Excessive Force

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

"I'm frustrated with the way the entire thing happened," Sharp says. "I've been in law enforcement for twelve years, and I've never seen a more incompetent prosecution. The lack of support from the DA's office is one reason I left the sheriff's office after only four months. I can name half a dozen instances where the DA refused to follow up on reports of assaults on police officers."

Sharp, who'd previously worked as a police officer in Jefferson County and Littleton, resigned from the Park County force last year. He acknowledges that he's been the target of other complaints from citizens over the years -- almost every police officer gets them, he says -- but none were ever found to be legitimate.

Still, John Gates is not the only Park County citizen who claims to have been mistreated by Sharp during his brief tenure there. Jamie Rae was pulled over by Sharp and another officer last year because of a faulty license-plate light. When the deputies began shining lights in his car, Rae "flipped them the bird," he says -- only to receive an even more uncivil response. "Sharp came storming up to my car with his flashlight out," he remembers, "and started screaming, 'Get out of your damned car now!'"

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

Rae claims the officers twisted his wrists and held him over the trunk for fifteen to twenty minutes while his young daughter waited in the car. "I told them they were breaking my arm, and they were laughing about it," he says. "They said, 'Is that your daughter in the car? Do you want us to call social services?' They were just playing with my head."

Sharp ordered Rae to spread his legs, then "searched" his groin area three times, Rae says. "I didn't realize he was hurting me at first," he remembers. "A few minutes later, my whole body was in shock. For two months, it was uncomfortable to sit down. He crushed my testicles."

Sharp denies mistreating Rae. "Jamie Rae is a liar," he says.

Rae was eventually released without any charges or even a citation. He never filed a complaint with the sheriff's office over his treatment. Columnist Stone says he doubts it would have done much good; he's blasted the internal investigation Wegener's office conducted after the Gates arrest as incomplete and incompetent. Even with Sharp gone, Stone adds, he's troubled that the sheriff has declined to re-examine the case in light of the evidence presented at trial. He believes that more than one deputy may have perjured himself during the Gates trial in order to back up his colleagues' stories.

"I'm sure some of them must have been outright lying or extremely deceived," he says. "The sheriff has to admit there are bad officers before something can be done about it."

Raskiewicz, Wegener's opponent in the sheriff's race, views the Gates case as a "huge issue" in the current campaign. A former Milwaukee police officer, he worked in the Park County sheriff's department for seven months but left last year because "I didn't agree with their policy," he says. "Instead of looking for real crime, these cops were always on [U.S.] 285 looking for taillights out. They were more concerned about revenue than fighting crime."

Raskiewicz touts the benefits of community policing and says Wegener's deputies are too "unfriendly" and prone to overkill tactics, escalating minor interactions with traffic violators into major confrontations. "The most important tool a department has is trust," he adds. "I've worked in a rough area of a major city, and I didn't see this kind of attitude. It's seriously time for a change."

John Gates suffers from persistent headaches and an ulcer that he believes is stress-related. He doesn't like to talk about the night he was arrested.

"It's a part of my life I really, really want to forget," he says. "The last year and a half has been total hell. I thought I was going to jail for a long time for nothing. Without my parents, I would probably be sitting in Cañon City right now. Nobody would have listened to me."

Gates grew up in Park County, and he says he never had any problems with Sheriff Wegener, whom he's known for years, or any other officer -- until the night Carl Sharp ordered him out of his car.

"This guy was completely out of control," he says. "But Fred Wegener wouldn't even entertain the thought that one of his deputies was smacking me around. They need a new sheriff, for sure."

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