Do Tell

Mark Tibbs's big mouth has gotten him out of a lot of jams over the years. A thoroughbred in the Denver Police Department's stable of informants, he has helped put away dozens of burglars and drug dealers and even one high-profile murderer during his eleven long years as a snitch.

In return for his loose tongue, Tibbs has ducked the consequences for scores of petty crimes. Though he's been in and out of county jails enough to have earned a reputation as a royal pain in the neck, he has largely avoided hard time in the state prison system--even in cases where other defendants would have been guaranteed a year or two in the big house.

Now Tibbs is facing prison time for a new set of misdeeds. And he owns what may be his most valuable bargaining chip ever: a claim that he heard a jailhouse confession from Jon Morris, the man accused of raping and murdering five-year-old Ashley Gray ("Deadly Persuasion," February 27). Morris goes to trial May 19 for Gray's murder, and prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. If Tibbs testifies, his words could shoot holes in Morris's claim to police that he "blacked out" before and during the slaying of the little girl.

The information Tibbs is offering this time around would seem to put him in the catbird seat with the district attorney. Instead, his usual game of tit for tat has gotten more complicated. For one thing, he claims, "they won't let me out of jail. The DA wants to keep me on ice so I'll testify." There's also the fact that Tibbs has so many pending cases--and at least three court-appointed attorneys to handle them--that even one of the lawyers admits he's given up trying to keep track of the mess. Tibbs himself admits to occasional difficulty remembering what he's been charged with and when his hearings are scheduled. Indeed, only after careful scrutiny is it possible to tell exactly which of the cases is the one keeping him behind bars.

But though the Denver District Attorney's office might prefer that Tibbs stay off the streets for a while--at least until after the Morris trial--deputies in at least three county jails aren't so crazy about the idea. They've been playing hot potato with Tibbs in recent months, passing him from facility to facility as they've gotten their fill of his constant complaining and rule-breaking. "I just wish he'd post bond and leave," says one jailer.

Though the super-snitch is having a hard time figuring out where he stands these days, there is one thing he and his various attorneys can agree on: If he's sent to prison for any of his crimes, it will likely mean a death sentence of his own.

"If things had been different," Tibbs's mother, Priscilla Marion, says wistfully, "Mark might have been a cop." But in light of Tibbs's criminal curriculum vitae, it's a highly unlikely career move. Since late 1980, when Tibbs turned eighteen, he's amassed a ten-page rap sheet that lists 41 arrests for assault, burglary, drug possession, forgery, larceny and car theft--to name just a few.

Tibbs wasn't always a snitch. In his early days as a crook, he took his lumps like everyone else and even spent a year and a half in prison for burglary beginning in December 1982. It took another four years and the prospect of a second prison term before Tibbs finally gave up on the "honor among thieves" credo.

In November 1986, court records show, Tibbs was accused of robbing a man at gunpoint and stealing his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado. His parents put up their small house as collateral for his $12,500 bond. In December of the following year, Tibbs pled guilty to attempted aggravated motor-vehicle theft and was ordered to appear at the Denver probation office to assist in a pre-sentence investigation.

Had Tibbs bothered to show up, he might have been able to avoid a second stint in prison through normal channels. Instead, he relied on a newly forged relationship with the Denver Police Department to ask for leniency. According to court records, Denver detective Dale Wallis, then a vice and narcotics officer, told the court that Tibbs had recently become an informant and had personally brought six "solid cases" to the police, resulting in the filing of felony charges. In addition, Wallis said, Tibbs had expressed a willingness to continue snitching.

Because of Tibbs's cooperation with the cops, Wallis added, the defendant's life had been threatened by prisoners serving time in the Department of Corrections, men who were just waiting to get a crack at him. Sending him to prison, he suggested, might endanger a man who had the potential to become a valuable asset.

Wallis's plea didn't get Tibbs off the hook entirely. He was sentenced to just over two years in prison and, despite Wallis's fears of retaliation, managed to finish his hitch in one piece. Tibbs was paroled in June 1989, five months ahead of his scheduled discharge date. But he couldn't stay out of trouble.