The Maverick

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

Hall wasn't much older than Masters. He was a conservative Mormon, but he'd also worked as a police officer in a college town and had experience dealing with boisterous young people. Like Andy counseling Barney, Hall urged his deputy to polish his "people skills," but Masters had trouble adjusting to the situation.

"I didn't know how to deal with people," he says now. "Why they didn't run me out of town the first year, I don't know. I didn't explain myself or conduct myself properly. Jim tried to show me, but in a two-person department, it was really difficult.

"I was astounded at the number of times he would turn his back on drug usage. There was a fair amount of pot smoking, nothing really serious. But when I put on the badge, I said, 'There's no more of this going to be done around me.' I thought if people were threatened with arrest enough, they would stop using drugs. But they didn't feel they were doing anything wrong."

Christopher Smith
Ride the high country: San Miguel County sheriff Bill 
Masters just says no to the war on drugs.
Brett Schreckengost
Ride the high country: San Miguel County sheriff Bill Masters just says no to the war on drugs.

It was a tumultuous time in Telluride. The miners were cashing in on rising real-estate values and pulling up stakes. Entrepreneurs were flooding into town, eager to transform the funky Victorian enclave at the end of a box canyon into the next Aspen. Generally, drugs weren't frowned on -- but drug busts, and the accompanying bad publicity, certainly were. Somehow Masters weathered his first year and went off to the state police academy to learn how to be a real cop. While he was gone, Hall resigned in order to take a better-paying position in Grand Junction. Masters found himself appointed town marshal.

"I was grateful the town put their faith in me," he says. "But looking back on it, I think some of the townspeople thought, 'This guy's perfect for the job because he doesn't know what he's doing. If he was a real professional cop, God knows what would happen.'"

Over time, Masters learned to moderate his stance toward casual marijuana use. Cocaine was another matter. After three years, he left the marshal's job to become the undersheriff for San Miguel County. When Sheriff Fred Ellerd moved into a county commissioner's seat in 1979, the 27-year-old Masters was appointed to replace him. He was soon embroiled in one of the largest cocaine conspiracy cases the county has ever seen.

The case concerned a group of locals who were altering trucks, driving to Colombia or Bolivia, picking up their loads, then shipping the trucks back to the States by freighter. A state drug task force spent half a million dollars on wiretaps of suspected dealers. But the targets knew enough about court rulings to realize that the surveillance had to be broken off if the first three minutes of conversation failed to mention drugs; the mountain of tapes that resulted from the eavesdropping contained a lot of chitchat about sexual exploits and precious little about cocaine.

After months of dogged investigation, though, Masters and the state crime-busters had enough evidence to move on the ring. They found a gram of coke at one house, several ounces at another -- and the snapshot of the elusive kilos that now graces Masters's office. The team ended up busting Masters's successor as town marshal, two town boardmembers, several other prominent citizens and the reputed "kingpin" of the operation -- the head of the local cable-TV company.

"Telluride had a cocaine problem, no question about it," Masters says. "This needed to be done. But my people got stuck with more of the burden of that case than anybody else. The drug task-force folks all left and were drinking beer in Denver, and we were left holding the bag. People were burning me in effigy. Some places in town were refusing to serve us. I felt alienated from the community. I really thought I was going to lose the next election."

The kingpin got eight years. Six months later, after a reconsideration of his sentence, he was free to return to town.

The fiasco didn't deter Masters. But he was beginning to question the methods of the drug warriors. Months of effort -- for what? All the arrests seemed to do was make the business more attractive to new players. "If you bust a burglary ring, there's relief on the street," he notes, "but if you bust a drug dealer, somebody immediately takes their place."

The Reagan era was awash in federal grants for police agencies, provided the money was earmarked for drug enforcement. Masters learned to play the game. He teamed up with "elite" drug squads that never lacked for work because there were always plenty of people to arrest. He went before the county commissioners and made impassioned pleas for more money to fight the scourge of cocaine in the county, and his budget swelled.

He shelled out cash to informants, turning a blind eye to their criminal enterprises in exchange for busting their rivals and suppliers. He put undercover officers on the street with no particular target in mind, simply to make random arrests of any slob looking to score. He busted a deputy district attorney, one of his own deputies, a local newspaper editor, construction workers, housewives, high school kids -- all the time recognizing that they weren't master criminals, just addicts and fuckups.

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