Everyone heard the explosion. It sounded like someone had detonated a cherry bomb behind the apartment. A man named Bud opened the back door to see what the hell was going on.
There were three of them in the parking lot, three wild men lit by the midnight moon. The tall one with the Army jacket and the crazy eyes had a twelve-gauge shotgun aimed at Bud. The other two were bleeding--one from his left arm, the other from a small wound in his left cheek, just below his eye.
They walked right into the kitchen.
One of the men flashed a badge. "DEA!" he barked. "Everybody on the floor!"
Crazy Eyes, who was calling himself David Hoffman that night, shoved his shotgun in the face of a 74-year-old woman sitting at the kitchen table. "Where's the money?" he demanded. "Where's the dope?"
The old woman, who lived in the apartment with her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, said she didn't know anything about any money or drugs. Hoffman rounded up Bud and two other guys who were visiting the women and made them lie down on the floor of the bathroom.
The man with the bloody arm, Scott Baxendale, started searching the other rooms. His good hand clutched a .357 automatic.
The third intruder, Kevin Rutherford, carried no weapon at all. He had been in the apartment before--he'd visited twice earlier that night, in fact, although this would later be disputed--and knew the floor plan well. He led the old woman's granddaughter, Mary, into a back bedroom occupied by Mary's twelve-year-old daughter. He kept them both there, out of the line of fire. When Hoffman wandered into the room, waving his shotgun around, Rutherford told him to leave Mary and her daughter alone.
Mary told him he was bleeding. Rutherford touched his cheek. That was how he found out he was wounded.
The night was not going well. Earlier that evening, Rutherford, Baxendale and Hoffman had burst into another apartment in the same complex, a worn-out, crowded warren of minimum-wage housing on Wolff Street in west Denver. They had found no drugs, no wads of cash, just three astonished Hispanic men who washed dishes and butchered meat for a living. Rutherford had apologized to the men for the mistake and even shook hands with one of the victims.
Mary and her grandmother weren't exactly big-time dope dealers, either, but this raid turned out to be slightly more successful. Baxendale emerged from another bedroom with two small rocks of crack cocaine. He showed them to the old woman in the kitchen.
"Why do you let them smoke this shit in your house?" he asked.
For a moment it seemed as if Baxendale was going to lecture her on the evils of drug abuse. Instead, he pocketed the rocks. He and Hoffman gathered up the rest of their haul: a Seiko watch, taken off Bud's wrist; a jean jacket; a television remote control. They gathered up the telephones, too, but the old woman begged for them back, saying they were registered to AT&T. Rutherford returned them.
While he was doing that, Hoffman and Baxendale drove off. That left Rutherford--a short, thirty-year-old ex-convenience-store clerk who weighed around 130 pounds--alone with the six robbery victims, including three much larger men. Perplexed, he did the only thing he could think of to do.
He asked Bud for a ride.
The following night, just after two in the morning on January 24, 1992, Baxendale and Hoffman were arrested by Aurora police in the middle of a similar stickup at an East Colfax motel. Rutherford was not with them; he was picked up a few days later by Denver police acting on a tip. Collectively, the three were charged with a total of nearly fifty counts of aggravated robbery, burglary, menacing and conspiracy. Each of them was looking at up to several hundred years of prison time.
In the annals of crime, Colorado's crack-addled robbery spree of '92 probably doesn't rate a footnote. Most of the items taken were virtually worthless, and the cash involved amounted to only a few dollars. Miraculously, no one other than Baxendale and Rutherford was injured in any of the raids. The whole affair was spectacular only in its stupidity--it might even be considered comical if not for the genuine terror evoked by strange men bursting into apartments and putting loaded guns to people's heads.
"Most criminals aren't in prison because they're brilliant," says former Denver deputy district attorney Ron Podboy, who prosecuted the three men. "The brilliant criminals aren't charged. They're off enjoying the fruits of their criminal labor, and nobody ever hears about them."
Yet the case had a bizarre aftermath. The crimes were senseless, but what happened to the three men after they entered the tangled briar patch of the criminal-justice system--with all its lawyerly machinations and plea-bargain maneuvers, its remarkable opportunities for betrayal and revenge--was stranger still. Once arrested, each of the three was confronted with a dire choice about how he was going to play the game. In two out of three cases, the decisions they made were disastrous.
For David Hoffman--a man of many names, a deranged drifter who claimed to be heir to a fortune--the Denver County Jail proved to be the last stop on a long, violent trip. For months he had rocketed across the West, fueled by cocaine and booze and an equally ferocious jones for guns and danger. Unable to face the prospect of hard time, he committed suicide in his cell only hours before he was due in court to accept a plea bargain that would have netted him fifteen years in prison.
For Scott Baxendale, getting arrested was the best thing that ever happened to him. A once-successful businessman and talented guitar-maker, Baxendale had seen everything he ever cherished burn up in a crack pipe. He was offered a precious last chance and he took it, copping a plea that sent him to a halfway house rather than to Canon City. Six years later, he's reclaimed his family, his life and his art.
