As 2021 comes to an end, Wyoming residents persevered through another year in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic.
Every aspect of life continued to be disrupted, and the lives of more than 1,000 Wyoming residents were lost, in addition to those who died the previous year. The impacts led to division and conflict within the state Senate and House chambers, government committees, school board meetings and even on local streets.
But through canceled plans, virtual meetings, mask mandates, overflowing hospitals and heartache, there was still opportunity for celebration. The community experienced moments of peace, joy and celebration, even in the most difficult of times.
Cheyenne Frontier Days returned for its 125th anniversary, more than $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds was received and will go toward the betterment of the state, and government officials found new ways to invest in the economy.
No one knows what is around the corner, but here are Cheyenne’s top-ranking stories of the past year.
1. Rep. Cheney votes to impeach President Trump for inciting Capitol riot
Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., voted to impeach President Donald Trump for “the incitement of insurrection” following the deadly mob siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The final vote in the U.S. House was 232-197, with Cheney being one of 10 Republican representatives to vote for the article of impeachment. Trump became the first president in history to be impeached twice during his final days in office, just two weeks before President Joe Biden was sworn in.
Although she did not offer any testimony on the House floor prior to the vote, she told reporters in January that she had no other choice but to vote yes.
“It was an insurrection,” she said. “It was an attack on the very heart of our republic. There are some things that must never be partisan, and the defense of our Constitution, the defense of this republic, the defense of the peaceful transfer of power, ensuring that the Constitution and the constitutional duties we all have are carried out, those must never be partisan.”
She went on to serve as vice chair of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, making her one of two Republicans to take part. She was welcomed in September by Democratic Chairman of the January 6 Select Committee Bennie Thompson.
“Representative Cheney has demonstrated again and again her commitment to getting answers about January 6th, ensuring accountability, and doing whatever it takes to protect democracy for the American people,” Thompson said of Cheney in a statement. “Her leadership and insights have shaped the early work of the Select Committee, and this appointment underscores the bipartisan nature of this effort.”
But there were consequences for Cheney’s divergence from the Republican Party. She was met throughout the year with opposition from both her colleagues and constituents, resulting in public censures, local threats and party competition in the upcoming election.
Trump also endorsed her primary challenger in September.
“I strongly endorse Republican House of Representatives Candidate Harriet Hageman from Wyoming, who is running against warmonger and disloyal Republican, Liz Cheney,” Trump said in a statement. “Harriet is a fourth-generation daughter of Wyoming, a very successful attorney, and has the support and respect of a truly great U.S. Senator, Wyoming’s own Cynthia Lummis.”
In November, the Wyoming GOP voted to no longer recognize Cheney as a Republican. The vote by the State Central Committee was 31-29, and was the second formal rebuke of her status in the state party. She was previously censured by the group in February after her continued criticism of Trump.
2. Record breaking snowstorm shuts down Southeast Wyoming
In March, nearly 31 inches of snow fell on Laramie County during a record-breaking snowstorm, which shut down the southeast portion of the state. The weather event led to the highest one-day snowfall total in Cheyenne, dating back to 1949.
Schools, businesses and government offices were closed for days as the storm seemed to impact almost every aspect of life in Laramie County. Residents were urged to stay home, and snow removal crews with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, city of Cheyenne and Laramie County worked diligently to clear the interstates and roads.
But with the heavy snow came a community ready to rally around one another to help. Police officers, firefighters, emergency responders, snow removal crews and residents made sure their neighbors were taken care of. They helped with clearing roads, played a role in restoring power to the 6,000 county residents without power and supported the hospital’s transportation needs.
Cheyenne Regional Medical Center became a hub for snowmobile drop-offs for medical professionals who were stranded, and the Laramie County Fire District 2 snow coach transported surgeons to emergency surgeries.
“Those guys are the heroes,” CRMC’s Elias Kfoury said. “The first responders and how they stepped up to the occasion essentially resulted in saving somebody’s life. We’re very fortunate to have this caring community and sense of family in Cheyenne where we take care of each other.”
3. After history-making cancellation, Cheyenne Frontier Days returns for 125th anniversary celebration
After a year of loss, adversity and canceled plans, rodeo fans got the chance to celebrate the return of Cheyenne Frontier Days for its 125th anniversary.
