LIFE ON THE EDGE
The municipal judge in Edgewater is a convicted felon and former mental patient, but he's considered an improvement over his predecessor. That judge reportedly was fired because he couldn't seem to make it to court on time.
The town's police chief carries out "reverse stings," in essence importing criminals to his town in order to confiscate their property.
The former city attorney made a name for himself a couple years back with an uncommon show of loyalty to the town. Specifically, he refused to give up his post for more than five months after being asked to step down--and allegedly billed the city to write an opinion explaining why he couldn't be fired.
And the city council, which is supposed to be guiding the little town on Denver's western border into the future, is better known for engaging in embarrassing public tiffs and attempting to stave off recall elections.
With apologies to a nineteenth-century French writer, every town has the government it deserves. Which leads naturally to the question: What have Edgewater residents done to justify the system they've got?
Quarreling, crankiness and scandalous behavior are historical traditions in Edgewater. In the late 1800s saloons, gambling dens and bawdy houses sat right behind the town's boardwalk, making it a natural gathering spot for Denver's seedier elements. Do-gooders finally closed down the last saloon early in 1901, the same year residents held an election to decide whether to incorporate. "Town votes for incorporation," reads a headline from those days. "Men and women stand in the streets arguing for and against."
Fifty years later, when builders hastily slapped up small clapboard houses to meet the postwar boom, the town nearly doubled in size. There are now 4,700 residents within Edgewater's square-mile town limits, most of them elderly. By some estimates, as many as 40 percent of the residents have lived in the town for at least forty years.
The source of Edgewaterites' pride in--and attachment to--their town may not be readily apparent to visitors. In fact, the town itself isn't readily apparent. It's possible to zoom south on Sheridan Boulevard and not even notice the transition from Wheat Ridge to Edgewater to Lakewood.
Twenty-fifth Avenue, the town's main street, consists mostly of one-story brick shops that have seen better days. A push for development did bring in a string of new stores--a Cub Foods, a Builders Square and a discount department store now line up along Sheridan--but other attempts to shore up the town have met with resistance.
In 1990 the Edgewater Redevelopment Authority designated 132 acres--nearly half the town--as "blighted," in an attempt to get urban renewal funding. That came as an unpleasant shock to many residents, who claimed they hadn't heard a peep about it until long after the fact.
The majority of Edgewaterites might have remained equally ignorant of their town's latest flap had municipal judge Ben Klein not chosen to throw the book at 29-year-old Tim Young, an action that has turned a minor criminal case into a cause celebre and cast a reluctant Klein into Edgewater's version of the spotlight.
On September 17, 1993, Edgewater police officers served Young with summonses charging him with two counts of harassment. The roots of the problem, says Young, could be found in a classic Edgewater dispute that stretched back "as far as I can remember."
According to Young and his mother, Grace, who has lived in Edgewater for more than fifty years, the family had been involved in an ongoing feud with a neighbor, the repetitively named Doris Dorris. The 76-year-old Dorris keeps a close watch on the goings-on in her neighborhood and calls police with some regularity to report sightings of suspicious cars and various and sundry violations of the city code. "I have a perfect right as a citizen of Edgewater to call the police if I think they need to be called," she says loudly in a Southern accent.
Young, who lives with his 92-year-old grandmother in a house two doors down from Dorris, became a frequent target of his neighbor's complaints. Dorris called the police when his car blocked the sidewalk. "It's in the code book," Dorris says. "You shall not block the driveway. You can't cross the sidewalk if a car's in the way."
Young says Dorris had also complained to the city's code enforcement officer about his grandmother's weeds, which Dorris denies. "Why would I complain about weeds?" she asks, before adding, "But it is against the law."
Dorris does acknowledge complaining to police that she couldn't nap in the afternoons because Young was making too much noise working on his car. "He had this old piece of junk, and there was all this hammering and knocking," she says. "I need my rest. My blood pressure is sky-high, and I was following doctor's orders. I suppose they think I should just stroke out."
One day, claims Young, whose prior contact with police consisted of two drug arrests in 1985, a police officer handed him thirty summonses at once, all of them connected with working on his car in the driveway.
The Youngs then asked police chief Alan Pfeuffer to mediate a discussion between them and Dorris, which the chief agreed to do. He settled the dispute by getting Tim Young to agree to work on the car only during certain times of the day and to finish the car and remove it from his grandmother's yard within a designated period.