For Kevin Rutherford, his night out with Baxendale and Hoffman brought him to that eerie crossroads where The Twilight Zone meets film noir, where the patsy always takes the fall. Rutherford was unarmed and has always maintained that he didn't rob anyone; indeed, he claimed to be as unwilling a participant as the people who were robbed. He rejected a generous plea offer and went to trial, insisting on his innocence. Despite contradictory testimony by his principal accusers, nobody believed him. The judge gave him a total of ninety years--thirty for the robbery of the Hispanic men, sixty for the second break-in, to be served concurrently. Although the sentence was later reduced to eighteen years, it still amounts to what may be a life sentence for him. In 1994 he was diagnosed with a terminal liver disease. He now has a life expectancy of less than ten years.
Today Scott Baxendale lives in east Denver with two children from his first marriage. He works in a guitar shop and plays in a local band, Funkus Groovus, with Kofi Baker, son of rock legend Ginger Baker. Kevin Rutherford lives in a cell in a private prison in Minnesota and anxiously monitors the enzyme levels in his blood. Both men are haunted by memories of David Hoffman and what might have been. Occasionally they exchange angry, accusatory letters.
Baxendale doesn't support his former friend's claims of total innocence--he was prepared to testify as a prosecution witness at Rutherford's trial--but even he says that Rutherford's role in the crime spree was minimal. "People commit far more serious crimes and get lots less time than Kevin did," he says. "Eighteen years for what he did is gross punishment. I think he should be out now. Of course, he thinks he's doing my time--which is bullshit."
"I was raised to believe in the system," Rutherford says, "and that was one of the reasons I took this to trial. I figured, 'Hell, if you didn't rob anyone, there is no way you can be found guilty.' Mercy, was I ever wrong."
"He's very bitter toward me," Baxendale says. "If the situation was reversed, I suppose I might feel the same."
"There's only two people left out of this thing," Rutherford says. "It's me and Baxendale, and we're not going to see eye-to-eye."
Scott Baxendale first met the man he would come to know as David Hoffman in a homeless shelter in Arlington, Texas. The tall, hard-drinking stranger was full of wild stories and impossible dreams, dreams that got bigger and bolder and somehow more inviting the more he drank and talked.
Baxendale listened. He knew something about dreams.
Guitars--making them, repairing them, playing them--had been the stuff of Baxendale's dreams. He'd dropped out of the University of Kansas to go to work for Mossman Guitars, one of the best-known small manufacturers of acoustic instruments in the country, then moved on to Gruhn's, a celebrated vintage-guitar shop in Nashville. In 1985, at the age of 31, he bought Mossman and moved it from Kansas to Dallas.
Mossman catered to an exclusive and highly discriminating clientele. Over the next five years Baxendale and his staff produced 250 custom-built guitars for such customers as Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Greg Lake, Joe Walsh and Donovan. Baxendale also signed on as curator for the Dallas Hard Rock Cafe's collection of famous instruments--a gig that allowed him to rub shoulders with music-biz VIPs and dream about the day his own local band would hit the big time.
Toward the end of the Eighties, though, Baxendale's dreams went up in smoke. He'd always been partial to a little weed, but as his association with the music industry grew, he began to use cocaine heavily--to help stay awake, he told himself. He went from snorting it to cooking it to scoring crack on the street.
"In a two-year period," he says, "I went from making about $2,000 a week and having five employees and hanging out with big stars, really on the verge of going somewhere in the music business--I went from there to living in a homeless shelter. I spent a half-million dollars on cocaine and lost my wife, my business, everything."
In the summer of 1991, Baxendale's second wife threw him out and changed the locks on their house. He bounced between rehab and relapse, between flophouses and the street. It was during one of his brief clean periods, when he was making plans to take classes at the University of Texas at Arlington, that he struck up a conversation with the tall stranger at the shelter.
The man introduced himself as Robert Yanko. But he soon let Baxendale know that Yanko was just a temporary alias; his real name was Ken Hilton. He hinted that he was related to the folks behind the Hilton hotel chain and that he would be coming into a pile of money soon. When that day came, he said, he would open up a bar on a beach in Belize. Before long, he was urging Baxendale to go there with him.
Sure thing, Baxendale said. Mr. Hilton was clearly crazy--and a drunk to boot. He'd start off the day with a couple of bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 for breakfast, then swill beer or whiskey, if he could get it, throughout the day, and finish it off with a quart of schnapps. He was three years younger than Baxendale but looked much older.
"This guy drank more than anyone I'd ever seen," Baxendale recalls. "At the same time, he had this ability to charm people. He was very good at manipulation. He had this aversion to people knowing who he really was, but at the same time, he wanted to be flamboyant and show off."
Baxendale liked Ken Hilton, or whatever his name was. He liked the idea of sitting on a beach doing nothing. He had been through one crack binge after another, maniacal episodes of going days or weeks without sleep and obsessing about the next hit and the next one. He figured the only way he was ever going to lose the monkey was to get out of Dallas and its armpit accessories, Arlington and Fort Worth. Why not Belize?
When he landed low-rent campus housing and began school, he invited Hilton to move in with him. Hilton told him he wouldn't regret it. He kept talking about the pile of money that was headed his way.
Right, Baxendale said.
Then one day in October, there was a knock at the door. A Federal Express courier handed Hilton an envelope containing a certified cashier's check for $55,000. The check was made out to someone named Dean Roundy.