CFD CEO Tom Hirsig made the announcement at the start of April alongside Gov. Mark Gordon, beginning the press conference with a big smile and the words, “Any tears that will be shed will be tears of joy.” This came after the cancellation of the event the previous year for the first time in history due to the ongoing pandemic and rising COVID-19 cases across the nation.
But Gordon said in April he was confident the show could go on, as government officials monitored health metrics, tracked hospitalizations and developed safety measures.
Cheyenne Frontier Days would take place at maximum capacity and without a mask requirement, but new protocols would be put in place for rodeo attendees. All areas of Frontier Park were to be cleaned and sanitized regularly, passes and tickets were digital, and guests were encouraged to limit the items they brought into the park.
The following day, an all-country lineup was announced for the 2021 Frontier Nights entertainment. Big names such as Garth Brooks, Cody Johnson, Blake Shelton, Eric Church and Thomas Rhett were all scheduled to take the stage.
4. Wyoming Legislature holds special session on Biden vaccine mandates
With ongoing national division over pandemic-driven mask mandates and vaccine requirements, Wyoming legislators took to their chamber floors to find a statewide solution for constituents in October. The close vote to determine whether the special session would be held ended with 36 members of the House and 18 members of the Senate voting to go forward with it.
Senate Majority Leader Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said he was 90% certain the special session would occur because President Biden’s vaccine mandate was an “egregious overreach.”
When the special session finally took place at the end of October, special rules were not adopted, and the seven-day process ended with only one bill out of 41 left standing. The cost of the special session was estimated at $233,000.
The single piece of legislation was signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon in the first days of November. It appropriated $4 million to the governor’s office for future litigation related to the federal vaccine mandate. A resolution was also included to set the stage for Wyoming’s legal standing and right to defy the language of future mandates.
5. (tie) Missing child found dead in dumpster
The Cheyenne community mourned after the body of 2-year-old Athian Rivera was discovered in a dumpster on Feb. 19. A search for the missing child had begun earlier that day, with the help of Cheyenne Police Department, the Laramie County Sheriff’s Office and other local agencies.
Wyatt Dean Lamb, then 27, was arrested shortly after unrelated charges, but was declared by CPD the sole suspect in the toddler’s death four days later. Lamb was taken into custody on a felony warrant for failure to appear, as well as a misdemeanor warrant for parole violation, according to Laramie County court records. Lamb was previously charged in February 2020 with felony strangulation of his then-girlfriend and Athian’s mother, Kassandra Orona.
Lamb was ultimately charged in June with first-degree murder and 10 felony counts of child abuse. He pleaded not guilty in August. After originally being set for early January, a jury trial is now scheduled for August 2022.
5. (tie) State Bar charge filed against DA Manlove
On June 11, the Wyoming State Bar filed the first of two formal charges against Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove, alleging “incompetence and lack of professionalism.”
The first charge was a result of three separate investigations, including one the Bar says was prompted by an “unprecedented” letter signed by all of Laramie County’s district and circuit court judges. In the letter, the seven judges voiced their concern about the district attorney’s ability to carry out her duties and provide adequate representation for Laramie County residents.
Manlove filed her formal response to the charge on July 20 through her attorney, Stephen Melchior. She largely denied the allegations against her, including that her alleged behavior violated any of the Rules of Professional Conduct described in the charge.
In the response, Manlove defended her exercise of prosecutorial discretion, denying an allegation that she’d dismissed an excessive number of cases. These cases had been signed off on by Laramie County judges, she said, and further, all were dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning her office could recharge them in the future.
The State Bar charge alleged that it was not state budget cuts that caused caseload constraints, but Manlove’s conduct within her office that prompted many staff attorneys and other employees to resign. In her response, Manlove asserted that her office’s caseload had “increased significantly,” while the number of state-funded attorneys available stayed the same, and staff positions decreased by two.
In a second formal charge, filed Oct. 18, the Bar alleged false statements and excuses by Manlove about her office not being able to access crime lab results had impeded the administration of justice in Laramie County. Manlove pushed back in her Nov. 8 response, saying it was up to law enforcement and other such agencies to notify her office about available evidence from the Wyoming State Crime Lab. Because of program limitations, the crime lab directly notifies agencies that submit evidence – not the DA’s office, she said.
A disciplinary hearing with the Bar’s Board of Professional Responsibility is currently scheduled for Feb. 2-11. It will be held in front of a three-person panel chosen from the full board, according to BPR clerk Brandi Robinson. The location of the hearing has yet to be determined.
