By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Bastard idiot lying crooks.
Douglas Bruce doesn't mince words. Charm and cajolery are not his strong suits. The state's foremost anti-tax activist has been known to accuse state legislators of being both exceedingly greedy and hopelessly stupid, to question their sanity as well as their honesty, to scold and bully and upbraid the very people he's trying to persuade to do the right thing -- which, in Bruce's view, usually comes down to keeping their mitts off the wallets of hardworking, God-fearing taxpayers like Douglas Bruce.
If you really want to get Bruce going, don't bother mentioning the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR), the 1992 tax limitation amendment he authored that changed the way government operates in Colorado. And never mind the many ballot initiatives he's launched since, usually at his own expense, in a quixotic attempt to rein in big-spending politicians and bloated road projects. No, that was all...just...politics. If you really want his best stuff, the rant to end all rants, ask him about his long-running, very personal battle with Denver officials over various dilapidated buildings he's owned around town, a battle that's dragged on through a decade of administrative hearings, trials, appeals and dismissals -- and isn't over yet.
Ask him, and then run for high ground as the tide of vituperation rolls in.
"Denver tried to brand me as a criminal, and I resent the hell out of it," he says. "These are truly corrupt and evil people.... I had to go through this trial with this nightmare judge who doesn't know shit from shinola...totally incompetent...and this other judge is the guy who said I didn't manage my financial affairs very well, and then he filed bankruptcy and claimed he had only $50 in cash...no question, it was a vendetta.... They put the word out to contractors that if you work for Doug Bruce, you're on their shit list...because they're bastards, that's why...out-and-out crooks...liars..."
Crooked lying idiotic bastards.
Sitting in his living room in Colorado Springs, surrounded by boxes of trial transcripts and pleadings, Bruce offers example after example of what he regards as a petty bureaucratic campaign to humiliate, impoverish and destroy him. Since 1992, Denver officials have issued dozens of citations against his boarded-up properties, many of which remained vacant for years, targets for vandalism, graffiti and arson. They've fined him in excess of $300,000, the largest sum ever assessed against an absentee landlord in the city's history. Three years ago, they even slapped liens on an entire city block he owned and tried to close down one of his rental units as a public nuisance, all because a Baggie of cocaine was found on the property.
"It's probably cost Denver at least $100,000 to prosecute me," Bruce says. "If I had to hire an attorney, it would have cost me a hundred grand in legal fees. Plus, it's cost me a lot of time and aggravation."
But over the years, Bruce has managed to get every fine, every charge, every case overturned or dismissed -- all but one, a 1995 conviction for "maintaining an unsafe building" that resulted in a fine of $523. The county judge in that case, Celeste C de Baca, also threw Bruce in jail for contempt of court. Bruce still seethes at the memory of that episode, and he has filed a lonely string of appeals stretching from Denver District Court to the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in an effort to overturn the judge's rulings.
"My goal is to restore my good name," Bruce says. "I can't get back the eight days I spent in jail. But if you hang in there long enough, you always seem to get vindicated."
Recently, Bruce took his crusade to the State Capitol, where he testified in support of House Bill 1404, an effort to reform Colorado's criminal forfeiture law. Sponsored by state representative Shawn Mitchell and state senator Bill Thiebaut, the legislation has stirred consternation and cries of doom among prosecutors and police agencies, since it requires a criminal conviction, in most instances, before the government can seize cash, property and other assets tied to drug-dealing or other crimes. Backed by an unlikely coalition of civil libertarians and conservatives beating the drum for private-property rights, HB 1404 survived dilution and stalling tactics in both houses. The bill now awaits the signature of Governor Bill Owens.
The new state legislation won't affect Bruce's situation; his battles have to do with local building codes and Denver's controversial public-nuisance ordinance, which allows for temporary seizure or closure of property rather than outright forfeiture. Still, he relished the opportunity to recount for legislators the "gross constitutional violations" Denver had heaped on him. And as a former deputy district attorney in California, he was more than slightly amused at the howls of protest raised by DAs and their allies, including a sharp letter of objection from the governor himself.
"They say the bill is helping criminals," Bruce notes. "But that's the issue: Are you innocent until proven guilty? I used to be a prosecutor. I know more in the tip of my pinkie about crime and law enforcement than Owens does in his whole body. The issue is that the government can act like criminals, and they should have to prove their case before they take someone's property."
