A look back at the past year in Saguache County

Center police are telling Audrey Chavez that she cannot evict tenants without following the eviction law. Ruben Chavez stands in the background and Center police officer Tim Arellano is on the right.

CENTER—The following is a compilation of many of the top stories that graced the pages of the Center Post Dispatch throughout the last year.

Saguache sheriff’s office funding
January 2018 opened with a bang as over 70 citizens filled the commissioners’ room at the courthouse, spilling out into the courthouse lobby, to register complaints regarding underfunding and understaffing of the Saguache Sheriff’s Office and illegal pot grows.
The controversy over sufficient funding for the SO continued throughout the year until the passage of a 1.5 percent sales tax in November, which will provide raises for staff, new equipment, training and improvements to the jail, among other important additions.

Pot grow approvals
The Saguache County Planning Commission (SCPC) and the Saguache County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) approved over 30 marijuana grows in 2018, although the actual number of growers operating in the county cannot be verified and only five are paying the county excise tax.
Despite protests from residents in the near vicinity of the grows, nearly every request for cultivation was approved by both the SCPC and the BoCC, with only three or four approvals rejected or delayed. Residents often were not allowed to speak out against the grows at the meetings. Some residents pointed out that several growers were not properly vetted and did not meet various state requirements regarding residency and county and state grower regulations.
A 90-day pot moratorium was passed by commissioners in February and later extended, to allow for the SCPC to review and revise the Land Use Code/marijuana regulations. Initially the commissioners indicated a panel of county citizens would be able to assist in the revisions but later decided against it.
While a public hearing was held and a comment period was allowed for county residents, the marijuana regulation revisions were not conducted publicly. Despite citizen input, the SCPC and BoCC did little to tighten up the grow process in the county.  

Housing director charged
with burglary
Housing director Theresa (Audrey) Chavez and her husband Ruben were formally charged with second-degree burglary, a class three felony, and criminal mischief from between $700-1,000 in March. The incident in question occurred Aug. 14-15, 2017.
District Attorney Crista Newmyer-Olsen filed charges against the Chávezes in September 2017, but Theresa Chavez’s first district court appearance was set for March 11.
Center Police Department reports on the case are backed up by several very clear body cam videos with sound, recorded during each of several visits to the trailer park by Center Police. The events detailed in the written reports occur just as they are described. In the videos Chavez offers three or four explanations of the renters’ status on the property.
Following the filing of the charges, the Chavezes delivered a letter of intent to sue the town of Center for hiding the fact from town trustees that former Town Clerk and Treasurer Joan Mobley was awaiting sentence on fraud and identity theft charges committed while working for the IRS.  She credits this to Mayor Herman Cisneros’s confidence made to a mutual friend who shared the information with her.
The letter of intent also claims misconduct on the part of former Police Chief James Gowin and contests the chronology of events reported during the eviction, which spurred the criminal charges against the Chávezes.
The Chavezes are seeking upwards of $200,000 in damages from the town for physical pain, emotional distress, mental anguish, and other compensatory damages. Actual claims listed include false arrest, malicious prosecution, retaliation for engaging in protected speech (whistleblowing) “and other appropriate claims supported by the evidence.”  
Town Administrator Brian Lujan said there has been no follow-up on the Chavezes’ intent to sue. A Jan. 25 trial date has been set for Ruben Chavez, and Theresa Chavez’s trial is set for Feb. 25.

Moffat annexation
Saguache County Commissioners approved the annexation of 109 acres owned and developed by Whitney Justice/Potch LLC at their April 17 meeting, with County Attorney Ben Gibbons commenting they should approve it because Moffat would go ahead with the annexation anyway. The Town of Moffat began its annexation plans in March of last year, voting to pass the annexation resolution in May.
The annexation passage and preliminary planning stages are in question because two Moffat board members later resigned for violating state regulations prohibiting those with marijuana licenses of any kind to sit on the board. Other board members’ affiliations also were questioned.
Mayor Patricia Reigel and other Moffat board members believe the town can offer growers the acreage free and clear of the excise tax paid by other retail grows in the county by annexing unincorporated acreage into the town. This, however, appears to contradict the ballot language for the excise tax, passed in 2016.
Since the annexation, the Colorado Area 420 LLC website promotes the development as “prime Colorado Cannabis cultivation land in a designated Commercial Cannabis Park” (www.coloradoarea420.com). A Salida attorney claims the Moffat annexation of Potch, LLC/Area 420 fails to meet statutory and constitutional requirements, and in order to avoid legal challenges Saguache County and the Town of Moffat should correct the situation.
The question has been raised recently as to whether the Town of Moffat, which has no planning commission or building codes, has abided by Saguache County subdivision regulations. Currently there is no signed Subdivision Agreement available from the town, although Mayor Reigel says the town is working on the agreement.
The town held a public hearing Dec. 12 to take comments from the public on proposed re-subdivision of certain lots in the Colorado Area 420 Development, which typically would require a subdivision agreement to be in place in order to re-subdivide. However, the hearing has now been postponed until Jan. 8.
Currently the town has no legal counsel. There has been no comment from the town or the county regarding the legal challenge on the annexation.

