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Strange but True Stories From 2007

Life moved fast in 2007, and so did death. We said goodbye to people and institutions that Denver knew and loved. But we said hello to many more.

And anyone who stopped long enough to smell the, uh, microwave popcorn, had to cover his mouth and nose when it was reported that breathing butter-flavored fumes could cause lung disease. Wayne Watson of Centennial, who was diagnosed with the dreaded "popcorn lung," told doctors he ate two bags of the stuff a day. His is still the only diagnosed case of the rare ailment, but the popcorn companies have since removed the offending ingredient. Popcorn lung was just one of Denver's respiratory issues, however, as two people with drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis — Andrew Speaker, the globe-trotting lawyer, and Robert Daniels, a refugee from Joe Arpaio's Arizona jail — were treated at National Jewish Hospital. Then in November, the city held its collective breath while awaiting the results of a ballot initiative that would make adult marijuana offenses the lowest priority for police. The outcome? Let's just say Denver inhaled.

Coloradans are used to breathing thin air — and they were plenty short of breath as they watched the unlikely Rockies' amazing run through the playoffs. Then they were plenty short of tickets, when an online ticket-buying scandal before the World Series caused many fans to hyperventilate as they tried in vain to secure seats for the team's eventual losing effort against the Red Sox.

And the air was truly rarefied as a parade of political superstars — along with some windbags — from Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton to Dennis Kucinich's tongue-pierced wife stumped through town in advance of the Democratic National Convention, which lands in Denver next August and is sure to bring its own brand of breathlessness.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. There will be plenty of time to laugh — and cry — in 2008. For now, here's a look back at some of the wilder, crazier or just plain asphyxia-tingly stories from 2007, a year that left us gasping for air.

Government in Action

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's twenty-year effort to restore the endangered greenback cutthroat trout took a hit when a University of Colorado study reported that biologists have been stocking rivers and streams in Colorado with the wrong fish. Using new advances in genetic testing, scientists determined that many of the fish believed to be descendants of the native Colorado trout were actually the more common Colorado River cutthroat trout, which looks similar. The federal government is reviewing the study.

In August, Discovery Canyon Campus, an elementary school in Colorado Springs, banned the playground game of tag after some students complained that they were being chased against their will. Discovery Canyon assistant principal Cindy Fesgen cut to the chase when she said, "It causes a lot of conflict on the playground."

Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu, who'd failed to appear at a scheduled California court hearing to answer charges of fraud and campaign-finance violations, was arrested at a Grand Junction hospital after taking ill on a train bound for Denver. In December, a recovered Hsu was indicted in connection with a $60 million scheme and for making illegal campaign donations.

In November, presidential first daughter Jenna Bush came to the Tattered Cover to tout her book, Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope. Security was tight, and aside from the guns, knives and explosives always prohibited at book signings, the list of banned items included umbrellas, poles and sticks, containers of any type, knitting needles, noisemakers such as air horns or whistles, and unopened envelopes.

Denver election officials caught some flak when they rousted the SWAT team to count mail-in ballots for the November 6 election. Voter response to the ballot — which included many city tax and bond proposals — had overwhelmed the staff and exhausted volunteers. Police could answer the call for help because they already have background clearance. Even so, the final election results weren't posted for more than a day.

Denver Water's director of finance, David LaFrance, dressed up like a toilet during an August soccer game between the Colorado Rapids and the Los Angeles Galaxy and ran onto the field at halftime. A person dressed as a Rapids staffer finally tackled him during the staged gag. And then the JumboTron aired the words "Stop Running Toilets."

In June, dog-loving coffee-shop customers in Cherry Creek North began howling over city health inspectors who'd stepped up enforcement of an ordinance that prohibits pets at outdoor restaurant patios. After months of dogged discussions, the city finally rolled over and allowed each restaurant to decide for itself whether to allow canine customers.

In July, 25 military paratroopers armed with exercise rifles and rubber bullets accidentally landed inside the perimeter of the Fremont Correctional Institute. The paratrooper unit was escorted off the grounds by prison guards without incident.

Three-year Dacono city councilwoman Sandra Tucker resigned from office after she was criticized for posting a "joke" that she'd been e-mailed to an online community forum. Being a Democrat, her post said, was worse than "being a black disabled one-armed drug-addicted Jewish queer" who has a "Mexican boyfriend." Tucker told a reporter that she thought the joke was hilarious. She also said she only resigned to spare Dacono the headache. "I'm sick and tired of all of this political correctness," Tucker declared. "I'm not going to apologize if you don't have a sense of humor."

