Steamboat Springs Some might balk at the label "controversial."
Not Gary Wall.
"I'm a lightning rod for sure," the Routt County Sheriff said recently.
Wall's most recent storm is an Oct. 27 traffic stop that resulted in the sheriff being cited for driving under the influence, among other charges. Wall has refused to discuss the details of the incident, other than to dispute the charges. The reticence is part of a larger personality trait that Wall might describe as resolve.
Others have called it defiance. Still, others are simply trying to get a handle on a sheriff who has stirred frequent public debate since taking office in January.
Speaking in that office earlier this month, a dapperly dressed - as always - Wall discussed the positive changes he believes he has brought to the Routt County Sheriff's Office, told stories about his past lives as a sailboat racer and a restaurateur, and shed light on a sheriff who - in a profession where privacy is fiercely guarded - is as engaging as he is brash.
Wall is a self-described "news junkie" and an insatiable reader. He doesn't mince words and doesn't censor his language. His office showcases pictures of President Gerald Ford and Hunter S. Thompson - Wall counts both as friends and claims to have spent time with Thompson on the Las Vegas trip that the late author and self-described "gonzo journalist" famously sensationalized in his book, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."
Wall does not shy away from his colorful past.
"I'm the same way I was in my 20s," said Wall. "I am who I am. : I've been controversial forever."
From the ground up
Despite winning 55 percent of the vote in last year's election, Wall, a Democrat, doesn't believe he had any initial support within the Sheriff's Office, or from local law enforcement in general.
But since taking office and instituting changes, Wall believes he has won over his department. Sheriff's Office investigators Mike Curzon and Ken Klinger did not support Wall during the election. But Curzon and Klinger, a staunch Republican and party-line voter, now firmly back their boss.
"A lot of us were not Gary Wall supporters," Klinger said. "But you look at the things that have changed here, and it's hard not to be a supporter."
Former jailer Ryan Faulkner has a different take on Wall, whom Faulkner described as "cavalier." Faulkner worked at the Sheriff's Office for 16 months before resigning earlier this year. He said he resigned due to Wall's tireless questioning of his integrity following a fight among inmates in the jail that went unnoticed.
"It was a fight," Faulkner said. "We missed it. They wouldn't let it go."
Faulkner said the fight occurred on a busy Friday night in the thinly staffed jail. Once discovered, Faulkner said all the detention deputies followed procedure and had the incident investigated by patrol deputies, who he said determined it was a typical jailhouse fight and that, typically, the inmates were not going to testify against each other.
Nonetheless, Faulkner said, "Gary was so concerned about this fight and us missing it he literally investigated a few of us until we resigned. : He's so worried about his liabilities; he doesn't care about his employees.
"Gary Wall is only worried about his own skin and does not care about the employees whose livelihood is being threatened."
Wall won't discuss the details of his personnel decisions, except to say that he now has a more secure workforce.
"We have stabilized this organization," Wall said. "And that's what I wanted to do, because it costs us a fortune to train people."
Wall's personnel decisions have drawn criticism from the start, when he chose not to swear in previous Undersheriff Dan Taylor, Investigator Rachelle Redmond and Sgt. Dan Kelliher. Faulkner can count and list 18 departures in Wall's first 10 months, a number that could not be confirmed, but was not disputed, by Wall.
"I don't necessarily have an ax to grind, but I wish somebody would ask where everybody has gone," Faulkner said. "I think he's been running people off, and a lot of good people are losing their jobs because of it."
Klinger said Wall has raised Sheriff's Office morale to "an all-time high," due to efforts such as changing a payroll quirk to allow sheriff's deputies to start earning overtime pay at 40 hours, rather than 44.
"I asked that question for years, and it was done in a matter of weeks," Klinger said.
Curzon said the most profound change within the department is the sense of employee empowerment Wall has fostered. Curzon said the opinions of even the lowest-level staff members are asked and respectfully weighed in Wall's decision making.
