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Online Predators On The Rise in Wyoming, Authorities Say

in News/Crime
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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

If anyone has any doubt about the dangers lurking for children and teens on the internet, Chris McDonald can clear up any uncertainty. There are dangers. And they only continue to get worse. 

As the head of Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit, he and his crew of nine agents and forensic investigators see it firsthand on a daily basis. 

“I yell it from the rooftops to anyone who will listen to me,” McDonald told Cowboy Sate Daily in a telephone call from his office in Cheyenne, where he has the stats to back up the warning.

In 2019, he and his crew received and investigated 263 cyber tips about child pornography and other hazards. 

That number nearly doubled during the pandemic, with 521 cyber tips received in 2020. This year the office has already received 425 tips to date. 

The tips come in from a number of different organizations, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), social media platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok and Google, as well as internet service providers. These tips mostly are based on algorithms of images suspected to be child pornography, user activity and nefarious communication in chat groups and other online platforms.

In recent years, ICAC, funded by a federal grant under the DCI, has investigated everything from production and distribution of child exploitation images, which McDonald refuses to label as pornography, as well as child sexploitation cases which, in his estimation, seem to be on the rise. 

Incidents of child sexploitation occur after a child or teen links up with a predator online through any number of forums. 

The predator then obtains a picture from the minor’s social media page and doctors the image. He or she then uses the doctored image to blackmail the child to get more explicit images or videos. The new images or videos are then shared online.

It’s a lucrative business for some, McDonald said, though many get caught. 

In the past year, for example, the ICAC busted a Sheridan mom sharing images of her child with a prisoner in Mississippi she met online. 

The inmate, who was already serving a multi-decade sentence for abusing a child, was receiving images from the mother through a child messenger app on Facebook. 

Other busts include two Casper men, Ray Farley (aka Ray Lucero) and Conner Farley, for recording themselves sexually abusing three small children in multiple images and videos.

Another Casper man, Liam Van Damme, was sentenced for uploading child pornography using a Google account and a Smug-Flickr account.

After 20 years as a law enforcement officer, including as an undercover narcotics agent, McDonald thought he could no longer be surprised by the types of crimes he’s seen. 

He was wrong. It’s much worse than he imagined 

And while he and his crew work on a daily basis to stamp out online predators, he encourages parents to do their part by carefully monitoring their children’s online activities and knowing the apps they use, as well as the mechanics of their child’s particular smartphone. 

Technology is not going anywhere, McDonald noted, so parents need to arm themselves with knowledge of the dangers that are out there. 

What investigators are currently seeing a lot of, McDonald said, is increased activity on Snapchat, with predators targeting children and teens on TikTok through their embedded Snapchat identities, which makes searching easy. 

Predators then contact those users on Snapchat, acting like peers in an attempt to groom them online.  This might lead to them doctoring an image of the teen or even just soliciting a nude image or video, which the predator then trades online with other predators in social media chat groups such as Facebook, Discord, Kik and others. 

“It’s a form of currency,” McDonald said. “Most offenders have a specific age range they are interested in and trade those images accordingly.”

Another trend they are seeing right now is the targeting of even younger kids between 8 and 10 years old. 

The good news is that Google, various app developers and other internet platforms are getting much savvier about identifying these images and sharing them with law enforcement. 

McDonald himself sifts through about 99% of all submitted cyber tips before assigning them to an ICAC investigator or one of their six partner agencies throughout the state in counties including Sweetwater, Teton, Uinta, Natrona and Johnson.

These partnerships in tandem with the advanced skills of his crew are proving to be effective, McDonald said. 

He estimated the ICAC has identified and rescued 14 victims this year alone and 15 the year prior.

McDonald is a parent himself, and if he has any advice for other parents, it’s talk to your children and know what they are up to online. 

“Communication is so critical,” McDonald said, “including talking to your kid about what to do if an adult tries to approach them online. No adult should ever have a romantic interest in a child.”

Predators try to blame their victims, he added, but they know what they’re doing.

For more information about protecting children online, see NCMEC’s NetSmatz for resources for parents and children. 