HB 1404 is aimed straight at the excesses of the state's war on drugs, but the quaint notion that a property seizure might require due process is being advanced in other quarters, as well. Last month, in a case involving a north Denver bar that the city was trying to close, Denver District Judge Stephen Phillips ruled that Denver's public-nuisance law was being misapplied. At issue is the law's "strict liability" element, which allows the city to shut down a business where criminal activity has occurred, regardless of whether the owner knew of the activity. Under the terms of the current law, Phillips pointed out, the city could close down a hockey arena if a single marijuana joint was confiscated there.
Phillips's ruling, which has thrown the enforcement of the ordinance into confusion, is remarkably similar to the argument Bruce has been making for years. "I'm glad to hear of his decision, but it should have happened sooner," Bruce says. "Other people get the benefit of constitutional protection, but not me."
Douglas Bruce will never win any popularity contests. His approach to property management is bewildering, at best -- and, in the view of some neighborhood groups, positively perverse. But his brush with Denver's public-nuisance ordinance, one of the most draconian measures of its kind anywhere in the country, is a graphic example of what's wrong with the law. And it raises the specter of the kind of selective prosecution that Bruce claims the city has targeted him for all along, most notably in the 1995 trial that landed him in jail.
Up at the Statehouse, legislators debating the forfeiture bill heard hard-luck tale after hard-luck tale of people carrying large wads of cash or otherwise behaving suspiciously who had their money, vehicles or other property seized without ever being convicted of anything. Many lawmakers were outraged.
Where, Bruce wonders, is the outrage over what happened to him?
A few years ago, at the height of his real estate speculations in Denver, Bruce owned fifteen buildings in the city with upwards of seventy rental units. Most were unoccupied. He has since sold all but one of them, and the remaining property is listed for sale.
His strategy was to buy cheap, usually from bank holdings or government agencies, fix up the place and rent it out or unload it. But for reasons that remain in dispute -- Bruce blames city interference and his increasing difficulty in finding contractors, while his critics question his diligence -- many of the buildings remained vacant for years, deteriorating eyesores in a city hungry for affordable housing stock.
"He had shitty properties and didn't take care of them," declares one investment property entrepreneur familiar with Bruce's holdings. "In this town, there's no reason a property should just sit and fall apart. He always said he was trying to fix them up, but he wasn't that interested in selling them, in my opinion."
Bruce counters that he's made his living in property investments for the past 27 years. Most of the buildings were vacant and in disrepair when he bought them, he says, and his efforts to fix them were hamstrung by the blizzard of citations he received, sometimes within days of closing on a property.
"You can't be 'maintaining an unsafe building' if you're in the process of fixing it," he argues. "This idea that I'm a slumlord is absurd. I've never had any citation about any occupied property in Denver."
But the boarded-up properties attracted junkies and vandals who pried off the boards, sprayed graffiti, tossed trash and set fires. That, in turn, drew visits from city inspectors and complaints from neighborhood groups such as the Cole Coalition, which Bruce acidly describes as "one of these parasitic city organizations that lives off government money and goes around telling other people how to run their property."
Bruce maintains that he was a victim of the city's laissez-faire attitude toward transients. "When I had places that were broken into, sometimes my repair crews would find the people there -- winos and all these other charming people that Denver subsidizes with tax money. We would hold them for the police, and the police would not arrest them when I tried to press charges. Then they wanted to blame me because I had a place that was empty."
He says he made efforts to introduce himself to neighbors and encourage them to contact him if there were any problems. At the same time, he refers to the neighborhood groups as "pawns" used by the city to harass him. His voice dripping with sarcasm, he recalls one community meeting he attended:
"They said, 'What are your plans?' I tried to humor them, although I don't think that any local soviet -- which is what they are -- has any right to review when I'm going to water the lawn and paint the trim and so on. I tried to explain that the reason things weren't going as fast as they seemed to think they should go was that the city kept chasing me from one place to another."
Denver is hardly the only municipality to lock horns with Bruce over his vacant buildings. Four years ago, Pueblo officials tried to condemn and demolish three of his buildings, and he's also fought the powers that be in Colorado Springs. But Denver has been positively vindictive toward him, Bruce insists, an animus he attributes to his high profile as a tax reformer.
"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.
