Justice on the run | VailDaily.com

Justice on the run

If the curious Kobe watchers think the Kobe Bryant case is taking a long time move forward, they should consider Clay Duncan, 17, who had to wait two years to get his case resolved at the Eagle County District Court.

Duncan was charged with theft and sexual assault in November 2000. Over the course of two years, he traveled six times from his home in Anamosa, Iowa, to appear in court in Eagle – 2,000 miles.

After two years of trips, six different deputy district attorneys handling his case and dozens of phone calls, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert personally took over the case and in March accepted Duncan’s plea agreement – one charge of theft and one charge of third-degree assault.

Disintegrate, re-integrate

Hurlbert has been on the job since December, when he was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens to replace Michael Goodbee, who left for the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

The string of departing prosecutors since last summer, mostly in Goodbee’s wake, created a period of disarray in which Hurlbert had to rebuild his entire staff a couple of times. Defense attorneys complained that prosecutors were showing up for court unprepared, and that in the procession of deputy district attorneys, an agreement in a case with the last one might not be honored by the next one.

The case backlog, attorneys said, was frustrating.

But defense attorney Jim Fahrenholtz, a former chief deputy district attorney, said this rebuilding is actually taking less time that he thought it would.

“I thought it would take two years,” Fahrenholtz said. “When Goodbee left, the office just disintegrated. They’ve had their hands full. It’s tough for a coach to come in and in his first year rebuild the team and put together a winner. But they seem to be doing fine.”

Although Eagle County last year had 129 fewer criminal cases than the previous year, Hurlbert said the total caseload of 4,423 in 2002 was still high for a place like Eagle County.

New deputy district attorneys have the office running as smoothly as possible, Hurlbert said.

“We now have a really experienced office,” Hurlbert said.

Win some, lose some

The District Attorney’s Office has had its ups and downs for the past couple years in Eagle County. Some of the setbacks have been caused by rapid staff turnover, some were weak cases, and some were a result of cleaning up other people’s messes. Among the most recent highlights and lowlights:

– Avon Town Councilman Peter Buckley faced computer fraud charges under two district attorneys. Now he doesn’t.

Hurlbert said Wednesday that after seeing more evidence, he realized he couldn’t prove his case. Hurlbert alleged that Buckley had used something that gathers e-mail to disrupt Vail.net, a local e-mail and Internet provider, but he couldn’t show that Buckley did it.

– This week, at a hearing on evidence to be presented at Cathy Denson’s jury trial on murder charges, a big case since this is the first murder in this county in at least five years. Judge Hart refused a prosecution request to include evidence on Denson’s prior conduct that could be linked to the shooting. The judge denied Smith’s request because the prosecutor filed the motion too late. Deadlines have been difficult for the DA’s office in many court cases.

The evidence denied by the judge included an episode a few years ago in which Denson discharged a weapon into the air to scare rafters who were floating down the Eagle River near her ranch. Evidence also depicted another situation when Denson threw rocks at rafters. The defense attorney argued the episodes had nothing to do with accusations Denson shot her ex-lover to death with a shotgun last year in her ranch home near Eagle.

On the other hand, the District Attorney’s Office is on a roll with recent theft and embezzlement cases.

– The former chief financial officer for a local general contractor has pleaded guilty to stealing $2 million from the company. The District Attorney’s Office agreed that Karen Sue Kafka, 46, will not do jail time. However, she will have to pay $800,000 in restitution to Sandy and Kathy Treat, owners of Edwards-based Summit Habitats, said District Attorney Mark Hurlbert.

Kaffka was accused of embezzling $2 million over a five-year period from Summit Habitats, where she was working as chief financial officer and human resources manager. She was arrested last summer after an investigation that lasted about a month.

– Brandon Outlaw is accused of embezzling $1.2 million from PRM Realty and Premier Maintenance, an Eagle-Vail property-management company, and several condo associations in Avon, Edwards, East Vail and Eagle-Vail. The 31-year-old from Avon, who turned himself in to authorities in July after a six-month investigation, is out of jail on a $100,000 bond.

Outlaw remains charged with two counts of theft, one count of unauthorized use of a financial-transaction device and one count of forgery, all considered felonies. If found guilty of the first two charges, Outlaw would face between four and 12 years in prison.

Outlaw is accused of taking 176 checks that association owners had submitted.

– Then there was the widely publicized case two years ago of Avon auto repair shop owner Louis Medeiros, who was cleared of theft and racketeering charges in connection with an alleged car-theft scam.

Medeiros was arrested after a 10-month Vail police investigation into 11 rental vehicles missing from Colorado Shuttle Service, whose owner, Leo Lala, was accused of stealing the cars and then reselling them. Lala pleaded guilty. Charges against Medeiros were dropped four months later, long after he showed prosecutors receipts from certified letters he sent to the owners. He sued the Vail Police Department in the wake of his ordeal.

The case gained extra attention when one of the deputy district attorneys insisted a team of police from several departments forcibly take immediate possession of one of the resold vehicles from a Vail town councilman’s brother just before they left for Denver International Airport to catch a plane to their father’s funeral.

Stepping up

Fahrenholtz praised the way Hurlbert has handled the Bryant case, at least so far.

“He’s showing more experience than his time as the head district attorney would indicate,” said Fahrenholtz. “He’s showing restraint. He’s not talking to the press. He’s refusing to be rushed. He’s saying the appropriate things at appropriate times.

“He’s handling the case like an experienced DA would handle it.”

Staff writers Veronica Whitney and Matt Zalaznick contributed to this report.

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