The Punisher

Censured but defiant, Carol Chambers goes after habitual criminals -- and cops, judges and lawyers -- like no other district attorney. But at what cost?

Chambers says her short expiration date on plea offers isn’t designed to discourage valid suppression-of-evidence motions, but to cut through the usual maneuvering that ties up her deputies. “There are so many boilerplate motions in every case,” she notes. “We don’t want to waste time on that.”

But with a client’s next few decades at stake, Kaplan sees the tactic differently. “Is efficiency everything?” he asks. “You know, Mussolini made the trains run on time, too.”

Former public defender Portman doubts that bitching drug users and chronic halfway-house washouts has much of a deterrent effect in the long run. “When people go out and smoke a joint and decide not to go back to the halfway house, they’re not thinking about the habitual-criminal filing,” he says. “They have poor impulse control, and that’s why they end up in the criminal-justice system.”

Frank Vasquez was facing a 48-year stretch as a habitual criminal.
Frank Vasquez was facing a 48-year stretch as a habitual criminal.
Carol Chambers was the unlikely victor in the 2004 race for DA in the 18th Judicial District.
Carol Chambers was the unlikely victor in the 2004 race for DA in the 18th Judicial District.

Chambers insists that going after meth users chases them out of her community. And going after walkaways seems to be having an impact, too. Some halfway houses in her district have even posted signs about the new policy, letting residents know what they’re in for if they screw up.

“We have found that the change of policy has dramatically decreased our walkaways,” reports Dave Cutler, director of the Arapahoe Community Treatment Center, the facility from which both Gilmour and Vasquez absconded. “They’re down more than 50 percent in the last six months. Guys know they could get ten years or sixteen. It’s had an effect.”

But even Cutler has some reservations about the policy. “I think they should do it case by case,” he says. “Some of the guys have no intention of doing the program. They skip after the first couple of days. [The DA] should hammer those folks. But the guys who have mental-health issues or other problems…we get a lot of offenders who’ve been down a long time. They need time to figure it out.”

Frank Vasquez is still figuring it out. When they hauled him into a courtroom last summer and the lady prosecutor was talking sixteen years or we’ll bitch you for 48, he just about lost it. He walks away from a halfway house, and the lady wants to put him away forever. This is it, he told himself. I’m done.

“Why does she hate me so much?” he asked the public defender.

“This isn’t about you anymore,” his lawyer told him.

Sitting in the visiting room at the Arapahoe County jail, waiting for his transfer back to prison on the escape charge, Vasquez knows he’s one of the luckiest losers in the 18th District. He’s been given a fourth strike, a fifth down — pick your metaphor. Four years for his latest screwup, he can do that. With good behavior, he’ll be out in thirty months or so and, at 55, he might still be employable. But the time the DA was trying to give him — 48 years, even sixteen — that would have been a death sentence for Frank “Junior” Vasquez.

When he was born in La Junta all those years ago, his name was Frank Vasquez Jr. But somewhere along the line, the “junior” got transposed in his records, and now the courts know him as Junior Vasquez. No matter. Call him Frank.

Frank was one of five kids. His parents divorced when he was ten. Frank stayed with his father. Frank Senior was a hard-drinking man, but his son loved him. Frank Junior drank, too. He was topping onions at twelve and hitting the booze at thirteen, a morose, skinny kid who had nothing but shame and the courage he could drain from a bottle.

He joined the Army at eighteen. Frank Senior died two years later, at the age of 38, choking in his sleep. Frank Junior went on a drinking binge. He was AWOL for 200 days. Hello, dishonorable discharge.

Frank came home to take care of his little sisters and a brother. He worked in a copper-fittings plant for eight years, and life was good. Then he got fired for stealing candy out of a machine. He drifted into construction work. At 33, he had his first snort of the devil’s dandruff and started dealing in his spare time.

“I was doing lines every morning before I went to work,” he recalls. “Finally, I said, ‘Screw this job. I can make more money by accident.’ I was a total mess.”

One of his customers taught him how to cook crack. Frank was always looking for a better high, and he ran with it. Jobs came and went. In 1988 there was a deferred judgment over a situation involving his common-law wife, her new boyfriend and Frank trying to get his stuff back, and a similar case nine years later, when Frank broke into his girlfriend’s trailer to get a camera to pawn. Judging from the court records, the primary victim in each instance, the one upon whom Frank Junior inflicted substantial harm, appears to have been Frank Junior. He screwed up the probation, then community corrections, resulting in his first escape charge. He couldn’t stay clean.

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