December 2003

Mancos down to one marshal after upheaval

By Suzanne Strazza

Mancos is seeking two new law-enforcement officers following weeks of turmoil that began with allegations of brutality and harassment against a deputy marshal and culminated in his dismissal as well as the resignation of Marshal David Palacios.

Meanwhile, a charge of harassment against one of the men who’d accused Deputy Marshal Wes Short of brutality was dismissed, allegedly because the marshal’s office failed to file the necessary paperwork.

The unrest that began in Mancos in September with the arrests of several patrons of the Columbine Bar and Grill has not only failed to subside, but instead has increased in intensity.

The bar patrons, who included Leslie Feast and Don Higman, both of Mancos, had complained that Short had harassed them and used unnecessary force. Feast told the Free Press that one night in September, she left the Columbine to let her dog out of her truck, which was parked outside, and that Short had thrown her against a fence, jabbing his knee into her back, then arrested her for DUI.

Higman had complained of brutality that he alleged occurred the night of Oct. 3 in the Columbine Bar following a confrontation between him and Short during which he reportedly called the deputy “a joke” and mocked his knowledge of the legal system.

Higman, according to the affidavits of Short and Palacios, was thrown onto the bar at the Columbine when he resisted arrest on charges of obstructing police and disorderly conduct. Higman claimed the officers had no right to arrest him for exercising his right of free speech during the earlier confrontation. He also, according to the affidavits, made many threats about having the marshal’s office eliminated and said he could change the makeup of the town board at the next election.

While all of these incidents were under investigation, Short was on paid administrative leave. He was terminated Nov. 13.

When asked if this was a result of the complaints against Short, Town Attorney Jim Hatter replied, “He was fired during his probationary period, but the reason was primarily financial. No one anticipated the length of this investigation – we did not see a light at the end of this tunnel. Money was being spent but no work was being done.”

Town Administrator Tom Glover seconded this, adding, “Our employee manual states that the town has the right to let a person go during this period without explanation. He was twice given the opportunity to resign and he refused.”

The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, which had begun an investigation into Short’s behavior, handed it over to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation without coming to any conclusions.

Regarding the threatened lawsuits against the town resulting from Short’s alleged actions, Hatter said, “None have come across my desk so far.”

Ruben Maestas, owner of the Columbine, deferred to his attorney for comment. Calls to his attorney’s office were not returned.

All charges against Feast have been dismissed, not, as she had claimed, because of the “brutality issue,” but for lack of evidence. Feast appeared in court on Nov. 18 for a hearing regarding the revocation of her driver’s license. Allegedly, Feast refused to have her alcohol levels tested on the night of her arrest, which, in Colorado, automatically results in the suspension of a person’s license.

But Short, having been fired just days before, did not appear at the hearing, so Feast’s license was returned and the case dismissed.

Higman was also arrested in October and charged with harassment for allegedly shouting homophobic slurs in front of Mayor Greg Rath’s residence on two occasions in September and October when leaving the Columbine around midnight.

Higman also yelled, according to Palacios’ affidavit, “You’re going down, mayor. I’m taking you down, mayor. Do you hear me?” and appeared intoxicated.

He also had been charged with attempting to influence a public official, a felony, but both charges were dismissed by Montezuma County Judge Todd Plewe, because, according to court records, no summons had been served on the defendant or with the court. Palacios maintained, however, that all the necessary paperwork had been filed.

The charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be refiled.

Palacios resigned his position the same day that Short was let go, turning in a letter of resignation which was “effective immediately” and giving no reason for his decision.

Palacios later told the Free Press he left because “the lines of communication had broken down. I also had reason to believe that they were going to fire me.”

This was neither confirmed nor denied by Rath and Glover.

Palacios was also extremely upset about the firing of Short. “They didn’t consult me – he was a part of my office. Short was a good deputy, a good cop. The stupid complaints would have shaken out to nothing.”

Also, there had been some concern about a memo, written by Palacios to Glover, regarding allegations that some town-board members and other community members were planning to tape Rath in order to incriminate him and eventually have him recalled from office.

According to Palacios, the memo was supposed to be confidential and didn’t remain so. “I’m fried about it. I’m not happy,” he said.

When asked about the memo, Rath claimed that there was no validity to its contents and that no taping was ever done. “No tape exists. The entire thing is false and will be forgotten.”

Rath went on to say that he was “surprised by his (Palacios’) quitting,” but that he had been concerned “over some discrepancies within the marshal’s office that required further investigation.”

One of the concerns involved personnel and hiring in the marshal’s office. “David wanted to hire a goon squad and we weren’t going to let that happen,” Rath said.

Another issue involved the inventory of weapons in the marshal’s office and their purchase. According to an inventory sheet produced by Deputy Steve O’Neil, currently the town’s only law officer, in addition to the pistols that the officers carry and own themselves, the inventory includes four .45-caliber pistols, four rifles and three 12-gauge shotguns, plus enough ammo to fill an arsenal - the bulk of which was purchased from a supplier in Helper, Utah, where Palacios is from.

Palacios stated that it is unusual, in his experience, for police to provide their own weapons. The guns that he purchased were bought with a grant, he said, and were “for my men, plus one backup each.”

As to buying the weapons from Helper (where his father reportedly owns a gun shop), he stated, “That’s where the lowest prices were.”

Town officials said that O’Neil, the new, interim marshal, upon viewing the weapon supply, asked, “Are we preparing for a war?”

O’Neil, who was hired as a full-time deputy two weeks prior, was suddenly and temporarily promoted to marshal on the night after Palacios resigned.

In a very brief emergency town-board meeting, on Nov. 14, he was assigned the role of interim marshal. The general feeling after this action was taken was one of optimism.

Nick Baumgartner, board member, said, “We’re excited to be moving forward towards a new future.”

In another step towards a new future, a five-member Public Safety Committee has been formed and is meeting on a regular basis.

This committee will participate in the hiring of personnel; work with the marshal, town administrator, and personnel/finance committee in developing policies for the marshal’s office; and offer assistance where needed.

At the Nov. 19 meeting, ads for the two available positions within the marshal’s office were approved, an interview committee formed and an adjustment made to O’Neil’s salary to commensurate with his new duties. Applications are due Dec. 5 for the other deputy’s position and are due Dec. 19 for the marshal’s job.

O’Neil left the meeting early to respond to a call and was therefore unavailable for comment.

While O’Neil appears to be the sole representative of law and order in this town, he’s not alone. Both the La Plata County and Montezuma County Sheriff’s office have offered their help and support, as has the State Patrol.

However, as things appeared to be falling into place in town, Short was arrested following an incident in which he allegedly threatened to kill his ex-wife and himself.

According to Cortez police reports, on the night of Nov. 20, Short was arrested for alleged domestic violence, third-degree assault, menacing, false imprisonment, obstructing, eluding and wiretapping.

Short supposedly held his ex-wife at gunpoint in her Cortez home, not allowing her to leave the house or call for help, then turned the gun on himself, but did not pull the trigger. After finally leaving her residence, he engaged in both a car chase with the cops and a stand-off at his father’s house before he left the house and was taken into police custody.

He was released on $2,500 bond. The DA’s office had not formally filed charges as of press time but planned to in the next few days.

Following the alleged incident, Rath said, “I feel sorry for Mr. Short, but I don’t feel that the actions of Mancos had anything to do with the situation that occurred yesterday.” Palacios was unavailable for comment following the incident.

Rath and Glover hope things will settle down and that the new marshal and deputies will continue to try to keep Mancos a safe place. Rath stated that “they (the marshal’s office) need to become more involved in the community; go to the schools, the churches, be more of a presence.”

Glover agreed, saying he hopes that people will not think that “the law has been run out of town. With a new police force, there will be even more law enforcement.”

Rath called the town “a living entity which is going through growing pains. The community will see to it that we make it through.