I lost a bet. That's why I'm playing booster for a morning meeting with the marketing advisory committee of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau when I should be over at the Grand Hyatt, sitting in on "Arresting Computer-Assisted Reporting: Using Data to Cover Cops."
The Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference, in town through Sunday, isn't your typical convention cash cow. Journalists' expense accounts have dried up, and reporters on their own dime are more likely to hang out at Duffy's than they are to visit the Cherry Creek Shopping Center -- unless they're hot on the trail of the illegal immigrants working in those shops and restaurants.
The IRE gathering hasn't blipped onto the convention bureau's radar, even though the host hotel has sold out and Dan Rather will deliver the keynote, in his first major appearance since his fall from grace. Mayor John Hickenlooper, a pol who'd go to the opening of an envelope (and tipped a few with journalists in his previous career as a brewpub owner), hasn't been asked to give an official welcome. But then, these conventioneers are investigative reporters; if they need a key to the city, they'll dig it up themselves.
And there's been plenty of dirt dug around here. Some must-see sites for journalists:
1. Rocky Flats. In 1989, the FBI executed a dawn raid on the nuclear-weapons plant sixteen miles upwind of Denver. The evidence went to a special grand jury, which spent two years on its investigation before the Department of Justice sealed a deal with Rockwell International -- the operator of the plant for the Department of Energy -- and also sealed the grand jurors' report detailing how they'd wanted to indict eight individuals for environmental crimes. That report eventually leaked out, and though the grand jurors are still under a gag order not to discuss their work, last fall jury foreman Wes McKinley was elected to the Colorado Statehouse, where he introduced a bill that would require that visitors to the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge -- yes, the facility is slated to become a nature preserve -- be greeted by a warning sign giving the history of the plant and outlining the dangers of plutonium. The proposal was killed in appropriations because the signs would be too expensive.
Cleanup of Rocky Flats is now running at roughly $7 billion. Enjoy the scenery, but don't breathe too deeply.
2. The Ramsey House. From Rocky Flats, it's a short hop to Boulder and the house where the body of pint-sized beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey was discovered on December 26, 1996. "A very big house," said the cop charged with searching the place, explaining why it took so long to find the girl. Almost eight years later, the case remains unsolved -- and the only person who's done time in connection with the crime is some poor shlub who leaked morgue photos to the Globe. Although a Globe editor was charged with criminal bribery for his role in securing a copy of the ransom note, that charge was dropped after the tabloid paid a $100,000 settlement to the University of Colorado -- to be used for ethics classes.
3. Speaking of CU, stop by the office of Ward Churchill and see if you can figure out whether the embattled prof is really an Indian -- and why it should even matter at this point, since a university investigation back in 1994 determined that Churchill's lineage and speedy trip on the tenure track were completely kosher.
4. No trip to Boulder would be complete without a swing by the apartment where the infamous football-team recruiting party took place on December 7, 2001. A Title IX suit filed by two women who claim they were sexually assaulted after that party was set to go to trial on May 31, but their case was thrown out in April. Is CU a hostile environment? You be the judge.
5. The sex-assault tour continues at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, nestled in spectacular scenery (with spectacular prices) outside of Vail, where something -- and we may never know what -- happened on June 30, 2003. If Katelyn Faber, the woman who made the initial charges against Kobe Bryant, hadn't withdrawn from the prosecution's case as jury selection was under way last August, reporters might still be writing off trips to Eagle County. If you somehow wrangle a night at Cordillera, be careful when ordering room service.
6. Colorado's most stunning sex-assault scandal started with three Air Force Academy cadets telling their stories to Westword and spilled into a national embarrassment that's resulted in a half-dozen federal investigations, several top officers being reassigned and close to a hundred women now claiming that they were sexually assaulted at the academy. But the embarrassment is far from over. Last Thursday, a military judge issued a warrant for the arrest of Jennifer Bier, the therapist who refused to surrender records of her sessions with Jessica Brakey, the cadet who first came forward in late 2002. And Air Force attorneys have outstanding subpoenas at numerous media outlets, including Westword.
7. Nearby on the Ronald Reagan Highway is Focus on the Family headquarters, marked by its own Colorado Department of Transportation sign. Drop by and dare James Dobson to prove that he's not the Antichrist. As he searches for the right Bible verse, ask for a copy of his most recent marching orders from Karl Rove. (The White House strategist spent his formative years in Colorado, but you can't visit his childhood home of Kokomo. Appropriately enough, it's been wiped off the map, buried in mine tailings.)
8. Returning to Denver, drive past the apartment complex where police officer Bruce VanderJagt was shot by Matthaeus Jaehnig in November 1997. That shot still echoes because Lisl Auman -- who set events in motion when she asked Jaehnig to help get her stuff from her ex-boyfriend's room, and was in police custody when VanderJagt was killed -- wound up convicted under Colorado's felony-murder statute, which carries a mandatory life sentence. But don't even think about expensing a trip to Aspen: Hunter Thompson, Auman's greatest champion, didn't stick around for the Colorado Supreme Court's recent decision overturning the conviction, or a retrial set for August 22.
9. Before you turn in, there's time for a quick nightcap at the Diamond Cabaret, the upscale strip club just a few blocks from the Hyatt. Only the stingiest bean-counter could complain about charges racked up here; back in the fall of 2003, when a Channel 7 investigation revealed that the convention bureau had hosted an after-hours party at the Diamond, this was the hottest story in town. Denverites were shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that conventioneers go to strip clubs and convention bureaus have strip clubs as members. The debacle ultimately cost bureau head Eugene Dilbeck his job. And he didn't even go to the party.
The bet I lost was to Rich Grant, the bureau's director of communications, the only person in town who's had the same job longer than I have, a man who's never forgiven me for touting the fact that Denver has the world's largest laundromat on the Today show two decades ago. That segment had been seen as a sure cure to the cowtown-inferiority complex that has Denver cheering whenever it makes a top-ten list (unless it's "Drunkest City in America," the honor bestowed by Men's Health last fall), or launches a new slogan, like the nitwitted "Denver: What a Place to Be," to which wags quickly added a "From" in the depressed '80s. (At least it beat the short-lived "Colorado: Above All," which had a nice Nazi Germany über alles ring to it.)
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The most recent booster shot is in the June issue of Hemispheres, the United Airlines in-flight magazine that's devoted an advertorial section to Denver. I'm allegedly quoted in that piece (advance copies have been kept more confidential than Kobe Bryant's settlement with Faber), saying something about how within six months of moving to this city, your parents and your pedigree don't matter. Unlike in more tradition-bound locales, in Denver you are what you do.
Here's what I'll be doing while those visiting journalists are arresting data: selling the marketing committee on a campaign that celebrates the extraordinary accomplishments of people who come to Denver because they love the city, and stay because they want to make it even better. People like Hickenlooper, and the Tattered Cover's Joyce Meskis, and the Mercury Cafe's Marilyn Megenity, and the hundreds of others who up the quality of life here -- with all its quirks and crimes.
Because when you get right down to it, the sky's the limit in the Mile High City.