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Stories behind the stories

Reporters of yore recount some 'only in Colorado Springs' memories


In 2007, we introduced "Long Story Short," a little weekly feature in the front of the paper. The idea was that we'd share a short note related to that week's cover story — how the subject appeared on our radar, say, or a personal note about its significance, or something random that we learned along the way.

Often, the best ones have found a writer sharing an anecdote from "the field." In that spirit, we asked former writers and editors — who might've missed the chance to empty their favorite notebook — to share a memory that, for them, has stood the test of time. What we got back truly ran the gamut, from bikini briefs to burning tires. — Kirk Woundy

Terje Langeland: In Colorado Springs, there was a never-ending supply of colorful characters. My favorite, by far, was Leonard Carlo.

The owner of Leonard's Bar II on East Platte Avenue had been in the news years before I met him, when the American Civil Liberties Union sued on his behalf after the Colorado Division of Liquor Enforcement removed 29 signs from his tavern, citing anti-profanity laws. "Besides the word fuck,'' the signs contained "graphic references about female genitalia, oral sexual acts on the anus, female genitalia and street-level references to fellatio," the Indy reported at the time. After the raid, Carlo got a tattoo on his bald head that said, "Fuck U. Leave me the Fuck Alone."

When I met Carlo, I was working on a story about how his close friend Ed Jones, then a county commissioner running for a state Senate seat, had been a regular at Carlo's bar at a time when it was under investigation for allegedly hosting cocaine sales. (Carlo, who at one point in the investigation was accused of assaulting a police informer with a sawed-off pool cue, eventually pleaded guilty to possessing drugs. Jones wasn't charged with any wrongdoing.)

To my surprise, Carlo agreed to an interview. He was friendly, charming and unapologetically foul-mouthed. His motto, he told me, was: "You say tomato, I say fuck you."

Later, I asked Carlo if he happened to have copies of tape recordings made by an undercover cop at his bar. "Sure, come on over," he said.

When I arrived to pick them up, Carlo — a wiry older man whose white beard made him resemble Leonardo da Vinci — was standing outside in the street wearing only bikini briefs and holding a box of tapes.

Terje Langeland, who worked as a reporter at the Independent from 2002 to 2004, is now an editor at Bloomberg News in Tokyo.

Naomi Zeveloff: In the '70s, Rancho Colorado was pitched by developers as a sparkling metropolis on the southern edge of El Paso County. But in 2006, when I reported on the area, it looked like a strong wind could wipe the whole community off the map.

Rancho Colorado never became the city it was meant to be, in part because of a Fort Carson proposal to create a buffer zone in the area. The other problem was water — most of the single-family and mobile homes weren't hooked up to a water system, and so families trucked in water from nearby Fountain, which had just cut the Rancho people off.

I spent several days in Rancho for my story, meeting with the villagers and traipsing around the bizarre, almost lunar landscape. There was a dump full of busted black tires and a small shrine with teddy bears to mark the spot where a child had been thrown out of a car and killed. The audible trainings at nearby Fort Carson made Rancho feel like a war zone. It was unlike any place I'd ever been in my young reporting career.

After writing at the Indy in 2006 and 2007, Naomi Zeveloff worked at weekly newspapers and news sites in Denver, Dallas and New York City. She's now based in Jerusalem as the Middle East correspondent at The Jewish Daily Forward.

Dan Wilcock: Reporting at the Independent, I met some real outsiders. The example par excellence — and likely my most popular Indy article — is the cover story I did about Dragon Man.

Mel "Dragon Man" Bernstein is his own man, in his own place. In the early '80s, he converted a patch of prairie (then unzoned) into what become Dragon Arms, the gun dealership, firing range and military museum complex where any ordinary citizen can fire a machine gun for kicks.

Despite what the guns and the tattoos might suggest, Mel was a nice guy to interview. When I learned years later that an explosion killed his wife Terry in 2012, I felt sad for him.

I had actually met Terry during my reporting: When we were figuring out how to illustrate the article, I thought of including a map of Dragon Arms, but Terry objected on the grounds that we would be providing an invasion map.

That's why I ultimately used a quote from Mel to forewarn against any such attempt: "In my bedroom I have an M-16 I sleep with, two Glocks and an M-60 machine gun under the bed with 25,000 rounds. ... You know I've got to protect it. What am I going to do if 30 gang-bangers show up at one in the morning? I can hold them off for a half hour until the helicopter gets here."

Who other than Mel? Where else than Colorado Springs?

After working at the Independent from 2004 to 2006, Dan Wilcock headed to Japan, where he wrote for magazines and taught English. He returned to the U.S. in 2008, ghostwrote at Georgetown University, and now writes $1 million-plus philanthropic proposals and reports for Children's National, Washington, D.C.'s children's hospital.

Michael de Yoanna: During my time at the Indy, I was lucky to break a number of stories, including how unsolved murders impacted families in El Paso County. I entered NORAD, dredging up top-secret documents showing flaws in changes to the military command's duties to monitor the skies for nuclear and terrorist threats. And I'll never forget meeting William Hutton, a 70-something poet who owned a house on East Espanola Street. It was covered with things that he found at thrift stores. I mean covered. He clashed with city inspectors over the looks of his house — and won.

(Many saw Hutton as an eccentric, and his odd humor didn't help. One time he showed up at the Indy and lay down on the lobby's glass coffee table, claiming he was levitating. But I learned there was more to Hutton. A generation earlier, his writing was featured in a book of short stories alongside Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal.)

As troops returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, I reported for the Indy about flaws in the care system for veterans. I often think about Adam Kaplan, a Fort Carson Army private who felt lingering anguish over his sergeant's death. Kaplan blamed himself for the explosion in Iraq that sent his sergeant to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But Kaplan was too stunned to even say a word when I knocked on his door to tell him what really happened: A congressman had testified that the sergeant was killed by shoddy medical care.

Michael de Yoanna was an Indy staff reporter from 2003 to 2007. He then freelanced for national and local news organizations before joining Colorado Public Radio in 2014, where he is a producer. He is completing a documentary at becomefilms.com.

John Dicker: Within the first few months of my time at the Indy, I interviewed Pastor Ted Haggard, then of New Life Church, for a story about Springs-based missionaries operating in the 10/40 Window (read: the Muslim World). It was still dawning on me, not to mention the mainstream media, what a big deal Haggard was.

A 14,000-member megachurch of his own founding; weekly conference calls with the Bush administration; Starbucks coffee proudly brewed in the New Life lobby. Haggard had yet to be crowned as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, but his star was clearly on the rise.

The interview went fine, me just asking a lot of background questions. Before he hung up, Haggard offered me some unsolicited advice. I'm paraphrasing here, but it went something like this: John, as you cover the church, it's important to remember that the authorities on Christianity in any community are the church leaders with the most followers.

Haggard wasn't talking about Twitter; this was 2002. The implications of this little nugget of abject manipulation didn't dawn on me until a few minutes after I hung up.

If I was a better reporter, this would have triggered an instant retort along the lines, and I'm again paraphrasing here, "Dude, WTF?" If I was a better reporter, I'd have demanded a follow-up interview. If I was a better reporter, I'd still be reporting.

[Editor's note: Presented with Dicker's recollection last week, Haggard declined to comment.]

John Dicker, who worked at the Indy from 2002 to 2004, now helms Geeks Who Drink, a pub-trivia outfit with over 500 weekly quizzes nationwide.

Malcolm Lucard: One of the best things about working for the Indy were the random phone calls. I remember one day when Tess Powers, who was then working at reception, put a call through to me and said, "Malcolm, there's a man named Delmer Manyik on Line 2." I knew I had to take the call. How many times do you get to speak to a guy named "Delmer"?

Turned out Delmer led me right into one of the longest-running series of investigative stories I ever did for the paper. It started with a plan to burn more than a million tires stashed in a field in Calhan in order to heat greenhouses to grow tomatoes. It ended with the Indy proving that contrary to what the company behind the plan had been claiming, it had no track record for successfully burning anything at this scale, let alone tires, and all the projects they were linked to led to some bizarre and surprising outcomes.

For example, a project in Georgia in which carpets were burned to heat water to grow guppies — yes, I said "carpets," and yes, I said "guppies." Oh, and carpets they had warehoused for the project mysteriously caught fire one night and burned for more than two years. I couldn't make this stuff up.

Moral of the story, when you get a call from someone named Delmer, pick it up.

Malcolm Lucard (formerly Malcolm Howard) who worked at the Indy from 1996 to 2001, lives with his wife, Andrea (also a former Indy contributor) and two sons in Geneva, Switzerland, where Malcolm works as editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine, the journal of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Noel Black: The two most memorable articles I wrote in my two-year tenure at the Indy were cover stories about gender and sexuality — "She," about a transgender woman's struggle for partial custody of her children, and "Bye Bye Biber," the last interview done with Dr. Stanley Biber, the infamous "sex change" doctor of Trinidad, Colorado.

