their home in downtown Long Creek. An extensive manhunt ensued for their son, Almeron "Willie" William Hinton, chief suspect in the double murder. Gun fire between Hinton and law enforcement officers ensued on Cottonwood Road. Local OSP Detective Mike Durr joined the pursuit on Ingle Creek Road, south of Mt. Vernon, where Hinton opened fire again, hitting both the sheriff's department and OSP vehicles; the shots injured Detective Durr's upper right arm and he was flown by life-flight to St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, where he underwent surgery. After considerable gunfire, which damaged several Grant County Sheriff's Department and law enforcement vehicles, Hinton fled the scene in the darkness. On Monday Feb. 18, state troopers hefting rifles manned checkpoints along Highway 26 at Laycock Creek Road and in Mt. Vernon at the start of Ingle Creek Road. An aerial and ground-based search ensued in this area southwest of John Day. Later in the day, searchers found the suspect's abandoned vehicle west of Laycock Creek near Harper Creek. Officers recovered boots, clothing and food from the vehicle but found no weapons. The search continued at area cabins, ranches and various outbuildings.

• Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer received the support of the county's Wildlife Advisory Board to declare a state of emergency and plan controlled hunting of cougars. In a proactive move, Palmer said he had been working with Oregon State Police and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a cougar-control plan. Palmer sought County Court's nod to issue an emergency declaration, made for the sake of public safety, and could empower him to reduce cougar numbers by using dogs to hunt for the cats.

• Officers arrested murder suspect Almeron "Willie" Hinton Feb. 23 after he drove his pickup truck into two sections of the Grant County Jail. Hinton drove his truck up a handicapped ramp through the jail's main entryway, down the hallway and into a soda machine, before backing up and crashing the truck through another door in the sally port on the north side of the building. After destroying the front and side entryways to the jail, Hinton parked the truck in a nearby parking lot and returned on foot to the front entryway, as reported by area residents, Don and Jennifer Mooney. He lingered outside the jail's damaged front doors, as Oregon State Police troopers arrived immediately and arrested Hinton without further incident. Sheriff Glenn Palmer reported that wreckage easily will exceed $5,000, but insurance should cover the damage, Palmer said. Deputies found a .30 .06-caliber M-1 Garand on the floor behind the driver's seat and a pistol on the front seat, Palmer said. The M-1 Garand is believed to be the weapon used in Feb. 17 killings, Palmer said.

MARCH

• After five years as superintendent of Dayville School, R.L. Rumsey announced his upcoming retirement, effective June 30. This year, the trend in Grant County forecasts an exodus of rural school superintendents, either voluntarily or through school board decree. Since early February, the Monument School staff has taken on administrative duties in the absence of superintendent Lynn Reagan, who was placed on paid leave early this year. Reagan said the school board tried to terminate his employment. School officials and Reagan are reluctant to say much more, noting that the matter is before legal counsel. Officials agree that Reagan may not return next year.

Long Creek superintendent Del Coursey said he could be out the door on a voluntary basis, due to funding considerations. The decision hinged on discussions before the school board about reducing or restructuring his position, he said. Monument school board chairperson Shannon Bravos said Long Creek school board members have approached Monument trustees about possibly sharing a superintendent. Prairie City interim school superintendent Gene Mills said no decisions about that position have been made. "I'm leaning toward not being here," he said, due largely to where he resides. He has commuted from Culver in Central Oregon during his one-year contract. Mills said he will report on a discussion of making the job a part-time superintendent's position at the next school board meeting.

• In the case of regional snowpack, February snowfall did not help the John Day Basin compensate for past drought seasons. John Day Basin snowpack levels hovered above 100 percent - 104 percent of average on the North Fork, 116 percent of average in the basin above Dayville. These amounts remained unchanged from the middle of the month to the end. Meanwhile, precipitation took a slight slide, from 91 percent of average in the basin on Feb. 12 to 87 percent of average by March 1. Only Starr Ridge experienced increased precipitation by March 1 (from 87 percent to 102 percent of average). Seven other sites fell behind in average rainfall or snowfall, the most drastic being Blue Mountain Spring (94 percent of average to 87 percent of average) and Gold Center (117 percent of average to 108 percent of average).

• In fiscal year 2001-2002, Grant School District No. 3 operated on a $8.357 million budget, $205,751 less than the previous year. This fiscal year, the actual budget number remains up for grabs. So far, officials said, the proposed budget will be built on the assumption that voters approve legislative referral HJR 76, a stopgap school funding measure referred to the May 21 ballot by the Oregon Legislature. "We're going to put our faith in the voters," said school district superintendent Newell Cleaver. Countywide, schools have been experiencing decreased enrollments. Several schools operate on a four-day school week and Dayville recently voted to shift to the four-day school week schedule for the 2002-03 school year. The school bond ultimately was defeated.

• Government biologists began a two-week herd "depopulation" at Rudio Creek Ranch east of Kimberly last week, which means they will euthanize and necropsy 205 domestic elk at Rudio Creek Ranch. Stunned and angry, ranch owners Stan and Tan Hermens could only watch as a five-month-old tuberculosis detection in a single cow elk culminated with the destruction of the couple's cattle and elk herds. "Maybe some good research is going to come out of this bad situation," Stan said. The government biologists will experiment with TB tests, conducting skin tests and blood draws and cross-checking those results with necropsy results.

• With a full-time workforce of 216 people, the Malheur National Forest remains a major employer in Grant County, but federal budget cuts that prompted a layoff announcement this winter spell an uncertain future for the forest. Thirty-five positions are being eliminated, and after vacancies are filled elsewhere on the forest, 15 people stand to lose their jobs. Even though the Forest Service budget has been increasing nationally from 1996 levels, the budget in the Pacific Northwest's Region 6 (Oregon and Washington) steadily declined through 2000, the Forest Service announced. The workforce in this region has already shrunk by 42 percent from 1992 levels; 39 percent on the Malheur National Forest, according to information from the Malheur National Forest. Forecasts that regional budgets will continue to fall in the next few years do not paint a promising picture for local staffing levels. "We may be in store for more reductions," said Malheur National Forest deputy forest supervisor Roger Williams. Williams said the loss of timber-sale revenue to salvage-sale trust funds contributed to the cutbacks. The result is a mixed bag of staffing reductions, although most of the focus is on timber-sale personnel.

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