The political circus comes to Adams County every four years right about now. And the race for county sheriff often occupies the center ring.
Eight years ago, when sheriff Bert Johnson was awaiting the start of his trial on sexual assault and harassment charges, he was still debating whether to run for a fourth term. Johnson was acquitted on most counts, and the remainder were dropped, but by the time of his court victories his candidacy was no longer an issue--he'd decided to step aside in favor of his undersheriff, Jerry Eye. Eye then sailed to a win in the 1986 Democratic primary after his opponent was charged with felony theft and failing to report taxable income. Eye, however, lost in the general election to Republican contender Ed Camp.
Camp himself was re-elected in 1990 after it was revealed that his challenger, Ralph Anderson, had a few domestic problems: According to police reports, officers had twice been called to his home because he was armed and threatening his wife and kids.
In theory, things could be different in this fall's sheriff's race. Adams County voters will get to choose between Camp and one of his former division chiefs, W.T. "Bill" Shearer. Both men are 54-year-old former Marines with strong law-enforcement backgrounds--and no apparent criminal records. They've both developed thoughtful platforms to deal with the department's mounting problems, which include an overcrowded jail and a sky-high attrition rate among its chronically underpaid deputies.
But this is Adams County, after all. The seemingly requisite election-year arrest of a public official has already been made; this time, it was county commissioner Harold Kite (now running for a third term), who will stand trial a few days after the election on a drunk-driving charge. And the sheriff's race is quickly taking on a big-top flavor.
Issues are being lost amid political gamesmanship and one-upmanship. Sheriff Camp has admitted to making a cross-state, fact-finding mission to probe his opponent's past. Camp followers hint that the local police association rigged its endorsement vote in favor of Shearer. And who serves as county sheriff for the next four years may hinge in part on stories about the portly Camp's habit of rewarding female acquaintances with county jobs, and rumors surrounding the fate of a beady-eyed stuffed chicken named Colorada.
Ed Camp has more than 32 years of law-enforcement experience under his ample belt, including four years as a Marine M.P., fifteen years in the Westminster Police Department (where he worked his way up from patrolman to division chief) and six years as Longmont's director of public safety. But in 1985, when he decided he might want Bert Johnson's job, Camp was still a political amateur--and falsely convinced that all he had to do to get the Democratic party's endorsement was write a letter of interest and intent to the governor, the county Democratic chairman, the county manager and the three county commissioners.
In what now seems a rather clumsy query letter, Camp told the group that if Bert Johnson were to resign, he'd like to throw his hat in the ring. "Not one of them," Camp says with a trace of resentment, "had the courtesy to respond."
The chagrined Camp jumped ship and registered as a Republican. It was both a chancy move and a time-honored one; risky because Adams County is a Democratic stronghold, and traditional because Bert Johnson had been a Republican before moving to Adams County and taking on a new identity as a Democrat. When the votes were counted, Camp was the only Republican candidate in the county to emerge with a win.
Within 24 hours of his election, Camp announced his intention to clean house. The department's seven top administrators, including Eye, should start looking for new jobs, he said publicly, because, "frankly, I don't trust them." Those changes were expected--and they were perfectly legal, since by state statute the staff serves at the sheriff's pleasure.
But a month later, when Camp announced his appointments to fill those positions, shock waves rolled through the department. Several top jobs went to Camp cronies who had no experience as officers. Says one deputy, who asks not to be identified, "He installed all his old girlfriends. You might not see it when you first meet him, but there is a stud factor involved."
Camp did, in fact, appoint a number of female friends to top posts. Penny Collins, who'd been a parole officer and a victims' advocate--but not a police officer--was made a deputy chief and put in charge of jail operations. Westminster police officer Deborah Langston was named a deputy chief and asked to oversee the administrative operations bureau. Most surprising of all was Camp's promotion of Karm Sunday from administrative secretary to division chief, one of the department's highest positions. Sunday, who had once dated Camp, was not a certified police officer at the time (she since has qualified). She also was the star witness against Bert Johnson in his sexual assault trials, claiming that the sheriff touched her breasts (Johnson admitted the "stupid" deed during court testimony, but his attorney argued that the sheriff received no gratification from the act).
Camp bristles at the suggestion that he peppered the department with old flames with limited experience in police operations, calling the claim "baloney." Of the three women, he says, he'd dated only Sunday. The other two are merely friends. "I hire people for their skills and ability to manage," says Camp. "That's what they're hired for. The trouble with cops is they think that if you ain't in patrol, you ain't a cop. If you ain't in vice, you ain't a cop. If you ain't in traffic, you ain't a cop."
