Off Limits

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas: No, not because the City and County Building resembles a rancid birthday cake, its garish lights illuminating the world's most bizarre--but secular, and thus lawsuit-proof--nativity scene, with the Two Wise Snowmen flanking the stable holding Baby Jesus. And not because the dailies are competing to see who can put the cutest-kid-seeing-Santa pictures on their covers, or because Park Meadows shoppers are fighting over parking spaces as rabidly as they fought over Tickle Me Elmo dolls last year.

No, we know December 25 is fast approaching because JonBenet Ramsey, who died sometime late on Christmas last year, is all over the news again, as media outlets battle to be the first with their one-year retrospectives. The Globe, whose antics last January inspired the Rocky Mountain News to stop referring to itself as a "tabloid," is already out with its thirteen-page investigation on the "Death of an Angel" (complete with actual interviews, not just with Boulder District Attorney Alex Hunter, but also with former Santa Bill McReynolds, now in hiding at a new home in New England). And the New York Times jumped the gun (or garrote) last Friday with James Brooke's "Bungled JonBenet Case Bursts a City's Majesty." The Times piece inspired an instant response from Fleet White, the oilman-resident of the once-majestic city who's a former pal of John Ramsey. (White was with John Ramsey when he found JonBenet's body in the basement of the family's Boulder home on December 26.) "We request that Boulder be given the opportunity to enjoy this sacred season in peace," White and his wife wrote the Times, "without interruption from anyone who intends to erode our community's privacy and exploit our misfortunes for the purpose of profit or personal gain."

Fat chance. The media's already dreaming of a White Christmas--and excerpts of his letter wound up in Brooke's Saturday story, which led off with Friday's standing-room-only press conference at which Boulder police commander Mark Beckner, the new lead investigator on the Ramsey case, introduced his team and revealed that the Ramseys are still under the "umbrella of suspicion." If White really wants to be left alone, he'd better hope Beckner never makes an arrest. Wayne Wicks, who's been coordinating the media consortium at the Oklahoma City bombing trials, late last month polled news organizations to determine if they'd join a similar consortium should the Ramsey case ever go to trial--and the response was overwhelming. "Here we have 168 killed, and we have 74 news agencies," Wicks told the Times. "Here we have JonBenet, and in one week we have 160 agencies."

And plenty of stories. This week Boulder shut up Sergeant Larry Mason--who was booted off the case after ten days, allegedly because he'd leaked info to the media--with a $10,000 payment; in return, Mason won't sue Commander John Eller, who had led the Ramsey team until this fall, when Boulder police chief Tom "Next Question" Koby took him off the case. Eller has already announced that he'll be retiring from the Boulder force after the first of the year; he'll precede his chief out the door by several months, since Koby announced last month that he'll be leaving his position by the end of 1998. The day after that announcement, Koby's troops gave him his second no-confidence vote of the year.

Deep in the heart of Texas, Koby's mentor, former Houston police chief Lee P. Brown (whom Koby quoted at a press conference back when Koby was having press conferences), won a mayoral runoff Saturday. Could Koby have his eye on warmer, less majestic climes? Next question.

Give 'em enough hope: Robert "Smilin' Bob" Peiser, the "turnaround artist" who over the past year has taken Western Pacific Airlines into a financial nosedive, was a veritable Cheshire cat at last week's "fly or die" hearing at U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Peiser had good reason to wear a grin--it was obvious from the start of the eleven-hour hearing that U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Sidney Brooks had no interest in playing the part of the bad guy and pulling the plug on Smilin' Bob's cash-sucking carrier. As he has throughout the airline's tortured bankruptcy, Brooks repeatedly asked creditors' attorneys if they really thought it would be better for them if he turned down a dubious bail-out plan and "let everything collapse tomorrow." Then Brooks proceeded to give his blessing to an incredibly risky life-support plan that will keep the airline alive--barely--for at least a few more days.

That salvage plan calls for Smith Management Company of New York to dump $10 million into Westpac--cash that will disappear immediately to pay overdue aircraft leases and day-to-day operations costs like jet fuel and employee salaries. That'll give Westpac a few days to miraculously revive itself through Smith's and Peiser's financial wizardry. But even with the $10 million infusion from Smith, Westpac's own projections show the airline with negative cash flows by this coming Monday. And as local aviation consultant Mike Boyd points out, "Judging from the fact that Westpac's projections are about as reliable as Mexican election returns, they're probably going to run out of cash sometime before that."

Westpac is hoping that Smith will come to its rescue by tossing another $20 million down the rathole sometime in the next few days. But Smith is under no obligation to do that--in fact, it has retained the right to simply open the cargo doors and jump out, a la skyjacker D.B. Cooper, protected by a golden parachute that includes a "superpriority" position granted to it by Brooks. That "superpriority" position gives Smith the right to collect its $10 million before any of the other creditors get their money back--including aircraft lessors who've been forced by Brooks to let Westpac keep flying their planes even though they haven't been paid.

