Year in Review: Strange But True

Here, kitty, kitty: Hysteria over animal mutilations this spring evoked the "cattle mutes" of two decades back -- a still-unexplained phenomenon in which cattle throughout the region were found with their innards neatly excised. In a rising yowl of anguish, local news outlets detailed dozens of attacks on pets, typically cats. Quick, call Fluffy the Vampire Slayer! Scramble Buckley! The UFOs are back for dessert!

The details were grim. Grieving owners swore their once-pampered pets were spirited out of their yards and then returned bloodless. Often, only half of an animal's carcass remained -- and in some cases, the damage was described as surgical, without any telltale signs that would indicate a battle with a predator. In one bizarre case, a woman who'd reported a graffiti attack on her house found her cat dead just days later. That was soon topped by news that parts of a feline had been left in a neat triangle. (Now, had it been a pentangle, that would have been some serious house-pet hoodoo.)

By June, the cat-mutilation epidemic had spread to Utah, and authorities in both states compared notes, concerned that a crew of roving evil-doers was at work. Here in the metro area, a task force loaded with vets, law-enforcement types and other experts was formed to study the situation. And necropsies -- a fancy name for animal autopsies -- were performed on the remains of at least ten critters in the hopes of finding clues to the culprit. People magazine came to town to explore the kitty killings.

And then...oh, never mind.

"It turned out that predators had killed them all," says Cameron Lewis, spokeswoman with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Through their microscopic inspections, forensic scientists were able to determine that the surgical cuts were the work of sharp teeth -- of a fox, say, or even a domestic dog -- and not some Satan-worshiping, scalpel-wielding delinquent. And when their fur was pulled back, the carcasses were found to have multiple puncture wounds -- wounds that indicated a predator had inflicted multiple bites.

Still, not everyone accepted the official story. One UFO-friendly Web site noted that "Colorado medical schools must be turning out some very well-educated varmints with years of medical experience." Nice kitty. Come meet the bug-eyed green alien.

And humans weren't held entirely innocent of the crimes. "We think these are usually a case of owners letting their pets out to play with predators," Lewis says. Followed by a large load of media overkill.

Snakes alive: There were no space invaders to be found in Firestone this past June, when U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents searched a small house in that town, recovering 99 snakes, three firearms and what's known in federal lingo as "a marijuana grow."

Brook Berntson and Cindy Sue Jahn were charged with interstate trafficking of wildlife and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Berntson, who was also indicted on firearms-related charges, remains in federal custody awaiting court appearances. Jahn is out on bond. As for the snakes -- including two African bush vipers, thirteen Western diamondback rattlers and two Indian cobras -- they went to the Denver Zoo, where they'd be safe from the lucrative black market in poisonous snakes. How they'd satisfy their need for a contact high was unclear.

Heavy petting: Really bad mojo was at work in Weld County this fall, when Eric Griffin blasted his neighbor, Richard Hammock, to death with a shotgun after Hammock asked Griffin if he'd earlier taken aim at his miniature pinscher, Mojo. The dog had been barking outside, then came in the Hammock house and collapsed; the Hammocks took Mojo to the vet, who found that the dog had been shot three times with a pellet gun. One wound was recent, two were older.

Back home, Hammock reportedly picked up a three-foot board and headed to Griffin's house. An argument ensued on the front porch, Hammock broke a window at the front door, and the shotgun went off. But Griffin won't be charged in Hammock's slaying, because he's covered under the state's "make my day" law.

Blowing and Drifting

A moldie but a goodie: The winds of change blew through Denver and across the state in 2003. But those gusts -- which brought us the Blizzard of the Millennium, ushered in a new mayor and howled past an attempt by legislative windbags to blow away the Dems with a new redistricting plan -- weren't strong enough to clear the air. Denver International Airport was among the spots charged with having, uh, unusual sensory stimulants. Two employees of United Airlines sued DIA, saying they were sickened by smells emanating from mold, unticketed e.coli bacteria nesting in concourse carpets, and sewage leaks near airline gates. And, hey, don't even get them started on the airline food! One of the city's insurance carriers -- Indian Harbor Insurance Co. -- is defending Denver's sense of smell, and the case is now in the "discovery" phase, according to a city attorney. Whew. As if you have to search very hard to discover a stench at DIA. Has anyone been through those security screening lines lately?

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.
Ernie Tucker
Contact: Ernie Tucker