Mike Lawrence: Excruciating choices

Bailey tragedy shows sheriff is a job like no other

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Parents of Strawberry Park Elementary School students have an extra consideration in their vote for Routt County sheriff.

The new sheriff - either Democrat Gary Wall or Republican Garrett Wiggins - would be the incident commander should a horrible tragedy like Bailey or Columbine unfold at Strawberry Park or Steamboat Springs Middle School.

"Those two schools are not within the city limits of Steamboat Springs," said Capt. Joel Rae of the Steamboat Springs Police Department. "The Sheriff's Office has jurisdiction at Strawberry Park Elementary School and at the middle school."

Rae said Public Safety Director J.D. Hays would be the incident commander for situations at Soda Creek Elementary School and Steamboat Springs High School. If Hays was not available, the duty would be Rae's.

Routt County Sheriff John Warner confirmed that his office would have jurisdiction at Strawberry Park, but said other county municipalities are responsible for commanding incidents at their schools.

"If it happens in Hayden, it's the Hayden Police Depart-ment," Warner said. "If it happens in Oak Creek, it's the Oak Creek Police Department."

Rae and Warner said their agencies would be available to assist with any such incidents in Routt or Moffat counties. Rae said Sheriff's Office deputies have trained with the police department for at least the past two years on "response to active-shooter incidents."

But even with all the assistance in the world, the incident commander ultimately would have to make the excruciating choices - such as whether to break into a classroom where a deranged, dangerous adult is sexually assaulting students being held hostage.

We all saw the burden those choices placed on Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener. In very human, emotional interviews, Wegener said he "was scared to death" during the "horrific" Sept. 27 ordeal at Platte Canyon High School in the small mountain town of Bailey. In the split seconds after a SWAT team blew a classroom door off its hinges in an attempt to save two girls held hostage by 53-year-old Duane Morrison of Denver, Morrison fatally shot one of the girls, 16-year-old Emily Keyes, and then shot himself.

"My decision was to either wait, with the possibility of having two dead hostages, or act to try and save what I feared he would do to them," Wegener told the media and Bailey residents. "We have confirmed he did traumatize and assault our children. : This is why I made the decision I did."

The ordeal began around noon that day. At the time, Wall and Wiggins were speaking about policy issues at a public forum hosted by First Impressions of Routt County.

I covered the local event and wrote a story about the policy differences, which are significant and important to our sheriff's race here in Routt County.

But watching Wegener on TV later that evening, wiping tears from his exhausted eyes, the policy issues paled in comparison to the gain or loss of human life.

No other local political race involves such potentially high stakes. No ruling by a county commissioner and no property valuation by a county assessor is remotely close to the weight of decisions that can be faced by a law enforcement officer.

Wall and Wiggins are good men. Both would face a learning curve if elected - Wall, because of his substantial length of absence from active duty, and Wiggins, because of his lack of supervisory experience.

Wall is a private investigator. Wiggins is a narcotics investigator and police officer.

Someone may have asked about Bailey, or crisis situations, during Tuesday night's candidate debate at the high school. But every situation is so different - I don't know if there is a way to ask that question, or even to define what the question is.

But I do know that if I had children at Strawberry Park, I would think about an answer before casting a vote.

- To reach Mike Lawrence,call 871-4203 or e-mail lawrence@steamboatpilot.com

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