"There was an ongoing municipal-code violation, and since we couldn't locate Mr. Bruce, we had to go the search-warrant route," says Assistant City Attorney Nelson. "And lo and behold, we found he had caused some repairs to be made without a permit, and those repairs were basically a sham. They had thrown some tar paper and shingles on the roof, but the structure had not been repaired. There was still a burnt and cracked cross member that presented an ongoing hazard to anyone climbing on that roof."
Bruce disputes this. "All they found were three things," he says. "First, there was a loose wire. But the building wasn't connected to the power pole. Second, there wasn't a cap on a kitchen [gas] line. If somebody broke in and stuck their nose down the pipe, they might smell gas. The third thing was, because they interrupted the work, they found one cracked rafter out of maybe 25. That was their alleged unsafe conditions."
Bruce had numerous objections to the search warrant, including the photo inspectors used to get it (taken before his roof repairs began) and the affidavit's implication that he'd refused inspectors permission to enter the premises (he was never notified, he insists). He also had a problem with the "neutral magistrate" who had authorized the search: Celeste C de Baca, the same judge who was scheduled to preside over his trial.
Judge C de Baca had denied several requests by Bruce to recuse herself from the case. Bruce cited numerous instances of the judge's alleged bias against him and even submitted affidavits from five witnesses, who described her behavior during preliminary hearings as ranging from irate impatience to outright hostility toward the defendant. "The judge refused to hear any more motions from Mr. Bruce...and said that he would not be allowed to make any more motions for the rest of the entire case," one witness noted. (In the 1996 municipal election, C de Baca narrowly retained her seat on the bench after an evaluation by the Judicial Performance Commission described her as "frequently rude and arrogant" and recommended against her retention.) Bruce didn't see how she could aid the prosecution's effort by signing the warrant, rule on his objections to the warrant -- and still be fair to him at trial.
Despite her ban on defense motions, C de Baca allowed Bruce a hearing on the search warrant the morning the trial was to start. That the hearing was a formality is clear from the transcript; twice the judge states, "After we finish with the motions hearings, we will then be picking a jury." She declared that she had "no idea" whether she'd signed the warrant and said she must have done so as a routine matter when she was the judge "on call" for weekend warrant duty.
Actually, the warrant was signed on a Tuesday. Testimony from a building inspector indicated that he'd gone directly to C de Baca with the warrant rather than submit it to a pool of judges. But that didn't seem to matter. Nothing did. Bruce's motion to quash the search warrant was denied, and his trial began.
Things did not go well for Bruce from the start. Several potential jurors had to be excused when they admitted that they had definite opinions about Bruce's tax activism or his property battles; one even cited his "terrible reputation amongst educators." Explained the almost-juror: "No offense, sir, [but] all I've heard are terrible things about you, and I've sort of cultivated the same attitude."
Judge C de Baca testily cut off Bruce's line of questioning with one witness after another. Rocky Mountain News reporter Bill Scanlon kept a running tally and found that the judge sustained fifty objections by prosecutor Kory Nelson in one day. She called Bruce to the bench repeatedly to chide him about his "breach of decorum" and to warn him that he was putting himself in danger of contempt of court.
Doubtless Bruce exacerbated the situation with his famous abrasiveness. At one point he indicated that he could give the judge "a complete seminar" on the rules of search and seizure, and he had a penchant for interrupting witnesses he was questioning. But other parties acting in their own defense have been shown considerably more leeway in county court proceedings, and the judge's obvious irritation with him would later become a major part of Bruce's hefty appeals filings.
His efforts to present evidence of a vendetta, as well as to show that even city inspectors didn't consider the building to be as unsafe as the prosecution made it out to be, were routinely squashed. During cross-examination of one inspector, the judge found, Bruce had "violated the Court's direct order" not to ask about a particular citation, leaving him open to a contempt charge. Bruce disagreed about the nature of his question, calling it a "miscommunication."
The worst blow-up, though, came at the end of the third day of the trial, as Bruce was making his closing argument. C de Baca had refused to let the jurors go for the evening, insisting that she'd keep them there until midnight if necessary to reach a verdict: "We're going to stay for deliberation until this case is completed tonight."
Bruce viewed the evening session as an effort to coerce a speedy guilty verdict. In his closing, he urged the jury to reject the "bizarre case" the city was trying to make against him, "this totally corrupt, stupid, bureaucratic nightmare...this farce of a process."
