COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - For years Delores Hiltz railed about shoddy work by Fremont County sheriff’s investigators after her 17-year-old daughter’s body was found stuffed under a bed in their Canon City-area home.
The grieving mother couldn’t understand why detectives left a quilt she says her daughter “bled out on” after being nearly decapitated by gunfire in 2006, along with bloody clothes, when they searched the house.
She questioned how they could miss the shotgun shell that landed in her 11-month-old granddaughter’s cradle, or the small-caliber shell casing behind the couch in the living room.
After seeing her claims of a botched investigation shrugged off by sheriff’s officials for the past decade, Hiltz says vindication arrived in December - an ax, a bloody rope and other evidence in her daughter’s still-unsolved murder was found in a self-storage unit rented by the lead detective in the case. The contents of the storage unit had been auctioned off for $50 after former sheriff’s Lt. Robert Dodd stopped paying the rental fee.
Dodd, a veteran investigator, retired and left town amid the fallout. He was charged in early May with official misconduct, and the case against him is pending.
“It was God’s work,” Hiltz said, calling Dodd’s alleged blunder a “break” that bolstered her longstanding complaints, while bringing renewed attention to the unsuccessful hunt for Candace Hiltz’s killer or killers.
As Colorado’s prison capital, Canon City has always been a law-and-order place. Anyone thinking of straying has only to glance at the penitentiaries’ high walls topped with razor wire and guard towers to see the consequences. Lately, though, residents have had to wonder if that message isn’t getting through to those whose job it is to uphold the law.
The discovery of bloody evidence from an unsolved murder that was auctioned off at a Canon City storage lot was just the first in a string of embarrassments for the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.
As the Colorado Bureau of Investigation looked into what appeared to be improper handling of evidence, Sheriff Jim Beicker’s office was hit with new scandals that led to suspensions of four more deputies accused of misconduct. Among them was Sgt. Arin Hart, who was accused by a Colorado State Patrol trooper of fabricating evidence against a drunken driving suspect.
The allegation against Hart resulted in the dismissal of multiple drunken driving cases, prosecutors confirmed to the Pueblo Chieftain, declining to say how many were tossed.
In May, a revised autopsy lent new support to ongoing questions of medical neglect in the 2014 death of Fremont County jail inmate John Patrick Walter, concluding that his rapid decline - in which Walter shed 30 pounds in less than three weeks - was the result of deadly withdrawals after his jailers deprived him of a prescription medication. The new finding validated a central claim in a pending wrongful death suit in U.S. District Court in Denver.
The disclosures have sparked a citizen-led effort to recall the four-term sheriff - one that organizers admit clashes with the area’s law-and-order ethos.
“These are small towns, and folks around here support their law enforcement,” said Debi Weger of Canon City, who became involved in the effort after what she calls a false arrest by Hart.
Weger said Hart, who, according to published reports, remains on paid leave, treated her like a career criminal after pulling her over in November to investigate a citizen’s complaint that she had been swerving.
Although blood tests later proved she hadn’t had anything to drink and wasn’t on drugs, she said, she was jailed after Hart claimed she failed a field sobriety test.
“I had just had my hip replaced. I told him I wouldn’t be able to pass,” Weger said. Charges against her were ultimately dismissed in the wake of Hart’s suspension, records show, but she said she still suffers nightmares, and she broke down in tears recounting how she was strip searched in jail.
Despite the headlines out of Fremont County, Weger acknowledged that petition circulators are having a difficult time collecting the 4,200 signatures they need to get the recall on a ballot.
The latest on the embattled agency came recently, with a report in the Pueblo Chieftain that more evidence held by Dodd had been found in a landfill after it was apparently pitched into a dumpster when the former detective’s family emptied their house before moving to Texas.
The mounting criticism has largely been met with silence by Fremont County’s elected leaders. County Commissioners Debbie Bell and Dwayne McFall did not respond to emails sent by The Gazette. The third commissioner, Tim Payne, said he wouldn’t comment “on the affairs of another elected official.”
Fremont County District Attorney Molly Chilson and Assistant District Attorney Thom LeDoux did not return phone messages.
Beicker, who took office in January 2003, has declined multiple requests for interviews through his spokeswoman, Sgt. Megan Richards.
According to Rick Ratzlaff, the Canon City man who purchased the contents of Dodd’s storage unit, the sheriff made threatening comments to him in the wake of his discovery, telling Ratzlaff his life “could be at stake” without explaining why.
Ratzlaff is a former street racer who acknowledged prior run-ins with Dodd, whose name was on some of the uniforms inside the storage unit. Ratzlaff, who is also involved in the recall effort, has claimed that he has been tailed by sheriff’s deputies since reporting the discovery.
Hiltz suggested that errors in the case were part of why sheriff’s investigators continue to identify her son, James Hiltz, as their sole suspect in her daughter’s murder. James Hiltz remains at the Colorado State Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. He was confined there in 2008 after being found not guilty by reason of insanity to charges of burglary and menacing.
Information from: The Gazette, https://www.gazette.com
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