SOUTHERN COLORADO — In this special report from News5, we're taking a look back at the top stories of 2021.
The COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic continued to have a major impact on all of our lives this year, but there was hope at the beginning of they year that the end of the pandemic was in sight.
The end of 2020 saw the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines receive emergency authorization, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine followed in Februrary 2021.
Soon after, the vaccine roll out began. Millions of Americans were eager to receive the shot, and there was significant hope that the vaccines could give the United States and the world a real chance to bring the virus under control and return life to a pre-pandemic normal.
However, A significant number of people remained skeptical about getting vaccinated. After the initial surge in demand for the vaccines, vaccination rates began to fall below government goals, and new variants emerged that caused more spikes in Covid-19 cases.
Just a few weeks ago, the omicron variant was discovered, and early research has shown that it has the ability to break through vaccinations to a higher degree than previous variants. However, this variant does appear to be milder than the delta variant, and early indications show that vaccinated people, especially those with booster shots, fare better against the new variant than those without.
KOAA has been covering the pandemic since it began, and for a full and ongoing record of our Covid-19 coverage, you can click here.
The combination of declining case rates and the efficacy of vaccines saw a lot more optimism return to the country by late summer. Businesses that had sent their employees home in 2020 began making plans to bring them back into the office. Some workers were excited by this prospect, but others found they preferred working from their own home. The debate on returning to work is still ongoing, and it's likely to continue into next year.
Accompanying many of these return plans were vaccination requirements, and these mandates were further expanded after the Biden administration ordered a vaccine mandate for companies that had over 100 employees. This hasn't been without controversy, and a number of Republican led states have challenged the the rule.
This fall, many schools welcomed students back into their buildings for in-person learning, after offering remote or hybrid learning options during the 2020-2021 school year.
The schools that reopened for in person learning this fall were almost immediately confronted with a new challenge, the delta variant. The return to school coincided with a spike in COVID-19 cases, and students were filling seats just as ICUs were filling beds around the state.
In response, many schools imposed mask mandates, which prompted the ire of many parents. This was evident in the 2021 election cycle, which saw significant wins for anti-mask mandate candidates across Southern Colorado.
Managing Covid-19 cases was not the only challenge administrators faced as students returned to classrooms.
Escalating violence in Colorado
Fighting among students and rumors of more serious threats became widespread. This became an even higher concern among parents and school administrators after the deadly mass shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan on November 30.
Vista Ridge High School in District 49 saw the most serious incident in Southern Colorado. A student and one of their family members were arrested after a pattern of "escalating assaultive behavior." The student was arrested for juvenile possession of a firearm, and the family member was arrested for failing to securely store a firearm.
In District 20, social media posts shared of threats prompted serious concerns about violence at the Chinook Trail Elementary and Middle Schools.
The threats were deemed non credible by police and school investigators, but that didn't stop dozens of concerned parents from showing up at the school when they found out about them.
In response, News5 looked into how school districts and law enforcement agencies evaluate and handle threats to schools. To learn more, you can click here.
Covid-19 case numbers were not the only surge southern Coloradans had to deal with in 2021, as violent crime rates went up around the country and at home.
In May, a southeast Colorado Springs neighborhood was rocked by a mass shooting.
6 people were murdered in a shooting on Preakness way in the Canterbury Mobile Home Park.
Police said the violence was the result of domestic violence. The shooter was in a relationship with one of the victims, and he was angry that he had not received an invite to a birthday party being jointly hosted by the family.
The shooter, according to police, arrived at the party and started killing the adults present. When officers arrived, they found 6 adults dead and another with critical injuries, who later died at the hospital. Police say the shooter, Teodoro Macias, shot himself after firing on the gathering. He died in the hospital.
Unfortunately, the shooting on Preakness way was not Colorado's first mass shooting of the year.
On March 22, police say a man walked into a King Soopers store and opened fire. 10 people were killed in the shooting, including a Boulder Police officer.
The suspect, Ahmad Alissa, was taken into custody. Earlier this month, a judge ruled for the second time that Alissa is not mentally competent to stand trial. Prosecution and defense attorneys asked that he be transferred to the state mental hospital in Pueblo so doctors can try and restore his competency. He is currently there receiving treatment.
