CODY, Wyo. — In a town famously proud of its Wild West persona, where every summer tens of thousands of visitors delight to nightly gunfights outside the Irma Hotel and bucking broncs at the Cody Nite Rodeo, the old idiom “dodging a bullet” is especially fitting for what has been a volatile winter.
For years, storm clouds have gathered over the summerlong Nite Rodeo and annual Cody Stampede Rodeo, thanks to an increasingly polarized Stampede board of directors, which has operated autonomously as what some describe as a good-ol'-boys club. Acrimony intensified this past summer when a faction of the 17-member board, wanting more involvement in the Nite Rodeo’s lucrative annual take, pushed to oust longtime stock contractor Maury Tate.
By most accounts, tensions in the self-proclaimed “Rodeo Capital of the World” were destined to continue through the Stampede’s 100th anniversary celebration in July and beyond.
But then, in early December, some 850 miles away in Las Vegas, the National Finals Rodeo happened and, as Irma owner John Darby puts it, “Just kind of kicked the bucket over.”
According to the Cody Enterprise newspaper, at a post-NFR event Dec. 4 in Las Vegas' South Point Bar, Cody roper Brett Richmond — son-in-law of longtime board member Al Schultz and husband of rodeo office manager Cherain Richmond — let loose an inebriated and sexually tinged verbal barrage at Tate’s wife, Nikki, who was not present. He also referenced their two daughters, Cydney and Hadley, and repeatedly used the ‘N’-word (Cydney dates an African-American player in the National Football League).
Two days later, in a hotel elevator, Richmond allegedly responded to a stranger asserting “Cody is the place to be” by replying, “Yeah, sure is; it’s a N----r-free zone.” Hadley Tate overheard the elevator chatter and tearfully called her mother.
What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas for about the eight seconds it takes to successfully ride a raging bull.
Word whipped north to Cody, where some people dismissed the exchanges as “Brett being Brett,” although many more folks were mortified. Reaction across the rodeo community was swift and direct, epitomized by PRCA board of directors member Heath Ford warning Cody officials “to handle it in-house. It could be a bad deal,” the Enterprise reported.
When asked his immediate reaction, first-term Cody mayor Matt Hall told The Billings Gazette: “Just disgust. It’s not who we are.”
With the Stampede’s 100th anniversary looming, such vulgarity from a board guest representing the town and its rodeo culture couldn’t have been more ill-timed.
Cody residents fretted about the reputation of a community that ushers more than a half-million tourists annually through Yellowstone National Park’s East Entrance. They worried about the image of the Nite Rodeo, a core of the cultural fabric in a town built by frontier showman Buffalo Bill Cody.
They were jittery that the PRCA, which recently adopted a Safe Sport Policy aimed at bullying and harassment, might withdraw sanctioning of the Stampede (only a few Nite Rodeo events are sanctioned) and that sponsors of both rodeos could leave en masse. Loss of sanctioning can result in loss of competitors, sponsors and spectators.
Another chilling potential scenario: Cancellation altogether of the 100th Stampede, a hallowed event visited by western movie icon John Wayne in 1976 as part of America’s bicentennial celebration.
“It could’ve been a devastating summer,” said Darby, who joined six Cody business owners in penning a letter demanding transparency from the board and questioning removing Tate as stock contractor.
Fast forward a month.
The Stampede board issued an apology for the "frustration and pain" nearly four weeks after the incidents in Las Vegas.
“We have taken this situation very seriously and took immediate action to ban an individual from our property and any of our events for life,” a letter to the community said.
For some, the delayed response simply exposed a faction of the group as tone deaf.
By the end of a contentious Jan. 3 board meeting, six members were out.
Schultz, a 33-year veteran, was given the boot after he was asked to resign, was prepared to do so, and then changed his mind. Five others, including president Keith Nelson, resigned in solidarity with Schultz, who runs a yawning gravel pit on the rodeo grounds and has been a major influence on the Nite Rodeo.
Also out is Cherain Richmond, longtime board secretary and office manager. Brett Richmond was banned from Stampede Park for life.
Maury Tate’s company Mo Betta Rodeo remains as stock contractor.
An entire community has exhaled, with many who consider the departed board members friends acknowledging the house cleaning was necessary.
