(originally published THURSDAY, JUNE 21, 2001)
Cynthia Devereaux is on the phone, calling everybody who’s anybody in Costilla County.
She calls Father Pat Valdez, the parish priest in San Luis. She calls Patti Swift, the county judge. She calls her father, Ernesto Sandoval, the former county sheriff. She calls the neighbors.
Her message is simple, delivered in a breathless and frightened voice: The police are at the door. The police are kicking the door. They’re kung-fuing the door and banging on the window. Victor and the baby and I are trapped here, in the cabin in San Pablo, and they’re trying to break in. They don’t have a search warrant. They don’t have any reason to be here. They want to arrest us, but we didn’t do anything.
This is not the sort of call one expects on a spring evening in rural Costilla County, a sparsely populated confluence of scenery and history at the southern edge of the San Luis Valley. Certainly, it’s not the sort of call one expects from Cynthia Devereaux, who happens to be the president of the local school board. Victor, her husband, is a prominent attorney in San Luis, the county seat. The idea of Victor and Cynthia Devereaux holed up in a cabin, under siege by the cops… But in Costilla County these days, anything is possible.
Come quickly, Cynthia pleads. See for yourself.
Ernesto Sandoval is one of the first to arrive. He sees three patrol cars pulled up around the cabin. He sees Costilla County Undersheriff Louis Pugliese at the front door, trying to kick it in. Trying, and getting nowhere. Pugliese sees Sandoval and comes over to his truck to order him to leave.
This is how Sandoval remembers the conversation: “He told me to get the hell out of here. I told him, ‘There’s no way I’m getting out of here. This is my family you’re messing with.’
“I told him I was sheriff for sixteen years, and I never invaded anybody’s privacy without due process. I asked him if he had a warrant. He said, ‘I’m trying to get one.'”
Sandoval gets out of his truck. Now in his late seventies, the former sheriff had back surgery a few years ago and walks with a cane. Pugliese eyes the cane. “He says to me, ‘What are you going to do with that — hit me with it?’ He had his hand on his holster. It was too much. I told him I had better sense than that.”
Father Pat arrives. He, too, is told to leave. He, too, refuses, standing quietly by the gate to the property, an unimpeachable witness to whatever might occur. Neighbors begin to gather on the road. Pugliese directs one of his deputies to call for additional cars from other agencies, including the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Department and the Colorado State Patrol, to control the crowd and close the road.
One of the men in the crowd describes Pugliese as a “fucker” and an “asshole.” Pugliese recognizes the man as someone he’d stopped for speeding. The man is another former Costilla County sheriff.
Mary Atkins is one of the neighbors summoned to the scene. Pugliese tells her to leave. She tells him she won’t interfere, but she wants to observe to make sure nothing bad happens.
This is how she recalls the rest of the exchange: “He said it was a crime-scene area. I told him I didn’t see any crime tape. He didn’t like that too much. He said I needed to move a hundred yards down the road, and when I questioned that, he said, ‘Didn’t you go to school?’– insinuating that I wasn’t educated. Then he accused me of drinking.”
Atkins has lived in Costilla County for five years. By local standards, she’s still a newcomer; many of the predominantly Hispanic residents of San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town, have family ties to the area stretching back six or seven generations. But Atkins has been around long enough to recognize some of the county’s problems. Like an overwhelming majority of the residents, she voted to elect John Mestas as sheriff two years ago. Mestas had promised to clean up the county, to crack down on drunk driving and druggies and burglaries, to make everyone feel safe.
Tonight, though, watching the police in action, pumped up and blustering, bullying the neighbors and aching to bust Victor Devereaux for God knows what offense, Atkins no longer feels safe. These guys, she decides, have been watching way too many cop shows.
Since the siege at the Devereaux cabin on April 26, a lot of people in Costilla County have come to the same conclusion. The standoff that night had begun as a routine traffic stop; by the time it ended, ninety minutes later, it had become the catalyst for a recall campaign against Mestas that appears to be headed to a vote later this summer. Yet it’s hardly an isolated incident. The sheriff’s critics number in the hundreds, and they are bursting with stories of overzealous deputies, brutal arrests, traffic enforcement bordering on harassment, bungled investigations, children and elderly people who were handcuffed or threatened at gunpoint — a litany of complaints about a smothering police presence that has sown fear and outrage in the county.
“People are afraid to venture out at night now,” says Bob Green, editor of a local nonprofit weekly, La Sierra. “It’s so darn easy to be a popular cop here. You go in the stores, you shoot the breeze. These guys don’t do that. I don’t know why respect has to go out the window. I see a tolerant community, but one that’s getting fed up with this. It’s starting to feel like a police state.”