5. (tie) 13 of 14 propositions passed in Nov. 2 sixth-penny sales tax election
All but one of the propositions for projects across Laramie County passed in the Nov. 2 sixth-penny sales tax election.
The only proposition that did not pass was to give $2 million to the city of Cheyenne for the construction of a gymnastics facility and gymnasium. This came as a heartache to those in the local gymnastics community, but Mayor Patrick Collins said he wants to find a new solution.
“We have a group of families that are really involved in gymnastics, and we don’t have a home for them now,” he said. “And we’re going to have to figure something out.”
Even with the loss of Proposition 11, close to $128 million worth of sales tax funds will go toward more than 60 projects in the next five years. And nearly a third of residents made their voices heard on the ballot, which was split into 14 propositions focused on public safety, roads, infrastructure and community enhancement.
A new Laramie County Senior Activity Center, expansion of the Greater Cheyenne Greenway and new fire stations are just some of the construction efforts that will be seen around town in coming months.
8. Jury finds Danelle Moyte not guilty of second-degree murder
After more than a week of arguments by attorneys in Laramie County District Court, jurors found former Cheyenne teacher Danelle Moyte not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of her live-in boyfriend. The all-male jury reached the verdict Dec. 15, following about three hours of deliberation.
For Moyte to be convicted of second-degree murder, the jury had to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the act was done “purposefully and maliciously, but without premeditation.” The 35-year-old had been accused of shooting and killing Christoper Garcia, 39, after an argument in the early hours of May 16, 2020. Three children, all 13 and younger at the time, were present during the incident.
This was the only charge left standing after Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell dismissed four of the five counts the previous day: three counts of child abuse with mental injury and one count of aggravated assault and battery with serious bodily injury.
9. (tie) LCSD1 refuses, then adopts mask mandate for fall 2021; LCSD2 says masks optional
While some community members have continually expressed their frustration with the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees, the start of the school year brought a new level of dissatisfaction.
Hundreds of parents came forward at trustee meetings in the first few weeks, arguing for no mask mandates in the state’s largest K-12 district. Many said they understood the risk as cases continued to rise, but that it should be the choice of parents to decide what was best for their children.
Trustees and newly-appointed LCSD1 Superintendent Margaret Crespo listened to their concerns, but eventually made their own decision on how to update the Smart Start Plan.
Crespo announced at the end of August that students were required by federal law to wear masks on buses, with sanitation and social distancing a priority in schools. Face coverings on school property were highly encouraged.
Although these protocols were in place, hundreds of LCSD1 students had to be quarantined after the first two weeks of classes. Positive COVID-19 cases rose in students and faculty, and every individual who came into contact without a face covering had to go into isolation.
When a special meeting was called on Sept. 8, nearly 1,000 students in grades K-12 had been forced into quarantine due to the prevalence of the highly contagious delta variant. Trustees decided unanimously, in an effort to keep students and teachers in an in-person learning environment, that masks would be required indoors.
Similar discussions and arguments were had in Laramie County School District 2. There have never been cumulative COVID-19 numbers reported, but at the start of the year, there were at least 100 students and faculty members quarantined.
Trustees in the rural district made the opposite decision in response. Masks were not required at any point, whether that be on school buses or inside school buildings. Quarantining at home was also made optional by Sept. 15; individuals could instead come to school wearing a mask for two weeks after coming into contact with a positive case.
Protocols have not changed throughout the first half of the school year, and superintendents from both districts said there are no plans currently to do so.
9. (tie) Nuclear power plant coming to Wyoming
Gov. Mark Gordon announced in June that Wyoming would become the site of a novel nuclear energy plant that could diversify the state’s economy and put the nation on a path toward a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035.
“This first-of-its kind nuclear facility maintains Wyoming’s position as leader in energy,” Gordon said. “It will also be built and operated in a manner that supports our commitment to protecting and enhancing our wildlife and environment.”
The plant will be built by TerraPower, a nuclear innovation company co-founded by Microsoft Corporation founder Bill Gates, and may be generating power by 2028. The location was chosen in November, with the preferred site for the nuclear reactor being Kemmerer.
The partnership between the state of Wyoming, TerraPower, PacifiCorp’s Rocky Mountain Power and the U.S. Department of Energy is a bid to add good-paying employment opportunities to Wyoming’s economy. The Natrium plant is expected to create about 2,000 temporary construction jobs and employ around 250 people for day-to-day operations.