When murder comes to the mountains
SUMMIT COUNTY – Katie Wieland took her 3-year-old son and moved to Denver. There were lots of reasons, like a new job, but since three men beat her husband to death on Breckenridge’s Main Street, Summit County just hasn’t been the same for her.Wieland moved in August, the same week the second of her husband’s attackers was sentenced to prison for that fatal attack the night of Halloween 2002. By the time the sentencing hearing for the third man convicted in the assault came Wednesday, Wieland took comfort in the fact she could drive back to Denver, where no one would know what she’d been through all day.”It’s sort of sad, but it’s become a kind of label for me here,” Wieland said Wednesday at the Summit County Justice Center. “It’s the first thing people ask me about. It’s nice in a way, but it’s hard to get past. “And it makes me angry a little that I had to move,” she said. “This is my town, my home. But it’s just not the same anymore.”For many residents of Breckenridge and surrounding towns, Wieland’s statement rings true. As Summit County woke and headed to work the morning of Nov. 1, 2002, a light snow covered the ground. Halloween decorations still hung from lampposts and store windows. Those that drove down Breckenridge’s Main Street saw an unusual sight, though.Police crime-scene tape cordoned off the 100 block of South Main Street. Officers and plain-clothes investigators from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, wearing rubber gloves and shoe covers, could be seen combing the ground, taking notes. The coffee talk and water-cooler conversations in offices up and down the street turned from ski season expectations and Halloween parties to rumors of something horrible that happened the night before.”It was creepy to say the least,” said Becky Courteau, director of the Paint Horse Gallery, who arrived to work that morning. Courteau describes first the confusion at her difficulty getting to the gallery, then shock as she learned why police were there. “It was the last thing I expected. I saw the blood in the snow, and I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Serious crime on the riseBut serious crimes are becoming more common. In his annual report for 2003, a compilation of statistics on the variety of crimes prosecuted in Summit, Eagle and Lake counties, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert noted that the overall caseload decreased.Summit County led the way with a 1.8 percent decrease in cases from 2002. What concerned Hurlbert, however, was the rise in violent crimes – assaults, rapes and, yes, murders. For the first time in his nine years with the prosecutor’s office, and likely the first time ever, all three counties had murder cases on the docket.In a February interview on the report, Hurlbert noted sadly, “I don’t think we’ll have any more years where we don’t have any pending murder cases.”For those that came to these idyllic mountain towns to escape crime and the disappearing respect for life and peace that plagues stressed, urban areas, such news is the knell that sounds the end of an era, of innocence, in a way. Some Summit residents found themselves locking their doors at night, and thinking twice about leaving the car unlocked in the dark corner of the parking lot.Breckenridge mayor speaks outBreckenridge Mayor Ernie Blake, at the time of the Wieland assault a new Breckenridge council member, was stirred to action after hearing people around town talk about fearing for their own safety, wondering what the town was turning into and changing the habits of a lifestyle so prized.”It took away from everybody that wanders down Main Street at night,” Blake said Thursday. “Whether you call it innocence or a sense of confidence, it hurt.”Though he is an attorney, Blake had never spoken in court in a criminal proceeding.
He said he felt compelled to get involved in the Wieland case. At the March sentencing for Brian Stockdale, the first man convicted in the assault, Blake told the judge that he feared the impact this crime would have on residents and tourists alike. He asked the judge to send a strong message in sentencing the defendants. “I’m glad that (Judge David) Lass was as tough as he was,” Blake said of the two 28-year sentences and 18-month sentence handed down by the court.A cop’s perspectiveWhether or not the message will deter angst-addled men and women from making catastrophic or criminal decisions in the heat of anger or the haze of intoxication remains to be seen. The message has been sent before, and some people just don’t listen. Ask Jim Walsh.Walsh, a veteran of law enforcement for more than three decades, spent the past 30 years as a Frisco police officer and Summit County sheriff’s deputy. He has seen notable cases such as a double-homicide he described as a “professional hit” in the 1980s and a squabble that ended with one man smashing in another man’s head with a rock. To Walsh, who came to the county when the permanent population barely topped 3,000 (it’s now more than 25,000), an increase in violent crime is only natural. It’s inherent with growth, he said. Walsh said as Summit becomes more and more a distant suburb of Denver, the county will inherit the crime city folks see. Despite a nationwide trend in a reduction of violent crime, he said, Summit County will see more.”Most people probably aren’t going to want to hear this,” Walsh said Thursday. “But people associated with law enforcement, we see the evil that man does. Police officers, I don’t know any that don’t lock the doors or lock their homes up. They take the necessary precautions that make it difficult for criminals to make them victims.”People in the general public walk around with their heads in the clouds,” Walsh said. “They don’t think it will happen to them. But when it comes to violent crime, you have almost no chance of getting off this earth without being a victim, at least once. People really need to take security measures.”
What to do now Trends are always hard to peg, though, said Summit County Advocates for Victims of Assault counselor Sarah Vaine. Vaine and the nonprofit advocates work with victims such as Wieland’s family, referring them to aid and services to help cope with trauma, and in some cases sheltering women and families escaping from violence. Vaine said Thursday it’s always hard to tell if more crime is happening, or if there’s just more of it being reported.”Like right now, the shelter is full, so it feels like there’s an increase in family violence,” Vaine said. “But it could have something to do with the economy. A lot of the crimes we see often go unreported to the police and they aren’t in the media. There’s definitely a lot more crime than people read about.”In the aftermath of the Wieland case, Vaine said, “What I’ve heard more of is a recognition that it can happen to anyone, that in a split-second lives can change traumatically.”I hear women talking who see their kids in both the victim and the defendants in the Wieland case,” she said.For those that don’t want to see their families in either position, for those that don’t want to have to lock their doors at night, Blake said it’s important that all residents send the same message the court has in these cases. Citizens must demand the police enforcement that protects their quality of life, he said. In schools and in families, it’s teaching the right principles and scruples, he said. With programs for newcomers, they must be told that Summit County is different from other cities and they are responsible for keeping it that way.”We must try to instill in everyone that it’s something so special you can’t give it up,” Blake said. “It’s such a treasure, and we have to protect that.”Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or email@example.com.
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