November 2003

Charges of harassment fly in Mancos

By Suzanne Strazza

What first appeared to be a series of “hate crimes” in Mancos has proven to be a horse of quite a different color.

It began with racist and anti-gay graffiti on the River Walk benches and allegations of verbal harassment of members of the town’s gay community. It has developed into allegations of harassment and brutality against Mancos Deputy Marshal Wesley Short, who has been placed on paid administrative leave; and charges that a feud exists between town leaders and patrons of the Columbine Bar.

The graffiti, which appeared on the benches Oct. 6, is believed to have been the work of some callow youths, and unrelated to the allegations of harassment. But a closer look into those allegations has uncovered a rift in the community that runs far deeper than a few people’s bigoted feelings.

The Mancos Times recently reported that, “a feud exists between the marshal’s office and the Columbine Bar and its patrons.” Whether this is true or not is between the parties involved and their attorneys, who have been meeting to exchange information, but recent events seem to validate this belief in addition to fueling the fire.

Several of the Columbine’s regular patrons have complained of police harassment by Short both inside and out of the bar.

According to Leslie Feast of Mancos, “He (Short) comes into the bar and counts drinks that folks are drinking” and allegedly has “verbally harassed customers” while they are sitting at the bar.

Several DUI arrests have been made in town as people were driving away from the tavern, and some of the people involved in these DUIs — including Feast — have complained of use of excessive force, harassment and unlawful arrest. All of these complaints involve Short.

These events have now snowballed into several larger issues affecting much of the Mancos community: an investigation into the Mancos marshal’s office, potential lawsuits, lengthy town board meetings (including several executive sessions), a crackdown on DUIs, accusations of discrimination and the alleged harassment of Mayor Greg Rath.

The trouble began in September with several incidents involving alcohol and patrons of the Columbine. Feast was arrested on DUI charges. Three other citizens, two from Mancos and one from Cortez, all of whom had been visiting the Columbine, were arrested on different dates for charges including obstructing a peace officer and resisting arrest; DUI; and disorderly conduct, obstructing police and resisting arrest.

All have complained that Short behaved aggressively and inappropriately with them.

Several of the alleged victims said they are meeting with lawyers to discuss the possibility of suing the marshal’s office for use of excessive force, but no formal charges had been filed yet as of press time.

Feast claimed her DUI charges were later dismissed “because of the brutality issue – I was handed the dismissal papers yesterday (Oct. 23).”

She said that, on the night of her arrest, she left the Columbine to let her dog out of her truck parked outside and “next thing I knew, I was thrown up against the wire fence with a knee jabbing into my back.”

She said Short, the man who had grabbed her, hurt her back so much she cried.

The incident, she said, left her “in tears, with a f---ed-up back and the cop (Short) threatening me in the back of the car.”

The police report on the incident stated that she was “out of control, disorderly and combative.”

When asked whether she would carry through on her stated plan to sue the marshal’s office for excessive force, she said she “has not formally decided what action to take.” Her main concern, she said, is to “get rid of a person who is going to hurt somebody.”

Feast is already suing the town in small-claims court for damage allegedly done to her property during a sewer-line replacement.

This was all brought to the attention of the town board at a special meeting Oct. 16. After an executive session, the board decided to place Short on paid administrative leave until an investigation into the allegations is complete.

The Montezuma County Sheriff’s office is conducting the investigation. If there is substantial evidence against Short, it will be handed over to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, town officials said.

According to Rath, Short’s suspension is “in no way a sign of guilt. It is to take him (Short) out of the public eye so things do not escalate.”

Short declined to comment on the charges because of the ongoing investigation.

During the Oct. 22 town-board meeting, there were two executive back-to-back sessions to discuss personnel issues within the marshal’s office. Both Rath and Town Administrator Tom Glover stated later, “The record was set straight” and said they were “satisfied that the situations were cleared up, and there was no action taken against the two employees taken into executive session.”

Glover added that he was “pleased with how it went and impressed with how the board handled everything.”

Also during that meeting, the Public Safety Committee met and authorized Glover to start negotiations with Steve O’Neil, the man that the committee recently chose to fill the No. 1 town-deputy position vacated by Robert Whited.

Short fills the No. 2 deputy position, which is funded by grant monies and does not carry the same job security.

Rath, the town board and Town Marshal David Palacios said there is no plan to harass Columbine patrons, but that they are determined to crack down on drunk driving anywhere, despite complaints (particularly by those who have been arrested) that they are “getting carried away.”

“Drunk driving will not be tolerated. I have to decide what is best for this community and enforcing the law is what’s best,” the mayor said.

The marshal’s office and the town are committed to making the streets a safer place, officials emphasized.

“If (intoxicated people) ever need a ride home, I would be happy to drive them myself rather than have them attempt it,” Palacios said.

Ruben Maestas, owner of the Columbine, recently made the same offer to his patrons. When contacted by the Free Press, Maestas deferred to his attorney, who was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Many of Maestas’ regular customers claim that the crackdown against drunk driving is a form of discrimination against the Columbine and Maestas himself. One of those recently arrested told the Free Press that it is a case of homosexuals picking on heterosexuals, because several prominent Mancos leaders, including Rath, are gay and the Columbine owner is not.

However, Rath says he himself has been the subject of harassment and threats outside his home and place of business. At least five times in the past month, he said, he has been awakened in the night by anti-gay taunts and threats.

On Oct. 23, he pressed misdemeanor charges of harassment against a man who was among the four arrested in September and complaining of alleged misbehavior by Short.

Glover has contacted Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar’s office to enlist aid. He has also discussed the matter with the governor’s office and said they were “very helpful.”

Glover said the incidents of harassment are disturbing. “He’s the mayor. I think that it’s very alarming that people have no respect for elected officials. It’s one thing to do it — another to do it on a personal level with someone that you share a community with, that you see at the gas station and the grocery store.”

Rath said he was extremely reluctant to take legal action against the man he said is harassing him, but after ignoring the harassment and having it intensify, he took the advice of many, including Palacios, and filed the charges. “This is my home, my business, my family, my livelihood. It has to stop,” Rath said.

Rath believes that the unrest in town is a result of one “last-ditch effort at lawlessness, a desire to have Mancos return to the days of the Old West.”

He added, “I encourage people who feel this way to run for town board in the April election.”

Glover summed it up this way: “We’re a civilized world, and it’s time to deal in a civilized way. There are systems in place for people to voice their complaints and be taken seriously.”

Perhaps this is too new of a concept in a town “where the West still lives.”