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The Siege

The new sheriff vowed to clean up the town of San Luis. For many locals, the price was too high.

Cynthia Devereaux is on the phone, calling everybody who's anybody in Costilla County.

She calls Father Pat Valdez, the parish priest in San Luis. She calls Patti Swift, the county judge. She calls her father, Ernesto Sandoval, the former county sheriff. She calls the neighbors.

Her message is simple, delivered in a breathless and frightened voice: The police are at the door. The police are kicking the door. They're kung-fuing the door and banging on the window. Victor and the baby and I are trapped here, in the cabin in San Pablo, and they're trying to break in. They don't have a search warrant. They don't have any reason to be here. They want to arrest us, but we didn't doanything.

This is not the sort of call one expects on a spring evening in rural Costilla County, a sparsely populated confluence of scenery and history at the southern edge of the San Luis Valley. Certainly, it's not the sort of call one expects from Cynthia Devereaux, who happens to be the president of the local school board. Victor, her husband, is a prominent attorney in San Luis, the county seat. The idea of Victor and Cynthia Devereaux holed up in a cabin, under siege by the cops... But in Costilla County these days, anything is possible.

Come quickly, Cynthia pleads. See for yourself.

Ernesto Sandoval is one of the first to arrive. He sees three patrol cars pulled up around the cabin. He sees Costilla County Undersheriff Louis Pugliese at the front door, trying to kick it in. Trying, and getting nowhere. Pugliese sees Sandoval and comes over to his truck to order him to leave.

This is how Sandoval remembers the conversation: "He told me to get the hell out of here. I told him, 'There's no way I'm getting out of here. This is my family you're messing with.'

"I told him I was sheriff for sixteen years, and I never invaded anybody's privacy without due process. I asked him if he had a warrant. He said, 'I'm trying to get one.'"

Sandoval gets out of his truck. Now in his late seventies, the former sheriff had back surgery a few years ago and walks with a cane. Pugliese eyes the cane. "He says to me, 'What are you going to do with that -- hit me with it?' He had his hand on his holster. It was too much. I told him I had better sense than that."

Father Pat arrives. He, too, is told to leave. He, too, refuses, standing quietly by the gate to the property, an unimpeachable witness to whatever might occur. Neighbors begin to gather on the road. Pugliese directs one of his deputies to call for additional cars from other agencies, including the Alamosa County Sheriff's Department and the Colorado State Patrol, to control the crowd and close the road.

One of the men in the crowd describes Pugliese as a "fucker" and an "asshole." Pugliese recognizes the man as someone he'd stopped for speeding. The man is another former Costilla County sheriff.

Mary Atkins is one of the neighbors summoned to the scene. Pugliese tells her to leave. She tells him she won't interfere, but she wants to observe to make sure nothing bad happens.

This is how she recalls the rest of the exchange: "He said it was a crime-scene area. I told him I didn't see any crime tape. He didn't like that too much. He said I needed to move a hundred yards down the road, and when I questioned that, he said, 'Didn't you go to school?'-- insinuating that I wasn't educated. Then he accused me of drinking."

Atkins has lived in Costilla County for five years. By local standards, she's still a newcomer; many of the predominantly Hispanic residents of San Luis, Colorado's oldest town, have family ties to the area stretching back six or seven generations. But Atkins has been around long enough to recognize some of the county's problems. Like an overwhelming majority of the residents, she voted to elect John Mestas as sheriff two years ago. Mestas had promised to clean up the county, to crack down on drunk driving and druggies and burglaries, to make everyone feel safe.

Tonight, though, watching the police in action, pumped up and blustering, bullying the neighbors and aching to bust Victor Devereaux for God knows what offense, Atkins no longer feels safe. These guys, she decides, have been watching way too many cop shows.

Since the siege at the Devereaux cabin on April 26, a lot of people in Costilla County have come to the same conclusion. The standoff that night had begun as a routine traffic stop; by the time it ended, ninety minutes later, it had become the catalyst for a recall campaign against Mestas that appears to be headed to a vote later this summer. Yet it's hardly an isolated incident. The sheriff's critics number in the hundreds, and they are bursting with stories of overzealous deputies, brutal arrests, traffic enforcement bordering on harassment, bungled investigations, children and elderly people who were handcuffed or threatened at gunpoint -- a litany of complaints about a smothering police presence that has sown fear and outrage in the county.

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