"That's kind of novel - compared to previous years," Curzon said.
Some of Wall's most publicized controversies have come from butting heads with Routt County commissioners - such as when Wall requested to start his undersheriff, David Bustos, near the top of the department's pay scale despite Bustos' limited law enforcement experience. The commissioners denied that request.
Wall said requesting a higher wage for an employee is a positive choice, even though he lost. But County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said Wall's stubbornness hurt his cause.
"From the very beginning, Gary did not interact with our personnel department," Stahoviak said. "Every time the sheriff has come and asked us for something : it seems like we have to ask more than once for information. : I can tell you after serving in this position for 15 years, when someone comes to me and asks for something, they have to give me the information to make the decision."
Policy issues arose with the commissioners shortly after Bustos was involved in a May 24 car accident in Vernal, Utah, while driving a county vehicle. Although the county's motor pool policy doesn't allow county vehicles to be used for personal use, Wall has encouraged his deputies to do so.
"It's been proven statistically that just the presence of a marked vehicle reduces crime," Wall said.
Klinger said the sheriff's office now has deputies on county roads "where I don't think they've gone in five years."
Wall also is working to purchase snowmobiles to increase the Sheriff's Office access to remote places in the winter, and winches to allow deputies to tow stuck cars out of dangerous situations. And the sheriff is fighting to achieve a round-the-clock service. There currently are no deputies on duty between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m.
"This county has not had 24-hour coverage for years and years," Wall said. "I frankly think that's outrageous. I think that public safety in this county has been put on the back burner for years. Am I controversial for making a big stink about that? Maybe I am, but I think it's right."
It is unclear if and how Wall's recent DUI might create yet another clash with the county commissioners.
"He's innocent until proven guilty," Stahoviak said. "Once we know the circumstances, that's when we'll determine our involvement."
A sheriff's love
Jenny Wilson, who, like Wall, is a divorced parent of two grown children, has been Wall's girlfriend for two years.
"I like that he is comfortable in his own skin," Wilson said. "I like that he is authentic. I like that we like the same people. He doesn't like phony people. He likes real people, no matter what they do. He can smell a phony weasel a mile away.
"I feel pretty lucky that that's the kind of man I attracted, that I was good enough. I'm proud to be with him."
Before meeting Wall, Wilson said she was "totally naÃive" to life in the public eye. It's something she still has trouble with, and she admits to taking public criticisms of Wall personally. As such, Wall's most recent controversy has been especially trying.
"Last week was really horrible," Wilson said Monday. "I look for the silver lining in all things and certainly am in this situation. And I've already seen some results. You know who your friends are."
Wilson describes a Wall who few know. A Wall who cooks and gardens. A Wall who loves roses, photography and walking the dogs. Her Wall is lovable, not controversial. It's the Wall she wishes others would know.
Wall found controversy in his very first job in law enforcement. As a 23-year-old officer with the Aspen Police Department, Wall was sued along with others for violating the civil rights of "hippies." Wall said the police department was encouraged by city officials to "run them out of town." Wall admits to intimidating hippies into relinquishing their rights and looking for ways to arrest them.
"I'm not proud of what I did back in those days, and that's why I'm so sensitive to it now," Wall said.
During lunch at the Old Town Pub & Restaurant, a day after five Steamboat Springs City Council candidates celebrated victories in Tuesday's election, Wall reflected on his own victory a year ago.
"It was a very happy occasion," Wall said Wednesday.
Since that celebratory night, Wall has made friends and enemies across the county, in public and private, through agreements and disputes.
Stahoviak said Wall's life in office will remain challenging going forward.
"The office of sheriff is the one that is most subject to citizens not being happy with what's going on," Stahoviak said. "It goes with the territory of that position."
Despite it all, and despite the controversy, Routt County's top law enforcement officer is as relaxed and confident as ever.
"I didn't expect it to be easy," Wall said. "I am happy. I don't regret it at all."
- To reach Brandon Gee, call 871-4210
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