Wednesday, September 6, 2006
People interested in the race for county sheriff couldn't have asked for a sweeter pea.
A week after two men were sentenced to six months in jail for stealing $15 worth of fruit and vegetables from Sweet Pea Produce on Yampa Street, residents of Routt County are getting more than a juicy story - they are getting a look at two paths county law enforcement could take in the very near future.
Gary Wall, a local private investigator and former Vail police chief, is the Democratic candidate for Routt County sheriff. The Republican candidate is Steamboat Springs police officer Garrett Wiggins, a member of the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team and a former deputy in the county Sheriff's Office.
Wiggins defeated Sheriff's Office Sgt. Ray Birch in a Republican primary last month. Since then, news from the Wall-Wiggins front had been relatively quiet.
The vacation ended Monday.
When Wall called the now-infamous Sweet Pea Incident "outrageous," "embarrassing" and an "abuse of prosecutorial discretion," you could almost hear the upcoming campaign speeches.
As a liberal candidate vying for a traditionally conservative position, Wall is running on a campaign of change. He has told the Steamboat Pilot & Today that if elected, he will "do everything (he) can to make sure officers respect the civil rights and liberties of our citizens." The statement implies that, in his mind, such respect is not the norm today.
That sentiment can be hard to clarify.
In previous campaign speeches, Wall often talked about how the door to his office always would be open, or about how, under his leadership, all Sheriff's Office vehicles would be equipped with tow hitches to pull stranded citizens out of the snow, free of charge. Rarely did he address specific cases or crimes.
But then Kerry St. James, an assistant district attorney who brokered the plea agreement for the two defendants, served Wall a stolen salad on a silver platter.
"This whole thing should be reconsidered," Wall said about the misdemeanor sentencing supported by District Attorney Bonnie Roesink.
On Tuesday, Roesink and St. James said no such reconsideration will occur. Evidence suggests that the two men entered the store illegally, they said, leading to the initial charge of felony burglary.
Wiggins said members of the public who are angry about the sentencing - which he said "does seem a little harsh" - should consider that evidence.
"People need to put a little bit of weight into the fact that these fellows did commit a crime," said Wiggins, who declined to comment further on the sentencing. "They were originally charged with a felony, and there may be other elements to this case."
Wiggins pointed out Tuesday that he has been involved in "active law enforcement" for the past 20 years. Wiggins began his second stint with the Steamboat Springs Police Department in 2003.
Wall finished his tenure as Vail police chief in 1979 and has since worked as a private investigator and restaurateur.
Over the next two months, Routt County residents will consider how much change, and what kind of leader, they want in the Sheriff's Office.
A bag of stolen produce provides an interesting barometer.