On the evening of June 8, 2001, Delores and Charles Gates received the kind of phone call every parent dreads: Their nineteen-year-old son was calling from jail. They barely had time to absorb that information when the news got much worse.
"Get me out of here," John Gates told his parents. "They beat the hell out of me. One of them hit me in the head. They're listening -- here they come."
While his father listened in stunned disbelief, the phone was ripped from John's hand. Charles Gates heard his son cry out, then the sounds of a struggle. At that moment, John now says, two Park County sheriff's deputies were wrestling him to the ground. One put both knees on John's back; the other had his foot on his neck. After long, agonizing seconds -- no more than a minute or two, but an eternity by Charles Gates's clock -- someone picked up the dangling receiver.
"This call is over," the man said, and hung up.
The Gateses wasted no time driving to the sheriff's office. There they were told that John, who'd never been arrested before, was facing several possible charges, including drunk driving, criminal mischief, assault on a peace officer and resisting arrest. They were directed to a poorly lit pay phone down the road to call a bail bondsman. It was four in the morning before Delores was able to arrange for her son's release.
"I had to make my husband stay outside so things wouldn't escalate any further," Delores recalls. "I waited for them to bring him out, and this one deputy said, 'Mrs. Gates, here's your pride and joy.' When I saw John, I lost it. The kid was covered in blood. But John kept his cool and got me out of there."
Last spring, a Park County jury acquitted Gates of all charges stemming from his arrest. But questions remain about the multiple injuries he suffered that night -- including a serious blow to the head that a defense expert insisted could not have occurred the way the arresting officer claimed it did.
According to Delores Gates, sheriff's deputies tailed family members for months after the incident. "When they're that arrogant, you have fear," she says. "We did not feel safe." The Gateses have since sold their property outside of Bailey and moved out of the county. Although an FBI probe into possible police misconduct produced no formal charges, the family is now contemplating a lawsuit against the sheriff's office.
The case has become a contentious topic in the current sheriff's race, which pits incumbent Fred Wegener against a write-in candidate, Rob Raskiewicz, the town marshal of Alma. Wegener's critics say the Gates arrest is only the most blatant example of heavy-handed police tactics in the county, which have prompted other complaints about unprofessional behavior and rough treatment by deputies during routine traffic stops.
"I've always heard complaints about the sheriff's office, but it's getting worse," says Peter John Stone, a columnist for the local weekly, High Country Trader. "People are scared. Most of them don't like the way deputies act when they have to deal with them."
Park County has a history of law-enforcement problems, many of them associated with the challenges of patrolling a sprawling, mountainous, 2,000-square-mile area with a population that has doubled over the past decade. A Republican in a GOP stronghold, Wegener ran for sheriff four years ago as a reform candidate after a series of complaints about alleged civil-rights violations and improper contracts under the previous regime; he won by a narrow margin.
Stone was an early supporter of Wegener and even designated him the county's "Man of the Year" in 2000, when the former was a reporter for the Park County Republican and Bailey Flume. "I was initially impressed with Fred," Stone says. "He made some good choices."
Wegener's policies began coming under fire, though, after several incidents involving alleged verbal and physical abuse of locals during traffic stops, questionable search warrants, and the way deputies patrolled special events; poor attendance at a Little Feat concert two years ago was blamed, in part, on the heavy police presence. "The sheriff has rendered any kind of rock concert impractical up here," Stone says.
For Stone, the turning point was the Gates case. He was the only reporter to cover the entire trial, and he admits he went into the courtroom highly skeptical of Gates's claim of being assaulted by deputies for no reason. "I took it with a grain of salt," he says. "But I left that trial appalled." Since then, he has written numerous columns urging an investigation of the sheriff's office.
