2009 Year in Review: When the lows were lower and the highs were really, really high

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2009. Yeah, we're sick about it, too. From swine flu to job cuts to a suspected terrorist in Aurora (Aurora, really?), every month brought a new horror, a new reason to clutch our nauseated stomachs and moan over that chronic ache in our heads. If it wasn't coyotes running amok in our neighborhoods or the foreclosures that made us say goodbye to our neighbors, it was former professor Ward Churchill, who kept coming back from the career dead, or the giant blue Mustang at Denver International Airport, whose evil red eyes continue to shine into our very souls.

This was supposed to be the year of change, the year we put old politics and old problems behind us. Instead, it was a year of the same old, same old — only less of it, as the state, cities and school districts slashed their budgets at every opportunity. And if the Rocky Mountain News hadn't closed up shop in February after 150 years, we would have gotten a double dose of all the bad news.

Then, finally, one story rose above all the rest: A silver Mylar balloon lifted off from Fort Collins, reportedly carrying six-year-old Falcon Heene high, higher, highest over the Front Range.


medical marijuana

And although Balloon Boy turned out to be a hoax, getting high turned out to be a hit — Colorado's surprise hit of 2009.

Once the purview of the corner dealer, the marijuana industry was taken over by legitimate, permitted businesspeople after the Colorado Board of Health abandoned an attempt to limit the number of medical marijuana patients that one caregiver can oversee. As a result, medical marijuana dispensaries now fill nearly 200 formerly empty storefronts in Denver alone, and dozens upon dozens more across the state.

And just in time. Nausea and the chronic pain we experienced this year are just two symptoms for which a doctor might prescribe a little bit of leafy relief. How long this green-gold rush lasts may be determined by lawmakers in the coming months. But no one wants to kill the buzz too fast; after all, we can use the sales-tax money.

So relax, sit back, light up, let all those painful thoughts float away — and enjoy a true Rocky Mountain high.


What happens when the Colorado Board of Health holds a last-minute meeting on medical marijuana rules using teleconferencing equipment that no one knows how to work? Comic genius. The November hearing collapsed in chaos and confusion as boardmembers fought for voice time with members of the public who were only supposed to be listening in but who could be heard as well as anyone, if not better. The resulting transcript includes conversations not just about pot policy, but about laxatives and barbecues, too — when the discussion wasn't blotted out by music. The best line comes near the end, when someone yells out, "Shut up about your fucking mango!" After that, decorum goes out the window as one listener repeats the mantra "Legalize it" over and over.

Brian Drone had a little too much to drink one day last May and figured he'd go for a joyride — but not in his car. Instead, Drone saddled up his horse, Cricket, and giddyapped through Arvada, ending up at a strip mall, where someone called the cops. The drunken cowboy drew a crowd — and a $25 ticket for riding an animal while under the influence, which is apparently only a minor traffic violation, according to KUSA-TV. A local stable owner eventually took charge of Cricket while Drone sobered up.

A fight over the song "Margaritaville" playing on the jukebox of a Steamboat Springs sports bar led to the death of a Green Beret on New Year's Day. The dispute began when Miami brothers David and Eddie Capote began heckling Army sergeant Richard Lopez and two friends inside the Tap House Sports Grill. Although both sides seemed to calm down, police said the brothers later ambushed Lopez while he was crossing a nearby street; Lopez later died of injuries sustained during the attack. The Capotes were arrested in March and charged with several counts of assault; both have pleaded not guilty.

The mystery of who smashed eleven picture windows at Colorado Democratic Party headquarters was solved in August when police arrested a suspect. A radical GOPer? A bitter Hillary supporter? Nope. Turns out the culprit was Maurice Joseph Schwenkler, a transgender anti-Obama anarchist activist better known as Ariel Attack, and a friend of Denver Bash Back, a group of radical gay, lesbian and transgender people who have opposed both the Republican Party and progressive Democrats and whose website shows jihadist-looking individuals dressed in black robes and pink burkhas. In December, Schwenkler pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal mischief in exchange for having felony charges dropped.

A hapless skier at Vail got more exposure to the elements than he anticipated in January when he slid through his seat after boarding the Blue Sky Basin lift and was left dangling upside down, his cheeks bare. Some hilarious pics of the pantsless man immediately went viral on the Internet, but the man who shot them, Marty Odom, lost his job with SharpShooter Imaging, which said he'd violated its code of conduct by distributing the photos — which he took while on the job — without permission. The company, which hires photographers to take on-mountain pictures of skiers at various resorts, threatened to sue the Smoking Gun website, which had posted the naked truth, but the images are still available in every dark crack of the Internet.

