June 2013

It's time for some answers in the Rule case

Nearly six months ago, in a move that made headlines across the state, the home of then-County Commissioner Larrie Rule and his wife, Pat, was searched by law officers working with the Colorado State Patrol’s “Beat Auto Theft Through Law Enforcement” task force.

The three-day search of their property and home-based trucking business, which involved officers from several other agencies including the Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Office and the Cortez Police Department, began Dec. 12. Two cement-mixer trucks were reportedly driven off the property.

Soon after the search was completed, the CSP said there would be more information in a few days.

That timeline was soon pushed back. A week after the search, the press was told there would be more information in a month or so, after the first of the year.

Then the date was pushed back to May 1. Later, yet more items were removed from their property, according to one witness.

Now there is apparently no timeline at all for any news to be forthcoming in the case.

Meanwhile, the search warrant, which includes the justification for having it signed by a judge and executed; the warrant’s return, which documents just what was found; and all other reports about the investigation have been sealed, reportedly at the request of former District Attorney Russell Wasley.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and that applies to information as well as physical particles. In this information void, speculation has run rampant and the Rules continue to live under a cloud of suspicion. The latest twist of their fate is that the case is now in the hands of the Montrose County District Attorney in the Seventh Judicial District, who may – or may not – decide to bring charges and if so, what they will be. But, again, there’s no word on when those decisions might be made.

We understand the need to conduct a thorough investigation, but at some point it becomes time to let the public know what’s going on.

Even with the current questionable goings-on at the federal Justice Department, this country isn’t supposed to be run like the former Soviet Union, and our criminal-justice system is not supposed to operate like the old KGB, which would convict, imprison or “disappear” people with little or no public explanation.

Law enforcement in America is not intended to be free from public oversight. Investigators would probably prefer it if they could conduct their work completely in secret, but there are reasons that they are not allowed to do so. With the exception of county sheriffs, these police agents are not elected. There has to be some transparency to their work. And while it can be a problem to have a lot of publicity about a particular case, there are ways to deal with that if an investigation comes to trial (such as a change of venue, for example).

But in fact the vast majority of criminal investigations at the local level never do come to trial, either because they don’t result in enough evidence to charge anyone, or the charges are resolved through a plea bargain or other means. If the press and public were allowed only to find out about a case at trial, this would mean that most of the time they would have no idea what was going on in law enforcement, and this can lead to abuses of power.

For instance, if a hypothetical police department were pulling over five times as many blacks as whites, and almost none of them were ultimately being charged, this could be an indication of discrimination. Likewise, if police were regularly stopping a town’s mayor for weaving down streets after dark, but the DA were refusing to charge him, this could indicate favoritism. How would anyone know unless the incident reports are available for scrutiny by the public and press?

Incident reports, search warrants, and so on can also reveal gross incompetence on the part of a police agency (if it seems to be constantly investigating or arresting people but the DA is throwing out the charges because of a lack of evidence), or on the part of a DA, if he seems to be mishandling cases that appear to be solid.

The point is that investigations are supposed to be open unless there is some clear, over-riding reason for them to be secret. This particular investigation has operated completely in the dark, with no apparent end in sight, and we aren’t persuaded that there is such a compelling reason for the secrecy, possibly because no one has been very forthcoming about what the reason might be.

The CSP is one of the least-transparent law-enforcement agencies in the state. (However, it should be noted that law enforcement for federal public-land agencies is also very secretive, making you file Freedom of Information requests just to see their routine incident reports, by which time they are months old.) The CSP’s accident reports are devilishly difficult to obtain and reaching officers in order to speak to them is very hard. The agency’s spokesman, Public Information Officer Sgt. Mike Baker, returned one phone call from the Free Press back in January about the Rule case, and has since ignored several other requests to at least return calls.

Moreover, even finding out what judge signed and sealed the search warrant, and what the rationale for doing so was, has proven futile. (Most search warrants are not sealed, and contain information that may be used by both the prosecution and defense at a preliminary hearing to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a criminal case.) One would expect that the warrant was issued by a Montezuma County Court judge, since that is where the search took place, but a spokesperson with the court clerk’s office said they had no record of anyone requesting a search warrant or any information about which judge signed it.

It may be that the former commissioner was indeed involved in some nefarious activity that deserves the attention of law enforcement. Then again, he may be an unsuspecting dupe of some complex criminal scheme who merely acquired some equipment at what he believed was a bargain price. Or something else entirely might be the case.

Whatever, the time has come for the criminal-justice system to fish or cut bait.

Montezuma County citizens deserve to know what’s actually going on rather than being forced to resort to speculation and gossip. In our experience, people seem eager to believe the worst about people once it becomes known they are under criminal investigation, particularly if the suspect is an elected public official. (Remember, there are always plenty of people who voted for the other guy!)

In this case, if a former elected official is indeed guilty of wrongdoing, the citizens certainly deserve to know that. If he is not, then the investigation may have been massively bungled and he deserves to have his name cleared.

At any rate, all this needs to happen sooner rather than later.