She Fired, They Fired

It's been five years, one federal trial and at least $30,000 since the Denver Sheriff's Department fired deputy Trina Burks-Richardson for allegedly going trigger-happy in a Texas town. But the tortuous legal proceedings--including a federal judge's surprising backtracking--may end soon, if not necessarily happily, for the city and its taxpayers. All that's left to the case is next month's trial to determine the amount of damages Burks-Richardson is due as a result of her ouster.

The city could end it all this week by coughing up some dough for Burks-Richardson at a scheduled settlement conference, but that's not likely to happen. "We're gonna drag our feet on this one," Denver corrections chief John Simonet vowed three years ago. And he's kept his word. Although the court's rulings have ping-ponged for and against him, the case has eaten untold hours of his time, his staff's time and the city attorney's time, and the city has had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and other costs.

That he and other city officials are being mulish in paying off a wrongful-firing claim is perhaps understandable, given the circumstances. Burks-Richardson, who served as a deputy for just 22 months (from January 1990 until October 1991), might never have been hired in the first place had sheriff's officials known at the time that she'd falsified her employment application and that she had an arrest record for burglary, criminal mischief and assault. (When officers discovered the truth months after her hire, Burks-Richardson was given a reprimand, though she could have been fired.)

It also didn't go over well when officers discovered that Burks-Richardson's husband was an inmate at a Texas prison, but she wasn't fired for that, either.

The last straw for city officials, however, was Burks-Richardson's September 24, 1991, arrest in Lubbock, Texas, on two counts of attempted murder. Burks-Richardson, who was on maternity leave at the time, was accused of shooting up a house and car and hitting a woman with a pistol during a jealousy-fueled catfight. (Her husband, L.D. Richardson, who was on parole, was rumored to be dating one of the women who was in the house when Burks-Richardson allegedly opened fire.)

Gunshots can be heard in a 911 call made to police by one of the alleged victims. One of the women told police that her assailant had identified herself as L.D.'s wife. Neighbors described the suspect as a black woman driving a small white vehicle bearing Colorado plates. Lubbock police arrested Burks-Richardson a short time later as she piloted her white Honda through the streets of the city. No gun was found.

Burks-Richardson was fired effective November 7, 1991, about three weeks after a disciplinary hearing. She has been at loggerheads with city officials ever since ("Arrested Development," October 6, 1993).

By the spring of 1992, when Burks-Richardson was granted an appeals hearing on her dismissal, her alleged victims had changed their minds about pressing charges, and the Lubbock police had dropped their case against the former deputy, but a Lubbock police sergeant was brought in to testify at the hearing anyway. (Burks-Richardson insists that her fight with the woman was mainly "verbal" and that she "can't explain" the bullet holes found in the house and the car.)

A Career Service Board hearings officer eventually decided for the city and upheld the firing, but Burks-Richardson appealed that ruling, too. Because her alleged victims had not come to Denver and thus had been unavailable for her to cross-examine, she said, her constitutionally guaranteed right of due process had been violated.

The sheriff's department fought Burks-Richardson's request for unemployment compensation. A state referee decided that Burks-Richardson had been acting in self-defense that day in Lubbock and that she'd been improperly fired. Burks-Richardson says she then received the equivalent of ten months' worth of unemployment compensation.

A complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission--alleging that the city had discriminated against her because of her race and her sex--was declared unfounded.

But in March 1993 Burks-Richardson weighed in with another blow calculated to get her job back and collect back pay and damages: She filed suit in federal court, again claiming that she'd been fired simply because she was a black woman.

In her suit, Burks-Richardson and her attorney, Bill Richardson (no relation), wove everything that had happened to her during her short tenure with the sheriff's department into a grand conspiracy designed to deprive her of her job. She'd had to submit to two urinalysis tests, she complained. Twice, she claimed, officers had come to her home and made illegal searches. (One search, by Denver police, was conducted by officers searching for her paroled husband. Sheriff's deputies came by another time to serve Burks-Richardson with notice of her disciplinary hearing.)

Burks-Richardson also complained that she's been denied due process in her appeals hearing with the Career Service Board.

U.S. District Court Judge Edward Nottingham threw out Burks-Richardson's claims of discrimination. The police bowed out of the case more than a year ago. (Burks-Richardson claims the police department settled with her, but she declines to name a sum.) Then, in a February 1995 jury trial, for which the city paid to bring in witnesses from Texas, the sheriff's department won what appeared to be all remaining claims by Burks-Richardson against it and the city. Not only that, Burks-Richardson was ordered to pay all costs of the action, which then reached approximately $20,000 (not including time and salaries for the city employees).

The dispute appeared to be over, save for the weeping on one side and gloating on the other.

Then Judge Nottingham made an unusual decision. In the summer of 1994, he'd thrown out all charges against the city. But he said that after reconsidering the matter, he decided his earlier ruling had been "overbroad and/or premature." The city still had to answer to charges that Burks-Richardson had been denied due process, he said.

And in the meantime, says Burks-Richardson, the judge temporarily suspended the requirement for her to pay the city's legal fees.

A flurry of briefs ensued. Last month Nottingham decided that, in fact, Burks-Richardson had been denied due process in her appeals hearing. Not only was the city now back in the suit, he ruled, but the matter was to be tried on one issue only--how much money Burks-Richardson is entitled to receive for lost wages, back pay and mental anguish.

The trial is scheduled to begin November 12, but it looks as if it will go forward without one of the key players. Assistant City Attorney Wallace Wortham, who has represented the sheriff's department in the case for the past five years, has another trial scheduled for the same time period. But Nottingham, says Simonet, would not agree to reset the Burks-Richardson case. The city has contacted a private attorney who may have to fill in for Wortham. His fees would be added to the city's mounting legal bills for the case.

Burks-Richardson, who is now working in real estate, says she doesn't expect to be offered her old job back; she is hoping for a nice financial settlement. But if a jury grants her one, says a city official, Denver plans to appeal.

Sheriff's officials declined to comment for the record, citing the impending trial. Wortham did not return repeated phone calls. But in an interview with Westword three years ago, Sheriff's Captain Carlos Jackson complained that department officials had "bent over backwards" for Burks-Richardson.

Now, it seems, she wants them to pucker up.

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