Martin Scheriff did not need to introduce himself to the judge.
By now, Denver District Court Judge Edward Simons knows Scheriff all too well. So do several other judges through whose courtrooms his case has passed.
Over the past year and a half, Scheriff has become a familiar figure in the halls of the local courthouse, as well as assorted law offices and legal libraries. The law has become his new hobby, his passion, and he pursues it with all the enthusiasm that he once gave to the game of handball, back when he led the handball players at the Denver Athletic Club.
It was fun while it lasted. Scheriff took over as chairman of the prestigious club's most rowdy faction--one renowned for playing tough both on and off the courts--in May 1993. "The other members sneer at us," he said at the time. "We play hard, then we drink till we're shitfaced and get pretty loud." But by November of that year, the handball players weren't the only ones sounding off: Scheriff was hit with a defamation suit by the club's manager, "Colonel" Glenn Roberts. And Scheriff wasn't alone: Also named in Roberts's suit was longtime club member Bill Dews and "John Does 1 through 5," who were "believed to have participated together with Dews and Scheriff in the activities complained of herein."
Those activities? Developer Dews, who'd belonged to the club for two dozen years, was accused of writing two letters to club members containing "words substantially to the effect that Roberts was dishonest, untruthful, had engaged in self-dealing and otherwise was a person of poor character." And Scheriff and the John Does, Roberts charged, were responsible for "informational fliers which contained cartoons, graphic depictions and statements holding Roberts up to ridicule."
Naturally, the colonel and his wife had sustained damages of "humiliation, and emotional pain and suffering."
They could join the club: Within months of the suit's filing, the 110-year-old DAC, whose members include some of the city's prime movers and shakers, bluebloods and lawyers (lots of lawyers), had booted both Scheriff and Dews.
The lawsuit, however, drags on.
And so, ten days ago, Dews's and Roberts's attorneys and then Scheriff, representing himself and accompanied by only a huge, rubber-band-bound folder of documents (many of them motions Scheriff cribbed off related cases he found in law libraries), were back in Simons's chambers, asking the judge for an interpretation on one of his rulings. The colonel's attorney, Vic Morales, wanted to depose a former Westword writer who had written a piece on all the racket at the DAC back in August 1993. By the time that article was published, the rebellion was already in full flower.
Roberts, newly retired from the Air Force, had taken over as manager of the member-owned club in 1987. The complaints started soon after: Disgruntled clubbers claimed that Roberts was forcing out longtime employees and replacing them with cronies; that he was cutting out the amenities, including free parking, that made the club special; that membership hadn't increased despite the colonel's best efforts (in fact, in a December 1, 1993, letter, then-DAC president Bruce Peterson noted that the club had gained members only once in the years since 1985); and, perhaps most galling of all, that the colonel was earning way too much--$225,000 a year, according to their calculations, plenty even by prosperous 17th Street standards.
By the spring of 1993, the rumors were flying. So were the fliers--depicting the colonel with a Hitler-like moustache under his nose or dressed up like Mickey Mouse. Some of the complaints took a more dignified approach: In July Dews delivered a letter to the DAC's president (which someone copied to members of the club), detailing his considerable concerns: "You need to appreciate that the members who are speaking out for `change' are doing so because they care about the DAC," Dews wrote. "There is a crescendo developing that will not be denied and which will accept nothing less than the unbiased attention to the matters at hand. Further delays on your part will only result in a self-inflicted coup d'etat...
"As perceived by myself and many members, rather than operations and emphasis on service to the members I would describe the current objective and modus operandi as that of a BENEVOLENT DICTATORSHIP designed for the personal benefit and enrichment of Mr. Glenn Roberts..."
In time for that month's board meeting, sometime-oil-and-gas-man Scheriff collected over 140 signatures on a petition asking that the members be allowed to speak to the twelve-person board before the colonel's contract was renewed; after all, the members owned the club. But they didn't get the chance. Instead, the DAC board extended Roberts's contract--and Scheriff, Dews and the John Does got a lawsuit for their trouble.
This is the ludicrous lawsuit that fills far too many files in Denver District Court, where a few judges have had to recuse themselves because they, too, belong to the DAC. Included in those files are the Mickey Mouse flier, Dews's letters, other members' letters, claims and counterclaims, and memo after memo from lawyers.
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One letter was sent to DAC boardmembers by lawyer and longtime member Elwyn Schaefer, who had represented an ailing, elderly former club president through a ridiculous disciplinary process. By March 1994, though, Schaefer had other worries, including employee turnover and morale, the "astounding" net loss of dues-paying members and "permitting Glenn Roberts to commence and sustain a lawsuit. He is our employee. He is our lightning rod. `John Does 1-5' is unconscionable. Have you really not read his lawsuit? This is a `lose-lose' situation. I know about lawsuits."
So does Scheriff, whose case is now separated from that of Dews (the still-anonymous John Does have been set free). Three weeks from now he'll be back in Simons's court, on trial and representing himself against Roberts's battery of attorneys--some of whose fees may be paid by the club, depending on who's reading the colonel's contract.
But they'll all be gathering in the wrong court. There's only one real way to settle an uncivil mess like this.