Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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If you think Sheriff Gary Wall's DWAI conviction this week was shocking, you haven't lived in Routt County long enough. History tells us that during the past 35 years, the Sheriff's Office has been embroiled in controversy and tragedy more often than not.
The 12-year tenure of Wall's predecessor, John Warner, was the most stable administration we've lived with in three or four decades.
The relative calm of the Warner years have caused us to forget that since Richard Nixon was president, controversy and tragedy have visited more than one Routt County sheriff. One sheriff was found innocent of wiretapping by a local jury; another resigned amid allegations by the district attorney that he had conspired to cover up missing cocaine from the evidence locker. A successor was admonished for using the Sheriff's Office as his campaign headquarters, and still another pled guilty to felony embezzlement of public funds.
That laundry list involves several sheriffs, and I'm probably leaving somebody out.
I want to be clear that during the past 35 years, many fine men and women have served in the Routt County Sheriff's Office. For 25 years, I've watched them cooperate with the FBI in a manhunt for a dangerous criminal, help rescue people from roaring streams, work on the investigations of murders, fight their way into the scene of downed aircraft in the backcountry, and peacefully disarm citizens brandishing loaded guns.
This is in no way a flippant effort to mock those peace officers. And I have to say, of the past controversial sheriffs I knew, all of them were people you'd enjoy having lunch with. But we cannot ignore the lessons of the past. Whether it's something in the water, the high elevation or just plain human nature, many of our sheriffs have made headlines for the wrong reasons.
Sheriff J.T. Kelton
I never knew Sheriff J.T. Kelton. However, in May 1974, about three months before Gerald R. Ford became president (and you know all about that story), Sheriff Kelton was being tried here on two counts of wiretapping and conspiracy to commit wiretap.
The jury reached a verdict of "innocent" just minutes after deliberations began. They made their minds up so quickly that the judge wasn't even in the courthouse when they filed back into the courtroom.
In the mid-70s, party telephone lines were common here. The charges against Kelton grew out of the prevalence of those shared phone lines. A man who was employed as security chief for the Steamboat Ski Area at the time happened to share his phone line with eight other households. He could identify the rings of several households when they sounded in his own bedroom. He testified that he eavesdropped on a conversation that betrayed suspicious use of a credit card and possible evidence of a drug deal.
The man testified in court that he made a tape recording of one such call and took it to the sheriff, who encouraged him to make more tape recordings.
I'm told that Kelton's undersheriff, Larry Vanatta, was very respected and enjoyed an unusually open relationship with area teenagers who learned to trust him.
Vanatta may have been the closest Routt County ever came to Sheriff Andy Taylor, but again, I did not know the man.
Sheriff Nick DeLuca
Shift forward to 1982 and meet Sheriff Nick DeLuca, who wore his badge on a Western belt, smoked a pipe and favored leather vests. He backed up his Western image by riding bulls in the rodeo.
DeLuca was a co-owner and editor of the Hayden Valley Press. Beloved in that area for the personality profiles he published about notable local figures, he won prizes for his photography and editorial writing.
DeLuca resigned in January 1982 while embroiled in allegations by the district attorney that he had attempted to cover up knowledge of 45 grams of cocaine and weapons thought to be missing from the evidence locker in the Sheriff's Office. Ironically, the "missing" articles later were located and determined to have been mislabeled and misfiled. DeLuca already had resigned under threat of prosecution.
DeLuca, a likeable man, tragically died in an April 1982 traffic accident on U.S. Highway 40 east of Hayden, near Morgan Bottom Road.
Sheriff Tim Walsh
In the early 1990s, Sheriff Tim Walsh was the central figure in an impropriety involving county funds.
Walsh found what he thought was a way to borrow from the contingency fund in the Sheriff's Office. He was charged with placing personal checks written for $200 and $250 in the fund in exchange for cash.
The day his jury trial on embezzlement charges was scheduled to begin in Eagle County in February 1991, he accepted a plea bargain from special prosecutor Robert Wheeler. He pleaded no contest to a charge of embezzlement of public funds, a Class 5 felony. His sentence and judgment was deferred for a year on the commission that he commit no further crimes in that time.
Wheeler said he offered the plea because he saw no intent to commit a crime, but rejected Walsh's characterization of his actions as sloppy bookkeeping. He noted that one of the checks had been sitting in the contingency fund for more than a year.
Walsh already had left office when he reached the plea. The Routt County Republicans did not nominate him in the spring of 1990, and he failed to obtain the necessary 249 signatures needed to petition his way onto the August primary ballot.
Before he left office, he chose to let loose a parting salvo, firing Sgt. Art Fiebing weeks before he was due to become undersheriff for sheriff-elect Ed Burch. Fiebing went on to have an exemplary career with the Steamboat Springs Police Department.
Sheriff Ed Burch
Burch was a retired Army colonel who had survived some wicked firefights during his three tours of duty in Vietnam. He had noteworthy leadership skills but frequently butted heads with the Routt County commissioners. In a tit-for-tat over budget matters with the commissioners, Burch announced he was eliminating the county animal control office and letting the employees go to save money. It wasn't a popular move in ranch country.
But the same Ed Burch acted like the war hero he was in February 1994. When the Good News Building blew up across Fifth Street form the courthouse, he was on scene and led people to safety.
Burch, who always was a stand-up guy, endured personal tragedy while in office when his 8-year-old son died in an automobile accident in Jackson County. To this day, a trophy in his name is given out annually by the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club.
Five years after he left office in 1995, Burch lost his own life in December 2000 when his airplane fell into the ocean off the coast of Alaska.
No, Gary Wall's legal troubles don't represent the first time a Routt County sheriff has been caught up in controversy or tragedy. History tells us that, unfortunately, it won't be the last time.
- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org