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Top 10 crime stories of 2018

ELKO — Law enforcement agencies made more drug arrests in 2018 and dealt with other crimes such as robbery and gun violence.

The Elko Combined Narcotics Unit nearly doubled its number of arrests over the previous year, increasing from 71 to 124.

The investigative unit seized more than $1.36 million worth of narcotics between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2018.

Drugs remained a factor behind many but not all crimes. Here is a rundown of the top 10 local crime stories based on readership at elkodaily.com:

Deadly domestic

A domestic dispute turned deadly on the night of Jan. 11 at a home in Spring Creek when a man reportedly shot his wife and was then shot by law enforcement officers.

Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts said deputies were called to the home on Spring Creek Parkway at about 8:45 p.m. Pitts said the wife’s sister let officers in the house, and they heard arguing in a bedroom.

When officers opened the door, the husband shot the wife and officers shot the husband, identified as Jared S.R. Williams, 31.

Karen Williams, 33, was estranged from her husband and had recently moved into the home, according to Pitts.

The couple had three children together. They and a fourth from the wife’s previous marriage were in the home at the time of the incident, and were placed in the care of their aunt.

Home invasion gun battle

A home invasion on the outskirts of Elko turned deadly on the night of July 7 when a gun battle ensued between a resident and three intruders.

Homeowner Bradley Smith, 33, was shot several times and died after being taken to Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital, according to Pitts.

The sheriff said three men were apparently trying to break into a home on Wrangler Circle at about 11:30 p.m. when a gun battle broke out between the intruders and the resident. He did not know who fired first.

“They kicked in the front door,” Pitts said. “And then that’s when the gun battle took place inside the house.”

Alan J. Honeyestewa, 24, of Elko sustained multiple gunshot wounds and was later found at a residence on Wongobi Street in the Upper Elko Indian Colony. He was arrested by police after receiving medical treatment.

Tieres A. Lopez Sr., 23, of Elko was booked in Elko County Jail without bail on charges of first-degree murder, robbery and attempted home invasion.

A third suspect remains at large.

Robbery at Dotty’s Casino

In March, police tracked down two suspects who are believed to have robbed a Dotty’s Casino on Mountain City Highway after spraying employees and patrons with what might have been bear repellant.

The suspects entered the casino in the Smith’s shopping center at about 6:50 a.m. March 2 and “used a chemical agent, possibly bear mace, to disable the employees and patrons, and got away with an undisclosed amount of money,” said Lt. Mike Palhegyi of the Elko Police Department.

A few minutes after they fled the casino in a vehicle, police and firefighters were called to Dotta Drive on a report of a car fire. The robbers are believed to have set fire to the vehicle to conceal evidence, possibly fleeing from there in another vehicle.

Police released images from surveillance video and eventually two men were arrested: James B. Squires, 33, of Elko and Tony A. Pressler, 36, of Spring Creek.

Teen robbed at softball field

A 15-year-old who accepted a ride on Court Street on Nov. 8 ended up being robbed at a nearby softball field, according to Elko police.

The teen accepted a ride from possible acquaintances in a vehicle containing three people. He was taken to a nearby softball field off Cedar Street where he was beaten. Items including clothing, keys and a cellphone were taken from the victim.

Two local men were later arrested on charges of kidnapping and robbery. Angel Arellano, 18, was later arrested on charges of first-degree kidnapping, robbery, child abuse or neglect, and possessing stolen property.

Christiphor D. Key, 20, was arrested on charges of first-degree kidnapping, robbery, conspiracy to commit grand larceny, child abuse or neglect, felony possession of a controlled substance, use or possession of drug paraphernalia, and possessing stolen property.

Their bail topped $300,000 each.

Human remains found in Carlin

In November, workers preparing a vacant lot for a home site in Carlin encountered human remains, bringing the project to a halt and prompting an extensive search of the possible crime scene.

The discovery was reported Nov. 11 at a lot on 15th Street. Carlin police called in the Elko County Sheriff’s Office for assistance after the homeowner reported the discovery by workers hired to level the property on the east side of town. They had been bulldozing dirt and hauling it from one side of the uneven lot to the other when they noticed bones they suspected to be human.

Elko County Deputy Coroner Nick Czegledi estimated the bones had been buried three to five years.

