Hayden Young’s first performance in a rock band was Friday night.
The incoming 12-year-old Twin Spruce Junior High School seventh grader described himself as more of an introvert when it comes to playing the guitar. But after a week of Rock Band Camp, he’d transformed from loner musician to part of an epic rock band.
Less than an hour before showtime, Young was a mix of excitement and nervous energy. He’d play guitar on two songs — the acoustic on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern rock classic “Simple Man” and electric on Nirvana’s angsty early-1990s hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The camp’s youngest performer, Young loved that he was no longer a loner.
“These guys have put more energy and love into music than I’ve had in my life,” he said. “It’s definitely opened my eyes wider and made me love music more.”
He couldn’t say enough good things about the week of camp that had ended just hours before with dress rehearsals for the show.
“Rehearsal was a blast,” Young said. “Probably one of the most fun moments of my life. And I can’t even imagine how fun it’s going to be in front of a crowd, so I’m extremely excited.”
A group of strangers came together to play, and after a week of eight-plus-hour days in whatever rehearsal in spaces around Campbell County High School, they were about to take the stage for nearly 90 minutes to play a 15-song set of disparate titles with a common denominator: They all rock when played at volume.
Charlotte Marasco, a 17-year-old rising senior at CCHS, would pluck the bass guitar for four of the songs in the set, and her playing during the week had caught the attention of many of her fellow Rock Band Campers.
They all knew Marasco’s musical resume: It was her first year on the instrument. She’d come from a percussion background, playing drums in jazz ensembles at school. What started as a joke response to an expressed need for another bassist would conclude with her first rock band performance for a live audience on an instrument she still didn’t feel completely comfortable with.
Despite those odds, she’s a game-day player and was ready to go when the countdown reached about a half hour until showtime. Marasco thought for a minute what she was most looking forward to, and her response surprised even herself.
“Playing in front of people,” she said. “Which is weird for me to say, because I’m normally — I don’t want to play in front of people because of, like, stage fright, and it’s (now) like, ‘I actually want to play in front of people.’”
The camp’s director, Steve Oakley, addressed the rockers before the show for some last-minute reminders, some calming words and some admonitions to rock out but not get out of control. Then he turned the floor over to some of the Rock Band Camp veterans who were about to play their final gig as participants in the program.
Zakk Ross, an 18-year-old guitarist and huge fan of rock guitar legend Eddie Van Halen, was the final camper to speak to his fellow bandmates. He won’t be back after being a regular at Rock Band Camp for a number of years. He would age out after this performance having graduated from CCHS a month ago.
Or had he?
That was the joke Ross leaned into before his speech to the others. A fellow camper said he didn’t technically graduate.
People didn’t know how to respond: “Was this serious?” they all seemed to wonder.
Nervous laughter sputtered from the group.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have my diploma anymore,” Ross said.
“He burned his diploma,” chimed in his friend, Chance Robinson, another 18-year-old CCHS graduate in his last Rock Band Camp.
Slack jaws and wide eyes greeted this new information.
“That is the most metal thing ever!” exclaimed Josh Knutson, another camper who would be singing and playing drums in the show.
When Ross finally got to his message, it was incredibly earnest, and his love of music bled through every word.
“If there’s a period in your life where you’re not having fun playing music, just make sure it’s like a habit where you at least pick up and keep it with you,” Ross told his bandmates. “That happened to me during COVID and stuff, so I’m really happy to be playing again because I freaking love it, and I’m just having lots of fun.”
A few minutes later, Oakley updated his performers.
“We now have 15 minutes before we melt the faces off of everyone in that auditorium,” he said.
Final preparations were underway. The teens finished drawing on each other with black markers, because rock stars have tattoos. Everybody knows that. Final swigs from 16-ounce cans of what else but Rockstar energy drinks.
It was showtime.
The show began much more courteously than a lot of rock performances in the sense that it began promptly at its appointed starting time. But that was probably the only difference in the teens’ performance and that of any rock band. To say the kids showed up to rock would be an understatement, and those who’d gathered in the CCHS auditorium were treated to uncanny showmanship and amp dials turned all the way up to 11.