Former Republican state representative Jim Snook quit the Colorado State Fair board in August, after "a joke that went bad," according to a quote in the Denver Post. Snook was one of six judges in a food-tasting contest at the fair. After the event, Snook felt ill, and sought out a local news cameraman to film him vomiting in a bathroom. Although the footage never aired, Snook was asked to resign.

The Law Wins

In September, people waiting at a University Boulevard bus stop were startled by a man with a Fu Manchu mustache who was wearing armor and carrying a curved sword covered in what looked like blood. When police caught up with him, they discovered that the sword was made of wood and that the man was in costume, headed to a video-game convention.

A thief stole a refrigerated Food Bank of the Rockies truck from a Pizza Hut parking lot near Federal and Mississippi, where the driver had stopped to pick up twenty donated pizzas. The truck was found four hours later, but the food inside — about 1,500 pounds' worth — had to be thrown out because the thief hadn't turned on the refrigeration system.

Brighton Collegiate High School teacher Ralph Kelly, 34, was arrested in December after an openly gay male student told police that Kelly had sexually assaulted him. Apparently the school needed more than a name change to make over its image after two other sex scandals broke. In 2006, the principal's wife, Carrie McCandless, was arrested after having intimate relations with a student during a camping trip. And former school-board president David Mundy Sr. resigned after his son, David Mundy Jr., an occasional substitute teacher, was convicted of having sexual contact with three girls.

Thomas Pilaar was arrested and accused of selling hundreds of books, tapes and DVDs that he'd borrowed from the Denver Public Library. Police said Pilaar had used different names to obtain seven library cards and then checked out 300 items with each card. The caper allegedly cost the library system $33,000, and libraries in Arapahoe and Douglas counties believe Pilaar did the same thing to them. Denver police had been tipped off to the scam by a woman who noticed library stamps on some books she'd bought on Craigslist.

Two men who'd plotted to kill the owner of the Wheat Ridge-based Amateur Poker Tour by forcing his legs into a box designed to hold rattlesnakes were arrested. Christopher Lee Steelman and Herbert Beck, both of Lakewood, were charged with trying to kill Matthew Sowash because he owed Beck $60,000.

In October, a hungry six-year-old grabbed a set of car keys, moved his booster seat to the driver's seat and tried to drive himself to Applebee's for some chicken strips. He only made it about 75 feet, in reverse, before running into a power box and knocking out the electricity in his Broomfield neighborhood. Police are still wondering how the boy, who wasn't hurt, reached the accelerator. Foodies are wondering why he focused on Applebee's.

A 27-year-old woman who accidentally ran over her ten-year-old son was charged with child abuse. According to police, Clara Rosales had let her nine- and ten-year-old sons ride on the hood of her 1994 Honda Civic while she drove down an alley. She didn't see the boys jump off and ran over her older son's leg, breaking several bones.

Vincent Margera, known to fans of the MTV show Viva La Bam as Don Vito, collapsed onto a courtroom floor, cursing, after a jury convicted him of groping three girls during an autograph session at Colorado Mills. "Just kill me now!" he yelled, before Jefferson County deputies restrained him and took him away. In December, a judge sentenced Margera to ten years of probation and ordered him to give up the Don Vito character for the same amount of time.

A clown named Giggles was arrested in Grand Junction in April and charged with using the Internet to lure a twelve-year-old girl into having sex. Antonio Lazcano, age thirty, who worked as a clown at a farmers' market, later pleaded guilty to one felony charge and was sentenced to fifteen months in prison.

Thin Air

A seventy-year-old man on a thirty-minute flight from Denver to Aspen who desperately needed to use the restroom was refused three times by a flight attendant because the plane was in a holding pattern and everyone was required to stay seated. The man became very agitated, according to a February report in the Aspen Daily News, and took matters into, uh, his own hands. "He peed in a cup," Pitkin County deputy John Armstrong said. After the plane landed, the man was questioned by police, but no charges were filed.

