El Paso County sheriff hoping for a second act after three years of mixed reviews

By: Lance Benzel and Rachel Riley

December 2, 2017 Updated: December 3, 2017 at 10:28 am
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In this photo, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder speaks to his staff at the headquarters on Thursday, January 1, 2015, during a promotion ceremony. Elder is seeking a second term as El Paso County Sheriff. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

The jail population has swelled to record highs. Dissent troubles the ranks. And questions linger about a high-profile murder probe that critics fear was left unfinished.

But El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder says he wants more – a second term as sheriff to keep confronting those challenges while doubling down on what he calls a slate of improvements during his first three years in office.

“I believe that we have the agency running in a positive direction. That is the purpose of what a sheriff’s office should do,” Elder said in discussing his re-election bid.

After quietly filing his candidacy in March, the lifelong Republican will face at least one primary challenger: political outsider Mike Angley, a retired Air Force colonel, who has made reports of turbulence during Elder’s tenure a focal point of his campaign. No Democrat has announced their intention to run.

While Elder touts gains in winning over critics – or at least accommodating them – Angley says there’s nothing to celebrate about Elder’s leadership.

“We have not run into anyone yet who’s satisfied with how things are going in the Sheriff’s Office,” said Angley, who said he’s heard employees complain of “tribalism” and disparate treatment of subordinates since he registered to run in August. “There’s a genuine hunger for change of leadership.”

Elder’s campaign website lists numerous high-profile endorsements, including the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association, which lauded Elder as “a leader with integrity and a proven track record.”

The sheriff isn’t shy about acknowledging the drama, touting his “tough skin” in weathering a “day-in and day-out onslaught of falsities and half-truths” in a personal statement on the campaign website.

Some of those conflicts date to the transfer of power from Elder’s predecessor, ex-Sheriff Terry Maketa, who remains under indictment for corruption.

Lasting divisions

Maketa’s first trial, which ended in July with split verdicts, tore the lid off a culture of disruptive allegiances that has continued under Elder, with deputies and ex-deputies taking the stand to bitterly describe lingering resentments.

“I didn’t come in and wipe the slate clean in any kind of political move as seen in many large sheriff’s offices,” said Elder, a graduate of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, who spent more than 20 years working forthe Sheriff’s Office and Fountain Police Department before his election. “While there may be some latent hostilities, I’m doing everything we can to not push those and to hope that we can work our way through it.”

But claims of workplace retaliation continued after Maketa’s departure.

The county agreed in August to pay $68,000 to settle a complaint after one of Elder’s employees claimed she faced retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.

A pending lawsuit filed last year alleges that a female employee, who has since left the Sheriff’s Office, and her husband, a former sheriff’s sergeant, continued to face retaliation for reporting sexual harassment even after Elder took office in January 2015. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, asserts that Tiffany Huntz was subjected to lewd comments from Cmdr. Rob King during Maketa’s time in office. Huntz has been an outspoken supporter of Maketa.

Angley, who spent more than two decades working to bust criminals for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, said he would combat the culture of cronyism and payback with a clearly-defined, merit-based promotion system.

“The sense of tribalism comes about as a result of the way that people have been promoted in the past,” Angley said. “I want to de-politicize as much as I can.”

Tom Clements murder investigation

In addition to office politics, Elder inherited other issues from Maketa’s tenure, including an ongoing murder investigation that has given rise to questions some say his administration has failed to adequately address.

Elder came under fire in 2016 for his decision to end the investigation into the killing three years earlier of 58-year-old Tom Clements, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Clements was shot and killed by Evan “Evil” Ebel, a 28-year-old parolee who was later killed in a shootout with Texas authorities.

An investigation by the Texas Rangers, first brought to light last year by The Denver Post, concluded Clements’ murder was a plot by the 211 Crew white supremacist gang – inspiring fears that others outside prison walls might be on a gang “hit list.” An El Paso County judge went into hiding in the wake of the killing, The Post had previously reported, citing anonymous sources.

