Year in Review: Strange But True

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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?

A terminal condition: Maybe some homer aromer still lingers from the drop city that DIA became in the wake of the Great March Dump. With an estimated 4,000 unlucky travelers stranded for days, all kinds of stuff could have oozed into the floorboards. And then the main terminal had to be evacuated after a tear appeared in the tent-like roof. But the big top didn't have a big problem, notes DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon. Just a ripped seam.

Walk softly and carry a big sword: Other unseemly things happened out DIA way, too. The Transportation Safety Administration is still confiscating buckets of banned items -- more than 114,000 prohibited gizmos by mid-December. And while the bulk of the offenders were of the garden-variety type, such as scissors and pocket knives, TSA also collected plenty of Let me explain! objects.

"We got a couple of those walking sticks that hide big swords. You pull them apart and there's a sword inside," says TSA mouthpiece Mike Fierberg. When the owners are questioned, their answers are "always the same: They say they bought them at a pawnshop and had no idea the sword was inside." Also on the list of items people just won't leave home without, despite post-9/11 paranoia: box cutters. "Your guess is as good as mine why they have them," Fierberg sighs.

Some would-be passengers are still bringing guns. In September, a woman put her purse through a scanner, which revealed that there was a .380 Smith & Wesson and ammunition inside. The woman, a DIA employee, told police she'd put the weapon in her bag for protection before she went shopping -- and then forgot to remove it when she went to work. Incidentally, her husband is one of twenty TSA screening managers at the airport.

There are no reports of Odor Eaters being confiscated.

"They aren't prohibited items," Fierberg says. "They're encouraged. But maybe they should be prohibited."

Failing meth class: A downtown couple found themselves in a whale of a lot of trouble this past June, when neighbors smelled something funny and tipped off the police, who found a suspected meth lab in their high-rise. Vince Kristynik and Cynthia Taylor were charged with five felonies related to maintaining a meth lab and producing the drug. Taylor pleaded not guilty last month; Kristynik, out on bond, is scheduled for a court appearance in March. No word on whether the neighbors have chipped in to buy a few extra fans to keep ventilating the tower.

Shit happens: More neighbors complained last January after they spotted -- and smelled -- mounds of dog poop in the yard of a house in the 4800 block of South Hoyt Street. When oxygen-mask-wearing firefighters entered the home, they discovered a sorry collection of 28 cats and dogs, not to mention ten dead animals already decomposing in their cages. The surviving, matted mutts were taken to a shelter.

The house's owner, Mary Flanagan, a registered nurse, pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse (a thirteen-year-old was living there, too, and is now in protective custody) and one of cruelty to animals. She's now serving two years of probation and undergoing therapy and is forbidden to keep pets during this time.

Moby dicked: It was bad news for the nose at Burlington High School on November 6, when a fishy smell wafted through the vents. A janitor investigated and discovered that vandals had stuffed parts of a decomposing sixteen-ton whale under some ceiling tiles, then dumped the remaining Free Willy fragments in the garbage. (The whale had been on display in a trailer outside of town.) School officials allowed students to go home if they couldn't stomach the odiferous orca, and by that afternoon, only about forty of the 240 students remained. Not surprisingly, Burlington has since seen no upsurge in marine-biology majors.

Espresso Yourself

It makes your skin crawl: Two women were surprised to see a naked man inside their house in the Baker neighborhood one morning in June -- and even more stunned when he disappeared. They called police, who found the man hiding in a crawl space, where he'd been hanging out. Nimroid Folsom, formerly of Ithaca, New York, was arrested and charged with burglary and indecent exposure; he's scheduled to go on trial next month. Presumably he'll be wearing more than his birthday suit to court.