Camp didn't have to listen to those same grumblings about his pick for division chief in the investigative division. Bill Shearer was a cop, a former captain with the Los Angeles Police Department and the former chief of police in the town of Montrose.
Camp and Shearer met more than 35 years ago at Camp Pendleton, California, where, as young Marines, they each served stints as military policemen. Their paths crossed again in the early Eighties at a police chief's convention in Steamboat Springs. "And we stayed in contact after that," remembers Shearer.
The two men say they were never exactly friends, and a love for policing is about the only thing they seem to have in common. Camp, a tall, burly man with a curly head of hair, is a record-holding power lifter. His hobbies, according to his resume, also include wrestling, arm wrestling, coin collecting and classical music. A father of six and stepfather of four, Camp was divorced for 22 years before tying the knot a few years back with his wife Ruth, who serves as a volunteer with his department's victims' advocate bureau.
The soft-spoken Shearer maintains a fondness for cowboy ways. He's partial to shirts with button-down, cowpoke pockets, and he lives with his wife, LuzMaria, on a small spread east of Brighton with room for their horse and mules to graze.
After leaving the Marines, Camp and Shearer both decided to stick with law enforcement. Camp found his calling in Colorado, and Shearer made a career with the LAPD, serving in numerous capacities before making captain and opting for an early retirement after twenty years of service. "Anyone who's lived in L.A. and who's not a native would understand," he says. "The year I left, 1980, the city had over 1,000 homicides. Proposition 13 had just been passed, and the department lost 600 officers in two years. I was spending three hours a day commuting, and then I learned there were plans to build 120 condo units next to my half-acre." It was clearly time to move on.
Shearer also felt he was ready to command his own troops, and applied for numerous police chief positions. He took the first post he was offered, becoming chief in Montrose in February 1981. It was a short and rocky tenure.
In early 1984 Shearer left for a three-month training stint at the FBI Academy. But when classes were over, he learned that he wasn't welcome back in his own office. While Shearer was away at the Academy, he says, "the city manager asked me to resign. He and I had major differences regarding the performance of different officers in the police department. His ideas were more politically expedient."
Bill Robinson, who was Montrose's city manager at the time, played things close to the vest with the local press at the time of Shearer's resignation, saying little more than that the chief's departure concerned "matters related to personnel practices within the department."
There was more to the story than that--as Camp would reveal with apparent relish years later. But at the time, Camp and Shearer were still friendly, if not quite friends. According to Shearer, after he resigned in Montrose, Camp suggested he hire on with the Longmont police department, which Camp then oversaw as the city's director of public safety. Shearer says he decided instead to accept a position as safety director for Denver's Tabor Center, which was then being built. And, he says, two years later, in the summer of 1986, when Camp was in the midst of his first sheriff's race, Camp "invited me to be division chief if he was successful."
Camp and Shearer agree on little nowadays and, not surprisingly, Camp has a different version of those job overtures. "I never offered him a job in Longmont," Camp says of Shearer. "I never remember offering to let him test." And it was Shearer who called him--not the other way around--looking for a job with the Camp administration in 1986, the sheriff says.
Camp has taken steps to improve morale in the department over the past eight years. "We got real uniforms for the deputies at the jail," says one deputy. Camp also improved training and brought the DARE program and other community-oriented programs to the department. On the downside, say several present and former employees, the sheriff continues to be known as a man with a hot temper--quick to believe rumors and still not averse to using the "sheriff's pleasure" statute to fire at will.
Camp describes those claims as campaign rhetoric. He fired only four people "at will," he says--and the others were fired for valid cause. "Let me tell you something," he says, warming to the issue. "You can't lie to me and work for me. You lie to me, I don't need you. You can't steal or cheat. That's unacceptable behavior."
Shearer, however, claims that in the past four years his opponent has fired eleven people "for no known reason at all." And the Fraternal Order of Police's Colorado Lodge No. 1, which is solidly opposed to the "pleasure statute," has thrown its support to Shearer, in part because he's taken an aggressive stand against the statute. "During the past seven years," Shearer wrote in a March 25, 1994, letter to FOP members, "we have seen the statute used to generate a climate of fear. Careers have been destroyed without due process. This WILL NOT continue."
The most hotly contested firings involved three deputies who were ousted not long after Camp's re-election in 1990. After the post-election "bloodbath," as it's still referred to within the department, the deputies claimed in a lawsuit that Camp fired them because they'd supported Anderson. Camp claimed the men were fired for insubordination. A federal jury sided with Camp.
