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FRONTIER INJUSTICE

A BUNCH OF PARK COUNTIANS ARE MIGHTY UPSET ABOUT THEIR SHERIFF.

Few flatlanders who zip through mountainous Park County pull off the road to stop at the Shawnee Trading Post, about an hour west of Denver on U.S. 285. But for those locals with something on their minds, proprietors Roy and Leona Nelson have pulled chairs around the wood stove, and that coffee is not to go. You have time to sit a while, don't you?

Sometimes the talk revolves around Park County's dwindling economic base and abortive plans to reopen the nearby Geneva Ski Basin. Leona Nelson gets more than her share of area gossip--she also runs the Shawnee post office next door to the trading post. While the Nelsons have plenty to say about the ski basin, the conversation often is hotter than either the stove or the coffee. It seems that many of those who drop by the trading post agree with Leona Nelson's conclusion on one very important matter: Park County is being held hostage by its sheriff, Bob Harrison.

For the past three years Nelson has been collecting signed statements about the sheriff's department from disgruntled Park County residents. Most of the complaints are from those who live near Shawnee, in the rapidly growing Bailey-Platte Canyon area. It's a bedroom community for Denver that sits on the east side of Kenosha Pass. Fairplay, west of the pass, is the county seat that's also Harrison's power base. Nelson's friends affectionately refer to the trading post as the "Hotbed of Political Unrest," or "Hopu" for short. Her files of newspaper clippings, arrest records and letters to the government take an afternoon to sift through. Judging from what Leona Nelson has gathered, it seems that many people in this 7,500-person county feel they have been wronged by the sheriff's department.

It's an observation Sheriff Harrison agrees with. "Every time you arrest somebody, the person you arrest is upset and that person's family is upset," he says. "We expect complaints because we're dealing with people's lives." But Harrison is adamant that he does his utmost to fix any problems.

"The area we need to improve most in is one we're already working on: community relations," he says. "If I'm not involved in the community, all I'm doing is running around in ignorant bliss, drooling on myself."
As Harrison, 46, nears the end of his second four-year term, the mere mention of his name is enough to cause many of the county's business and political leaders to groan. And not necessarily because they say he's a bad sheriff. They just know that he's the constant focus of gossip. To say that the area has an active rumor mill is "an understatement," says Nancy Tubbs, a friend of Harrison's and owner of the Mustard Seed restaurant in Fairplay.

Back in '91 some of Harrison's critics swore that someone was operating an international cocaine cartel out of the sheriff's office. District Attorney Ed Rodgers, who's based outside of Park County in Canon City, conducted a lengthy probe that revealed there was no drug cartel, only a woman (unconnected to the sheriff's office) calling her estranged husband in the Bahamas and illegally charging the sheriff for it.

Harrison has been roundly blasted for not arresting enough people. Then again, Park County doesn't have a jail. Even Mayberry had a jail.

Amid all the conspiracy theories and paranoia, at least some of the badmouthing of Harrison is based on more than gossip. Three of Harrison's employees have faced criminal charges in the past year. Last fall, while the sheriff was in Denver receiving an award for his driver's ed and anti-drug "partnership" with a local high school, a deputy and another sheriff's employee stood accused of throwing a booze party for high school kids. The deputy also was accused of allowing a fourteen-year-old girl to drive his cruiser--she smashed it into a fence. Later, the deputy was accused of having sexually assaulted the girl. He faces a preliminary hearing February 11 on the charges.

In an unrelated embarrassment, Harrison promoted deputy Kevin Anderson to undersheriff about four months after Anderson admitted to the crime of illegally selling historical documents to an antique dealer. The Anderson case, in particular, has Harrison's opponents tsk-tsking in frustration.

"I'll bet we're the only county in Colorado with a convicted criminal as an undersheriff," Leona Nelson says.

Harrison's pretty upset, too--with his opponents. "These people sincerely hate me--that's their purpose in life," Harrison says. "They'll go after any of my officers in every way possible to get at me."

Harrison's department has attracted attention from more than just local critics. In 1991, Rodgers, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the County Sheriffs of Colorado (CSOC) each conducted an investigation into the sheriff's department. All three probes absolved the department of wrongdoing, but the CSOC report concluded that the sheriff and his deputies suffered from a "credibility crisis."

Even as Harrison struggles with what he contends is "a small group of people" in eastern Park County who have it in for him, the feeling persists among some--including people in Fairplay--that something is amiss.

"I personally feel there must be something there--so many people say there's something wrong," says Nell Allen, owner of the Brown Burro restaurant and former president of the Fairplay Chamber of Commerce. "I don't think they're a bunch of chronic complainers. Where there's smoke, there's usually fire."

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