Craig Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said he saw no use in getting into a war of words with Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall. But that didn’t stop him from throwing a verbal jab at Wall this week.
Wall recently spoke out about ethical issues he sees in the Craig Police Department and All Crimes Enforcement Team drug task force. Wall’s allegations come on the heels of two former Craig Police Department and ACET officers being charged with crimes by the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
“I think anyone who has already faced his own ethical challenges should worry about his own stuff,” Vanatta said.
Vanatta appeared to be alluding to Wall’s 2008 conviction for driving while ability impaired, prohibited use of a weapon and failure to dim headlights. Wall pleaded not guilty and defended himself against what he suggested was a conspiracy among other law enforcement agencies to frame him for drunken driving.
Vanatta said he agrees with Steamboat Springs Police Chief J.D. Hays and ACET Cmdr. Garrett Wiggins that Wall’s complaints about ACET may have been a political attack on Wiggins, who campaigned against Wall in the 2006 Routt County sheriff election and has filed papers to run against Wall in 2010.
Wall said he was not aware Wiggins was running for sheriff when he wrote the letter about ACET.
Hays said he thinks Wall was insincere when he said the leadership of the Craig Police Department and ACET seems to allow officers to violate department ethics and, at least in the cases of former Craig police officers Ken Johnson and Bob Brabo, look the other way when they break the law.
“I personally believe that everything the sheriff does over here is politically motivated,” Hays said.
Wall said Thursday that as an elected official, he can be criticized for making political remarks or actions no matter what.
“If I say nothing, it can be construed as political. And if I say something, as I did, it can be construed as political,” he said. “I think I have an obligation as the elected chair to let the public and let the citizens know about these things.”
Johnson and Brabo were assigned to ACET until they were removed after separate internal affairs investigations.
Brabo recently was convicted of stealing $500 in drug buy money from the task force, and Johnson faces three felony charges and is scheduled for a jury trial May 24.
Hays said his biggest issue with Wall’s comments is that he is disparaging Wiggins’ reputation. Wiggins officially is employed by Hays’ department.
“There’s always been a drug issue in this part of the state, and we’ve never been successful, not really successful, until we formed” a drug task force, Hays said. “Most of that success has been since Garrett Wiggins came on.”
Hays also said Wall misstated the nature of their conversation when the sheriff wrote in a letter that Hays asked whether Wall would join ACET if the Craig Police Department pulled out of the program.
There have been no discussions among anyone to force Craig police out of ACET and continue the program without the department, Hays said.
“My concern was because of what was going on, if the task force fell apart, would he be interested in forming a task force just in Routt County,” he said.
Wiggins, reached by phone while on vacation in Florida, said Wall’s accusations are baseless and disappointing.
Among them, Wall said Wiggins routinely abuses his power as a peace officer and most recently purposefully misrepresented evidence against Jorge Orduno-Acuna to ensure that he would face a mandatory minimum of eight years in prison.
Orduno-Acuna is involved in a Routt County case in which law enforcement officials reportedly found a pound of methamphetamine and a half-pound of cocaine.
Wiggins said his arrest papers show he did not try to charge anyone in the case with the sentence enhancer for a minimum eight years. That came later, without his involvement, when the District Attorney’s Office filed official charges.
“If Gary Wall had any factual information to back up his allegations, he would not hesitate to press charges against us,” Wiggins said.
Wall said Thursday that he doesn’t intend to pursue any criminal investigations or charges into the matter, leaving it up to the district attorney.
“I stand by everything I said in my letter. Those were all factual things,” Wall said. “I find it interesting that J.D. (Hays) and Walt Vanatta didn’t deny any of those things.”
Wiggins said he is proud of his involvement in bringing Johnson’s alleged actions to light.
Although Wall said Wiggins did not disclose his suspicions about the former officer soon enough, the ACET commander said he acted as soon as he had probable cause.
Then, when Wiggins was not satisfied with the Craig Police Department’s internal affairs investigation, he said he asked the District Attorney’s Office to open a second investigation that eventually led to Johnson’s arrest and ongoing criminal prosecution.
Wiggins said his decision to bypass the Police Department caused “some friction” with a few of the law enforcement officials who make up his governing board but that those issues are in the past.
“I will not tolerate a double standard,” Wiggins said. “If I have cops working for me that are doing things they shouldn’t, I will see them charged criminally just like anyone else.”
Meanwhile, as law enforcement and elected officials try to resolve issues surrounding ACET and other agencies, the task force is without assigned officers.
In addition to Wiggins, ACET uses one appointed Craig police officer and one Moffat County Sheriff’s Office deputy. The past two Craig police officers assigned to the unit were brought up on criminal charges, and the last sheriff’s deputy resigned so he could move near his family.
Vanatta said he and Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz are waiting until a Colorado Bureau of Investigation review of ACET procedures is completed before assigning anyone new to the task force.
The police chief added there are interested applicants in both departments and that they soon will move forward with a stringent hiring process.
For its part, the Craig City Council, which has debated whether to keep funding ACET in light of recent controversies, plans to host a special public workshop at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 12 at Craig City Hall, 300 W. Fourth St.
The council plans to discuss the CBI review and other issues with the agent who conducted the inquiry, ACET board members and other law enforcement.
Steamboat Pilot & Today reporter Zach Fridell contributed to this story.