Johnson trial drains budgets of law enforcement agencies

Shawn Zwak is one of the most visible law enforcement officers and firefighters in Steamboat Springs, riding his bike around town tens of miles a day. Pretty soon, though, he may become entirely invis

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— The prosecution of Thomas Lee Johnson was the costliest case for the 14th Judicial District Attorney's office since 1995.

For the 13-day trial in Larimer County, District Attorney Paul McLimans spent $20,600.

The trial ended Nov. 14 when a Larimer County jury found Johnson guilty of first-degree murder and criminal mischief and trespass.

The jury determined Johnson murdered 31-year-old Lori Bases at her Steamboat Springs apartment the evening of May 11, 2000, rejecting Johnson's claim of self-defense.

The jury also found Johnson guilty of vandalizing Bases' sport utility vehicle about a month before she died.

The 31-year-old man will be sentenced to life in prison without parole Jan. 16 at the Larimer County Justice Center in Fort Collins.

The trial was moved to Larimer County by the case's presiding judge, Justice Joseph P. Quinn, because of pretrial publicity in Routt County.

"This was the biggest case we had as an office this year," McLimans said. "It was an expensive trial, but it was time and money well spent."

McLimans has a budget of about $1 million to spread over four offices he has in Moffat, Routt, Jackson and Grand counties. His trial budget in the Steamboat office is about $58,000, he said.

"We have a trial expense category in the budget," McLimans said. "The cost of this case is pretty much our budget for a year."

The bulk of the cost related to witness expense and also included lodging for McLimans and his staff in Fort Collins. The bill for witness expenses totaled $12,500, McLimans said.

"We had a number of witnesses from out of state for whom we had to buy plane tickets," he said.

During the trial, prosecutors called 35 witnesses to the stand. For each of the witnesses, McLimans had to pay travel expenses, meals and lodging if necessary.

"The cost also includes pretrial preparation where we had to travel to meet with witnesses," he said. "When you try a case as big as this one was and far from home, it does have a budgetary impact."

McLimans said he will apply for state reimbursement to help cover the cost of witness expenses.

McLimans' office is not the only agency to experience a considerable amount of expense because of Johnson.

The Steamboat Springs Police Department spent about $50,000 during its murder investigation.

The bulk of this cost was spent on overtime investigators accumulated in the weeks that followed the murder.

Steamboat Springs Director of Public Safety J.D. Hays said his investigators worked around the clock until Johnson was arrested about a month after the murder.

The Routt County Sheriff's Office also is expected to pay at least $10,000 for Johnson's stay at the Larimer County Detention Center.

Sheriff John Warner is paying the Larimer County Sheriff's Office for Johnson's stay at the detention center in Fort Collins, including meals, transportation to and from the courthouse and deputies who were assigned to provide security in the courtroom.

In the past few years, Warner has been proactive in collecting cost of care from inmates, which is $42.50 per day.

But Warner said he will be unable to collect cost of care from Johnson, who has been in custody for more than 500 days.

Warner said he is unable to collect the money from Johnson because Johnson will be going to prison.

Other substantial costs that cannot be calculated in Johnson's case is the amount of time McLimans and Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James spent on the case.

"I'm sure the time would be staggering," McLimans said.

St. James, who was the lead prosecutor, said he worked on the case extensively after Johnson's June 2000 arrest.

St. James started to really focus on the case this past May. The veteran prosecutor was seldom seen in the county and district courtrooms in Steamboat Springs.

"This was a case that included 4,000 document pages," McLimans said.

Johnson also did not have to pay for his legal counsel. The Longmont native qualified for court-appointed lawyers. Public Defenders Norm Townsend and William Schurman were assigned the case. During the trial, the state Public Defenders Office rented Townsend a home in Fort Collins. Townsend also received assistance from the Public Defenders Office in Fort Collins.

Because of the cost of the trial, McLimans is examining areas of his budget where funds can be shifted.

"I have not been able to figure out what funds we will shift," McLimans said. "Our budget is tight."

McLimans had not experienced such an expensive case since 1995. McLimans said the prosecution of Jill Coit and Michael Backus cost a little more than the Johnson trial.

Coit and Backus were convicted of murder for killing Gerald Boggs in Steamboat Springs. Because of pretrial publicity, the 1995 trial was moved from Routt County to Hot Sulphur Springs.

To reach Gary Salazar call 871-4205

or e-mail gsalazar@steamboatpilot.com

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