A new-look board is vowing more transparency and seeking women members for the first time since novelist Caroline Lockhart co-founded the Stampede a century ago. An audit of the rodeos’ books is planned, and the board had already begun strengthening policies aimed at bullying, discrimination and harassment.
“In the end it’ll all work out (for the best) the way it always does in Cody,” said Marv Allerheiligen, a retired banker who spent 45 years on the Stampede board (1966-2011) and is so revered that the VIP building on the rodeo grounds where the board meets is known as “The Marv.” "I hope it's all over."
For a month, residents of this wind-scoured town in the shadow of Cedar Mountain weren’t so confident.
Sources say the Las Vegas incidents may have blown over had the board responded swiftly and firmly, or if Richmond had apologized publicly.
Soon after, longtime rodeo announcer Kade Rogge, who was at the same table as Richmond in the bar, was incensed enough to write the board saying “this whole situation sickens me” and added he might sever his ties with the Stampede, according to the Enterprise.
Tired of waiting for an apology, Maury Tate wrote the board calling for three resignations: Schultz, Nelson and Cherain Richmond. He referred to a few members as “idiots” and added, “The blatant racist animus exhibited by the husband of your secretary could forever taint the future of Cody and The Stampede.”
When reached at Mo Betta’s headquarters in Apache, Oklahoma, and asked his reaction to language directed at his wife and daughters, Tate told The Gazette: “Disappointment, I guess is the word. Frustration and anger would probably fit in there. Here’s one thing I will say: I have never done anything to anyone personally up there to justify that.”
Schultz, who was in Cody during the NFR, and Cherain Richmond became lightning rods. In the view of some, Richmond’s words gave Tate backers on the board leverage to banish Schultz and his supporters, including his daughter, whose work with the Stampede had merited awards.
Schultz defends himself
Reached at home in Cody, Schultz limited comment for this story to a brief statement because he wants to put the firestorm behind him and not reopen wounds. The other board members who resigned have yet to comment.
“I enjoyed the Stampede board and I lived the Stampede Board for 33 years,” Schultz said. “I feel it’s very unfortunate that this happened in the manner it happened. I feel that I have conducted myself with respect, morals and ethics all the time that I was involved with the board.”
Through Schultz, the Richmonds were twice offered a chance to comment. They have yet to respond.
According to the Enterprise, in a Dec. 21 Facebook post that has since been deleted, Brett Richmond wrote: “I’d like to thank the Cody Stampede board for kicking my father-in-law off today. Thanks for asking my wife to resign because a family member offended the Tate family…god bless. I would never have thought my wife could get fired, but damn I was wrong.”
Schultz and the five other departed board members — Nelson, Paul Brock, Mark McCarty, Gary Hays and Clark Hufty — co-signed a letter to the Enterprise and “the Cody Community,” that Schultz shared with The Gazette and reads, in part:
“Anyone who personally knows the Stampede board members that resigned, or were forced out, will know that they acted with integrity, professionalism and honesty at all times in the best interests of the Cody Stampede. The issue was not one of racism or bigotry, it was about manipulation of the issue, threats, and hidden agendas.”
Multiple sources said Las Vegas was the tipping point amid a tug-of-war between Tate and Schultz.
In his 15 years as stock contractor, Tate is universally regarded as improving the spectator and participant experience at the Nite Rodeo, a must-stop for many tourists on Yellowstone vacations. He also is credited with improving relations with businesses through partnerships and promotions, bridging an uneasy gap with an event on the town's far west end once perceived by some to siphon dollars from downtown.
The Nite Rodeo has been lucrative for Tate, and some board members either wanted a slice of the pie or just more authority over profit distribution, depending on who's asked. According to Cody Stampede Inc.’s IRS Form 990 for 2016, Mo Betta received just more than $750,000 in compensation; the nonprofit organization took in just more than $2 million in revenue and a similar amount in expenses.
Stock contractor controversy
In the summer of 2017, with Mo Betta’s contract expiring, some on the board sought change. They were fueled partly by Tate, who’d sent a letter to the board saying he would continue through the Stampede’s centennial and would help find a successor if that was desired, leaving some to speculate he was moving on though he says that wasn't his intention.
