The Maverick

Telluride lawman Bill Masters is no dope. So what turned him against the war on drugs?

"I talk to police officers all over the nation," he notes. "Most of them say, 'I can't say this publicly, but you're right.'"

One lawman who doesn't hesitate to second Masters is Robert Braudis, Pitkin County's sheriff for the past eighteen years. Policing Aspen and its environs, Braudis has shunned undercover drug operations and come to the conclusion that the war on drugs "was lost the first day it started." Their politics are actually quite different -- Braudis is a liberal from south Boston, while Masters aligns himself with the conservative wing of libertarianism -- but Braudis admires his colleague's honesty and fortitude.

"Bill's a veteran of the war on drugs, and I'm a conscientious objector," Braudis says. "He's more of a cowboy than I am, maybe because San Miguel is a little more Wild West than Pitkin is now. He's definitely got the balls of a burglar to go public with this."

Reefer's digest: Bill Masters became a national figure 
with his 2001 book, Drug War Addiction.
Reefer's digest: Bill Masters became a national figure with his 2001 book, Drug War Addiction.

Masters says he's only doing what every police official should do: let the public know his limitations. To illustrate this, he recounts a story from early in his career, when he was Telluride's town marshal and the city fathers came up with a complicated plan for plowing the streets that required motorists to move their cars to various locations depending on the day of the month. "I told the town board, 'We can make this happen,'" he recalls. "But in those days, most people in Telluride didn't know what month it was, much less what day. We started giving out 400 parking tickets a month, in a town of maybe 400 cars. We were towing dozens of cars a day.

"People didn't take it out on the people who passed the law; they took it out on the enforcement people. We had our cars vandalized. People were up in arms over this stupid parking regulation. Eventually they changed the law. I should have realized that a good peace officer would have gone to the town board and said, 'This isn't going to work.' We're the ones out on the street. We can tell you what can work and can't work. Too often we say, 'We can do it; just give us more money and manpower and jails.' Just to increase our own bureaucracy, we gladly sign on."

Awards, certificates and other memorabilia attesting to the fact that Bill Masters is a good peace officer adorn the walls and desk of his office, along with pictures of his wife, Jill, a paramedic, and their combined family of four children (two boys now in their teens, two girls in their twenties). Two other items stand out.

One is a snapshot of several kilos of cocaine piled in a chair, a souvenir from a sprawling conspiracy case Masters investigated decades ago. The picture was taken in Colombia; the sheriff came across it while serving a search warrant in Telluride, but only a fraction of the dope was ever seized.

The second is a battered copy of the state statutes from 1908, found in a forgotten crevice when workers were remodeling Telluride's old jail. The book occupies a lonely space on a shelf above thirteen volumes of the current Colorado Revised Statutes. The juxtaposition makes for a useful visual aid whenever Masters launches into one of his favorite topics, the relentless expansion of government over the past century. God gave Moses ten laws, he notes; the state legislature has given the citizens of Colorado more than 30,000.

"When you get to that number, lawlessness becomes commonplace," he says. "We have to triage all this. Which ones do we pick that we're really serious about?"

Asking hard questions about law enforcement was something Masters was avoiding when he moved to Telluride in 1974. He was 23 years old but looked sixteen. A California native and son of a university vice president, he'd served in the Coast Guard and had a degree in police science from Northern Arizona University. He'd toyed with the idea of joining the Los Angeles Police Department but didn't think he was ready yet.

"I came up here to ski for a year," he says. "That was my plan. I keep telling people I've never made enough money to leave."

Masters found a job as a lift operator with the new ski resort. In the summer he cleared trails with a chainsaw. One day he was hitchhiking home, covered in grease and dirt, when Jim Hall, the town marshal, offered him a ride. Masters happened to mention his interest in police work, and Hall promptly offered him a job as a deputy. At the time, the marshal was a one-man department, and he was desperate for relief. The chief requirement wasn't training -- that would come later, Hall explained -- but that Masters bring his own gun when he reported to work.

The town board's only reservation about the new deputy was his gung-ho attitude on the drug laws. As a lift operator, Masters had followed company policy to the letter, shutting down the lift if someone tried to get on while smoking a joint. His confrontational attitude rubbed some people the wrong way.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest