HELICOPTER 54, WHERE ARE YOU?
Looking back on her standoff with a military helicopter on the plains of eastern El Paso County this fall, Mary Blake wishes she'd had more firepower. "If I'd had a big gun," says the 49-year-old Blake, "I would have shot the devils, but I didn't have a big enough one." As it was, her chance encounter with police flying an "aerial marijuana eradication" mission has fueled a flatlands firestorm.
Instead of blasting away with both barrels, Blake settled for a warning shot with her .25-caliber pistol. She calls it an act of self-defense spurred by her fears that the low-flying chopper might belong to cattle mutilators. Authorities call it a Class 2 misdemeanor, and Blake faces a possible one-year jail sentence if convicted.
Her run-in with the law has made Blake a cause celebre in the ranch country near Peyton, a tiny hamlet on old U.S. 24 northeast of Colorado Springs. The hometown Ranchland News has been bombarded with supportive letters to the editor, including a full-page opus penned by Blake herself in which she described her pistol as "my little pea shooter."
What the News now refers to matter-of-factly as the "helicopter incident" occurred on the morning of September 19, when Blake was out checking livestock for a friend. She'd parked her pickup and was walking with her dog when she heard a helicopter coming low over the trees. Blake says she was already on edge due to a number of reported cattle mutilations in the area. "I thought maybe they had a steer down there and they wanted to mutilate it," she says, adding that she couldn't see any identifying marks on the copter.
Unbeknownst to Blake, the officers hovering in the chopper had already identified her as a suspected marijuana grower--an assumption based on what Lieutenant William Elder of the El Paso County Sheriff's Department calls "some suspicious-looking stuff" in the bed of her truck. That material turned out to be a garden hose and a five-gallon bucket.
"Apparently she had been watering and feeding horses," says Elder, who defends the actions of the multi-agency task force that used Air National Guard choppers--well-marked, he insists--to conduct the sweep. "From the air, to us, it would look like irrigation equipment for a doper."
Blake says she ran to her truck and began tracking the copter's movements with a pair of binoculars. "They went up and down the draws and watched me," she says. She fired her gun into the air when the aircraft was at least a mile away, she says. The helicopter continued to watch her, so she pulled out to the nearby Peyton Highway, holding the gun in her hand as she drove.
According to Blake, she pulled her truck over when she saw her friend Bob Heath's pickup parked by the road. "I was going to tell him about the chopper when about that time two cars pulled up beside each other and the nitwits got out and started pointing guns at me," she says. In her letter to the News, Blake compared the convergence of vehicles to "O.J. Simpson coming down Peyton Highway."
The cars that pulled in front of her were unmarked, Blake says, and the men who leaped out were wearing camouflage pants and black T-shirts. She didn't realize they were law officers, she says, until a marked sheriff's car arrived shortly afterward.
"I told them, `You ain't going to get no feather in your hats this time, boys,'" she says. The officers, Elder says, then "extricated her from the vehicle," handcuffed her and stuck her in the back seat of a police car. They cut short their search of her pickup when Heath identified her. If the officers had finished the job, Blake notes, they would have found another gun behind the seat. Later, she says, Heath prompted one officer to "puff up like a toad" when he jokingly asked, "Mary, did they find our still up there?"
The officers let Blake go but later served her with a summons for illegally discharging a firearm. A pretrial conference is set for December 13, at which time Blake's Colorado Springs attorney will attempt to convince prosecutors to drop the charges. "Here's a citizen who's getting hassled, and in response to the hassle, the police come up with this charge against her," says Ed Farry. "They're acting like a bunch of cowboys out there. It's four guys in a helicopter having fun."
The sheriff's department received several complaint calls from area residents about the aerial searches. Elder, however, defends the pot patrols, funded through a grant from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "We're already in the process of planning a mission for 1995," he says. "The dope is there, and we're going to find it. I'm not going to let one lady with a gun that's scared decide it for us."
On future missions, he'll try to have a marked police car stick closer to the helicopter, says Elder. Other than that, he says, he wouldn't have done anything different in the Blake case: "Granted, we were low when we flew over Mary Blake, but there was a reason for that."
Blake thinks that if police are going to continue the fly-overs, they should employ people "with enough brains" to realize that pot growers would have a hard time raising a crop in a field full of loose cattle.
Meanwhile, she remains defiant. She doesn't plan to attend the pretrial conference next week. But she says that on second thought, she's glad she wasn't packing more iron last September.
"I would have been dead," muses Blake. "It's a good thing I didn't have a bigger gun.
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