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Wirtz Case Scenario

A jailhouse lawyer takes on The Man in Grand County.

Wirtz started serving his state term in the summer of 1996, but his dispute with Trainor was far from over. Last year Wirtz returned to Grand County for a hearing on a motion to reconsider his sentence. He subpoenaed the undersheriff as a witness and cross-examined him at length. Trainor admitted that the jail had taken inmates' money without following proper procedures and that he'd told Wirtz he was going to continue to do it his way. He also admitted treating Wirtz differently from other prisoners by denying him access to canteen items.

When Trainor denied trying to bribe Wirtz to drop his legal actions against the jail, Wirtz produced a memo from the undersheriff offering Wirtz access to clean clothing if he would withdraw his complaints to the court. Trainor then explained that he was "just trying to get you to be a little cooperative with us...I dangled a carrot in front of your nose."

Trainor's testimony wasn't the only drama of the hearing. On the second day, Trainor approached Jerry Lips, a Wirtz supporter who'd brought him suits in jail to wear during courthouse appearences and had sat at Wirtz's table in court with attorney LaBarre. Trainor told Lips he was under arrest for impersonating an attorney.

Practice makes perfect: Jailhouse lawyer Robert Wirtz Jr.
Practice makes perfect: Jailhouse lawyer Robert Wirtz Jr.

"Quite frankly, I was scared," says Lips, the publisher of several aviation newspapers and the Centennial Town Journal. "I said, 'Are you kidding?' He said, 'Are you resisting arrest?'"

Lips was told that the only reason he was allowed to bring clothes to Wirtz before the hearing was that he'd told jail staff that he was Wirtz's lawyer. Lips denied making any such claim and insisted on seeing Sheriff Rod Johnson. After a brief meeting with Johnson, Lips was released. "The sheriff said, 'If you know what's good for you, don't ever come back to Grand County,'" Lips recalls. "Then they followed my wife and me out of town, all the way to Granby, and another sheriff's car followed us from there halfway to Winter Park."

Wirtz lost the bid to have his sentence reconsidered, but the hearing gave him more ammo in his feud with Grand County. Citing Trainor's own testimony, he filed papers with Judge Doucette seeking criminal prosecution of the undersheriff for theft, bribery and retaliation. Although a three-year statute of limitations would normally prohibit these charges such a long time after the events occurred, Wirtz argued that the crimes had only been "discovered by the court" at the hearing. He also contended that the alleged "intimidation" of Lips was a continuation of the retaliation and made all of the acts prosecutable.

Last summer, Judge Doucette agreed that the matter belonged in the hands of a special prosecutor, because the Grand County district attorney's office, which had prosecuted Wirtz in his theft case, had a clear conflict of interest. The judge appointed Michael Goodbee, the district attorney for the Fifth Judicial District, to look into the matter.

In February, Goodbee announced that he'd decided not to file charges against Trainor. Skirting the issue of what happened in the jail five years ago, he concluded that the detention of Lips was "reasonable" rather than an act of retaliation, and therefore, all of Wirtz's other claims were barred by the statute of limitations.

"It was pretty apparent to me that these people flat out don't get along," the prosecutor says. "Whether it was because of personality conflicts or prosecutable crimes is a separate question."

Wirtz isn't discouraged. He recently managed to have Judge Doucette recuse himself from any further dealings with the Trainor affair -- since, as the judge who sentenced Wirtz, he, too, has a possible conflict. A retired judge was appointed to consider Wirtz's appeal of Goodbee's decision. "If I can show this judge that the statute of limitations doesn't apply, there's going to be a prosecution," Wirtz says.

Trainor says he's not too worried about Robert Wirtz. "He's obviously been a thorn in our side," he says. "But then, he's got a lot of time on his hands."

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