At least two other former employees have since filed "intent to sue" notices over their dismissals. Camp says he's ready and willing to take them on. "I hope they take me to court," the sheriff says defiantly. And one of those whom Camp could be meeting in court is LuzMaria Shearer, Bill Shearer's wife. LuzMaria, who landed a job as an Adams County officer after her husband signed on, was fired after Bill Shearer began actively campaigning for sheriff. Departmental sources claim Camp fired her because of a rumor that she was offering people jobs in her husband's future administration.
Like many officers near the top of the department, Bill Shearer bounced around from post to post after signing on with Camp. He headed up the detective division for three years before taking over the same duties for the patrol division. Then he was transferred to head up the support services division. In April 1992 he was placed in charge of jail operations.
Camp now claims he moved Shearer around because the division chief made a mess every place he landed. "I brought him in here and he disrupted the detective division," Camp complains. "He didn't function well in patrol. The people hated him so much that I moved him to headquarters where the undersheriff's thumb would be on top of him. Things were okay there, but when I moved him to the jail, things started going to pot.
"The man cannot command," continues the sheriff. "In this business, it's the measure of a man when he walks his talk. Bill can't walk the talk, and he's never been able to do it. He can walk the walk and talk the talk, but he can't walk the talk."
In his March 25 letter to the FOP, however, Shearer suggested that it's Camp who has trouble walking and talking at the same time. "If you believe as I do that the Department can and should be better, if you believe those in leadership positions should walk what they talk, then this time you have a clear choice," he wrote. Shearer ended the letter by saying that, if elected, he hoped the officers would conclude that he had "walked his talk."
Shearer disputes Camp's description of his job abilities and the reasons for his moves from division to division. At the time, he says, he was told the moves were necessary to give other people experience. And what with Camp's upper echelon disappearing at a rapid clip, experience was not always easy to come by. Jerry Fricke, the retired Aurora Police Department division chief Camp hired in 1987 to head the patrol division, didn't even last out Camp's first term. Deborah Langston was another early casualty. (Camp says he can no longer remember if he fired Langston or allowed her to resign.)
As a division chief, Shearer was in on quite a few of Camp's efforts to divest himself of unwanted employees. He now says Camp would target employees based on rumor and innuendo, and that his presence was one of the few things standing in the way of their abrupt dismissal. "We spent an awful lot of time investigating suspicions of misconduct by various subordinates," Shearer says today. The department grapevine continues to hum with tales of deputies who were investigated for being "disloyal" or taking long lunches.
Whether Shearer was merely an innocent bystander in those personnel fights is still a matter of debate--some deputies continue to see the pair as a kind of Nixon-Haldeman dirty-tricks duo. "Camp was autocratic," says a former employee. "He rewarded people to spy. Bill Shearer would start whispering campaigns, and Camp would listen. One of Ed's problems was that he listened to Bill too long." Shearer denies the claim.
When Camp was re-elected in 1990, he made it clear it would be his last term. "[Camp] kept saying, `Two terms and I'm gone, and you're on your own in '95,'" Shearer says. And so, after the 1990 election Shearer began thinking about running for sheriff himself. In March 1991 he switched his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat and began working hard at party politics. But even though Camp wasn't in the running, he planned to throw his weight behind deputy chief John Tagert--and Shearer was bumping up against the sheriff's agenda.
Camp had brought Tagert, a retired Colorado Springs police chief, on board in September 1990. "Tagert and I talked about it," Camp says now. "I asked him if he wanted to be sheriff, and he said yes, he would. He chose to run on the Democratic ticket, so I'm not sure how I would have supported him, but he's one of the finest men I've ever been associated with, and he would have been a good sheriff."
Shearer says Tagert's arrival may have marked the beginning of his own demise. In September 1992 Camp called Shearer into his office and gave him two options: quit and take a six-week paid leave, or be fired. Shearer chose the first option and now says he thinks he was pushed out the door because his election bid was gaining support in the Democratic party--a development that would have put a serious dent in Camp's plans for Tagert.
Tagert and Camp deny it. "I know that the sheriff had some real concerns about [Shearer's] performance," says Tagert, who insists that Shearer promised never to run against him. "He was not fired for political reasons. I can recall a conversation with the sheriff one time about whether or not politics should ever enter into staff decisions. And he said that it should never, ever enter into it."
Camp says Shearer was forced out because he couldn't do the job. He'd warned him back in July that the jail was in disarray, he says. "I told him, `I'm not sure what else you're doing, but I'm sure it's not in the department's best interest,'" Camp says. "He was out campaigning during working hours. He may deny it, but that's what was happening."
Shearer does, in fact, deny it. "Was I going around doing party business during working hours?" Shearer asks. "No. Was I going around asking people at the jail to support me? Absolutely not. But I was active in the Democratic party, and he knew that."