Easter got a little sticky for Gunbarrel resident Carol Burdick after she was evicted from her apartment. Her sin? Burdick left her Easter decorations — including green, yellow and purple Peeps, plastic grass and stickers — on her door for several weeks after the holiday. Although Burdick's lease with building owner AIMCO says residents must keep balconies, patios and other areas "in a clean, sanitary condition," her attorney is disputing any contention that Peeps are trash. And Burdick was so hopping mad about the situation that she went on The Colbert Report to make her case — a case that could go to trial sometime this year, perhaps in time to resurrect the display for Easter!

Threesomes can be emotionally and physically tricky, but in July a ménage à trois in Boulder turned particularly problematic. According to police, a married couple and another man left a bar to get their wild thing on. During the festivities, the guys — Ruffin Griffin and Clint Cadigan — got into a fight, which the woman, Serena Brooks, settled by stabbing both paramours with a knife as they rolled around on the floor. While Griffin and Cadigan ended up driving to the hospital together, Brooks was arrested and charged with first-degree assault. Police speculated that drugs and alcohol may have played a role in the incident — if you can imagine that.

In July, a 45-year-old Fort Collins mother was arrested and charged with having sex with a sixteen-year-old boy on numerous occasions. And then things got really weird: Police revealed that the woman, Richael L. Michels, and the boy were Furries — a subculture of people who like to dress like animals. The two had reportedly met at a Furry gathering in Fort Collins, and police were tipped off by Michels's husband, who was freaked out by his wife's behavior. In November, Michels, who went by the name Kitteh at furmeets — was sentenced to ten years to life of specialized sex-offender probation. She must also register as a sex offender. Meow.

Derrick Curtis Saunders wanted his Big Mac, and he wanted it now. So in May, the 29-year-old Denver police officer allegedly pulled his gun and pointed it at an Aurora McDonald's drive-thru employee in an effort to get him to hurry up. Saunders was charged with felony menacing, prohibited use of a weapon, reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct, and remains on unpaid leave from the DPD.

RTD bus driver Jim Moffett was trying to help two of his elderly passengers cross a busy north Denver street during a February snowstorm when he was hit by a pickup truck. Rather than commend his gallantry, a Colorado State Patrol trooper slapped Moffett with a $22 jaywalking ticket, saying it was his chivalry that caused the accident. The state patrol eventually dropped the charge; the 58-year-old Moffett, who suffered several serious injuries, was later honored and presented with a $500 check by the Daniels Fund Neighborhood Heroes program.


A funnel cloud passing over downtown Denver sent Colorado Rockies fans scrambling for cover in June; the tornado also appeared to hover — just briefly — above the State Capitol, where legislators would surely have blamed each other for its appearance.

You can take the man out of Greeley, but you can't take Greeley out of the man. In March, two brothers from the northern Colorado town accused a Fort Collins bouncer of barring them from his bar simply because of their home town. And they were right. According to the Greeley Tribune, Washington's Sports Bar and Grill owner Shane Belcher had initiated a policy banning Greeley residents from his establishment on Saturday nights because of gang problems associated with the town.

Beware of Colorado campers eating tortillas, drinking Tecate and playing Spanish-language music! They could be armed marijuana growers, according to a notice that was distributed and then quickly recalled by the U.S. Forest Service in August. Although the USFS has taken down a number of illegal growing operations on national land, the agency's warning smacked of racial profiling.

Quincy Vanderbilt was excited about his girlfriend's tryout for American Idol last July — so much so that he forgot about her terrier, which he'd left in his car. While the North Dakota couple waited in the long audition line at Invesco Field, the dog died.

In January, a Federal Heights man who'd left his car running while he went into a gas station walked out and discovered that his black Jeep Cherokee had been stolen — along with his two kids, ages two years and five months, who were in the back seat. Westminster police located the abandoned Jeep, with the kids still inside, about fifteen minutes later at a mobile home park. A man and a woman were arrested shortly thereafter.


A bull named Barack made quite a splash during the National Western Stock Show in January when his Illinois owners tried to sell shares of his semen for $2,500 each.

In February, a student at Boulder High floated a proposal to rename his school after Barack Obama. But the day after Ben Raderstorf and several other students pitched the idea to the media, he backed down, saying the backlash was too overwhelming.

Greeley resident Pete Peterkin raised eyebrows on America's Got Talent with his Barack Obama impersonation and then wowed the crowd with his impression of Obama doing James Brown. Although he didn't win the contest, the publicity landed Peterkin numerous Obama gigs around the country, including a TV ad for the Tavern Hospitality Group's chain of Denver-area restaurants.

