Mark Tibbs's big mouth has gotten him out of a lot of jams over the years. A thoroughbred in the Denver Police Department's stable of informants, he has helped put away dozens of burglars and drug dealers and even one high-profile murderer during his eleven long years as a snitch.
In return for his loose tongue, Tibbs has ducked the consequences for scores of petty crimes. Though he's been in and out of county jails enough to have earned a reputation as a royal pain in the neck, he has largely avoided hard time in the state prison system--even in cases where other defendants would have been guaranteed a year or two in the big house.
Now Tibbs is facing prison time for a new set of misdeeds. And he owns what may be his most valuable bargaining chip ever: a claim that he heard a jailhouse confession from Jon Morris, the man accused of raping and murdering five-year-old Ashley Gray ("Deadly Persuasion," February 27). Morris goes to trial May 19 for Gray's murder, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. If Tibbs testifies, his words could shoot holes in Morris's claim to police that he "blacked out" before and during the slaying of the little girl.
The information Tibbs is offering this time around would seem to put him in the catbird seat with the district attorney. Instead, his usual game of tit for tat has gotten more complicated. For one thing, he claims, "they won't let me out of jail. The DA wants to keep me on ice so I'll testify." There's also the fact that Tibbs has so many pending cases--and at least three court-appointed attorneys to handle them--that even one of the lawyers admits he's given up trying to keep track of the mess. Tibbs himself admits to occasional difficulty remembering what he's been charged with and when his hearings are scheduled. Indeed, only after careful scrutiny is it possible to tell exactly which of the cases is the one keeping him behind bars.
But though the Denver District Attorney's office might prefer that Tibbs stay off the streets for a while--at least until after the Morris trial--deputies in at least three county jails aren't so crazy about the idea. They've been playing hot potato with Tibbs in recent months, passing him from facility to facility as they've gotten their fill of his constant complaining and rule-breaking. "I just wish he'd post bond and leave," says one jailer.
Though the super-snitch is having a hard time figuring out where he stands these days, there is one thing he and his various attorneys can agree on: If he's sent to prison for any of his crimes, it will likely mean a death sentence of his own.
"If things had been different," Tibbs's mother, Priscilla Marion, says wistfully, "Mark might have been a cop." But in light of Tibbs's criminal curriculum vitae, it's a highly unlikely career move. Since late 1980, when Tibbs turned eighteen, he's amassed a ten-page rap sheet that lists 41 arrests for assault, burglary, drug possession, forgery, larceny and car theft--to name just a few.
Tibbs wasn't always a snitch. In his early days as a crook, he took his lumps like everyone else and even spent a year and a half in prison for burglary beginning in December 1982. It took another four years and the prospect of a second prison term before Tibbs finally gave up on the "honor among thieves" credo.
In November 1986, court records show, Tibbs was accused of robbing a man at gunpoint and stealing his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado. His parents put up their small house as collateral for his $12,500 bond. In December of the following year, Tibbs pled guilty to attempted aggravated motor-vehicle theft and was ordered to appear at the Denver probation office to assist in a pre-sentence investigation.
Had Tibbs bothered to show up, he might have been able to avoid a second stint in prison through normal channels. Instead, he relied on a newly forged relationship with the Denver Police Department to ask for leniency. According to court records, Denver detective Dale Wallis, then a vice and narcotics officer, told the court that Tibbs had recently become an informant and had personally brought six "solid cases" to the police, resulting in the filing of felony charges. In addition, Wallis said, Tibbs had expressed a willingness to continue snitching.
Because of Tibbs's cooperation with the cops, Wallis added, the defendant's life had been threatened by prisoners serving time in the Department of Corrections, men who were just waiting to get a crack at him. Sending him to prison, he suggested, might endanger a man who had the potential to become a valuable asset.
Wallis's plea didn't get Tibbs off the hook entirely. He was sentenced to just over two years in prison and, despite Wallis's fears of retaliation, managed to finish his hitch in one piece. Tibbs was paroled in June 1989, five months ahead of his scheduled discharge date. But he couldn't stay out of trouble.
By the following November, Tibbs had been arrested three times, twice for assault and once for larceny. Theoretically, he could have been thrown in jail for violating his parole after either one of those arrests. He also could have been locked up for failing to report to his parole officer. Still, Tibbs managed to stay out. It wasn't until he was arrested a fourth time, again for larceny, that he was invited back as a guest of the state prison system.
Tibbs, irate, complained to authorities that his incarceration was improper. In a May 1990 letter to the court mailed shortly after his return to prison, he protested that he was being held illegally. Not only that, he added, he'd continued to work with Detective Wallis and other officers even while he was behind bars and had chalked up an arrest "toll" of 27 criminals.
