District attorney candidate Heidi McCollum talks restorative justice, high-profile cases and Latinx outreach
Five questions for 5th Judicial District candidate heading into Tuesday’s Democratic primary
Heidi McCollum grew up in Eagle County, graduated from Eagle Valley High School, and interned with the 5th Judicial District after law school. She’s been assistant district attorney since 2013 and during that time has prosecuted some of Eagle County’s most high-profile cases, including the cases of Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, the couple convicted of starting the massive Lake Christine Fire.
McCollum, 49, lives in the old town section of Eagle, right next to her parents, and said she’s running for district attorney because she loves serving the community that raised her and she’s passionate about fighting for justice on the behalf of victims. Her opponent in the June 30 primary is Braden Angel, of EagleVail, who was a deputy district attorney in the 5th Judicial District from October 2007 through October 2012.
Whoever wins the primary looks all but certain to be the next DA in the sprawling 5thJudicial District that encompasses Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties since no Republican entered the field for the primary and the party cannot appoint one for the general election. A write-in candidate or an independent candidate could still emerge before the general election in November.
The Vail Daily caught up with McCollum earlier this week to ask questions that her opponent also answered in a forthcoming Q&A.
When asked about restorative justice, and an example from her career where the outcomes in a case were transformational for the accused, McCollum cited the example of a high school graduation party in 2014 near Wolcott that got out of hand.
“It was an incredibly dangerous situation. There were a lot of high schoolers, a lot of underage kids who were drinking. A lot of kids who couldn’t drive home,” McCollum said. “Parents were called. When the police showed up out there, kids actually scattered. In this particular area, there’s a huge dropoff. Thank goodness no one actually ran and seriously injured themselves or were killed. The next day, law enforcement went back out, and the entire place was trashed. It was disgusting. There were bottles and cans and a massive fire ring.”
McCollum said the district attorney’s office didn’t have the resources to prosecute nearly 100 high schoolers for the crime of minor in possession. But, through the juvenile diversion program, she said a solution was reached that made all parties whole.
That solution was making the partygoers clean up another trashed-out site, near Gypsum, while working alongside county employees and community members.
“The kids were able to interact with members of the community, the victims of this crime,” she said. “Then they also took part in and understood why they had to clean up after someone else. Initially, we had some kids say, wait a minute, I’ve never partied out in the Gypsum area. Why would I have to go clean up that mess? And we said, that’s exactly right, because someone else has to go clean up your mess outside of Wolcott. This is your chance to understand what it’s like to clean up someone else’s mess. It turned out to be a really great day. The kids worked really hard and they were also basically able to work off their charges, and they were able to interact with the community.”
Treatment, not handcuffs
When asked about setting priorities for her office, McCollum pointed out that priorities for prosecutors in Leadville and Georgetown aren’t necessarily the same for those working in Eagle County.
But, if there’s one over-arching issue that her office will focus on, she said it would be handling issues of mental health and addiction.
“The priority is that every single county has a robust, qualified co-response team,” she said, citing a model that originated in Summit County and has since been adopted in Eagle County. A co-response team brings together law enforcement officials with trained mental health clinicians, first responders and caseworkers for a more humane approach to policing.
“If someone is suicidal, the appropriate place for them is not jail,” she said. “That might physically keep them alive for a temporary time period, and obviously that’s what we want, but that doesn’t solve the problem … It’s just such a great thing that we are doing to reduce our jail populations, to help get people who actually need comfort, they need treatment, they need love, they don’t need handcuffs and jail.”
When asked if she would you have convened a grand jury and pursued a petty theft charge against the Eagle County sheriff, as outgoing DA Bruce Brown did, McCollum stated that she was not privy to the information in that case.
She did, however, state what her process would be if she ever encountered allegations of misuse of public funds.
“I would have wanted to review what the account was set up for, how it was set up, who had access to it, what the purpose of those funds were, and whether those funds were used for that purpose or not,” she said. “And if they weren’t, then I would have taken the further step to ascertain if they weren’t used for the purpose for which they were set up, what were they used for? Did those actions constitute a crime?”
