Year in review: These were Southern Utah’s top stories in 2020

Images of the year that was, 2020, as seen on St. George News. | Composite image, St. George News

FEATURE — If 2020 had an official word, it was “unprecedented.”

An unprecedented pandemic that, for at least one year, forced Southern Utahns into a more shuttered way of life.

Unprecedented protests and rallies that brought thousands to the streets of Southern Utah.

Unprecedented fires that left blackened terrain on some of the area’s usually golden landscapes.

Unprecedented floods, crimes and missing people.

2020 was truly unprecedented. Join St. George News in a look back at some of the year’s biggest stories.

Top story

The saga of a Woodland Hills, California, woman who went missing for 12 days before being found alive in Zion National Park in October gripped the nation. But the aftermath, where questions surrounded her disappearance, became the most-read story on St. George News of all time.

Undated photos show Holly Suzanne Courtier, who went missing in Zion National Park before being found more than a week later. | Flyer courtesy of the National Park Service, St. George News

On Oct. 18, Holly Suzanne Courtier was rescued after having last been seen Oct. 6 exiting a shuttle at The Grotto shuttle stop, which is the starting point for several trails, including Angel’s Landing and the West Rim Trail.

However, differing stories raised questions on whether Courtier’s story of survival was legitimate.

Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Sgt. Darrell Cashin said the daughter’s report that her mother was that severely dehydrated and the information from Zion National Park that Courtier was able to be safely reunited with her family with minimal assistance does not add up.

“Was she that bad or was she not?” Cashin said.

Cashin has been going out on search and rescue calls since 1995 and has been the Washington County Search and Rescue liaison for nine years now.

“This doesn’t make sense,” he said, adding that if she were in as bad of shape as the family reports, the Zion rescuers would have seen it and called an ambulance.

Zion National Park opened up an investigation surrounding Courtier’s disappearance. The results of that investigation have yet to be released.

St. George sinks under torrential flood

An Aug. 23 flood left many St. George homes flooded and created a large sinkhole that swallowed a car at the St. George Ramada Inn. Dixie State saw large flooding as well as a student injured when they were swept under a car as St. George News described:

Thunderstorm wreaks havoc through Washington County, Utah, Aug. 23, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Sam LeBaron, St. George News

A thunderstorm that whipped through Washington County brought torrential rain that displaced several vehicles – including into a sinkhole – and sent one Dixie State University student to the hospital.

Dixie State University Chief of Campus Police Blair Barfuss told St George News that the rain started causing issues late in the evening and multiple buildings on campus were subsequently flooded.

“We had flooding at the science building, at the Snow building, at the Burns Arena, at Campus View housing and some minor flooding at two or three other locations on campus,” Barfuss said.

The whole main floor at Red Mountain Student Housing, which is off the Dixie State campus, had as much as 5 feet of water in it, he said.

The year of the coronavirus

Any review of 2020 can’t ignore the one story that dominated the news not only in Southern Utah, but the rest of the world: The COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo illustration. | Coronavirus representation courtesy Centers for Disease Control, Photo and composite by Chris Reed, St. George News

A more extensive time capsule of the pandemic in the five county area of southwest Utah can be found at this link, but 18,692 infections and 136 deaths ago, it started with one person in late March.

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department has confirmed the first case of a person being diagnosed in Southern Utah with a positive test of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Because of confidentiality, the department is only identifying the person as an adult. They did not specify age or gender. The subject appears to have acquired the virus through travel, rather than community, or local, transmission according to Southwest Utah Public Health Department spokesperson David Heaton.

“It appears to be travel related,” Heaton told St. George News.

“We certainly expect to see more cases diagnosed positive in our area based on the activity but we hope by people following the public health order we can reduce those,” Heaton said. “We’re certainly not out of the woods.”

To sleep: perchance to dream

After 58 years, the curtain did not rise on the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City – another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic:

The Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, St. George News

While the festival announced a revised season on April 13, the festival released a statement saying there are simply too many obstacles to overcome. The safety and health of the festival’s staff, artists, audiences and community guided the decision.

“This is a direct result of the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on performing arts,” Frank Mack, executive producer, said in the news release. “When we announced our revised season, we indicated that we would cancel our season if we had to, and sadly it has come to that.”

The season had been planned for July 9 through Sept. 5 featuring five shows playing in rotating repertory and a free greenshow.

The festival is slated to return next summer for its 60th anniversary.

Another big summer event in Cedar City, the Larry H. Miller Summer Games, also was postponed by the pandemic.

Protests on St. George Boulevard

The “Black Lives Matter” protests around the country and world in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota reached St. George and Cedar City.