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Wyoming Ranks #2 In Nation For Gun Ownership; Montana Barely Takes Top Spot

in Guns/News
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A gun store owner in Casper said he was not surprised Wyoming was ranked as No. 2 state in the nation for households that own guns.

Shawn Wagner of Wagner’s Outdoor Outfitters told Cowboy State Daily he was more surprised Montana managed to barely beat Wyoming out for the title of No. 1.

“I started out in this business while in Montana and learned up on all this good stuff at Big Bear Sports Center,” Wagner said Wednesday. “I’m kind of surprised they’re higher in percentage than us, because they have a fairly liberal crowd in the western part of the state.”

A 2020 report by the Rand Corporation (a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges) showed that Montana topped the nation for households that owned firearms with 66.3%.

Wyoming trailed closely at 66.2%.

As part of the Gun Policy in America initiative, RAND researchers developed annual, state-level estimates of household firearm ownership by combining data from surveys and administrative sources.

First, they used a small-area estimation technique to create state-level ownership estimates for each of 51 nationally representative surveys assessing household firearm ownership rates. They then used structural equation modeling to combine these survey-based estimates with administrative data on firearm suicides, hunting licenses, subscriptions to Guns & Ammo magazine and background checks into the final measure of household firearm ownership.

The resulting measure represented the proportion of adults living in a household with a firearm for each state in each year between 1980 and 2016.

Wagner noted that gun sales at his store have increased significantly since the pandemic started.

“Early on, all the stores were [busy] like that,” he said. “People couldn’t go to work, so they might as well go fishing, camping, shooting or some type of outdoor recreation. So we were busy because of that.”

Then, as the 2020 presidential election neared, gun sales again ticked up due to anxiety about the consequences of the outcome.

Now, Wagner is seeing a significant number of first-time gun owners, particularly women, visiting his store because they want to feel safe, or because they are part of a hunting family and have a new generation heading out to the woods or camps.

“I’d say about three-fourths of our gun sales are hunting related right now,” he said. “Our sales are double what they were before the pandemic. My store is tiny and we’re pushing out $1.5 to $2 million in products per year.”

While gun sales have increased over the last 18 months, Wagner is still seeing an ammunition shortage like he was in May.

“We got in a good size (shipment) of hunting ammo, but it was just for hunting, to the tune of about $25,000 wholesale and within a couple of weeks, it’s gone,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer this could last, but it could be another year.”

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Green Rivers’ Brittney Montgomery Named Wyoming’s 2022 Teacher Of The Year

in News/Education
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By staff reports, Cowboy State Daily

Brittney Montgomery, a first-grade teacher at Sweetwater County School District #2’s Harrison Elementary School in Green River, was named Wyoming’s 2022 Teacher of the Year during Wednesday’s Wyoming Education Summit.

Montgomery is an advocate for her students and believes in every student’s ability to grow academically and socially, setting students up for success. Montgomery uses positive reinforcement, motivates, and encourages students to become lifelong learners. She teaches students to take ownership of their learning and to be advocates for themselves and their peers.

“I am so excited to work with Brittney as Wyoming’s Teacher of the Year,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow. “Her skill and passion in the classroom and as a teacher leader will represent Wyoming well. Brittany’s belief in teaching the entire child is evident –  she has a positive impact on the students she teaches. As Teacher of the Year, her influence and impact will extend to colleagues and others across the state and nation.” 

Every student Montgomery encounters is treated as if they were her own child. When school shut down, Montgomery began reading stories online to help children keep a sense of normalcy. This was quickly picked up by a local news source and “Storytime with Mrs. Montgomery” was shared with thousands of children across the country.

“One of the things when I think about Brittney as an educator is her ability to connect with kids and build relationships –  it just puts her over the top,” said Steven Lake, Principal of Harrison Elementary School, “The little things set her apart. During the pandemic, Brittney’s story time turned into something that ended up impacting students across the county. She has such positive energy that is infectious for staff and for students.” 

Montgomery said she has a desire to help those pursuing a career in education. She works with new educators as a mentor-teacher and spends time helping college students pursuing their degree in education. Montgomery is an active member of her school leadership committee and served as secretary for the Green River Education Association.

