The Siege

Page 6 of 10

Velasquez's passenger was taken to detox. Velasquez was taken to an emergency room in Alamosa and then charged with driving under the influence. According to a report written by Deputy Sue Baldwin, Sheriff Mestas informed her that two other officers "had witnessed Deputy Thompson use excessive force on Mr. Velasquez." Velasquez claims physical and emotional injury, broken dentures, defamation of character and violation of his constitutional rights.

According to Sheriff Mestas, an internal investigation determined that there was no excessive force used in arresting Velasquez -- who, he says, was resisting arrest. (Velasquez denies that he put up any kind of fight.) He also stands by his officers' actions in the Valdez and Merritt cases.

Deputy Thompson no longer works for Costilla County. With a mixture of pride and regret, Mestas notes that he had to replace five officers last year -- half his force. "They all went to bigger departments," he says. "There was a time when, if you were a Costilla County deputy, you wouldn't get hired anywhere else."

Because the starting salary of a deputy is around $19,000 a year, most of his new hires tend to be rookies, fresh out of one of the police academies. "I think maybe they feel they have to prove themselves a little more," Mestas says, "and maybe they're harder to talk to."

Especially if you're in fifth grade. Another potential lawsuit stems from an incident two months ago at the local elementary school. Tonya Sipple's ten-year-old daughter got into an argument with a teacher on the playground and was ordered to the principal's office. She refused to go, getting more hysterical by the moment. Other teachers restrained her and summoned a female deputy who served as the school's resource officer.

"Then she got very upset," Tonya Sipple says. "She wanted to call her mom and dad, but the police officer decided to handcuff her. They told us they handcuffed her to keep her from hurting herself and that she was cuffed very loosely. That wasn't true. She had marks on her wrists from being cuffed so tightly."

The cuffs were removed in the principal's office. According to Sipple, the deputy tried to question her daughter about the incident even though her parents had not yet arrived. Sipple has since removed her daughter from the school.

"They didn't need to handcuff her," she says now. "She's never had any other incident in her life. She was wrong for getting into the argument, but this is ridiculous. I have four daughters, and I always raised them to think the police officer is your friend."

It would be easy to dismiss complaints about the Costilla County deputies as a consequence of the bare-bones training and inexperience of underpaid rookies, except for one thing. Much of the criticism has been heaped on an officer who, aside from Mestas, has the most experience and training of anyone on the force: Undersheriff Louis Pugliese.

Pugliese did not respond to Westword's requests for an interview, but court records indicate that the 45-year-old undersheriff has had a long and somewhat tumultuous career in law enforcement. He worked for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office for four years before joining the Colorado State Patrol in 1987. As a state trooper, Pugliese soon acquired a sizable reputation for his aggressive enforcement of DUI laws. He won awards for his high rate of arrests and convictions and earned certification as a "drug recognition expert" who could sniff out motorists under the influence of a wide range of illegal substances.

Ten years ago Pugliese was transferred from Golden to the CSP office in Fairplay. His reputation preceded him, recalls Dale McPhetres, a deputy public defender based in Summit County. "Lou had appointed himself to clean up Park County," McPhetres says. "People were joking about how many cases the DA's office was going to have."

McPhetres clashed with Pugliese in court on several occasions. "Lou was just too, too gung ho," the public defender says. "When you got a DUI report from Lou, you could just punch in somebody else's name for the defendant. It was like he had it on a template. He always had reasonable suspicion to stop somebody."

One case, McPhetres recalls, concerned a young woman who'd been drinking and dirt-biking until she had an encounter with a tree that left a branch sticking out of her face. As she was being loaded into an ambulance, Pugliese conducted sobriety tests on her; the tests were later ruled inadmissible as evidence because of the unusual circumstances in which they were done.

"He sees himself as a drug warrior and a crusader for justice," McPhetres says of Pugliese. "He's out there doing God's work. But in a small county, there isn't a lot of big-time crime. It's drugs and alcohol. And he started stepping on people's toes."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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