SANFORD — Residents of a small town and rural area on the verge of vigilante justice attended a public meeting with Conejos County Sheriff Howard Galvez Wednesday night and demanded answers as to why they have suffered criminal activity and burglaries with little help from law enforcement.
Galvez addressed a crowd of some 300 persons at the Sanford Community Center and expressed concern about the growing crime in Sanford and the surrounding rural area.
While Sanford is incorporated and had a population of 879 at the last census, it has not had an active police department for several months but depends on the Colorado State Patrol and the sheriff for assistance. Galvez said his department is down several deputies from its funded maximum, because hiring and keeping new ones had been difficult.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Galvez told an increasingly angry and restless audience. “We need to discuss how we can control crime and drug problems.”
Blaming an increase in burglaries on opioids, Galvez suggested many perpetrators have used technology to escape with their stolen bounty.
Also at the head table, State Senator Larry Crowder said the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) has funding for problems such as this and “the marijuana thing has turned things upside down. It created a problem.” It also may be possible to send marijuana excise tax revenues to help small, financially strapped rural areas, he said, but Conejos County needs to apply.
Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational purposes in 2012 and Crowder said this is the law of the state, although cities, counties and towns must deal with that and other drug problems, including an increase in opioid abuse and use of heroin.
Crowder said another district judge has been added in the San Luis Valley as case loads increased, but “the turnout here shows something must be done and rather quickly.”
Lack of accountability a problem
A lack of speedy response and accountability reportedly drew many residents to the meeting and Galvez said most of the burglaries had involved theft of firearms.
Galvez said many people reporting loss of firearms haven’t documented them, along with a list of serial numbers. Reports are sent to the state patrol, which then enters stolen items in crime information systems.
Keith Christensen said his home was broken into nearly a month ago and a number of guns were taken. A sheriff’s deputy responded and, when asked later if a report had been made, the deputy said there were suspects, but blamed the district attorney for lack of charges.
Christensen said he asked for police reports three times and his insurance carrier is threatening to void his claim without them.
The fact that many burglars are turned loose without spending time in jail upset many audience members, who expressed the feeling that locking all of them up would be a better deterrent.
Another audience member said he and his children caught two thieves and “they let them go. They were caught with $35,000 worth of copper, other items and radiators.”
Several years ago, he said the DA’s office dropped a $100,000 loss down to a Class 2 misdemeanor. “Make an example of some of them.”
Dennis Crowther said a “lot of stuff is going on around here at night… We need to keep our kids home and teach them respect.”
“Maybe we need some volunteers or something to work on paperwork or watch (the town and surroundings).”
“Let’s use our eyes and try to get something done,” he said. “We have to volunteer and organize. The sheriff can’t do everything.”
Rancher Tony Martinez told Galvez he tried calling him, with no success. The theft of batteries and other equipment was reported, but nothing was done.
“We are lacking leadership and I haven’t seen a damned word from you,” he told Galvez. “You’re the one responsible… Try to prosecute some of these people.”
Pam Jones said she is so frightened that she has been locking her doors and carrying a pistol when she goes to get her mail.
“I hadn’t locked my doors for 40 years and couldn’t find the key,” she told Galvez. “I had to have the locks changed so I can lock my doors.”
Jones said she dreads catching someone in her home. “If I have to kill someone, I will have to live with it for the rest of my life.”
“Nothing is being done. We’re going to end up killing someone,” she said as the crowd applauded.
Christensen cautioned the audience, “Let’s seek positive solutions. Let’s not throw these folks under the bus.”
Rodney King, county emergency manager for more than 20 years, said, if people would get in touch with him, he would facilitate a meeting so people could arrive at a solution.
The DA’s function
Chief Trial Deputy District Attorney Ashley Fetyko, attending with Deputy DA Ashley McCuaig, explained what the office does and how it decides to charge offenders. The local office covers all six San Luis Valley counties and prosecutes everything from simple misdemeanors to first-degree murder, she told the crowd.
Fetyko said the presiding judge sets bond after considering the needs of the community, the individual’s needs and the danger that person may pose to others.
Judges take many factors into consideration when setting bonds, Fetyko said. The DA is not in charge of setting bond, she pointed out, but “we will argue for the maximum that’s appropriate.” Each person can post whatever bond is required, be it cash only or cash and surety.
In deciding what to charge a perpetrator, she said the DA receives reports from officers, as well as written accounts, audio and video information.
Funding sources for prosecution and defense attorneys are an issue. County Commission Chair Mitch Jarvies said Conejos County increased the District Attorney’s budget by $40,000 and the other five counties made their own allocations, since county funds must cover the DA’s staff, while “the public defender is funded with your tax dollars.”
Questions and answers
Pattie Swift, chief judge for the 12th Judicial District courts, said the court couldn’t take one side or the other. “We wait for the information and have to be fair to both sides when setting bond and setting sentences.”
The judge said drugs are a huge problem, with the opioid epidemic flooding the courts. Prescription drug abuse has moved to heroin, she said. “Almost every case I have involving probation violation includes heroin.”
Retired Alamosa Police Chief Roy Orton said he is well aware of the lack of training and staff problems.
Orton said there are some retired police officers in the San Luis Valley who are “very good investigators” who can help identify people and put information onto affidavits. “Give them a chance to prosecute. There is enough money to hire one officer to work full time, ID these people and get them off the streets.”
Brad Huffaker, a school district financial officer, said the community needs help.
He said his son-in-law and daughter had thousands of dollars worth of items stolen while they were in church.
“I, my brother and my son-in-law went out, worked all night and identified a suspect. We taped the contact and turned it in to the sheriff’s office. To date, we have never heard a thing about it.”
Huffaker said another theft took place while the family was baling hay. There was an old tractor that was on its last legs and could barely be started, but someone took it, drove it to Antonito and parked it. “A deputy came out and said it was a waste of time to fingerprint it.”
An additional tax?
Asked whether they would pay an additional tax to get that done, a vast majority of the audience raised their hands.
Jarvies said getting convictions and jailing people has long been an ongoing problem; now it’s growing, affecting many people.
“We will apply for all the money we can get. We have reserves, but we’re starting to dig into them and the reserves won’t last.”
“You get a tax on the ballot, we will schedule an election and get a tax passed.”
Jarvies said it wouldn’t happen right away. “We have to take care of ourselves, police ourselves. We’ve got to watch (what’s happening around us). Be good witnesses.”
State Rep. Donald Valdez, a resident of neighboring La Jara, suggested using a cell phone and taking pictures when something suspect is noticed. “Give it to the sheriff’s office. We don’t need to be living in fear.”
“We can’t be waiting and waiting and waiting. If something is going on, call the sheriff,” Valdez said. “This is our community and we all need to stand up.”
Preston Baker said he had worked for both the Conejos and Costilla county sheriffs and said he quit to work at something that would give him more time with his family. Baker said he would help however he could.
“People are committing crimes and we want the book thrown at them — the full maximum,” he added.
Finally, County Commissioner John Sandoval stood and said, “I’m John and I take responsibility for things that aren’t being done. Put your money where your mouths are and do what can be done.”
“I am as mad as you guys are… We need to start taking more responsibility. We need to do more. If the sheriff needs more money to increase deputies, we need to give more. We need to take responsibility ourselves. Call 9-1-1 and give them your name. When the perps know we are tough, they will go somewhere else.”
“You will see me at every single school board meeting and town board meeting to get this message across.”
“The buck stops here.”