And then there was one.
Five of six suspects charged with harassing members of the Justice and Peace coalition in downtown Cortez in January have agreed to write letters of apology and enter a diversion program operated by the 22nd Judicial District, in lieu of facing prosecution.
The sixth suspect will go to trial.
Appearing in front of Montezuma County Judge Jennilynn Lawrence on May 26, Sherry Simmons, 60, of Lewis, pleaded not guilty to being part of a group of “Montezuma County Patriots” who allegedly bullied and intimidated five Justice and Peace demonstrators in downtown Cortez on Jan. 2. Her trial is set for Sept. 22.
Four other Patriots – Tiffany Ghere, 42, of Cortez; John Teitge Sr., 48, of Cortez; Earl Broderick, 70, of Road N; and Edward Bracklow, 57, of Cortez – have all accepted the district attorney’s offer of entering the diversion program rather than going to trial or pleading guilty, according to Assistant DA Will Furse.
A fifth suspect, John Anselmo, 69, of Road P.8, who was disavowed by the Patriot group, had been charged with harassment in the Jan. 2 incident and also for his actions at a demonstration Jan. 6 in Cortez during which he allegedly threatened then-President-elect Joe Biden. He also accepted the offer of entering the diversion program with the same conditions to address both charges.
The diversion program used to be called deferred prosecution, Furse said. It involves an agreement in which the accused persons agree to do certain things in exchange for the charges against them eventually being dropped.
“We want a recognition of wrongdoing if they do write an apology,” Furse said.
Diversions are not tantamount to a simple dismissal of charges, or a plea bargain, he said. “The suspects are acknowledging wrongdoing, but it’s not the same as a guilty plea. They make a statement of wrongdoing and a statement of fact but are not required to plead guilty.”
The offenders pay a fee to the diversion coordinator, which helps fund the program.
Diversions are intended for low-risk offenders without criminal histories, Furse said.
After three months, the court does a review to see whether the individuals have done what they were supposed to do. If they have, the charges will be dropped.
If they have not, the DA’s office will file a motion to revoke the diversion agreement and the prosecution will resume as if it were a new case, Furse said.
“The diversion program is a voluntary one we have had for some time,” Furse said. He said it has been in place locally for eight or nine years and is one of the larger programs in the state.
“There is a very low recidivism rate,” he said. “This is something we hope these defendants will take full advantage of.”
The suspects do not incur court costs or a fine unless they are unable to fulfill the diversion agreement.
The diversion program is frequently offered to people who have been driving without licenses, first-time DUI offenders, or some with low-level drug offenses, Furse said. In those cases, they may be required to take classes under the diversion agreement.
However, he said taking classes is not being required of the offenders in this case because “there are not really therapeutic options we see as relevant to the case.”
The basis of the charges rested mainly on a 34-minute video taken of the Jan. 2 incident by Raleigh Marmorstein, a leader of the Justice and Peace coalition, and sent to the police, as well as an eyewitness account by Cortez Mayor Mike Lavey.
In 2020 and early in 2021, downtown Cortez was the scene of some confrontations on Saturdays, when members of the Justice and Peace coalition would hold signs and march silently along Main Street in support of Black Lives Matter and social justice.
The Montezuma County Patriots also would have lengthy motorized demonstrations on Saturday mornings in which numerous vehicles drove along Main Street bearing flags in support of America, Donald Trump, the Three Percent militia movement, and the Confederacy, the occupants often yelling imprecations at their perceived foes.
Generally the Patriots stayed in their vehicles, but there were occasions when some of them would confront the Justice and Peace marchers on the sidewalks. There are videos of several different occasions in which people hooted, insulted, and yelled obscenities at the peace marchers, who were told to remain silent in response.
There were also incidents in which the Patriots were yelled at by bystanders, but the actual Justice and Peace marchers almost always stayed silent, and there are no reported incidents in which a group of peace supporters surrounded and intimidated members of the Patriots.
On Jan. 2, five Justice and Peace marchers were having what they called a “flash mob” on Main. They had been trying to avoid the Patriots and had set their event for noon, after the Patriot parade was over. At that time they walked to the corner of Main and Elm streets.
Videos of the incident posted on social media showed about 20 Patriots, some armed, walking toward the peace group, shouting at and insulting them. None of the Patriots were wearing masks, although the pandemic was still at a peak, and they stood close to the peace supporters, who were masked.
Comments shouted at the peace group included, “All lives matter, you fucking idiots,” “Fuck Black Lives Matter,” and “You idiots, anti-American bastards, get down on your knees.”
However, there was no physical contact, and police who were driving by did not stop to intervene, seeing no crime occurring. Police later said they were also busy with some urgent calls, including one regarding children walking on the ice on a pond in a city park.
When the peace marchers decided to leave and walk back to St. Barnabas Episcopal Church a block away, some of the Patriot group followed and continued to harangue them. The act of following was the actual basis of the harassment charges.
Police Chief Vern Knuckles ordered an investigation after he viewed a video of the incident.
Cortez Police Officer Steven King was assigned the investigation and found grounds for charges after watching the video and interviewing the suspects and witnesses.
Some of the Patriots seemed eager to claim that the mayor’s wife, Gail Lavey, had threatened them with a can of insect spray.
During her interview with Officer King, Ghere told him Gail Lavey had pointed a can of wasp spray at her, causing her great concern. Teitge made the same accusation, claiming she had “barged through their group” waving cans of insect spray.
Simmons also falsely asserted that the mayor’s wife was the “first person from the Peace and Justice group to show up” at the downtown demonstration, according to King’s report, and had “barged through their group with bear spray.”
In fact, Gail Lavey was not even at the demonstration. A different, masked woman was later identified as the person carrying the insect spray, though she did not use it and was not charged with any offense.
Ghere later publically apologized for spreading the untruth about Gail Lavey.