The Maverick

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

Every year, Masters and Sam Shoen attend Marquis's parole hearing, determined to see that he serves every day of his sentence until his mandatory release date. For Masters, one of the most outrageous aspects of the case is that Marquis was out on parole at the time of Eva's murder. He'd been charged with ten counts of sexual assault in New Mexico but pleaded to one count and served only nine years. What kind of country lets rapists go free, he wondered, because its prisons are overloaded with drug offenders?

The true turning point for Masters came in the course of a subsequent, even more emotional murder investigation. Buffy Rice Donohue, an eighteen-year-old girl fighting a cocaine problem, had disappeared from Montrose in 1993; her skeletal remains were found in San Miguel County eighteen months later. Through physical evidence and witness interviews, Masters built what he calls a "great case" against David Middleton, an ex-cop from Miami with a history of sexual violence. But by that point, Middleton was on his way to death row in Nevada for the brutal rape and murders of two other women, and the Montrose district attorney refused to take the case.

"It would have been a lot of work, and the county couldn't afford it," Masters says. "I gave the district attorney's office $50,000 in drug-seizure money, no strings attached, just because I wanted him to think about prosecuting this case. He spent it on something else."

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.

In 1997, Masters attended a summit at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia, that allowed investigators from different jurisdictions to compare notes on Middleton's cross-country rampage of rape and murder. The sheriff was disappointed to discover that the bureau's famed team of serial-killer trackers and profilers, celebrated in books and movies, consisted of a few agents and clerks, loaded down with more files than they could possibly manage. He took some comfort in seeing all the young faces around the building, bright-eyed agents in training who, Masters hoped, might someday catch violent men like Middleton before their assaults turned deadly. Then it was explained to him who all those young people really were.

"They weren't FBI agents at all," Masters says darkly. "They were DEA agents, more fodder for the drug war. We'd spent days going over all these pictures of murdered girls, all these unsolved cases. And I'm thinking, 'What do people really worry about? The people smoking pot in their basements, or some weirdo kidnapping your daughter?' Statistically, of course, that's not much of a possibility, but that's still more of a concern of mine than all the potheads put together."

A few months later, Masters parted company with Colorado's Republican leadership over what he regarded as similarly skewed priorities: the GOP's opposition to legislation that would allow needle exchanges for drug addicts, to discourage the spread of AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. "There was a message sent out that any Republican who supports this bill will face a Republican challenger in the primary. That was the final straw for me," he says. "I was too conservative for the Republicans and too liberal for the Democrats."

An admirer of Barry Goldwater in his youth, Masters had joined the Libertarian Party when he first arrived in Colorado in the early 1970s, only to cast that affiliation aside when he became a public official. Now he went back to the Libertarians. He crushed a Republican challenger in his 1998 race for re-election, commanding more than 80 percent of the vote. Most of his supporters don't give a damn about his party affiliation; they vote for him because they know him.

"He's a good sheriff, no question about that," says Vern Ebert, the Republican county commissioner. "He may think that the mandatory sentence for some offenses is too much, but he and his deputies go out and enforce the law. I'd be the first to kick his butt out if he didn't."

"I've always been very impressed with Bill," says Art Goodtimes, the Green Party county commissioner. "He doesn't believe in the drug war, but if there's a complaint, he follows it up, no matter who it is."

"He doesn't put himself in other people's business," says Rob Schultheis, a Telluride-based journalist and author who's known Masters for twenty years. "At the same time, he's a super cop. The town has changed a lot, but his approach has always been pretty much the same. I have a low tolerance for other people's flaws, but I think the world of him."

In 2002, Masters ran unopposed. By that point, the six-term sheriff had published his first volley at federal drug policy, Drug War Addiction. He'd also watched, bemused, as the drug warriors scrambled to protect their budgets in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Building on evidence that various extremist groups finance their activities through narcotics trafficking, DEA officials put forth the proposition that the war on terror and the war on drugs were essentially intertwined; the Office of National Drug Policy even produced a series of radio and TV spots stating that drug users were supporting terrorism.

But Masters insists that the drug war is primarily focused on locking up American citizens -- and, in the process, squandering resources and manpower that could be better devoted to homeland-security interests.

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