Elder said he met with staff to discuss possible leads as recently as last month after “thousands upon thousands of hours” of audio recordings were given to his office by the state’s Department of Corrections. He said the recordings – which he referred to as “calls,” “conversations” and “interviews” – came from a mix of sources, but declined to elaborate.

More than a year after he made public his intentions to close the case, Elder insists that his office is checking out leads and maintains that the 211 Crew, whose leader died in a Wyoming prison in August, poses no threat to the community.

“Listening to those interviews and identifying potential leads is a huge manpower drain, but until we get through that, and we assess whether or not there are leads in those conversations, calls, etc., it will remain an open investigation,” Elder said. “There is nothing in there that leads me to believe that the investigation should take any different direction than it has since the beginning.”

A jail “bursting at the seams”

Elder continues to juggle a host of issues that stem from overcrowding at the jail, where the population surged to a record high of more than 1,790 in August. Attacks among inmates and on deputies are becoming more frequent as the understaffed institution struggles to confine the drug addicted, the mentally ill, and others it is poorly equipped to house.

Tensions came to a head last fall, when inmates attempted to riot over food portions after the jail switched from its longtime vendor to a new meal provider.

A packed detention center has kept Elder from cashing in on a once-lucrative agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement by offering to house illegal immigrants for a price. The Maketa administration reaped millions for department coffers under such an arrangement, but as the jail has filled, the revenue stream has diminished to about $7,000 through August of this year.

Meanwhile, the cost of housing each inmate has increased steadily, from $62.40 a day in 2009 to $88.72 a day as of November, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

The jail has also been dogged over questions about its medical care for inmates and criticism of the for-profit companies hired to provide it.

A busy first term

Despite those challenges, Elder maintains he’s made steps in the right direction. He cited his decision to outsource the investigation of employment complaints to the El Paso County Attorney’s Office to avoid claims of bias.

His campaign website touts other accomplishments: the establishment of a body-worn camera program, the creation of a new unit to aid with community outreach and rural enforcement, and other efforts to remain transparent and accountable – which he promised while campaigning for his first term.

His pledge to keep an open door for the press gave way to public clashes with reporters.

Elder was criticized in The Denver Post when he asked reporters to drop their coverage of the Clements investigation out of consideration for the victim’s family members.

The sheriff denied friction with the state’s largest newspaper.

“I don’t know that we’ve been in any way nontransparent,” he said.

If re-elected, Elder pledges a renewed focus on homelessness and mental health issues and a push to begin shutting down hundreds of illegal marijuana grow operations that county officials say are creating a public health risk in the rural parts of the county.

The sheriff said he’s aware of about 550 to 600 such home grows that aren’t compliant with state law or will be in violation once a rule change takes effect next year.

But Elder declined to characterize the ramped up enforcement effort as a crackdown, instead calling it “a roll-out.”

The new state law will eliminate loopholes in marijuana codes that allowed some home cultivators to raise up to about 500 plants at a time, he said. That number will now be capped to 12 per household for recreational growers and 24 for medical cannabis patients and caregivers, with additional stipulations.

Elder said he’s asked his staff to come up with specific “missions and visions” in combating issues that stem from homelessness and mental health problems by the end of the year.

Angley didn’t point to specific goals, but promised a “top-down, bottom-up look” at the Sheriff’s Office to explore improvements and efficiencies. He suggested the jail’s “business model” could be tweaked to make or save money, but did not provide details.

Angley said he’s also toyed with the idea of hiring more civilians for positions such as information technology, where individuals from the private sector might have more expertise than law enforcement officers.

Campaign finance records show their campaigns are well underway.

As of Nov. 1, Elder had raised more than $13,000, according to records filed with the Secretary of State’s Office. He has spent roughly $700.

Angley had raised more than $3,000, received a more than $4,000 loan, and spent nearly $5,000.