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Dem Bones

The Teller County coroners contentious battle with the sheriff raises questions of misconduct, falsified public documents and shoddy investigations.



Deborah Smith is not resting in peace.

The Republican coroner in Teller County is taking no prisoners in her war against an elected sheriff who she has accused of abuse of public records, official misconduct and a host of other violations of Colorado law. In addition, she has criticized him for not following basic practices like wearing protective gloves at crime scenes to preserve evidence, including fingerprints.

The sheriff, a fellow Republican who once had the job that Smith now holds, is trying to ignore his nemesis.

And the 4th Judicial District Attorney's office has noted with concern that death investigations in Teller County may be jeopardized because of the strain in relations between the two agencies.

But, a year after her chief trial lawyer recommended they mediate the situation, Republican District Attorney Jeanne Smith has not pursued any efforts to improve relations between the agencies that investigate and determine the cause and manner of deaths in her jurisdiction, which includes Teller and El Paso counties.

His final walk

The source of Coroner Smith's anger can be traced to the night of April 23, 1997, when Richard Dean Holmes, 42, left a goodbye note on the kitchen table and took a walk out the door and into a fierce blizzard on Mount Pisgah overlooking Cripple Creek. He was never seen alive again.

Patricia Hartfiel was Holmes' girlfriend. Hartfiel, who now lives in Texas, remembers what happened clearly and with lingering bitterness.

When Hartfiel got home from work, it was a near white-out. Holmes had left some personal belongings on the kitchen table, including his cigarettes and a note to her that read, in part, "I love you, just can't put you through it anymore. I do love you! Just not myself."

Hartfiel got on the phone and called Holmes' mother, his minister, his brother and his best friend. Hartfiel called area hospitals, police and the Detox Center in Colorado Springs, looking, without success, for her boyfriend, who was sick and depressed. The minister and another friend came over and ventured out into the storm, looking for him.

Finally, at about 10 p.m., Hartfiel called the Teller County sheriff's office. She was told they could not dispatch any officers to the scene because of poor road conditions. The next day, Hartfiel again called the sheriff's office, then called again the next day and the one following. After two weeks, a deputy told her they had no leads to pursue and "there was no reason for me to keep calling them."

"They never even so much as came out to talk to me or any of my neighbors," Hartfiel said. "It really made me angry that they would not even take the time to question me face to face. Don't you think that they'd at least come out and look for blood stains or his body?"

Two years later, on March 21, 1999, Teller County sheriff's deputies were notified that an area resident's dogs had dragged what appeared to be human bones out of the woods on Mount Pisgah.

Teller County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Ezard drove out to the residence. "It was at this time I noticed what appeared to be a human skull laying in the kitchen area of the residence, on the stove top between the burners," Ezard wrote in his report. Police were directed to another nearby residence, where they found a human pelvis bone outside by the front steps and a femur bone inside, propped up against the television set.

Remembering the missing person report from 1997, the deputies contacted Hartfiel at the Double Eagle Casino in Cripple Creek where she worked. They asked her if she remembered what Holmes had been wearing when he disappeared and made arrangements to pick up his personal effects, including his suicide note.

The officers still didn't come to her house or contact any of the neighbors or their landlord to take a look at the scene where Holmes had last been seen alive. In fact, when they initially visited Hartfiel at her job, she said, they didn't tell her that they had found what they believed were partial remains of her boyfriend.

Instead Hartfiel read about the discovery of his bones in the local Mountain Jackpot newspaper several days later.

Assisted by a team from the Englewood-based NecroSearch team that specializes in on-site searches for the remains of the dead, the sheriff's department subsequently found the final resting place of Richard Dean Holmes just 200 yards from the home that he had shared with Hartfiel.

However, positively identifying the bones was another story. By law, the sheriff is supposed to share information about what they find relative to a dead body during investigations, but Coroner Smith began to suspect that, during their inquiry, officers were withholding from her key information that could assist in her own investigation.

For example, she said, they denied knowing the whereabouts of Hartfiel, even though they had already been in contact with her. They told Smith that they didn't have any photographs of Holmes, she said, even though they had had a mug shot photo of him, which could aid in identifying his remains.