But that story was just a drop in the bucket compared to other instances of air rage in the skies above Colorado. In July, a California mother who'd reportedly been drinking and hitting her two toddlers on board a San Francisco-to-Denver Frontier flight was arrested in Denver. In August, a Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Las Vegas was diverted to Denver after a man allegedly tried to choke another passenger and pushed and yelled at the flight crew. A Denver man was charged with reaching between a flight attendant's legs while she was collecting trash during a JetBlue flight. And in September, after passengers on a Kentucky-to-Denver Frontier flight told an FBI agent that they saw another passenger expose and fondle himself, police arrested 42-year-old Alan Michael Froula of Fisherville, Kentucky. "He was smiling and seemed to be enjoying himself," a fellow traveler reported.

There were so many instances of air rage in 2007 that the Association of Flight Attendants convinced United Airlines to create an internal review committee to analyze each incident.

By the Numbers

Just before Thanksgiving, a federal survey reported that Denver International Airport had the longest security-screening wait times of any airport in the nation. DIA also overtook Los Angeles as the fourth-busiest airport in the nation during the first half of the year.

But the city's number-one claim to fame was its number-one ranking when it comes to getting drunk. For the second year in a row, Men's Health named Denver the most dangerously drunk city in America, based on such factors as liver-disease deaths, drunk-driving arrests and fatal accidents involving alcohol.

And maybe that's because Colorado is now the nation's biggest beer-producing state, taking over from California. Colorado made more than 23.3 million barrels of beer last year, according to the Beer Institute, a national trade group.

Denver ranks thirteenth on the Texas Transportation Institute's list of the nation's most rush-hour-congested cities. Last year, commuters here spent a total of 65 million hours in traffic and burned 42.5 million gallons of fuel while idling in jams.

Sporting News

In November, two people were injured and rushed to a hospital after a chain-reaction bicycle accident took down at least thirty riders near Colorado Springs.

The only thing louder than the sound of the Broncos crashing and burning were the six car horns that Jeri and Larry Priest, of Adams County, repeatedly honked every time the team scored. In October, 69-year-old Jeri was cited for disorderly conduct after a neighbor complained numerous times about the Priests' loud contraption. "I love the Broncos. I don't care if they lost, I still honk the horns, I'm always a Broncos fan," Jeri told a reporter. But in December, as part of a negotiated agreement, she donated the horn to a charity, which will auction it off. Presumably outside of Adams County.

Who's your daddy? There's a good chance it's Broncos running back Travis Henry, who has fathered nine children by nine different women in at least four Southern states. This impressive statistic came to light after Henry, who has a five-year, $22.5 million deal with the Broncos, landed in court for failing to pay child support for one of his many offspring.

Henry's pot of hot water nearly boiled over in September when the NFL told him he'd failed a marijuana test and could face a year-long suspension. Henry appealed and won, but his troubles weren't enough for SAFER, the marijuana-activism group, which leased a billboard urging Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams — suspended by the NFL for violating drug policy four times — to come to Denver, "where people support your safer choice."

Mitch Cozad, 22, the backup punter for the University of Northern Colorado's football team, was convicted of stabbing the team's starting punter in the leg in an attempt to take over the job. Cozad was sentenced in October to seven years in prison.

In December, Denver Broncos punter Todd Sauerbrun was arrested after he allegedly smacked a cab driver on the back of the head. The cabbie, who'd picked up Sauerbrun at a Cherry Creek restaurant, stopped at a police station and ordered him out of the cab, claiming he was drunk and abusive. Sauerbrun has denied the charges, but was cut by the team with two games remaining in the season.

Broncos kicker Jason Elam penned a novel with his pastor, Steve Yohn, that could score him some points with the man upstairs, though not necessarily land him on the bestseller list. Monday Night Jihad is "a Christian-based, football-laced, terrorist-thwarting thriller," according to the Denver Post, and stars a tough-guy linebacker named Riley Covington.

Snow Daze

After two massive storms dumped three to four feet of snow along the Front Range at the start of the new year, Mary Walker of Loveland decided to auction some of the white stuff on eBay. And she found a buyer: Chris Hansen paid $200 for snowballs for his three teenage daughters, because it had been unseasonably warm and dry in Connecticut. When neither Mary nor her husband, Jim, could figure out how to ship the snowballs, Frontier Airlines offered to fly them, and the snow, to the East Coast for free.

The Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol rescued Rob Morrow, Chad Lowe and Fisher Stevens after the three actors and producer Kim Painter got lost while skiing in the Celebrity Downhill to raise money for Colorado's Aspen Youth Experience. Lost in an out-of-bounds area, the quartet had stumbled on another lost party who called for help on a cell phone.

