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?

In 2004, another dispute with another girlfriend got him another criminal-trespass beef, a few months in prison and his latest stint at the Arapahoe Community Treatment Center — where, everyone agrees, he was doing so well. He quit smoking and drinking. His urine was clean. He had a good job. Six months, no problems.

But he still had the cravings. He’d go to the drug classes, and all he’d hear was a bunch of war stories about people doing Tony Montana-sized mounds of coke. He begged to be excused from the classes. One day he went to see a girl, who offered him a party if he’d buy the crack. He agreed.

And took his first hit in many, many months.

“That was the start and the finish,” he says. “I screwed up everything I worked for. I let everybody down.”

Goodbye job, halfway house, freedom. They picked him up a month later, shoplifting at a dollar store. The shame soon gave way to fear — fear of the bitch, coming at him out of the pit of his own failures. Forty-eight years! Twenty-four! Sixteen! Even eight would have finished him, he says.

“Not too many people will want to hire me at sixty,” he says. “But at 55, I can still get a job. And I’ve always worked my butt off.”

In jail, Frank met other prisoners facing the bitch. None of them can imagine doing such a glacier of time. They talk about killing themselves, buying a big bag of heroin in prison and tucking in. Frank doesn’t blame them. He had similar thoughts. “If I got 24 years, I was going to beg my son to send me seventy dollars,” he says. “That’s what it would take. I’d do it all in one whack.”

Carol Chambers talks about the need to evaluate crime differently. More has to be done on the prevention end, and habitual offenders need to be dealt with severely. But even among the habituals, she says, there are times when the law should show mercy. “Cocaine and crack are used by people who have a sense of hopelessness,” she says. “You should not always uniformly hammer people, even if they’re chronic offenders.”

But there were no allowances for hope in the way her office hammered away at the Vasquez case. When the defense rushed to plead guilty to escape with no deal in place, the prosecutor objected to the plea because the habitual counts hadn’t yet been filed. It’s only blind luck — and a reasonable judge — that has left Vasquez contemplating a future that doesn’t include a bag of heroin, done all in one whack.

The prospect of the bitch, and of the heroin to follow, stayed with him in his cell right up to the day of his sentencing, deepening the furrows beneath his eyes. “Last night was probably the first time I’ve slept more than an hour or two in six months,” he says. “It felt good.”

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