That stopped the police visits for a time. But in the summer of 1993, says Tim Young, Dorris complained that Young had "watched" her as she walked past his grandmother's house. "Within minutes," says Young, "a police officer arrived, asking me not to stare at Doris."
For Young, the events of September 17, 1993, proved the last straw.
That afternoon Young had a run-in with substitute mailman Leroy Usel, who'd left a neighbor's letters in Young's mailbox. It was the third time that week that he had misdelivered Young's mail, Usel acknowledged in his statement to police. The irate Young called Usel an "asshole" and, according to Usel's statement to police, began "pushing out his chest, clinching his fist and moving toward [Usel] in a threatening manner."
The ever-alert Dorris heard the commotion and called police. The cops let Young go with a warning. But that was before he phoned Dorris to berate her for summoning the cops.
After Young's phone call, Dorris called police a second time. Young, she told officers, had called her an obscene name and complained that "you didn't waste any time calling the fuckin' cops." He also said, she claimed, "I'll get even."
Young disagrees with the exact wording of Dorris's statement, but admits that her overall description of the call is accurate. Police arrived at his door at 6 p.m. and handed him two summonses--one for harassing Usel, and another for harassing Dorris. He figured it was a minor matter, and didn't hire an attorney.
Last January 4, after a trial in Edgewater municipal court (which doubles as the city council chambers), Klein sentenced Young to nine months in jail and fined him $2,500. Young went straight to the Jefferson County jail. Then he hired an attorney, hoping to get Klein to reconsider his sentence. Klein heard the arguments on February 1.
Attorney Bill Carpenter asked Klein to either reduce Young's sentence to time served or to grant him work release or home detention. Usel told Klein he would go along with whatever the judge decided. Even the prosecutor offered no objections to Carpenter's request. Only Doris Dorris disagreed. And Klein sided with her.
Grace Young was furious. She complained to everyone she could think of. And when she ran across information about Klein's past--namely, that he was a convicted felon--she was only too happy to share it in a meeting with Chief Pfeuffer and Mayor Roger Mariola. She expected the mayor and chief to be appalled at what she'd learned.
Instead, she says, she was shocked to learn that both men were already well aware of Klein's background. Klein had been appointed by Mariola's predecessor, Joe McDonald, and although Mariola could have appointed his own municipal judge, he chose to retain Klein despite his past. "He's a good guy, and firm, and that's the kind of judge I want," Mariola says.
Klein, a diminutive man with a shock of gray hair whose fashion tastes lean toward eye-catching jewelry, says he has since received phone calls from people who have threatened to go public with his past if he doesn't change his sentence in the Young case. But he claims not to be upset by the brouhaha. He stands behind the sentence he gave Tim Young, he says. The case involved an elderly woman who had her life threatened after reporting a crime, Klein says, adding that Young is lucky he wasn't charged with "obstructing a federal official" for interfering with mailman Usel. And the judge says his past is an open book, one that has been read and reread numerous times over the past twenty-some years.
And what interesting reading it is.
Klein, a Denver native and graduate of the law school at the University of Denver, was once a rising star in local politics. In 1956 he was elected as a Democratic state representative from northwest Denver and went on to serve seven terms. He won a state senate seat in 1970.
But Klein wasn't doing so well outside the political arena. The Denver Bar Association's grievance committee began an investigation of him in 1970 after another attorney complained that the state representative had delayed handling a client's claim and had refused to hand over the client's files. Ordinarily, the matter wouldn't have been a big deal. But the situation snowballed out of control when Klein tried to cover up his actions.
Klein told the grievance committee that he refused to turn over the files because he had a professional lien against the client. The client still owed him money, he said. As proof, he produced carbon copies of letters he had supposedly written demanding payment.
When a documents expert asserted Klein had falsified the billings, the attorney general's office accused him of manufacturing evidence and giving false testimony under oath. In September 1972 the Colorado Supreme Court suspended Klein from the practice of law "for at least three years." Even though it was one of the toughest actions ever taken against a lawyer by the court at the time, Klein could consider himself lucky--some Supreme Court justices had originally favored disbarment.
Matters continued to deteriorate for Klein. The client who'd gotten the ball rolling on his suspension began claiming that Klein had offered him a bribe to drop his accusations. Then Klein missed the entire 1973 session of the state legislature due--he said--to mental illness. In April of that year he was indicted on federal charges of income-tax evasion. Klein sought to avoid a trial by claiming he was mentally unstable and unable to assist in his defense. His attorneys brought forward psychiatrists who testified that the senator was "a textbook example of a chronic paranoid schizophrenic."