The night he was arrested, Gates and a friend, Jamie Shaffer, had pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store in Bailey. Gates was driving. Shaffer was intoxicated, but Gates, who suffers from chronic stomach problems, insists he had nothing to drink that evening. After making purchases at the store, the two lingered in the parking lot, looking for Gates's dog, which had bolted from the car. They were observed by Deputy Carl Sharp, who suspected them of attempting to burglarize a feed store next door.
Accounts of what happened next vary greatly. According to Sharp's report, Gates became "extremely uncooperative" after the deputy approached him. He was combative, profane and exhibiting signs of intoxication or drug use, the deputy wrote. Other deputies who soon arrived on the scene also reported that Gates was loud, belligerent and smelled of alcohol. He refused to take a breathalyzer or blood test, insisting that it be administered by Sheriff Wegener or a state trooper.
Gates disputes many details in the official version. Sharp started out "pushy," he says, accusing him of trying to rob the feed store or the gun store next to it, which is partly owned by Sharp's wife. "He grabbed me out of my car," Gates says. "He searched me, handcuffed me and threw me to the ground. I never resisted physically; I told him I had certain rights. I was trying not to get beat up. It was, 'Yes sir, no sir.'"
Although the feed-store owner showed up and declined to press charges, Sharp decided to place Gates under arrest for a suspected DUI. The situation quickly escalated; after Gates was placed in the back of the patrol car, he slipped his cuffed hands from behind his back and began to rap on the window. He was removed and recuffed, face down to the ground. As he was putting the prisoner back in his car, Sharp reported, Gates kicked the door, slamming it into the deputy's knee.
According to Sharp's report, Gates continued to act up on the ride to jail, throwing himself headfirst into the Plexiglas divider separating the front and rear seats of the patrol car. Shortly before ten o'clock, Sharp radioed that he was heading back to the Bailey substation for medical assistance because Gates was bleeding profusely: "This party just smashed his face against the window of the car."
That's not the way it was, Gates insists. During the ride, Sharp was taunting him, he says, telling him he was going to get "fucked up the ass" in jail. Gates swore at him. Sharp then pulled into a high school parking lot, Gates says, opened the door and struck him in the forehead with some object. After that, he drove back to Bailey, slamming on the brakes twice so that Gates pitched forward into the divider, smearing his blood across the Plexiglas -- a technique known in cop parlance as a "screen test."
By the time medical personnel examined Gates back at the substation, he was behaving extremely erratically -- belligerent one moment, calm the next. He kicked out a window of Sharp's car, repeatedly accused Sharp of striking him in the head, and refused to ride any further with him. He was placed in leg restraints and taken to jail without incident by another deputy. At the jail, Gates's continuing "lack of cooperation" landed him in a restraint chair for nearly an hour. According to one of his jailers, his phone call to his parents was abruptly terminated for his own good, "because no purpose was being served by it at all, except he seemed to be becoming more and more agitated."
But at trial, many of the deputies' key assertions began to wither under scrutiny. A surveillance videotape from the liquor store showed Gates's dog wandering through the place around the time Sharp arrived on the scene; Sharp had claimed the dog was in the car the whole time, contradicting Gates's "suspicious" story about what he was doing in the parking lot. Some passersby who observed the early stages of the arrest said that Gates appeared calm and cooperative at first. The nurse who cleaned Gates's wounds testified that she smelled no alcohol on him.
As for the head injury, times taken from dispatch tapes did not match up with the sequence of events as Sharp recounted them. A medical examiner hired by the defense testified that it would have been impossible for Gates to have caused the deep horizontal laceration on his forehead by hurling himself into the partition; such a wound was far more likely to have occurred as a result of being struck by a dense object, such as a gun butt. And such a blow to the head could account for Gates's subsequent erratic behavior at the substation and the jail, the defense argued.
After four days of testimony, the jury took only ninety minutes to find Gates not guilty of DUI, obstructing an officer, resisting arrest or criminal mischief. But Park County Deputy District Attorney Dave Thorson, who prosecuted the case, was not so easily persuaded. "The verdict was what it was," Thorson says now. "I respect the jury system. It didn't change my opinion as far as whether he's guilty or innocent."
