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Vendetta

Who's a bigger nuisance -- Douglas Bruce or Denver's property police?

"This began in earnest two months after tax limitation passed," he says. "I'd had problems in Denver prior to that, but they were minor compared to what happened after TABOR."

Denver officials "played games" with him, Bruce says. Nasty games. The previous owner of a building on Humboldt Street with a cracked wall was told to put a fence around it; as soon as Bruce bought it, city inspectors gave him five days to rebuild the entire two-story wall. He sank money into apartments in a building on Lipan Street, only to see the place rezoned for industrial use. (The property remains vacant today.) Sidewalks and carports were torn out, replaced, inspected, then ordered to be replaced again.

One day, after a work crew had spent hours cleaning up a property on Gilpin Street, Bruce had a call from a city employee complaining about the "mess" in the yard. Bruce could hear laughter and guffaws in the background. He returned to the place on Gilpin and found four concrete pillars in the yard -- the kind used in freeway construction. He was ordered to remove them within 48 hours.

Pretty damned funny. Lying bastard crooked idiots.

Another property owner, who asked not to be named out of concerns about retaliation, recalls a conversation with a Denver building inspector not long after the TABOR victory had made Bruce a household name. "He basically said, 'We'll teach Doug Bruce not to fuck with us,'" the owner says. "The city is kind of lazy, but if you piss them off, they're like a hornet's nest. They'll come kick your ass. I think, because of his profile, Doug pissed them off."

Denver Assistant City Attorney Kory Nelson denies that his office or the building department singled out Bruce in any way. "There was no vendetta on our part," Nelson says. "One of Denver's biggest problems is absentee property owners. In many cases, they don't follow the requirements of having an agent that we can contact. Things go on at these properties they don't know about, and maybe they don't care."

Bruce says he spent up to $200,000 a year repairing his properties, but he couldn't keep up with the vandals and the city's demands. Contractors were reluctant to work for him, he adds, because of the city's get-tough stance toward him. The citations multiplied, and so did the court dates and administrative hearings; at one point, a city hearing officer was assessing him fines of $999 a day per building for a string of duplexes on Martin Luther King Boulevard. He was successful at getting most of the fines and charges dismissed before trial or thrown out on appeal, but the process took years.

In 1993, Bruce was convicted of four misdemeanor violations of the building code involving the cracked building on Humboldt. He was fined and sentenced to 28 days of community service. Claiming "forty or fifty gross constitutional violations" in the trial before Denver County Judge Andrew Armatas, Bruce sought review by the federal court. He got it three years later, when U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch threw out the conviction and blasted Denver's county court for failing to preserve a complete record of the trial. But Matsch also had harsh words for Bruce, who had represented himself in the case: "Mr. Bruce has consistently confused and confounded the course of the litigation in the county court by alternating between hyper-technicality and informality, in gross disregard of applicable rules and procedures."

The Humboldt matter was just a warm-up, though, for Bruce's most heated confrontation with building inspectors and the county court: the infamous hole-in-the-roof case.

In the early hours of July 9, 1994, firefighters responded to smoke billowing from the eves of 2426 Tremont Street, a vacant house near Five Points that had been one of Bruce's bargain-basement acquisitions. The fire crew chopped a hole through the roof and extinguished the blaze, which had been set by trespassers. Empty beer and whiskey bottles and gang graffiti were strewn about the place.

What followed was an excruciating pas de deux, the Dance of the Red Tape and the Big Fat Excuses. The city claimed the building was unsafe. Bruce thought otherwise. "Their theory was that if someone broke into my house, went upstairs and stood under the hole in the roof when it was raining, they'd get wet," he says. "Apparently, I have a duty to make my place warm and dry for burglars."

The city wanted Bruce to fix the hole in the roof. Bruce couldn't initiate any "construction activity" -- even putting temporary boards over the hole -- without a permit, but he claimed he couldn't find a contractor to take the job. After six months, he finally wrangled a homeowner's permit, even though he was not an occupant of the building. But that permit didn't provide for a full repair of the roof, and he was soon ordered to stop work because he was exceeding the scope of the permit. Another permit was issued, then revoked.

To shore up their case, city officials took the unusual step of obtaining a warrant to enter the premises in search of additional evidence. According to testimony, it may have been the only such warrant sought by the Denver Building Department in close to two decades. A letter sent to Bruce informing him of the action was returned from his post office box unclaimed.

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