Summit Co. attorney dies in Mexico a fondly remembered fugitive
Summit County, CO Colorado
SUMMIT COUNTY – A well-respected criminal defense attorney from Montezuma died recently while on the lam in Mazatlan, Mexico.
Facing likely prison time for a heavy stack of drug charges, James Michael “JT” Tyler jumped bail in November 2006. He died in his sleep Oct. 2 at age 59.
Tyler was a large, boisterous man – a gifted attorney and a compassionate, assertive community leader. He moved to Summit County in the late 1970s after graduating from Creighton School of Law in Omaha, Neb.
Delbert Ewoldt, who served as Summit County Sheriff from 1983 to 1995, said Tyler’s talent with the law had an effect on the department, ensuring “that we crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s.”
“Even though we didn’t see eye to eye on some issues, he certainly was a formidable opponent,” said Ewoldt, who is now the Sedgwick County Sheriff.
He said he got to know Tyler both personally and professionally.
“He was the first man to call me at my house and congratulate me on winning the election,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Breckenridge attorney Jay Bauer said Tyler was skilled at “thinking outside the book.”
“I’ve been in court with him on many occasions where he would quote some principal of law as though it had come directly from the Bible, when in fact real principle of law was different – but he spoke with such enthusiasm that it often passed,” Bauer said.
Mountain Gazette editor John Fayhee, formerly of the Summit Daily, said Tyler was a member of what’s become “sort of a dying Colorado breed.”
“A lot of people in Montana and Wyoming are real libertarian, but they’re rednecks,” Fayhee said. “He was a liberal libertarian. He loved to party. He believed in liberal causes.”
He said Tyler wasn’t shy with his opinions regarding illegal drugs.
“The government makes it policy to come down hard on lawyers who defend drug clients,” he said.
Tyler’s legal career took a nosedive after he was indicted with 16 others in December 1992 for his role in a drug dealing ring.
He lost his license to practice law and went to prison for a few years. He lived at a halfway house in Boulder but eventually returned to Montezuma.
“I think he didn’t drink anymore, tried to get healthy” Fayhee said. “He didn’t look healthy.”
Monte McClenahan, Tyler’s bail bondsman with Alpine Bail Bonds, said that when he bailed Tyler out in 2006, he had a feeling Tyler might not show up for court.
“He wouldn’t have lived through prison because of his health condition,” said bail bondsman Monte McClenahan, adding that Tyler was on oxygen when he bailed him out on a $10,000 bond.
Tyler was facing charges of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, schedule II controlled substances (which can include opiates and cocaine) and schedule IV controlled substances (which can include prescription stimulants and depressants), as well as distribution of a schedule I controlled substance (which can include LSD and heroin).
“He’d served time. That’s why the arrest in November 2006 was going to be the death nail in his coffin, because he’d already been to prison,” McClenahan said.
He said he recalls an apology from the legal system for not treating Tyler more severely after his conviction in the early 90s.
“Although he was a drug dealer and a criminal, everybody liked him,” McClenahan said.
He became choked up while describing a troy ounce of silver Tyler gave him for Christmas one year.
Fayhee said he’s unsure whether anyone knew exactly where Tyler was living the past three years, but that “everybody would have rather gone to jail themselves than told the feds where they suspected he was.”
“He successfully fled the country, which is cool. There are a lot of us who have that fantasy,” he said.
In the years before Tyler’s first arrest, he served as a Montezuma trustee and helped protect the town against development, said Montezuma Mayor Steve Hornback.
“We’ve been here since the 1880s. In the early 1980s, the town had a reincarnation,” Hornback said. “Many people saw him as one of the founding fathers of the town.”
Tyler also sponsored a community softball team. He planted aspen trees along his property, took care of his neighbors’ pets and supported young musicians across the county.
“He was just one of those personalities you couldn’t not love,” said a neighbor who asked not to be identified. “We had a fire at our house up here and there was nowhere to put our stuff. He let us put it all in his house.”
Fayhee said Tyler couldn’t have lived anywhere in Summit County but Montezuma – or perhaps Heeney.
“If he would have lived in Breckenridge, he would have eventually just torn a few buildings down or something,” he said. “He wouldn’t have fit with the daintiness of Breckenridge.”
Summit Daily founder and 1989 editor Curtis Robinson said Tyler was his neighbor when he moved to Montezuma.
“At that time he was really almost a mythological character,” he said. “I’ve quoted him many, many times through the years.”
He said Tyler’s law office slogan was “Reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee.”
Tyler’s older brother Steve, 62, who lives in Nebraska, said he had a big heart and would often help people who needed legal counsel but couldn’t afford it.
He said his brother spoke at such places as the University of Denver “on the merits of legalizing marijuana.”
“He’s always been kind of the opposite of me, I think. Just because I was ultra-conservative he went the other route,” he said.
McClenahan said Tyler’s not the first person he’s bailed out who left the country.
“He knew when he went to Mexico he couldn’t come back,” he said.
Steve Tyler said he’s seen James Tyler perhaps twice in the past eight years. The family sometimes helped James when he needed financial support.
“I know he’s had some legal problems and everything,” Steve Tyler said. “It wasn’t like Jim to tell us about his problems, just that he needed help.”
He said the last he’d heard, his brother was “basically just working at a golf course.” Health problems with the heart and lungs made it difficult for James Tyler to work.
His remains have been cremated and are to stay in Mexico.
“Friends in Mexico are scattering the ashes along the beach,” he said.
Hornback said he spoke with the U.S. consulate on the telephone.
“The guy in Mazatlan said he’d been in Mexico working for the U.S. government 15 years, dealing with Americans dying in Mexico daily” and had never had so many people come to his office asking about an American, he said.
“People were coming in saying, ‘I haven’t seen this guy in a couple days,'” Hornback said.
In Montezuma, a memorial for James Tyler is being planned.
Steve Tyler said a plaque is to be placed in the town inscribed: “In memory of Jim Tyler, who loved the mountains, life, family, friends, neighbors – and there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for any of them.”
Hornback said the plaque will likely be near a memorial for Dan “Dano” Dantes, another well-loved and respected Montezuma character who passed away in May.
Fayhee said the “Montezuma boys” were a self-sufficient group who took direct action when necessary – whether procuring the town’s first fire hydrant or standing against development attempts by a local ski resort.
“Colorado just doesn’t have much of these guys anymore,” he said. “Back in those days, these guys – they were active in their beliefs; they didn’t just gripe.”
Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or