Westword investigation catches Colorado cops—and local media—in a tough spot (UPDATED)

Denver's alt-weekly chronicles drug busts gone bad in a small town

Last week, in a fantastic cover story for the Denver-based alt-weekly Westword, reporter Alan Prendergast chronicled some police work in a small southern Colorado town that was so magnificently incompetent, so recklessly negligent, it makes the Keystone Kops look like Seal Team Six.

Prendergast’s report is a story about government gone bad, a local glimpse into a failing war on drugs. But it’s also a media critique: a reminder that we need strong, attentive coverage of local government, and that when reporters pass along police information to their readers and viewers, we need to follow up if and when that info proves false.

The background: As part of a joint effort with a neighboring department, cops in Trinidad, CO, had paid a pair of confidential informants to make small-time drug buys. In December 2013, the targets were swept up in a wave of 40 arrests; the busts included a probation officer, accused of actually selling dope in the courthouse, and an executive assistant to a city manager.

Big news, right?

But, as Prendergast reports, the case against many of these alleged bad apples soon began to fall apart. In fact, he writes, “two of the accused had the perfect alibi: They were in jail at the time they were supposedly selling drugs on the streets of Trinidad to the police’s informant.”


That informant turned out to be wildly unreliable. Prendergast’s account gives every reason to believe she used her role to settle personal grudges, stage fake deals, con cops and prosecutors, and make some decent money off the authorities in the process. The second informant, for her part, reportedly admitted to a public defender that she had lied on the stand. Meanwhile, law enforcement turned a blind eye to warning signs and facilitated or incentivized informant misconduct. While some of the drug buys may have actually happened, all the charges had been dismissed by August, but not before some of the accused had seen their lives trashed—jobs lost, publicly shamed, compelled to start over in a new town.

You should read the entire piece in Westword, because it really is something. And while this story offers a troubling look into some poor local policing and prosecution, it also serves as an example of how media outlets can become unwitting accomplices in the disruption of personal lives when they rely on police information and fail to follow up.

Prendergast writes:

Local newspapers and television stations dutifully featured the names and mug shots of the accused and referred vaguely to the smashing of a drug “ring” — as if the suspects were all part of one vast conspiracy, the purchases more significant than the sort of random, garden-variety street buys they appeared to be.… 

…[T]he dismissals didn’t attract the same media splash as the arrests.

Trinidad—population about 8,500, and located close to the Colorado-New Mexico border—is not a news desert, but it’s pretty far from a bustling metropolis. The closest city is Pueblo, 85 miles north. A TV station in Colorado Springs, 120 miles away, might report on the region now and again, or sometimes a station in New Mexico will drop in.

One very local outlet, a small community newspaper in Trinidad called the The Chronicle-News, published 39 of the mug shots when police announced the arrests last year. The display filled the entire newshole on Page 3.

When I caught up with Chronicle-News editor Eric John Monson this week, he told me after he read the Westword story he dug into the archives to review his paper’s coverage. “One of my big questions was… did we do our due diligence in the past?” Monson says. He’d just arrived at The Chronicle-News—“a little newspaper out here in the boonies,” with only one reporter—in August.

He found that the paper did run a front-page report in late June, when charges against 11 of the accused were dropped, that raised questions and detailed some of the problems with those sketchy informants. But The Chronicle-News hadn’t followed the full story. And while the paper had tried to interview some of the accused after they were cleared, they didn’t want to talk. Instead, Monson says, those sources pointed to the reporting of a local online news outfit run by a former Chronicle-News reporter who was covering the disintegrating cases.

Monson later added in an e-mail, “To be honest we are behind on following-up on the charges being dropped for about 25 other people, but our coverage of Prendergast’s article (for Friday) should catch us up, relatively.” He recently interviewed the prosecutor for an editor’s column, to appear today.

That’s a different approach to this still-unfolding story than at The Pueblo Chieftain, a much larger regional paper close to 90 miles away that also reported on what it called a “drug dragnet,” but hasn’t produced a follow-up.

Chieftain managing editor Steve Henson told me he didn’t recall his paper publishing any stories on drug busts in Trinidad, and said they don’t have a reporter there. Surprisingly to me, a week after the big Westword cover story, which has garnered more than 1,000 social media shares, Henson hadn’t seen it.

I pointed out that The Chieftain had indeed reported on the arrests, listing the names of 40 people and their accused drug offenses in a bylined article last December. (It’s still online with no clarification; I won’t to link it here.) Henson didn’t want to comment on the record, but I left our exchange not expecting the Chieftain to address this story any time soon, unless, perhaps, the police send the paper a press release about the dropped charges. I hope I’m wrong. (Update, 12/5: I’m happy to report I was wrong: About an hour before this story was published, the Chieftain posted a bylined story about developments in the case. Much of it is behind a paywall, but the headline reads, “Most drug charges go away.”)

Meanwhile, in TV land, KRDO in the state’s second largest city, Colorado Springs, ran a similar re-written news release from the cops that included the 40 names under an ominous graphic of handcuffs and the words “Drug Bust.” It’s still online, too, without mention of the latest news. KRDO’s digital content director didn’t respond to an email asking if the station had produced any follow-ups, or have any planned.

The NBC affiliate in the Springs, KOAA, also still has the mug shots and names of those arrested last year on its website. You can even see how one of the women in the photos “looks like a real crack head,” according to one commenter. “No, that’s the look of meth,” says another. I haven’t heard back from the station’s news director.

One local journalist, however, has done plenty of reporting throughout this sad scenario. That’s David Santistevan, a former local newspaper reporter who was fired in 2012, according to his account, in part because of friction with management over—get this—him wanting to follow up on police information the paper had been dutifully publishing. “They didn’t want to rock the boat. A small town. They thought we’d lose advertising,” he told me in a long phone conversation the other night.

Santistevan eventually founded an online news outlet, Trinidad and Las Animas County News, which he publishes via Facebook. He started getting tips that he should follow up on the big drug bust announcement, he told me, and he attended multiple court hearings throughout the process, watching the cases fall to pieces in public hearings. (Here’s a report from August.) He credits a local public defender’s hard work to expose what happened. Since Westword’s story ran, Santistevan has been getting calls from investigative reporters from New Mexico to Denver. He says he just wants the information on what happened to get out there, and he’s happy to help any way he can.

For Leticia Steffen, a board member of the Colorado pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists who teaches journalism at Colorado State University’s Pueblo campus, the news outlets that reported on the initial bust have a responsibility to tell their readers and viewers the whole story.

That Denver’s Westword produced a big expose is great, she says, but, “even if we may see these things in larger outlets, I think from a community journalism standpoint it’s maybe more important to get those stories out and get that information out because of the nature of these smaller towns.”

Steffen suggested the outlets that ran the mug shots and the names consider trying to interview those people about how the story disrupted their lives. “I think it would be in the best interest of a newspaper in terms of their own reputation to try and do the right thing here and let their readers know … what happened to these people,” she says. There’s also obviously a role for news outlets to do whatever they can, given their resources or relationship to the local market, to deliver continued scrutiny of law enforcement in Trinidad.

For his part, Prendergast, who worked on his Westword cover story for about a month and reported it from Denver following an anonymous tip, says there was a real hunger in the area for the rest of the story to come out.

“I had a lot of cooperation from people because partly they were so frustrated with the local media,” he says. “The people who were accused who were factually innocent were eager to be vindicated.… This article was really in part driven by the fact that there were not local outlets that were tackling this in any detail.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at [email protected].