Nelson objected that Bruce was making a "jury nullification argument." C de Baca cautioned Bruce not to make any more "improper" statements. But Bruce didn't think it was improper to take issue with the city's notion of what made a building unsafe.
"If the law said that painting a building blue makes it unsafe, would that make it so?" he asked. "Would you just suspend all your common sense and go act like robots?"
Once again, Nelson objected that Bruce was telling the jury to disregard the law. C de Baca agreed.
"You have to deliberate on the basis of what you heard," Bruce continued. "If, based upon that, you convict me, and then you go outside the courtroom and you find out what Paul Harvey called 'the rest of the story,' you're going to be sick to your stomach."
C de Baca summoned Bruce to the bench for a third time. "Mr. Bruce, you know that is an improper argument," she said. "If you do it one more time, even I will have the sheriff down here."
Bruce decided to end his statement there rather than risk the judge's wrath. But it was already too late. After a brisk ninety minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a guilty verdict. C de Baca then announced that Bruce's closing argument had been "an affront to the dignity of the Court...a deliberate act designed to potentially cause a mistrial." She had decided to impose a sentence for contempt, in addition to his violation of the building code.
At his sentencing hearing three weeks later, C de Baca slapped Bruce with a fifteen-day jail sentence. When he attempted to object, she cut him off, telling him, "There is no appeal of contempt."
Bruce maintains that it was the judge who was in contempt -- of the law. "When was the last time somebody went to jail in Colorado for two weeks for contempt?" he asks. "I didn't violate an order. I didn't cause a disruption. I was just making a jury argument. Every defendant is trying to be found not guilty, or at least get a hung jury, but she says I'm trying to cause a mistrial.
"She said her findings were unappealable. The lowest-level judge in Colorado, and I can't appeal her ruling? She said I had no right to bail, no right to appeal, no right to a stay -- all of which is a lie. And she arranged to have the TV cameras there so they could show me being led away in handcuffs."
According to state statute and the rules governing county court civil procedures, a defendant has a right to appeal a contempt judgment -- a little detail that U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock pointed out when Bruce appealed to the federal court for relief. Bruce ended up serving eight days in the Denver County Jail on Smith Road before he could arrange a bail hearing. During that time, he subsisted on a liquid diet and refused to bathe -- until staff hustled him into a shower in the middle of the night.
"I wanted to let them know they weren't going to break me, so I didn't eat for a week," he recalls. "Just to let them know I could take anything they dish out."
After ten years on the bench, C de Baca resigned her judgeship two years ago; she is now the human resources manager at Coors Distributing. She defends her handling of the Bruce trial, which won praise from prosecutors for her ability to "control" a difficult defendant.
"I've never had a defendant who behaved in such a manner and so blatantly and repeatedly ignored direct orders of the court," she says. "In my opinion, the trial was conducted consistent with the rules of procedure and with no bias toward Mr. Bruce. His behavior warranted the penalty that was imposed."
Bruce has taken his acerbic appeals of the case from one jurisdiction to the next, demanding a hearing and never getting one. (Sample appeal issue: "Was the trial judge too mentally or emotionally unstable, or so at variance with reality, that she should not have handled the case?") Last fall he filed a motion for a new trial with Denver County Chief Judge Raymond Satter, claiming "newly discovered exculpatory evidence" that he hopes will help him erase his one criminal conviction. He's received no response.
The motion blasts not only Judge C de Baca, but also prosecutor Nelson, whom Bruce accuses of suborning perjury. At issue is yet another citation that a building inspector attempted to serve on Bruce at his arraignment, then retrieved, then later denied having issued. Bruce argues that the citation, a copy of which he obtained after the trial, is evidence of the city's overkill tactics. He also claims that Nelson "solicited a bribe from me in open court" by offering to buy the Tremont property from him for a dollar "and get this whole case over with."
Nelson says the "new evidence" claims aren't new or significant enough to merit a new trial. As for the offer to buy the building, "Mr. Bruce made an offhand remark that all he wanted to do was sell his properties in Denver and never come back," Nelson says. "So I offered him a dollar. This was clearly an offhand comment; it's not what Mr. Bruce claims it to be. I never believe I'll convince Mr. Bruce of anything. But my burden of proof is to the court, not the property owner or the criminal defendant."
Offhand or not, Bruce regards the comment as yet another indication of the city's high-handedness. "As a prosecutor, you can't casually offer to buy a building from someone for a dollar," he huffs. "It's outrageous. I sold that building for $95,000."
