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New DA ready to proceed

Kathy Heicher

Now, there are four murder cases pending in the same district. Although case numbers are decreasing, the nature of the crimes is growing more serious.

“Ski thefts have been replaced by aggravated assaults. … We are becoming more urban than we used to be,” says Hurlbert, 34.

Among the high-profile cases Hurlbert has prosecuted in this district – which includes Eagle, Summit, Lake and Clear Creek counties – are last year’s Chuck Garrison murder trial in Summit County and the Dudley Stevenson case in Clear Creek County, in which a couple posing as car buyers murdered a man selling a car through the classified ads. Both ended in convictions.

Hurlbert was also the prosecutor in a Summit County drug case in which 79 pounds of cocaine were recovered from a vehicle during a traffic stop by the Colorado State Patrol. That case is considered to be the second-largest drug conviction in the state resulting from a traffic stop.

Changing crime dynamics are just one of the challenges that Hurlbert knew he was facing in the Fifth Judicial District when Gov. Bill Owens appointed him to the District Attorney’s position in December. The tasks before him, he says, include: stabilizing the legal staffs in a district where prosecutor turnover is a problem; implementing new policies and procedures; and preparing for his own political campaign in two years.

Hands-on training

Nine years ago, Hurlbert was just out of law school and starting his first lawyer job as a deputy district attorney in the Eagle County District Attorney’s office. Former District Attorney Pete Michaelson first hired Hurlbert. Typical of most beginning prosecutors, Hurlbert started prosecuting county court cases, such as DUIs and domestic violence, then moved his way up to District Court cases and felony crimes.

“I had hands-on, on-the-job training,” recalls Hurlbert, a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Colorado Law School.

He grew up in Dillon, which is part of the Fifth Judicial District. After three years in the Eagle County office, Hurlbert moved to the Georgetown office. Three years later, he was named Assistant District Attorney in Summit County.

When Mike Goodbee vacated the District Attorney’s position, Hurlbert, a Republican, was one of four applicants for the job. He was the only candidate to proceed as far as an interview with the governor’s chief counsel and chief of staff. Shortly after those interviews, the governor’s office notified him that he had been tapped for the $80,000 per year position. District attorneys must run for election. It’s a political process, and when there are appointments to be made, party affiliation matters. Hurlbert came in under a Republican governor.

His appointment to the DA’s position is good for two years. While Hurlbert has not run for office before, he has worked on other people’s campaigns, so he has some experience when the next election cycle comes around.

He says he plans to continue the focus, initiated by Michaelson and carried on by Goodbee, on environmental crime and victim crime, and to aggressively prosecute violent crimes.

As district attorney, Hurlbert will supervise prosecution across the district. He’ll also step in as prosecutor on high-profile cases, a common practice for district attorneys in rural areas.

“That (prosecution) is what I love doing,” said Hurlbert. “My philosophy is that this is truly about justice. In a prosecutor’s office, justice can mean life in prison, or dismissal of a case.”

Bringing stability

The Eagle District Attorney’s office has seen a nearly complete turnover in attorneys during the past six months. Currently, the office is staffed with two county court-level prosecutors, Kate Santoro and Nate Fehrman, who joined the staff in mid-December. Deputy District Attorney Dave Hebert, who has been with the Eagle office for two years, was recently called up for active duty with the National Guard.

Hurlbert has hired Greg Crittenden, a prosecutor with eight years of experience in Mesa County, to come into the Eagle office as deputy district attorney and office manager. Crittenden will start work March 3.

Hurlbert identified the high cost of living in mountain resort communities, and the relatively low wages compared to those earned by private-sector lawyers and prosecutors as factors in the constant turnover in the District Attorney’s Office. Some lawyers leave for prosecutor’s jobs on the Front Range, where the wages are higher.

Hurlbert’s goal is to hire people who are committed to living in, and staying in, the district. He also hopes to raise wages to a point more competitive with Front Range offices.

Caseload numbers are decreasing a bit in the Fifth Judicial District. Last year, the entire district posted a case load of 11,524 cases, compared to 12,202 cases the previous year. In Eagle County, the number of cases in 2002 was 4,423, compared to 4,552 the previous year.

Hurlbert, who lives in Summit County, is working out a schedule that will involve three days of work in Eagle County each week, and two days in Summit County. He plans to set aside one day each month for work in Clear Creek and Lake counties.

Like many prosecutors, Hurlbert says he sees his work as something of a calling.

“I can’t see not being a prosecutor, but still being a lawyer,” he says. Hurlbert’s wife, Cathy Cheroutes, is an attorney in private practice. They have two children: Jack, 2; and 6-month-old Cydney.

As he gets county offices staffed and settled, Hurlbert says he is looking toward the future.

“I want to get on with the business of prosecuting crimes,” he says.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.


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