Hilton explained that Roundy was his real name. His father was an executive for Northwest Airlines who had died in a plane crash, he said, and the check was the initial payment on a $1.7 million "annuity settlement" he was to receive as a result of the death.
They were on their way to Belize, Hilton--or was it Roundy?--said. But first they had to take care of a few details. They would need passports, supplies and a much bigger stake than fifty grand. For weeks Roundy had been yammering about another pile of money, a Confederate gold shipment that had been lost somewhere in Texas during the Civil War. An uncle of his had traced the gold to the bottom of a well at an old farmhouse outside of Abilene, but for some reason he had never claimed it.
"The story was that somehow the gold got left and everyone got shot," Baxendale recalls. "He'd been going to the library every day, researching it, and he had so many details about it that I began to believe the story."
Roundy wanted to visit his family in Utah and then hunt for the gold. He converted the check into some cash and a deck of 52 thousand-dollar money orders, put the money orders in a briefcase and handed some of the cash to Baxendale, directing him to lease a brand-new Lincoln. He filled up the car with newly purchased firearms, all registered in Baxendale's name: nine-millimeter and .357 Magnum automatics, a shotgun, plenty of ammo. The plan was that Roundy would dole out $1,000 a week for expenses; he would sit in the back of the Lincoln and drink and Baxendale would act as driver, bodyguard and scout.
Before they left, they rented a room at the Arlington Hilton and had a party--one last fling, Baxendale told himself. They stayed up for days, snorting coke and smoking crack. Roundy was no stranger to cocaine, but the drug, combined with his incessant drinking, seemed to transform him. He became very loud, aggressive, even violent. Then he would black out, remembering little of what he'd said or done.
Baxendale wasn't too worried. Maybe the dream--gold, the inheritance, Belize, all of it--was cracked. But the money in Roundy's briefcase was real.
The trip almost ended before it began. Roundy decided they should do some target shooting outside of Cedar Hill, Texas, and the pair were promptly arrested for illegal discharge of firearms. The cops checked out the gun registrations and let them go two days later with a misdemeanor plea and a fine.
They drove to Oklahoma City, where Baxendale picked up a copy of his birth certificate for the journey to Belize. Then it was on to Utah, where Baxendale discovered that Roundy really did have a family, a pack of conservative Mormon cousins who called him Dean and seemed to have no inkling of his dark side.
The visit didn't last long. Roundy was eager to go deer hunting. He was soon arrested for hunting without a license. Baxendale bailed him out of jail.
It could have been worse. Roundy's idea of hunting was to drive across open fields in the Lincoln, taking drunken potshots at rabbits while looking vainly for bigger game. One of his errant shots put a hole in the hood of the car.
Baxendale soon tired of the hunt. The last straw was the night Roundy woke him up after midnight, ecstatic because he'd finally shot a deer. He dragged Baxendale into the woods to help him gut it.
"I was getting tired of playing nursemaid to this drunk," Baxendale says. "Throughout most of this time I wasn't doing any drugs and I wasn't drinking, because I was doing all the driving while he sat in back and got wasted."
Baxendale suggested they take a detour to Las Vegas for more civilized recreation. Roundy agreed, but first they had to stop in Salt Lake City; he wanted to do some "research," he said, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' famous genealogical archives. The research consisted of obtaining all the vital personal information he needed to add to his growing collection of phony birth certificates and driver's licenses. By now he had half a dozen aliases, but he soon added one more: David Hoffman.
"He started telling people he was Dustin Hoffman's nephew," Baxendale says.
Taking Roundy to Vegas proved to be as shrewd as bringing a flamethrower to a fireworks factory. In Glitter Gulch he bought hundred-dollar racks of coins, took over an entire row of dollar slot machines and ran from slot to slot, feeding coins and pulling levers. A relay of waitresses kept the double shots of tequila coming. When they were both thoroughly tanked, Baxendale decided it was time to find some marijuana. A parking valet directed them to a house in a quiet neighborhood where they scored and stayed on to party.
Baxendale brought along his guitar. Roundy brought in the arsenal from the car to show off to their admiring hosts, including a SPAS twelve-gauge shotgun that could be configured as a fully automatic assault weapon. "In one brief, lucid moment I thought, 'I need to unload these guns,'" Baxendale recalls. He put the ammo in the trunk of the car.
At some point Roundy began to smoke crack. Then he erupted in paranoia. He put the SPAS to someone's head and pulled the trigger. When nothing happened, he rushed out of the house. Baxendale found him outside a neighbor's house, banging on the door and screaming bloody murder. "I wrestle him to the ground," Baxendale says, "and ten police cars pull up."
By the time Roundy had calmed down, his brand-new, thousand-dollar suit and ostrich-skin boots were in shreds. Incredibly, the cops bought Baxendale's story about how he and Roundy had just come from a hunting trip and had a little too much to drink. Somehow they missed the ounce of weed tucked away in his guitar. They checked the registration on the guns and let them go.
The duo checked into Circus Circus on the strip but found the service inadequate. The staff seemed to have a problem with guns in the room and with Mr. Hoffman's rampages, which included tearing up the carpet one night, searching frantically for the money orders he'd hidden a few hours earlier. The two moved down the strip to Caesars Palace. Over the next few weeks they gambled away most of Roundy's money.