While it is possible the remains could be from a homeless person who died near the tracks, officials were trying to determine if foul play was involved.

Remains of missing man found

The skeletal remains of an Elko man who went missing four years ago were found in July, and homicide is suspected.

Jose Antonio Gomez was 38 when he was reported missing from the south side of town on Aug. 5, 2014.

Remains were found July 15 in an unincorporated part of the county not far from town, and DNA testing has confirmed the identity as Gomez.

Gomez was reportedly last seen on the morning of Aug. 4. He had been helping his girlfriend to move the night before. The couple spoke that evening and planned to meet again Monday after work but he never showed up.

Police at the time of his disappearance reported his vehicle was not missing and there were no signs of foul play. They followed a number of leads but were unable to locate him.

The missing-person case is now being handled as a homicide, with the cooperation of state and federal agencies.

Gunshots in grocery store parking lot

ELKO – Gunfire erupted in the Smith’s grocery parking lot on Sept. 13 and a Utah woman was taken to jail.

Police said a man and a woman were driving in the lot while on their way home to Park City when “some sort of dispute” ensued between them. Barbara R. Theis, 54, got out of the pickup and allegedly fired three shots with a .38-caliber revolver. Then she allegedly pointed the weapon at a vehicle occupied by two women.

When police arrived they found Theis hiding under a blanket in the back seat of a pickup parked by the Smith’s gas station. She was arrested on two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and for resisting a public officer.

She was not armed, so officers searched for the revolver and found it behind a bush beside the gas station. It still contained two unfired rounds.

Other top crime stories

Not all of the crime stories from 2018 involved guns or deaths.

In October, a former Wells elementary school teacher was sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for having sex with high school boys.

Tennille Whitaker, 41, was sentenced by Elko District Judge Nancy Porter after pleading no contest in the case.

Parents of two of the four victims read impact statements to the court, describing how the events changed the lives of their sons, their families and the overall community of Wells.

“I’ve spent a year wishing that I could ask for forgiveness and say, ‘I’m sorry’ to these people, because I am truly sorry,” Whitaker said, turning to speak to the courtroom observers. “I’m not proud of what I did. I am ashamed and I will be ashamed forever,” she continued. “I am truly sorry for betraying the trust of the parents and the victims.”

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In July, a local barista was arrested on theft charges after two friends said they gave her more than $50,000 for a stake in the coffee and ice cream shop where she worked.

A complaint filed in Elko Justice Court charged Ermelinda Carrillo, 28, with felony theft by misrepresentation for claiming she owned Cool Beans and offering to sell half ownership.

The alleged victims, who were neighbors and had given Carrillo money in the past, told police they gave her $52,700 that they had been saving for their children’s education in March 2017 but never received paperwork for ownership in the business. Meanwhile, they “noticed numerous new cars at Carillo’s residence, which she claims to own.”

After six months they decided to approach Cool Beans owner April Dullum, who told them Carrillo did not own any part of the business.

Under questioning, Carrillo told police that the couple had given her money to help her buy the shop. She was later booked on $21,140 bail.

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In May, a babysitter was arrested after the baby she had been watching was taken to the hospital with symptoms of drug use.

The 9-month-old’s mother took the child to Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital shortly after midnight because of “unusual symptoms.” The baby tested positive for drugs including opiates, police said.

The babysitter was then found smoking heroin in the hospital’s parking lot, according to police.

Stacey Lupercio, 27, of Elko was arrested on charges of child abuse or neglect, and three counts of drug paraphernalia.


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School District focused on safety in 2018

ELKO – School safety, a new elementary school and a new board of trustees were just some of the highlights that came out of 2018 and that promise to shape the district in the next several months.

In a year of change that also saw the appointment of Todd Pehrson as superintendent on the heels of Jeff Zander’s retirement, the Elko County School District began construction on Spring Creek’s third elementary school, Liberty Peak; approved a pilot program for a four-day school week in Wells; and examined existing school safety policies after February’s school shooting incident in Parkland, Florida.

Pehrson discussed some of the year’s highlights and what the school district is looking forward to in 2019.

School safety

One week after a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Elko High School received a threat, later proven not to be credible, which led to EHS being closed for one day.