So Smith began tracking down information on her own, first by mailing a letter to Hartfiel at her last known address. When the letter was forwarded to Hartfiel at her new address in Texas, she responded with astonishment.

"I'm really surprised that your letter has been sent to my address in Cripple Creek, as the sheriff's department knew I was moving to Fort Worth and Richard's mother forwarded my new address to the Sheriff's Department," Hartfiel responded in an Aug. 10, 1999 letter. "Nevertheless -- your letter has reached me and I'm very happy to send you what little information I do have about Richard's medical history. ..."

With the help of Hartfiel, Smith was able to track down old X-rays and a CT-scan that Holmes had had just nine days before he took his life.

It was through the CT-scan and the expertise of Colorado College anthropologist Mike Hoffman that Smith was able to positively determine in September, 1999 that the skull and an ankle bone that was recovered belonged to Holmes. The case set a national precedent in forensic science for the identification of skeletal remains. But the sheriff's deputies did not include key components of the coroner's findings in their official reports. Instead, they altered the facts of the case to give it a nice clean ending.

Adam's rib

In their July 20, 1999 report officially closing the case, the sheriff's office claimed that "Dr. Hoffman states that there is a 99.8 percent probability that the bones found, based on his forensic testing and other circumstantial evidence as noted in this report, are the bones or the final remains of the alleged victim, Richard Dean Holmes."

Actually, Hoffman, Smith and two others had concluded that not all of the bones that had been found on Mount Pisgah belonged to Holmes. Specifically, a rib bone was found that could not have been his.

Which meant that the sheriff had a second dead body on his hands.

However, when challenged on the mismatched rib by the coroner, sheriff's deputies suggested a number of scenarios -- none of them conceding the possibility of a second victim. What if the X-ray had inadvertently been flipped, they asked? What if Holmes heart was on the other side and none of his doctors had ever noticed?

Smith asserts that the sheriff's deputies deliberately falsified their official report, a violation of Colorado law.

"It was a stupid thing to do. I mean, why close the case when you can just keep it open?" Smith said. "The [rib bone] could be very old and could belong to an old miner in the area, or any number of scenarios, but the fact is, [Sheriff Fehn] just wanted a nice clean ending."

Smith was so outraged -- first by the sheriff's efforts to keep her in the dark, and then by his false claims that all bones belonged to Holmes as well as other inaccuracies -- that she filed a complaint with 4th Judicial District Attorney Jeanne Smith, accusing Fehn of malfeasance.

The complaint was dismissed, and Coroner Smith (no relation to the district attorney) later filed another, accusing the sheriff of a host of illegal acts, ranging from tampering with physical evidence to abuse of public records, conspiracy, official misconduct and other violations of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

Anatomy of some suicides

For Coroner Smith, 51, who was elected by popular vote in 1998, the Holmes case was the first in what was to become a battle of wills between her office and the Teller County sheriff's office. She increasingly became alarmed over what she perceived as sloppy investigative work being conducted by deputies at death scenes. And she was frustrated that, in violation of Colorado law, deputies were routinely moving and removing items from dead people before she arrived on the scene.

She began to document her concerns.

On April 19, 1998, the day of the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, a Fort Carson soldier drove up Gold Camp Road into Teller County and shot himself through the Adam's apple. When the coroner arrived on the scene, she noted that there were cigarette butts and coins on the ground next to the man's feet and asked the deputy standing by if he was going to collect the potential evidence. "He said 'No, it's a suicide,' " Smith said. When she went to bag the man's hands to protect them for a later gunshot residue test, the same deputy commented that he didn't believe that was necessary either.

"I rolled my eyes and I thought, 'You idiot, you always collect evidence.'" Smith said. "You may not have to process it, but if you don't collect it at the time, you lose it forever and in case it turns out not to be a suicide, then you have it."

Smith initially couldn't fathom a reason for the suicide -- the man was scheduled to be released from the military four days later. Then, she discovered that the man had been caught falsifying his commanding officer's signature on a document, which could have potentially sent him to the stockades, so his suicide made sense. Smith called the sheriff's office with the information, but a detective there told her that they had spoken with a friend of the dead man and reported the man had told him, shortly before he disappeared that he feared for his life. The sheriff's office had changed their initial suicide call to a potential homicide, and wanted to proceed with the gunshot residue test. Eventually, the death was determined to be a suicide.

