The Siege

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

"The sheriff could have taken the baton and run with it, but he didn't," Manzanares says. "Now, unfortunately, we're not talking anymore."


Even without public meetings, the citizens of Costilla County found ways to communicate their displeasure to the sheriff. Although no lawsuits have been filed yet against Mestas's department, letters of intent to sue the county, a prerequisite to litigation, have been piling up at the county commissioners' office.

One letter comes from George Valdez, himself a former county commissioner. Last January, Valdez was leaving the Community Bank in San Luis when a silent alarm accidentally went off. Responding deputy James Neblick confronted the 73-year-old Valdez and a female bank patron as they were leaving the building and ordered them to the ground. Valdez and the woman were handcuffed and made to lie face down in the street for what Valdez calls "a substantial period of time" while Neblick checked out the alarm. Valdez claims physical and psychological injuries and violation of his constitutional rights.

Another letter comes from local attorney and municipal judge Melanie Merritt. She and her husband, Rodney, operate the Flying Hog Saloon in Blanca. On October 28, 2000, Ronald Maish, also known as "Cowboy Bob," visited the Flying Hog shortly before perishing in a fire at his trailer. In statements to various newspapers, Undersheriff Lou Pugliese indicated that his office was investigating allegations that the Merritts had continued to serve drinks to Maish "well after he was intoxicated."

Merritt's letter states that she and her husband turned over a videotape to the district attorney and liquor-enforcement investigators that cleared them of any wrongdoing. Even though the Costilla County Sheriff's Department had no jurisdiction in the case -- Blanca has its own town police -- Pugliese continued to make "defamatory statements," Merritt claims, and two deputies came to the bar to harass and threaten the couple, "slamming gloved hands in [their] faces." The Merritts claim financial damage, physical and emotional injury, and violation of their constitutional rights.

A third letter comes from Jimmy Velasquez, a Vietnam vet and San Luis resident who was pulled over for alleged speeding on the evening of October 17, 1999. According to Velasquez, a deputy named Thompson became increasingly belligerent as Velasquez attempted to perform roadside sobriety tests. He claims that Thompson and another deputy beat him while he was handcuffed, kneeing him in the back, kicking him and hitting him with a baton.

Velasquez's passenger was taken to detox. Velasquez was taken to an emergency room in Alamosa and then charged with driving under the influence. According to a report written by Deputy Sue Baldwin, Sheriff Mestas informed her that two other officers "had witnessed Deputy Thompson use excessive force on Mr. Velasquez." Velasquez claims physical and emotional injury, broken dentures, defamation of character and violation of his constitutional rights.

According to Sheriff Mestas, an internal investigation determined that there was no excessive force used in arresting Velasquez -- who, he says, was resisting arrest. (Velasquez denies that he put up any kind of fight.) He also stands by his officers' actions in the Valdez and Merritt cases.

Deputy Thompson no longer works for Costilla County. With a mixture of pride and regret, Mestas notes that he had to replace five officers last year -- half his force. "They all went to bigger departments," he says. "There was a time when, if you were a Costilla County deputy, you wouldn't get hired anywhere else."

Because the starting salary of a deputy is around $19,000 a year, most of his new hires tend to be rookies, fresh out of one of the police academies. "I think maybe they feel they have to prove themselves a little more," Mestas says, "and maybe they're harder to talk to."

Especially if you're in fifth grade. Another potential lawsuit stems from an incident two months ago at the local elementary school. Tonya Sipple's ten-year-old daughter got into an argument with a teacher on the playground and was ordered to the principal's office. She refused to go, getting more hysterical by the moment. Other teachers restrained her and summoned a female deputy who served as the school's resource officer.

"Then she got veryupset," Tonya Sipple says. "She wanted to call her mom and dad, but the police officer decided to handcuff her. They told us they handcuffed her to keep her from hurting herself and that she was cuffed very loosely. That wasn't true. She had marks on her wrists from being cuffed so tightly."

The cuffs were removed in the principal's office. According to Sipple, the deputy tried to question her daughter about the incident even though her parents had not yet arrived. Sipple has since removed her daughter from the school.

"They didn't need to handcuff her," she says now. "She's never had any other incident in her life. She was wrong for getting into the argument, but this is ridiculous. I have four daughters, and I always raised them to think the police officer is your friend."


It would be easy to dismiss complaints about the Costilla County deputies as a consequence of the bare-bones training and inexperience of underpaid rookies, except for one thing. Much of the criticism has been heaped on an officer who, aside from Mestas, has the most experience and training of anyone on the force: Undersheriff Louis Pugliese.

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