How much weight the court put on Tibbs's arguments is unclear, but he was released from prison in September 1990, a month before a scheduled hearing on the matter. And from that point forward, Tibbs couldn't seem to get sideways with the police no matter what he did.
According to Colorado Bureau of Investigation records, he was arrested ten times between September 1, 1990, and December 1994, picked up for assault, making threats, theft, interfering with police, making false reports, disturbing the peace and domestic violence. However, court files show that only two charges resulted in jail time--a traffic offense and one for narcotics possession--and that he served a total of just three days for those. A February 1995 arrest for drug possession didn't earn him any time at all, while a guilty plea to attempted theft got him a year of "unsupervised probation."
There was no secret about why he was untouchable, Tibbs maintains. He was snitching, and snitching a lot. In fact, his mother claims that some of his arrests were mere covers to protect his identity as an informant; the cases were dropped, she says, before they even got close to going to trial.
Defense attorneys know the score when it comes to handling snitches: To law enforcement officials, they're worth their weight in gold, even if they're less than solid citizens. After all, notes one attorney, "you're not going to find an angel to do this stuff."
In his formative years as a snitch, Tibbs helped police go after lower-level felons. But by the mid-1990s, he had graduated to the upper echelons of criminal behavior. He earned his diploma as a master blabber in the months following March 30, 1995, when a drive-by shooting left 21-year-old Charles Baker dead and Mikecail Edlow, also 21, wounded.
For Baker and Edlow, it was a case of being in the wrong place in the wrong gang colors. The neighborhood around the 3200 block of St. Paul Street had been claimed years ago as Crips territory. The two young men belonged to a rival gang. When Crips leader Orlando "Little O" Domena was told that the two men were on his turf, he jumped in his car, tracked them down and shot them.
Up until then, the reformation of Little O had been a pet project of Denver police chief Dave Michaud and police sergeant Judy Will, who had included the gang member in "gang summits" and helped him to enroll in college ("How to Coddle a Crip," June 7, 1995). But what Tibbs saw that March day spelled the end of Domena's pampering.
Tibbs had been at Domena's place shortly before Baker and Edlow were gunned down. He'd gone there to buy some crack, he says matter-of-factly, spilling out his story in a day room at the Douglas County Jail. Tibbs was still in the area when he saw Domena and fellow Crip Darryl Givens run from the house. Domena, Tibbs claims, was carrying what looked to be a nine-millimeter handgun. Tibbs says he watched Domena's car turn the corner and then he heard shots ring out. "I turned them in," he says.
After Givens and Domena were arrested and charged with the shooting, Tibbs says, "the Crips decided they were going to keep me from testifying. They cut wires at the back of my mother's house--the electric, the phone." According to Tibbs, the Denver District Attorney's office then moved him to an apartment near Colfax Avenue and High Street. "They paid the rent and everything," he says. (Deputy DA Tim Twining confirms that his office "relocated" Tibbs, but he says his office's largesse generally extends only to covering rental deposits.)
When Tibbs testified at Domena's preliminary hearing that June, his performance on the witness stand was notable as much for his state of mind as for his statements. After prosecutors led him through his version of events, Tibbs admitted under oath during cross-examination that he was feeling a tad under the weather. He had, he told defense attorneys, downed a fifth of gin, drunk a bottle of beer and smoked crack the day before the hearing.
Despite the efforts of the district attorney's office to protect its star witness before Domena's trial, Tibbs says the Crips managed to ferret him out anyway. "I was starting to have some problems," he says. "They were watching my comings and goings. I explained to [the DA's office] that they knew where I lived, so they moved me again." This time, he says, prosecutors put him up in an apartment south of I-225, where they felt he was less likely to run into the uptown gangsters.
As it turned out, Tibbs didn't have to testify at Domena's March 1996 trial. The authorities wanted Domena so much, Tibbs says, "that they offered to drop all charges against Givens if he told them Orlando did it. What man wouldn't go for that?" Givens turned against his friend, and Domena got life plus twenty years. Givens walked away a free man. The Denver DA's office offered to help him relocate to another city after his testimony, but Givens declined the offer. He should have taken it.
On the evening of October 30, 1996, Givens was shot to death and tossed out of a car in the 2700 block of Madison Street. Although investigators have said they're unsure if his murder was related to his role in Domena's conviction, his family is convinced that gang members killed him. As of last week, no charges had been filed in the case.
Tibbs was in the Denver County Jail the day Givens was killed, serving time after racking up a variety of charges in Denver and Arapahoe counties. By the fall of 1996, his dance card was so full--he was named in numerous arrest warrants, one of which charged him with being a habitual traffic offender--that any new criminal violation was almost certain to get him locked up. It came on October 22, eight days before Givens was killed, when Tibbs was arrested in Denver and charged with car theft. (Tibbs has a bill of sale for the car, a junked 1980 Buick Regal, says attorney Richard Korecki, who's assisting him in the case, "but I don't know how valid it is.") The cops apparently were out of excuses. Tibbs was hauled off to jail.
