Botching a weapons investigation. Getting hoodwinked by Cripple Creek’s reputed “town drunk.” Illegally busting into a van, then yanking out a sick Vietnam vet who was sleeping inside.
Those were the plotlines in federal court this week as members of Teller County’s sheriff’s department tried, Keystone Cops style, to defend themselves in a misconduct trial.
It was a legal theater of the absurd as Sheriff Mike Ensminger, his deputies and former undersheriff gave conflicting testimonies about the day in October 2010 when they were snickered into a sting operation in what turned out to be a make-believe weapons deal.
The federal ATF, Teller County’s sheriff’s department and Cripple Creek police were on high alert after 84 guns – including assault rifles and sniper rifles — and at least 10,000 rounds of ammunition had been stolen from a home in Cripple Creek Mountain Estates. Eager to crack the case, city police set a meeting with Thomas Graham, a local resident who claimed the thief had contacted him to try to sell him the guns for $10,000.[pullquote]“I want law enforcement all over the state of Colorado to know there are repercussions for violating the United States Constitution. They need to spend less time on the shooting range and more time in the law library.”[/pullquote]
According to witnesses, Graham is widely known in the casino town for his drinking habit and moneymaking schemes. In trial, attorney David Lane, who argued the case for plaintiff Paul Bauman, described Graham as “the elected town drunk of Cripple Creek.”
Graham asked Cripple Creek police to give him $10,000 to buy the guns in a would-be sting operation he proposed, knowing they were eager to recover the weapons. The city refused to give him money, but agreed to meet Graham in hopes of ferretting out the thief or thieves and confiscating the stolen guns. When Graham didn’t show up for a meeting with officers at a local casino, they headed to a Cripple Creek property where he was living in his RV.
On their ride over, police and Teller County sheriff’s officials learned from the ATF that another vehicle – a gray Toyota van belonging to Bauman, the plaintiff – was parked on the same land. Fearing a violent run-in with an unknown, heavily armed weapons thief and dealer, the police department asked sheriff’s deputies to “secure” the van.
As Bauman asserted in his civil rights suit, the deputies took “secure” to mean breaking in without a warrant and dragging him out while he was resting from recent heart surgery. Like Graham — whom Bauman had hired to help him on a roofing job – Bauman had parked on the empty lot, where he was living out of his van.
He said deputies “hurled” him out the back door and “dropped him like a sack of potatoes.” Bauman testified that he landed so hard that his pacemaker dislodged inside him. He said deputies had their assault weapons drawn and made to lay face down on the ground in his vomit before he was airlifted to Denver for medical help.
Bauman, a 58-year-old Vietnam veteran, said he remembers waking from his nap in the van and thinking the Viet Cong had come for him.
“That all came back for me right then. It’s still with me in my head,” he told The Colorado Independent.
Sheriff’s officers, for their part, described the run-in with Bauman as non-violent. After “gently escorting him to the ground,” as they put it, they said they treated him gingerly because of his heart condition.
They gave vastly conflicting testimonies about whether they had been told there were guns in the van and that the occupant was known to be violent.
Lane asked Stan Bishop, Teller County’s undersheriff at the time, that if security was of such concern, “Did you consider going up to that van and knocking and saying excuse me sir, can we talk to you?”
“No,” Bishop testified.
A federal jury this morning awarded Bauman $72,530 after ruling that Bishop and deputies Josh Weatherill and Nick Hartbauer conducted an unwarranted search and seizure and wrongful arrest. The jury rejected Bauman’s excessive force claim.
Sheriff Ensminger wasn’t found liable. Neither he nor the officers involved would comment on the case.
Graham — whose bogus tip about the weapons deal triggered the whole run-in – was never charged. The feds ultimately arrested and convicted William Lyman Agnew for the gun theft, among other charges. He’s serving 51 months in prison.
“I’m glad some of the truth has come out, even though not all the truth has come out,” Bauman told The Independent.
Lane said Bauman’s 4th Amendment victory should serve as a warning to overzealous cops.
“I want law enforcement all over the state of Colorado to know there are repercussions for violating the United States Constitution,” he said. “They need to spend less time on the shooting range and more time in the law library.”
Photo credit: Keystone Kops