"If for some reason there's a meltdown and you take all the assets and turn them into cash and pay Smith back, the question is, is there anything left?" asks Duncan Barber, an attorney representing Babcock and Brown, a leasing company that owns two of Westpac's 737s. "They're in first position for the whole $10 million, including interest and attorneys' fees."

Given Westpac's negative net worth and low number of post-holiday bookings, other creditors shouldn't count on getting anything for Christmas other than a lump of coal with a thank-you card from Peiser attached. But the thinking seems to be that since everyone's screwed anyway, they may as well roll the dice and let the Smith gambit play out. "My gut level on the whole thing is that the judge, I think correctly from his perspective, jumped at the only thing that would keep the airline going in the near term," says Boyd. "It's like the English bulldog theory: The bulldog can't worry about anything but getting its next breath."

Boyd says Westpac needs a fundamental change in management strategy if it's to have any chance of pulling out of its death spiral. However, that doesn't seem likely given the apparently cozy relationship that Peiser--who spent part of his time on the witness stand last Wednesday in Courtroom E bragging about his "network" of big-money connections--enjoys with the crew at Smith. It was only after Peiser moved the airline to Denver from Colorado Springs last summer that Westpac really started hemorrhaging cash--$21 million in the third quarter alone--but there's no sign that Smith plans to back away from Peiser's vision of Westpac as the Southwest Airlines of Denver, sending fleets of planes out nose-to-nose with United. Hometown carrier Frontier was doing relatively well with its lower-profile approach--fewer planes, fewer flights--until Westpac arrived to give it competition. Now both carriers are losing money. "Westpac is wedded to trying to be a 100-flights-a-day airline in Denver, and that's impossible with United," notes Boyd. "We had one of those once--it's called Continental." Adds the consultant, "It's like the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. It's still a mathematical certainty this sucker's going down. I hope I'm wrong. But I can't see how they can generate enough revenue in the dead of winter to survive."

Ironically, considering all the hoopla about Westpac's low fares, the main reason Peiser moved to Denver in the first place was so he could charge higher rates. Instead, notes Boyd, "he jumped from the frying pan into the rotisserie."

Meanwhile, there's this rosy bit of news: Westpac still owes DIA--which not so long ago was talking about giving it a $5.5 million taxpayer subsidy--about $6 million in pre-bankruptcy gate rentals and landing fees. Which means that if the carrier crashes, everybody gets to help cover its losses--possibly through higher ticket prices. Happy holidays, Smilin' Bob!

The honor bar: Three months ago Denver City Attorney Dan Muse was downright gallant in defending the hefty legal bills of private attorney Anne McGihon, who'd been retained to represent the city's interests in a tangled sex-discrimination suit filed by police officer Miriam Reed. (Among other things, Reed claims she was demoted because she supported former councilwoman Mary DeGroot rather than Wellington Webb in the 1995 mayoral race.) At the time, Muse insisted that the hiring of McGihon, a local Democratic Party activist, was prompted by an attorney shortage in his employment-law division rather than political concerns and that it would be "unfair" to remove her from the case just because her firm's bills--in excess of $350,000 at that point--had already exceeded the city funds budgeted for the case for the entire year ("The People's Hired Gun," September 18). "I'm honor-bound as a matter of law and personal integrity to let that person handle the case," Muse told our intrepid reporter. "As long as she handles this lawsuit to my satisfaction, she'll continue to handle the lawsuit for the next five years if necessary."

But the grousing about McGihon's legal fees--first reported in Westword--just kept getting louder as the months dragged on. Last week, only days after Denver City Council reluctantly approved another $197,000 in fees, McGihon's firm was unceremoniously removed from the case; Muse's office reportedly will handle it from here on out.

Which means no more Democratic milkmaids squeezing this cash cow.

Who's on first?: Until this week, Guion S. Bluford Jr. was officially the country's first black astronaut. But on Monday, Major Robert Lawrence Jr., who died in a training flight in 1967 before he could ever blast off into space, was elevated to that honor. And where does that leave local sculptor and former Air Force test pilot Ed Dwight, who's often billed as "America's first black astronaut"? (See, for example, the Web page for the Black Patriots Memorial, which Dwight was commissioned to create.) Back where he was in 1961, as the first black accepted into the astronaut-training program. Dwight, however, failed to make the final cut.

Thirst for information: According to the first paragraph of a copyrighted story on the front page of Sunday's Denver Post, "John Afshar still remembers the day eight years ago when he went to turn on the kitchen faucet and nothing came out except a faint hissing sound." But few Post readers probably remembered a similar-sounding story in the November 1996 National Geographic: "John Afshar, a fireman, and his family woke up one winter morning in 1987 in their home in Braley Acres, south of Chatfield Reservoir in Douglas County, to discover that his account was overdrawn--his well had dried up."

And then, of course, there was the February 7, 1996, Westword story that first broke the news of Douglas County's declining aquifer, which focused on Afshar's neighbors--and netted reporter Stuart Steers a Best of the West award for growth-and-development reporting.

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