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Pugliese did not respond to Westword's requests for an interview, but court records indicate that the 45-year-old undersheriff has had a long and somewhat tumultuous career in law enforcement. He worked for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office for four years before joining the Colorado State Patrol in 1987. As a state trooper, Pugliese soon acquired a sizable reputation for his aggressive enforcement of DUI laws. He won awards for his high rate of arrests and convictions and earned certification as a "drug recognition expert" who could sniff out motorists under the influence of a wide range of illegal substances.
Ten years ago Pugliese was transferred from Golden to the CSP office in Fairplay. His reputation preceded him, recalls Dale McPhetres, a deputy public defender based in Summit County. "Lou had appointed himself to clean up Park County," McPhetres says. "People were joking about how many cases the DA's office was going to have."
McPhetres clashed with Pugliese in court on several occasions. "Lou was just too, too gung ho," the public defender says. "When you got a DUI report from Lou, you could just punch in somebody else's name for the defendant. It was like he had it on a template. He alwayshad reasonable suspicion to stop somebody."
One case, McPhetres recalls, concerned a young woman who'd been drinking and dirt-biking until she had an encounter with a tree that left a branch sticking out of her face. As she was being loaded into an ambulance, Pugliese conducted sobriety tests on her; the tests were later ruled inadmissible as evidence because of the unusual circumstances in which they were done.
"He sees himself as a drug warrior and a crusader for justice," McPhetres says of Pugliese. "He's out there doing God's work. But in a small county, there isn't a lot of big-time crime. It's drugs and alcohol. And he started stepping on people's toes."
In early 1997, Pugliese was fired by the Colorado State Patrol. He's now suing the agency, claiming that his dismissal resulted from his efforts to launch an investigation into drug-dealing and other illegal activities at the Park County Detention Center, a jail operated by a private contractor; his refusal to look the other way, Pugliese claims, led to clashes with the county sheriff and his own superiors. But former sheriff Paul Ottmer told the Rocky Mountain Newsthat Pugliese was "too aggressive with people in Park County." In court documents, the state's lawyers have described Pugliese as a "lone wolf" and a "loose cannon" who was fired because of his "repeated and flagrant transgressions of CSP directives and policies."
"I feel very strongly that Lou is a whistleblower," says Pugliese's attorney, David Miller, former legal director of the Colorado chapter of the ACLU. "Not only is he a good person, but he takes his job very seriously. Some of the people he worked for in the past, believe it or not, actually had a problem with that. But it's hard to complain about a guy who's doing a good job of enforcing the law."
After losing his state job, Pugliese hired on briefly as a deputy in Trinidad. Then Mestas, who had worked with him in Fairplay, brought him to Costilla County as undersheriff. In his current position, Pugliese has continued to rack up arrests -- including 32 DUI arrests last year, earning him recognition from the Colorado Department of Transportation as one of the top drunk-driving enforcers in the state. He's also still drawing heat.
Several locals say they believe that Pugliese has singled them out for special scrutiny, pulling them over on any ready pretext. Joe Gallegos, the Pepsi-drinking former sheriff, says Pugliese "has got a hair up his butt for me." Recall supporter Richard Martinez tells a story, complete with snappy dialogue, of being stopped simply because he was driving around town in his Colorado Avalanche jacket.
"He asks me if I'm a gangbanger," Martinez says. "I say, 'I'm an Avalanche fan. You got a problem with it?' He says, 'Are you getting smart with me?' I say, 'You're the one who has the attitude.' He says, 'I don't want to see you in town.' I say, 'Is there a law against it?' He says, 'Why don't you get out of that car and I'll show you?' And he unbuckles his gun. I say, 'Are you threatening me?' He says, 'I want you to turn that crap down.' I say, 'It's not loud. It's not hurting anybody else.' He said he was going to take my stereo. He's done this twice now."
The most dramatic story of an alleged vendetta comes from attorney Victor Devereaux. "Lou Pugliese has stopped me probably eighteen times," says Devereaux. "He's never issued me a ticket. He says, 'Mr. Devereaux, I need to see some ID.' He knows who I am.
"I've had literally dozens of people say to me, 'You've got to stand up to these people. If they can do this to you, they do whatever they want to the rest of us.' There's probably some truth to that. I believe this guy came with a sordid history and that he's very dangerous."