The political circus comes to Adams County every four years right about now. And the race for county sheriff often occupies the center ring.

Eight years ago, when sheriff Bert Johnson was awaiting the start of his trial on sexual assault and harassment charges, he was still debating whether to run for a fourth term. Johnson was acquitted on most counts, and the remainder were dropped, but by the time of his court victories his candidacy was no longer an issue--he'd decided to step aside in favor of his undersheriff, Jerry Eye. Eye then sailed to a win in the 1986 Democratic primary after his opponent was charged with felony theft and failing to report taxable income. Eye, however, lost in the general election to Republican contender Ed Camp.

Camp himself was re-elected in 1990 after it was revealed that his challenger, Ralph Anderson, had a few domestic problems: According to police reports, officers had twice been called to his home because he was armed and threatening his wife and kids.

In theory, things could be different in this fall's sheriff's race. Adams County voters will get to choose between Camp and one of his former division chiefs, W.T. "Bill" Shearer. Both men are 54-year-old former Marines with strong law-enforcement backgrounds--and no apparent criminal records. They've both developed thoughtful platforms to deal with the department's mounting problems, which include an overcrowded jail and a sky-high attrition rate among its chronically underpaid deputies.

But this is Adams County, after all. The seemingly requisite election-year arrest of a public official has already been made; this time, it was county commissioner Harold Kite (now running for a third term), who will stand trial a few days after the election on a drunk-driving charge. And the sheriff's race is quickly taking on a big-top flavor.

Issues are being lost amid political gamesmanship and one-upmanship. Sheriff Camp has admitted to making a cross-state, fact-finding mission to probe his opponent's past. Camp followers hint that the local police association rigged its endorsement vote in favor of Shearer. And who serves as county sheriff for the next four years may hinge in part on stories about the portly Camp's habit of rewarding female acquaintances with county jobs, and rumors surrounding the fate of a beady-eyed stuffed chicken named Colorada.

Ed Camp has more than 32 years of law-enforcement experience under his ample belt, including four years as a Marine M.P., fifteen years in the Westminster Police Department (where he worked his way up from patrolman to division chief) and six years as Longmont's director of public safety. But in 1985, when he decided he might want Bert Johnson's job, Camp was still a political amateur--and falsely convinced that all he had to do to get the Democratic party's endorsement was write a letter of interest and intent to the governor, the county Democratic chairman, the county manager and the three county commissioners.

In what now seems a rather clumsy query letter, Camp told the group that if Bert Johnson were to resign, he'd like to throw his hat in the ring. "Not one of them," Camp says with a trace of resentment, "had the courtesy to respond."

The chagrined Camp jumped ship and registered as a Republican. It was both a chancy move and a time-honored one; risky because Adams County is a Democratic stronghold, and traditional because Bert Johnson had been a Republican before moving to Adams County and taking on a new identity as a Democrat. When the votes were counted, Camp was the only Republican candidate in the county to emerge with a win.

Within 24 hours of his election, Camp announced his intention to clean house. The department's seven top administrators, including Eye, should start looking for new jobs, he said publicly, because, "frankly, I don't trust them." Those changes were expected--and they were perfectly legal, since by state statute the staff serves at the sheriff's pleasure.

But a month later, when Camp announced his appointments to fill those positions, shock waves rolled through the department. Several top jobs went to Camp cronies who had no experience as officers. Says one deputy, who asks not to be identified, "He installed all his old girlfriends. You might not see it when you first meet him, but there is a stud factor involved."

Camp did, in fact, appoint a number of female friends to top posts. Penny Collins, who'd been a parole officer and a victims' advocate--but not a police officer--was made a deputy chief and put in charge of jail operations. Westminster police officer Deborah Langston was named a deputy chief and asked to oversee the administrative operations bureau. Most surprising of all was Camp's promotion of Karm Sunday from administrative secretary to division chief, one of the department's highest positions. Sunday, who had once dated Camp, was not a certified police officer at the time (she since has qualified). She also was the star witness against Bert Johnson in his sexual assault trials, claiming that the sheriff touched her breasts (Johnson admitted the "stupid" deed during court testimony, but his attorney argued that the sheriff received no gratification from the act).

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