The fallout from those two events prompted a broader discussion about school safety throughout the district, the need for more school resource officers, and whether to arm teachers for further protection.

Although the SROs are from the Elko County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Elko Police Department, the district also works with law enforcement stationed in Carlin, Jackpot, Owyhee and West Wendover.

“These partnerships provide safety to our students across the district,” Pehrson said.

In June, the district approved to continue funding the SRO program, which covers 80 percent of expenses for five officers.

“Our SROs continue to be an integral part at the forefront of the school safety plan and will continue to move forward,” Pehrson said.

After years of discussion, Pehrson said the installation of a fence at Elko High School was “more of a coincidence than cause and effect,” but that school safety measures have been ongoing.

“[The district] continually conducts school safety reviews with local law enforcement agencies as well as school safety experts from Pool/Pac, the district’s insurance provider, to review ways that we can make our campuses and students safer,” Pehrson said.

Pehrson added that school safety changes have also taken place “behind the scenes.”

“If done properly, it will not be noticed by the public. However, it is a combination of these elements that allows us to provide a safe environment where our students can focus on learning.”

The district is also seeking additional social workers and school counselors to provide emotional and mental health support to students, Pehrson said. Focusing on the “well-being of the whole student is essential to providing a quality learning environment.”

Safe Voice, a 24/7 statewide system to report bullying and school safety issues anonymously, was also launched this year, and is something that Pehrson hopes will be used “to report things in a fairly easy way.”

“Obviously, we would like students or guardians of students who are being bullied to report that directly to the school administrators or teachers,” Pehrson said, “however, anything that helps us ensure that students feel safe and can learn in a supportive, protective environment will be beneficial to the students of our district.”

Liberty Peak Elementary

The school district broke ground in the spring, yet has had some delays over concrete supplies, Pehrson said. In the coming months, he believes Ascent Construction will gradually make up for lost time while ensuring that the rigid construction standards required by the district are maintained.

“Barring severe winter weather conditions or any unforeseen issues the schedule should be caught up in late winter or early spring,” Pehrson said. “We are expecting substantial completion in late June.”

The school is being built in the Marina Hills section of Spring Creek, a site chosen to alleviate crowding at Spring Creek Elementary, and it is expected to serve more than 800 students. However, Pehrson said the addition of the third elementary school in Spring Creek is not likely to overcrowd Spring Creek’s middle and high schools.

“This will not change the capacity make-up,” Pehrson said. “As of right now, there is enough capacity in our existing middle school and high school.”

Liberty Peak is expected to open in the fall of 2019.

Four-day school week in Wells

In April, Wells’ second attempt at a four-year school week was approved by the school district as a two-year pilot program after parents and Wells teachers and staff lobbied for the switch in March.

Pehrson said the transition in Wells so far “has been fairly smooth overall,” explaining that the school has maintained constant communication with parents about the schedule.

“We have continued an open-door policy with parents and staff to address concerns as they come up with the schedule,” Pehrson said, noting that there has also been “tremendous support district-wide as we work through this pilot [program] for our large rural school.”

Before approval of the four-day week in Wells, only one-room rural schools were on a four-day schedule in Elko County.

“Communication from all parties has been key to [the] early success of the four-day school week,” Person said.

Board of Trustees

The November elections saw two newcomers to the board of trustees: Candace Wines and Brian Zeisler.

With Wines and Zeisler each having a teaching background, Pehrson said the board would benefit from their experience and knowledge.

“Having new board members that have educational experience will assist the district in doing what is best for our students,” he said.

Board president Thad Ballard termed out after serving 12 years on the school board. Stacie Phillips, who was appointed to replace Dan Mahlberg in 2017, was not re-elected.

“The district would like to thank Thad Ballard and Stacie Phillips for serving on the school board,” Pehrson said.

New superintendent

In 2018, leadership of the school district changed when Jeff Zander resigned from the school district on March 13, after serving eight-and-a-half years of his 30-year career with the district.

Appointed by the school board in April, Pehrson took the reins officially in July, and for six months has become familiar with his new administrative position.

“It’s hard to believe that it has been six months,” he said. “Transitioning to this new role has been exciting and filled with many learning opportunities.”

Pehrson’s goal is to maintain his focus on the students as he builds relationships among state and local leaders.