Saguache pot problem
makes Denver news
Saguache County residents Shiloh Jackman and Mischa Vining-Doyle, who own land in northern Saguache County, were featured on a Denver 7 channel special in May, explaining how they feel cheated out of money they spent on a well and their dreams for the future home they hoped to place on their property.
In their broadcast, the news channel portrayed the county as an easy target for pot growers out to make a buck. Reporter Jace Larson explained how growers are attracted to the lower land prices so have been moving in alongside local landowners who feel they have little say about commercial grows popping up all around them.
Mark and Joyce Swinney of Moffat also were featured on the news segment explaining they are surrounded by five different grows where their property is located. Mark Swinney is a Saguache Planning Commission alternate who has tried to raise objections to the grows. Cameras panned around the Swinney’s property to take in the various grow operations.
The special also featured Sheriff Dan Warwick, who expressed concern over illegal grows in the county.
Later in the year, the grower proposing to move in next to the couple’s property was charged with felonies involving misrepresentation of his resident status and will appear in Jefferson County Court this month to be advised of his charges. Marijuana Enforcement Division regulations state that because of the felony violation, the grower forfeits his operation.

Missing Saguache County
 boy found in Utah
In June, an AMBER Alert was issued for a 12-year-old Crestone boy, later located with his suspected abductor, David Freeman, 60, of Crestone, at a reservoir near the town of Panguitch, Utah.
According to a Channel 31 KDVR/Denver report, a campground manager near the reservoir, Tom Adams, called law enforcement after a stranger showed up at his office in a pickup. The man said he had encountered both Freeman and the juvenile crouched in the dirt and dressed in nothing but sneakers on a nearby dirt road.
Freeman was charged with first-degree felony kidnapping and lewdness. He was later transported back to the Saguache County Jail to face charges of felony kidnapping and sexual misconduct.
Freeman recently escaped from the jail but was recaptured several hours later.

Center Superintendent resigns, new super appointed
After weeks of rumors, Center Consolidated Schools Superintendent Chris Vance, superintendent for the past two years, resigned in July. Vance was placed on paid administrative leave July 6 pending the investigation of “allegations of misconduct” involving a personnel matter.
Interim Superintendent Lori Cooper released information regarding Vance’s leave and resignation in response to a Colorado Open Records Act request. Cooper, who retired in May, was still working part-time for the school when she agreed to act as interim superintendent.
Carrie Zimmerman, a former principal at the middle school was appointed to fill Vance’s position as superintendent in October.

Pot regulation changes approved
In a two-to-one vote in August, Saguache County Commissioners approved amendments to the county’s Land Use Code/marijuana regulations but the exact changes to the code were not discussed, highlighted or summarized for consideration.
Commissioner Tim Lovato voted against approving the amended code, telling his fellow commissioners that 90 percent of his constituents were not satisfied with the amendments. He also repeated a request for a cap on marijuana grows.
Copies of the draft regulations posted to the county website were not annotated to indicate where changes were inserted. The Land Use Code runs to 47 pages with 15 pages of definitions and the changed version of the code would need to be compared line by line with the previous version to determine what changes were made. Even those involved in the amendment process were not sure what changes were approved by commissioners.
Most agree the primary changes include the requirement of a $100,000 closure bond to rehabilitate property once a cultivation business is closed; plant count limits of 12 per residence for personal medical and caregiver grows and 24 with a variance from the county. To grow additional plants, county commissioners must review reasons for the need to exceed that amount and can grant the variance.  
While the requirement to bring a variance before commissioners for approval before exceeding the 24-limit was enforced in the amendments, commissioners have always been required by the code to review variances and approve them in a public venue.
Some members of the SCPC expressed dissatisfaction with the process and the limited changers made to the regulations.

Saguache business owner charged with murder
Saguache business owner Steven Heimberg, 58, was arrested in September for the shooting death of Richard Wharton, 42, of Saguache, after Wharton was found dead early Friday morning atop one of the buildings in Heimberg’s business complex.
Heimberg is the owner of the Lumber Mart, located at 550 Denver Ave. in Saguache.  
Wharton was pronounced dead at the scene, positioned about three to five feet away from the edge of the roof. Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was called in to investigate, along with a multi-agency federal task force from Safe Streets.
Undersheriff Jim McCloskey said because it was apparent from the investigation that Heimberg “continually advanced toward the male party,” this provided probable cause for the arrest. Heimberg was charged with second-degree murder and posted a $250,000 surety bond.

