The Siege

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She calls for backup. Mestas is out of town, so Pugliese and another deputy respond. After several polite requests to open the door, Dixon and Pugliese try to break it down on the theory that they are officers "in fresh pursuit" of a suspect wanted on a felony charge of eluding a peace officer.

The stories continue to diverge after the siege is under way. According to Devereaux, Pugliese rips off a window screen and attempts to climb in. Concerned about possible broken glass, Devereaux scoops up the baby's basinette and starts to tell the undersheriff that he needs a warrant.

"Before he could get the word 'warrant' out, Pugliese punches him in the mouth," Cynthia says. "Pugliese tells the person outside he's with, 'Did you see him punch me?' And the other male says, 'No.'

According to Pugliese and Dixon, Pugliese strikes Deveraux only after the attorney puts his hand on Pugliese's face and tries to push him back out the window. Devereaux then grabs the basinette, "using the child as a shield." As neighbors and more police cars arrive, Pugliese and Dixon get on the radio to District Attorney Pete Comar, trying to obtain an arrest warrant. Ultimately, Pugliese decides the best course of action is "to have all units clear the scene" and forward their reports to Comar for review.

No charges have been filed against Victor or Cynthia Devereaux over the confrontation that night. And although there is no independent record of Pugliese's conversation with Comar, several witnesses dispute the police version of events on key points.

Since John Mestas arrived in San Luis, listening to the police scanner has become a popular pastime; it's less risky than driving, and there's always the chance you'll hear what happened to some other poor sucker who did venture out. Scanner listeners report that Deputy Dixon said nothing about being knocked down when she reported that she was pursuing the Echo. Witnesses outside the cabin say she didn't appear injured or even dirtied by the "strong force" that she says spun her counterclockwise; she seemed excited, like she was "loving every minute of it," says one.

In her report, Dixon wrote that she told Comar she wanted to charge Victor Devereaux with eluding, assault on a police officer and child abuse. Comar did not respond to Westword's requests for comment, but shortly after the siege, he told the Pueblo Chieftain that Dixon was too "agitated" to communicate clearly that night. She apparently said nothing to the district attorney about being knocked down; in fact, Comar said, she told him that she'd "stepped out of the way" when Devereaux drove off. Pugliese couldn't tell him if a felony had been committed, either, so Comar told the officers to "back off."

Sheriff Mestas says Deputy Dixon has been on medical leave since that night, with injuries to her ribs, arms and wrists. He is uncertain about the exact nature of her injuries: "It's being handled by workers' comp."

Victor Devereaux says no one from the sheriff's office has ever inquired about his injuries. "I have yet to have anybody from his office call about this incident," he adds. "I know they aren't so busy that they can't do an investigation of these constitutional violations."

It takes 363 signatures to petition for a recall of the Costilla County sheriff, one-fourth of the votes cast in the 1998 election. Cynthia Devereaux, Maria Martinez and other volunteers collected 200 signatures in the first two days of their recall campaign.

They now claim to have more than 500 signatures, including those of the last four county sheriffs.

The petitions must be submitted to the county clerk for verification before a recall election can be scheduled. Sheriff Mestas says he isn't worried. "If it was 800 or 1,000 signatures, I'd be very concerned," he says. "But there were 300 people who didn't vote for me to start off with. I've had people come in here who told me they felt intimidated into signing a petition, even though they didn't want to."

Mestas is betting that the county's business community will support his retention out of appreciation for his clean-up efforts -- or, perhaps, out of fear that enforcement will deteriorate if he leaves. But many business owners are tight-lipped about their views; it doesn't pay to voice an opinion on a hot issue when you're trying to do business with both sides. ("There's people who won't sign the petition but will vote to throw out the sheriff," says Bob Green.) Not one business owner contacted by Westword would offer an unqualified endorsement of the sheriff, and none wanted their names used.

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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