“It was not the majority of the board that was wanting to change things,” Tate told The Gazette. “There was a group wanting a change. Why? You would have to ask them. I couldn’t answer that. I can say this: Our attendance has grown every year since we’ve been there and contestants have grown. So I don’t know what the reasons were. We asked several times what their complaints were.”
As a result, the board put out bids to more than 100 prospects — not including Tate, initially — and began negotiations with Ty Yost, a roping specialist from Wickenburg, Arizona, a college friend of a board member. Some on the board blanched, mostly fearing Yost would reinvent an already popular and profitable rodeo.
Nevertheless, as the controversy from Las Vegas swirled, the board quietly voted to enter into final negotiations with Yost. Board members couldn’t explain the choice publicly because Nelson had the group sign letters of confidentiality, the Enterprise reported.
Tate said he had even reconciled that 2019 would be his family’s final summer in Cody.
“The hardest thing for us was that Cody has been our home for 15 years, and to move and not see the people every summer … shoot, from that standpoint we were going to miss that,” he said. “But no matter what happened, we wanted the Nite Rodeo to continue to grow and to be great and to thrive and be successful.”
Tate is aware some in Cody think he and his supporters used the Las Vegas incidents to take back the contract from Yost. Not so, he said.
“Everyone is putting their spin on it, but we never once went to the board and requested to have the Nite Rodeo back or anything,” he said of his request for board resignations. “This has nothing to do with us getting the contract back. This had everything to do with not going up there and not being around a bunch of people like that. That was the only thing it had to do with.”
For their part, Schultz and his board supporters shared their perspective in their aforementioned letter to the Enterprise.
“The search for a new stock contractor was initiated in (2017) after Maury Tate announced he no longer wanted the contract after completion of the 2019 season,” the letter continues. “We initiated the request for the audit, and it was approved by the board PRIOR to the Tate letters being introduced (12/19/18). We also supported the actions of the board directly related to the alleged incident at the NFR, including the adoption of the PRCA policies as stated in the Stampede Board article.
“However, we could no longer be a part of the Stampede board after we disagreed with several further actions of the board, at the direction of a few, during the Jan. 3, 2019, meeting. The board has lost years of service, along with dedicated and hardworking members. We wish them the best of luck in the future.”
Apologies piling up
After the Jan. 3 exodus, the remaining 10 members of the board issued another apology, this time to Nikki and Hadley Tate as well as Rogge. Under acting president Larry Allshouse, the board promised transparency and ended talks with Yost. They also voted to negotiate a three-year deal with Tate, though he says that's on hold until the board clears some of its "full plate."
At this point, the extent of Schultz’s ties is the gravel pit, where his lucrative contract with Yellowstone National Park helps provide a financial cushion for the Nite Rodeo and Stampede — think oil wells on a working family ranch.
“I really think the board … I really think they got an earful,” said Hall, the mayor. “A few of them got the education that, ‘You are a part of this community and what you do affects us. So get it together.' "
Cody-ites are confident the Nite Rodeo’s 37 sponsors — five of them national — will be satisfied with steps taken to address Las Vegas and board dysfunction. They also fully expect continued sanctioning of the Stampede.
In a statement to The Gazette, the PRCA said: “The PRCA understands the Cody Stampede rodeo committee has conducted an investigation and has taken actions. As for the PRCA’s position on this issue, we support the Cody Stampede rodeo committee’s investigation, and we stand ready to look into any allegations that a PRCA member has violated any PRCA bylaws, rules, policies or procedures.”
In the end, after an unnerving month, a frontier town known for its summer gunfights does indeed appear poised to dodge a public-relations and financial bullet.
On this, everyone agrees: It is time to move on.
“This has been brewing for a long time, and it probably needed to be done,” the Irma’s Darby said of the Board shakeup. “I’m not important around here, but I’ll tell you what, in the community I haven’t heard anybody say it wasn’t right.”
Allerheiligen agreed, saying he’s remained neutral because he's "heard two or three different sides of the story" and he has friendships across the board: “Maury has done a wonderful job out there. And I don’t know how you could justify looking somewhere else. I think probably the board has taken proper action with what it did with the individuals and it shouldn’t go any further than that and I don’t think it’ll hurt Cody.
“You can’t carry a black eye forever.”