He credited a “strong support staff” for the smooth transition and praised teachers and administration within the schools for their abilities and hard work as a contributing factor.

“This makes this experiences as a superintendent meaningful,” Pehrson said.

Looking ahead to 2019

As the district is concluding the first half of the 2018-2019 school year, Pehrson reported that graduation rates are up 2 percent statewide, with the district increasing its graduation rates by 3.33 percent to 91.82 percent.

However, funding for the coming year is unknown, Pehrson said. With a proposal for a new education funding model on the horizon in the upcoming legislative session, Pehrson noted that “initial discussions have not been in favor of the rural counties in our state.”

Although the district is facing additional costs from Nevada PERS and increases in utility and health costs, “prudent management should be able to weather those bumps,” Pehrson said.

“Should the Legislature fund our district at the current levels or above, the budget looks strong,” he said.

In the coming year, the district is receiving $75,000 form Barrick for STEM classes, and equipment upgrades at Carlin and Elko high schools, plus an additional $25,000 for track refurbishments at Elko and Spring Creek high schools. Newmont also donated $80,000 to the district.

Pehrson announced that the district is also participating in a classroom video project with Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit that will videotape classes throughout the district and post the videos on their website.

“This project will highlight exemplary instruction using our ELA/Literacy curriculum,” Pehrson said. “[The videos] will have the potential to reach hundreds of teachers, helping them to improve their instruction and, therefore, improving experiences for students across the country.”

Additionally, elementary schools in Owyhee, West Wendover and Southside are facilitating 21st Century After School programs, with all schools adding part-time literacy strategists to lead professional development.


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State raises speed limit between Elko and Wells

ELKO – Traffic is moving faster between Elko and Wells these days.

The speed limit on Interstate 80 has been raised from 75 to 80 miles per hour for most of the drive between the two Elko County towns.

Elko District Engineer Boyd Ratliff of the Nevada Department of Transportation said new signs were installed at the end of last week.

The highway department has been studying safety on the interstate and raising the limit where appropriate. Earlier this year the limit was raised to 80 between Wendover and Oasis, a distance of about 30 miles.

Ratliff said the latest change extends from Elko to near the Beverly Hills exit west of Wells.

Portions of the freeway are still posted at 75 mph or, in the case of the Pequops, 65 mph.

“Silver Zone, Pequop and the Moor Summit, those areas are not raised” because of the frequency of crashes, Ratliffsaid.

The speed limit was also raised to 80 mph last week on another section of I-80 in the Winnemucca-Battle Mountain area, he said. This follows the increase adopted earlier this year between Fernley and Winnemucca.

The move toward higher speed limits has been supported by state assemblymen Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, and John Ellison, R-Elko; as well as lobbyists such as Janine Hansen of Elko.


Crime-and-courts
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Elko County inmate dies in prison

ELKO – A former taxi driver who raped a Montello woman and threatened to kill President Jimmy Carter died on Christmas day in a Nevada prison.

The Nevada Department of Corrections reports that at about 6 p.m., inmate Callisha Lakota died in the medical facility at Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City.

Lakota, 62, was sentenced in 1988 for raping a 65-year-old Montello woman and embezzling another woman’s pickup. He was ordered to serve 60 months to life for sexual assault, doubled because of the victim’s age; 80 months to 20 years for attempted sexual assault; and 40 months to 10 years for embezzlement.

At the time of his sentencing, Lakota, also known as George B. Schneider, told Elko District Judge Thomas L. Stringfield that the judge “had better hope he never gets out of prison,” according to Elko Daily Free Press files.

Lakota had five prior felony convictions, including a 1978 guilty plea for threatening to kill President Jimmy Carter.

He called the threat to the Secret Service while in jail in Kentucky.

The embezzlement charge stemmed from taking a truck that belonged to his supervisor while working for a taxi service in Wendover.

He was denied parole on multiple attempts.

The Nevada Department of Corrections has been unable to locate any next of kin. Anyone with contact information for family of Lakota is asked to contact the department at 775-887-3309.


Toni Milano / TONI R. MILANO tmilano@elkodaily.com 

Wrought iron fencing was installed this summer at Elko High School to create a perimeter connecting the buildings on campus, for safety purposes.