“I am honored to have been chosen as the 2022 Wyoming Teacher of the Year,” Montgomery said. “We are blessed in Wyoming with some of the best educators in the nation and I am proud to have been nominated beside them. Congratulations to all of the 2022 District Teachers of the Year. I look forward to representing – and being an ambassador – of education in our incredible state.”

The Wyoming Teacher of the Year comes with the significant responsibility of representing the teaching profession in Wyoming. The Wyoming Teacher of the Year acts as liaison among the teaching community, Wyoming Legislature, Wyoming Department of Education, districts and communities. In addition, the Teacher of the Year is an education ambassador to businesses, parents, service organizations, and media, as well as an education leader involved in teacher forums and education reform.

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Legislative Leaders Call For Resignation Of Park County GOP Official Who Told Senator To Kill Herself

in News/Legislature
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The leaders of Wyoming’s Legislature on Wednesday called for the immediate resignation of a Park County Republican Party official who sent a state senator a vulgar email.

Senate President Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and House Speaker Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, issued a joint statement condemning the email sent by Troy Bray, a Park County Republican precinct committeeman, to state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne.

“The statements made by Mr. Bray are the antithesis to constructive discourse in a civil society and are especially repugnant and intolerable when made by an elected official,” the two said in the statement. “We therefore call for the immediate resignation of Troy Bray from his position as a Park County precinct committeeman.”

Bray on Sept. 12 sent an email to Nethercott criticizing her handling of a bill that would have prohibited the state from requiring employees to get the coronavirus vaccine.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Nethercott chairs, rejected the proposed bill.

The email, obtained by the Casper Star-Tribune, attacked Nethercott for what it called her “shortsightedness and ignorance” and closed with a suggestion she kill herself.

“If I were as despicable a person as you, I would kill myself to rid the world of myself,” the Star-Tribune quoted the email as saying. “You sicken me. Thank you for ensuring that the people of Wyoming are subjected to tyranny once again. F— YOU C—.”

Bray signed the email with his name and official party titles, including his precinct committeeman position.

Martin Kimmet, chair of the Park County Republican Party, told the Star-Tribune Bray did not send the mail in his official capacity.

Dockstader and Barlow said such communications cannot be tolerated.

“Attacking a state legislator through use of violent, lewd and derogatory language cannot and will not go unanswered in Wyoming,” they said. 

The two asked the leadership of the Wyoming and Park County Republican parties to help them seek Bray’s immediate resignation and said they will work to develop “appropriate statutory means” to remove elected officials for such behavior.

“Such a unified response will be a clear signal to all that Mr. Bray’s bullying and intimidation have no place in Wyoming,” the statement said.

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421 New Coronavirus Cases In Wyoming On Wednesday; 67 Recoveries; 4,295 Active

in News/Coronavirus
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By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily. 

The number of active coronavirus cases in Wyoming increased by 475 on Wednesday from Tuesday. 

The Wyoming Department of Health received reports of 67 recoveries among those with confirmed or probable cases. 

At the same time, the state reported 421 new laboratory-confirmed and 121 new probable cases, leaving Wyoming with 4,295 active cases for Wednesday. 

Thirteen counties have more than 100 active cases, with seven having more than 200. Natrona County had 714; Campbell County had 491; Fremont Fremont had 381; Laramie 367; Sweetwater 294; Uinta 247; Sheridan 237; Park 197; Lincoln 193; Teton 165; Albany 163; Converse 154; Big Horn 120; Washakie 86; Goshen 84; Sublette 76; Carbon 74; Crook 73; Johnson 57; Niobrara 35; Hot Springs 32; Platte had 30, while Weston reported the fewest active cases, with 25.

Active cases are determined by adding the total confirmed and probable coronavirus cases diagnosed since the illness first surfaced in Wyoming on March 12, 2020, subtracting the number of recoveries during the same period among patients with both confirmed and probable cases and taking into account the number of deaths attributed to the illness.

The new confirmed and probable cases brought to 86,594 the number of people diagnosed with coronavirus since the first case was detected in Wyoming in March 2020. Of those, 81,344 have recovered.

