LAWS OF CHANCE
part 1 of 2
Cripple Creek police chief Ed Stauffer pushes back from the table at Creekers restaurant, leaving his plate of fries untouched and bringing on a lecture from the matronly waitress. He listens politely to her discourse on diet and health, then lights up a cigarette as she walks away. He smiles to himself. Cripple Creek is still a small town. Everybody knows everybody else's business, and residents freely dish out advice, whether or not it's wanted. "The other day," the chief confesses, "somebody called me Andy of Mayberry."
But Andy Taylor, the TV sheriff who left the keys to the jail cells within reach of the prisoners and didn't carry a gun, probably couldn't hack it in modern-day Cripple Creek. Stauffer is beginning to doubt his role in the whole business, too.
The chief's easygoing ways--he keeps his wife and two sons-in-law on the payroll and sometimes wears an International Harvester cap with his uniform--are increasingly difficult to reconcile with the old mining camp's newfound status as a gambling boomtown. The big-city district attorney down in Colorado Springs, complains Stauffer, is trying to get him fired, claiming that he and his officers show favoritism to locals when making arrests. And though townspeople may view Stauffer as a Nineties version of Sheriff Taylor, a series of public-relations gaffes have made him look more like bungling deputy Barney Fife.
When a married Cripple Creek police officer ran off with a female dispatcher (without first returning his badge and gun), Stauffer issued a warrant for the man's arrest. The warrant was canceled only after Stauffer received the gun in the mail. Stauffer also was forced to temporarily suspend his wife, a part-time officer, for revealing details of an ongoing investigation.
Similar scenarios have played out in Black Hawk and Central City, the other Colorado mountain towns where crime and gambling have come hand in hand. As the crush of casino crowds has forced law enforcement agencies to expand rapidly, police departments in the three communities have been plagued by questionable hiring practices, political infighting and personnel problems that at times have bordered on the bizarre.
In Central City, the former chief was forced to resign after his own officers squealed on him for taking a bicycle from a Christmas toy drive. Before he left, Elmo Gatlin hired an officer with his own troubled history: former Denver cop David Hayhurst, who made headlines five years ago when he abandoned his patrol cruiser while on duty and fled over the mountains to Utah to begin a new life.
Black Hawk, the smallest and now richest of the three mountain towns, is coping with big-league problems of its own. A special prosecutor was recently assigned to look into accusations that police chief Jerry Yocom buried a police report accusing an alderman's son of a crime. A report on the investigation is expected within the next few weeks.
And it's not the first time Yocom has faced scrutiny: In 1988 he was fired by the Littleton Police Department after being accused of rape. Although Yocom was never charged with a crime, Black Hawk officials apparently hired him without first checking with Littleton police. Two of the aldermen who confirmed Yocom's appointment say they were unaware of the allegations against him until recently.
Today, town councils in the three communities are working hard to ensure that their officers are qualified, capable and get the help they need. The police departments are devoting more time to training, and they are upgrading their equipment and facilities. But critics still depict those agencies as poorly trained and inadequately equipped to handle investigations--a recipe that could ultimately jeopardize criminal prosecutions. Meanwhile, Stauffer is feuding with El Paso County District Attorney John Suthers and Black Hawk police are squabbling with Gilpin County deputies.
Says Brian Terrett of the Jefferson-Gilpin District Attorney's office, "Policing above 10,000 feet is a whole other ball game."
As recently as four years ago, Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk were dying. The three mining towns were highly dependent on the tourists--and cash--that flowed in from Memorial Day until the first early snows. Property taxes were high and good jobs were practically nonexistent. Roads and reservoirs were crumbling, as were the historic buildings lining the main streets. In desperation, the residents turned north to Deadwood, South Dakota, which boomed after approving limited-stakes gambling.
The Colorado towns made a deal with the devil--give the okay to gambling, town officials told voters, and we'll put money aside for historic preservation and still have plenty of tax dollars to pass around. Voters agreed, approving a state referendum in the fall of 1990 that allowed casino-style gambling. Slot machines were gobbling up quarters by October of the following year.
In the eleven months between the approval of gaming and its inauguration, the three towns geared up for the onslaught of visitors and the problems expected to follow. For Cripple Creek and Central City, that meant beefing up the police departments. For Black Hawk, it meant establishing a police department.
Black Hawk, which has only 125 registered voters in its two-and-a-half-square-mile boundary, had been without its own law enforcement agency for about five years. Town residents managed for a while with a part-time marshal before deciding it made more sense to contract with the Gilpin County Sheriff's Department for police services.
Town aldermen conferred with then-district attorney Don Mielke and officials in Deadwood to determine how to proceed. They were told their department would likely need to have 25 or so officers, enabling them to staff three shifts seven days a week.