McCollum also said the district attorney’s job is to assess the provability of each case.
“What I will say is that if a public official, any public official, commits a crime, it would be eligible to be taken to a grand jury,” she said. “Obviously every case that we have, we have to do an assessment on, right? … I might know that someone did something, but me being able to prove it is a completely separate analysis.”
When asked how she would build better relationships with the Latinx community and lessen the stigma that exists about working with law enforcement, McCollum cited the Latinx police academy courses in Eagle where community members learn about the judicial process. She also emphasized her work with immigration lawyers.
“Our Latino communities and populations throughout our district, primarily Eagle, Summit and Lake counties, are such a vital component to our communities,” she said. “Our communities would not function without that demographic … The one thing that we cannot do is alienate almost 30 percent of our demographic.”
She said she’s personally seen the impact that police academy courses have had during her tenure as assistant DA.
“You know, once people understand a little bit more about the system, then they’re very open to go to the police,” she said. “They’re open to the district attorney’s office and they want to be involved.”
As for the U visas program, which was established by Congress to encourage immigrants to report crimes in exchange for protections for those willing to cooperate, McCollum said the visas are an invaluable tool for prosecutors. Given how long it takes for some major felony cases to come to trial, the option of a U visa, which offers temporary legal status for up to four years, ensures that victims can get justice.
“A victim is a victim,” McCollum said. “And it doesn’t matter where they were born and it doesn’t matter what their politics are. It doesn’t matter what their gender is, it doesn’t matter the color of their skin. A victim is a victim and they need to be heard and they need to be represented.”
Lastly, McCollum was asked about two cases she prosecuted that drew considerable media attention and strong public opinions, starting with the couple who started the Lake Christine Fire. All told, the blaze started at the Basalt shooting range in the summer of 2018 destroyed three homes, burned more than 12,500 acres and impacted thousands of Roaring Fork Valley residents. McCollum said the plea deal that was struck was the best resolution possible in an emotionally-charged judicial process.
Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, who were convicted of starting the fire, pleaded guilty to setting fire to woods or prairie, a class two misdemeanor. Three charges of felony arson were dismissed by the DA’s office. Miller and Marcus were each sentenced to 45 days in jail, 1,500 hours of public service, $100,000 in restitution and five years of probation.
“In a perfect world, I would love for both of these defendants to pay back the 30 plus million dollars that it cost the government, both state and federal, to fight this fire. Yeah I would love for both of these individuals to have to literally rebuild the three houses that burned down,” she said. “That’s great. That’s what I want. I’m never going to get that. Just because I want it doesn’t mean that that’s what’s best. At some point, we have to heal. And as a community, the Roaring Fork Valley and the El Jebel-Basalt area, they need to heal.”
She also said, in regard to Miller and Marcus, that the public service aspect of the punishment was a way for that healing to take place.
“It’s a way for both of these defendants who had completely inappropriate behavior, reckless behavior, selfish behavior to pay back some of what they did,” she said. “I don’t think either of those two individuals set out that morning to become the most vilified to people in the Roaring Fork Valley. That was not their goal when they woke up. That’s what they became”
McCollum was also asked about the case of a woman who was found in a dumpster in Vail who claimed her ex-husband had assaulted her, abducted her and left her there. The ensuing investigation took up considerable public resources with investigators and prosecutors concluding that the woman made up the story, resulting in four charges, two of them felonies. Following an emotional eight-day trial, the jury acquitted the woman on all charges.
McCollum was adamant that the case was worth taking to trial.
“It is not appropriate to frame another human being or to try to frame another human being for murder,” she said. “Just because I didn’t get the verdict that I thought needed to come down doesn’t mean it was wrong to take a case to trial. If you’re a prosecutor, you’re going to lose cases. And if you haven’t lost cases as a prosecutor, then you’re not trying enough cases. If you’re a prosecutor and you go to trial and the defendant is found not guilty, then the system did what the system was supposed to do. The defendant got a fair shot … It’s not the decision I was hoping for. It’s not the decision I would have made, but I accept that decision.”
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