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Officials Still Looking For Missing Man In Yellowstone After Half-Brother Found Dead

in Missing people/News
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Search and rescue personnel continued searching Yellowstone National Park on Wednesday for a Utah man whose half-brother was found dead on the shores of a lake in the park on Monday.

Officials are searching for Kim Crumbo, 74, by foot, helicopter and boat at Shoshone Lake in the park and will continue to do so for the next several days as long as the weather conditions allow for it.

Park crews on Monday found the body of Mark O’Neill, 67, of Chimacum, Washington, on the east shore of the lake.

O’Neill and Crumbo, of Ogden, Utah, were reported overdue from a four-night backcountry trip to Shoshone Lake by a family member on Sunday.

On Sunday, park crews located a vacant campsite and gear on the south side of the lake, as well as a canoe, paddle, personal floatation devices and other personal belongings on the east shore of the lake.

A Grand Teton National Park interagency ship and crew are also assisting with air operations.

Both O’Neill and Crumbo are National Park Service retirees, and Crumbo is a former Navy Seal.

The incident remains under investigation.

Shoshone Lake, the park’s second-largest, is located at the head of the Lewis River southwest of West Thumb. At 8,050 acres, its average year-round temperature is about 48 degrees. Survival time in the cold water is estimated to be only 20 to 30 minutes.

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Pumpkin Watch 2021: Worland Man’s Biggest Pumpkin Nearing 1,600 Pounds

in News/Good news
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A Worland man growing giant pumpkins is preparing for the official weigh-off in the contest to determine the state’s biggest pumpkin in less than two weeks, and his largest gourd is estimated to weigh nearly 1,600 pounds.

Jay Richard told Cowboy State Daily this week that his largest pumpkin, Maci, weighs about 1,570 pounds. If he is correct, Maci will officially break the record of the state’s largest pumpkin.

This is a gain of about 25 pounds from the week prior, a significant slowdown from the hundreds of pounds the pumpkins would gain each week during the summer. Richard noted that the slowdown is due to cooler temperatures in Worland, where it can get down into the mid-20s at night.

“I had plastic and blankets covering as much as I could [of the pumpkins at night],” Richard told Cowboy State Daily on Monday. “So far, so good.”

Currently, Andy Corbin of Cheyenne holds the title for Wyoming’s heaviest pumpkin, weighing in at 1,491 pounds to take the 2020 title.

Richard previously explained that Maci’s genetics come from two pumpkins that set records in the states of Alaska and Wyoming. Corbin actually crossed the two genetic lines and gifted Richard with a seed.

His other pumpkin, Sally, is estimated to weigh about 1,225 pounds. Richard will harvest Sally on Thursday and then head to Utah for that state’s weigh-off.

“My friend who owns Tractor Guys here in Worland will bring a machine out to lift them for me,” Richard said. “My utility tractor will not even budge them.”

He got nostalgic for a moment, looking at a photo of one of his pumpkins from his early days of growing the gourds. At that time, growing a 600-pound pumpkin was the dream.

“I thought that was amazing, and truthfully it was,” he said. “But now I’m planning for next year. Bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger!”

He doesn’t have a weight goal for next year’s pumpkins, but said he knows he could have gotten several hundred more pounds out of Maci the pumpkin.

“I will definitely say I left a lot in the patch with this plant and I know there is more in the genetics than I got out of her,” he said.

Two weeks ago, one of Richard’s three pumpkins, Patty, split open due to its extensive growth.

“And then there were two,” Richard said after Patty’s demise. “Patty is doomed, she goes to the pigs [Tuesday]. I tried but she is toast.”

“That’s all folks,” Richard said after disposing the pumpkin. “She was pumpkin soup today. Really sad, the wall thickness was amazing, even where she split. Even with this much gone, my tractor ( 900lb capacity) couldn’t lift it any higher than this. She was heavy!”

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California Energy Company Lays Out Plans For Newcastle Facility

in News/Business
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

A privately-owned California renewable fuels company is eyeing Newcastle for a facility that would use various plant and animal material and convert it into jet fuel.

