Property dispute



— The items did not have a lot of monetary valuable, but they meant a lot to Oak Creek's Jean Paul Caouette.

They were things Caouette couldn't replace if he wanted to a set of dog tags from World War I that belonged to his grandfather, comic books, a set of collector's mugs and a Christmas card.

Most everyone in Oak Creek knows the story, in one version or another, of the day in December 1999 when the Grand, Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team, commonly known as GRAMNET surrounded Caouette's house for a drug bust.

Caouette's home had been under surveillance for weeks. GRAMNET officers suspected he was growing marijuana, said Dwight Murphy, GRAMNET project director.

Caouette said officers in ski masks searched his house for five-plus hours. He said one of the officers tore a copy of the Bill of Rights from his wall, telling Caouette, "you don't believe this."

In the end, the officers found nothing. Caouette was not arrested, but when the officers left the house, they left with several of his belongings as evidence.

No charges were ever filed.

Caouette waited, but his possessions were never returned. For almost three years, they sat in the GRAMNET evidence locker.

Two weeks ago, after complaints by the Oak Creek Town Board, Caouette got the dog tags, the comic books, the mugs and the Christmas card back. Murphy returned the items to Caouette personally. He also returned items to at least one other Oak Creek resident with similar complaints.

Several things still in the evidence locker could not be returned because they were drug related or covered in drug residue, Murphy said.

A town's concerns

Caouette's case came to light after the Oak Creek Town Board balked at making its annual contribution to GRAMNET at a budget meeting in September. Oak Creek officials questioned the task force's activities. They complained GRAMNET agents had treated several residents in the small South Routt County town poorly.

Board members agreed to hold off on the $2,000 payment the town had made yearly to GRAMNET for seven years. Instead, board members asked a representative from the task force to come to a meeting to explain, in the words of Mayor Cargo Rodeman, "what the town got for its money."

When Murphy showed up to give his presentation, those in attendance made several accusations.

Steamboat Springs Director of Public Safety J.D. Hays addressed many of the charges. But Rodeman and Murphy agreed to meet privately to address several of her personal concerns.

"I had a very good meeting with her," Murphy said. "I supplied her with all the documentation she asked for, and we are working toward getting issues worked out."

"I think Dwight is an honest guy," Rodeman said. "I think he is different than many of those before him and is genuinely trying to take action to mend what's been done."

They discussed Rodeman's own experiences with the department as well as those of people like Caouette.

Rodeman told Murphy of another family in town the Chandlers. Robert Chandler was arrested by GRAMNET in 1999. Family members complained that during the search, items were taken that were unrelated to the arrest.

Rodeman arranged for Sherri Baker, Chandler's common-law wife, and Caouette to meet with Murphy and tell him their stories. Rodeman said others in the community had complaints as well, but Caouette's and the Chandlers' were "the most extreme."

The seizure process

Murphy said GRAMNET confiscates property as evidence. The agency also seizes property derived from or used in the sale, manufacture, distribution or use of illegal drugs.

Often, seized property is sold with half the proceeds going to the seizing agency.

"The seizure process is really lengthy now," Murphy said. "Anything we take, we have identifying records."

In helping Caouette get some of his items back, Murphy took photos of stereo speakers Caouette claimed were destroyed during the search. Days after Murphy's visit, Caouette said a "Flintstones" doll that was taken during the search appeared on his doorstep.

Murphy returned to the Chandlers a wooden box made in shop class by one of the family's children. Murphy said he did not find heirloom musical albums that the Chandlers said GRAMNET took during the raid.

Complaints similar to those of Caouette and the Chandlers are not unique. Murphy said people call often requesting a return of their possessions, but "we don't give back pipes, containers that held cocaine or grow lights."

Pipes are smashed and broken up. Drugs are burned.

The GRAMNET evidence locker has items from cases dating back to 1998 awaiting a destruct order, Murphy said.

Governing board

Formed seven years ago, GRAMNET operates in three counties and answers to a governing board of law enforcement officials from all three counties. The board includes the Craig and Steamboat police chiefs, sheriffs from Moffat, Grand and Routt counties and the district attorney.

The board meets once a month with officers for a briefing of GRAMNET activities, but the board's function is mostly financial and administrative, Routt County Sheriff John Warner said.

People with complaints should put them in writing and give them to the sheriff or police chief in their region, Warner said.

Both Warner and Murphy were disturbed the complaints of Caouette and the Chandler family took several years to come to light.

"Don't wait four years to make a complaint," Warner said.

Murphy speculated the complaints came forward this fall because "those people now have an ear to listen to their stories and a voice that will stand up for them with the current mayor."

Rodeman said the town has tentatively budgeted the $2,000 contribution to GRAMNET but has not made a formal decision. She said Murphy's willingness to listen to residents' concerns and to work to return some of the items seized should help the agency's cause when the town does make a final decision.

"I think it's unbelievably cool what Dwight has done," she said. "I think it's the kind of response we had not been able to get from some of the other people who worked with GRAMNET in the past."


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