Goodbee says "goodbye’
The red-haired, high-energy lawyer who has been in the Eagle District Attorney’s office for a dozen years is moving to Denver, where he’ll serve as the state’s deputy attorney general for criminal justice. While still on the prosecuting end of the criminal justice system, the job will present some huge changes for Goodbee.
Goodbee currently oversees a combined staff of 11 lawyers in the four-county Fifth Judicial District, and as a rural district attorney he handles everything from personnel to budgets to prosecution of some major cases. At the state level, he’ll be supervising a staff of 45 lawyers and working with a budget of $8 million – more than triple the size of his Fifth Judicial District budget. The state’s Criminal Justice Section has jurisdiction over statewide grand jury matters, certain white-collar crimes, criminal appeals, environmental crimes and gang activities.
Ken Lane, deputy attorney general to Salazar, says the attorney general has worked with Goodbee for the past four years and has been impressed by his vision, enthusiasm and eagerness to work on behalf of crime victims. After all, Goodbee serves as the deputy director of the Colorado Victim’s Assistance Organization.
“(Salazar) is impressed with Mike’s sense of wanting to serve. He has an excellent record as a hands-on prosecutor. He has handled murder cases. He’s a rising star,” says Lane.
Additionally, the attorney general’s office considers Goodbee’s grasp of the needs of rural law enforcement will be a bonus to the office. Lane says rural operations don’t always have the resources of larger jurisdictions and face an entirely different set of concerns and problems than more urban operations.
Goodbee, 39, spent the past week packing up his office. He and his wife, Michelle, a court reporter, and their children, newborn daughter Rachel and 2-year-old son Gabe, will relocate to Denver. He said he will miss his staff, the local community, and friendships.
“We really don’t want to leave, but we really can’t say “no’ to such an enormous opportunity. This is a once in a lifetime thing,” says Goodbee.
Former Fifth Judicial District Attorney Pete Michaelson hired Goodbee as a deputy prosecutor in March, 1991. Like most beginning prosecutors, Goodbee started with traffic and dogs-at-large cases in county court, then worked his way up.
In the early 1990s, there was an average of one murder case every two years in the Fifth Judicial District. That number has increased proportionally with the population growth. Currently there are two pending murder trials in the district, and two unsolved murders pending.
In Eagle County, the Kathy Denson murder trial is pending; and last year’s Melba Ginther murder near Camp Hale remains unsolved.
“In some ways, we are becoming more urbanized. It is a byproduct of growth,” Goodbee says.
As a Deputy District Attorney, Goodbee helped prosecute the Bob Mach murder trail. Mach was the town of Vail’s personnel director when he shot and killed his wife during a domestic quarrel.
Goodbee stayed with the District Attorney’s Office in Eagle until 1997, then briefly moved into private practice, where he did some defense litigation.
John Clune, a former deputy district attorney who learned to prosecute under Goodbee’s tutelage, remembers the strangeness of having his former “teacher” come to him in a defense attorney capacity.
“He came in saying “you can’t possibly push this charge against my client.’ He actually sounded like a defense attorney,” Clune says. “That lasted about five seconds. The next thing he told me was all the other charges I could prove if I filed a motion to amend.”
Clune took notes, filed a motion, and convicted Goodbee’s client.
“He was still trying to help me in my development as a young prosecutor,” Cline says.
In retrospect, Clune says the writing was on the wall that Goodbee would somehow get back to the prosecution end of the law. Six months after he left for private practice, the Fifth Judicial District Attorney post came open, and then-Governor Roy Romer named Goodbee over four other contenders to fill the office. He’s held the post since that time, winning the 2000 election by a sizable margin.
“These five years changed me as a professional, in mostly positive ways,” says Goodbee.
Looking back at his career in the Fifth Judicial District, Goodbee is candid about the high points and low points. He’s proud that he was able to stay within budget during his five years as District Attorney, but was also able to raise the salaries of his prosecutors by more than 25 percent.
He lists the Chuck Garrison murder trail in Summit County last summer as a low point. Garrison was charged with murdering his wife, and burying her in the couple’s back yard. As prosecutor, Goodbee was unable to persuade the jury to convict the husband of first-degree murder. Instead, the jurors opted for a lesser murder charge. Garrison was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
On the other hand, Goodbee is proud of his success in the appeal in the Nathan Hall skier manslaughter trial two years ago. When county and District Court judges ruled that the prosecution had failed to establish probable cause for charging the defendant with felony manslaughter in a fatal ski accident, Goodbee appealed the case all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court. The high court ruled that Hall did have to stand trial.
“We won because we got to give the case to a jury. We didn’t want to convict Hall so much as we wanted to try the case, and let the people speak,” says Goodbee of the precedent-setting trial.
He also remembers a particularly difficult case in Summit County involving a shaken baby. The victim’s family did not support the prosecution of the case. It was a complex trial, with 13 medical experts testifying. The prosecutors won.
“We did it alone. We did it for the baby,” says Goodbee.
Goodbee acknowledges that he’s had his critics. That comes with the territory, he says.
“When you’re an elected officer, you need to hear from citizens not just when you’re doing a good job, but also when you’re not doing the job that’s expected of you,” Goodbee says.
Some of the employees in the Eagle County District Attorney’s office have been there longer than Goodbee. The friendships extend beyond the confines of the office. The staff attends an occasional Rockies baseball games in the summer, or picnics together at outdoor concerts in the Eagle Park.
There’s also been some carefree moments. In November 1993, when Goodbee decided to propose to his court reporter girlfriend, Michele Frakes, his staff and many courthouse workers helped him plot a memorable moment. At the end of a routine court day with her the courtroom reporter and him the deputy prosecutor, he appealed to District Judge Richard Hart to listen to “one more matter.”
Hart, who knew what was coming, was cooperative.
Goodbee then pulled out an engagement ring, and on bent knee asked the startled court reporter to be his wife. She abandoned her shorthand machine, did a happy little dance, and accepted while the District Attorney’s staff and courthouse workers watched with beaming smiles.
When working on a case, Goodbee says his staff acts as a solid team.
“This is a good office, filled with good people who have a good sense of mission,” says Goodbee, proudly. He says his prosecutors are not calloused or jaded and respect the fact that their decisions impact other people’s lives.
Clune says one of his fondest memories as a prosecutor was the way the entire staff stuck together for 20 hours while the Nathan Hall jury deliberated. That’s a tense time for lawyers, who find it nearly impossible to focus on other aspects of their work while awaiting a decision. Somehow, as the staff brainstormed for creative ways to relieve stress, an impromptu miniature golf game erupted in the office. Everybody felt a little more relaxed after that exercise.
“I will really miss the people in this office,” says Goodbee.
Still, he’s looking forward to the challenges of his new job, and speaks frequently of his admiration for Salazar. It is with some regret that he is leaving this valley.
“I have a strange sense that some day I will come back. I don’t want to think my days in Eagle County are done,” says Goodbee.
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.