High-altitude policing


High-altitude policing

From mine spills to human tragedy, Silverton keeps lawman-author busy


Historically, law-enforcement officers are men of action, not letters.

But in Silverton, where new San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad writes for the Silverton Standard & the Miner, Conrad’s diary-esque blotter has become a weekly literary event that rivets townsfolk and even downstream media.

Conrad spends about two hours a week crafting the blotter’s telegram-like missives – “issued 8 OHVs a verbal warning for even thinking about leaving the OHV route (Can you count to $600?)” – and New York Post-level headlines such as “Back from Hell – Denver.”

“I make a big effort with it, because it means so much to the community,” he humbly insisted in a recent interview in San Juan County Courthouse.

“It’s a Pulitzer-level blotter,” said Mark Esper, editor of the Standard. “Everyone loves it. He’s my best reporter!”

An eventful place

Making a journalistic impact on tight-knit Silverton is not easy.

With a population of about 600, Silverton – a tiny town in the San Juan Mountains that in just the last year was home to a government shutdown, a high-profile manslaughter trial and an infamous environmental disaster – may get more news coverage per capita than any other Colorado town.

“We like to keep it lively,” Conrad deadpanned at his office.

Serving as sheriff, Conrad is throwing himself into the Internet: The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is getting Hootsuite to coordinate its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

But Conrad is embracing social media mostly for the sake of pesky “downstream” reporters, who badger him for updates about a range of issues – from the Environmental Protection Agency to electric confrontations at Town Hall.

In Silverton itself, residents relish Conrad’s wry newspaper accounts of all events, major and minuscule, that have earned police attention in a proudly weird town where the official mascot, Wolfie, is a wolf-dog hybrid that residents once tried to kill and where Bigfoot spottings are semiannual affairs.

Many of the dramatic happenings, scorching controversies and political positions that have thrust Silverton into the news – families engaged in ancient blood feuds, unshakable political gridlock, city employees breaking “niceness contracts” at bars, hung juries and implacable opposition to Superfund status – defeat thoroughly baffled outsiders’ attempts to understand the place.

People love that blotter

“It’s not an easy town to be sheriff of. But people love that blotter,” said Manuel Skow, owner of Kendall Mountain Cafe, who has known Conrad for 13 years.

Skow said its widespread popularity is a special testament to Conrad’s skill in navigating the sensitivities of a notoriously insulated, loving and often inflamed community.

In an era when law enforcement frequently finds itself on the defensive, Conrad – a soft-spoken foodie, motorcyclist and medieval history buff who admires authors like Bernard Cornwell, has no girlfriend, denies he’s lonely and went on a date last week for “the first time in a long time,” – is disarmingly candid about policing mistakes.

For instance, in a recent blotter, he confessed to thieving, writing, “The sheriff ‘stole’ someone’s handbag – thinking it was lost – and tried to return it to the person who was thinking it was stolen,” adding, “(oops)” for extra flourish.

A family, if dysfunctional

The self-aware humor that pervades the blotter reflects the cosmic absurdity and daily labor of trying to maintain law and order in Silverton, a place that has seen more than its fair share of the divine and the tragic.

In his years in law enforcement in San Juan County, Conrad has been in the awkward position of arresting his own friends and acquaintances. He has been involved in so many terrifying high-speed chases, he can recall responding to different grisly, blood-drenched scenes at almost every mile-marker on the highway. He’s had to tell friends that their child had died, including Linda Davis, whose son-in-law Mike McFarland killed his wife, Davis’ daughter Jessica, last year at their Greene Street home. While grieving, he had to wear the badge as the town sorted through the traumatized aftermath, with residents rallying around both Davis’ family and McFarland’s family.

“That was very hard,” he said. “We’re one big dysfunctional family of 500. When something like that happens, what it does to a family is devastating. But we carry on,” he said.

‘You had to know him’

If the emotional dynamics wracking Silverton are often impenetrable to outsiders, they’re legible to Conrad, whose father, Skip, a gentle-hearted nature-lover, was last seen in 2006 setting off for a hike into San Juan County’s harsh mountains.

After Skip went missing, Conrad, who has been a part of search-and-rescue missions in San Juan County for more than a decade, searched for his father’s body for four days – as his father must have known he would.

“I sobbed the whole time, from laughter and tears,” he said.

Conrad speculates that Skip, who had suffered several strokes, walked off into the mountains with the intention of dying – a consensus in Silverton.

They never found his remains.

“But he could be in Nigeria now for all I know,” Conrad said, smiling.

Conrad said that to people who don’t live in Silverton, a father’s choosing to end his life in such a manner might appear cruel.

Asked whether his father’s death was like an inside joke between him and his father, Conrad smiled more, saying “Yes. You just had to know him.”

On Tuesday, there was no time for soulful philosophizing about Silverton when Conrad got the 911 call: Someone was screaming, “Help! Help!” up on the hillside.

Fearing the worst, Conrad ran out of his office.

He was back in half an hour. As it turns out, a Silverton resident had lost his dog. In fact, he had been screaming, “Ralph! Ralph!”

“It’s not the first time that’s happened,” Conrad said. “The owner’s going to have to change the dog’s name. I’m going to put it in the blotter.”


Sheriff Conrad’s blotter

“Issued a verbal warning to a Silvertonian who exhibited zero patience with vehicular windowshoppers (We’ve all been there),” he writes.
“Meetings, about meetings, to have meetings, where we meet people and discuss meeting our goals concerning the Gold King Mine Spill.”
“Responded to another stuck jumper at adrenaline falls. The 13-year-old finally just jumped in the dark; Darwin works in mysterious ways.”

High-altitude policing

Serving as a the chief law-enforcement officer in San Juan County, with a population of about 600 people, inevitably thrusts San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad into the lives of friends, often at their most vulnerable and trying times.
San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad writes a diary-esque blotter for the Silverton Standard & the Miner, that is must reading for townsfolk.
San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad designed his own badge.
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