By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
This all started over twenty-five bucks.
Maybe if his jailers had let him keep his money five years ago, Robert Wirtz Jr. wouldn't have embarked on his seemingly endless campaign against the powers that be in Grand County. But they took his money, and Wirtz wants his payback. Over the years, the dispute has mushroomed from testy verbal exchanges into a full-blown criminal investigation, complete with special prosecutor, courtroom fireworks and a mounting pile of documents alleging official misconduct, theft, bribery, retaliation and intimidation of witnesses. The effort hasn't produced any tangible results for Wirtz or any criminal charges against his nemesis, Grand County Undersheriff Glen Trainor. But Wirtz says he isn't licked yet.
"I'll win the day in court before any impartial judge," vows Wirtz, now a resident of the Fremont Correctional Facility outside Cañon City. "My motivation? The truth. Mr. Trainor thinks he's above the law."
Undersheriff Trainor denies any wrongdoing. He says Wirtz is just another convict pursuing a vendetta against his keepers. "I describe him as one of the worst-behaved inmates we've had during my career as jail administrator," Trainor says. "He wasn't violent, but he felt he could do whatever he wanted and not be accountable for it."
Most inmates' complaints about their treatment never find a way out of jail or prison; if they do make it to court, they're routinely dismissed as frivolous. But Wirtz is no ordinary convict: Although he has no college degree, his legal skills have drawn praise from lawyers, judges and legal journals.
"He probably knows the law better than most attorneys who do criminal work, and maybe better than a lot of judges," says Colorado Springs attorney Edward LaBarre, who has assisted Wirtz in his battles. "There's no doubt in my mind of the validity of his allegations. If anyone would take a look at the merits of [them], I think the undersheriff would be in trouble."
Now 35, Wirtz picked up his expertise in prison law libraries after being convicted for a string of alcohol-related offenses, including bar fights and drunk driving. His troubles in Colorado began in 1992, after he'd fled from parole in Oklahoma. One night he found himself at a rowdy party at a ranch in Grand County. His hostess, who'd been drinking heavily, showed him four "bricks" of bills, worth about $40,000, that were wrapped in plastic in her closet.
"I ended up taking two of the bricks and went on the run until that money was gone," Wirtz says.
He eventually turned himself in for his parole violation in Oklahoma, and he wrote to the woman to apologize, promising to pay the money back. In 1995, after he'd completed his sentence in Oklahoma, he was extradited to Colorado to face theft charges. He'd been in the Grand County Jail only a few weeks, awaiting trial, when Undersheriff Trainor confiscated a $25 money order that had been sent to Wirtz. It was the policy of the jail, Trainor explained, to use such funds for "reimbursement for costs of care."
Other prisoners told Wirtz that they'd had hundreds of dollars taken from them by jail authorities. "It was routine there," he says. "They were upset about it, but nobody was questioning the legality of it."
Wirtz studied the law that supposedly allowed Trainor to take his money and discovered that it only applied to convicted prisoners, not those still awaiting trial. He also wrote to then-state treasurer Bill Owens and learned that Grand County wasn't forwarding the collected funds to the state, as the law required. Wirtz filed a complaint in court, and Judge Richard Doucette issued a writ that his money be returned.
"I went back to jail from court and wrote a note to Mr. Trainor, asking him politely to return my money," Wirtz recalls. "Five minutes later Trainor came storming into my cell, veins bulging out of his head, telling me he's going to get me for perjury and practicing law without a license. The district attorney's office had an ex parte [one-sided] meeting with Judge Doucette and got the writ rescinded."
Trainor notes that the state legislature has since changed the law, making it easier for jails to collect funds from inmates to defray operating and medical costs. He also insists that he was "doing the right thing" at the time. "We were being fairly consistent with a lot of other jails in the state," Trainor says. "Probably the only mistake that was made was when I told Wirtz why we were doing it; I incorrectly quoted the statute."
Wirtz spent most of his six months in the Grand County Jail in solitary confinement, with little access to clean clothes and canteen items. Accounts differ as to the nature of his infractions. Trainor says he was caught smuggling candy bars and violating numerous other rules. Wirtz says he was written up for petty offenses, such as making a rose and vase out of toilet paper, and he was actually being punished for seeking legal redress for his situation and those of other inmates. He became so desperate to get out of Trainor's jail, he says, that he accepted a plea bargain in his theft case "under duress," which netted him twelve years in state prison.
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.
"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."