“Black Hills Advanced Synfuels project will convert approximately 500 tons a day of dead and diseased woody biomass to sustainable aviation (jet) fuel and diesel,” EcoTech Fuels president Linda-Rose Myers recently told Cowboy State Daily.

Earlier in the summer, the company began talks with officials in Newcastle for a potential location, possibly at an old sawmill in town, according to the Newcastle News Letter Journal.

The project is estimated to cost $389 million.

“I can’t comment just yet on exactly where in the Newcastle area we will be locating the plant, as negotiations are still in progress,” Myers told Cowboy State Daily.

According to an executive summary provided by Myers, about 80 people would be needed to run the plant and other jobs would be created during construction. She added more jobs would ultimately be created in the community to support the plant. The jobs created would include chemical engineers, skilled labor and entry-level work.

The Synfuels project is expected to produce about 1,150 barrels of aviation fuel or diesel per day for a total production of about 16 million gallons per year.

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306 New COVID Cases In Wyoming On Tuesday; 603 Recoveries; 3,820 Active

in News/Coronavirus
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By Tim Mandese, Cowboy State Daily. 

Wyoming’s active coronavirus case count decreased by 87 on Tuesday from Monday. 

The Wyoming Department of Health received reports Tuesday of 603 recoveries among those with confirmed or probable cases. 

At the same time, the state reported 306 new laboratory-confirmed and 247 new probable cases, leaving Wyoming with 3,820 active cases for Tuesday. 

Twelve counties had more than 100 active cases and seven had more than 200.

Natrona County had 622, Campbell 431; Fremont 356; Laramie 328;  Uinta 259; Sweetwater 243; Sheridan 222; Park 192; Lincoln 169; Teton 145; Albany 143; Converse 136; Big Horn 97; Crook 69; Goshen 67; Washakie 66; Carbon 60; Sublette 57; Johnson 43; Niobrara 33; Platte 29; Hot Springs had 28, and Weston County had 25.

Active cases are determined by adding the total confirmed and probable coronavirus cases diagnosed since the illness first surfaced in Wyoming on March 12, 2020, subtracting the number of recoveries during the same period among patients with both confirmed and probable cases and taking into account the number of deaths attributed to the illness.

The new confirmed and probable cases brought to 86,052 the number of people diagnosed with coronavirus since the first case was detected in Wyoming in March 2020. 

Of those, 81,277 have recovered.

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Remains Confirmed As Petito’s; Officials Say She Was Murdered

in Missing people/News/Crime
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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
The remains of a body found in Bridger-Teton National Forest have been identified as those of the 22-year-old Florida woman who disappeared in western Wyoming in late August, officials said Tuesday.

Teton County Coroner Brent Blue also said officials made an official determination that Gabby Petito murdered, however, officials are waiting for the results of an autopsy before announcing the cause of death.

In the meantime, authorities in Florida continued searching Sunday for Petito’s fiancé Brian Laundrie, who still has not been identified as a suspect, only a person of interest in Petito’s disappearance.  

Law enforcement officers from several different agencies, including the FBI, U.S. Forest Service and Teton County Sheriff’s Office, closed a campground on the forest’s eastern edge over the weekend while searching for Petito, who was reported missing on Sept. 11.

Petito and Laundrie had been traveling together in a van converted so they could live in it. The two had an encounter with police in Moab, Utah, on Aug. 12, where officers described them as having “engaged in some sort of altercation.”

Petito spoke with her mother by video on Aug. 24 and her family did not hear from her after that. Laundrie returned to his home in Florida on Sept. 1 in the couple’s van and without Petito.

Laundrie has not cooperated with authorities in their investigation into Petito’s disappearance. He was reported missing on Friday by members of his family, who said they had last seen him on the previous Tuesday.

On Monday morning, FBI investigators surrounded and entered Laundrie’s parents’ home in North Port, Florida as part of a “court-authorized search warrant,” according to CNN. His parents were escorted out of the house during the search, but later brought back inside for questioning.

Laundrie has not been identified as a suspect, only a person of interest, in Petito’s disappearance.

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