Speedy acquittal

The town of Dolores’s first jury trial in decades stemmed from a rafting-related dispute

It may not have been the trial of the century, but in the tiny town of Dolores, it was easily the jury trial of the last few decades, being the only one locals could recall.

“You’re making history,” municipal Judge Jim Shaner joked on May 22.

After a morning-long jury-selection process that at times seemed as tedious as the NFL draft, and an afternoon and evening of conflicting testimony, it took the chosen six jurors less than 15 minutes to find commercial rafter Thomas Wolfe not guilty of disorderly conduct.

Rancher Bruce Lightenburger had accused Wolfe of punching him in the back of his head during an incident Jan. 17 at the Hollywood Bar and Grill.

The trial piqued interest among the town and local rafting community because the defendant and his accuser have had a longrunning conflict over Wolfe’s ability to raft the Dolores River on the stretch that bisects the rancher’s 620-acre spread.

Previously, Lightenburger had accused Wolfe – who operated a small commercial rafting venture – of cutting a fence across the river that confined his cattle to the property, but this act was vigorously denied by Wolfe.

Their mutual hostility apparently came to a head at the Hollywood on Jan. 17.

Wolfe was in the bar having dinner with his partner, Janneli Miller, and a friend, Linda Robinson.

Lightenburger was there as well with his wife and a friend, Isaque Martinez.

At some point, Lightenburger and Wolfe had a confrontation, but the witnesses – who mostly were with one party or the other – varied considerably on the details.

Several witnesses, including both men’s significant others, testified they saw a heated exchange of words after which Wolfe left the bar.

Dawn McCabe-Lightenburger said there had been “a lot of screaming between the two of them.”

And Miller, also said she’d seen them “yelling” at one another.

However, the alleged victim remembered it somewhat differently.

Under questioning from prosecutor Mike Green as well as defense attorney Marshall Sumrall, Lightenburger repeatedly denied arguing with the defendant, either before or after what he described as a blow so hard he suffered a headache for more than a day.

“I absolutely did not respond,” he said. “My wife doesn’t allow any violence.” He agreed with Sumrall that anyone who testified there had been a verbal exchange would be lying or mistaken.

“I never said a word,” he added. “I’ve never been in a fight in a bar in my life.”

Lightenburger conceded he had been on a list of people banned by the previous owner of the “old Hollywood” (which burned down in 2012), but said that was only because he’d been there once with a friend who had gotten in a fight.

The new owner, Travis Giddings, later testified that he had “inherited” the list and didn’t even know who the complainant was.

McCabe-Lightenburger said she saw the defendant swing wildly at her husband. Lightenburger testified that he didn’t see the blow coming, but felt it on the back of his head. After that, he said, he turned around and saw an off-balance, apparently drunk Wolfe. “I think he tried to knock me out – I was shocked.”

Lightenburger said until that point he hadn’t even recognized Wolfe – despite the fact that Martinez, who knew them both, had introduced them a little earlier. Lightenburger said Martinez had called Wolfe

“Tommy” and so he didn’t realize that was, in fact, Wolfe.

Martinez, a professional martial-arts fighter, testified he’d seen the defendant deliver a glancing blow, and was “sure they exchanged words after the punch.”

Martinez said he intervened at that point, pushing Wolfe away.

But Miller emphatically and repeatedly stated that she had not taken her eyes off the two during the fracas, and Wolfe had never struck Lightenburger. She testified that their “introduction” by Martinez had been very intimidating, with Wolfe being spun around on his bar stool by one of the men, who were standing quite close to him.

“They were cackling and laughing, then (Lightenburger) grabbed his hand – it didn’t sound like a friendly conversation to me (and) I was scared. Tom’s face was sheet-white.”

Miller said she watched closely as Wolfe went to retrieve his hat from near where Lightenburger was standing, and that while she wasn’t sure who spoke first, they had yelled at one another before Martinez stepped between them. She testified there was no physical contact.

Under cross-examination by a clearly skeptical Green, Miller said she hadn’t gone into as much detail when she was interviewed by Montezuma County Sheriff ’s Deputy James Utley later that night at her home because he hadn’t asked as many questions as Green.

“You shouldn’t misrepresent me,” she shot back at the prosecutor.

Lightenburger testified he had “neither liked nor disliked” Wolfe before he was attacked, but documents introduced by the defense and testimony from Wade Hansen, president of the Dolores River Boating Advocates, seemed to indicate otherwise.

Hansen said a meeting of the group last fall to discuss making the river safer for boating began with Lightenburger delivering a “sustained and rambling rant” against Wolfe (although the jury was instructed to disregard this statement as hearsay). Hansen also said Lightenburger had appeared “hostile” toward Wolfe rather than ambivalent.

Utley testified that based on the information he obtained that night, he initially did not believe he had enough evidence to bring any charges, but after contacting Martinez a few days later, he decided the incident was covered by the town’s disorderly-conduct ordinance.

Responding to a juror’s written question about why no assault charge was filed, he said he didn’t believe what had occurred met the standard for that. The deputy, a 12-year veteran of the sheriff ’s office, said he had observed no marks or bruising on Lightenburger when he talked to him about an hour after the brouhaha, nor any marks or contusions on Wolfe’s hands.

He said it was obvious both parties had been drinking, and that Wolfe was “not a whole lot more intoxicated, maybe a little,” and appeared unsteady on his feet.

Wolfe was the last witness to take the stand. He said he and Lightenburger had once had had a friendly acquaintanceship, that Lightenburger said he didn’t have a problem with him floating down the river and even thanked him for fixing something with the fence. Later, though, things soured.

Wolfe said the rancher called him early one morning over the July Fourth weekend, “yelling profanities” and “threatening me with prison and financial ruin if I didn’t go put his fence back up right away.”

Wolfe said he didn’t believe that was his responsibility, because “the river was the one that tore it down,” but he got some friends who agreed to help him work on it the next day. When he called Lightenburger back, however, Wolfe testified, he said that wasn’t good enough and threatened to call the sheriff and have Wolfe put in prison, to financially ruin Wolfe and to shut his business down.

“You think you got enough money to mess with me?” Lightenburger said, according to Wolfe.

Wolfe stated repeatedly that he had never damaged Lightenburger’s fence and had never set foot on his property. He said one time when the fence had come loose on its own and was a hazard, he had removed it, but had done so while standing in the water.

After the July Fourth weekend, he said, he got letters from Lightenburger’s attorneys demanding thousands of dollars for Wolfe to float across his property, money he couldn’t pay, so he quit rafting that stretch.

On Jan. 17, Wolfe testified, he, Miller and Robinson were at the Hollywood when all of a sudden he got pulled around on his bar stool “and there’s Isaque.” According to Wolfe, the much-larger man threw an arm around him and said, “I want you to meet my buddy, Bruce,” and Lightenburger grabbed his hand and squeezed it hard. Wolfe jerked his hand away.

“That was not an introduction,” he testified. “He knew who I was. And that was not a handshake.”

He testified he felt scared and decided to leave, but Lightenburger was standing near the door. Wolfe told him he didn’t appreciate being harassed while at dinner, and Lightenburger said he was going to get him, and they yelled back and forth, but Wolfe never touched him, according to his testimony. He said Martinez intervened, pushing him back from Lightenburger. Wolfe said he then waited in the car while the women paid the tab, and went home.

Later, Lightenburger obtained a protection order requiring Wolfe to stay 100 yards away from him at all times, something Wolfe said is so difficult in a small town where the two might cross paths inadvertently that he and Miller are now moving to Durango.

“This whole thing’s been a nightmare,” Wolfe said.

He said he’d never had so much as a speeding ticket before and had to go into debt and give Sumrall (for whom this was his first trial) a boat in order to pay for his legal defense.

In closing arguments, Green mocked what he characterized as defense claims of a “conspiracy” and a “cabal” among Lightenburger’s supporters and family attorney to ruin Wolfe. He said the accounts given by Lightenburger and his companions were largely consistent. Green also said that, during the confrontation, Wolfe “struck the little guy” (Lightenburger) rather than Martinez, the martial-arts fighter.

Sumrall countered that his defense was not that there was a conspiracy. “My defense is Mr. Lightenburger didn’t like him and he wanted to put him out of business. That’s what he’s doing here today.”

Around 9 p.m., the jury finally retired from the makeshift courtroom, usually utilized by town employees for more routine business. They returned shortly thereafter with the not-guilty verdict.

Disclosure: Janneli Miller, Wolfe’s partner, is a Free Press freelance contributor.

From June 2014.