Jewelry heist lands four in county jail

Four would-be thieves had their Christmas shopping cut short last week when Facebook led police to their doorstep.

On Wed., Dec. 11, two men and two women entered Sorrel Sky Art Gallery, at 828 Main Ave. One of the men in the group distracted the sales associate in the store while the second male in the group stole a $4,300 gold necklace from a display. All four of them then left the store. When the sales associate noticed the necklace was missing, she reviewed surveillance video which showed one of the men in the group taking the necklace. She then called police to report the theft.

Officers from the Durango Police Department and another store associate were able to identify at least one of the suspects in the group through Facebook. Officers began an extensive investigation and were able to locate and recover the necklace ,which had been pawned locally. Officers identified all four suspects involved and began a search to find them.

A day later, on Dec. 12, officers located all four and arrested them. They were identified as: Omar Jaramillo, 21, of Durango; Valentine Vigil (male), 41 of Dulce, N.M.; Frances S. Beck (female), 27, of Durango; and Rebekah E. Young, 26, of Walla Walla, Wash.

Jaramillo, the one who allegedly stole the necklace, was arrested for felony theft and providing false information to a pawn broker, also a felony. The other three were arrested for felony theft by complicity as well as providing false information.

They were booked into the La Plata County Jail on $10,000 bond.

­Blakes pass Taos torch to Bacon

The royal family of New Mexico skiing is abdicating its throne. Last week, the Blake family, which has owned and operated the Taos Ski Valley since 1955, announced it is selling the notoriously steep and funky ski area to a billionaire hedge-fund owner with ties to the area.

Pending shareholder approval, the family-held ski area will be sold to Louis Bacon, a reclusive conservationist who owns property at the base of the ski area. Bacon, who also owns several ranches throughout northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, was instrumental in helping the family plan and gain approval for the ski area's recent master development plan.

Mickey Blake, son of legendary Taos founder Ernie Blake and outgoing CEO, said the decision, while difficult, was necessary to move the ski hill and its aging facilities into the 21st century.

"The Blake family has had a long term relationship with Mr. Bacon and he shares our vision for the future," wrote Blake in a press release Dec. 11. "In addition, he has the resources to implement many of the plans for the base area and the mountain that we have worked with his team to get approved."

Such improvements include base area redevelopment, including a new hotel, as well as terrain expansion and a chair accessing the hike-to-only terrain on 12,481-foot Kachina Peak. The Forest Service approved the expansion in 2012 and the Village of Taos Ski Valley approved the base area development last spring.

"We know many of you have visited Taos Ski Valley for years and a change like this was unexpected," wrote Blake on the Taos web site. "We assure you that our goal, and Mr. Bacon’s, is for Taos Ski Valley to remain one of the foremost skiing and riding destinations in the world. Mr. Bacon and his team understand the culture of the ski area and know what makes Taos unique. It was for those reasons, and because he has shown a long-term commitment to investing in Taos that we approached him about this purchase."

Bacon, 57, is the owner of the 171,400-acre Trinchera Ranch, and the nearby 21,000-acre Tercio Ranch, both of which are located south of Highway 160 between Alamosa and Walsenburg near the New Mexico border. Both are held in conservation easements, and Bacon made headlines in 2010 when he fought Xcel Energy's plans to route solar power transmission lines through Trinchera, which is the largest conservation easement in Colorado.

He is also known for philanthropic work through his two organizations, the Moore Charitable Foundation and the Trinchera Blanca Foundation. And avid hunter, he, along with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, were given the  Chairman’s Leadership Award by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in September.

“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of this iconic ski area," said Bacon spokesman Peter Talty. “Our mandate is clear and we are dedicated to advancing the Blake family vision and legacy of Taos Ski Valley by continuing to provide an unmatched skiing experience while serving as an economic driver for northern New Mexico. Louis is honored that Mickey and his family approached him to be part of this tradition.”