Tagert's candidacy became a moot point in the spring of 1993. Tagert had accepted a disability pension from the Colorado Springs force, but then state law was changed to prevent officers receiving disability from moving to other departments and continuing to work as active-duty cops. Staying on, Tagert says, "appeared to me to put my pension at risk." He resigned his Adams County post, along with his dreams of being sheriff.
After Tagert left, Camp says it became clear to him that he wouldn't have time to complete some of his pet projects. As a result, he decided to run again himself. "And there's another reason," he adds. "I cannot leave this office in good conscience knowing that someone like Bill Shearer will step in and take over. I think he's totally incompetent to run this department. He will destroy this department."
Infighting isn't the only political tradition at the Adams County Sheriff's office. The department also has a long history of monetary woes.
Surveys show that the starting salary for an Adams County deputy is the lowest among sixteen Front Range sheriff and police departments. Officers achieve parity with their peers only after they rise above the rank of lieutenant. Over the past decade, the low salaries have contributed to a turnover rate of from 13 percent to 29 percent annually.
The 345-person department is also seriously understaffed. Camp estimates that he needs another 66 deputies, fully half of them for the jail. The understaffing is partly due to the high turnover, but it has a lot to do with Adams County's status as a relatively poor county. Property values are low in the area, and the demand for social services is extremely high--the second highest in the state after Denver, according to county commissioner Elaine Valente.
The money, says Valente, simply hasn't been available for beefing up the sheriff's department. "We have tough decisions to make," notes the commissioner. "We have to feed hungry people, take care of the elderly and the handicapped. So we have to balance our priorities. Certainly, law enforcement is one of them, but it's not the only issue in the county."
Budget decisions for 1994 were made even more difficult by the passage of Amendment 1 and a drop in assessed valuations. Commissioners had to cut $6 million and 100 jobs from the bottom line. "We had to bite the bullet," Valente says, "and we chose to do it all in one year."
Through voluntary separations and enhanced retirement programs, only a handful of people were actually handed their pink slips, says Valente. Not one of those positions, she emphasizes, came from the jail--"because we knew we could not cut there."
But last spring, roughly the time of the precinct caucuses, a low rumbling began to be heard from the sheriff's office. Camp had wanted a salary increase for his deputies, but given the economic climate, no one, not even Camp himself, expected him to get it. But an Adams County deputy and FOP official says Camp had an alternate plan--and that he asked the fraternal organization to help carry it out.
"He wanted us to go before the commissioners and ask for money," says the deputy, who asks that his name not be used. "He said we could do anything--picket, go to the media--fine. He said the only rules were that we couldn't badmouth him or the department or break any laws."
The FOP was willing to help, says the deputy, but unwilling to go in blind. He says the group began taking a look at Camp's budget to assure itself that the department's belt was as tight as it could get.
According to the deputy, that wasn't what the FOP found. "Basically," he says, "the sheriff was not spending the money right." Camp, for example, has long been involved with the Colorado Police and Fire Games, an athletic competition for the state's police officers and firefighters. In 1992 he used approximately $48,000 from his department's drug-forfeiture fund to bring the games to Adams County.
Camp stands by the expenditure--"I don't think I need to apologize for that," he says--and denies ever soliciting help from the FOP. He did invite FOP boardmembers to participate in the 1994 budget process, he says, but he certainly didn't go to them hat in hand.
Besides, Camp had another idea about how to boost his deputies' salaries: He asked the county commissioners if he could use a projected $425,000 "personnel savings" fund to provide one-time, 6 percent bonuses to all employees below the rank of captain. The commissioners refused, in part because the personnel savings fund itself was a bone of contention.
The fund is made up of money earmarked for salaries. It accumulated because Camp wasn't filling his positions fast enough. (He says it takes months to fill a single deputy slot.) If the sheriff's staffing situation was so dire, the commissioners demanded, why wasn't the sheriff using that money for overtime? And why did he wait so long before hiring new staff?
In late June, after the commissioners denied Camp's request to reapportion the personnel money, Camp sent a letter to deputies and other employees advising them of the commissioners' stand and informing them that he planned to ask that a proposed tax increase be put on the ballot, with the funds earmarked for the sheriff's department.
Later in the summer, when Camp pressed the commissioners to put a $3.7 million mil levy increase on the November ballot, Valente and the others opposed it. For one thing, the commissioners told Camp, he hadn't proved it was necessary. Second, says commissioner Harold Kite, he and his colleagues felt there wasn't enough time to drum up voter support. And third, Camp had not proven that he had any sizable citizen support for the measure.