Sheriff Mestas insists he’s just doing the job he was hired to do. “A lot of these people behind the recall want this community to go back to what it used to be,” he says. “They don’t want law enforcement here. They want to be able to do as they please. People say they’re afraid to go to town. Why would they be afraid if they’re not going to break the law?”
But there are people in San Luis, respectable businesspeople and civic leaders, who say that Mestas’s troops treat everyone as if they were lawbreakers, that the stepped-up enforcement has become a nightmare of surveillance and intimidation. Their quest for a more aggressive police force has become a cautionary tale: Beware of what you ask for — you just might get it.
“Everyone wanted some law and order,” says Cynthia Devereaux. “Drug enforcement, drunk driving — that sort of thing. But those issues are still with us. All they’ve done is trample on our rights.”
Until recently, law enforcement in San Luis and the surrounding villages — Chama, San Pablo, San Pedro, San Acacio — was largely a family affair. It wasn’t unusual for a given officer and suspect to have some prior acquaintance or even to be related by blood or marriage. Nor was it out of the question for a sheriff to draw up an arrest warrant, phone the wanted man and request that he report to the jail the next day, just like on The Andy Griffith Show.
But Costilla County isn’t Mayberry. After five decades in which the county’s population declined or remained stagnant, the 1990s brought a 15 percent increase in the number of residents, from 3,190 to 3,663. Much of the growth was fueled by tourism — San Luis is a short drive from Taos and the Great Sand Dunes — and by developers’ efforts to lure part-time residents to new subdivisions, such as the Forbes properties in the northern end of the county. And as the area became more image-conscious, the cries for a more “professional” police force grew.
“The perception valley-wide was that law enforcement had been very casual in Costilla County,” says La Sierra’s Bob Green. “People wanted to see more control.”
Just how severe the crime problem had become remains a matter of debate. There are law-and-order types, including Sheriff Mestas, who talk about the county as if it were a lawless frontier until fairly recently — until 1999, maybe. “There was no law enforcement down here at all,” Mestas says. “You couldn’t come down to San Luis without a fight breaking out. If you were an outsider, you dare not come into this town, because you’d get the shit beat out of you.”
Crime statistics, however, do not support the notion that Costilla was some kind of rogue county. Locals say its reputation as a “troubled area,” as the Denver Post delicately put it in an admiring article about Mestas two years ago, is a result of the media’s tendency to exaggerate the level of violence involved in the longstanding dispute between local land-grant heirs and the wealthy owners of the Taylor Ranch, also known as La Sierra. A 1989 federal raid on the county, resulting in the arrest of 23 residents for poaching — most of whom had shot illegal game for cash offered by an undercover officer — didn’t help matters. Nor did the occasional corruption scandal involving county officials or cops, such as the ex-deputy who pleaded guilty to theft two years ago after she neglected to report her live-in boyfriend’s taste for stolen goods.
The chronic public-safety problems, though, tended to be much more mundane: Bar fights, public drinking and drunk driving, particularly during the annual Santiago y Santa Ana Festival in July. A few kids with drug habits breaking into businesses or houses looking for quick cash. Speeding on Main Street in San Luis.
According to Sheriff Mestas, the county had a “big problem” with alcohol (“It goes back generations; it’s just a way of life down here”), burglaries (“out of hand”) and lax law enforcement. A few years ago, when he called the police to respond to a burglary at his business, a liquor store in Fort Garland, they didn’t bother to show up until the next day — and “for others, they didn’t show up at all,” he says.
Mestas had been a state trooper for 26 years when he retired in 1997; he was married to a woman from Chama and had lived in the San Luis Valley for decades. True, he was born in Trinidad, on the other side of the mountains, and that made him an outsider in some people’s eyes, but it didn’t stop him from running for sheriff in 1998 and winning with more than 75 percent of the vote.
“I’m probably the first sheriff elected here who wasn’t from here,” he notes. “But I just felt I could make a difference. Living in the community and seeing the gangs that were running around, and people being afraid of sitting on their front porches, and listening to people say they were buying weapons for self-protection — everything was totally out of control.”
Mestas inherited a decrepit office and a 35-year-old jail so forlorn that it would soon be condemned by the county commissioners. With the aid of federal and state grants, he acquired more patrol cars, boosted the number of full-time deputies from six to ten, and embarked on a $650,000 renovation of the jail and sheriff’s office. According to some guests, the jail still has plumbing and safety problems; Mestas boasts of improved security (passersby are no longer hooted at by inmates hanging out of windows, for example) and a planned expansion.
The new sheriff wasted no time putting his new patrol units on the streets of San Luis. An unbroken double yellow line and signs banning U-turns spanned the length of Main Street, but they had been routinely ignored by locals whose errands took them to businesses on both sides of the street. (The alternative would be to drive through the entire town, then loop back.) Mestas’s deputies started handing out tickets for U-turns, and the complaints from angry motorists and incensed business owners poured into the town hall. Before long, the town council voted to remove the “No U-Turn” signs.
In other areas, though, the sheriff wasn’t so easily deterred. Increased traffic enforcement translated into increased county revenue from fines, and county officials supported the effort by approving a model traffic code that spelled out a host of violations. Citations for speeding took a sizable leap.
“People don’t agree with the speed-limit signs, but we aren’t the ones who post them,” the sheriff says. “The policy of this department has always been that we allow ten miles per hour over the speed limit before we stop them. If people say they’ve been stopped for less, they’re lying.”
County court records do show a few citations issued to people for going less than nine or even less than five miles over the limit. They also show that a number of people have sought to contest the tickets, arguing that since the crackdown began they’ve been careful to drive under the limit, but the deputy claims they’re speeding anyway. Such arguments, which pit the driver’s word against the officer’s, have had little success.
A deluge of speeding tickets (and the resulting hike in insurance rates) was only the beginning. Motorists in Costilla County soon learned there was no end to the petty infractions for which they could be pulled over, from a faulty license-plate bulb to “failure to count to five” at a stop sign before proceeding. Failure to signal a turn at a four-way stop, whether there’s another car in sight or not. Failure to signal a turn into your own driveway. Driving too fast for the weather conditions. Driving too slow. Driving the speed limit but “impeding a semi.”
“You can’t even cruise the town anymore,” says Maria Martinez, one of the leaders of the recall effort. “They were giving tickets for everything and anything. We asked them to give warnings, but they kept at it. My brother hadn’t had a ticket in thirty years, and he got one for not using his signal at a four-way stop; the deputies were hiding behind the bridge. I called Mestas to ask why he was doing a speed trap like that. He said that’s law enforcement.”
“My husband and I have both had them pull up on your tail and follow you all the way home,” says recall supporter Tonya Sipple. “You know they’re running your plates and waiting for you to do something wrong. My neighbor was pulled over late one night and told, ‘You look lost.'”
“One of their favorite things at night is to stay on your bumper,” Cynthia Devereaux agrees. “It seems like their brights are on, and when you try to adjust to it, they stop you for ‘weaving.'”
The sheriff’s critics say his deputies will use any flimsy excuse to pull a car over, as long as it gives them a chance to sniff the driver’s breath. The real prize lurking behind every nuisance stop, they charge, is the possibility of a drunk-driving arrest. The year before Mestas took office, there were about a dozen DUI arrests in the county. In 1999 the count skyrocketed to 88, with another 75 last year. The two-year total is an astonishing number; it works out to roughly one drunk-driving bust for every twelve drivers in the county.
Mestas doesn’t see why anyone would have a problem with vigorous DUI enforcement. “People here don’t understand that it’s illegal to drink and drive,” he says. “Personally, I feel we’ve saved lives.”
But some people caught in the dragnet tell another story. There’s Danny Garcia, who says he was arrested at his house and charged with a DUI when he hadn’t been behind the wheel all day. (The case was later dismissed.) Garcia also claims to have taken a Breathalyzer after another arrest, only to have the paperwork come back showing that he refused one. Then there’s the young woman who drove fifteen miles to town last winter to report that her boyfriend had beaten her. The woman admitted she’d been drinking; she also said she was afraid to stay at her residence. After her injuries were treated, she was charged with a DUI and sent to detox.
Even those who support the notion of taking drunks off the road suggest that the heavy-handed process has left sober citizens feeling harassed. “I’ve been stopped for weaving,” says Joe Gallegos, Mestas’s predecessor as sheriff. “I don’t even drink. [Undersheriff] Pugliese insisted I had been drinking. I showed him my Diet Pepsi. I told him, ‘Take me down to the office and give me a Breathalyzer. If I come out dirty, arrest me. But if I come out clean, I’m going to sue you.’ He dropped it.”
Three years ago, John Mestas was selling liquor in Fort Garland. Now DUI enforcement has made him the Eliot Ness of southern Colorado. Liquor stores in San Luis report that their sales are off by as much as 80 percent. The two bars in town have cut back hours drastically because of an absence of customers. Whether legally drunk or not, no one wants to take the chance of being stopped with the odor of alcohol on his breath.
