Colorado has taken a serious beating in public print recently, with the Columbine High School massacre, the football rapes in Boulder, the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, and the repulsive police corruption that stains Denver's once proud image. Denver has never pretended to be a civilized place. When you think of Denver, you think of cowshit and gunfights, small brains and big guns, dumb brutes and wild whores with hearts of cheap gold. Yes, sir, that is Denver in a nutshell -- a cowboy town with cowboy rules and cowboy justice. When you come to Denver, Bubba, you'd better be ready to fight.
Yes, sirree, Bubba, you can't buy publicity like that screed in "Prisoner of Denver," the Hunter Thompson piece in the current issue of Vanity Fair. You can't really fight it, either, much as the boosters of this cowboy town in this cowboy state might want to.
At least the good doctor left out the Kobe Bryant and Air Force Academy sex-assault scandals, which complete the lineup of Colorado's greatest hits.
The problem, of course, is that Colorado does pretend it's civilized -- and that's where the trouble starts.
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office had gotten complaints about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold well before April 1999, but it didn't want to bother their families -- much less exercise a search warrant on the Harris household. Although the teens had turned in thrill-kill English essays and made shoot-em-up movies on school equipment, Columbine High officials didn't want to disturb their families, either. And when, five long years after their son and Eric Harris massacred thirteen people at that school, the Klebolds finally broke their silence, they did so in a civilized missive for a columnist at the New York Times -- because it's the paper they read. That explanation helps us understand not their son's crime -- there may be no understanding that -- but why the Klebolds have been able to stay in the community: They don't read the community's papers, which are still full of the pain caused by Dylan and Eric. "I haven't done anything for which I need forgiveness," Susan Klebold told the Times.
We may never know if John and Patsy Ramsey have done anything that needs forgiveness. The Boulder police were so damn civilized that they let John Ramsey search their home for the missing six-year-old, and then, after her body was found, the officers waited a civilized amount of time to interview the dead girl's parents. At this point, they can wait until hell freezes over. No one -- most definitely not the Ramseys -- has ever been charged with JonBenét Ramsey's murder. Today, John Ramsey is running for the Michigan Legislature.
In civilized Boulder, it only made sense to assign a police officer to watch over, and watch out for, the members of the University of Colorado football team. Last week, parents of some of those players -- including Patty Klopfenstein, who never missed a meeting of the Independent Investigation Commission set up by the CU regents -- demanded that Bill Owens apologize for his statement that "the football [at CU] has, in fact, been an embarrassment." The governor said that in a Fox News interview back in February -- before the commission had even held its first meeting, before CU's audit of the athletic department, before special liaison John DiBiaggio finished his own analysis of the athletic department's relationship to the university. And the mess has only gotten more embarrassing as time's gone on.
Owens has nothing to apologize for -- except for not making that statement broader. The football program is far from the only reason to beat up on CU. Administrators dropped the ball in responding to allegations of sexual assault back in 1997, in 2001 and again in early 2004, when the earlier incidents resurfaced. And the school hasn't scored a point since. Last Wednesday, when the Regents gathered to officially accept -- and supposedly discuss -- the commission's 51-page, unanimous report with its authors, they couldn't get out of the room fast enough. Well, they did wait long enough for Regent Jerry Rutledge to direct this telling statement to the families of the players: "No one has suffered more than you." A commission member quickly pointed out that maybe, just maybe, the families of the sex-assault victims had suffered, too. Klopfenstein got to stand up when both groups were honored: Not only is her son a player, but her daughter was sexually assaulted, the football mom revealed at a press conference earlier this month.
The Buff Defenders have their own report and recommendations, and even agree with the commission on at least one point: The school needs to "take steps to address broader problems." After all, it takes more than an unsupervised football team and liquor-store-owning athletic director to earn top partying honors. As Lisa Simpson, one of the women suing the school over the 2001 incident, told her mother, "All of the college students at CU drink. Don't you know it's the No. 1 party school in America?"
Thompson's dis of Denver continues: Kick ass or die is what the Denver Police Department is all about. It is kill or be killed in this town. The D.P.D. has never been anything but a dangerous gang of vengeful, half-bright cowboys with a vicious reputation for brutality and what the Hell's Angels used to call 'massive retaliation.'
He isn't talking about the shooting of fifteen-year-old Paul Childs last July, which resulted in the city's making a $1.325 million settlement to the Childs family -- and sparing Denver the high-profile embarrassment of a civil suit led by Johnnie Cochran. Nor is he talking about the death of Ismael Mena.
No, Thompson's talking about Lisl Auman, whom he's been talking about since 2001, when Lisl first wrote him from Cañon City, where she's serving a life sentence -- the only sentence possible for someone convicted of felony murder in Colorado. Lisl met Matthaeus Jaehnig on November 12, 1997. By the end of that day, both he and Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt were dead -- and Lisl's life was changed forever. In between came a ride up to the mountain lodge where Lisl had been living with her boyfriend, a burglary and a wild high-speed car chase back into Denver -- where Lisl was in police custody when Jaehnig shot VanderJagt in the face, then killed himself.
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The Vanity Fair article, a strange amalgam of Hunteresque rant and memoir/ narrative by Mark Seals, takes the Auman case no further than Juliet Wittman did in "Zero to Life," her cover story for the April 15, 1999, issue of Westword, and ends with the suggestion that those interested in the Free Lisl! campaign write the Rocky Mountain News or Denver Post, or call Denver police chief Gerry Whitman (who was not the chief when Lisl was convicted, much less arrested) or Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter. It does not suggest the one thing that could make a difference: Contact Colorado legislators and ask them to change this state's arcane, insane, felony-murder law.
Plenty of people have been following Vanity Fair's advice, although Ritter says he's "gotten far more e-mails from Catholics because I criticized the Colorado Springs bishop." Still, to set the record straighter, on Tuesday the DA's office posted on its website the "Statement of Facts" and a summary of the case that are both part of the appellate brief. The Colorado Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer on whether Auman deserves a new trial. If it does, her case could make legal history, defining numerous inconsistencies and gray areas in the felony-murder law --including what, exactly, constitutes a flight. Or this long-running embarrassment could end with Lisl getting a second chance to take the plea she refused seven years ago, a plea that would have removed the felony-murder charge and likely had her out on the streets today.
Once she refused that deal, Lisl was fucked, all right, but she is not "being brutally raped right in front of my eyes," as Thompson writes, and certainly not by "rapists wearing big guns and Denver Police Department badges." If there's one word that shouldn't be misused these days in Colorado -- this state that's taken such a serious beating in the national press, the sexual-assault capital of the world -- it's "rape."
We already have enough to apologize for.