Down to his last few grand, Roundy bought a used Chevy Blazer and dubbed it "the White Knight." Baxendale strolled into a gift shop and bought a toy badge that had the word "SHERIFF" emblazoned on it. From a casino on the Utah border, they called the car-rental agency and told them where to find the much-abused Lincoln.
That night Roundy's luck began to turn. Pulling rows of slot levers in rapid succession, he hit a jackpot of more than $2,000. But he was falling-down drunk, and within minutes, someone took the buckets of coins away from him.
The idea of digging up a lost trove of Confederate gold was looking better all the time. But Baxendale and Hoffman, as Roundy now insisted on being called, kept running into detours.
On their way back to Texas they stopped in Denver, long enough to become acquainted with some of the regulars at the Sheridan Saloon, a rough-edged bar on the city's west side. Baxendale got tight with a coke dealer named Slick and his girlfriend, Sandy.
Sandy seemed impressed by Baxendale--maybe it was the satin jacket from Caesars Palace, maybe it was the .357 he carried under the jacket, in the small of his back. Soon he and Sandy were an item, and Slick was history. He'd be back to see her, Baxendale said, after he took care of a little business in Texas.
Kevin Rutherford was another hanger-on at the Sheridan Saloon. An Air Force veteran from Michigan, he'd been in town only a few months, working low-paying jobs and planning to complete a computer degree. He had a history of drunk-driving arrests and one felony burglary conviction from his youth, as well as a taste for a little Bolivian marching powder, but no one considered him to be a major badass.
Rutherford had been staying with friends and looking for an apartment. Sandy invited him to move into a spare room in her house. Baxendale thought it was a good idea; Rutherford could look after Sandy, who had a violent ex-boyfriend getting out of jail soon, while he was away.
"He seemed like an okay dude," Baxendale says. "All I knew was that he drank a lot and obviously snorted some lines."
In early December, Hoffman and Baxendale took off for Texas. Once again they were arrested for engaging in some noisy target shooting; the park ranger who busted them took a dim view of their Calico M950 machine pistol, which could spit out fifty nine-millimeter shells in seconds. This time they spent two weeks in a county jail before their lawyer could get the charges reduced. They finally made it to Abilene on Christmas Day. They spent the next few weeks living in a drafty tent, hunting for food and poking around abandoned wells in the frozen dark.
They didn't find the gold.
Baxendale wanted to go back to Denver and Sandy. But first they stopped in Dallas so that he could pick up some belongings he'd left behind. He found that a friend had turned his apartment into a crackhouse and left his car abandoned on a freeway. They caught up with the friend at a sleazy motel, where he was visiting another dealer.
"We were both pissed off," Baxendale says. "So we came back that night, when everybody else was gone, and robbed the dealer."
Baxendale shoved a gun in the man's face. Hoffman duct-taped him to a bed. They took a boombox and the most humongous slab of crack cocaine they'd ever seen, a rock as big as the Ritz. They should sell it, they agreed--but first, why not smoke a little?
They smoked it all. It took them a night and a day and the following night. They fired up the last of it while going through a car wash: "We're both completely paranoid and schized out, and Hoffman's seeing cops everywhere," Baxendale recalls.
But even after the effects of the drug wore off, something about the experience stayed with Baxendale. They'd ripped off a dealer once before; a man had approached their car and offered some crack, and the gun-toting duo had simply taken it away from him. It was free dope, and that was cool--but it was something else, too.
"What we discovered was that the rush from pulling a gun on somebody and taking their dope was as big or bigger than actually doing the dope," Baxendale says. "I was surprised at how much I liked that adrenaline rush. It's like having sex in the preacher's office while everybody else is in church."
Flat out of money and options, Baxendale and Hoffman returned to Denver and moved in with Sandy and Rutherford. Hoffman was full of tall tales about their exploits in Texas, including the drug ripoffs. "He's making these robberies sound like big, huge events," Baxendale says. "He's bragging about all this stuff, and Kevin is just eating this up."
Rutherford admits that Hoffman talked to him about the Texas robberies, but he says he figured that it was just hot air. It was Baxendale, he says, who kept pressing him for the names of dealers they could connect with in Denver. "Not having been there very long, I didn't know any big dealers, and I told him that," he says.
Accounts of the circumstances leading up to the apartment robberies in Denver vary greatly. Baxendale says he was looking for a job at a guitar shop and planning to marry Sandy and give Hoffman the heave-ho. Rutherford, who'd left his job at a convenience store and was working as a roofer, says he had no plans to rob anyone--until he found himself in a situation he couldn't escape. In a statement he made after his arrest, Hoffman claimed that he was passed out on Sandy's couch while someone who looked just like him was running around with a shotgun terrorizing people.
Baxendale says that Rutherford spent most of the day of January 22, 1992, with Sandy, himself and Hoffman. Rutherford says he'd been drinking for hours that day with his roofing buddies and that Baxendale and Hoffman approached him that night in the Sheridan Saloon and asked him to go on a beer run with them. (Sandy, whose recollections could possibly clear up the discrepancies, couldn't be located for comment.) A bartender at the Sheridan would later testify that she saw the trio on several occasions that night and overheard them talking about "rolling" somebody.
But there are some points on which Baxendale and Rutherford agree. Both men say that when they got into a car with Hoffman that night, they thought they were simply going to the liquor store. But Hoffman had stashed a shotgun in the backseat--a borrowed Mossburg, since they'd been forced to sell most of the other guns.
"I'm driving," Baxendale says, "and he pulls out the gun and says, 'All right, let's go rob some niggers.' He's telling Kevin that he knows that Kevin knows where some dope dealers are, and Kevin says, yeah, he knows where to get some."
Rutherford's recollection differs slightly. "As a matter of fact, it was Baxendale who initiated the conversation," he says. "The questions stopped because I didn't have the answers."
Rutherford has always denied directing Baxendale to drive to the apartment complex on Wolff Street, just a few blocks from the Sheridan Saloon. If that's the case, then his companions must have been psychic or exceedingly well-informed about the drug trade in west Denver, because they pulled into a parking lot a stone's throw from an apartment where Rutherford says he had previously purchased cocaine from a woman named Mary.
"My attitude was, 'Oh, no, here we go again,'" says Baxendale. "I was scared and not wanting to do it, but at the same time, I was fearful of Hoffman's reaction. Kevin may have been scared inside, but he was acting like he wanted to do it. He was saying, 'Come on, guys, you've got to let me have a gun. I need to have one, too.' He knew full well what was going on."
Baxendale spotted two young men sitting in a truck and figured they were waiting to score. He got out of the car and walked up to them with his .357 in hand, demanding to know where to find the dealer. From the back seat, Hoffman motioned Rutherford out of the car, too. One of the youths nodded in the general direction of an apartment behind them. Baxendale knocked, but no one would let them in. Someone--Baxendale says Rutherford, Rutherford says Baxendale--kicked in the door.
Baxendale flashed the toy sheriff's badge he'd picked up in Las Vegas. Bewildered, the three men in the apartment hit the floor. There was a paucity of furniture: a chair, a mattress, a TV set. "It was obvious to me that we'd hit the wrong place, that these were just poor Mexicans trying to get a job," Baxendale says.
According to Rutherford, he agreed to go to Mary's apartment to purchase some crack for Hoffman, but not to rob her. While Baxendale and Hoffman waited in the car, he knocked on her door. She told him that her dealer would be there shortly and that he should come back in half an hour.
They killed the time by going back to the Sheridan Saloon, where they were observed arguing about money. Rutherford says the others accused him of taking a hundred dollars from the kids in the truck and not sharing it; he denied it. After a quick trip to the liquor store, they headed back to the apartments on Wolff Street--to pick up Hoffman's rock, Rutherford thought.
He knocked on the door a second time, he says, and was told the dealer hadn't copped anything. "I go back outside, and there are Baxendale and Hoffman, getting out of the car with their weapons," he says. "I tell them, 'I didn't get anything. Let's go. This is ridiculous.' But Hoffman tells me to go knock again. He says this three times. On the third time is when he started to raise the shotgun."
"I'm saying, 'Let's get the fuck out of here,'" Baxendale recalls. "And Hoffman says, 'Fuck, no, we're not going anywhere'--and then, boom! He fires right into the pavement. Every other shell in that gun was birdshot, then double-aught buck. It was just pure chance it wasn't double-aught buck in the chamber. That would have killed us both.
"I was covered from my chest to my legs with shot. I looked like I had the chicken pox. Kevin got one just under the eye. His face was bleeding, and I was bleeding down my arm."
The apartment door opened. Rutherford was through arguing. He decided he might as well go in.
After it was over, Baxendale and Hoffman went back to Sandy's place. Baxendale spent the night digging shotgun pellets out of his flesh with a pocket knife while Hoffman furiously tried to get the television he stole from the first apartment to work with the remote control he took from Mary's apartment. They smoked the small amount of crack they'd scored from the second robbery and crashed.
Rutherford did not return to Sandy's house. He says he never wanted to see Baxendale or Hoffman again, so he went to a friend's house. As he saw it, he'd been caught up in something that wasn't his fault. He'd tried to resist and been shot in the face for his trouble. He wasn't part of it. The fact that the other two had left him stranded after the second robbery proved it.
"I didn't rob anybody," he says. "I didn't agree to go with these guys with the idea it was going to be a robbery. I agreed to go with them to get beer. It was an innocent run that turned ugly."
Baxendale says he isn't sure why Rutherford went with them in the first place. "As much as Kevin was playing this act, like he wanted to rob these dope dealers with us, maybe he really was scared shitless and trying to misdirect us," he says. "If it wasn't for Hoffman, I don't think either one of us would have participated in any of these crimes."
After Hoffman fired his shotgun at their feet, Baxendale says, and then trained the gun on the old woman in the apartment, "I was thinking about shooting him. I thought that might be my best alternative. I knew he didn't have any self-control."
But if Baxendale was upset with his partner for shooting him, it didn't stop him from going out with him again the following night. With Sandy along for the ride, they stopped at a bar on East Colfax, where Hoffman had several drinks and insisted it was time for another job. Baxendale said it would be easier just to score some dope.
They picked up a young black man on the street and gave him $20 for some crack. He took them to a motel and told them to wait in the car while he made the purchase. When he didn't come back for several minutes, Hoffman and Baxendale burst into the motel room with guns drawn.
"We want our money," Hoffman snarled.
They made their buyer and the seller lie on the floor while they searched their pockets. A woman who was in the room fled and called 911. The police arrived before Baxendale and Hoffman could make it back to Sandy's car with their take, which consisted of the $20 they'd given the buyer, a small plastic bag of rocks, and an extra $2 for their trouble. Although Sandy had stayed in the car and may not have known what the plan was, she was arrested, too. (She wound up pleading to a reduced charge as an accessory and receiving probation.)
When the police searched Hoffman, they found he had more than $2,000 on him--money he'd kept secret from Baxendale, just as he'd lied about so many aspects of his life. Yet here he was, ripping off crackheads for a few measly bucks. A detective asked him why he carried so much cash.
"It makes me feel good," Hoffman said.
From the moment he was arrested, Scott Baxendale proved to be a cooperative suspect. He told the police where to find all the guns and ammo and gave them a detailed statement about the robberies. But his explanation of his own motives would have astonished anyone who knew him.
"My life for the past six years had been wrecked by drug dealers and users," he explained in a written statement. "I felt a strong hatred toward drug dealers and decided to do something about it...All I want to do is help in any way possible to put drug dealers out of business...I feel that with my past I could help bust crack dealers."
"I told the cops mostly the truth," he says now, "but I tried to slant it to make me look like I was some sort of vigilante. I was deluding myself into thinking that I was doing this to get the crack off the street. It was bullshit. I was a crackhead. Why would I want the crack off the street? At the same time, I'd been struggling for the last year and a half to get clean. I knew that shit was evil and that my life was shitty because of it."
In his statement, Baxendale boasted that he'd "destroyed" the crack he seized. He didn't mention that he'd destroyed it by smoking it. Still, the vigilante pose impressed no one. He was looking at dozens of charges, a long prison stretch. (Federal authorities were even looking into charging him with impersonating a DEA agent, but when the feds got a look at the toy badge, they just shook their heads and laughed.) After the coke fumes cleared from his brain, it dawned on Baxendale that his only hope was to come clean.
His lawyers worked out the best deal they could with prosecutors in Denver and Arapahoe County: a plea of guilty to one count of aggravated robbery in each case, a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. It would be up to the judge whether the time would be served in prison or community corrections. Baxendale took it, hoping for a shot at the rigorous Peer 1 drug rehab program.
As news of the proposed deal reached the other defendants, Baxendale began to receive threatening letters from Hoffman: "All I can say is Scott Scott Scott, the bond between us was I thought tighter than super glue? Well you live and learn...you will never make it in prison with your jacket and statements following you!!...you blackmailing vampire, you tyrant, you big bloodsucking leech. You have been uncovered!!!"
"You know, I trusted you--but you were never honest with me," Baxendale wrote back. "When we got arrested here I watched the police count out $2152.00 in cash...Now who betrayed who--I was ready to stick it out to the end with you but you betrayed me, not the other way around...All this time I thought we were some kind of 'business partners' when the whole time, I realize now, that I was just someone you could give the 'business' to...
"Listen, David, Dean, Brent, Ken, Doug, Robert, Hilton, Yanko, Davis, Roundy, Hoffman, Fuckhead--did you ever think about starting a baseball team? You could be every position."
After six months in jail awaiting sentencing, Baxendale appeared before Denver District Court Judge John Coughlin and gave a candid, remorseful accounting of his crimes. Among the exhibits submitted was a 1985 Dallas newspaper article about the young entrepreneur who'd purchased Mossman Guitars. Judge Coughlin was impressed; here was an addict who'd once done something with his life, and might again. The judge sentenced him to Peer 1. That meant two years in rehab and eight years of reporting to a parole officer, having his urine tested regularly. One slip-up, and he could be on the next bus to prison.
"Mr. Baxendale, you're getting a big break," Judge Coughlin said.
"I appreciate it, Your Honor," Baxendale replied.
"We'll find out," the judge said crisply.
Like many prosecutors, Ron Podboy believed in walking softly but carrying one hell of a stick. With criminals, you had to be tough but pragmatic: Offer them a deal you can live with. If they turn it down and put the state to the trouble of a trial, then nail them to the wall.
"I came up against ten or fifteen people a year whose records were so horrible that they were basically asking to be taken out of society," says Podboy, now a defense attorney in private practice. "Most of the other cases are going to have some kind of disposition, and I always tried to be fair. But if you don't take that disposition, we go to trial, and all bets are off. If you haven't taken my deal, I'm going to work as hard as I can as a prosecutor to put you in jail."
Kevin Rutherford had been charged with nine counts of aggravated robbery, each carrying a mandatory sentence of from 10 to 32 years. Baxendale told Podboy that Rutherford had been unarmed and had protected Mary's twelve-year-old daughter during the robbery. Based in part on those circumstances, Michael Morrissey, Rutherford's court-appointed attorney, had persuaded Podboy to offer Rutherford what amounted to a token prison sentence--three years--in exchange for a guilty plea.
Baxendale wrote to Rutherford in jail, urging him to take the deal. He pointed out that, with credit for time served, Rutherford could be paroled in a matter of months. "I have no desire to see you go to prison for something that wasn't your fault," he wrote. "If you take the deal...you will have a life again in two years at the max."