“You can’t open the bar,” complains Sam Medina, who operates the Covered Wagon restaurant and bar. “Nobody will go in there. The cops drive by and take down license numbers. Then they go drink coffee, come back, and if this car or that car is still there, the minute the person leaves the place, they stop them.”
Mestas denies that his officers are staking out the bars. “I’m sure their business is off,” he says. “People don’t go to the bars like they used to. We’re living in a different time.”
The Medinas, in any case, have their own set of grievances with the sheriff’s office. Sam’s wife, Teresa, says that deputies burst into their house early one morning and held her on the floor with a gun to her head, traumatizing her four-year-old grandson, while serving an arrest warrant on Sam for cocaine distribution. (Sam later pleaded guilty to a possession charge; Mestas says Teresa interfered with the arrest.) Sam’s niece, Betty Medina, was the town clerk until officers came to her house in 1999 to arrest two of her sons on burglary charges; Betty ended up being charged with marijuana possession and “intimidation of a witness.” Although her sons were later acquitted and the charges against her were dropped, Betty Medina was recently arrested on a fresh charge of “harboring a fugitive” over another incident involving one of her sons. She says the affair has turned her life upside down and led to relentless harassment by the police, who park outside her house for an hour at a time and routinely stop her kids on the street.
“I lost my job. I lost my car. I was slandered in the newspaper,” she says. “I’m not saying my kids are the best kids in the world; they’ve been in trouble. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t do law enforcement. But it doesn’t make sense to me to mistreat people the way they do.”
Sheriff Mestas says the only people who have problems with his officers are people who got caught doing something wrong. He points to the Santa Ana festival as proof that he’s turning things around. In 1997, there were more than a dozen fights at the festival, and in 1998, the event was canceled out of concerns over more violence. But the festival has been held during each of the past two years and has been relatively peaceful, Mestas notes, largely because of the increased police presence.
“People are safe to walk the streets at night, they’re safe to sit on the porch and visit,” he says. “Tourists are starting to come in. The stigma that goes with San Luis is no longer there.”
But according to local historian Maria Valdez, who’s been active in the land-grant dispute, Mestas’s style of policing only perpetuates the myth that Costilla County is an enclave of desperadoes. “There are a few people crossing over the line, but everybody else gets the stigma,” she says. “It only feeds stereotypes and sets people elsewhere against this community. So when you bring up the land issue, for instance, people say, ‘Oh, San Luis — they’re lawless.’ These things come back and haunt the community for years.”
A year into the new sheriff’s term, the Costilla County Chamber of Commerce organized a public meeting in response to mounting complaints about the police. Mestas and four of his deputies attended. So did fifty citizens.
“At least 32 of them had complaints,” says recall supporter Glenda Maes. “John said he was not aware of all these concerns. He committed to quarterly citizen reviews, and we’ve never had one.”
Mestas says he doesn’t remember making any such pledge to the group, which he describes as “pretty anti-law enforcement.” Rick Manzanares, director of the Fort Garland Museum, says that while the subject did come up, it wasn’t clear who was supposed to organize a review process. Other attendees recall that there was a definite understanding that another public meeting would be held soon, to pursue the issues raised and discuss possible changes in policy. But sixteen months have passed, and there’s been no second meeting.
“The sheriff could have taken the baton and run with it, but he didn’t,” Manzanares says. “Now, unfortunately, we’re not talking anymore.”
Even without public meetings, the citizens of Costilla County found ways to communicate their displeasure to the sheriff. Although no lawsuits have been filed yet against Mestas’s department, letters of intent to sue the county, a prerequisite to litigation, have been piling up at the county commissioners’ office.
One letter comes from George Valdez, himself a former county commissioner. Last January, Valdez was leaving the Community Bank in San Luis when a silent alarm accidentally went off. Responding deputy James Neblick confronted the 73-year-old Valdez and a female bank patron as they were leaving the building and ordered them to the ground. Valdez and the woman were handcuffed and made to lie face down in the street for what Valdez calls “a substantial period of time” while Neblick checked out the alarm. Valdez claims physical and psychological injuries and violation of his constitutional rights.
Another letter comes from local attorney and municipal judge Melanie Merritt. She and her husband, Rodney, operate the Flying Hog Saloon in Blanca. On October 28, 2000, Ronald Maish, also known as “Cowboy Bob,” visited the Flying Hog shortly before perishing in a fire at his trailer. In statements to various newspapers, Undersheriff Lou Pugliese indicated that his office was investigating allegations that the Merritts had continued to serve drinks to Maish “well after he was intoxicated.”
Merritt’s letter states that she and her husband turned over a videotape to the district attorney and liquor-enforcement investigators that cleared them of any wrongdoing. Even though the Costilla County Sheriff’s Department had no jurisdiction in the case — Blanca has its own town police — Pugliese continued to make “defamatory statements,” Merritt claims, and two deputies came to the bar to harass and threaten the couple, “slamming gloved hands in [their] faces.” The Merritts claim financial damage, physical and emotional injury, and violation of their constitutional rights.
A third letter comes from Jimmy Velasquez, a Vietnam vet and San Luis resident who was pulled over for alleged speeding on the evening of October 17, 1999. According to Velasquez, a deputy named Thompson became increasingly belligerent as Velasquez attempted to perform roadside sobriety tests. He claims that Thompson and another deputy beat him while he was handcuffed, kneeing him in the back, kicking him and hitting him with a baton.
Velasquez’s passenger was taken to detox. Velasquez was taken to an emergency room in Alamosa and then charged with driving under the influence. According to a report written by Deputy Sue Baldwin, Sheriff Mestas informed her that two other officers “had witnessed Deputy Thompson use excessive force on Mr. Velasquez.” Velasquez claims physical and emotional injury, broken dentures, defamation of character and violation of his constitutional rights.
According to Sheriff Mestas, an internal investigation determined that there was no excessive force used in arresting Velasquez — who, he says, was resisting arrest. (Velasquez denies that he put up any kind of fight.) He also stands by his officers’ actions in the Valdez and Merritt cases.
Deputy Thompson no longer works for Costilla County. With a mixture of pride and regret, Mestas notes that he had to replace five officers last year — half his force. “They all went to bigger departments,” he says. “There was a time when, if you were a Costilla County deputy, you wouldn’t get hired anywhere else.”
Because the starting salary of a deputy is around $19,000 a year, most of his new hires tend to be rookies, fresh out of one of the police academies. “I think maybe they feel they have to prove themselves a little more,” Mestas says, “and maybe they’re harder to talk to.”
Especially if you’re in fifth grade. Another potential lawsuit stems from an incident two months ago at the local elementary school. Tonya Sipple’s ten-year-old daughter got into an argument with a teacher on the playground and was ordered to the principal’s office. She refused to go, getting more hysterical by the moment. Other teachers restrained her and summoned a female deputy who served as the school’s resource officer.
“Then she got very upset,” Tonya Sipple says. “She wanted to call her mom and dad, but the police officer decided to handcuff her. They told us they handcuffed her to keep her from hurting herself and that she was cuffed very loosely. That wasn’t true. She had marks on her wrists from being cuffed so tightly.”
The cuffs were removed in the principal’s office. According to Sipple, the deputy tried to question her daughter about the incident even though her parents had not yet arrived. Sipple has since removed her daughter from the school.
“They didn’t need to handcuff her,” she says now. “She’s never had any other incident in her life. She was wrong for getting into the argument, but this is ridiculous. I have four daughters, and I always raised them to think the police officer is your friend.”
It would be easy to dismiss complaints about the Costilla County deputies as a consequence of the bare-bones training and inexperience of underpaid rookies, except for one thing. Much of the criticism has been heaped on an officer who, aside from Mestas, has the most experience and training of anyone on the force: Undersheriff Louis Pugliese.
Pugliese did not respond to Westword’s requests for an interview, but court records indicate that the 45-year-old undersheriff has had a long and somewhat tumultuous career in law enforcement. He worked for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office for four years before joining the Colorado State Patrol in 1987. As a state trooper, Pugliese soon acquired a sizable reputation for his aggressive enforcement of DUI laws. He won awards for his high rate of arrests and convictions and earned certification as a “drug recognition expert” who could sniff out motorists under the influence of a wide range of illegal substances.
Ten years ago Pugliese was transferred from Golden to the CSP office in Fairplay. His reputation preceded him, recalls Dale McPhetres, a deputy public defender based in Summit County. “Lou had appointed himself to clean up Park County,” McPhetres says. “People were joking about how many cases the DA’s office was going to have.”
McPhetres clashed with Pugliese in court on several occasions. “Lou was just too, too gung ho,” the public defender says. “When you got a DUI report from Lou, you could just punch in somebody else’s name for the defendant. It was like he had it on a template. He always had reasonable suspicion to stop somebody.”