President Obama may wield the stick, but Jerry Helgeson of Windsor got the carrot in April after landing the role of the Easter Bunny for the White House's annual Easter Egg Roll. Helgeson is a Republican who didn't vote for Obama, but he put politics aside while wearing the bunny suit. Helgeson landed the job through his niece, who works in the White House Visitors' Office.

All he wanted to do was read Barack Obama's two books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. But in July, al-Qaeda member Ahmed Omar Abu Ali was denied permission by officials at the supermax prison in Florence, where Abu Ali is serving thirty years, who said that the tomes contained material "potentially detrimental to national security."


Montbello High School has had eight principals in nine years, and although none were as good at fly-fishing, hunting, archery and ATV-riding as Peter Mosby, it looks like the school will soon have a ninth principal. Mosby was one of fifteen people competing in Field & Stream's Total Outdoorsmen Challenge, but his leadership abilities were brought into question by teachers who said he's spent more time in the field than in the scholastic flow. In November, Denver Public Schools placed Mosby, known as "The Principal" on the Outdoor Channel, on paid administrative leave.

In September, Angevine Middle School principal Mike Medina warned Lafayette parents that the colored jelly bracelets their kids were wearing might carry secret sexual meanings. "Reports indicate that the colors of the bracelets signify different inappropriate actions that students will do or have done," Medina wrote in an e-mail obtained by the Daily Camera. "Due to the nature of the inappropriateness associated with these bracelets, we are asking students not to wear them."

Cherry Creek Schools suspended seventeen-year-old Cherokee Trail High School senior Marie Morrow in February because students reported seeing guns inside her car. Turns out the "guns" were wooden drill props used by the Douglas County Young Marines, a youth leadership organization to which Morrow belonged. The school, which planned to expel Morrow, said it made no distinction between fake guns and real ones. Common sense was eventually restored, however, and Morrow was allowed to return.

In November, Hinkley High School informed every single parent that their children were failing one or more classes. Unfortunately, the automated phone messages were only supposed to go out to parents of students who actually were failing — not the entire student body. The Aurora school sent out a second message the next day correcting the problem, but it was too late for those kids who'd already gotten yelled at by their parents.

Fairview High School in Boulder was evacuated in April after a teacher called police and reported seeing two people burying a box near the school's entrance. It turned out that the box was being used by geocachers, who play games with handheld GPS devices.


Before he was smoked out of the governor's race, Republican state senator Josh Penry was burnt by a burglar who stole a barbecue grill from outside his Denver condo. The grill was easily identifiable, since it had a "Penry for Governor" sticker on it. "Atn BBQ thieves/law breakers: as Governor, I will be tough on crime," Penry later Tweeted.

In August, always quote-worthy U.S. Representative Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat (of course), was cajoled into beer-bonging a can of Coors Light on national TV by comedian Stephen Colbert.

In February, when Republican state senator Scott Renfroe of Greeley changed his vote on a transportation bill he had earlier supported, an unnamed colleague complained to Senate president Peter Groff and suggested that Renfroe was getting e-mail instructions on how to vote from state GOP chairman Dick Wadhams. Senate rules forbid wireless devices like laptops and mobile phones from being used during final votes, but lawmakers on the both sides of the aisle violate this policy on a regular basis, according to a story in the Rocky Mountain News. Groff and Wadhams said the allegations against Renfroe were unfounded. Renfroe called the incident "insulting."

...and Renfroe certainly knows the meaning of insulting. While criticizing legislation that would extend health-care benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian state workers, he said: "We are taking sins and making them to be legally okay, and that is wrong. That is an abomination, according to Scripture. I'm not saying this is the only sin that's out there. We have murder. We have all sorts of sin. We have adultery. And we don't make laws making those legal, and we would never think to make murder legal. All sin is equal. That sin there is equal to any other sin that's in the Bible." Paging Dick Wadhams: Please send this guy an e-mail telling him to shut up.

Chickens ruffled feathers all over Colorado in 2009 as urban farmers fought for the right to raise poultry in their back yards. But in Durango, someone dressed in a chicken suit showed up to a November city council meeting where rules for backyard fowl were being discussed. The chicken flapped its arms, took a seat — and laid an egg before leaving, according to the Durango Herald. Perhaps as a sign of approval, the council had earlier approved a measure making it easy to keep chickens in town.

