The Maverick

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

His frustration mounted, but what could he do? They were writing songs about his town and its cokeheads. He had to do something.

"'They hide it up in Telluride' -- they sure were," he remembers. "It got to the point where I was convinced that anybody who had any money was a drug dealer. That's how warped it got."

His hardnosed approach, so unpopular just a few years before, was now, perversely, in vogue. Federal agents slapped him on the back and handed him good-conduct medals. He routinely won re-election -- less, perhaps, for his drug crusades than for his reputation as a level-headed fellow who'd never fired a shot in anger. (He'd once wrestled a shotgun from a suicidal man dressed in camouflage and felt the blast brush through his hair, a maneuver that he now says was one of the foolhardiest of his career.) He was fighting the good fight, just saying no. But he couldn't escape his uneasiness about the whole business.

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.

Even his own public-relations programs bothered him. He'd hired a DARE officer to go into the schools and talk about drugs, hoping to get the message out that the San Miguel County Sheriff's Office was truly concerned about young people going astray.

"This one mother came up to thank me because the program was teaching the kids about drugs," he recalls. "As she was talking, it dawned on me that I'd taken on her role as a parent. Now it was my responsibility to teach her children about drugs.

"I started looking at it differently. Just what is my role in all this? Now when parents want to know why we're not doing more about drugs, I tell them, 'Listen, if you rely on me to deal with this, you're going to be disappointed. Law enforcement has failed miserably at controlling this, and we're going to continue to fail.'"

According to research cited in The New Prohibition, state and federal authorities spend more than $9 billion a year to imprison close to half a million drug offenders. More people are sent to prison for drug offenses than for violent crimes, a trend that's been consistent since 1989. The overall cost to the justice system of arresting, convicting, punishing and supervising drug offenders stands at about $70 billion a year.

Yet most street drugs, including heroin and cocaine, are far more available now, in purer form and at a cheaper price, than they were twenty years ago. And a new plague of hard-to-track product, from high-tech designer drugs to home-cooked meth, has defied conventional drug-busting efforts to contain it.

The emerging big picture wasn't easy to grasp from his vantage point in Telluride, Masters says. As the drug war dragged into the '90s, he was becoming increasingly cynical about the value of his efforts, but it wasn't as if he had a sudden blinding moment of revelation. It took two high-profile homicide cases, the only murders he's ever had to investigate, to decisively change his focus and his priorities.

On August 6, 1990, the body of 44-year-old Eva Berg Shoen was found by her two young children in their home in the Ski Ranches, an affluent development on a hillside above Telluride. She'd been dead for hours, shot in the back by a .25-caliber pistol.

Sam Shoen, Eva's husband, was the oldest son of L.S. Shoen, the founder of the U-Haul empire -- and a key litigant in a nasty court battle over control of the company that had divided the founder's twelve children into warring factions. Speculation began immediately that the murder had something to do with the high-stakes family feud, and Masters found himself under pressure from all sides to investigate various Shoens as prime suspects in the case.

Besieged by reporters, private investigators hired by U-Haul and other self-styled crime "experts," Masters decided to use the massive publicity to try to shake loose some leads. Sam Shoen offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to his wife's killer, and Masters pushed the offer in press interviews and on the television program Unsolved Mysteries, which twice aired a segment on the case. After almost three years of absurd tips and conspiracy theories, the blitz finally produced a solid suspect: the brother-in-law of Frank Marquis, a paroled rapist living in New Mexico, claimed that Marquis had bragged to him about the slaying.

Marquis had no connection to the Shoen family feud, but a check of old time sheets at a body shop where he once worked led Masters to Jeff Beale, who'd driven with Marquis to Telluride the weekend Eva Shoen was murdered. After some hedging, Beale told the sheriff that Marquis had tossed clothing out the car window on the road back to Santa Fe. A painstaking search of a lonely stretch of highway collected mounds of trash -- including a weathered piece of cloth that, under lab analysis, yielded a single blond hair belonging to Eva Shoen.

"We arrest Marquis and bring him back here to stand trial," Masters recalls. "He refuses to make a statement until he gets a plea bargain for 24 years, and then he gives us this bullshit story that he broke into the house to steal things and walked up the stairs to a lit bedroom -- something a burglar would never do -- where he was surprised to find this woman. I'm convinced he was there to commit a sexual assault."

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