One case, McPhetres recalls, concerned a young woman who’d been drinking and dirt-biking until she had an encounter with a tree that left a branch sticking out of her face. As she was being loaded into an ambulance, Pugliese conducted sobriety tests on her; the tests were later ruled inadmissible as evidence because of the unusual circumstances in which they were done.
“He sees himself as a drug warrior and a crusader for justice,” McPhetres says of Pugliese. “He’s out there doing God’s work. But in a small county, there isn’t a lot of big-time crime. It’s drugs and alcohol. And he started stepping on people’s toes.”
In early 1997, Pugliese was fired by the Colorado State Patrol. He’s now suing the agency, claiming that his dismissal resulted from his efforts to launch an investigation into drug-dealing and other illegal activities at the Park County Detention Center, a jail operated by a private contractor; his refusal to look the other way, Pugliese claims, led to clashes with the county sheriff and his own superiors. But former sheriff Paul Ottmer told the Rocky Mountain News that Pugliese was “too aggressive with people in Park County.” In court documents, the state’s lawyers have described Pugliese as a “lone wolf” and a “loose cannon” who was fired because of his “repeated and flagrant transgressions of CSP directives and policies.”
“I feel very strongly that Lou is a whistleblower,” says Pugliese’s attorney, David Miller, former legal director of the Colorado chapter of the ACLU. “Not only is he a good person, but he takes his job very seriously. Some of the people he worked for in the past, believe it or not, actually had a problem with that. But it’s hard to complain about a guy who’s doing a good job of enforcing the law.”
After losing his state job, Pugliese hired on briefly as a deputy in Trinidad. Then Mestas, who had worked with him in Fairplay, brought him to Costilla County as undersheriff. In his current position, Pugliese has continued to rack up arrests — including 32 DUI arrests last year, earning him recognition from the Colorado Department of Transportation as one of the top drunk-driving enforcers in the state. He’s also still drawing heat.
Several locals say they believe that Pugliese has singled them out for special scrutiny, pulling them over on any ready pretext. Joe Gallegos, the Pepsi-drinking former sheriff, says Pugliese “has got a hair up his butt for me.” Recall supporter Richard Martinez tells a story, complete with snappy dialogue, of being stopped simply because he was driving around town in his Colorado Avalanche jacket.
“He asks me if I’m a gangbanger,” Martinez says. “I say, ‘I’m an Avalanche fan. You got a problem with it?’ He says, ‘Are you getting smart with me?’ I say, ‘You’re the one who has the attitude.’ He says, ‘I don’t want to see you in town.’ I say, ‘Is there a law against it?’ He says, ‘Why don’t you get out of that car and I’ll show you?’ And he unbuckles his gun. I say, ‘Are you threatening me?’ He says, ‘I want you to turn that crap down.’ I say, ‘It’s not loud. It’s not hurting anybody else.’ He said he was going to take my stereo. He’s done this twice now.”
The most dramatic story of an alleged vendetta comes from attorney Victor Devereaux. “Lou Pugliese has stopped me probably eighteen times,” says Devereaux. “He’s never issued me a ticket. He says, ‘Mr. Devereaux, I need to see some ID.’ He knows who I am.
“I’ve had literally dozens of people say to me, ‘You’ve got to stand up to these people. If they can do this to you, they do whatever they want to the rest of us.’ There’s probably some truth to that. I believe this guy came with a sordid history and that he’s very dangerous.”
Devereaux says his problems with Pugliese began shortly after the undersheriff’s hiring. A client sent Devereaux an article about Pugliese that had appeared in ¡Ya Basta!, a Chicano activist paper published in Grand Junction. The piece was an inflammatory account of a Pugliese arrest during his stint in Trinidad; in 1998, he and another deputy ran into trouble while trying to serve a trespassing summons on a Hispanic family in Aguilar, and Pugliese used Mace on 77-year-old Francisco Coca, his 61-year-old wife and their two sons.
An internal investigation by the Las Animas County Sheriff’s Department found that the use of force was justified because the family had resisted arrest and assaulted the officers (Francisco Coca disputes this). However, District Attorney Glenn Davis subsequently dropped all charges against the Cocas, including a charge against one of Francisco’s sons for attempted murder of Pugliese’s partner, saying that the evidence was insufficient to proceed.
Devereaux passed the article on to other attorneys in the San Luis Valley; Pugliese was reportedly outraged. After that, Devereaux and his wife began to get stopped regularly by Pugliese and other deputies, usually over a faulty taillight on their Toyota Echo.
Mestas says his records show that Devereaux has been stopped only six times by his department regarding the taillight. “If this is an issue, why doesn’t he fix the taillight?” he asks. “We’ve let him know and let him know that it’s out. At some point, maybe we do need to issue a citation.”