Sheriff Wegener did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the Gates case. Sharp says the verdict is indicative of the "brilliant incompetence" of the district attorney's office. Many of the key points of the defense -- the discrepancy in dispatch times, for example -- could have been explained if the prosecution had been better prepared, he says, and many key witnesses were never called.
"I'm frustrated with the way the entire thing happened," Sharp says. "I've been in law enforcement for twelve years, and I've never seen a more incompetent prosecution. The lack of support from the DA's office is one reason I left the sheriff's office after only four months. I can name half a dozen instances where the DA refused to follow up on reports of assaults on police officers."
Sharp, who'd previously worked as a police officer in Jefferson County and Littleton, resigned from the Park County force last year. He acknowledges that he's been the target of other complaints from citizens over the years -- almost every police officer gets them, he says -- but none were ever found to be legitimate.
Still, John Gates is not the only Park County citizen who claims to have been mistreated by Sharp during his brief tenure there. Jamie Rae was pulled over by Sharp and another officer last year because of a faulty license-plate light. When the deputies began shining lights in his car, Rae "flipped them the bird," he says -- only to receive an even more uncivil response. "Sharp came storming up to my car with his flashlight out," he remembers, "and started screaming, 'Get out of your damned car now!'"
Rae claims the officers twisted his wrists and held him over the trunk for fifteen to twenty minutes while his young daughter waited in the car. "I told them they were breaking my arm, and they were laughing about it," he says. "They said, 'Is that your daughter in the car? Do you want us to call social services?' They were just playing with my head."
Sharp ordered Rae to spread his legs, then "searched" his groin area three times, Rae says. "I didn't realize he was hurting me at first," he remembers. "A few minutes later, my whole body was in shock. For two months, it was uncomfortable to sit down. He crushed my testicles."
Sharp denies mistreating Rae. "Jamie Rae is a liar," he says.
Rae was eventually released without any charges or even a citation. He never filed a complaint with the sheriff's office over his treatment. Columnist Stone says he doubts it would have done much good; he's blasted the internal investigation Wegener's office conducted after the Gates arrest as incomplete and incompetent. Even with Sharp gone, Stone adds, he's troubled that the sheriff has declined to re-examine the case in light of the evidence presented at trial. He believes that more than one deputy may have perjured himself during the Gates trial in order to back up his colleagues' stories.
"I'm sure some of them must have been outright lying or extremely deceived," he says. "The sheriff has to admit there are bad officers before something can be done about it."
Raskiewicz, Wegener's opponent in the sheriff's race, views the Gates case as a "huge issue" in the current campaign. A former Milwaukee police officer, he worked in the Park County sheriff's department for seven months but left last year because "I didn't agree with their policy," he says. "Instead of looking for real crime, these cops were always on [U.S.] 285 looking for taillights out. They were more concerned about revenue than fighting crime."
Raskiewicz touts the benefits of community policing and says Wegener's deputies are too "unfriendly" and prone to overkill tactics, escalating minor interactions with traffic violators into major confrontations. "The most important tool a department has is trust," he adds. "I've worked in a rough area of a major city, and I didn't see this kind of attitude. It's seriously time for a change."
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John Gates suffers from persistent headaches and an ulcer that he believes is stress-related. He doesn't like to talk about the night he was arrested.
"It's a part of my life I really, really want to forget," he says. "The last year and a half has been total hell. I thought I was going to jail for a long time for nothing. Without my parents, I would probably be sitting in Cañon City right now. Nobody would have listened to me."
Gates grew up in Park County, and he says he never had any problems with Sheriff Wegener, whom he's known for years, or any other officer -- until the night Carl Sharp ordered him out of his car.
"This guy was completely out of control," he says. "But Fred Wegener wouldn't even entertain the thought that one of his deputies was smacking me around. They need a new sheriff, for sure."