A pedestrian offers a friendly fist bump to sign-carrying marchers as they walk the streets to protest death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd at the hands of police, Cedar City, Utah, May 31, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

St. George News documented the largest protest that took place on May 30 on St. George Boulevard:

The racial and age makeup of the protest was multicultural and millennial, with young white men holding “Black Lives Matter” signs and older African American women yelling “I can’t breathe.”

Protesters alternated between yelling “Say his name, George Floyd,” “black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace.” A majority of passing motorists honked their approval, while others either yelled out “all lives matter” or obscenities at the protesters. 

Diamond Sluka, a St. George nursing assistant, came to the protest because of what she said were personal experiences with harassment by police officers in St. George. 

“I’m tired. I just want to feel safe,” Sluka, an African American, said. “That I have to feel that way is ridiculously stupid.”

Counter-protests on the Boulevard

Southern Utah also saw counter “All Lives Matter” protests in support of police officers and President Donald Trump.

A “Trump train” takes place at Snow Canyon High School, St. George, Utah, Nov. 1, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

Later in the year, as the election approached, “Trump Trains” featuring pickups with flags stretched from St. George Boulevard to Hurricane, as well as in Cedar City and one ride that went clear across the state.

One of the larger All Lives Matter protests took place on St. George Boulevard on June 5, as described by St. George News:

A group of around 100 people held an All Lives Matter protest supporting President Donald Trump and police officers Friday evening at the corner of St. George Boulevard and 200 East.

The event was planned to counter the protests that have taken place in Southern Utah and across the nation in the last nine days over the murder of George Floyd. Four police officers have been arrested and stand accused of killing Floyd

Wearing American flags and cowboy hats and flying U.S. and Trump flags, many of the protesters had chants of “USA” and support for the president.

Thousands turn out against trafficking

Members of the crowd walked around downtown St. George as a part of OUR’s walk against child trafficking in St. George, Utah, July 30, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Melissa Hill Photography, St. George News

In a year where “unprecedented” was practically an official word, one of the largest rallies in Southern Utah memory took place in St. George Town Square on July 30 when more than 3,000 turned out to march against child trafficking.

St. George News reported on the event organized by the group “Operation Underground Railroad.”

The event was held at Town Square Park with an estimated 3,000 people in attendance, according to one of the organizers. After a short welcome, supporters walked from the park up to St. George Boulevard and made a circle back to the park down Tabernacle Street.

Utah State Attorney General Sean Reyes and the founder of OUR, Tim Ballard, both spoke at the event. Once the walk concluded, there was a pause until the two arrived at the event via helicopter.

OUR was founded in 2013 and has been making efforts to bring an end to child slavery and trafficking ever since. The nonprofit organization gathers experts to aid in extraction operations, including former CIA agents, past and current law enforcement, and highly skilled operatives, according to their website.

Smoke rises above Southern Utah

Another unprecedented moment in 2020 was an extended fire season that left many areas of Southern Utah scorched and black.

A retardant-dropping helicopter attacks the Cottonwood Trail Fire between Hurricane and Leeds, Utah, on July 19, 2020. | Photo courtesy Travis Phillips, St. George News

Blazes included those in Anderson Junction, the Pine Hollow Fire in Kanab, the Greenville Fire in Beaver County, and they even stretched into November with a fire that threatened Snow Canyon.

But one of the most prominent fires was the Cottonwood Trail Fire, which created a smoky curtain across the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and barely spared Leeds:

The fire spread quickly, driven by strong winds and dry conditions as it continued in the direction of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and then spread north along the interstate.

By 4:30 p.m. the fire spread across to the northbound side of the interstate just north of Exit 16, which stopped all northbound traffic as firefighters continued fighting the blaze.

Multiple air tankers and other aircraft were brought in and began making multiple retardant and water drops near the freeway.

Rabid for rabbits

There was a great deal of interest from readers on a July 17 story describing the dangers of rabbit carcasses in Grand Canyon National Park:

A wild cottontail rabbit in Utah, Aug, 19, 2015 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, St. George News

The National Park Service is asking visitors at Grand Canyon National Park to take caution and not to approach wildlife, especially wild rabbits. Rabbit hemorrhagic disease was recently detected in a dead jackrabbit found within the park, making it the first detected case in the park.

According to a press release from the park service, the disease, RHDV2, is a highly contagious and lethal viral infection among domestic and wild rabbits. The virus does not infect humans, but other causes of illness and mortality of rabbits can. The public is instructed to remain cautious and to follow the instructions below to protect themselves, pets and rabbits while in the park.

Kane County YouTube personality accused of possessing child pornography

A YouTube personality that lives in Kane County known as “The Happy Scientist” was indicted on child pornography charges.

John Robert Krampf, 64, of Kane County, boking photo taken in Washington County, County Sept. 17, 2020 | File photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

Investigators say they found “thousands upon thousands” of pornographic images involving children on a storage device belonging to a Kane County man who runs a popular educational YouTube channel.

When authorities expanded a sting operation conducted earlier this month, they received information that led them to 64-year-old John Robert Krampf, who was indicted in federal court Thursday on one count of possession of child pornography and one count of receipt of child pornography.

In the indictment, prosecutors allege that Krampf “did knowingly possess” material containing images of child pornography involving children under the age of 12. Additionally, those images were transported in “interstate and foreign commerce.”

After a continuance in December, Krampf’s trial is expected to begin in February.

Crime doesn’t pay

A handyman learned that if someone accidentally writes you a $21,000 check, don’t cash it:

Hurricane Police arrested a 67-year-old handyman after he allegedly deposited a check accidentally written for $21,000 into his account.

According to a police statement written by Hurricane Police Officer Darren Richmond, the case began as an investigation involving theft.

After hiring a handyman service to complete a concrete job in her yard, the woman told police that the man bid a price of $4,200 to complete the job and that he said he would need $2,100 at the time to purchase materials, according to the statement.

The woman told police she mistakenly wrote a check for $21,000 and delivered it to the handyman in error on March 13.

According to the statement, the woman attempted to call him numerous times, but he would not return her calls. Holm did not return to the job site on the agreed-upon day and has not completed the work for which he was contracted.

Graffiti mars the great outdoors

With people spending part of the year both locally and beyond the state in stay-at-home coronavirus recommendations and orders, places like Zion National Park actually saw record crowds when people were finally able to get out.

Screenshot from video by Facebook user and Southern Utah resident Sunny Bodeen showing the extent of the graffiti in The Narrows portion of Zion National Park, Utah, Sept. 19, 2020 | Photo still from video by Sunny Bodeen, St. George News

But with the crowds came the aftermath, as places like Gunlock and Snow Canyon state parks were cluttered with trash and park officials dealt with a pandemic of graffiti in Zion.

The graffiti, which has been found along the popular Narrows hike, the Kayenta Trail and on the West Rim/Angel’s Landing Trail near Scout Lookout is something that Zion’s chief ranger Daniel Fagergren said the park has never seen at this level until this year.

“I have seen more graffiti than I have ever seen before. It’s all over, and we’re trying to get ahead of it,” he said.

The park is seeing a new type of visitor, one who may have never visited a national park before and may only be venturing out as a result of being cooped up due to the pandemic.

Those we’ve lost

The start of August brought the news that Santa Clara resident and renowned actor Wilfred Brimley had passed.

Wilford Brimley as Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey,” at the Electric Theater, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Kerry Kimball, St. George News

Before his passing Brimley hosted a screening in March at Dixie State University marking the 40th anniversary of his role as Farmer in the Robert Redford movie “The Electric Horseman” and spoke with St. George News:

“See, I was never good at pretending to be somebody I’m not. A lot of actors think that’s your responsibility. Well, it’s not,” Brimley said. “Your responsibility is to take a set of imaginary circumstances presented by a writer and put yourself in those circumstances, and the key is: yourself.”

Another prominent community member passed on March 29 when Bob Garff, chairman of the auto group that includes Ken Garff St. George Ford, succumbed to COVID-19.

Tough going in the gorge

July saw the completion of nearly six years of work to improve the bridges in the Virgin River Gorge leading south out of St. George.

Semitractor-trailer is destroyed in crash on northbound Interstate 15 on Bridge no. 7, 15 miles south of St. George, Virgin River Gorge, Arizona, Aug. 8, 2020 | Submitted photo, St. George News

But just a month later, repair work was required again after a semitractor-trailer crash created a fireball that damaged a bridge in the gorge:

Responders arrived to find the rear of the semi’s trailer hanging off of the bridge ablaze, with a driver who was able to kick out the windshield and climb out of the truck. The driver was found nearby uninjured, Trooper Thomas Callister with the Arizona Department of Public Safety said.

“Seriously, this is one of the worst wrecks I have ever seen,” Callister said, “And this driver literally kicked his way out of the cab and didn’t have a scratch on him.”

Seconds after the driver freed himself from the cab, the truck exploded. “Witnesses said the whole thing blew up,” Callister said, recounting a number of statements provided by motorists who witnessed the crash.

Traffic on Interstate 15 in the gorge faced restrictions again through mid-November to fix the result of the August crash.

All of us at St. George News / Cedar City News and our parent company, Canyon Media, would like to thank you, our readers, for your support in 2020. More than just reading and sharing our articles, you are often also the catalysts for our content, whether it’s telling us about your experiences in our region and giving us story tips or sending us your letters to the editor or photos from out and about in Southern Utah.

We have worked to be your No. 1 source for local news, offering a wide variety of viewpoints and coverage, and with your help and support, we look forward to continued improvement in bringing Southern Utah exclusive, multimedia news coverage in 2021.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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