Though prosecutors disputed the incompetence claim, their own psychological experts didn't paint a flattering picture of Klein. The state's psychiatrists testified that Klein was obsessive, compulsive, neurotic and sometimes depressed, but that they believed he was exaggerating a deteriorated mental condition.
A federal judge declared Klein competent to stand trial. And in September 1973 a jury found him guilty on five counts of tax evasion. A month after that he was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and ordered to undergo ninety days of observation at a federal hospital in Missouri.
Klein stayed out of prison while he appealed his case. He also refused pleas and demands to resign his senate seat. Although his fellow state legislators made noises about ousting him, they lost their nerve. In mid-1974 Klein announced he would run for a second term. He had the misfortune of going up against popular state representative Dennis Gallagher, who won handily and has remained in the Senate ever since.
The following year, after exhausting all his appeals, Klein was ordered to report to the hospital in Springfield, Missouri. When his psychiatric observation period ended and he was about to start his prison term, U.S. District Judge Howard Bratton reduced Klein's sentence to five years' probation.
Klein survived his probation with a clean slate, but by 1981 found himself in trouble again, charged with violating election laws by forging campaign literature in a Denver City Council race. The charges were dropped on a technicality.
And Klein dropped out of sight.
During that period, Klein says now, "I worked on my illness." He was hospitalized for a time, then sought employment as a cook and volunteered to work with the elderly. He couldn't work much, and got by with the help of loans from friends and family. "I was pretty whacked out at that time," he says.
As his condition improved, however, Klein began to plan his comeback. He retook the bar exam, failing on his first try but passing the second time around in 1987. Though his license to practice had not yet been restored, well-known Denver defense attorney Leonard Chesler hired him as a law clerk and put him to work doing legal research.
When the Supreme Court Grievance Committee refused to give Klein his license back, Chesler argued his case before the entire state Supreme Court. On June 20, 1988, the court agreed to reinstate Klein to the bar.
"The supreme court said it was obvious that I had been mentally restored," says Klein. "I'm the only lawyer who's been officially declared sane."
Learning of the court's action, adds Klein, "was like being reborn. I'd been humiliated for sixteen years. Spat upon. Discredited. And in thirty seconds I was back and a human being again."
Chesler hired Klein on as a full-fledged attorney, and Klein's confidence grew to the point that he decided to have another go at public office, even though critics told him he couldn't possibly win. He proved them wrong in the fall of 1990, winning election to the board of the Regional Transportation District. Klein has become the gadfly of the transportation board--and, he says, a pain in the side to some of his colleagues. "They think I'm a cookie ball," he says.
Klein's RTD district included Edgewater, and he attended numerous city council meetings to give presentations on transit-related subjects. In the fall of 1992, during Klein's second year on the RTD board, his name surfaced as a possible candidate for judge of the Edgewater municipal court. Harold Eisenhuth held the job at that time, but reportedly had developed a tardiness problem.
"Joe McDonald was mayor at the time," recalls current council president Nelson McNulty, "and his complaint was that Eisenhuth had missed time in court a number of times. Once, he was three hours late for court, and the poor people had to sit around and wait." (Eisenhuth, who now teaches at Metro State College, did not respond to requests for an interview.)
McDonald approached Klein about taking over for Eisenhuth, whose duties consisted mainly of presiding over the court one day a week. "He was very candid," McDonald says of Klein. "He said he'd had some problems in the past."
McDonald admits he had some concerns after Klein told him about his felony conviction. But he says he reconsidered his position, in large part because Klein hadn't tried to hide his past transgressions. "I felt that with his attitude, I was real comfortable that he could do a good job."
Councilman McNulty says he too was aware of the baggage Klein would be hauling into court, but claims it didn't worry him. "Whatever he'd done, he apparently cleared it up, because they issued his license to practice law again," McNulty says. "The guy's paid his penalty, and the court seems to feel it was okay to issue his license, so who are we to say he's not capable?"
However, Mayor McDonald didn't share Klein's background with all of the councilmembers. He says he felt it wasn't necessary. "According to the home rule charter," he says, "you appoint the judge, and they [the city council] just kind of confirm him."
The council confirmed Klein's appointment in a unanimous vote, says former councilman Dale Rickstrew, who adds that he had "no idea" that Klein was a convicted felon until being contacted by Westword. "I certainly would have had some second thoughts and questions about the ratification," he says. "I certainly would have wanted to know more before voting."