Negligee behavior: The case of the lingerie rapist was wrapped up this year. James Gipson of Denver, who once faced more than a hundred counts of sexual assault, was sentenced on February 14 to a minimum of fifty years in prison for a series of attacks during the summer of 2000. According to investigators, Gipson would send his girlfriend, Melissa Todd, to prowl the 16th Street Mall, where she'd ask a target if she wanted to attend a "Victoria's Secret party." Later, Todd would call the woman, offering to drive her to the lingerie fashion show -- but instead deliver her to a remote place, where Gipson would rape her.

Your Tax Dollars at Work. Sorta.

Disorder in the court: An assistant city attorney was suspended for two weeks for transmitting "inappropriate" e-mails over the Denver system. Among his dispatches was a photo of a naked woman dressed in a witch's hat and holding a broomstick, and missives referring to orgasms and assorted racial groups. One included a smutty animated joke that involved farting, perfume and women in an elevator. Court's in recess, Your Flatulence!

The soft cell: Bad behavior hit the Colorado Department of Corrections, too -- and it wasn't from inmates. One jailer at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility is now awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty this fall to second-degree assault on a female inmate; a second officer from the same institution was charged this fall with "unlawful sexual conduct in a penal institution." The prosecutors don't have to present evidence as to whether the actions were consensual: It's flat-out against the law for an officer to make the jailhouse rock, no matter how willing his or her partner. (One of the culprits was fingered by the non-standard appearance of his standard parts.)

Getting a leg up: Another DOC officer was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly breaking a prisoner's leg this fall. According to police reports, the officer intentionally stepped on the man's leg irons and threw him to the ground. Welcome to the Denver Receiving and Diagnostic Center.

Where there's smoke: A drug prosecutor in the Weld County District Attorney's Office resigned recently after a nighttime cleaning crew discovered a trail of pot smoke emanating from his Greeley office. Any legal case, though, went up in smoke. "How can I prosecute?" asked DA Al Dominguez. "There was the smell of smoke, and three or four people in the room."

The long arm of the law gets the finger: Speaking of prosecuting, the City of Aurora may be wishing one of its finest had looked the other way last January. Instead, the cop stopped the driver of a Jeep who was giving "a universally recognized obscene and offensive gesture" with his middle finger. The driver then failed a roadside sobriety test. But the case against him unraveled when the city attorney dismissed an obscenity charge, and the DUI charge was subsequently thrown out of Adams County Court. Now the man's attorney is threatening to sue Aurora for $250,000.

"There is a freedom-of-speech issue, to a point," says Deputy City Attorney George Zierk. "If they're flipping off the uniform, it's freedom of speech. If it's a personal issue, it may not be free speech. A few years ago, flipping off an officer may have been considered obscene. But things change." Until they settle down, though, Zierk has some advice about flipping off a cop: "It's a wise decision not to do it."

It's okay to sit down on this job: Yes, police work can be hazardous, and going undercover brings another level of challenges. An ongoing stakeout of gays cruising the Clear Creek open-space corridor netted more than eighty arrests this year for the Adams County Sheriff's Department. The area, made notorious by a listing on a sex-related Web site, was decorated with pornographic posters and had a tree hung with used condoms like Christmas ornaments, police said. And customers knew what they were there for. One officer told a reporter, "I literally had a guy jump in the car and grab me where I don't want to be grabbed."

Election Follies, Mile-High Style

We knew things were tough in 2003, and every job opening looked like an opportunity. And that included the office being vacated by term-limited Denver mayor Wellington Webb. For a while, it looked like anybody who needed a job -- and a few who didn't -- were running for mayor.

Dwight Henson, a former ranch worker who happened to be homeless, threw his bedroll in the ring. The manager of the shelter where he was residing gave Henson a boost, noting that he was a hardworking, reliable sort. That wasn't enough to sustain a campaign, however. Neither was a big Hollywood name. While it might have done the trick in California for Ah-nold, our own Gary Cooper didn't get much traction.

