The Siege

Page 5 of 10

Sheriff Mestas says the only people who have problems with his officers are people who got caught doing something wrong. He points to the Santa Ana festival as proof that he's turning things around. In 1997, there were more than a dozen fights at the festival, and in 1998, the event was canceled out of concerns over more violence. But the festival has been held during each of the past two years and has been relatively peaceful, Mestas notes, largely because of the increased police presence.

"People are safe to walk the streets at night, they're safe to sit on the porch and visit," he says. "Tourists are starting to come in. The stigma that goes with San Luis is no longer there."

But according to local historian Maria Valdez, who's been active in the land-grant dispute, Mestas's style of policing only perpetuates the myth that Costilla County is an enclave of desperadoes. "There are a few people crossing over the line, but everybody else gets the stigma," she says. "It only feeds stereotypes and sets people elsewhere against this community. So when you bring up the land issue, for instance, people say, 'Oh, San Luis -- they're lawless.' These things come back and haunt the community for years."

A year into the new sheriff's term, the Costilla County Chamber of Commerce organized a public meeting in response to mounting complaints about the police. Mestas and four of his deputies attended. So did fifty citizens.

"At least 32 of them had complaints," says recall supporter Glenda Maes. "John said he was not aware of all these concerns. He committed to quarterly citizen reviews, and we've never had one."

Mestas says he doesn't remember making any such pledge to the group, which he describes as "pretty anti-law enforcement." Rick Manzanares, director of the Fort Garland Museum, says that while the subject did come up, it wasn't clear who was supposed to organize a review process. Other attendees recall that there was a definite understanding that another public meeting would be held soon, to pursue the issues raised and discuss possible changes in policy. But sixteen months have passed, and there's been no second meeting.

"The sheriff could have taken the baton and run with it, but he didn't," Manzanares says. "Now, unfortunately, we're not talking anymore."

Even without public meetings, the citizens of Costilla County found ways to communicate their displeasure to the sheriff. Although no lawsuits have been filed yet against Mestas's department, letters of intent to sue the county, a prerequisite to litigation, have been piling up at the county commissioners' office.

One letter comes from George Valdez, himself a former county commissioner. Last January, Valdez was leaving the Community Bank in San Luis when a silent alarm accidentally went off. Responding deputy James Neblick confronted the 73-year-old Valdez and a female bank patron as they were leaving the building and ordered them to the ground. Valdez and the woman were handcuffed and made to lie face down in the street for what Valdez calls "a substantial period of time" while Neblick checked out the alarm. Valdez claims physical and psychological injuries and violation of his constitutional rights.

Another letter comes from local attorney and municipal judge Melanie Merritt. She and her husband, Rodney, operate the Flying Hog Saloon in Blanca. On October 28, 2000, Ronald Maish, also known as "Cowboy Bob," visited the Flying Hog shortly before perishing in a fire at his trailer. In statements to various newspapers, Undersheriff Lou Pugliese indicated that his office was investigating allegations that the Merritts had continued to serve drinks to Maish "well after he was intoxicated."

Merritt's letter states that she and her husband turned over a videotape to the district attorney and liquor-enforcement investigators that cleared them of any wrongdoing. Even though the Costilla County Sheriff's Department had no jurisdiction in the case -- Blanca has its own town police -- Pugliese continued to make "defamatory statements," Merritt claims, and two deputies came to the bar to harass and threaten the couple, "slamming gloved hands in [their] faces." The Merritts claim financial damage, physical and emotional injury, and violation of their constitutional rights.

A third letter comes from Jimmy Velasquez, a Vietnam vet and San Luis resident who was pulled over for alleged speeding on the evening of October 17, 1999. According to Velasquez, a deputy named Thompson became increasingly belligerent as Velasquez attempted to perform roadside sobriety tests. He claims that Thompson and another deputy beat him while he was handcuffed, kneeing him in the back, kicking him and hitting him with a baton.

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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