Saguache pot grower
 facing felonies
A marijuana cultivation applicant initially approved by Saguache County officials to grow retail marijuana is facing several felony charges in Jefferson County filed last month by the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED).
Michael Edwin Barkl, 36, who purchased property adjacent to land owned by Shiloh Jackman and Mischa Vining-Doyle in northern Saguache County, already had begun constructing his grow operation without prior approval of the county. A hold was placed on the cultivation by the Saguache County Planning Commission (SCPC) in May after irregularities were brought to the attention of the SCPC.
According to Jefferson County Court records, Barkl’s charges, committed in 2017, initially included attempt to influence a public servant, Felony 4; two charges of forgery of a public record to a public official, Felony 5; two charges of offering a false instrument for recording, Felony 5, and two misdemeanor one charges for perjury two.

Marijuana consultant has a criminal history
In October, the Center Post-Dispatch received a tip that led to a 2008 post on a blog hosted by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (www.ccjrc.org). According to the blog, local marijuana consultant Michael Biggio is a convicted felon who has assisted other felons to re-establish themselves in the community.
Until sometime in late March, early April, Biggio was a trustee on the Moffat town board. In the past he has presented himself as a local marijuana consultant at public meetings but is not licensed with the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED). Currently Biggio holds a sales/consulting position with the group Area 420, a 420-acre commercial cannabis complex. Whitney Justice is the business manager for the complex and Jason Irwin is listed as the director of development.
The following post was found at https://thinkoutsidethecage2.blogspot.com/search?q=Biggio:
“Michael Biggio went to prison on marijuana and assault charges in 2000 and completed his parole last week [sometime in 2008]. Last year, the 29-year-old from Littleton founded the Free Coalition, which stands for Felons Regaining Equal Employment. He runs the non-profit from Denver and is helping ex-prisoners enter society and find work.” The blog poster then relays Biggio’s comments under the header “Michael Biggio in his own words”.
Biggio’s rap sheet contains some 57 different violations, many of them dismissed or with reduced charges.

Reisinger case
revived by podcast
Fox News KDVR from Denver came to Crestone in November to search for the body of missing Crestone woman Kristal Reisinger, seeking out clues in a maze of caves near the tiny mountain town where she was last seen alive. Reisinger, 29, disappeared July 13, 2016 after reportedly attending a drum circle ceremony.
Atlanta filmmaker Payne Lindsey of Tenderfoot TV ran a podcast series on Reisinger’s disappearance this summer, interviewing Saguache Sheriff Dan Warwick during one of the podcasts. Some 17 million listeners have downloaded the podcast, KDVR reported in its November broadcast.
Podcast interviews and talk around the community has led some to believe Reisinger’s body was hidden in a mine by an acquaintance. The KDVR news crew used a database from the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety to search out abandoned mines, checking to see if they had been secured as they are required to be by law or whether they were accessible to the public. Some they found unsecured; others could not be entered legally.
The crew checked over 40 locations out of 62 provided by the database, but decided the others were too remote and not likely to have been accessible to someone trying to hide a body. The news team also took a cadaver dog named Chance to search the last spot Reisinger was seen alive — the “drum circle’ outside Crestone. The dog appeared to pick up no scent.
The Denver investigative team used GoPro cameras and other equipment to probe deep into the caves and physically searched inside them where possible, but no clues were found.
Warwick reported recently that information from the podcasts and other sources has turned up new leads. He says he hopes to have more information to report on Reisinger’s disappearance in the near future.

County administrator resigns
Sometime during Thanksgiving week, the new county administrator hired by Saguache County in August, David Bitler of South Fork, resigned his position effective immediately. Commissioners claim he was still within his probationary period.
Rumors circulated that Bitler resigned over an inappropriate relationship with a staff member. Both sources close to Bitler and to the staff member flatly deny these allegations.
Bitler’s resignation email indicates that some sort of allegation caused him to resign, but gives no clue about what the allegations were.
The email reads: “After thinking about the conversation with Mr. Gibbons this morning, I have concluded that I am not willing to put my professional or personal reputation at risk by continuing to serve as the county administrator. In a situation like this there is no way to defend or protect myself from such allegations.”
The resignation and meeting with Gibbons followed a commissioners meeting Nov. 20, but no executive session for personnel was scheduled for the meeting, and the meeting minutes have not been posted to the county’s website.  

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