On Tuesday, Josh Simon took a break from practicing and described how different things were for him in his fourth year of camp.
“This is the first year I ever drummed for the camp,” Simon said. “In other camps, I was just a vocalist because I wasn’t confident enough to play with a live band until this year.”
A self-taught drummer, Simon said he no longer practiced much on his drum set at home because he lives in a smaller house and more congested neighborhood. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t practice for the show in the hours between camp sessions last week.
“A lot of the time I kind of just practice on this wooden stool that I have in my room with my records and stuff,” Simon said. “It’s not as good as an actual set, but you know, it gets the job done because I practiced on that stool for a lot of the songs that are happening in here.
“When it comes to Rock Band Camp, you can’t really improv your way through the song. I kind of have to listen to the song and think musically about what is happening.”
And so he did Friday night. For the second song of the set, “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus, Simon took the stool at the drum set at on a riser in the center of the stage and crashed the snare, bass, toms and high-hat as if they were that stool in his bedroom.
The stage presence, which Oakley had said earlier in the week was the thing that had to be coaxed out of the teens, was on full display. Some things can be taught, like how to finger a particular chord or how to keep time or how to breathe to sustain a particular note while singing.
But stage presence — that ineffable “it” factor some people just have and others clearly do not — can’t be taught.
The remarkable thing about the numerous performers in the Rock Band Camp show was they all had it. The singers didn’t just sing, they performed.
Simon, while on lead vocals for “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, paused at one point to extend the mic above the heads of the crowd gathered at the front of the stage and allow them to finish a lyric for him.
Knutson, while singing the famously garbled words of Nirvana’s signature classic hit, climbed up on the platform where the drums sat and during an extended run by the drummer, Knutson dramatically splashed a cymbal with his hand — because that’s just something a rocker frontman would do.
The crowd loved it.
“All I can say is I haven’t felt this good since the ’90s, and I wasn’t born until 2003,” said Dylan Coleman, a recent graduate from Thunder Basin High School. “I mean, that was some incredible stuff. It felt like a real rock concert. My throat hurts, I’ve got a headache, all the same symptoms.”
There were leaps from the stage. There were trips into the crowd to rock with the fans. There were shirts thrown into the crowd. There were extended drum and guitar solos. There were curse words in songs, which felt extra subversive because they were all teens singing to a crowd that most assuredly contained their parents. There was headbanging. There were eclectic outfits. There were screams and posing.
It seemed to come natural, and why not? That’s just what rock stars do.
Campbell County Weed and Pest will officially become its own service district July 1.
The move isn’t out of any animosity or hard feelings toward the commission; rather, it stems from increasing pressure from the state for special districts to become completely independent.
The two months since that vote have been “moving forward pretty good,” said Weed and Pest Director Quade Schmelzle. The hot, windy and dry weather have kept them busy on top of the transition to an independent district.
Schmelzle said the district will continue to budget conservatively, and the programs and services offered will remain the same.
The Weed and Pest District is governed by a five-member board. Larry Smith, the board’s chairman, said that “everything (with the county) was a great relationship,” and that the district could have continued to operate the way it had been.
But becoming independent was not a matter of if, but when, Smith said. If the board members hadn’t done it now, they would have been forced to do it eventually.
“We really believe we were slowly going to be pushed into our own district anyway,” Smith said.
Schmelzle estimated that becoming an independent district would add about $61,000 in expenses to Weed and Pest’s budget the first year, most of it in one-time startup costs. In following years, the costs is expected to be an additional $35,000.
Despite that, and despite budgeting $500,000 for a grasshopper spraying program, Schmelzle was able to come up with a budget that’s nearly identical to the previous year.
For fiscal year 2022, Schmelzle prepared a proposed budget of about $2.3 million, an increase of only $7,000 from Weed and Pest’s budget for the current fiscal year.
Schmelzle said his approach for this budget was the same as the past.
“I try to make sure the budget reflects a responsible spending plan,” he said.
Because it’s breaking off completely from the county, the Weed and Pest District will pay for a new IT service provider, accounting software, phone systems and insurance.
And because it’s now separate from the county, Weed and Pest will have to have its own budget hearing June 30.