Seeing the open discrimination that Conni (last name withheld) experienced from the legal system based on ignorant perceptions of her gender identity was heartbreaking. Her will to fight it at a time when most thought of her gender as the choice of a self-centered attention-seeker was inspiring.

Stanley Biber is one of the greatest characters I've ever met. I'm shocked no one's made a biopic yet. Mickey Rooney would've been a great choice in his day. Short, macho, arrogant and wildly intelligent, Biber farmed and lifted weights in his free time. He bragged to me that he'd once done a male-to-female sex change operation so artful that the woman's husband — a gynecologist — didn't even know.

When I asked him why he'd devoted his career to performing sex-change surgeries, he said: "Because I could." He educated the entire community of Trinidad about transgender people and made his services part of the economic backbone of the community, which welcomed his clients with open hearts and minds.

Noel Black, who worked at the Indy from 2001 to 2004, went on to publish the satirical monthlies The Toilet Paper and Newspeak. He's the author of two full-length collections of poems and currently is visiting producer for the hour-long documentary program Wish We Were Here: Tales and Investigations from the Shadows of America's Mountain for KRCC-FM 91.5.

Cara DeGette: By the time my shift was done at the Indy, I'd filed a couple of million words' worth of stories for the paper by way of investigative pieces, news and feature stories, columns, endorsements, dreaded "special issue" filler and whatnot. That's not counting the cascade of stories that I assigned and edited, or the reams of internal memos enumerating the outrage of the day.

So what stands out, all these years later? A few bits and pieces. Efforts by various public schools to 1) ban the teaching of evolution; 2) ban gays; 3) pimp Coke products to a captive audience of young students.

The Tebedo family dynasty. Charlie Duke, Bob Gardner and Jim Bensberg, natch.

There was the time when John Dicker called me frantic from City Hall, informing me that the director of personnel was holding him — and his notebook — hostage. I retrieved our reporter, and our notebook, and the city responded by suing to stop us from running the story. The city lost. The story ran.

There was the time Channel 13 fired a reporter for refusing to buy a car from an advertiser. There was the time the Gazette delivered New Testaments to all of its subscribers. And the time that radio shock jock Chuck Baker had some guest advise all his listeners to "shoot out" traffic cameras — which they did.

After all this time, the only regret I have is not successfully securing a girlfriend for Douglas Bruce. Sorry about that, Colorado Springs.

Cara DeGette, who helped found the newspaper in 1993 and served as news editor, chief investigative reporter, columnist and editor-in-chief over the following 15 years, is a Denver-based communications consultant specializing in start-up media companies. She's also editor of CPT12-based Colorado Public News and immediate past president of the Colorado Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Wait, there's more

Here’s a handful of additional stories from more contemporary Indy writers and editors.

Ralph Routon: On May 19, 2008, at SouthSide Johnny’s on South Tejon Street, I and two colleagues were paid to drink huge amounts of beer.

Matthew Schniper, Amanda Lundgren and I had agreed to take what we called the “Newsome Challenge,” duplicating an episode secretly taped by a local TV news station when then-District Attorney John Newsome consumed 11 beers in a five-hour period. During breaks in his active evening, Newsome also went to a public meeting and drove his county-owned car.

We didn’t do those parts, but during the times coinciding with when Newsome wasn’t drinking, we were driven to a drug-testing facility for Breathalyzer tests, documenting how inebriated we were.

Was it fun? Stupid question, though the beer (following Newsome’s lead) was Coors Light. And writing the story the next day with a beer hangover wasn’t pleasant.

Was it worthwhile? Well, it stirred much conversation and more outrage across the area. Then, two months later, Newsome lost his bid for re-election in the Republican primary to challenger Dan May, who remains in office today. Whenever you can get paid to party and have it help bring down a misbehaving elected official, that’s making the world a better place.

Would we do it again? Amanda has moved on to focus on motherhood, but Matthew and I stand ready for the next challenge, whenever it might come. Just not with Coors Light, please.

Ralph Routon served as executive editor of the Independent from 2007 to 2013, before taking over the same role at the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He continues to write columns for the Indy.

