Questions and accusations still surround drug task force |

Questions and accusations still surround drug task force

Collin Smith

— It seems lately that the frontline of Moffat County's war on drugs has moved from the streets to the offices of local law enforcement and elected officials.

After two Craig police officers assigned to the All Crimes Enforcement Team drug task force were brought up on criminal charges in the past three months, numerous questions regarding the agency's character have surfaced.

The Craig City Council threatened to pull ACET's funding, officials asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to perform an independent review of the task force, and the Routt County sheriff recently wrote a letter stating his agency likely never will join the program because of what he thinks are ethical problems.

With the CBI's review completed, local law enforcement agencies have set about trying to correct some of the issues at hand.

In an initial report released this month, CBI agent Curt Williams stated ACET did not properly manage the cash it released to officers for drug buys or conduct proper oversight of confidential informants.

Williams' statement about the agency's policies on handling cash comes on the heels of former Craig Police Officer Bob Brabo's theft conviction for stealing $500 in ACET drug buy money while assigned to the task force.

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The ACET board that oversees the agency met recently and issued a series of action items to answer the CBI recommendations.

The board consists of Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta, Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz and Steamboat Springs Police Chief J.D. Hays, with assistance from the 14th Judicial District Attorney's Office, Jackson County Sheriff's Office and Hayden Police Department.

A written action plan released by the board states ACET will adopt all suggested policies regarding cash operations, including the discontinuance of a practice allowing officers to have $500 cash on hand at all times.

The action plan does not address a line in Williams' report that there are "serious negative factors" between the ACET board and task force commander Garrett Wiggins.

Sheriff questions ethics

Since the CBI released its report, Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall released a letter criticizing ACET and its leadership for what he considers unethical practices.

Wall pulled his department out of the task force — formerly known as the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team — soon after taking office in 2007.

In his letter, he recounts the criminal cases against former Craig Police Officers Brabo and Ken Johnson, as well as alleges that Wiggins allowed Johnson's behavior for months.

Johnson is scheduled to go on trial May 24 for three felony charges of attempting to influence a public servant, accessory to a crime and embezzlement of public property. Each of his charges relate to alleged actions while he was as a police officer while having a reported sexual relationship with a local woman convicted of drug use and distribution.

Wall also alleges Wiggins purposefully misrepresented evidence against a suspect arrested for drug distribution in Routt County.

"Garrett Wiggins, and ACET, under his command, continue to misuse the power of law enforcement to do their job," Wall wrote.

Wall's letter states he was approached by the Steamboat Springs police chief who asked if he would consider joining ACET if the Craig Police Department were no longer part of the program.

During a phone interview Tuesday, Wall said he likely would never join ACET because his professional opinion is that combating the illegal drug trade takes such manpower and oversight it should be done by a state or federal agency, not local police.

Wall added there appears to be signs of significant issues within the ACET chain of command.

"The thin blue line," he said. "Cops cover for cops. … I don't approve of that, and I don't deal with agencies that do."

The Routt County sheriff said it seems like some of the same issues may exist within the Craig Police Department.

"I don't know why Ken Johnson lasted so long as a cop," Wall said. "I don't know why that would happen. I don't want to be involved with a law enforcement agency that allows that to happen. … Is there no supervision? Is there no accountability?"

Vanatta could not be reached for comment by press time.

Johnson was removed from ACET in March after an internal affairs investigation, which was prompted by a complaint from Wiggins.

However, Johnson remained on active duty with the Craig Police Department until August, and Wiggins' own report filed in Johnson's arrest warrant affidavit states he suspected something was wrong as early as summer 2008.

ACET may continue

The Craig City Council has debated whether it still wanted to fund ACET in light of Johnson's arrest and Brabo's conviction.

City Councilor Jennifer Riley, who has been the most publicly critical of the task force among council members, said that though she agrees with some of Wall's concerns, he will not have much effect on how she views ACET now or in the future.

She added she questions the sheriff's motives for writing his letter and that it was possible his attacks were politically motivated.

Wiggins, who is in charge of day-to-day operations for ACET, campaigned against Wall in the 2006 Routt County Sheriff election. Wall is up for re-election in 2010.

"It seems to me Gary Wall is trying to get in a few digs at his opponent," Riley said.

She added the sheriff shouldn't be so critical of who knew what and when about Johnson or Brabo because he evidently knew about ACET's problems when his office left the program more than two years ago.

"Why, if Gary Wall knew some of these subversive behaviors were going on … why did he not then raise his concerns publicly?" Riley said. "Why did he let it go?"

Wall responded that he would have no interest in attacking Wiggins for political reasons.

"Garrett Wiggins ran against me already, and I beat him," he said. "I'm not worried about Garrett Wiggins."

The Routt County sheriff also said he wanted to come forward now because ACET's issues have become public, and he wanted his constituents to know he would not "sweep anything under the rug."

Regardless of Wall's feelings, city of Craig officials hope to move past recent turmoil and continue the ACET program, which Riley and Mayor Don Jones described as worthwhile and necessary for the community.

The city plans to host a public workshop on the CBI review with state agents, local law enforcement, the District Attorney's Office and Moffat County officials in the coming weeks.

A time and date have not been established.

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