The Mystery of Pai

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Neither does Ray Maestas. He and his brother own 300 acres adjoining the mountain tract that's been in their family for generations. They had a good working relationship with Zach Taylor, Maestas says, but Pai canceled their grazing lease, bought property around them and made repeated efforts to purchase their land, too. Maestas has since clashed with ranch employees over pond construction, an eighty-acre plot of uncertain ownership, and fencing maneuvers that have limited his access to headgates that control water flowing to his land.

"I like to get along with my neighbors and work things out," Maestas says. "This guy came in here like, 'We got money, we'll run you out.' They thought they were going to make life miserable for me, but I made it miserable for them, too. If they're going to act like that, they're never going to get my land."

Twice Maestas was cited for trespassing after crossing Pai's land to get to his headgates. The tickets were issued by a county deputy who also moonlights as a member of the ranch's security force. ("Talk about a conflict of interest," Maestas snorts.) Maestas contested the tickets in court and got them dismissed.

Tensions have eased somewhat in recent months, in part because the level of activity on the ranch has declined dramatically "since the Enron thing started," Maestas says.

"I don't know what they're doing up there," he admits. "They brought in about fifty head of cows when they first came in. Then they sold part of them. They're probably down to about 25 head. How can you run 25 head on 77,000 acres? It doesn't make any sense at all."

Other neighbors have clashed with ranch staff over boundary issues or their right to use certain roads -- county-maintained roads, in some cases, although what constitutes a "public road" on la sierra isn't always clear -- to access property that is surrounded by Pai's holdings. The northern end of the ranch is riddled with five-acre lots, a remnant of a failed 1970s subdivision scheme; Pai owns most of the lots, but a few belong to locals who use them primarily during hunting season.

Last fall, one property owner found that a road he'd always used to access his land had been barricaded. He proceeded on foot, he says, only to encounter a Pai hand escorting two other hunters off the property. The man insisted that the newcomer leave, too; he refused.

"The guy started cussing me out," the hunter recalls. "He tried to intimidate me. I said, 'I don't have to explain this to you. I have land up here, and you have a gun and I have a gun.' I told him, 'You better not follow me. It's going to be like following bin Laden up here.'"

After some discussion, the hunter went on his way without incident. But other confrontations have turned violent. In February 2001, 65-year-old Ben Quintana was hospitalized with broken ribs after an argument with ranch employee Carlos DeLeón over access to a road; DeLeón subsequently filed a civil lawsuit and sought criminal charges against Quintana, claiming that Quintana assaulted him and fired shots at him.

A month earlier, rancher Andrés Montoya had a tense encounter with another Pai employee, the culmination of a series of disputes over fences and grazing areas. Montoya approached the man's pickup truck after the employee chased Montoya's pregnant cows from a neighbor's field in the Aspen Highlands subdivision.

"I told him, 'You're pushing my cows too hard. What's your problem? You don't own the property,'" Montoya says. "He started calling me names -- you know, 'f-you' this and that, 'f-ing Mexican.' I told him he had no right to talk to me like that. That's when he pulled a big revolver and told me he was going to blow my head away.

"He was trying to provoke me. I used my better judgment. A guy pulls a hogleg on you, what do you do? I told him, 'You're pretty bad with a gun, ain't you?' About that time, my son pulled up. He put the gun back down. He didn't know what my son had.

"I called the sheriff. They didn't show up. I filed a report. They went and arrested this man."

But the charges against the employee were dropped, and Montoya was subsequently charged with harassment and menacing. Montoya represented himself in court, and a jury found him not guilty on all charges. The sheriff and undersheriff involved in the investigation are no longer in office, following a recall campaign last year triggered by citizen complaints about overzealous enforcement actions ("The Siege," June 21, 2001). But Montoya is still seething over the letters written by Pai's attorneys to the district attorney, urging his prosecution.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast