New judge in Johnson case

Former Colorado Supreme Court justice assigned to murder trial

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— A former Colorado Supreme Court chief justice will preside over Routt County's only murder case.

On Friday, the state court administrator's office assigned Justice Joseph R. Quinn, who served on the state Supreme Court from 1980 to 1993, to replace 14th Judicial District Judge Joel S. Thompson as presiding judge for the murder trial of Thomas Lee Johnson.

Thompson disqualified himself from the case Tuesday.

The 31-year-old Johnson has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Lori Bases in May 2000. Johnson is accused of stabbing Bases to death in her Steamboat Springs apartment.

Thompson recused himself from the case after his live-in girlfriend, 36-year-old Billie Vreeman, was arrested on federal drug charges Aug. 10. The arrest warrant for Vreeman was obtained by Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Donald Sperry, a potential witness in the Johnson case.

Quinn, 68, of Denver is expected to arrive in Steamboat Springs Monday and pick up Johnson's court file, said Rene Morrone, Routt County clerk of courts.

The tentative plan to proceed with the murder case, which is set for jury trial Oct. 29, is to continue with a court hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday.

"(Quinn) is available and has plans to be here," Morrone said.

Quinn is among several retired judges in the state who fill in for district court justices who fall ill, are on vacation, are disqualified from a case or otherwise become unavailable.

"I have traveled all over Colorado, but it comes with the territory," Quinn said from his Denver home Friday afternoon. "I have been to Steamboat Springs several times."

Quinn is a native of New Jersey. At the age of 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the Korean War between 1951 and 1953.

After serving in the military, Quinn attended St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., and earned a bachelor's degree in social science and philosophy.

In 1961, Quinn earned a law degree from Rutgers University. Upon graduation, Quinn moved to Colorado when he was offered a position as a law clerk for a Colorado Supreme Court justice.

Quinn worked in private practice and with the Denver Public Defender's Office before becoming a Denver District Court Judge. After eight years in the position, Quinn was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Quinn served as the court's chief justice between July 1985 and July 1990.

Johnson's attorney, Norm Townsend, is satisfied with Quinn's assignment.

District Attorney Paul McLimans is pleased a judge was assigned to the case in a relatively short amount of time.

"I'm very happy we have a judge in this case as quickly as we do," McLimans said.

Before the murder case can proceed, Quinn will have to resolve a motion Townsend filed Monday seeking to remove the District Attorney's Office from the case.

The motion claims McLimans' office failed to adequately supervise DEA Agent Sperry, who works in conjunction with the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team. The motion contends Sperry obtained a search warrant for Vreeman's arrest in an attempt to gain an advantage over Thompson.

During an Aug. 8 hearing, Thompson told Sperry he would have testify about a warrant he allegedly falsified to get pay phone records for the murder case. Vreeman was arrested Aug. 10 at the home she shares with Thompson in Moffat County.

Sperry has refused comment, but his supervisors said Vreeman's arrest was the result of an investigation that dates back more than a year and had nothing whatsoever to do with Thompson's rulings in the Johnson case.

In documents he filed in response to Townsend's motion, McLimans noted Sperry is not an employee of his office and that his office was not involved in the Vreeman investigation and arrest.

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