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A New Sheriff in Town

Even in these troubled times, respect for the law sometimes depends on who's wearing the badge. Last week, voters in rural Costilla County ousted controversial sheriff John Mestas in a special recall election by a count of 664 to 608.

Vowing to clean up the county, Mestas was elected three years ago with an overwhelming 80 percent of the vote. But the former Colorado State Patrol officer's popularity quickly deteriorated in the wake of widespread outrage over his tactics, including allegations of brutal arrests, bungled investigations and traffic enforcement bordering on harassment ("The Siege," June 21).

"He went from a landslide to a mudslide," says San Luis attorney Victor Devereaux, one of the leaders of the recall effort.

Former undersheriff Roger Benton was sworn in as Mestas's successor on October 17. He faces the formidable challenge of reconciling a community that was bitterly divided over Mestas's law-and-order campaign and of operating an agency that is reportedly facing a budget deficit in excess of $110,000.

Benton and Mestas did not respond to requests for comment. According to Devereaux, though, Mestas acknowledged the deficit at a meeting of the county commissioners. "He said don't worry about it, he'll make it up in [traffic] tickets," Devereaux says.

Mestas had strong support in the recall election from the northern end of the predominantly Hispanic county, including Fort Garland, the town in which he lives. The area contains many new subdivisions populated by retirees and part-time residents. However, in the historic town of San Luis and other southern communities, the smothering police presence generated numerous complaints about declining tourism, questionable DUI arrests, nitpicking traffic tickets and more serious incidents involving supposedly belligerent or abusive deputies.

"The division was pretty much north and south," notes Bob Green, editor of the weekly La Sierra. "People in San Luis wanted him gone."

The recall was triggered by a highly public confrontation last spring, in which a routine traffic stop escalated into a siege at a cabin owned by Devereaux and his wife, Cynthia, the daughter of a former Costilla County sheriff. Efforts to kick in the door and arrest Victor Devereaux ended after the district attorney told the police to "back off," saying there was no evidence that a felony had been committed. The Devereauxes say they'd done nothing to provoke the standoff and had been harassed by deputies for months before the incident. The officer who initially stopped the couple -- and later claimed that Victor knocked her down with his car -- no longer works for the department.

Lou Pugliese, Mestas's DUI-busting undersheriff and the lightning rod for much of the criticism of the sheriff's office, is no longer employed there, either; he resigned last week. At the time of his resignation, attorneys were finalizing a cash settlement in Pugliese's lawsuit against various state and county defendants over his 1997 firing from the Colorado State Patrol, which he claimed was the result of his efforts to fight corruption in Park County.

Westword's article about Mestas and his staff was a hot topic during the recall campaign. The sheriff quoted one favorable comment about himself in his campaign literature, while opponents pointed to many of the sheriff's own remarks -- describing San Luis as a town overrun with gangs and lawbreakers -- as indicative of his poor relationship with the community.

"People are ecstatic," Devereaux says of the recall. "They're honking horns. Now the beatings will stop. The harassment will stop. I'm sure Mr. Benton will enforce the law, but not by sticking guns in people's faces and entering houses without a warrant."

 
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