In May 1999, deputies and the coroner responded to the scene of a possible suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, where a man was found inside a locked car. It was obvious from the condition of the man's body that he had been there at least several days, Smith said. But instead of using a jimmy stick to unlock the door, the cops bashed a window of the car in with a crowbar, showering the body and the inside of the car with glass. "The scene was completely destroyed, not to say anything about the body," Smith said. "If this had turned out to be a homicide, [they had] contaminated the entire scene."

The following month, in June 1999, Smith said she was notified about another possible suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. When she arrived, the sheriff's deputies had not removed the body from the car, however, Smith said that the detective overseeing the case had inexplicably removed the man's shoes and untucked his shirt. "I have no idea what it was he was looking for, but you are not supposed to mess with evidence, especially if it could be a homicide," she said.

During another suicide investigation, on June 2, 2000, two sheriff's deputies initially recovered the gun used wearing one latex glove each. Then, they took off the gloves and handled the weapon with their bare hands. One deputy then emptied the chamber into her bare hands.

In all of the above cases, the final cause of death was determined to be suicide, which Smith believes is correct. But, she is not as convinced about one Teller County death that occurred Feb. 25 and has been ruled a suicide.

The case involved a man who allegedly shot himself after an altercation with his girlfriend and her sister, with two young children and an infant present. The official reports filed by the deputies who responded are inconsistent, and many of the claims that were made don't jibe, Smith said. She is continuing to investigate the death.

Bones of contention

Smith became so frustrated with the sheriff's deputies not calling her in a timely fashion and with their sloppy treatment of potential crime scenes that she issued a memo on March 5, reminding the law enforcement officers what, by law, was required of them. Her notice read:

"In several recent death investigations, members of the TCSO have violated Colorado law and Coroner policy by moving items on or around the deceased prior to the arrival of the Coroner's representative. These items have included weapons, wallets and other personal effects. Under no circumstances are these items to be moved or examined without prior approval from the Coroner at the scene, whether found in pockets, handbags, or surrounding the deceased. These items are the jurisdiction of the Coroner, and failure to comply with this policy is a violation of Colorado law.

"In addition, I need to be notified of a death immediately upon discovery of the deceased. Even if the death is a homicide, it may be necessary to take a liver temperature in order to help determine the time of death."

Smith also attached the portion of the law that defines the coroner's official duties as detailed in Colorado's revised statutes, 30-10-606 (1.2), which reads:

"When a person dies ... or is found dead and the cause of death is unknown, the person who discovers the death shall report it immediately to law enforcement officials or the coroner, and the coroner shall take legal custody of the body. The body of any such person shall not be removed from the place of death except upon the authority of the coroner in consultation with the district attorney or local law enforcement agency, nor shall any article on or immediately surrounding such body be disturbed until authorized by the coroner in consultation with the district attorney or local law enforcement agency."

"It's more just common sense than anything," Smith said. "I mean, you learn more watching television than you do from these guys. I shouldn't have to remind them that anything on or around the body is mine. I shouldn't have to remind them that if they have to remove anything from the body, it needs to be documented and photographed. I shouldn't have to remind them to wear gloves.

"It's dumbfounding to me that I have to train them, on how to do these things. It just boggles the mind."

Colorado law does not require an elected coroner to be a certified medical doctor. Smith holds a Ph.D. in biophysics, molecular genetics and microbiology, and is currently working on a case study on Holmes for a national scientific journal.

But she has not proven to be a politically savvy player among her tightknit fellow Republican officeholders in Teller and El Paso counties and their attempts to, as she puts it, bring her in line, have been unsuccessful.

She has been relentless and very public in her criticism of the sheriff's abilities and has accused him and his supporters of plotting a recall against her.

In one rather cheeky October 1999 letter that was printed in the Mountain Jackpot, a community newspaper in Cripple Creek, Smith called for the sheriff's resignation, and accused him of corruption, ignoring evidence, practicing "dirty good old boy politics," and lacking integrity and credibility.

