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FLEE BARGAIN

CRAMPED CONDITIONS AND STAFFING SHORTAGES HAVE DENVER'S DEPUTIES FEELING INSECURE ABOUT SAFETY AT CITY HALL.

As the two women hit and kicked him, Deputy Stan Marin struggled to keep a grip on his prisoner. It was the second time this year he'd had to fight a would-be escapee in the halls of Denver's City and County Building. And this time he was losing.

"I was thinking, `Where is my backup?'" Marin recalls of the altercation three weeks ago. "I could hold on another minute, but that was about it. Backup never came. No one was here."

Seconds earlier, the twenty-year-old prisoner had been convicted of first-degree aggravated assault in a fourth-floor courtroom. As the verdict was read, he seemed to become ill. The judge ordered Marin to take the prisoner to the jury room, where he could throw up. Instead, the prisoner bolted from the courtroom into the hall. He was heading toward the stairs when Marin tackled him.

Just as Marin got the situation under control, two female friends of the prisoner jumped the deputy from behind. The prisoner broke free and headed down the stairs. The women continued to beat on Marin.

"You know who finally came to my aid? Two city councilmen and a city administrator," Marin says.

Councilmen Dave Doering and Tim Sandos and Denver City Council staff director John Bennett helped get the fighting females off Marin. "These women were just so full of emotion," Bennett remembers. "They were just acting wild. They were hard to control."

When Marin's sergeant showed up, the deputy gave him custody of the woman he'd managed to handcuff and took off after his prisoner. In the end, two Denver police officers, who noticed the man running, captured the escapee in the 200 block of 16th Street.

"You hear people who are distraught all the time on that side of the courthouse," says Councilman Sandos. "I thought that was what was happening until I saw the women pulling on the sheriff."

This wasn't the first time Bennett had raced to the rescue, either. Back in June he helped a deputy stop a man who was kicking a woman in the head.

"These aren't the only two that I know of; these are just the ones I've been involved in," Bennett says. "I think we have a real dangerous situation here."

The day after he came to Marin's aid, Bennett called his staff together. "My worst fear is that one of them might be taken hostage," he explains. "I told them I didn't want to see them peeking their heads out in the hallway to see what's going on. I showed them an office that's away from the hallway and told them when there's trouble to go in there and lock the door."

That prisoners are passing by Denver City Council offices at all is due to the dual nature of Denver's City and County Building. Over 80 percent of the facility is devoted to Denver's city and county courts, and the rest serves as City Hall, home to city council as well as the mayor and other public officials.

The two functions can sometimes seem incompatible: While many cities' courthouses have built-in tunnels or separate hallways for prisoners, in Denver deputies wind up escorting prisoners through public halls that are often as long as a city block. It's a setup that leaves deputies open to attack--from people enraged when they see their loved one being led away to prison, from the parents of a murdered child who would like to wreak their own justice on the prisoner, or from the prisoners themselves.

In an incident last year, a prisoner made a fist with his cuffed hands and struck a female deputy in the face. During the ensuing struggle, the man was able to get his hands on the deputy's gun, but she managed to regain control.

Judge Paul A. Markson, Jr., Denver's presiding judge in the criminal division, calls the City and County Building a "tinderbox" and says he wants action now. "People have a right to come into this building and be safe," he says. "This is a community building. People come here to get their marriage licenses. Juries are here only because they are summoned. There is a very serious potential here for injury or death."

Denver sheriff's captain Vic Lombardi, who heads security at the City and County Building, doesn't flinch at Markson's harsh words. "We're doing the best we can with what we've got," Lombardi says.

In the past two years 100 deputies have been added to the department's 650-person staff. But 90 percent of those deputies have gone to the county jail, where prisoner overcrowding is a major problem, according to Fidel "Butch" Montoya, Denver's manager of safety.

In 1993 the sheriff's budget was supplemented by $3 million to pay for overtime. "The sheriff's department is the fastest growing department in the city," Montoya says.

But it may not be growing fast enough. Over the last four years the number of prisoners handled by Lombardi's department has increased by about 6,000 annually. From 1992 to 1993 alone, the load jumped from 78,576 to 88,211 prisoners. At the same time, the number of deputies assigned to the security detail has remained a constant 30.

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