Aldermen Herb Bowles (who doubles as Black Hawk's police commissioner) and Bill Lovingier (a captain for the Denver County Sheriff's Department who commutes from the mountains each day), along with former city administrator Mona Dawkins, were assigned to look for a chief for Black Hawk. They knew what they were after, says Bowles, as he sits across from Chief Yocom in the cramped office that serves as Black Hawk police headquarters. "We wanted a younger person who knew the community and who would stay here and not move on."
"And that," interjects Yocom, "was me."
The 39-year-old Yocom is a go-getter and an experienced officer. But his firing in Littleton after a woman claimed he and a friend had raped her is hardly a typical resume entry for management material.
Yocom has never disputed the woman's claims that they met in a metro-area bar on October 5, 1988, or her contention that they had a few drinks before going to his apartment. Both agree she later became hysterical and asked to be driven home. At that point, however, the stories diverge. Yocom has testified that he drove the woman home without incident. She has claimed that Yocom and his buddy drove her to the foothills near Morrison and took turns sexually assaulting her.
The following morning the woman told her co-workers she'd been assaulted. They insisted she see a doctor and go to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. But sheriff's investigators closed the case the same day--because, say Yocom and his attorney, the woman refused to cooperate.
Littleton police, however, launched their own investigation. Current Littleton chief Craig Camp today says he believes the woman would have cooperated with sheriff's deputies if the investigators had taken time with her. "Frankly," he says, "they kind of kissed it off." It came down to the woman's word against that of an officer who had never been disciplined in his three and a half years on the force. Camp believed the woman. "I found her to be more credible," says the chief.
Yocom spent most of the next three years fighting his dismissal, suing the police department and taking his case all the way to the Colorado Court of Appeals. He lost every step of the way. He also filed suit against the alleged victim, though he dropped that case not long after it was filed.
But even while his legal battles continued, Yocom again found work as an officer. The Gilpin County Sheriff's Department had posted an opening for an officer to work in a DUI car and nab drunken drivers. It was a temporary contract position with no guarantee that the officer would be kept on after the county's grant ran out. Yocom got the job.
After an uneventful year with the sheriff's department, Yocom got a better offer--the chief's position in Black Hawk.
Littleton's Camp says no one from the Black Hawk town council or the sheriff's department contacted his department to ask about Yocom's tenure there. It's not uncommon for officers to be hired without exhaustive background checks, Camp says, but chiefs are usually a different story. "I think prudence requires you to do some background work," he says, especially for law officers "in key positions."
It was tough to get much information about Yocom at the time, says Lovingier, because Yocom's lawsuit against the police department was still pending, and people weren't eager to talk. "We made contacts with people we knew in the [city] administration," he says, "and we were able to glean enough information about him that we were satisfied."
The search committee briefed the council about its three finalists for the chief's post, endorsing Yocom as its first choice. Lovingier says he was "very clear" with the council about the backgrounds of all three finalists and that he outlined the past accusations against Yocom.
But former Black Hawk mayor Bill Lorenz and now-mayor Kathryn Eccker (who was an alderman at the time of Yocom's confirmation) say they weren't told why Yocom had lost his job with Littleton. When informed about the rape allegations, Eccker jumps quickly to Yocom's defense. "I don't believe that it happened," she says. "I never heard that. I have had dealings with the young man, and so has everybody else.
"It always takes two to tango," she adds.
Yocom, who has vehemently denied raping the woman, is tired of the subject. "That's old news," he says.
Bowles and Lovingier continue to swear allegiance to the chief, praising the job he has done for the town. Yocom himself says he tries so hard to avoid even the appearance of impropriety that he wrote himself a ticket for unsafe backing two years ago when he whacked another car as he drove away from the police department.
Adds Lovingier, "I wouldn't want to speak for the entire council, but as recently as three months ago, we took a vote of confidence for the chief and the police department. And that was a unanimous vote."
Yocom began working in Black Hawk on September 1, 1991, exactly one month before gambling's opening day. His salary was $23,000 per year, and his equipment was just as meager. He was given a broken flashlight and a set of keys. To this day, no one knows what locks they fit. He set up his office in a vacant house donated temporarily to the police department. His patrol car was a four-year-old Chevy Nova.
"I started out with nothing," Yocom says. "Not a paper clip, nothing."
The chief says he also had no one to turn to for advice on how to build a police force from the ground up. The town had to cope with a brand-new industry, he notes, and "no one knew what was going to happen."
Yocom got a crash course in reality. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people showed up for the first day of legalized gambling, he says, and by the end of that month, he had hired two officers and brought on Lovingier's wife, Dixie, to handle the office duties.
