Need proof that small-town politics can be just as nasty as what goes on in bigger cities? Look no further than the race for sheriff of Saguache County.
Among the candidates is Nobel Havens, who happens to be one of the law enforcers named in an excessive-force lawsuit recently settled for $290,000.
Havens says supporters of his opponent in the race, incumbent Sheriff Dan Warwick, have attempted to use the connection against him, even though he wasn't directly implicated in any of the actions that led to the hefty payout. In response, he counters with a slew of accusations against Warwick, whom he tries to tie to his arrest during a period when his father was running for sheriff and a $103,000 settlement over what he says was the termination of an employee who was receiving workers' compensation at the time.
Warwick hasn't responded to interview requests from Westword; if and when he gets back to us, we'll share his views in this space. But Havens says, "This whole election has become a big mud-slinging contest, about who can swing the biggest chunks of mud."
The May 10, 2016, incident that led to the aforementioned settlement took place in the city of Monte Vista, located in Rio Grande County, where Haven was working as a deputy for the sheriff's department. On the map, Rio Grande is just below Saguache County, a slab of land in southwestern Colorado whose large size (it's 3,170 square miles) contrasts sharply with its extremely modest population (5,917 people as of the 2000 census).
The lawsuit in the case, which is accessible below, was filed on behalf of Rafael Delgado Sr., Rafael Delgado Jr. and Annabelle Delgado by Denver-based attorney David Lane. He told us that police were called after a neighbor of the family saw Rafael Jr. walking around carrying a BB gun — "a perfectly legal activity," he pointed out.
Nonetheless, Rafael Jr. was soon placed in custody, and a number of officers burst into the home. Shortly thereafter, the complaint maintains, one of them grabbed Rafael Sr. by the neck and forced him to his knees while twisting his arm behind his back before giving him a violent introduction to the floor. Later, Rafael Sr. was tased and grounded again during his attempt to empty his pockets because its contents included a small, closed pocket knife the size of a lip-balm tube, the suit estimates.
What did Havens observe about the violence against Rafael Sr.? Not much. He says he stayed in the front yard, holding Rafael Jr. in custody during the altercations. "I wasn't present for anything else," he says. "From what I understand, a knife was pulled, but I didn't witness anyone pull a knife. I just stayed with Mr. Delgado Jr., talking to him. The rest I can't speak to."
He confirms that a lawyer was provided to him after the lawsuit was filed, but his name wasn't signed to the settlement agreement "because I had no involvement in the actual acts they were suing about."
Meanwhile, very little has been released publicly about the separate $103,000 settlement beyond a brief item in a publication called the Center-Post Dispatch headlined "Sheriff's Office Settles Lawsuit." The piece states: "According to a tip sent in by a former law enforcement officer, recipient of the settlement was a former Saguache County jail employee who had been on sick leave from his/her position prior to the settlement."
The terms of the settlement are confidential, but there's a lot more to the story, Havens maintains. "I know about it because I know her mother and father very well," he says. We're choosing not to share the details because they're unconfirmed.
Bringing up this matter isn't likely to endear Havens to Warwick — but the blood between them is already plenty bad. Havens says that he previously reported what he saw as "multiple violations of the law" allegedly committed by Warwick to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, "but they didn't go forward with it. I guess they figured it would be stirring the pot too much."
He also believes that in 2010, a sheriff's department employee under Warwick had him and a friend "arrested and unlawfully entered my vehicle and took multiple firearms because my dad, Chester Havens Sr., was running for sheriff as a write-in candidate. It was speculated that I was arrested to scare him off the campaign trail. That's one of the biggest reasons I became a peace officer."
More recently, Havens decided to follow in his father's footsteps and make a bid for the sheriff's job himself "because a lot of people asked me to run — probably 150 to 300 people in a year's time. I'm retired from the Army, so I don't need the work. I'm doing it because people asked me to do it, and because I know the sheriff's office needs to be fixed."
As for the attempts to connect him to the Monte Vista lawsuit, Havens stresses that "a violation of a person's rights is not something I see as reasonable. In my eight years as a peace officer, I have never violated anyone's rights due to the fact that my rights were violated."
Small county, big beefs. Click to read Rafael Delgado, et al., v. Joseph Ruybal, et al.