Nelson says he's not impressed -- but not surprised, either -- by Bruce's relentless campaign to overturn his conviction. "He puts up a chicken-bone defense," he says. "If you're going to prosecute him, he's going to try to make you choke on him."
As the years passed, the war between Bruce and city officials over his properties just got stranger. It was like a boxing match between punch-drunk pluggers, or a bad marriage. By mistake or out of sick humor, one court filing in the endless bickering was even captioned as a divorce action: "In re the marriage of City and County of Denver and Douglas Bruce."
It was only a matter of time, surely, before the opportunity arose for the city to test its most potent weapon on its most annoying absentee landowner -- a law that turns the offending property itself into a defendant.
Five years ago, as part of an aggressive response to drugs, gangs and gun crimes, Denver began to put some teeth into its public-nuisance abatement procedures. The ordinance gives city prosecutors enormous power, allowing for confiscation of property associated with criminal activity for one to three years. The law is "directed at the property involved without regard to ownership, title, or right of possession, and the culpability or innocence of those who hold these rights." In other words, if an illegal weapon, dope or some other indicator of criminal activity is found in a car, the car can be impounded -- even if the owner had nothing to do with the alleged crime. Similarly, an apartment, a house or a business can be closed or seized because of the actions of tenants or patrons. Innocent owners can be socked with hundreds or thousands of dollars in impound fees and quite possibly face the loss of their business.
The measure began as a temporary one but soon became permanent. Gun-rights groups protested, saying the law was an invitation to detain hunters traveling through the city and to seize their vehicles. Civil-liberties advocates also weighed in. But until Judge Phillips's ruling last month, ripping the lack of due process in the law, the ordinance had rarely been challenged in court.
Most public-nuisance cases involve cars, not real estate. In the beginning, the focus was on drugs. But in recent years, according to Kory Nelson, the city attorney's office has been seizing more property related to prostitution cases -- usually the cars of johns arrested in sweeps on East Colfax Avenue. In 1998, the city impounded one car for a prostitution bust. In 1999, that number jumped to 27. In 2000, 57 -- followed by 76 cars in the first six months of 2001.
Almost all of the prostitution cases are generated by sting operations, in which female police officers pose as hookers. "It's really just a question of how often the police can go out and do this," Nelson says. "They can catch 25 to 30 vehicles in a day. The idea is to incapacitate the car. While we have it, we know it's not being used in a crime."
Having spent considerable time on the street observing the stings, Nelson is familiar with most of the excuses the johns offer: entrapment, stopping to ask for directions, and so on. "They come out with these great stories about how it's all a big misunderstanding," he says. "Usually the misunderstanding is that they don't understand that just the offer to pay for a sexual act -- the offer itself -- is a crime. They think if they don't commit the act or hand over the money that no crime took place."
Other people often end up paying for the johns' misunderstandings. According to Nelson, in a majority of the cases, the john isn't the registered owner of the vehicle. As a result of Phillips's ruling, the city has reviewed all of its active public-nuisance cases and thrown out 75 of them.
"In every case where we felt we couldn't prove the owner wasn't an innocent owner, we've dismissed the case, released the vehicle and waived the storage cost," Nelson says. "We are going to be looking at going back to city council with some proposed amendments to the ordinance that hopefully will address Judge Phillips's issues, giving the county courts more discretion on how to deal with innocent owners."
In cases involving real property, Nelson says, the city has a "98.5 percent success rate" in obtaining voluntary compliance from property owners; the owner of the offending property agrees to take care of the problem, often by evicting the troublemakers, and agrees to let the city monitor activity at the address for up to a year. In return, the city agrees not to seize the guilty plot of earth. "It's very rare that we have to go in and file an action against the property," Nelson says.
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.
"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."
As Bruce recalls it, he was quite vocal about the money -- his money -- that the police had seized. He complained to reporters about it. He showed Stiegelmeier the canceled check he'd written to the handyman. "The money orders have my name on them," he says. "What did they do? Throw them in the fireplace? They never gave me any notice, and they knew it was my money that was taken."
All Douglas Bruce wants is to sell his last property in the city and shake the dust of Denver from his boots. And to restore his good name by overturning his one criminal conviction, the only blot on his record. And to get his five thousand bucks back. And...and...
"An apology would be nice," he says, "but I'm not counting on it."