Dan Bender survived being shot at in Vietnam, a pipe explosion in Durango and being stranded in the rugged wilderness near Ouray. Perhaps equally impressive: He’s dealt with the news media for more than 40 years, with relatively few gaffes.
Bender retired Friday after 37 years with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office. During that time, he worked as a jail deputy, patrol officer, K-9 handler, emergency management liaison, SWAT commander, administrative supervisor and training coordinator.
“The reason I stayed so long at the Sheriff’s Office is because it wasn’t one job,” Bender said. “I never got bored, and I enjoyed all of it.”
Despite his many job titles, Bender is best known by a different title: spokesman.
“I’ve been the face and voice of the Sheriff’s Office for nearly four decades,” he said, “so a lot more people know me than I can remember them.”
Bender, 68, likes to say he’s worked at the Sheriff’s Office for 37 years but has worked as a spokesman for more than 40 years. Before joining the Sheriff’s Office, he served as a public information officer doing news releases and interviews for a community action group that served a five-county region in Ohio.
“I’m a real gabby person,” Bender said. “I’ve never had a problem talking to anybody about anything. You can talk to some of my co-workers, and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, we have to back away from him in the hall because he won’t shut up.’ I guess you can say I have the gift of the gab.”
Case of the missing dog bowlsBender never set out to become a police officer. Instead, he wanted to be a history and geography teacher. But sometimes life has different plans.
Bender may have missed his shot at becoming a teacher, but he still played the role of an educator – both as a spokesman and training coordinator for the Sheriff’s Office. And he’s learned a few lessons along the way.
One of them: Never write or say something you don’t want shared with others.
He learned that lesson in 1982 while investigating the case of the missing dog bowls.
Deputy Bender, on routine patrol, responded to the 2200 block of Junction Creek Road (County Road 204), where a woman reported several dog bowls had gone missing from her front porch. Bender scoped the neighborhood and identified two suspects, a St. Bernard tied to a tree and a mixed-breed black dog sitting on a neighbor’s porch.
According to Bender’s official incident report, no dog dishes were seen near the St. Bernard. But in the driveway of the black dog, two bowls were found in the driveway matching the description of the stolen property.
“I got out of my vehicle and was picking up the two pans when the black dog approached me, wagging its tail,” Bender wrote in his report, Case No. 82-00952. “I held the pans out and said to the black dog, ‘Did you take these?’ The dog then cowered, dropped its ears and placed his tail between his legs.
“From my experience as a dog owner and two years work at an animal clinic, I believed that act to be one associated with guilt and shame,” Bender wrote in his report.
The story made front-page news in The Durango Herald and was later picked up by Charles Osgood, who has a national CBS radio show, for an episode he called “Deputy Dan & the St. Bernard Hypothesis.”
Al Brown, the sheriff at the time, called Bender into his office and handed him a cassette tape containing a recording of the radio broadcast. After that, Bender became less flippant in his incident reports.
“Don’t write something down and share it with others if you don’t want the world to know about it,” he said.
A creature of habitBender has a lot of constants in his life. In addition to working the same job for 37 years and serving as a PIO for more than 40 years, he has been married to the same woman, Jon, for 45 years.
He proposed to her on their first date, in 1972, at a drive-in showing “Big Jake,” a John Wayne western.
“She thought maybe we should get to know each other better, so we waited a whole five weeks until we were officially engaged,” Bender said.
They have two daughters – one who lives in Montrose County and another who lives in La Plata County – and nine grandchildren.
“You ask what I’m going to do when I retire: I’m probably going to be a part- or full-time chauffeur with that many grandkids,” he said.
Another mainstay in Bender’s life: He’s been an amateur photographer since age 7, when his parents bought him a small camera and a roll of film. He takes pictures during work and on his own free time, of everything and anything, including wildlife, landscapes, major events and law-enforcement missions. He willingly shares his photographs with the media.
“Photography is just a part of me,” he said. “People say, ‘What are you going to do when I retire?’ And I say, I get to be a photographer full time. I’m looking forward to that.”