Political rabble-rouser and former state representative Douglas Bruce was cited for trespassing at a Colorado Springs Costco in August after he and another man began collecting signatures for a proposed anti-tax ballot measure (which later passed). Bruce, who is as well-known for writing Colorado's controversial TABOR amendment as he is for kicking a Rocky Mountain News photographer on the opening day of the 2008 legislative session, was making a scene, according to a story in the Gazette. When police showed up, Bruce refused to leave and was ticketed. He fought the ticket in court and was acquitted in December after a jury trial.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden doesn't need a helium-filled balloon to get him to look toward the heavens. No, the man who first believed the Heene parents, then filed charges against them for their hoax, only needs a little holiday spirit. In November, he announced he'd host a "Politically Incorrect Christmas Tree Trimming Party" at the sheriff's office as a way to take back Christmas from a Fort Collins task force that had suggested that holiday displays on public property not favor one religion over another.

Republican state senator Shawn Mitchell of Broomfield didn't make any friends with security at the State Capitol, who deactivated his after-hours security code to the building in May because he gave it out to eleven University of Colorado Denver grad students. Mitchell, who said he didn't realize he was violating a security provision, was teaching a government and politics class at the school, according to the Denver Post.

The Colorado governor's mansion has been the scene of both raging keggers and important state dinners, but until this year, it had never been TP'd, state officials said. But the day after Thanksgiving, Governor Bill Ritter discovered that the lawn and trees in front of the 101-year-old home had been layered with toilet paper.


A man with a "Star Trek Klingon type sword" robbed two Colorado Springs 7-Elevens in February, according to the Denver Post. The man, who was wearing a black mask, walked in carrying what victims described as a "Bat'leth" before leaving with cash. A Bat'leth has a long curved blade with three handholds and knife-like spikes at the ends.

In July, police accused nineteen-year-old Dylan Lee Suomi of jumping a pharmacy counter at a Denver Walgreens and threatening employees with a thirty-inch-long Samurai sword. He took off with some of the painkiller OxyContin, but was arrested shortly thereafter.

In May, police arrested a man who swung a pair of nunchaku while standing on the I-70 median near Frisco; the man told a Summit County sheriff's deputy that he'd had a bad day. First he was kicked off an L.A.-bound bus in Silverthorne after allegedly grabbing the throat of a girl who he suspected had a case of swine flu. Then he got into a fight with a gang at a gas station. Finally, he headed for the median, where he began waving his arms at cars and screaming. When a deputy approached and asked about the nunchaku, the man replied, "Yeah, I am a karate master!"

In July, someone dropped a Vietnam War-era Claymore land mine in the donation box at a Goodwill thrift store in Arvada. Police evacuated the store and the surrounding strip mall but later determined that the mine didn't have an explosive device inside.


It was a rough year for Colorado llamas. On January 2, one fell through the ice on a frozen pond near Salida. Although emergency crews tried to rescue the animal while veterinarians prepared a plan to warm it with blow dryers, the llama died. Just six days later, a Longmont business called Rocky Mountain Llamas, which trains and boards llamas and alpacas, was completely gutted by a fire caused by a downed power pole; the animals themselves were all moved in time and not injured. Finally, in October, after a mountain lion killed a llama near the Black Forest, the llama's baby ran away and was spotted wandering around the slopes of Pikes Peak for weeks; the owner didn't look for the infant animal because she'd assumed he'd been killed by the mountain lion as well.

In January, highway workers had to use snowplows and water trucks to clean off a portion of I-70 near Idaho Springs after a semi plowed into a herd of elk crossing the road. Sixteen animals were killed and two cars were also involved. No humans were injured.

In February, Eagle residents began seeing a female elk walking around with an upside-down bar stool on her head. The elk's head was stuck through the metal ring on the bottom of the stool, but she could still eat. Wildlife officials found the elk but were unable to approach her — or buy her another drink.

Firefighters who responded to a blaze at a Lakewood home in January discovered a cat named Zoe in the basement suffering from smoke inhalation. Fortunately, the firefighters had special pet-sized oxygen masks that had been donated to the West Metro Fire Rescue District a couple of years earlier. Damn the tuna breath.

In January, a cow in Boulder County knocked a woman off her bicycle and then walked over her legs. The woman told authorities she'd stopped her bike to let the cow cross the road, but the cow barreled into her instead.

A fifteen-year-old Lyons boy was cited for cruelty to animals after his mother discovered 53 baby birds in his bedroom and called wildlife authorities in June. The birds, which included swallows, sparrows and a blue jay, were taken to a local rescue center; only sixteen survived. The boy gave police no explanation.

A four-foot-long alligator was discovered in an irrigation ditch north of the town of Hotchkiss last July — dead. State wildlife officials said the alligator had probably been released into the ditch while still alive.


