Excessive Force

Citizen complaints and a brutal arrest heat up the sheriff's race in Park County.

On the evening of June 8, 2001, Delores and Charles Gates received the kind of phone call every parent dreads: Their nineteen-year-old son was calling from jail. They barely had time to absorb that information when the news got much worse.

"Get me out of here," John Gates told his parents. "They beat the hell out of me. One of them hit me in the head. They're listening -- here they come."

While his father listened in stunned disbelief, the phone was ripped from John's hand. Charles Gates heard his son cry out, then the sounds of a struggle. At that moment, John now says, two Park County sheriff's deputies were wrestling him to the ground. One put both knees on John's back; the other had his foot on his neck. After long, agonizing seconds -- no more than a minute or two, but an eternity by Charles Gates's clock -- someone picked up the dangling receiver.

Rough night: John Gates after his arrest by Park County deputies.
Rough night: John Gates after his arrest by Park County deputies.

"This call is over," the man said, and hung up.

The Gateses wasted no time driving to the sheriff's office. There they were told that John, who'd never been arrested before, was facing several possible charges, including drunk driving, criminal mischief, assault on a peace officer and resisting arrest. They were directed to a poorly lit pay phone down the road to call a bail bondsman. It was four in the morning before Delores was able to arrange for her son's release.

"I had to make my husband stay outside so things wouldn't escalate any further," Delores recalls. "I waited for them to bring him out, and this one deputy said, 'Mrs. Gates, here's your pride and joy.' When I saw John, I lost it. The kid was covered in blood. But John kept his cool and got me out of there."

Last spring, a Park County jury acquitted Gates of all charges stemming from his arrest. But questions remain about the multiple injuries he suffered that night -- including a serious blow to the head that a defense expert insisted could not have occurred the way the arresting officer claimed it did.

According to Delores Gates, sheriff's deputies tailed family members for months after the incident. "When they're that arrogant, you have fear," she says. "We did not feel safe." The Gateses have since sold their property outside of Bailey and moved out of the county. Although an FBI probe into possible police misconduct produced no formal charges, the family is now contemplating a lawsuit against the sheriff's office.

The case has become a contentious topic in the current sheriff's race, which pits incumbent Fred Wegener against a write-in candidate, Rob Raskiewicz, the town marshal of Alma. Wegener's critics say the Gates arrest is only the most blatant example of heavy-handed police tactics in the county, which have prompted other complaints about unprofessional behavior and rough treatment by deputies during routine traffic stops.

"I've always heard complaints about the sheriff's office, but it's getting worse," says Peter John Stone, a columnist for the local weekly, High Country Trader. "People are scared. Most of them don't like the way deputies act when they have to deal with them."

Park County has a history of law-enforcement problems, many of them associated with the challenges of patrolling a sprawling, mountainous, 2,000-square-mile area with a population that has doubled over the past decade. A Republican in a GOP stronghold, Wegener ran for sheriff four years ago as a reform candidate after a series of complaints about alleged civil-rights violations and improper contracts under the previous regime; he won by a narrow margin.

Stone was an early supporter of Wegener and even designated him the county's "Man of the Year" in 2000, when the former was a reporter for the Park County Republican and Bailey Flume. "I was initially impressed with Fred," Stone says. "He made some good choices."

Wegener's policies began coming under fire, though, after several incidents involving alleged verbal and physical abuse of locals during traffic stops, questionable search warrants, and the way deputies patrolled special events; poor attendance at a Little Feat concert two years ago was blamed, in part, on the heavy police presence. "The sheriff has rendered any kind of rock concert impractical up here," Stone says.

For Stone, the turning point was the Gates case. He was the only reporter to cover the entire trial, and he admits he went into the courtroom highly skeptical of Gates's claim of being assaulted by deputies for no reason. "I took it with a grain of salt," he says. "But I left that trial appalled." Since then, he has written numerous columns urging an investigation of the sheriff's office.

The night he was arrested, Gates and a friend, Jamie Shaffer, had pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store in Bailey. Gates was driving. Shaffer was intoxicated, but Gates, who suffers from chronic stomach problems, insists he had nothing to drink that evening. After making purchases at the store, the two lingered in the parking lot, looking for Gates's dog, which had bolted from the car. They were observed by Deputy Carl Sharp, who suspected them of attempting to burglarize a feed store next door.

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