"Not exactly the Poster Boy we want for Teller County," Smith wrote.

Dodging bullets

Sitting in his office in the sheriff's headquarters in Divide, directly south of Highway 24, Sheriff Fehn initially downplayed the fracas between the two departments during a recent two-hour interview.

"Whatever the disagreement was, I think it was more perceived than actual," Fehn said. "I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Smith and I have no idea why there's any animosity," the sheriff said. "I haven't been in touch with her -- I'm a little busy and I figure it's a two-way street."

Though Teller County does not have its own training academy, Fehn said his deputies must be state certified, and generally complete their police course-work at one of several community colleges across the state. In addition, they receive 10 additional hours of training a month, including how to conduct an arrest, how to pull over a motorist and how to conduct a crime scene investigation.

The sheriff, a retired homicide detective from Long Island, said that his office has no set policy detailing that his deputies should wear gloves at crime scenes. And, he questioned their real importance in some situations. The gloves, Fehn said, are worn as much for the deputies' safety as well as preserving any potential evidence, and the latex in the gloves, he pointed out, can be very dangerous.

"You may be allergic to latex, and it would put you in shock," Fehn pointed out.

When pressed for specifics over his department's handling of the Holmes case, Fehn said he has heard that the coroner doesn't believe the rib belongs to Holmes, but she has never sat down with him to tell him what she felt was wrong.

"The fact is we closed the case on Mr. Holmes," Fehn said. "[As for] the one unknown bone, I'm still waiting for her to tell me what it is, where it is, who it is, anything she can. She has not."

The sheriff's professed naivet over the details of the Holmes case is surprising, particularly because it set a national precedent in forensic science, and received more media, scientific and law enforcement industry attention than any case in Teller County has in years. And, it resulted in a scathing official complaint against Fehn lodged with the local district attorney.

Though his department's official report continues to falsely state that all of the recovered bones from Mount Pisgah belong to Holmes, Fehn now concedes the possibility that a second body is still out there.

"If we have an unknown bone then we should know about it," the sheriff said. "And if that's the case, we will file an amendment to the [record]."

His deputies, he said, have even returned to Mount Pisgah, along with the county's search and rescue team, to look for other clues. However, the sheriff is unsure of the dates or the number of times the deputies have looked for remaining clues or body parts.

And, he said, no other missing person has been reported from the area.

Though he initially insisted that his working relationship with Smith was "fine," Fehn eventually acknowledged that things were not as rosy as he first painted them.

"Have you read all the articles that have appeared about what a senile old dash dash dash I am? That I am totally incompetent? That I am this and that I am that?" Fehn inquired. "I got fed up reading them. Under advice from my lawyer, unless I want to go to war and sue her for defamation, I'll keep my mouth shut."

"My [private] attorney's advice is, don't call [the coroner], and just to sit back and let it pass."

The bodies politic

Fehn is also taking his attorney's advice to heart with regard to the continuing controversy over his role in the killing of Squeak, an elk that had been unofficially adopted as an orphaned animal by residents of Woodland Park.

The state Department of Wildlife ordered the elk killed on Oct. 27, and while Sheriff Fehn watched, his deputy Marcus Woodward shot the animal three times in the South Meadow Campground in the Pike National Forest, where it is illegal to discharge firearms.

The death has outraged Woodland Park residents who have called for Fehn's head, or at least his resignation. But the sheriff maintains that he did nothing wrong by violating federal firearm laws because a state Division of Wildlife officer told him to kill the elk at the campground site. "It's a painful subject, but elk are not pets," he said.

Fehn, 72, is married to one of three elected Teller County Commissioners and previously served as the elected county coroner for 8-1/2 years. He and his wife, Commissioner Lucile Fehn, are stalwarts in the Teller County Republican Party.

As the sheriff, Fehn oversees the county's largest department, with the largest budget and the largest number of employees, 71, in that county's government. Every year the three-member board of commissioners approves the sheriff's yearly operating budget, and Fehn said his wife always abstains from voting on sheriff's measures due to the conflict of interest.