Jacob John Polick was sentenced to five years of probation in February, more than a year after he planted a dirty plastic syringe full of crack cocaine inside a bag of Ruffles potato chips and attempted to extort money from the Frito-Lay company. Polick had told the company that he got dizzy and began vomiting after eating the chips; Frito-Lay caught on to the ruse rather quickly, however, since Polick had made a similar complaint in 2006.

A Denver Blackjack Pizza employee reporting to work early one March morning found a man's legs dangling from a vent above the oven. The man, 21-year-old Andrew Baca, was yelling, "Help me, help me." It took firefighters twenty minutes to rescue the stuck Baca; police then held him for investigation of burglary and criminal mischief.

Janeen Davis was just minding her own business one evening last January, watching TV in her new Boulder apartment, when a man walked in through the front door, went back to the kitchen, opened the freezer and dug out a vial of brown liquid hidden in the lining. Davis told him to leave, but a second man standing outside told her not to worry — that he was a former tenant there and "just wants to get something out of the freezer," according to a police account in the Daily Camera. Police later arrested 24-year-old Allen Paul Kandyba, who was indeed a former tenant — one with a criminal record that includes more than two dozen drug-related charges since 2003.

A clown wearing a dress and brandishing a gun robbed a Boulder liquor store in January. The robber had a fake nose, a purple wig and white and red makeup.

More than $400,000 worth of jewelry, designed by former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and stolen from a Durango gallery in late 2008, turned up in Las Vegas in January after police arrested a New Mexico man whom they suspected of armed robbery. Police said Brett Clinton Combs also had firearms and thousands of rounds of ammo.


In April, Boulder police arrested twenty-year-old Abby Toll after she admitted to taping a shiba inu puppy named Rex to the side of her refrigerator; the woman had used clear packing tape, a plastic bag and elastic hair ties to bind the dog's feet, tail and snout. According to the Daily Camera, Toll was mad at her boyfriend because he hadn't gotten rid of the dog after it bit her. She was charged with felony animal cruelty. "I know this looks bad. We were going to get rid of him anyway. We usually don't do this," Toll reportedly said.

Northglenn police arrested a man who'd taped his dog's mouth shut to stop it from barking. Michael Dennis Reust was charged with animal cruelty.

A 52-year-old woman was arrested in January and charged with child abuse after police said she used plastic zip ties to cuff her ten-year-old daughter's hands behind her back every night at bedtime for a year so that the girl wouldn't steal food.

A Palmer Elementary School secretary was arrested in October after the mother of a six-old-boy told police that the woman had taped her son's mouth shut and taped his wrists together. Jennifer Carter was charged with child abuse and false imprisonment and then fired from her job. According to news reports, school documents showed that at least one teacher thought the boy had been acting uncontrollably a day earlier. Carter has a trial set for February.


In September, thieves stole a life-sized fiberglass Ronald McDonald statue from a bench in front of Denver's Ronald McDonald House on East 21st Avenue. The organization said it didn't have enough money in its budget this year to replace the $3,500 statue.

A sculpture of a naked rock climber scaling a mountain, his or her backside exposed to the world, caused a stir in the town of Silt when it was placed in a downtown roundabout last September. At least one man, Forrest Jacobs, complained to town officials and to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent about the butt's crack, saying that the figure didn't appear to be naked in a drawing he'd seen before it was built. "There was no crack involved," Jacobs told the paper. "He just put that in, and now it stands out."

As if we didn't have enough coyote problems in 2009, a 150-pound, $25,000 sculpture of a coyote and its pup was stolen from Lakewood's Coyote Gulch Park in May. The bronze piece, called "Maternal Wrap," was made by artist Tim Cherry in 1997.

Nothing polarized the good citizenry of Colorado last year more than "Mustang," the bright-blue, 32-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture by New Mexico artist Luis Jiménez, which has been glaring at visitors to Denver International Airport since it was very belatedly installed in 2008. But the debate took a new turn in early 2009 when local real-estate agent Rachel Hultin created a Facebook page calling for the 9,000-pound sculpture's removal. "Is anyone else as mortified and offended by DIA's fiendish blue 'Mustang' statue as I am? Does anyone else find it to be the least welcoming public art exhibit imaginable?" she asked on her page, DIA's Heinous Blue Mustang Has Got To Go. "Are you perturbed by the chilling fact that Luis Jimenez, its creator, was killed by a piece of its torso?" The debate attracted national attention and culminated in a haiku contest at the Denver Public Library, in which people from all walks of life discussed the sculpture in poetry. Months later, the debate had died down — and "Mustang"? Its red eyes declare victory every night.

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