One evening in the fall of 1999, Devereaux was sitting in his car in the school parking lot in San Luis, waiting to pick up his wife after a school-board meeting. He says two officers surrounded his car and told him he was under arrest for trespassing on private property. (The school is public property.) Devereaux rolled up his window and told them to get a warrant. After they called in to a dispatcher and learned Devereaux’s identity, the deputies apologized and left.
A month later, Devereaux and his wife were once again in the parking lot, waiting for their daughter’s return from a school-sponsored mariachi performance. Three officers approached them. One of them was Pugliese.
“They told us we were trespassing,” Cynthia Devereaux recalls. “They open the door, and Pugliese tries to pull my husband out of the car. I told them I was on the school board and they were out of line. They had another police car block the exit from the lot and told us we were under arrest.”
As Pugliese was ordering them out of the vehicle, Cynthia started snapping pictures with the camera she’d brought for her daughter’s performance. Victor stayed in his seat. When Pugliese heard the film rewinding, Cynthia says, he abruptly told the officers to leave.
Other run-ins followed. Last April, twelve days before the siege at the cabin, Cynthia was pulled over by Pugliese for speeding. She argued with him. The Echo had already been stopped earlier that day by another officer over the taillight problem — one had been fixed, now the other was on the blink — and she insisted she was being particularly careful as a result.
Pugliese offered the summons for her to sign. The option of pleading “not guilty” had already been crossed out, so her signature would represent her consent that she had been speeding. She began to write on the signature line, in big black letters: N-O-T G-U-I–
“At that point he pulls the ticket out of my hand, tears the copy out of the clipboard and throws it into the car,” Cynthia Devereaux says. “He tells me, ‘I can hardly wait until I get out of this damn place.'”
There are at least two versions of how Lou Pugliese came to be kicking the door of the Devereaux cabin in San Pablo last April 26, trying to force his way inside. The Devereaux version goes like this:
Around nine o’clock that night, Cynthia and Victor and their seven-month-old grandchild are headed for the cabin in the feckless Echo. Deputy Theresa Dixon spots the defective taillight and pulls them over. Victor pops the trunk, fiddles with the light, gets it working again. Dixon says that’s the only reason she stopped them. “You’re dismissed,” she says.
“Thank you,” says Victor, with a tinge of sarcasm in his voice. He mimics a military salute.
They drive to the cabin, careful to observe the speed limit. Victor is on his way inside with the baby when Deputy Dixon pulls up and informs him he’s under arrest.
“For what?” Victor asks.
“For eluding an officer,” Dixon says.
“I don’t believe this,” Victor says. “If you think I did something wrong, get a warrant.”
The Devereauxes go into the house. Dixon does not follow. A few minutes later, there is an awful banging at the door, and Cynthia is on the phone, calling Father Pat, her dad, the neighbors.
The police version is contained in several official reports, some of which appear to have been written well after the event. They tell an even stranger story.
At or about 21:05 hours, while on patrol, Deputy Dixon spots an inoperable left taillight. She recognizes the car even before she pulls it over because of the Echo’s custom license plate (SANLUIS). Victor Devereaux, she writes, gets out of the car “staring at me angrily.” He reaches into his trunk in an “aggressive” manner that alarms the deputy. He ignores her request for license and registration and gets back in his car. He makes an obscene gesture (the bird) and an offensive remark (“Fuck you!”).
Deputy Dixon attempts to open the driver’s door. Devereaux pulls it shut and accelerates quickly. The deputy feels “a strong force knock me to the ground, spinning me counter-clockwise.” Dazed and out of breath, she gets back in her patrol car and pursues the fleeing Echo (identified in her report as a Ford Focus), which zips down the country road at speeds between 75 and 80 miles per hour. She catches up at the cabin, but Devereaux ignores her request to come out to the gate and speak to her.
She calls for backup. Mestas is out of town, so Pugliese and another deputy respond. After several polite requests to open the door, Dixon and Pugliese try to break it down on the theory that they are officers “in fresh pursuit” of a suspect wanted on a felony charge of eluding a peace officer.
The stories continue to diverge after the siege is under way. According to Devereaux, Pugliese rips off a window screen and attempts to climb in. Concerned about possible broken glass, Devereaux scoops up the baby’s basinette and starts to tell the undersheriff that he needs a warrant.
“Before he could get the word ‘warrant’ out, Pugliese punches him in the mouth,” Cynthia says. “Pugliese tells the person outside he’s with, ‘Did you see him punch me?’ And the other male says, ‘No.’
