It seems like an all-too-familiar tale of the electronic age: A woman goes online, stops by an Internet chat room and falls for a guy thousands of miles away. She thinks it's love, while he's in it for less noble reasons. After months of torrid correspondence, they meet; it is a disaster. And she is a highly placed Colorado government official who allegedly misuses office funds on the relationship and then secretly tape-records an employee in an effort to get her fired because she knows about the affair.
Okay, maybe it's not that familiar. And the case of the Mesa County trustee is growing odder by the day.
Candice DeRose was appointed Mesa County trustee by Governor Dick Lamm in late 1986. Only ten of Colorado's largest, most rural counties have trustees, who are named by the governor to handle foreclosures, release of deeds and other property matters. (In Denver the job is done by the county treasurer.) By all accounts, DeRose was a highly efficient and capable administrator--until three years ago, that is, when she began her Internet affair.
Before she retired last week, Romaine Webb was DeRose's only full-time assistant at the trustee's office in Grand Junction. She says her boss's personal life started unraveling during a difficult divorce. DeRose turned to her home computer for comfort, where she apparently struck up an electronic relationship. That relationship soon intruded on the office.
"It was clear to me that she was becoming more and more unhinged," Webb says. "She would talk about the affair in the office. Finally, she started using the office computer and telephone to communicate with the guy. They'd get to fighting on the computer during the night, but then they'd have to get verbal about it the next day."
Webb says the trustee's office phone bills began to grow: "Sometimes she'd call him three times in one day." At one point, she says, the office was ringing up close to $500 per month for long-distance calls. She adds that DeRose increasingly logged on to the office's computers for personal use as well.
The situation seems to have come to a head this past summer, when, Webb says, DeRose's online boyfriend traveled from Virginia to Grand Junction for their first in-person meeting. Webb says she saw the man twice and came away mightily unimpressed.
"He was one of very few people who turned out to be exactly how I pictured him," she recalls. "He was kind of short, dumpy, pot-bellied, thick glasses, talking in one of those accents like they use back East." The man, who was considerably older than DeRose (who is in her late 40s), stayed for a few weeks, but then apparently decided to return to Virginia.
One day during the last week of July, as the man was preparing to head back East, Webb says, DeRose came into the office and cashed several small insurance checks for him using trustee money. A few of the checks were a couple of years old and appeared expired, she recalls. So Webb turned in her boss to Mesa County District Attorney Frank Daniels.
"That was the awful hard part about this," she says. "I considered Candice a friend, and I was having to turn in a friend. But there are some things you have to put above that." (DeRose could not be reached for comment.)
From there, the story of the bugged trustee's office gets tangled, and police say they may never know the entire truth.
About two weeks after Webb turned in DeRose, the trustee phoned Daniels, who was investigating Webb's claims that DeRose had misused public money. But now DeRose offered the DA some new information: She told Daniels that, using a voice-activated recorder, she had secretly taped Webb on August 15 making disparaging remarks about her.
Daniels says he has "no idea" what DeRose hoped to accomplish with the tapes; badmouthing your boss is not a crime, he points out. (It's obvious, says Webb, that DeRose was "very angry with me and was trying to get rid of me.") Daniels adds that he quickly advised DeRose that such eavesdropping is a felony. DeRose immediately visited Leigh Taylor, an assistant county attorney, and told her about the tapes.
But now Daniels had a problem: Because DeRose had in effect confessed to him that she had committed a crime, he could no longer ethically continue his investigation of her office. "Since I was put in a position of being a witness to what was going on, I couldn't prosecute the case," he explains. "What am I going to do--call myself as a witness and cross-examine myself?"
The case was turned over to the Grand Junction Police Department. It happened to fall into the lap of Detective Kevin Imbriaco, who admits he was ill-prepared to clear up an apparent occurrence of clandestine eavesdropping. "I generally investigate homicides and robberies," he says. "I just happened to be the only guy here after 5 p.m."
Worse, Imbriaco says that since being assigned the case, the investigation into the secret taping has been legally stymied. For example, although the detective found adhesive tape under DeRose's desk that could have been used to secure a tape recorder there, the tapes themselves are nowhere to be found, and DeRose's private attorney, Marna Lake, has refused to allow her client to be interviewed by police. Imbriaco also approached Leigh Taylor, the assistant county attorney, and asked her to provide details of the conversation in which DeRose admitted taping her employee.
"But Taylor says, 'Whoa, I can't talk to you about that; it's attorney-client privilege,'" Imbriaco recalls. That leaves District Attorney Daniels as the only witness. "This case is so bizarre," sighs Imbriaco.
Since then, the case has sprouted lawyers. DeRose has her attorney. The county attorney's office has another attorney advising Taylor. And the district attorney, Daniels, says that if a case is brought against DeRose, he will have to call upon a special prosecutor, most likely from the Ninth Judicial District in Glenwood Springs.
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Imbriaco's final report on the goings-on in the trustee's office will probably be turned over to the district attorney this week, and he says some financial aspects of the case may merit prosecution. About $3,000 worth of the checks that DeRose ran through the trustee's office for her Internet friend were never reimbursed, he says. And there is the matter of a $500 check from the trustee's office made out to Atlantic Bell--DeRose paying off one of her lover's phone bills, Imbriaco suspects.
But the detective adds that the eavesdropping charge probably won't be filed. Webb has retired, and DeRose resigned on September 5 (the Mesa County treasurer was appointed acting trustee). With none of the principals talking, that leaves only circumstantial evidence against the former trustee: the still-sticky tape under DeRose's desk, her "confession" to Daniels--and the very coincidental fact that Webb readily admits saying all the bad things that DeRose claims Webb said about her on August 15.
"I'm sure we discussed the case in the office that day," says Webb. "I thought she was mentally and ethically unstable and should be out of the office, and I said that.