The pressures created by the need to expand were unique, to say the least. A couple of Yocom's officers left the force after the chief began to suspect they purposely wrecked their aging patrol cars in hopes of getting them replaced with newer models. The demolition-derby scenario was only a theory, stresses Yocom, who says there are other reasons the officers are no longer with the department.
The town was soon enjoying newfound wealth, thanks to taxes and the hefty "device fee" slapped on each slot machine. This year the police department's budget reached $1.3 million, almost ten times more than the entire town spent in 1990.
Today, the Black Hawk Police Department boasts seventeen commissioned officers, an officer who's contracted to work a DUI car, a code enforcement officer and six civilian employees. In addition, Yocom expects to bring on two reserve officers for the summer. Salaries are now comparable to those in the metro area. Officers make $24,000 to start. Yocum's salary has more than doubled, to $48,000 annually. "Now that we have the money," says Bowles, "we want everything first-class."
The department long ago replaced the chief's aging Nova, acquiring six Chevy Blazers and two motorcycles. The town is presently renovating an old grammar school to house the department. When ready for occupancy, it will include private offices, a conference room, two locker rooms complete with showers, computer work stations, a holding cell, photo and fingerprint stations, an evidence room and, last but not least, a controversial new dispatch center. Even the "historic" six-holer outhouse in back will be restored.
The only thing money hasn't been able to buy for the department is respect.
Yocom likes to brag that he's a strict boss. "Some people's idea of working in a tourist town is to kick back," says the chief. "I run a tight ship, and it's pretty structured. You can't come here and goof around." However, the by-the-book style of police work he and his officers practice is wearing thin with some townspeople.
When the town's police work was handled by the sheriff's department, deputies rarely had time to hand out tickets for parking misdeeds and other minor violations. But District Attorney Dave Thomas, who oversees Jefferson and Gilpin counties, says several residents have complained to his office about what they consider to be overzealous enforcement of local ordinances. "There are people who think there are too many officers," says Thomas. "They're stopping them a lot."
Business owners in particular are irked over enforcement of strict parking regulations that limit business deliveries to certain hours. Lovingier says those get-tough policies have been approved by the town council.
The sheer volume of tickets and cases brought by Black Hawk officers has Thomas's office reeling. Felony filings and traffic offenses have tripled in the county since the onset of gaming, and Black Hawk is responsible for at least half of that. Last year Thomas assigned a full-time deputy DA to Gilpin County to handle the caseload and conduct training for police officers. "We burned out the first guy after a year," Thomas notes. "He begged me to get him out." Thomas now has two deputies and an investigator assigned to Gilpin County.
Thomas's only real criticism of Black Hawk's police department has to do with its apparent inability to cooperate with the sheriff's department--a situation that has only been aggravated by the town's new dispatch center. Until earlier this month, the town relied on the sheriff's department to dispatch calls for service. Yocom claims Black Hawk was forced to create its own dispatch system--at a cost of $220,000--because the sheriff's department was overloaded with calls. But Gilpin County sheriff Bruce Hartman disputes that contention, labeling the problems as more "political" in nature, and even Thomas has his doubts that a separate dispatch center is necessary.
"I think there's a big problem any time you have two agencies a mile apart with separate dispatch systems," says the district attorney. "People get politically divided over turf, and I fail to understand why they can't agree on a common communication system. Their duplication of effort is not in the best interest of taxpayers."
Thomas says Black Hawk officers are "trying really hard," and that he's seen a definite improvement in the quality of their work. Others, however, are not as kind in their assessments. "They have problems with reports, record keeping and information gathering," says one Jefferson County Court employee. "It's a miracle if they win a case at all. There's a joke going around that Black Hawk couldn't win a conviction even if the officers had a videotape of the crime."
Despite his stand on the need for cooperation and consolidation among the three law enforcement agencies in the county, Thomas says he tries to distance himself from the political squabbles that have divided Black Hawk, the sheriff's office and the Central City Police Department. That's one reason he's turned over an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Chief Yocom to the Arapahoe County District Attorney's office.
Thomas declines to elaborate on the allegations against Yocom, as does John Hower, the special prosecutor with the Arapahoe County District Attorney's office. Alderman Bill Lovingier confirms, however, that the case revolves around a claim that one of his two sons was given special treatment by Yocom's department.
The claim is untrue, says Lovingier, who blames the situation on a disgruntled former employee. The department, the alderman adds ruefully, has cited both of his boys "repeatedly" in the past. Lovingier says he doesn't wish to discuss details of the incident, but rejects allegations of a police coverup. "[The department] kept it open and stuck it on a shelf until someone asked about it," he says. "It's not like it was destroyed. It wasn't hidden, buried or otherwise mishandled."
Yocom will say only that the investigation is "nothing major" and "nothing we're concerned about."
end of part 1. Click here to go to part 2.
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