But Rutherford rejected the offer. He was furious at Baxendale for making statements that implicated him in the crimes, even as he admitted that they weren't his fault. "I believed that if I didn't rob anybody and I didn't plan this," Rutherford says, "then why did I have to take the punishment for it?"
His client turned down "one hell of a deal," Morrissey says. "I didn't argue with him. When he says, 'I'm not guilty and I'd rather go to trial,' that ends the discussion."
"He just refused everything," Podboy recalls. "It was the dumbest thing in the world. He would have been out of prison in twelve, eighteen months at the most, but he remained intractable."
The case went before a Denver jury in the fall of 1992. Podboy didn't pull any punches. In his opening statement he portrayed Rutherford as the man who waved the badge in the two apartment robberies, the "boss cop" who ordered people on the floor and rifled through their belongings. He noted that when Rutherford was arrested at a friend's house a few days after the robberies, he had a newspaper clipping in his wallet about the crimes--"evidence of his pride in having been associated with this outrageous escapade."
But when it came time for testimony, the victims of the first robbery contradicted Podboy's version of events. Two of the three Hispanic men described Baxendale, not Rutherford, as the man who badged them. As for Rutherford, "he didn't have anything in his hands and didn't do anything," one of the men said.
The testimony from the second group of victims was more damaging. Mary denied dealing drugs from her apartment, denied ever seeing Rutherford before the robbery--despite the previous visits that night in an attempt to buy crack, which Baxendale had mentioned in his statements to the police. She and three others all said Rutherford was the man who'd flashed the badge and told them to get on the floor. "I believe if he was forced into doing it, he had opportunities to leave," she said.
Brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair, Mary's elderly grandmother eagerly identified Rutherford as "the man with the badge." But on cross-examination she admitted that she never even saw a badge that night and that, while she suffered from swollen ankles, she wasn't normally confined to a wheelchair.
"Grandma made an effective witness," Morrissey recalls. "Of course, she could walk. Podboy was caught borrowing the wheelchair. That was pretty slick. I congratulated him several years after the case was over."
The man named Bud, a golf-course designer who'd never even bothered to report the robbery to police, insisted that Rutherford had the badge, too. He claimed that Rutherford had "simulated" having a weapon in his pocket in order to force him to give him a ride that night. "I have never been so scared in my life," he said.
Were they all lying? As Baxendale recalls it, he was the man with the badge. He says it's possible that Rutherford "borrowed" the badge for the second robbery--if they wouldn't give him a gun, why not a badge?--but that doesn't explain how the badge ended up in Baxendale's possession when he was arrested the following night. Both men say they didn't see each other again after Hoffman and Baxendale left Rutherford at the second robbery scene.
Podboy doesn't believe it matters. "I don't think any one detail sank him," he says. "If he had the badge or he didn't, he was part of the robbery. A lot of times you have victims who aren't up for sainthood, but there's still no excuse for the kind of assault they endured."
The other witnesses probably didn't hurt Rutherford as much as his decision to testify in his own defense. Fending off Podboy's aggressive, sarcastic cross-examination, he came across as smug and arrogant. Everyone who said he had a badge was mistaken, he said. So was the waitress at the Sheridan Saloon who said that she'd overheard the trio discussing a robbery and that she'd seen Rutherford return to the bar with blood on his cheek, looking for his friends. Bud had willingly given him a ride, he insisted, and he'd promised to try to get Bud's watch back. As for Mary, she'd lied about not knowing him because she was "covering up the fact that they were selling cocaine."
"We had no evidence," Morrissey says now. "What I had, I put on the witness stand, and the jury chose not to believe one word that Mr. Rutherford said. Podboy just demolished him."
The cross-examination went so well that Podboy decided he didn't need the testimony of Baxendale, who was waiting in his office as a possible rebuttal witness. To believe Rutherford, he told the jury, was "to disbelieve every single eyewitness in favor of the defendant's bold and curious claim that he was being forced to take part in robberies against his will."
No one bought that claim. Under Colorado law, a person who "aids, abets, advises or encourages" another in the planning or commission of a robbery is guilty of complicity, and an accomplice is just as guilty as the robber himself. The jury found Rutherford guilty on all nine counts. Judge Coughlin tried to give him 24 years but later had to revise the sentence; each count had to be served consecutively with the other counts from the same incident. Still, Coughlin gave Rutherford the most lenient sentence he could: sixty years--twenty times the amount of time the prosecution had considered to be a fair offer before trial.
"It was a hell of a jolt, when you consider he was offered no more than three years," Morrissey says. "I wouldn't say that's too common, but it does happen. It's a risk that you run."
While Baxendale pleaded guilty and Rutherford proclaimed his innocence, Dean Roundy waffled. He fired his public defender, insisted on private attorneys, then fired them, too, claiming the right to represent himself. At one point he toyed with the idea of testifying in Rutherford's defense. He even prepared an affidavit, trying to portray Rutherford as acting under duress without incriminating himself, but it was never submitted to the court.
On the morning of October 15, 1992, the day he was supposed to plead guilty and receive a sentence of fifteen years in prison, he was found hanging by a bedsheet in his cell at the Denver County Jail. He left behind a suicide note addressed to his attorneys, blaming Baxendale for his troubles. Like its multifarious author, it was full of lies and delusions.
