LAY OF THE LAND

At daybreak on the Comanche National Grassland, the air is so sweet and the endless, empty vistas so breathtaking that it is impossible to imagine anyone going out of his way to screw this world up.

This rough, beautiful country was the backdrop when Wes McKinley left his ranch in Walsh--an area where his grandparents had homesteaded, tucked so far into the southeastern corner of Colorado that it might as well be Kansas--and hopped into his pickup to make the five-and-a-half-hour drive to Denver back in August 1989. His journey was just beginning--and in many ways, it isn't over yet.

McKinley's call to jury duty led to the rancher/teacher/cowboy poet/foster father and sometime househusband becoming the foreman of the first special grand jury convened in the state's history, empaneled solely to consider the case of the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant--and to wade through mounds of evidence collected by the FBI in its June 1989 raid on the Department of Energy facility. When he first heard the case involved Rocky Flats, McKinley thought it had something to do with a bunch of old hippies rather than alleged environmental crimes. He certainly went into the jury room that first day believing that no one could possibly set out to screw up a world with the kind of views you could find in southeastern Colorado.

What he came out believing 22 months later he is not allowed to say.
Wes McKinley does a lot of talking, but he still is not talking about what happened behind the closed doors of the jury room--not yet, anyway.

Once a month for almost two years, he drove to Denver--or hopped a bus from Springfield--and spent a week at a time considering the peculiar case of Rocky Flats. By the time the grand jury was done weighing the evidence, its two dozen members were ready to indict eight people for alleged environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. But then-U.S. Attorney Mike Norton refused to sign the indictments, instead arranging for a settlement deal that called for $18.5 million in fines from Rockwell International, which had been running the plant. No names named, no criminal records. Three months later, in June 1992, U.S. Judge Sherman Finesilver signed off on the deal--and sealed the special report that the outraged grand jurors had authored outlining the results of their deliberations. He threatened to charge anyone who breached grand-jury secrecy with contempt of court.

Today, almost three years after Finesilver approved the settlement and silenced the grand jurors, both he and Norton are in private practice. Rockwell no longer runs Rocky Flats; its successor, EG&G, will soon be replaced by Kaiser-Hill, which will bear the responsibility of cleaning up fourteen tons of plutonium and assorted other deadly wastes. The grand jurors remain under legal threat.

And their foreman, Wes McKinley, is off riding the range. Exactly a year ago he was in Washington, D.C., picking up the Cavallo Award for "moral courage"--an honor that brings a $10,000 prize, precisely the amount he could be fined if charged with contempt of court. He wore his boots and cowboy hat to the ceremony--but then, he wears them everywhere.

Today he is herding a group of "pilgrims" through the grasslands, where his outfit--the Kirkwell Cattle Company--is the only group permitted to lead horseback tours. On the trek through Picture Canyon, McKinley and his partner, Dean Ormiston, whose grandparents homesteaded sixty miles west of McKinley's, point out all the archaeological wonders. There's Crack Cave, where certain carvings on the wall line up with a rock outcropping to provide a primitive calendar. On another rock face are marks that some scientists claim were left by Celtic adventurers; near them are centuries-old Indian paintings. It's not easy to determine what they mean, McKinley tells the awed and (by now) aching pilgrims; after all, what would people think if, generations from now, they stumbled across that brass Colorado state seal currently embedded in the Capitol steps buried in a pile of plutonium? Other entries are easier to interpret: There's the signature of 1890s outlaw Clay Allison, who carved his name right next to a 400-year-old Indian painting of a horse, and another by Jimmy Womack, whose run for public office stumbled when voters realized he was the guy who'd defaced the Picture Canyon wall.

People who live on this land, McKinley and Ormiston most definitely included, love their land--even if they hold its elected officials in universal contempt. When members of the American Agricultural Movement made their move on the Springfield courthouse more than a decade ago, McKinley was waiting inside to fend them off, doing his duty as a member of the sheriffs posse--though some of his sympathies surely lay with the frustrated farmers. A modest brochure advertising Kirkwell Cattle Company tours includes a picture of the two owners beside a flag, posed in full cowboy regalia, drooping mustaches and, in Ormiston's case, an impressive array of weapons. And when McKinley pulls out his guitar to lead a few rounds of cowboy songs around the campfire, he recites poems about the flag.

He thought about reciting one of them when he held a press conference in November 1992 on the steps of the U.S. Courthouse in Denver. He settled for announcing the grand jurors' willingness to talk to President-elect Bill Clinton anytime, anyplace. They're still waiting. They're also waiting for Congress to grant them immunity so that they can testify to what they know about Rocky Flats--but they're no longer holding their breath for that. In fact, when McKinley was in Washington last year, Colorado congressman Dan Schaefer stood him up for a meeting. Plutonium may last forever, but the fame of gagged grand jurors does not.

The pilgrims do not realize they are in the hands of a genuine folk hero. They just know that McKinley can spot rattlesnakes and spin yarns and teach them to see the country in a way they've never seen it before.

 
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