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

One very rare case had to do with an innocent owner named Douglas Bruce. In December 1998, police acting on a tip found a Baggie of cocaine in the back yard of a rental unit at 3700 Gaylord Street and arrested the tenant, Carlos Hernandez-Retana. Several months later, the city filed a public-nuisance action against the property and its owner, Douglas Bruce. City officials wanted $8,000 in fines from Bruce, Hernandez-Retana and the tenant's wife. They also wanted Bruce to evict Hernandez-Retana immediately or face the prospect of having the unit shut down for three years.

Bruce denounced the action as a frame-up. Hernandez-Retana was his handyman, he explained, and had originally called the police to alert them that another tenant Bruce was evicting had a warrant out for his arrest. An associate of the evictee accused Hernandez-Retana of dealing drugs. Anyone could have tossed the cocaine, which was found on top of a bag of charcoal near a six-foot fence, into the handyman's yard, Bruce says.

Nelson disagrees, of course. "I don't think an NBA all-star could have made that shot," he says. But Bruce is just as adamant that the dope was planted.

William Taylor
Man on a mission: Douglas Bruce tangled repeatedly with Denver officials over his properties.
Anthony Camera
Man on a mission: Douglas Bruce tangled repeatedly with Denver officials over his properties.

"What's the likelihood that someone would have cocaine open to the elements?" he asks. "Don't you think he'd hide it in the house rather than outside, where there are small children playing? Their case was so pathetic, it makes me wonder about their judgment as well as their honesty."

Bruce told the city attorney's office that he'd evict Hernandez-Retana if he was convicted of a drug offense. That wasn't good enough for the city.

The irony of the situation wasn't lost on Bruce. They had gone after him for his vacant properties, and now they were after the one complex where he actually had tenants...and they wanted to seize one of his units...and keep it vacant...for three years!

As the case lurched toward trial, Bruce found an internal police memo written the day after this handyman's arrest: "This is a Douglas Bruce property. Let me know if you can do a nuisance case on this, as I know that Neighborhood Inspection Services has files on many of his properties."

Crooked bastard idiot liars.

Bruce handed the memo to reporters and hollered vendetta. He tossed a bag of cornstarch on the lawn of Assistant City Attorney Kurt Stiegelmeier's home and took a photo of it to demonstrate how easily an innocent owner could be set up for prosecution. Incensed, Stiegelmeier obtained a restraining order against Bruce -- and Hernandez-Retana, who had nothing to do with the stunt.

Bruce countered by asking Denver County Judge Robert Crew to remove the city attorney from the case, arguing that Stiegelmeier "now feels domestic, public image and peer pressure to 'get' Mr. Bruce, regardless of the merits or lack of merits of the case.... [In a phone conversation] Mr. Bruce heard Mr. Stiegelmeier literally scream on the phone repeatedly, 'I'm going to take your property! I'm going to take your property!'"

Judge Crew ordered the city to appoint a special prosecutor. A spokesman for the city attorney's office said the office would abide by the judge's decision and remove itself from the case -- and then the city promptly appealed the ruling. But earlier this year, after the Colorado Supreme Court declined to review Crew's ruling, the city moved to dismiss the case, stating that "it is no longer in the interests of justice to proceed."

Asked why the city chose to dismiss the case, Nelson points out that Bruce sold the building during the appeals. "The handyman was no longer on the property, and Mr. Bruce no longer owned it," he says. "The nuisance had already been abated."

Bruce says the dismissal is further proof that the city was after him all along. "My handyman had moved long before the case was settled, so that wasn't the basis for the dismissal," he says. "If the property was the culprit, why did they dismiss it when I was no longer the owner?"

The criminal case against Hernandez-Retana evaporated, too; he eventually pleaded guilty to a felony trespassing count and received a deferred judgment, which means his record could be wiped clean in two years. It probably didn't help the city's case that the two officers involved in finding the cocaine were later convicted of misconduct for mishandling evidence seized in drug investigations.

All of which leaves a little matter of $5,000 that Bruce says the city still owes him.

When police arrested Hernandez-Retana, they found more than $4,300 in cash in the apartment, plus some checks and money orders. They seized the money as part of their drug investigation. Bruce says the pile of money consisted of rent payments collected by his handyman for him and money he had given Hernandez-Retana to pay for building supplies and laborers Bruce had hired. But Denver's top prosecutor says the city took possession of that money through forfeiture action long ago.

"He's not going to get it back," says Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter. "There was a lawsuit filed against that money. There was a default judgment entered. There was no indication that was Bruce's money. Nobody ever notified us."

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