Craig Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said he saw no use in getting in a war of words with Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall.
Wall recently spoke out about various ethical issues he sees in the Craig Police Department and All Crimes Enforcement Team drug task force after the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office recently filed criminal charges against two former officers assigned to the unit.
“I think anyone who has already faced his own ethical challenges should worry about his own stuff,” Vanatta said.
Although Vanatta did not elaborate, Wall was convicted in 2008 of driving while ability impaired, prohibited use of a weapon and failure to dim headlights.
The case included several controversial moments, such as when Wall said he thought there was a conspiracy among law enforcement to frame him for drunken driving and when one of the sheriff’s deputies testified against him in Routt County Court.
Former Deputy Lance Eldridge resigned the day after Wall was convicted and said the decision was “related” to his testimony.
Eldridge now works as an officer for the Craig Police Department under Vanatta’s command.
Vanatta added he agrees with Steamboat Springs Police Chief J.D. Hays and ACET Commander Garrett Wiggins that Wall’s comments were designed to attack Wiggins, who campaigned against Wall in the 2006 Routt County sheriff election and has filed papers to run against Wall again in 2010.
Hays said he “absolutely” believes 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.
Johnson and Brabo were assigned to ACET until they were removed following 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 added his biggest issue with Wall’s comments is that he is disparaging Wiggins’ reputation, who 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 if 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 he would face a mandatory minimum of 8 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 8 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. “The fact that he hasn’t shows that we haven’t.”
Wiggins also 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 last 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 recent 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.