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Tim Watkins was shot to death in an area known for illegal activity

Ride at your own risk

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Tim Watkins worked as a bike mechanic, and owned his own shop at one time. - TED EASTBURN
  • Ted Eastburn
  • Tim Watkins worked as a bike mechanic, and owned his own shop at one time.
‘Have you ever ridden Limbaugh Canyon?” State Sen. Michael Merrifield asks over a strained cell phone connection.

I’ve mountain biked the Mount Herman area a little, I tell him, but have a poor sense of direction and a bad memory for road and trail names.

“Oh, you’d remember it,” the prolific cyclist says. “ ... The flowers are beautiful, the grass is high.” Then his voice slows. “I don’t think I’ll ever do it alone again.”

Despite the fact that the U.S. Forest Service banned shooting there in 2014, Merrifield says gunshots are a constant at Mount Herman, which is near Monument and Palmer Lake. Once, near the drop into Limbaugh, he saw a man and his son shooting right next to a “no shooting” sign. He reminded them of the ban, but he says the father told him to “mind your own fucking business.” Unarmed and alone, Merrifield simply moved on.

Other times, drivers have tried to run him off the road. And once, he “heard and felt [a] bullet go over my head.” It was, Merrifield says, in about the same area where the body of his friend was recently found.

Tim Watkins, 60, disappeared while riding his mountain bike in the Mount Herman area on Thursday, Sept. 14. Two days later, his shoe and bicycle were found, a day later his body was found. He had been shot.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, which is leading the investigation into the homicide, isn’t releasing many details on Watkins’ death, though they say they’ve gathered over 150 tips. But the cycling community, of which Watkins was a beloved member, has been talking about what might have happened, what could have happened — an easy thing to do, since there are no shortage of horror stories from Mount Herman.

Take Merrifield, who knew Watkins for three decades. Merrifield says he wonders if someone shot Watkins after he simply reminded them of the shooting ban. “I would not be surprised if it was that situation,” he says.

There’s just something about Mount Herman, he says. The area seems to attract “a low-class angry group of users” that can create scary situations.

Watkins moved around the state, but his hometown was Palmer Lake, and he had a passion for Mount Herman. It’s sad, his friend Jeff Tessier says, to think that the trails Watkins was heading out to ride were likely ones that he built, since Watkins worked on or constructed some “60 to 70 percent” of the trails there.

Back in the mid 2000s, Tessier, owner of Tessier Custom Bikes, built one of his first custom frames for Watkins, who at the time owned Monument’s Balanced Rock Bike and Ski. The bike that was found near Watkins’ body was the second frame Tessier had built for his friend.

Tessier had ridden these trails with Watkins, whom he calls “a legend.” Though they always heard the gunshots — anyone who rides on Mount Herman hears them, Tessier says — Watkins never seemed afraid. But Tessier says Mount Herman has always been dangerous, and, he adds, “I think it’s more dangerous now than it’s ever been.”

Back in June 2011, I wrote about two friends who were mountain biking Mount Herman. Bullets began to fly around them and they crouched down, yelling for the unseen shooters to stop. The shooting continued, and since they were both armed too, they took out their guns, ready to defend themselves. They never saw the shooters, and eventually crept back to their car and reported the incident.

They weren’t the only ones. In 2014, the Gazette reported that the Forest Service had closed Mount Herman to recreational shooting (though not hunting) after a series of reports of near misses. In March of that year, a Castle Rock-area couple’s Jeep had been hit while they sat nearby eating lunch. Forest Service officials even reported that people had called 911 from Mount Herman saying they were “pinned down by gunfire.”

In June 2016, Oscar Martinez, District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pikes Peak Ranger District, told the Independent that his staff was busy cleaning up homeless campsites in the forest, including on Mount Herman, that were overrun with trash and in some cases contained “sharps,” or drug needles.

Martinez tells the Indy via email that the camps haven’t let up since then, though he thinks there has been less shooting since 2014, as the area has increasingly become popular with hikers and cyclists. “Since we closed the area to recreational shooting, most people, for the most part, followed the request to not shoot in that area,” he wrote.

But Tessier and Merrifield say they still hear gunshots. And recently, there have been multiple reports that someone has been chasing cyclists with an ax in the area. The Sheriff’s Office reported that a man whose vehicle matched the description given by witnesses in the ax incidents was arrested on Sept. 25. Daniel Nations, 31, was booked into Teller County Jail on an unrelated weapons charge. The Office won’t say if they believe he is connected to Watkins’ killing. Naturally, Tessier, who has heard about the ax man from other cyclists, has his theories.

When Watkins didn’t show up to work on Friday, Sept. 15, John Crandall says he became worried.
Watkins had been working at Crandall’s Old Town Bike Shop since July. “We actually met probably 20 years ago when he worked at Criterium bike shop, and we never spent that much time together, but I always really liked him,” Crandall recalls.

When Watkins started working for him, he says, he was struck by how many of the customers knew him, and the universal warmth they had for him. Watkins, he says, was “a gentle soul.”

Crandall says that while he’s not a mountain biker, he had long heard stories about Mount Herman. He talked to one man, who used to ride in the area 20 years ago, who said that even back then, he’d often hear so many gunshots there that he’d turn around and go home. Others have told him about a man on horseback that used to chase cyclists out of the area.

“I don’t want to cast aspersions on Monument and Palmer Lake,” he says, “but ... it’s not like all of a sudden this totally pristine place had one bad incident.”

Crandall says he knows how much Watkins loved Mount Herman. He knows he’d want people to keep riding there. But he says — and Merrifield and Tessier agree — that cyclists are hesitant. Some have said they may bring a gun; Crandall talked to one woman recently who packed her pepper spray. Others may not want to go at all, or at least not alone.

And, of course, the theories of what happened to Watkins, born of fear and bad experiences, continue to proliferate.

Crandall, though, says he’s “strangely optimistic” that Watkins’ killer will be caught. Maybe it’s because the murder of his first employee, Mike Rust, who worked for him in the ’70s, was recently solved.

Rust, also a cycling legend, disappeared from his home in Saguache County in 2009. His life and death were the subject of the 2015 film, The Rider & The Wolf. But in 2016, Rust’s body was finally found, and Charles Moises Gonzales, 46, was charged with killing him by shooting him once in the back of the head.

“Mike was very confrontational, he would take no guff from anyone,” Crandall recalls. “Tim was kind of the opposite personality type, both of them really fine people.”

But, he says, of Watkins, “For me, I believe it truly makes me even more angry to think someone that nice would just be ambushed and taken out by some nutcase.”

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