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Keeping Secrets

A well-liked former CIA agent was living another kind of double life in the years before his suicide.

In the days since Boulder activist John Sherwood jumped off Flagstaff Mountain to his death on July 16, his stunned friends, fellow activists and a local journalist have remembered him as a town hero. The suicide note he left for his family explained that he didn't want to face the physical infirmities that come with age; at 76, Sherwood was an avid bicyclist, runner and tennis player who had been suffering from a variety of health problems in recent months. But old age may not have been the only thing Sherwood wanted to avoid: He was scheduled to appear in Boulder County Court on August 6, charged with violating a permanent restraining order in a stalking case against him.

Sherwood was a retired CIA officer who had recruited spies for the United States government and had been involved with the agency's operations in Cuba. He moved to Boulder in 1981. In 1997, he began a new life as a local activist for campaign-finance reform by running, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the Boulder City Council. Two years later he was victorious in an effort, along with fellow reformer Mark Ruzzin, to bring a citizens' initiative to the voters that authorized the City of Boulder to help fund local candidates who agree to limit their election spending.

Ruzzin, who became close to Sherwood while working on the effort and was one of the last people to see him alive, says he knew nothing of his friend's legal troubles. "He was a great man," Ruzzin told the Boulder Daily Camera after learning of Sherwood's death. "He cared very much about the community and making it a better place."

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But while the public was hearing all about Sherwood's crusade for campaign-spending caps, the Boulder police were also becoming well acquainted with him. On April 23, 1998, a 51-year-old Boulder woman filed a restraining order against Sherwood. The woman (who didn't want her name used in this story and wouldn't comment on Sherwood, because she says she doesn't want to sully the image that's been painted of him in the press, and because she is afraid of retribution) told police that Sherwood had been stalking her, sending her unwanted flowers and postcards, riding his bike down her street and lingering outside her house.

The restraining order prohibited Sherwood from coming within one hundred yards of her, but according to Boulder police records, Sherwood violated the order on May 16, 1998, and again on May 22, when he rode by the woman's house on his bike. A neighbor saw Sherwood near the woman's home on those two dates and provided police with a written statement. On May 29, 1998, Sherwood sent the woman a letter saying that he would appeal the restraining order "to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary." The reporting officer noted, "He states that his intent is to make clear what he believes is at stake in this matter, that being his integrity."

On June 9, 1998, Boulder Police Detective K. Yamaguchi issued Sherwood a summons for violating the restraining order. In the police report, Yamaguchi detailed a June 8 phone call with Sherwood. "During my conversation with Sherwood, I learned the following: Sherwood acknowledged knowing [the victim]; Sherwood confirmed that he had been served a copy of a restraining order prohibiting him from contacting [the victim]; Sherwood confirmed writing and mailing the letter to [the victim] regarding his desire to appeal the restraining order; Sherwood denied riding his bike near [the victim's] residence; Sherwood strongly believed that the restraining order was improperly issued and will appeal the judge's ruling. According to the victim and suspect, Sherwood has never threatened physical violence against [the victim]. They have not been involved in an intimate relationship."

The exact nature of their relationship is unclear, but according to the incident summary written by the reporting officer, the woman "is concerned that Sherwood has not ceased his efforts to remain a presence in her life."

Sherwood continued that unwanted presence in September 1998, when he ran into the woman at an art exhibit at the Boulder Public Library. Advertisements for the exhibit had listed the woman as a participant. "Sherwood attended this event and [the victim] told us that she saw him 'four times in a 45-minute time span,'" reads another police report. "She avoided eye contact with Sherwood and did not speak to him. [She] feels that Sherwood knew that she was there and purposely attended for that reason."

Because Sherwood was appealing the restraining order, the woman waited until November to file the police report. Later that month, a detective called Sherwood to inform him that an arrest warrant was on file, but Sherwood wasn't home; Sherwood later called the detective back and left a message saying that he did not go to the art exhibit to see the woman and that he made no attempt to speak to her or to follow her. "In his message, Sherwood asked what he was supposed to do, if every place in Boulder he has to look over his shoulder and under his armpit. Sherwood said this is driving him crazy and that he is very upset... Sherwood also stated that nothing ever happened between him and [the victim] and that she made it all up," the report states.

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