Andrew Thistleton, a 21-year-old Australian man, was charged with third-degree assault after he allegedly threw a snowball at a co-worker at Copper Mountain Ski resort. The case was dismissed in December "in the best interest of justice."

With the new ski season barely under way, a 42-year-old Arapahoe Basin skier used his poles to pummel a seventeen-year-old snowboarder who accidentally slid into the man's girlfriend, Summit County police reported. Frank Robert Furlott was charged with assault. "I will kill you. I will stab this pole through your heart," Furlott allegedly told the victim.

Animal Detraction

In June, a woman living in a suburban, 1,850-home community called the Pinery, near Parker, walked out on her back porch and discovered the remains of a large white-tailed deer that had been shot by poachers and had its antlers removed for a trophy.

Car salesmen at Sill-TerHar's Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Broomfield were surprised by an 800-pound moose that wandered into the dealership in September. "He started out at our service department, then ran all the way through, past every single new car, then pulled a U-turn and ran right at us. That's when we ran," one employee told the Rocky Mountain News. "He then ran through all the Aston Martins and Volvos."

A man who answered a knock at his door expecting to see friends instead was greeted by two cops, one of whom immediately shot the man's dog in the head. The police had gone to the home of Scott Schuett after a neighbor complained about loud music there. When Schuett opened the door, an officer felt threatened by Schuett's barking German shepherd, Jake, according to a police report, so he shot him.

Uriah M. Williams, who forced his way into his ex-girlfriend's home and puréed Blue, her pet Siamese fighting fish, in the kitchen disposal, was sentenced to two years' probation and a $500 fine. Williams was also told to stay away from his ex and not to own any pets.

Naked Truth

A sculpture of two naked women and a naked man was moved to a sculpture garden in Loveland's Benson Park in May. "Triangle" had sparked outrage when it was originally installed at a busy intersection in that town; complainers thought it was pornographic. But the artist, Kirsten Kokkin, says the sculpture is a metaphor for how people must rely on other people.

Looking to get buff in the buff, a handful of "body-positive" bicycling enthusiasts gathered in Denver in June for the World Naked Bike Ride, an international underground movement that aims to "stop indecent exposure to automobile emissions." After riding most of the pre-planned course, the cyclists, who ride with the motto "Less gas, more ass!," were stopped by police. Some were ticketed for indecent exposure.

Police in the town of Frederick arrested Catholic priest Robert Whipkey and charged him with indecent exposure after an off-duty cop spotted him jogging naked on a high-school track at 4:30 a.m. one June morning. "I'm a heavy man, and wearing clothing while running makes me sweat profusely," Whipkey allegedly told police. Whipkey, who was later placed on leave by the Archdiocese of Denver, pleaded not guilty on December 19.

In March, several Castle Rock Middle School students were accused of taking nude photos of classmates and forwarding them to other students on their cell phones. Castle Rock police said six girls may have been photographed as part of a dare.

In September, University of Colorado police responded to reports of two naked men running through the campus. They eventually arrested freshman Chandler Ross Wyatt, who was indeed naked, and accused him of trying to sexually assault a woman in a dorm until a group of male students subdued him. Police said Wyatt and a friend had taken LSD, then decided to get naked and run around.

Unnatural Disasters

Thirty-four freight cars were involved in a train accident in downtown Denver. No one was injured, but a tanker car carrying Coors beer spilled its load — sending shivers through beer drinkers across the nation.

Justin Parker, a 24-year-old college student who walked away after his car slid 300 feet down a steep embankment near Red Cliff, died shortly thereafter when he walked off another cliff about thirty yards away. Eagle County authorities determined that Parker had survived the initial crash, but couldn't figure out how he subsequently walked off the cliff.

According to an article in the medical journal Injury Prevention, forty people wearing Crocs or similar shoes reported getting their feet caught on escalators between May and August. The Colorado company that makes the garish clogs has maintained that Crocs are safe to wear.

A 49-year-old Boulder resident was beaten by two men in his apartment complex after getting into an argument with them over the details of the Holocaust. The men, former friends, had been eating pizza, drinking beer and watching TV when the argument started, according to police. The victim was treated for facial injuries, and the perpetrators were arrested.

Talk about mixed messages: Lightning struck the iconic, 22-foot-tall Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden, shearing off both arms. The Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, which oversees the shrine, estimated that repairs would cost about $200,000.

The information above was culled from reports in Westword, along with other local and national news outlets.


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