Jail is an unfriendly place for people like Tibbs. On October 28, he says, he was sitting in the tank, ready to be taken to court for an appearance, when he was approached by five Crips angry about his testimony against Domena. "They said, 'You took our homie's life, and when we get back, we're going to kill you,'" he says. "I wasn't too worried about it at the time, but the officer snatched me out of there, and they placed me in protective custody." Tibbs was still in the hole three days later when a deputy told him that Givens had been killed.
"I got a little shaken up then," he admits.
Tibbs knew he was going to need a lot of help to get out of the mess he'd gotten himself into. Luckily, he says, he hadn't cut his ties to Deputy District Attorney Tim Twining, who had prosecuted the Domena case.
Tibbs claims that Twining agreed to help him out of his latest predicament. The deputy DA, Tibbs says, promised to get him probation for his traffic cases in Arapahoe County and worked out a deal under which Tibbs would spend a maximum of ninety days in jail for three pending Denver cases, which included two DUIs and a charge for driving while his license was revoked. In addition, says Tibbs defense attorney Duncan Bradley, the ninety days were to run concurrently with a 175-day sentence Tibbs had received for yet another misdemeanor charge.
Twining, however, denies that he has had any recent dealings with Tibbs. "My involvement with him ended about a year ago," he says. "I have not assisted him since. I have no idea what he's in jail for now, though it's not surprising to me that he's back." Twining adds that he has told Tibbs "repeatedly" that his testimony against Domena "is not a 'Get Out of Jail' card."
Tibbs says he was expecting an easy ride when he entered his plea on the Denver traffic offenses in November. Afterward, he was returned to the Denver County Jail to await sentencing--and placed in a cell next to Jon Morris.
"I been knowing Jon about twenty years," says Tibbs--the two of them used to hang out at the same crackhouses. But Tibbs claims he didn't know why Morris was in jail, even though Morris's arrest in the Ashley Gray case had been front-page news.
Morris, a friend of the Gray family, took the little girl from her Denver home on August 10, 1995, promising to buy her some candy. Her body was found the following morning in a dumpster. In an interview with Denver police, Morris claimed that he remembered Ashley lying at his feet and remembered putting her in the trash bin. Beyond that, he said, he had little recollection of the crime.
After his arrest, Morris was implicated in the deaths of two women who had been killed in northeast Denver earlier that same year. Police say he is the prime suspect in the February 1995 death of prostitute Susan Boston, who was found with her throat slit. He is also a suspect in the August 5 death of transient Norma Fisher, whose body was discovered in the backseat of a burning car near 33rd Avenue and Josephine Street.
Late one night in the jail, Tibbs says, "Jon starts talking to me. We had just gotten done watching a movie. Will Smith. Independence Day. And he knocked on the wall and called my name. He said, 'Chico. Let me talk to you.'
"It was like around December 1," continues Tibbs. "Right after Thanksgiving. He was pretty low. The first thing he said was, 'I hope they give me the death penalty and get it over soon.' I had no idea what he was in for. I said, 'Whassup?'
"He said he was in for killing that little girl on Blake Street. He said, 'I did that.' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'I didn't mean to kill her.' He said, 'I had to get my freak on. I couldn't help it.'" [Tibbs says that "to get a freak on" means to have sex while on drugs.]
Tibbs claims that his old friend explained that he'd gone to the Gray home that night looking for Ashley's mother, who apparently wasn't home. "He said he'd been smoking crack and that he'd been up all night long. He said that Ashley kept asking him to take her to the store, and he said he agreed to take her.
"He said they were walking down the street and that he picked her up and put her on his shoulders, and about how he smelled her. He said that there was something about her underclothes...and that he just had to see what it was like."
According to Tibbs, Morris said that Ashley "started to scream, and he was covering her mouth to keep her from hollering out. Then he mumbled a few things I couldn't catch."
Tibbs says Morris then began talking about Norma Fisher, who was an acquaintance of a mutual friend. "He said, 'Remember she got killed behind Bruce Mayfield's house?'" Tibbs says. "He said, 'They got me for that.' He said they got him for some girl with a slashed throat, too. He said, 'They got me for everything.'
"He said he didn't really mean to do these things, and how he was on crack."
A couple of days later, Tibbs says, he phoned Denver chief deputy district attorney Mitch Morrissey, who is prosecuting the Morris case, and told him about the alleged confession. "I thought I was doing the right thing," he says. "Somebody has to speak up for that little girl."
Tibbs insists that he didn't go to Morrissey in search of a deal. He says he ratted out his old friend Morris purely as a public service.