Grace Young now is trying to make sure that all the councilmembers are aware of the judge's background and of the stiff sentence he gave her son. But she is not the first person to complain publicly about Klein's sentencing habits. Last fall Myke Johnson and her daughter Julie Rodriguez, two first-time offenders who were found guilty of shoplifting a $7.50 can of paint (Johnson also was convicted of interfering with a police officer), were slapped with almost $1,000 in fines and court costs. The women, who testified that they'd been roughed up by Edgewater police officers before their arrest, are appealing their convictions on numerous grounds.
Among other things, they say in their appeal brief, Klein allowed jury deliberations "to take place in plain view of five to ten police officers milling around directly outside the windows of the jury room." The uniformed officers' "revelry," says the brief, was fully visible to jurors--a fact made clear to Klein, who "failed to provide the jurors with a private and secure place to deliberate."
Klein says he can't comment because the case is on appeal. Pfeuffer, who has only thirteen officers on his entire force, says he believes that only he and one other policeman attended the trial, the first jury trial the city had had in two years. However, Johnson and Rodriguez's version of events is supported by former city councilwoman and Edgewater Tribune editor Doni Brune, who was present at the trial.
Pfeuffer signed on as the chief in Edgewater in March 1991, having left a job as chief of police in the Western Slope town of Rangely. His resume reveals a solid background in forensics, and stresses his drug enforcement training. What the council might not have realized when they hired him, however, is that Pfeuffer also considers himself "an agent of change and a risk-taker."
One of the first things the chief did when he hit town was assess his department's needs. He quickly determined that his officers needed raises, and that the department needed more cops and newer equipment. "I'm here to do the best job for the city, and I do it jealously and protectively," Pfeuffer says today.
Five months later, just before the council was slated to vote on Pfeuffer's request for a $170,000 boost in his 1992 budget, half his force came forward and threatened to quit unless they received a pay raise and the department was given funding for three more officers. If the council didn't come across with the money, Pfeuffer said, he'd have to put a stop to the town's anti-gang and anti-drug programs.
The council sided with Pfeuffer. But then-mayor Ron Allison vetoed the raise. "Money was tight," he says simply.
The cops never did follow through on their threat to quit en masse. And Pfeuffer didn't curtail his D.A.R.E. program or anti-gang efforts. Instead the chief estimated he could solve some of his budget woes by seizing cash and property recovered during felony arrests. He projected that the department could raise $100,000 in one year.
Edgewater cops had already set up a "reverse sting" operation, offering to sell large amounts of marijuana to out-of-town dealers who traveled to Edgewater to do their shopping. By mid-October, the department had seized three cars and $3,000 in cash from drug suspects (officers are now allowed to drive one of the cars, a Camaro, while on patrol). Police picked up another $50,000 from a pawnbroker whose shop they seized after it was declared a "public nuisance."
Pfeuffer's money-raising efforts drew the attention of the media, and after Brune and former councilman Nelson McNulty expressed their concerns to the Denver Post, Pfeuffer sent the council a six-page response defending his actions.
Edgewater's narcotics program resembled programs in effect at "most progressive police departments," he said, and was developed in response to input from the public, the mayor and the council. "Historically," he wrote, "the Edgewater Police Department has been less than aggressive in dealing with narcotics."
And if the town's elected officials disliked his approach, he added, he would in the future appreciate discussing the matters "before reading it in the local press." (Oddly, Pfeuffer now says he can't remember ever receiving any bad press about the seizure of cash and vehicles.)
Some town residents claim that Pfeuffer exaggerates crime in order to back up his funding requests. Brune in particular is quick to criticize what she calls Pfeuffer's semimonthly "dog-and-pony show" at council meetings. Once, to illustrate that the city had a gang problem, the chief and some of his officers "brought an entire closet door with grafitti on it" to a council meeting, she says with disbelief.
The chief has also drawn criticism for building his power base at the expense of other city agencies. "He's a marvelous politician," former councilwoman Jeri Aiello says of Pfeuffer. "But sometimes he gets his position and his politics mixed up."
According to city records, Pfeuffer's department went over budget in 1991 and 1992, and was projected to do so again in 1993. "There's nothing to prevent them from doing that," says Brune. "He asked for a motorcycle and we said no, so they leased one. His next move," she predicts, "is going to be that he needs more police officers."