Several ‘close calls’During his years at the Sheriff’s Office, Bender has survived an explosion, worked 20-hour days during the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire, led a SWAT team during a multi-week manhunt for three police killers, and helped with countless search-and-rescue missions.
He has flown on seven different kinds of helicopters, including several military choppers.
Butch Knowlton, director of La Plata County Search and Rescue, credits Bender and his K-9 teams with saving many lives in La Plata County.
“It’s been interesting, and certainly an honor,” Knowlton said. “He’s very professional in what he’s done for this county.”
Bender recalled one search mission in which the rescuer became the subject needing rescuing. It involved a woman who wrote a book about hiking trails in Southwest Colorado and became lost while hiking alone – something she warned against on Page 1 of her book. On the third day of the search, Bender and his dog, Zahn, ventured outside the primary search area in Ouray County.
Bender found footsteps on the ground and followed them into a forest until he couldn’t see them anymore. At that point, Zahn picked up the woman’s scent and led Bender closer to the woman’s location.
Bender fired his gun into the air, and the woman yelled for help. He radioed for assistance, and made his way to the woman’s location, into a deep gorge. He provided her with his wool sweater, pants, cap and gloves. An Army helicopter responded to the area, lowered its cable and rescued the woman. The helicopter took off – leaving Bender and Zahn behind, he said.
Within an hour, it started snowing. Bender’s radio wouldn’t transmit out of the gorge, and day turned to night. Later that evening, the rescue team realized Bender was left out in the field. Two rescue members went back for him, and once they were close enough, their radios were able to connect with his.
Bender needed two hands to operate his radio, one to hold the device and the heel of his other hand to push the mic button, because his fingers were so numb.
“It was a close call,” he said.
Another close call occurred in 1986 when Bender responded to an explosion at the 5th Quarter Electric Tavern, a “3.2 bar” that used to be on Colorado Highway 3 south of Durango. Someone planted three pipe bombs inside the bar that were on timers. Bender was about 45 feet from the building when the second of three blasts went off. The explosion perforated his eardrum and knocked him down.
“People talk about things happening in slow motion,” Bender said. “I saw the whole bottom of the side of that building lift up like a garage door opening and a ball of flame come out straight at me. ... I was lucky, because the shrapnel went right over my head and perforated the Farmers Supply building across the road.”
Never planned to be an officerBender attended college before taking a job with the community action committee in Ohio. One of the group’s missions was disaster response. The group wanted Bender to attend police academy so he would have law-enforcement powers during disaster events. That was his first foray into law enforcement.
He later volunteered for the Army. After completing basic training, Bender was led to believe he would be given clerical duties, but instead, the Army sent him to military police school and eventually Vietnam.
That was his second foray into law enforcement.
He was shot at on a regular basis in Vietnam, he said, but he’s never been shot at or had to shoot at someone as a sheriff’s deputy, he said. He likes to think much of that is a result of his SWAT training, which teaches officers how to negotiate with suspects and de-escalate volatile situations.
Bender moved to Southwest Colorado in 1980 with his wife and two small children. He was desperate for work.
“Out of desperation, I applied one day at the Sheriff’s Office and was hired,” Bender said. “I thought I could work there for 12 to 18 months until I could find a real job, and now, over 37 years later, I never did find that real job.”
During a routine physical two years ago, Bender learned he had prostate cancer. He recently underwent surgery and is now cancer-free. “The moral of that story is get those routine tests and do what the doctor suggests, because at no point during that whole process did I feel ill. Had I not gone to the doctor and followed their advice, I quite possibly wouldn’t be around today.”
The experience also made Bender reconsider his priorities in life.
“There’s more to life than data entry eight hours a day in my office,” he said.
Bender, who plans to stay in the area, said he has no interest staying on as a “reserve deputy” – people who work on a volunteer basis and have arresting powers. But he is willing to offer support to the next PIO and participate with missions that allow him to take photographs. He might also join search and rescue.
“At first, I just want to be retired and make that transition,” he said.