Anthony Lane: It was getting late, and the cadets who’d invited Christopher Hitchens to Colorado Springs had to get back to the Air Force Academy grounds. Hitchens, who’d come to discuss atheism and religiosity with this group of future military leaders, looked at the few of us who remained and asked a simple question: “Shall we have supper?”

And so it was I ended up sitting in a perfectly generic Outback Steakhouse booth discussing politics, religion and world affairs with the celebrated writer and pundit. Academy officials had deemed Hitchens too controversial to speak to a larger group of cadets on campus, so he’d just met with the Academy’s Freethinkers group nearby on the patio of an Old Chicago restaurant.

Hitchens was a lively and interesting conversationalist. Sipping from a glass of Johnnie Walker, he talked about a recent trip to the Middle East and his concern that some members of the military were blurring the line between their armed services mission and their personal religious beliefs.

He also was engaging and quite charming, conveying interest and compassion as he listened to others and dispensed advice about being an atheist in a world of believers.

Anthony Lane, Independent reporter from 2007 to 2010, now works in higher education administration. He and his family live just outside Baltimore, Maryland.

Edie Adelstein: I had to learn some Greek.

It was the spring of 2009, and at my desk were two 14-digit phone numbers: one for the house and one for the studio of Fernando Botero, in Greece. I was trying to interview him in advance of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center’s Botero retrospective, and twice now the non-English-speaking woman answering the phone had hung up on me.

Knowing my window was closing, my coworker Matthew Schniper and I took to his computer and came up with a few basic phrases. With those in hand, I called. There seemed to be a moment of understanding and then … click. I dialed once more, and this time a man answered with a booming, “Hello?” It was him.

The next problem we encountered was the terrible connection. The artist, 77 at the time, asked me to repeat myself after almost every question, three times for particularly poor exchanges, until I was shouting in the middle of the office. The questions I’d planned devolved into the simplest possible inquiries, broadcast throughout the building and interrupting everyone’s work within a 15-foot radius.

The interview lasted only about 20 minutes, but it was enough. As soon as I was sure my recording was good, I went to the bathroom to mop off my sweat and smile to myself.

Edie Adelstein, who started as an intern in 2007, is arts editor for the Indy.

John Hazlehurst: There’s a box in my basement with a stack of yellowing Independents that I’ve kept for one reason or another. It includes the first issue with its unappetizing cover photo of a bearded man. I asked then-arts-editor Kathryn Eastburn why they hadn’t put a woman on the cover instead. She shook her head, smiled and walked off. It was clear that the Indy was fated to join the short-lived pubs that had enlivened the Springs for decades.

A few months later the Feb. 23, 1994 issue (“Bold Spring Fashions in Black and White”) featured a gorgeous model on the cover, and a full-page story about a crusading City Councilman … me!

Clearly, the paper was destined for success.

Ten years later, I was out of politics and writing weekly column and an occasional feature for the Indy. One of those, published in September 2004, was about Pueblo’s John Suhay, an 81-year-old steelworker/photographer. He’d been a commercial photographer since 1964, with a free darkroom at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center. He did commercial shots at the SDC — they had never seen his non-commercial work until curator Jina Brennaman stumbled on it.

The work was and is extraordinary. It was a joy and a privilege to write a cover story about Suhay, who was soon after given a one-man show at the SDC.

John Hazlehurst is senior reporter at the Colorado Springs Business Journal, and columnist at the Indy.

Matthew Schniper: Me: “How many women have you been with?” Ron Jeremy: “We always say between four and five thousand. It’s been accepted that its over four. Me and Gene Simmons had the same number when they asked us on The View.”

It was just another day at work in September 2007, a year-and-a-half since I’d come on full time at the Indy after freelancing for a few years. Except it wasn’t. My coworkers were listening and giggling as they eavesdropped on my interview with The Hedgehog himself, who was coming to Colorado College in a canned debate with an anti-porn pastor from the XXX Church.

Not only did I have to clear the cookies and history from my computer after my interview, I had to clear my head from all the, well, ickiness. I recall him continually telling me to hold on to speak to some girls who’d arrived at his place. Then he went off on a James Dobson tangent that was actually pretty amusing and illustrative of his surprising intellect — he also mentioned Wuthering Heights at some point.

Though I’ve had more personally exciting and gratifying celebrity interviews since — Fight Club’s Chuck Palahniuk, for one — I can’t say I’ll ever forget my chat with Ron, who’s surely over 5,000 by now. Ick.

Matthew Schniper is the food and eco editor for the Indy.

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