According to Pugliese and Dixon, Pugliese strikes Deveraux only after the attorney puts his hand on Pugliese’s face and tries to push him back out the window. Devereaux then grabs the basinette, “using the child as a shield.” As neighbors and more police cars arrive, Pugliese and Dixon get on the radio to District Attorney Pete Comar, trying to obtain an arrest warrant. Ultimately, Pugliese decides the best course of action is “to have all units clear the scene” and forward their reports to Comar for review.
No charges have been filed against Victor or Cynthia Devereaux over the confrontation that night. And although there is no independent record of Pugliese’s conversation with Comar, several witnesses dispute the police version of events on key points.
Since John Mestas arrived in San Luis, listening to the police scanner has become a popular pastime; it’s less risky than driving, and there’s always the chance you’ll hear what happened to some other poor sucker who did venture out. Scanner listeners report that Deputy Dixon said nothing about being knocked down when she reported that she was pursuing the Echo. Witnesses outside the cabin say she didn’t appear injured or even dirtied by the “strong force” that she says spun her counterclockwise; she seemed excited, like she was “loving every minute of it,” says one.
In her report, Dixon wrote that she told Comar she wanted to charge Victor Devereaux with eluding, assault on a police officer and child abuse. Comar did not respond to Westword’s requests for comment, but shortly after the siege, he told the Pueblo Chieftain that Dixon was too “agitated” to communicate clearly that night. She apparently said nothing to the district attorney about being knocked down; in fact, Comar said, she told him that she’d “stepped out of the way” when Devereaux drove off. Pugliese couldn’t tell him if a felony had been committed, either, so Comar told the officers to “back off.”
Sheriff Mestas says Deputy Dixon has been on medical leave since that night, with injuries to her ribs, arms and wrists. He is uncertain about the exact nature of her injuries: “It’s being handled by workers’ comp.”
Victor Devereaux says no one from the sheriff’s office has ever inquired about his injuries. “I have yet to have anybody from his office call about this incident,” he adds. “I know they aren’t so busy that they can’t do an investigation of these constitutional violations.”
It takes 363 signatures to petition for a recall of the Costilla County sheriff, one-fourth of the votes cast in the 1998 election. Cynthia Devereaux, Maria Martinez and other volunteers collected 200 signatures in the first two days of their recall campaign.
They now claim to have more than 500 signatures, including those of the last four county sheriffs.
The petitions must be submitted to the county clerk for verification before a recall election can be scheduled. Sheriff Mestas says he isn’t worried. “If it was 800 or 1,000 signatures, I’d be very concerned,” he says. “But there were 300 people who didn’t vote for me to start off with. I’ve had people come in here who told me they felt intimidated into signing a petition, even though they didn’t want to.”
Mestas is betting that the county’s business community will support his retention out of appreciation for his clean-up efforts — or, perhaps, out of fear that enforcement will deteriorate if he leaves. But many business owners are tight-lipped about their views; it doesn’t pay to voice an opinion on a hot issue when you’re trying to do business with both sides. (“There’s people who won’t sign the petition but will vote to throw out the sheriff,” says Bob Green.) Not one business owner contacted by Westword would offer an unqualified endorsement of the sheriff, and none wanted their names used.
“There is a positive side to this kind of surveillance,” says one. “There’s less public drinking, and people don’t drink and drive, so maybe they are saving lives. But it seems like we went from one extreme to the other. People are not coming to town like they used to.”
Other businesspeople stress that their concerns aren’t just about the alcohol crackdown, which is reminiscent of what happened in Colorado’s ski towns twenty years ago as they became gentrified. They say they are tired of the oppressive atmosphere, tired of the sheriff badmouthing what is essentially a proud, peaceful and vibrant community.
“The people doing the recall have nothing against John,” says another business owner. “They want him to be responsible for his deputies. It’s the good people who are complaining. I don’t think he gets it.”
Mestas says he’s had occasion to reprimand a deputy or two, but not to the point of loss of pay or any other tangible discipline. He insists he is ready and eager to investigate any complaints against his staff. True, he hasn’t sought out his critics to determine if their concerns have any merit: “To be honest, I don’t think anybody has talked to these people,” he says. True, he stands by his deputies “until proven otherwise.”
True, there seems to be a crying lack of respect, a seething contempt — not so much fear as loathing — for his officers right now, but he doesn’t see that as the problem some people have made it out to be.
“This door is always open,” he says. “I feel strongly that this community needs to be in touch with the sheriff.”