Then again, neither did most of the applicants for the job. But no one fell further, or faster, than front-runner Ari Zavaras, a former Denver police chief and onetime head of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Zavaras began his quest last year with the mantra "Hire the Leader" and a "Z" logo that looked like a cross between Zorro's signature slash and a Water World promotion. But a gap in his bio -- that murky area between graduating from East High in 1962 and spending "the next few years taking college courses" -- helped sink his chances. Turned out the 35-year law-enforcement pro had earned a D in American government as part of a 1.1 college GPA some four decades in his past. But before he flunked the runoff, Z challenged other hopefuls to come clean. Among the skeletons that danced from the closets:

Preservationist (and Stanford University grad) Elizabeth Schlosser, running as the voice of the common person, copped to having an uncommon hankering for a $2 picture frame when she was 21. Schlosser confessed to shoplifting, but she couldn't steal enough votes to win.

Former city councilwoman Susan Casey revealed that she had dropped a Spanish-language course at Metro State. Now she has plenty of time to learn a foreign tongue.

Onetime state Democratic Party chair Phil Perington listed a bankruptcy, two DUIs -- and a growing disgust with his former party.

Ultimately, a geologist turned saloonkeeper with a pocketful of spare coins and a last name that translates to "hedge jumper" won the race. And while Mayor John Hickenlooper made good on his pledge to roll back the city's "world-class" higher parking rates, it didn't ease everyone's pain. A Channel 31 News truck was booted outside City Hall on November 5, just before the press conference at which Hickenlooper was to outline parking proposals that included amnesty on late fees for parking tickets. The station paid the full fines, as well as a $50 fee to remove the city's most infamous export.

Sports in Your Shorts

Urine trouble: In a sign of the times, Roto-Rooter decided to launch a feel-good promotion at Coors Field, proudly announcing that starting with the April 4 home opener, the "sound of a toilet flushing" would boom throughout the stadium when an opposing pitcher was removed. This effect would be followed by the Roto-Rooter jingle ("Roto-Rooter, that's the name, and away go troubles down the drain") and graphic appearing on the scoreboard video. A Rockies official said the team wanted to make it an "interactive" event. No mention was made of fans who might race for the bathroom to have a truly interactive experience.

Strike up the band: Some University of Colorado fans at the annual CU-CSU tilt at Invesco Field at Mile High got a little too interactive. But who could blame them? The Princeton Review had just named CU the number-one party school in the nation, giving the faithful something to live up to. So about forty animals in the Buff brigade harassed the rival CSU band, hurling insults and alcohol and even striking a female trombone player.

Giving tip for tat: At least no one reported any finger-biting. That didn't happen until after the Chicago Bears gave the finger to the Broncos at Invesco on November 23. According to police, a 27-year-old Westminster man -- who happened to be wearing a Bears shirt -- found himself in a heated post-game discussion with a Broncos fan in a parking lot by the stadium. Witnesses told the cops that during a tussle, the Bears fan bit off the tip of the Broncs fan's middle right finger, then fled. The victim required skin grafts. The hungry Bear was later charged with second-degree assault.

Fall fashions: But it was extreme sports -- in particular, stunt sky-diving -- that created the darkest moment of the athletic year. Dwain Weston, a thirty-year-old from Australia, and another sky diver participating in events following the first Go Fast Games had planned to sail around the 1,053-foot-high Royal Gorge Bridge with the benefit of "wing suits." But something went wrong, and Weston hit the bridge and was killed instantly as about 200 spectators watched in horror.

Extremely upset was Mark Greksa, owner of the Cañon City & Royal Gorge Route Railroad, who vowed to do everything he can to shut down future extreme games at the gorge. Greksa said he'd tried to block the 2003 event, but "no one listened." And, in fact, organizers have indicated that they're going ahead with plans for next year, when the games will include BASE jumping off the bridge, which has been forbidden by Cañon City since 1981 (unless you have a permit). Look out below, Mark.

Risky Business

Weird science: It took six years, but a CU-Boulder representative finally burned out.