But when Tibbs spilled the beans about Morris, he put the Denver DA's office in a ticklish situation. Ed Pluss, yet another of the court-appointed attorneys assisting Tibbs, explains that prosecutors suddenly grew nervous about cutting deals with Tibbs for fear they would look like rewards for his tip on Morris. According to Pluss, the DA's office knew that if it allowed Tibbs to skip out on any of the charges against him, the attorneys representing Morris would have a field day, accusing Tibbs of lying about Morris to save his own hide.
In fact, Tibbs claims that shortly after he told Morrissey about his conversation with Jon Morris, he received a note from his old buddy Twining, telling him that "all deals are off." Twining denies it, insisting that he hasn't communicated with Tibbs "directly or indirectly" for a year.
Whatever the reason, Tibbs's house of cards quickly collapsed. Instead of getting a 90-day cap on his Denver cases, as he says he was promised, he got a 330-day sentence.
Tibbs says he was furious and that he immediately attempted to rescind his guilty plea. He was given another court-appointed attorney, Duncan Bradley, to represent him in a reconsideration of the sentence. Meanwhile, that case and another one involving a pending probation revocation have been handed over to a special prosecutor. The reason: Tibbs's long history of flapping his gums had created conflicts of interest in both the district attorney's and public defender's offices.
"In a normal case," Pluss says, "I would deal with the [Denver] DA to see if we could come to some resolution on this." Given Tibbs's long history as an informant and the personal danger he would face if sent to prison, Pluss adds, an arrangement could ordinarily be reached to keep his client out of prison. Denver's not about to go for that with the Morris case on the line, Pluss says, though a special prosecutor might.
And despite Pluss's skepticism, Tibbs has shown a little of the old magic in recent months. He was sentenced to three years in prison after the probation he'd received on the trespass charge was revoked December 6, but the sentence was immediately suspended, and he was ordered placed back on probation--even though he was still facing the car-theft charge.
However, he still had the 330-day sentence to complete. And when Denver prosecutors asked that Tibbs be moved from the Denver County Jail for his own safety, the jailers were only too happy to oblige. Tibbs had been a problem prisoner, always complaining about something. So they shipped him off to Jefferson County.
In late December Tibbs got another gift from the court--he was allowed out on work release, meaning he was to check out of jail each day, go to work and then check back in each night. But Tibbs was still steaming over how the Denver DA had allegedly backed out of its deal on the traffic charges. The way he figured it, he had done his time. And on January 6, court records show, Tibbs walked away from the jail and didn't go back. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department then put out a warrant for his arrest on escape charges.
Tibbs was picked up a few days later at his girlfriend's house in Denver. When he arrived back at the Denver County Jail, he told officers he'd checked with the courts while on the outside and that they'd agreed he should have been released. Jail officials didn't buy it.
"He tried to show [Denver corrections chief John Simonet] a copy of his mittimus that showed he had completed his sentence," says Sheriff's Captain Kevin Kelly. "And I knew from reviewing his file an hour before that it wasn't right. So I went and pulled his file after he showed the copies to Mr. Simonet and I confronted him. I said, 'These documents have obviously been forged.'" Tibbs had nothing to say in response, says Kelly: "I don't think he was prepared to be confronted in that nature."
Tibbs didn't stay long in the jail. He says he was transferred out because his life had been threatened by a man who told him, "Everyone in this jail wants to kill you." Moments after the warning, Tibbs says, flames blasted through the cell doors, burning his legs. "I wrote a kite [note] to the officers, and they put me in the infirmary and kept me there until they sent me to Douglas County," he says.
However, Simonet says he doesn't believe the alleged flame-throwing attack ever occurred. "If there was an attempt on his life and someone tried to torch him," Simonet says, "I would know about it, because we were trying to keep him safe." Even so, Denver couldn't keep Tibbs, because the DA's office wanted him out in the suburbs for his own protection. And Jefferson County didn't want him back. "They said he was a nuisance," Simonet recalls. "Douglas County owed us a favor," and so Tibbs was bounced down to Castle Rock.
Tibbs didn't take well to his new home. He wouldn't dress by the required time in the morning, wouldn't clean his cell, talked back, and stole his disciplinary reports and flushed them down the toilet. The guards finally threw him in the hole, keeping him locked in solitary for days at a time.
Tibbs claims that the ongoing tour of local jails and his time in lockdown are part of an effort to keep him under wraps until he testifies against Morris. But keeping him behind bars, he insists, is putting him in danger. "I testified in the preliminary [for Domena], and now Givens is dead," he observes. "I'm in fear for my life. I'm safer on the street than I am in here."
If that's true, says Lieutenant Dave Weaver of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, it may be as a result of Tibbs's inability to keep from running his mouth. "I wasn't sure at first if he was an informant or not," Weaver says, "because he kept telling everybody that he was. Usually those guys know enough to keep quiet. But he won't."
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