Longform

The Siege

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In early 1997, Pugliese was fired by the Colorado State Patrol. He's now suing the agency, claiming that his dismissal resulted from his efforts to launch an investigation into drug-dealing and other illegal activities at the Park County Detention Center, a jail operated by a private contractor; his refusal to look the other way, Pugliese claims, led to clashes with the county sheriff and his own superiors. But former sheriff Paul Ottmer told the Rocky Mountain News that Pugliese was "too aggressive with people in Park County." In court documents, the state's lawyers have described Pugliese as a "lone wolf" and a "loose cannon" who was fired because of his "repeated and flagrant transgressions of CSP directives and policies."

"I feel very strongly that Lou is a whistleblower," says Pugliese's attorney, David Miller, former legal director of the Colorado chapter of the ACLU. "Not only is he a good person, but he takes his job very seriously. Some of the people he worked for in the past, believe it or not, actually had a problem with that. But it's hard to complain about a guy who's doing a good job of enforcing the law."

After losing his state job, Pugliese hired on briefly as a deputy in Trinidad. Then Mestas, who had worked with him in Fairplay, brought him to Costilla County as undersheriff. In his current position, Pugliese has continued to rack up arrests -- including 32 DUI arrests last year, earning him recognition from the Colorado Department of Transportation as one of the top drunk-driving enforcers in the state. He's also still drawing heat.

Several locals say they believe that Pugliese has singled them out for special scrutiny, pulling them over on any ready pretext. Joe Gallegos, the Pepsi-drinking former sheriff, says Pugliese "has got a hair up his butt for me." Recall supporter Richard Martinez tells a story, complete with snappy dialogue, of being stopped simply because he was driving around town in his Colorado Avalanche jacket.

"He asks me if I'm a gangbanger," Martinez says. "I say, 'I'm an Avalanche fan. You got a problem with it?' He says, 'Are you getting smart with me?' I say, 'You're the one who has the attitude.' He says, 'I don't want to see you in town.' I say, 'Is there a law against it?' He says, 'Why don't you get out of that car and I'll show you?' And he unbuckles his gun. I say, 'Are you threatening me?' He says, 'I want you to turn that crap down.' I say, 'It's not loud. It's not hurting anybody else.' He said he was going to take my stereo. He's done this twice now."

The most dramatic story of an alleged vendetta comes from attorney Victor Devereaux. "Lou Pugliese has stopped me probably eighteen times," says Devereaux. "He's never issued me a ticket. He says, 'Mr. Devereaux, I need to see some ID.' He knows who I am.

"I've had literally dozens of people say to me, 'You've got to stand up to these people. If they can do this to you, they do whatever they want to the rest of us.' There's probably some truth to that. I believe this guy came with a sordid history and that he's very dangerous."

Devereaux says his problems with Pugliese began shortly after the undersheriff's hiring. A client sent Devereaux an article about Pugliese that had appeared in ¡Ya Basta!, a Chicano activist paper published in Grand Junction. The piece was an inflammatory account of a Pugliese arrest during his stint in Trinidad; in 1998, he and another deputy ran into trouble while trying to serve a trespassing summons on a Hispanic family in Aguilar, and Pugliese used Mace on 77-year-old Francisco Coca, his 61-year-old wife and their two sons.

An internal investigation by the Las Animas County Sheriff's Department found that the use of force was justified because the family had resisted arrest and assaulted the officers (Francisco Coca disputes this). However, District Attorney Glenn Davis subsequently dropped all charges against the Cocas, including a charge against one of Francisco's sons for attempted murder of Pugliese's partner, saying that the evidence was insufficient to proceed.

Devereaux passed the article on to other attorneys in the San Luis Valley; Pugliese was reportedly outraged. After that, Devereaux and his wife began to get stopped regularly by Pugliese and other deputies, usually over a faulty taillight on their Toyota Echo.

Mestas says his records show that Devereaux has been stopped only six times by his department regarding the taillight. "If this is an issue, why doesn't he fix the taillight?" he asks. "We've let him know and let him know that it's out. At some point, maybe we do need to issue a citation."

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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