Commissioner Rusty Bell said the commission understands the situation Weed and Pest is in, trying to follow the direction given from the state.
“That really is it in a nutshell. I don’t think it’ll change budgets that much,” he said.
The Crook County Weed and Pest District was using the services of the Crook County attorney, and the Wyoming Attorney General issued an opinion saying that Crook County Weed and Pest “is a special district and shouldn’t be using the county attorney because they’re not a county entity,” Schmelzle said.
Although Campbell County Weed and Pest has its own mill levy, it also had been tied into county government. Its employees got health insurance through the county, and the county’s IT department provided tech support for the Weed and Pest building.
Weed and Pest also had access to the County Attorney’s Office for legal representation, and the county took care of maintenance on its building.
Now the district will have to pay for those costs out of its own budget.
Weed and Pest also is working on a new lease agreement with the county for its building at 11 Northern Drive.
Schmelzle budgeted $500,000 for grasshoppers to prepare for the potential of a grasshopper invasion.
If Weed and Pest ends up not having to spray for grasshoppers in FY22, then that $500,000 will go into its emergency account to be used for when the grasshoppers do come. The account is invested in WYO-STAR, the state’s local government investment program.
Schmelzle said he doesn’t plan on following in the footsteps of the city of Gillette and county to diversify the portfolio.
“We’re not planning on having millions in there,” he said. “It’s just for emergencies.”
Both Schmelzle and Smith said they haven’t received many calls about the transition.
“We were pretty transparent about why we needed to be out on our own, and I think people understand that,” Smith said.
The few calls that Weed and Pest has received were about the district’s mill levy, which has always been separate from the county’s mill levy.
“I had a couple phone calls, just from people confused on how our mill levy works,” Schmelzle said. “They were concerned that meant we were going to start taking full mills.”
That is not going to happen, he said.
Campbell County’s assessed valuation this year is $3.39 billion, meaning one full mill will bring in $3.39 million.
Schmelzle said the district will tax 0.59 mills in fiscal year 2022. That will raise about $2 million. In FY2021, it levied 0.454 mills, which raised $1.92 million.
State statute allows for weed and pest districts to tax up to 1 mill to be spent on the control of weeds and pests. These districts also may tax 1 mill to raise money to fight leafy spurge, an invasive species native to Europe and Asia.
Smith pointed out that “we could’ve asked for a full mill at any time” when it was tied into the county.
It never came close when it was with the county, Schmelzle said, and it won’t come close now as an independent district.
While Campbell County Weed and Pest will be its own district, that doesn’t mean it can do whatever it wants with no one holding it accountable.
Each of the board members is appointed by the commissioners. Board members must be nominated by a petition signed by at least 10 landowners in their district. Commissioners then make appointments based on the nominations.
Bell said the current board, as well as past boards, are aware of what taxing the full mill would mean for the energy industry.
“The folks that are on that board understand the concept of keeping taxes low,” Bell said.
But if a future board ever decided to tax the full mill, it would raise a lot of eyebrows from the landowners and the commissioners.
“There’s definitely some oversight,” Bell said.
A local man will serve five to seven years in prison for strangling his fiancée in March 2020, and his time will run consecutive to 12 years he got for a federal drug conviction.
Louiz Pena, 35, was sentenced by District Judge Thomas W. Rumpke on Thursday afternoon. The sentence will run consecutive to a 12-year federal sentence for Pena’s involvement in a meth distribution ring in Wyoming.
Pena also was sentenced to three to five years for stalking and 180 days in jail for domestic battery. Both of these will run concurrent to the strangulation sentence.
Pena had pleaded guilty to one count of strangulation, one count of stalking and one of misdemeanor domestic battery. As part of the plea agreement, prosecuting attorney Nathan Henkes recommended a nine- to 10-year sentence on the strangulation, to be served consecutively with the federal sentence.
Pena’s attorney, Joanne Zook, as well as his family, asked Rumpke to run the strangulation sentence concurrent to the federal sentence so that Pena can be rehabilitated and be reunited with his family sooner.
“Twelve years is already enough,” said Pena’s daughter, Chantel Pena.
Pena was originally charged with three counts of first-degree sexual assault, two counts of kidnapping, five counts of strangulation and two counts of domestic battery. He was later charged with influencing or intimidating a witness.
In a plea agreement, Pena pleaded guilty to one count of strangulation and one count of misdemeanor domestic battery. He also pleaded guilty to stalking, which was reduced as part of the plea agreement from intimidating a witness. The rest of the charges were dismissed.
Pena will receive credit for 453 days served.
The victim, Ashley Bullock, called into the sentencing hearing to speak in favor of Pena. Bullock is currently in Texas serving a 77-month prison sentence for her part in the meth ring, which used the U.S. Postal Service to ship drugs to Wyoming. It is the same drug case that Pena was sentenced to 12 years in prison for.
“The state is set on Louiz being this awful person,” said Bullock, who is engaged to Pena.
She said that the state’s case against Pena is based on “a witness who didn’t witness anything.”
Pena was arrested in March 2020 after an anonymous tipster called police to say that Pena was bragging to his friends in Casper about anally raping a woman and giving her two black eyes.
In February 2020, Pena was laid off from his job in the oil field. As the sole provider for his family, “He returned to something he knew could make money for his family,” and that was drug dealing, Zook said.
“It spiraled from there,” Pena said.
After getting the tip, police went to Bullock’s home to check on her and found her with two black eyes, bruises on her neck and head consistent with strangulation and numerous bruises on her body and head. She didn’t want to talk to police initially, fearing retaliation from Pena, according to an affidavit of probable cause.
She eventually told them that he had locked a child in a bedroom before attacking her, punching and kicking her repeatedly. She said he strangled her five times and anally raped her three different times throughout the night. She twice tried to escape — once getting almost as far as a neighbor’s house before he caught her and carried her back to the house, according to the affidavit.
On July 12, 2020, Bullock wrote a letter to District Court, recanting her statements. In that letter, she said Pena was “wrongfully accuse of Strangulation of a household member (x5), Kidnapping (x2), Sexual Assault (x3), Domestic Battery (x2).”
Thursday, Bullock said Pena is “the best thing that’s happened to me,” and that everyone makes mistakes, starting with herself.
On Aug. 27, 2020, Bullock wrote an eight-page letter to the County Attorney’s Office explaining why she had recanted.
“She explained that Louiz called her repeatedly, putting her in fear of her and her children’s lives. She feared that he still had her under surveillance and had his family, lawyers and associates contact her continually,” according to the affidavit.
At Pena’s sentencing Thursday, Bullock said she wrote that letter in August because she was angry at Pena because she’d been indicted in the drug case that he was involved in, and she wanted to get him back.
“I was wrong for that,” she said.
She was upset that her recant was not being taken seriously.
She said she believes Pena made a mistake in pleading guilty instead of taking it to trial. By doing this, he is “pleading (guilty) to something he didn’t do” because he doesn’t have faith in the judicial system, she said.
Rumpke said that while Bullock’s repeated statements to law enforcement are consistent with the evidence and facts of the case, her recant statement is not credible and is not even consistent with what Pena admitted to doing.
Henkes read through pages of the case’s graphic and violent details. At one point Zook asked that the children who were in the courtroom be allowed to leave.
Pena was not convicted of rape, kidnapping or intimidating a witness, Zook said, and she asked Rumpke to sentence Pena only on the strangulation.
He “strangled her in the heat of passion,” she said.
Pena has already missed his daughter’s high school graduation, and Chantel said that by the time he finished his federal sentence, he may have missed other important milestones like weddings and the births of his grandchildren.
Henkes said that if Rumpke made the sentence run concurrent to the federal sentence, that would send the message to people that if they’re dealing drugs in Campbell County, they can abuse or assault their family members and get a pass.
Rumpke agreed, but said nine to 10 years in prison was too high for this case. Ten years is the maximum sentence for strangulation in Wyoming.
Pena apologized several times for the pain he caused Bullock and his family.
“I am not the monster the state thinks I am,” he said.
He said that by hurting Bullock the way he did, he failed his daughter, his mother and all of the women in his life.
“I’m ashamed,” he said. “My mom raised me better than that.”