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Brush With Greatness

Mike Quintana is still making headlines for spraying three graffiti taggers in the face last fall. Now he's thinking about running for Denver City Council and has even hired a campaign manager. There's just one problem: Quintana lives in Arvada. And his campaign manager lives in Pueblo.

"I'm doing this to really do it," insists the vigilante-turned-celebrity, who says he's willing to pack up and move to Denver to take his shot at local politics. "I want to help the community. I feel some of the city councilmen and city councilwomen aren't doing enough for the community."

The purported council campaign is only the latest piece of high-profile hucksterism Quintana has engaged in since he achieved instant fame earlier this year. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, he chased a group of alleged taggers off the roof of an auto-repair shop on Federal Boulevard after staking out the place. Some say Quintana is starting to get carried away.

"He needs to chill out," says Denver police detective Ray Ruybal. "He's not going to save the city by himself."

Quintana says he's tired of being called a vigilante. But he hasn't exactly kept quiet since catching three taggers in the act of defacing the Sloan Lake Boxing Club ("Crime Spray," February 12). After police arrived and put the boys in handcuffs, Quintana lost his cool and sprayed the three juveniles in the face with paint. He now faces misdemeanor assault charges, while the kids--Joseph Bencomo, Jesse Torres and Juan Baltierra--got off with a slap on the wrist.

Quintana's lawyer, Rowe Stayton, says the case has attracted support from local cops, who he claims want to see Quintana get off. Ironically, though, Stayton says his defense will center on proving the cops allowed the incident to happen.

"I'm assuming they [police] will admit they were in control of the crime scene," says Stayton, pointing out that the kids were handcuffed at the time they were sprayed. "They didn't step in, and instead encouraged it. They thought, 'We'll let the property owner reap a little of his vengeance before we haul him in.'"

Even teenage tagger Bencomo, who's since been dragged into Quintana's media slipstream, says the police encouraged Quintana's actions. "The cops were standing there," Bencomo claims. "They let it go on for a while."

While awaiting his trial, which is scheduled for May 26, Quintana has tried to further his cause by appearing on television and radio talk shows. He even summoned reporters to one of Mayor Wellington Webb's recent town hall meetings, where he spoke about graffiti. There he was invited to join a new graffiti task force the mayor is creating and got to give Webb a public hug.

The Sloan Lake gym, which Quintana leases from the city, also received a $10,000 grant from Denver's Safe City program last month. According to Quintana's grandmother, Louise Quintana, the grant covers boxing equipment, telephones and lights. Louise Quintana says the gym has received Safe City money for several years running and that none of the cash will go to promoting her grandson's self-styled crime-fighting.

Quintana insists that he hasn't gone overboard since his face-painting exploits were first reported by Westword. "I don't care if other people think it's publicity," Quintana says. "I've taken action toward what I think is right. I don't care what people say. If they think I'm adding more fuel to the fire, let 'em think that. I don't care."

The bonfire of media coverage reached its peak on April 23, when Quintana staged a rally at Bencomo's Denver home. At that peculiar gathering, Quintana told reporters that Bencomo has continued to tag his gym, as well as businesses along Federal Boulevard, with the ominous message "Crank Will Destroy You."

Unfortunately for Quintana, Bencomo wasn't home at the time, leaving Quintana to shout it out with Bencomo's uncle, Dorion Mondanado, while perplexed neighbors looked on.

A few days later Bencomo and his mother, Eleanor, met privately with Quintana and attorney Stayton. Quintana says Bencomo admitted at that meeting that he was responsible for painting "Crank" on the gym wall and says he expected Bencomo to admit as much when the cameras rolled later that evening at yet another press conference.

But Bencomo says his understanding was that Quintana was going to apologize to him for accusing him of being the elusive Crank. "He wanted to apologize, let people know I wasn't Crank," says Bencomo. "I never said that I did it."

Detective Ruybal adds that Bencomo hasn't been caught doing anything since the incident at the gym. "Unless we have more information--more than what Mike tells us--we're not gonna mess with anything," he says.

Quintana is incredulous. "He is Crank," insists the graffiti avenger about Bencomo. "There's no doubt in my mind that he is. All my offers to Bencomo are out the window," adds Quintana, who says he planned to help the high-school dropout get back in school if he admitted to the "Crank" prank. "He blew it. He knows and I know what happened that night."

Jesse Torres's mother says neither she nor her son is interested in commenting on Quintana. The other gym-tagger, Juan Baltierra, is serving time in the Adams County Youth Services Center, says Ruybal, though Adams County officials say privacy laws prevent them from confirming that.

But Baltierra's stepfather, who declines to give his name, says Quintana is pursuing his high-profile publicity campaign in a cynical attempt to promote his gym. "The more they see it's getting attention, the more they go there," he says of neighborhood kids.

"That disgusts me that somebody says something like that," Quintana responds. "The gym has been running steadily for nine years. I don't need the publicity. He's crazy."

Quintana recently joined Jaymie Vaughn, manager of a Subaru repair shop at First Avenue and Federal, in an effort to ambush taggers by staking out the roof of Vaughn's shop. As Quintana pulled into the lot one night, he saw two kids climbing off the roof. He chased the boys until they ducked into a house and changed clothes. Quintana called the cops and left when officers arrived, figuring they would take care of things.

But Ruybal says the two individuals weren't charged. "They were out using the telephone," says Ruybal. "There was no evidence [that they were taggers]."

Adds Ruybal, "He's starting to get in our way. We appreciate the help, but if you do it, you have to do it right."

Quintana bristles at the criticism, insisting that he pointed the boys out to the officers. "How in the hell can you not charge anyone when I picked them out?" he demands.

Even Vaughn says he's not sure what motivates Quintana--a desire for publicity or a desire to help people. "On the one hand, it seems like a revenge thing for him, but on the other hand, he seems sincere," says Vaughn. The shop owner obviously isn't as fired up about taggers as his new pal: "Graffiti is a problem, but I'm not losing sleep over it," he says.

However, some merchants on Federal are grateful for Quintana's effort. "I think the guy deserves a medal," says Alex Katsaunis, owner of the Colorado Cafe at Federal and Speer. "The guy is in the open trying to correct the problem."

The cafe has been an easy target for taggers in the last few years but has seen little action in the past few months, though Katsaunis says that may have more to do with taggers "getting tired of painting and painting" than with anything Quintana did.

Should he go through with his run for city council, Quintana would presumably go up against Councilman Dennis Gallagher, in whose district the Sloan Lake Boxing Club lies. And even if he actually manages to make it onto the ballot for the May 1999 elections, he'll have his work cut out for him. His campaign, after all, will be run from afar by Steve Martinez, head of the Pueblo chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees union.

Martinez admits that preparing Quintana for a serious political campaign "will take some work and some grooming." But Quintana says he's ready to run. "I'll give them my all," he says of his would-be constituents. "I guess to serve and protect them--that's what I would do."

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