"I am not a drug addict," he wrote. "The shit called 'rock crack cocaine' is not my game. I never liked it and now I have a deep, very deep anger at what this drug does to people...Due to my big heart to help Baxendale get away from cocaine, I myself am caught right up in the middle of the shit...the desire to fly is all gone and so am I. I am left with a conscious mind definitely separated from my own true individuality."
He signed the note, "Sincerely, David Hoffman."
Harry Titcombe, one of Roundy's attorneys, says that a relative from Utah, possibly a brother of his client, made the funeral arrangements. Titcombe found out that Dean Roundy had a history he'd never known about.
"It was like he had another, completely different life," he says.
Peer 1 was no picnic. It was a bunch of ex-dope fiends in your face all day, screaming at you, demanding that you admit that you were the sorriest excuse for a human being the world has ever known. You couldn't con them because they already knew every con from the inside out. Baxendale knew that one false step would be his last.
In the spring of 1993, his first wife and a daughter were killed in a car wreck. He was allowed to travel out of state for the funeral. They offered him cocktails on the plane. The moment he'd dreaded, the defining moment, had arrived.
"I could have easily had a drink, and I didn't," he says. "I came back realizing that if I could make it through that and not relapse, there's absolutely no reason I should ever relapse unless it's because I want to get high. There's no outside thing that could happen that would be worse than losing your daughter like that."
The stakes kept rising. His brother died of a heroin overdose; his father had a serious heart attack. Baxendale moved into an apartment with other recovering addicts, then out on his own. Eventually his son and another daughter moved in with him. He went back to repairing and custom-building guitars, putting together a band, recording a CD. Six years down the road to recovery, he's still tested for drugs every few weeks. The tests have always come back negative.
"Music is the thing I lost in all this," he says, "and it's the thing I got back."
Kevin Rutherford got nothing back. After his conviction, what little he had left was taken away.
Another court-appointed attorney appealed his case, arguing that the sentence was inequitable, given what Baxendale had received. She also claimed that Podboy had improperly made reference to two credit cards Rutherford had when he was arrested--cards in the name of his ex-wife and a former roommate, it turned out, but Podboy implied that they'd been stolen.
In its decision, the Colorado Court of Appeals managed to further muddle the facts of the case. The judges stated that the credit cards had been taken in one of the robberies and that "most of the witnesses believed that [the] defendant was the leader of the three robbers." Neither statement had any basis in the record, but the judges decided that Podboy's remarks about the credit cards were harmless error and that nothing in the law required that Rutherford and Baxendale receive identical or even remotely similar sentences. The appeal was denied.
In 1995 Rutherford was granted a hearing before Judge Coughlin to request a sentence reduction. A few months earlier he'd been diagnosed with an advanced case of hepatitis C, a deadly blood-borne virus that attacks the liver functions and can lie dormant in the body for decades. Prisoners aren't priority candidates for liver transplants, and Rutherford's condition was sufficiently grave that a doctor estimated he had only a two- to ten-year life expectancy.
Judge Coughlin agreed that there was a "discrepancy" between Rutherford's sentence and what was offered to "the other two individuals who were more responsible for the crime." Over protests from the district attorney's office, he knocked the sentence down to eighteen years. He was unwilling to go further, he said, because of the defendant's own attitude about the case.
"Mr. Rutherford just never admits that he really did anything wrong," Coughlin said. "He still tries to persuade this court that his being there was almost like an accident, that he wasn't involved in these aggravated robberies."
Although he could be eligible for parole soon, Rutherford figures he doesn't have time to spare. He has continued to press his appeals in the federal courts. He also filed a grievance against his trial attorney, Michael Morrissey, alleging inadequate representation, and threatened to sue Ron Podboy for alleged prosecutorial misconduct. None of his complaints have gone anywhere.
Two years ago Rutherford wrote to his arch-enemy Podboy, asking if he would represent him on appeal. Since he's become a defense attorney, Podboy has on occasion accepted clients that he once prosecuted, including Baxendale--"I don't think I have seen anybody come out of his situation and have more success," he says--but the request from Rutherford amazed him. He declined the offer.
"I always thought you were foolish not to take that deal," Podboy wrote back. "You decided to roll the dice in going to trial, and they came up snake eyes."
Baxendale finds it ironic that Rutherford's own refusal to take any responsibility for what happened that night may be keeping him in prison, possibly for the rest of his life.
"I still blame myself for what I did," Baxendale says. "I took a ten-year deal that didn't guarantee me anything. I humbled myself before the court. I admitted what I did and I begged the judge for help with my drug problems--and I got a chance to straighten my life out. Kevin, on the other hand, didn't take the plea, denied he had a problem--and he's in jail dying of a liver disease that was probably brought on by the drug problem he denies he has."
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According to Baxendale, syringes were found in Rutherford's room in Sandy's house after his arrest. Rutherford denies that he ever injected cocaine or anything else; he says he doesn't know how he acquired the virus that's killing him. The only thing he's guilty of, he insists, is making a poor choice of friends to hang out with one night.
"This wasn't my event," he says. "This wasn't my idea. What happened that night, it wasn't me. I was studying for a degree. I didn't spend all that time in school to stop and say, 'I wonder if robbery pays better.' It doesn't make any sense."
Baxendale says it makes sense to him.
"We were all drug addicts," he says. "But some people still can't admit it.