Sheriff's deputy Ron Rusk stepped into the void and took up Camp's cause with a passion. He established an employee group and stormed the commission meeting on the night of August 24. A hundred or so officers showed up to insist that the issue be placed before the voters. They complained about low salaries and overcrowding. They yelled and hooted and booed. And they complained that the commissioners were stiffing them because Camp is a Republican and the commissioners are Democrats.
The commissioners didn't sit quietly and take it. Commissioner Guillermo DeHerrera went on the offensive, accusing Camp of not having his own house in order. He took the (absent) chief to task for spending $20,000 over four years to pay for his own training at the FBI Academy and for classes in community-oriented policing. And he railed against the sheriff's sizable personnel savings fund.
Valente remains angry about that meeting and the issues that were raised. "It outraged me when they said our decisions were based on Democrats versus Republicans," she said. "We have so many crisis situations, so many problems, I don't even have time to stop and think about that."
The commissioners say they believe Camp's salary demands are a political smokescreen designed to make them take the rap for the sheriff's problems. Shearer, meanwhile, has made a campaign issue out of claiming that Camp's department is top-heavy and that Camp is the one responsible. If elected, Shearer says, he will get rid of upper-level officers and use that money to hire more deputies.
Those stands helped Shearer win the FOP's endorsement last April, although Camp's campaign manager has since suggested that the vote was tainted. In a June 29 letter to the Commerce City Beacon, Jim Morlen referred to "unaudited balloting" and the fact that "several members [of the FOP] board openly supported Mr. Shearer, and it was they who arranged the vote and counted the ballots." An FOP spokesman denies the accusations of impropriety, adding that a police officer from another district was present at the vote count.
Camp says he's not concentrating on endorsements, anyway. Instead, his campaign has sent sheaves of self-congratulatory faxes to the media, touting everything from the fact that the Adams County jail has received national accreditation to the news that he and his wife set weightlifting records in a recent state contest. "They look forward to a successful future as a powerlifting couple!" noted one missive sent out on department letterhead.
The sheriff also has concentrated on raising questions about his opponent's past. Earlier this summer, following a speaking engagement in Albuquerque, Camp made a detour to Montrose, accompanied by his campaign manager, in hopes of discovering exactly why Shearer left the force there.
"I read the newspaper articles [about his departure], but they were somewhat vague," Camp says. "So I went down there and talked to four different people, and they all said virtually the same thing. The venom I got from them--they absolutely hated the man. I didn't talk to one officer down there who worked under his command that didn't have some anger built up in him."
Bad feelings do linger in Montrose. Asked about Shearer, one longtime Montrose officer describes his former chief as "a legend in his own mind." Shearer, says the officer, did bring innovative ideas to the department, some of which are still being used. But the chief had no people skills. While Shearer was away at the FBI Academy, the officer says, "every member of the [eighteen-person] department except one went to the city manager and said it was him or the chief."
Shearer agrees that officers did line up against him. But he says the coup occurred because the officers knew the ax would fall when he returned from the FBI Academy. He says he set a high standard for his officers, that he'd planned to rid the department of deadwood upon his return and that officers knew about it.
Shearer did set high standards for his employees, says the Montrose officer. But the chief, he complains, didn't always shine that same light on himself. For example, the officer says, there was the problem with the chief's pet chicken, Colorada.
"He had this chicken stuffed," the officer says. "He was very upset when the [taxidermist] charged him, and he made a very big point of saying it. He felt he should have got the chicken stuffed for free. That chicken especially aggravated me." He and other officers "thought about holding it hostage," he adds. "We tried stealing it once at a party. We wanted to shoot it full of holes."
Taxidermist Al Bellgardt, who stuffed and mounted the bird, says his bill was paid in full without incident. And the fact that Colorada has been brought up in a political context is a continuing irritant to Shearer. He denies doing anything untoward with regard to the fowl. Colorada, who now perches atop a tree branch on the Shearers' living-room hearth, belonged to LuzMaria, he says. It was she who handled the stuffing, mounting and subsequent bill.
"Hating that chicken is like hating somebody's teddy bear," Shearer adds. "That chicken came with us from California in a box. She was an old hen, a good layer, but she was like a senile elderly person. She couldn't find her way home at night. I just don't know what that poor chicken has to do with the safety of the people in Adams County."
And, he adds, his ire mounting, "While Camp was out there finding out about my chicken, there was a major arson investigation and two homicides. I'm sure the detectives are pleased to know that while that was happening, their boss was out there checking on my chicken."
Camp says he has no plans to turn the stuffing of Colorada into a campaign issue. Says the sheriff, "I just want to be endorsed by the voters November 8.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.