The problem wasn't excessive partying. No, SNOE -- short for "Student Nitric Oxide Explorer" satellite -- had spent a half-dozen years in the earth's atmosphere before the 200-pound-plus traveler headed back to earth on a planned re-entry this month and burned up somewhere off the coast of Ecuador. Or so they believe. There are no eyewitness accounts of its flameout.

And the $5 million unit dubbed "The Little Satellite That Did," in honor of its successful mission to carry ozone-measurings instruments into the upper atmosphere, has defied logic before. The high flier, developed for CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and originally thought to be aloft for only a year, had been controlled 24/7 by the ground team at LASP's CU Research Park facility since early 1998. Some believe it was on a secret mission to scout out killer kind bud.

And those same types note what may be an unrelated coincidence: Amelia Earhart is now a sophomore at CU (claiming to be "just a third cousin" of the famous lost aviatrix. But who knows?). And she's interested in flying. So maybe once the exact location of the SNOE is paired with the original Earhart's flight path, things will make sense at CU.

The ride of your life: United Airlines directed Denver customers to a phone-sex line when the airline ran ads with the wrong telephone number in both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post. Callers expecting some special travel deals on the 1-800 line instead wound up listening to the recorded voice of a woman with no reservations. Maybe it was just a clever set-up for United's current campaign, which includes the line, "Ted. Who could resist?"

How the West was lost: Newspaper mistakes aren't always the work of outsiders. Sometimes they're made by folks who don't get out enough. This year the Post had to run a correction noting that, because of an artist's error, a map misidentified the state of Utah as New Mexico.

A screwing screw-up: But that was small potatoes compared to a blunder in the Greeley Tribune, which earned that paper national acclaim in the "Headlines" portion of Jay Leno's show. When Dr. Michael Springfield won a Favorite Chiropractor award from readers of the Trib, the laudatory copy was supposed to read: "Springfield works a combination of traditional chiropractic treatments, along with acupuncture in many cases, to cure many conditions -- such as infertility..." But as published in the newspaper, that line read "along with acupuncture in many cases, to cure many conditions -- such as infidelity." As he read it, Leno pretended to stick a needle in another person, saying: "Cheat on me, will you? Cheat on me? Take that, and that, and that."

Patriot games: The Washington Post, though, meant every word when it noted one standout in the increasingly bland Congress: Representative Tom Tancredo. Tom Terriff, the Post cheered, "shows promise of someday rising to legendary status" as a kook. A Snowmass Village planner didn't fare as well after talking to the Aspen Times. Promised anonymity for her criticisms of an Aspen Skiing Co. project, she was easily identified -- since her job and gender were mentioned and she was the only possible suspect. The Times wasn't the only Aspen newspaper to besmirch itself. The Aspen Daily News went Kobe-free for days, intentionally ignoring the strangest-but-truest event of 2003: Bryant's sexual-assault case unfolding 75 miles away in tiny Eagle, where hundreds of journalists camped out to capture every move of the Lakers hoop star.

Panty raid: And what did readers of the Aspen Daily News miss? Among other things, descriptions of everyone's favorite Eagle legal eagle, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, so hot to spray motions that he became unglued at times. In legal documents filed on October 21, the DA seemed totally caught up in the passion of the case and asked the court to use a July 24 order to whack any lawyer or law-enforcement officers leaking prejudicial material to the media. Hurlbert was particularly angered by an October 11 New York Daily News exposé revealing that semen from multiple partners had been found in underwear belonging to Bryant's alleged victim -- a tidbit leaked by a local judge who'd talked to a Bryant attorney. As Hurlbert inaccurately reported the judge's quote in the News (the italics are ours), "There was more than one man's seamen in [the victim's] panties." And then Hurlbert went on to conclude, "There appears to be a pattern [of] disregard for the Court's orders that cumulated with the Jones' leak."

All in all, it was a strange, leaky year.

Compiled from mounds of newspapers, press releases, Westword archives and interviews.

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