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BETTER DEAD THAN READ

Rob Betts loves industrial rock, dislikes authority and has a grudge against police. And for more than a year now, the Denver college student has channeled those traits into editing The Denver MonkeyWrench, a funky underground newsletter with an anti-cop bent.

Not surprisingly, Betts's creation has earned him a special place in the hearts of Denver's finest. But it was Betts's attempt to garner publicity for his fledgling paper that earned him a trip to Denver's city jail. Somehow, local police failed to see the humor in Betts's "Kill a Cop for Jesus Day."

The cops, however, just might get the last laugh. In a plea agreement reached with police and prosecutors last week, Betts promised to keep his nose clean for six months. And that may mean a temporary halt to the mudslinging MonkeyWrench.

"I've always had bad vibes with cops," says Betts, explaining his psyche while sipping a Coke at a Capitol Hill eatery. "I've had bad experiences. Being a skateboarder in New York, that'll do it."

But it wasn't just the anti-skateboarding peace officers in his native Poughkeepsie that pissed Betts off. The suburban officers had it in for him, too, he says, relating a personal encounter with an overweight, out-of-control New York cop who reportedly roughed up one of Betts's teenage pals.

In 1992, sick of the humidity, the cops and New York itself, Betts moved to Denver to complete his education. (The 23-year-old is now a senior at the University of Colorado-Denver). He'd only been here a few months when he got into his first scrape with Denver police.

Betts was hosting a raucous Halloween party when a couple of Denver police officers appeared at his apartment door, he says. They wanted to know who had broken the building's glass entry door. Betts pleaded ignorance, although he says now that the perpetrator was a neighbor.

Betts was lippy, and the cops responded in kind, reportedly threatening to haul him off to jail for breaking the door. Then they ticketed Betts for disturbing the peace, even though, he claims, the party (and his stereo) had quieted down well before the police arrived.

When the case reached court a month later, Betts's public defender advised him to plead guilty to an amended charge. "He said, `It's going to be your word against the cops, and you're going to lose,'" Betts recalls. "I said, `This is crap, man. I can't plead guilty to something I didn't do.' And he said, `You should be glad you aren't from Five Points or the projects, because they would have beat the shit out of you.'"

Betts pleaded guilty and was given a six-month deferred sentence. In other words, if he stayed out of trouble for half a year, his record would be cleared.

Betts complained to his friends for months afterward about the alleged injustice. They responded, he said, by telling him "horror stories" about their own experiences with Denver police. Betts says he became sick of hearing people "bitch and fester their bad attitudes." And he decided to do "something positive, just to make a little noise."

From that, The Denver MonkeyWrench was born. The first issue, an eight-page, 5 1/2- x 8 1/2-inch newsletter, appeared in mid-April 1993. In it, Betts recounted his Halloween ticket. Some friends contributed a tale of their own run-in with officers. They added a "borrowed" cartoon and a newspaper clipping and closed with this "Word to the Law": "We know none of Denver's finest will be happy with the release of this paper. The truth hurts and the truth is you are fascist pigs. We're looking for justice and you're suppressing it. You may think you are safe but you will lose your ass if things don't change."

Betts and his friends distributed 300 copies of the paper in and around Capitol Hill and the Auraria campus. Betts left a stack in the City and County Building for good measure.

Issue No. 2, which made its debut in the summer of '93, took potshots at the Pope as well as the local police, and gave a great deal of space to a smoke-in sponsored by NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

The third MonkeyWrench sprang forth "sometime in the winter," Betts says, noting that because the paper carries no advertising, the publication dates are tied directly to the state of his wallet.

Betts was putting together a fourth issue of the newsletter in early July when he decided some promotion was in order. Inspired by the name of a fan club for one of his favorite bands, he had fliers made up declaring July 22 "Kill a Cop for Jesus Day." Interested parties were told to show up at the State Capitol at 2 p.m. The gathering, the flier said, was "proudly sponsored by the Denver MonkeyWrench." Betts stuck the handbills on telephone poles and "No Parking" signs around Capitol Hill.

"I just wanted to make a satirical statement," he says now. "It was purely a prank. I wanted to nail up a sign [on the Capitol lawn] and take pictures of people walking by for a spoof and for publicity for the paper. I was going to sit back by the bullshit war statue and watch my creation."

Betts says he didn't believe that anyone would take the fliers seriously. "I sincerely thought the cops were going to laugh that off," he says. "`Kill a Cop for Jesus' is kind of ridiculous. It's silly."

The cops, however, were not amused.
Detective Tom Fisher of the police department's intelligence bureau says he'd been aware of MonkeyWrench's existence from the first, but that the cops had decided to let it be.

"It was very inflammatory, and we were concerned about it," Fisher says, "but we didn't really have a crime there. So we watched it and let it go along. But when we saw this `Kill a Cop for Jesus' thing, we had to take it seriously. We proceeded with a full-force investigation."

Betts didn't prove hard to find. Fisher says he and other detectives found Betts's name after searching records for an incident matching the description of Betts's Halloween ticket (which he'd written about in Issue No. 1). And when they arrived at Betts's apartment building, detectives found a picture of a couple of monkey wrenches spray-painted on the sidewalk outside. "X marks the spot," Fisher says. "Even a dumb cop like me can find that."

When the detectives showed up at Betts's door the day before the scheduled "Kill a Cop for Jesus Day," says Betts, he tried to feign innocence. But that was hard to do, particularly when the walls of his gloomy basement apartment were plastered with MonkeyWrench memorabilia. "I was scared to death," Betts says. "When they said to put my shoes on, my stomach just dropped. I knew I was going downtown."

Fisher and his partner went pretty easy on him, Betts says, but a police lieutenant reportedly acted the part of the bad cop in the "good cop/bad cop" scenario. According to Betts, "The lieutenant came in and screamed at me and pointed his finger in my face and said something about this `bullshit pussy paper' and said that he could hurt me real bad."

After interviewing Betts, says Fisher, "we decided he wasn't serious [about killing cops]. Before that, we didn't know."

But Betts was fingerprinted, photographed, placed in a holding cell and charged with making threats to injure a person or property. Considered a petty crime, it still carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and/or a fine of $999. Betts was released after his friends posted $100 bail.

Betts says he considered hiring an attorney but dismissed the idea as too costly. He also thought about taking his case to the American Civil Liberties Union, then dismissed that as too time-consuming, particularly when Fisher appeared so eager to make a deal with the city attorney's office--the detective promised Betts that if he pleaded guilty, they'd okay a six-month deferred sentence. "I think," Betts says now, "they really wanted me on probation so they could keep an eye on me. If I got an attorney, maybe the charges would have been dropped." Betts took the deal anyway, entering his guilty plea August 23.

"Let's put it this way," Fisher says. "We didn't go to bat for him. But with the evidence we had, we thought this was a justifiable plea on his part. I think he saw the error of his ways. We don't consider him a heinous felon."

Had Betts decided to tough it out and take his chances in court, the ACLU might have gone to bat for him, says David Miller, staff attorney for the Colorado branch of the organization. If Betts wasn't advocating "immediate lawless action," his flier was probably legal, says Miller. "And unless he was rallying the troops to go out and kill someone, if his speech was just the blowing off of steam by a disaffected youth and we came to that conclusion, we probably would have represented him."

Fisher repeatedly has told Betts that he has no desire to trample his First Amendment right to free speech. ("Why stop now?" Betts remarks.) And the detective has not--and cannot--forbid him to publish another issue of MonkeyWrench. But Betts told officers he doesn't plan to put out another issue, anyway.

"The spirit of being an underground paper is dead now," Betts says. "Everybody knows who I am.