Both Bacon and Blake, who will retain a seat on the TSV Board of Directors, pledge a smooth transition. All staff will continue in their current positions and TSV Chief Operating Officer Gordon Briner will take over as CEO. “We owe so much to the Blake family and their enduring legacy," said Briner. "I look forward to continuing to work closely with Mr. Bacon and his team and advancing the vision of Ernie, Mickey and the rest of the Blake family.”

State toughens fracking spill rules

Oil and gas operators that spill more than five barrels of oil or fracking fluids must report the spill within 24 hours, under a new rule passed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The nine member regulatory board, which is a division of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, passed the new, stricter rules at its meeting Tuesday in Denver. The new rules significantly shrink both the volume thresholds and timeframe for operators to report spills.

Under the new rules, any spill of five barrels or more must be reported within 24 hours. In addition, any spill of one barrel or more that occurs outside secondary containment, such as metal or earthen berms, must also be reported within 24 hours.

The previous threshold for such reporting in both instances was 20 barrels, and spills between five and 20 barrels could be reported within 10 days.

The rules continue to require reporting within 24 hours of any spill that impacts or threatens water supplies, occupied structures, livestock, a public byway or surface water-supply area.

The rules approved Tuesday build upon House Bill 13-1278, which was approved by lawmakers earlier this year and took effect Aug. 7 and requires reporting of spills of a barrel or more outside containment. The COGCC’s actions build upon that, members said.

“These are important improvements to our spill reporting requirements and improve our ability to track and respond to spills,” COGCC director Matt Lepore said in a news release. “These regulations will improve the public’s confidence in our ability to protect public health, safety and our environment.”

The move drew support from some environmental groups. The Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project called the rule "a good step" for accountability of operators and regulators.

"It is also good from a public transparency viewpoint," Bruce Baizel, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said.

Meanwhile, a report published this week in the journal Endocrinology continues to cast a shadow on the fracking process. According to the report, water samples from fracking sites in Colorado showed high levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals, which have been linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer.

The study also found elevated levels of the hormone-disrupting chemicals in the Colorado River, where wastewater released during an accidental spill could eventually wind up.

Water tests at sites where no fracking took place also revealed the presence of the chemicals, albeit at much lower levels.

“With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure,” the study's author Susan Nagel, a researcher from the University of Missouri School of Medicine, said.

Nagel and her team tested samples from five natural gas sites where spills of fracking wastewater had occurred over the last six years in Garfield County, which is home to some 10,000 wells.

Last year, the World Health Organization issued a warning that endocrine-related illnesses were on the rise worldwide.

A spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the agency has not had time to review the study.

Missy Votel

Winter bookings surpass 2012-13

Positive “snow equity” from last winter, good early season snowfall, and stronger economic news are combining to drive bookings at mountain destinations to one of their strongest starts in memory, according to a Denver consulting firm that tracks reservation and lodging activity.

DestiMetrics, formerly the Mountain Travel Research Program (MTRiP), reported this week that as of Nov. 30, on-the-books occupancy for December was up 6.9 percent over December 2012 and revenue was up 13.4 percent. These figures continue the increases posted for the month of November, with occupancy up 11.6 percent and revenues up 12.3 percent over 2012.

The data is derived from the Reservation Activity Reports collected by DestiMetrics. The monthly updates help resorts and tourism-related businesses prepare for the upcoming season. As of Nov. 30, occupancy for November - April was up 6.4 percent and overall revenue was tracking 12.3 percent ahead of the same time last year, with increases in every month and the biggest increase appearing in March.

“With the winter season in full swing and advance reservation indicators continuing their upward trajectory, mountain resort communities and the entire snowsport industry appear to have all the makings for a merry Christmas,” noted Ralf Garrison, director of DestiMetrics. “Just as importantly, as we look down the snowy trail, trends for the remainder of the season are pointing to a Happy New Year as well."

Tom Foley, operations director for DestiMetrics, also noted that lower travel prices as compared to last year are also helping." Travel inflation is down 1.5 percent, making travel a more attractive option to consumers, which is obviously very good for the travel industry,” he added.

Data is derived from a sample of approximately 290 property management companies in 19 mountain communities across Colorado, Utah, California, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming.