February 2006

Mancos seeks solutions to crime wave

By Suzanne Strazza

If you want to do something illegal, do it in Mancos. There’s no law enforcement here.

That’s been the word on the street this winter, prompted by some staffing glitches in the Mancos Marshal’s Office.

But Deputy Marshal Sam Sparks and Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace want folks to know that the word on the street is false.

“We are working hard to establish a strong presence in the Mancos Valley,” said Wallace, whose office is helping with law enforcement in Mancos while the search is on for a new marshal.

But it’s true that Mancos has seen something of a crime wave in recent months. There have been several break-ins, both at businesses and private residences. Some of the places burglarized have been the Absolute Bakery, Zuma Natural Foods, Cox Conoco, Ted’s Taco Stand, Coldwell Banker, Four Corners Cabinetry, the Masonic Lodge and the elementary school. In addition to stealing money, burglars have taken computers, cash registers and other electronic items.

At press time, it was reported that several arrests had been made in the break-ins.

Many of the break-ins took place in the period before the holidays, making for a less-than-merry Christmas for some business owners.

The rash of thefts also caused an extremely hectic time for the Mancos Marshal’s Office, which at the time had just one deputy — Sparks. Sparks has been on his own in that office while a search is being conducted for a new marshal.

But Sparks responded “right away” to each of the break-ins, said Carla Borelli, owner of the Absolute Bakery.

Another problem with law enforcement in the town has been that Sparks took a medical leave immediately after Christmas. Greg Morrison, an interim marshal filled in while Sparks was out of commission.

Now, Sparks is back, Morrison is here, and Sparks has also enlisted the help of the sheriff’s office, which has signed a contract to help out the town while the search is being conducted for a permanent marshal.

But the break-ins had to do with more than just a lack of police presence, experts say.

According to Wallace, Sparks, and Sheriff’s Lt. Steve Harmon, who has been working on the cases, the crime spree all goes back to drugs, primarily the stimulant methamphetamine.

“My call load would probably be reduced by 80 to 90 percent if we got rid of meth in this area,” Sparks said.

That’s a strong statement in a place where there is still an element of denial concerning the proliferation of the drug.

Last fall, concerned citizens within the community gathered to discuss the problem, but only a handful of community members actually participated in the meetings. Poorly represented were parents of school-age kids.

While the group worked hard to come up with a plan of action on its own, it also pursued the possibility of Mancos joining the 22nd Judicial District Drug Task Force operating in the county. Eventually the town did join the task force, at a price of $1,000 a month.

“If it makes the citizens of this community feel safer, then we are willing to sign on,” said Town Administrator Tom Glover.

According to Dennis Spruell, an agent with the drug task force, the force is actively working in Mancos, attempting to help with the meth problem.

Spruell attended a Meth Action Committee meeting on Jan. 23 and stated, “Do you have a meth problem here in Mancos? Absolutely . Huge!” And according to law-enforcement personnel, meth lies at the root of most of the crime here and anywhere else that the drug is widely available. Besides burglaries, Harmon said other crimes often related to meth use are “homicides, assaults, auto thefts, just about anything.”

Also attending the Meth Action Committee meeting were Don Kirk of the Piñón Project, Mancos School Superintendent Michael Canzona, Rebecca Larson and Layla Parga from the School Community Youth Coalition, and several community members whose lives have been affected by meth. Many of these folks live near a “meth house” and feel that they are in danger. But again, few parents of school-age children were at the meeting.

The consensus is that one of the main solutions to the problem is education and awareness. If folks look at the break-ins and vandalism as just that, then the drug problem is being overlooked.

Borelli, though, recognizes that her bakery was affected by drugs, not just random burglaries. She has a compassionate view of the situation. After having hundreds of dollars in cash, plus computers and electronics, stolen, she still shows heart.

“These people are suffering,” she said. “We were inconvenienced by being broken into, but their lives are miserable – it is a horrible drug and it makes people suffer. My heart goes out to them.”

Slightly less sympathetic is Megan Tallmadge, one of the owners of Zuma Natural Foods, which was hit the day before the bakery, on Dec. 21. “If someone had broken in to get money to feed their family, that would be one thing, but they came here to supplement their addiction,” she said.

But she remains upbeat. “I hope that we are not going to turn into a fearful, blaming community,” Tallmadge said. “Maybe these events will actually bring people together to look out for each other.”

The town, meanwhile, is working hard to hire a marshal. According to Glover, “We are hopeful that we will find someone who really wants the best for this town. We have about 15 applicants to interview and will be conducting those interviews in the near future.”

Although the town is participating in the drug task force, citizens must not become complacent, according to Sparks. “The citizens cannot just turn this over to the DTF,” he said. “There are three officers covering both Montezuma and Dolores counties. People must continue to stay active and participate in groups like the Meth Action Committee and the Neighborhood Watch Program.”

The committee is trying to move forward with plans, one of which may be to join forces with the town’s Public Safety Committee. Another is to increase education and awareness in the area; this includes professionals, parents, kids, and everyone else.

Sparks is pushing to have a school resource officer working within the schools. He believes that a large part of the solution lies in prosecution and “severe sentencing” for those arrested for crimes involving drugs.

Wallace agrees. “We are attempting to do everything exactly by the book to increase our chances of prosecution,” he said.

Sparks added, “This problem will be ongoing until the environment gets so bad for dealers that they have to leave.”

Many people would like to see Mancos return to being a sleepy little town, a haven from the perils of the outside world. With a great effort on many people’s part, perhaps that wish will come true.