A year of significant court cases
The ongoing court case involving suspected child killer Letecia Stauch continued to dominate the headlines in 2021. Stauch is accused of killing her 11-year-old stepson Gannon in January of 2020.
Investigators believe Stauch killed Gannon in her ranch home, before driving his body to Florida and disposing it there.
In early December, Stauch appeared virtually in court, and her lawyers argued that she suffers from a disassociative disorder. She will now go through another mental health evaluation.
However, this could impact the date of the trial. If Stauch's evaluation is not completed by January 13, the motions hearing in the case will have to be postponed. Stauch pled not guilty, and her trial date is set for March 28, 2022. The evaluation is set to take place at the state hospital, but there is currently a backlog for inpatient care due to staffing issues.
Even so, local experts don't expect the evaluation to delay the trial significantly.
To the extent it would be moved because we can't get the motions hearing in time, because we can't get the evidentiary hearings, but they probably need to have pretrial depending on the outcome of this exam, I think you would expect to see it back on the docket fairly quickly.
In July, Mark Redwine was found guilty of killing his 13-year-old son Dylan Redwine in La Plata County. Mark Redwine was convicted of second degree murder and child abuse, and the judge sentenced him to 48 years in prison for the two charges.
Dylan, who lived in monument with his mother, was visiting his father's home in La Plata County for Thanksgiving when he disappeared. District Attorney Michael Dougherty argued that Mark killed his son in a fit of rage after he allegedly confronted him about 'disgusting' photos he saw of Mark.
Partial remains of Dylan were found roughly 10 miles from his father's home in June of 2013, but his skull was not found for another two years, about a mile and a half way from the other remains.
Delayed justice was also served in 2021. The family of a Denver woman who disappeared in 2013 in Pueblo received closure after a jury found Donthe Lucas guilty of murdering Kelsie Schelling.
Schelling and Lucas were in a relationship at the time, and she was pregnant. Schelling vanished in February 2013 after traveling to Pueblo to visit Lucas.
After the verdict was read, Schelling's mom, Laura Saxton, delivered an emotional statement, saying "in the end, I did not get Kelsie back, which is what I wanted more than anything."
Donthe Lucas was sentenced to life in prison, but during the trial he denied being involved in the death or disappearance of Schelling, despite the two's phones hitting off a cell phone tower in Beulah on the night of her disappearance.
Political coming and goings
Colorado was one of the states that will be receiving more Congressional representation over the next 10 years.
The new seat was a novel problem for the state's redistricting process, which is done through an independent commission. Following months of public meeting, testimony, and discussions, the commission approved a map, which adds a new district to areas north of Denver.
The map leans toward 4 Democratic districts, 3 Republican districts, and 1 'toss-up' district.
Earlier this year, Pueblo saw a change in the leadership of its police department. Police Chief Troy Davenport retired, leaving an opening for Mayor Nick Gradisar to fill.
The city and Mayor conducted a nationwide search, but they ultimately chose to hire a 25 year veteran of the district, Deputy Chief Steven 'Chris' Noeller.
The decision was made despite controversy over some questions about his past conduct.
Noeller told News5 that he believes strongly in community policing, and on focusing arrests on more violent offenders, like those involved in homicides and sexual assaults.
Unfortunately, the year was also marked by the loss of former Governor Dick Lamm. Lamm served 3 terms at the helm of the state, and he is remembered, among other policies and decisions, for his opposition to Denver hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics. He was 85 years old.
On the energy front, Southern Colorado utility companies made significant strides toward reaching their green energy goals.
The Martin Drake Power Plant in the city officially burned its last load of coal, and in the coming years the city will replace the energy it generated with the new 175-megawatt Pike Solar and Storage project. In the meantime, six modular gas-burning generators will be brought to the site to fill the energy demand.
The closure comes far earlier than initially planned. The original date of closure was slated for 2035, but economic factors pushed the timeline over a decade forward. The Colorado Springs Utility Board President, Wayne Williams, said that "it didn't make sense to continue to generate coal at an economic loss."
A big birthday for Colorado Springs
Colorado Springs celebrated a big milestone in 2021, the city's 'Sesqucentennial.' Colorado Springs was founded 150 years ago, in 1871.
The celebrations lasted throughout the summer, and they included a parade through downtown Colorado Springs.