Actually, Pfeuffer's next move is to ask the city to establish its own probation department, a high-ticket item that most cities his size would never dream of having.
The chief says he suspects that some of the criticism directed at him is "politically oriented. We do have some problems," he says. "I admit they exist. One of them is that it's difficult to present a positive image when you're being attacked by people with different agendas."
The town's political agendas were front and center when Pfeuffer arrived in Edgewater from Rangely. Back in the spring of 1991, Edgewater was in the midst of one of its most highly publicized--and highly destructive--public squabbles.
Much of the dissension centered around then-city attorney James Windholz, who was under fire for representing the city and the embattled redevelopment authority at the same time. "The citizens," says Brune, "were questioning whether or not he was advising council in the city's best interest or in the urban renewal's best interest."
Windholz's fees also became a matter of contention when city clerk Julie Calvert brought to Mayor Allison's attention her estimate that more than ten percent of the town's revenues were going to pay Windholz's $100,000-plus annual legal fees.
Somehow, Calvert's attempt to save the town money backfired. Rather than replace Windholz, the council--reportedly led by councilmembers Jodie Lucero and Rex Swann--took the exceptional step of ordering a costly outside audit of Calvert and the town's own clerk's office. The audit dragged on for months but turned up nothing questionable. According to city council minutes, Calvert took a leave of absence at the suggestion of her therapist, who advised that contact with the council would be too stressful. Windholz, meanwhile, continued to hang on to his job. But just barely.
"I asked [Windholz] several times if he could cut his bill, and I told him if he couldn't I'd have to terminate him," Allison recalls. When Windholz (who didn't respond to requests for an interview) declined to lower his fees, Allison sent him a letter announcing that the town no longer required his services. Then, at a March 7, 1991, council meeting, the mayor introduced another laywer he hoped to appoint as the new city attorney.
But Windholz also showed up at the council meeting that night--and not as a spectator. Instead he stood up and gave his own interpretation of the charter, telling the council that Allison could only appoint a new city attorney with their consent. Four of the seven councilmembers decided they didn't want Windholz to go, and voted to retain him. After the vote, however, former mayor Joe McDonald, then serving on the council, asked Windholz to get out of his chair. Windholz refused, sparking a head-butting contest that would last for months.
Windholz, Allison recalls, "fought a valiant effort. I brought in other attorneys to take the job, and Jim would get there early enough to take [the seat reserved for the city attorney], and would not leave it."
In protest, Allison began placing Windholz's paychecks from the city in an escrow account. That prompted councilmembers to hire attorney Pat Tisdale to advise them about the mayor's "arbitrary refusal" to pay Windholz.
Tisdale's interpretation of the charter didn't please anyone. Yes, she told the council, the mayor can fire the city attorney. But, she added, the mayor must have council approval to appoint a new one.
That left the city in a quandary, but Allison's foes got around the matter by appointing Windholz "special legal counsel" to the council.
In the meantime, the furor over the audit of the city clerk's office, combined with citizen unrest over the redevelopment authority's blight declaration, had led citizens to petition for Lucero and Swann's recall.
But the council, says Brune, decided that Julie Calvert wasn't qualified to validate the petition. Instead the councilmembers hired someone else to do the job. That person "threw out a large number of names, and we had to go to court to get them reinstated," Brune says. A Jefferson County District Court judge ordered that the signatures be reinstated, and informed the city in no uncertain terms that a recall election would be held. "Then Julie posted a notice of election and started the preparations for it," says Brune, "and the council decided that she hadn't done it correctly."
Windholz then informed the council he "assumed" that if the members failed to appoint election judges, an election couldn't be held. "So they voted no on the appointment of judges," says Brune. "And we had to go back to court, and they were ordered to appoint judges and hold the election."
The recall vote took place in early August. Lucero lost her seat to Brune by 7 votes. Rex Swann was retained by 25 votes. Brune's election gave Allison the majority he needed to appoint a new city attorney. At the next council meeting, he introduced and--this time, successfully--appointed Tami Tanoue to the post.
Ron Allison and others said at the time that they hoped the recall and the arrival of a new city attorney would bring peace to their warring little community.
It hasn't happened.
"There are certain factions," Allison says now. "And what if they do squabble and fight? At least it's open and no one gets hurt."
What the factions have to say about the latest political mess surrounding Judge Klein is anybody's guess. "I wonder if people won't just dig in their heels and get more behind the judge," says one former councilwoman. "Edgewater is such a strange place.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.