However, the close arrangement leaves some uncomfortable.

"We had a great concern with a husband and wife in very powerful positions both collecting a paycheck from the county," said Laurie Glauth, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Lucile Fehn two years ago and has since won a seat on the Woodland Park School Board.

Skeletons in the closet

Convinced that the sheriff was allowing official police documents to be doctored -- including the deletion of important information relevant to cases -- Teller County Coroner Smith filed a second complaint with the DA's office, specifying a number of Colorado laws she felt had been broken.

But 4th Judicial Chief Trial Deputy District Attorney David Gilbert rejected Smith's charges.

And in an Oct. 20, 1999 memo to his boss, Jeanne Smith, Gilbert claimed that the coroner had threatened the DA politically during the course of his investigation.

"Dr. Smith stated that she and many in Teller County have a poor opinion of District Attorney Jeanne Smith, believing that she is part of the same 'good old boy network' as the Sheriff,'" Gilbert wrote. "Dr. Smith said she doesn't know when Jeanne Smith is up for reelection but that she will 'pay for it politically' if she tries to cover up the Sheriff's wrongdoing in this investigation."

Coroner Smith denies that she issued any such threat. Unopposed, the district attorney was elected to a second four-year term last month.

The District Attorney's office prosecutes violations of the law, and while dismissing the coroner's claims of government corruption, Gilbert noted his concern that future cases could be imperiled by the feud.

"I am concerned at this point, based on opinions disclosed to me by the coroner, that future death investigations may be compromised if the working relationship between the coroner and the Teller County Sheriff's Office do not improve," Gilbert wrote. "I recommend that we attempt to facilitate some sort of communication between these parties if Dr. Smith would be amenable."

More than a year later, no serious efforts have been made to mediate the breakdown.

For her part, Coroner Smith says she's been lied to and obstructed by the sheriff so many times over the Holmes case and other cases that she will not deal with Fehn directly. She is, however, willing to enter into mediation with one of his detectives and someone from the district attorney's office.

Last week, Gilbert declined to say whether the DA's office has followed through on its own recommendations to facilitate communication between the coroner and sheriff.

And, the chief trial attorney was clearly peeved that the coroner -- an elected official -- had released public documents that had been prepared by the office of another elected official.

"As far as I understood, this was supposed to be information provided to the coroner for her own edification and assistance," said Gilbert. "I feel they are confidential between the coroner and other parties and I am not going to publicly comment on what is a private discussion between the coroner and [my office]."

"There are no further comments beyond the written documents that you have received," he said.

To view these documents, click here.

Rest in peace

Coroner Smith may not be, as she puts it, the flavor of the month with the sheriff or with the district attorney's office. But she has established a reputation for being determined, compassionate and professional with the families of the dead people under her charge.

Recently, Smith issued a death certificate for Wayne Tease, a 23-year-old man who fell to his death in an old mine shaft in 1986. Though his family had identifying photos of the man at the bottom of the mine, three previous coroners -- including Fehn -- had refused to sign death certificates, claiming there was no proof that Tease was dead.

After Smith signed the death certificate this summer, the man's mother who had waited for 14 years for closure expressed great relief.

"This poor lady worked so hard to help me out," the mother was quoted, referring to Smith in a July 8 Denver Post article. "She's a loving, kind lady."

It has been three years since Holmes "took his walk," as Pat Hartfiel refers to the suicide of her boyfriend, Richard Holmes.

"It's just been unbelievably hard," she said. "Yes, he had a history of mental and drug problems, but they shouldn't have just written him off. Richard was a human being and deserved to have an investigation just like everyone else.

"For two years I walked around thinking he was still alive, and would dream about seeing his body laying out there," said Hartfiel.

Next spring, Hartfiel plans to return to Teller County and scatter half of her boyfriend's ashes, per his request, on the mountain where he died.

"I thank God for Debbie [Smith] because she picked up and decided we have to find out what happened to Richard. She kept on and on, even though the sheriff's department kept giving her the runaround and trying to make her look like an idiot."

"I always say that Teller County would be the perfect county if one did want to commit murder," Hartfiel said.

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