“Shoot-out in the Divide Corral”
by Rick Langenberg:
The future race for Teller County’s head law enforcement post is off to an early and colorful start with a Divide business owner declaring war against the current sheriff, firing a volley of shots through an unusual weapon: political signs and comical caricatures
The feud even could be dubbed as the “Shoot-out in the Divide corral.”
Steve Kerrison, co-owner of Smokin’ Q at the crossroads intersection in Divide, has made it clear he staunchly opposes Sheriff Mike Ensminger, and says his barbecue restaurant has experienced a huge increase in business as a result of his anti-sheriff, “freedom of speech” antics. Since last summer, he has assaulted the sheriff with a barrage of highly visible signs outside his establishment, comparing Ensminger to a vicious tyrant, a dumb donkey and a bozo clown. The signs, though, express a little self-depreciating humor, taking a shot at Teller residents such as Kerrison himself, who voted for Ensminger in the 2010 election in which the incumbent law enforcement leader won by a huge margin.
This spring, Kerrison plans to up the ante in his anti-sheriff campaign by hiring a costume clown to imitate an Ensminger-like character with regular performances. “This is my First Amendment rights,” explained Kerrison, in a recent interview. “I am embarrassed to say that I voted for him. I won’t make that mistake again,” added Kerrison. “I may just run for county coroner myself so I can have him arrested,” quipped the business owner, who previously worked as a police officer in the south Florida area.
On a more serious note, Kerrison, who mulled starting a recall effort last summer, is actively pursuing plans to recruit candidates for the forthcoming 2014 election, expected to kick into full gear in the summer and fall of 2013. “We need to get him (Ensminger) out of office,” said Kerrison, who said he has already interviewed potential candidates, including former law officers. And next month, Kerrison, through a Denver-based attorney, said he plans to file a federal lawsuit against the sheriff’s department for an incident that occurred in early August, 2012, resulting in his arrest for felony menacing and false imprisonment. The charges were later dropped by the Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s Office, but have apparently sparked a political standoff. Also, Kerrison had his concealed weapons permit revoked.
Reaction to the sign displays has been somewhat mixed, with some residents trying to figure out the clown images and tyrant references, while others merely laugh and shake their heads and attribute the displays to Divide’s unusual signs. But the restaurant owners say their campaign is more than just about laughs and funny caricatures. “Every day we hear more horror stories about the sheriff’s department, “said Mona Kerrison, the wife of Steve Kerrison and the main operator of Smokin’ Q. Both she and her husband admit their restaurant has attracted more people in recent months who aren’t exactly enthralled with Ensminger and the sheriff’s administration. “Our business has definitely increased because of this,” said Steve Kerrison. The Smokin’ Q owners cite a barrage of concerns voiced at their restaurant regarding the sheriff’s department, such as overzealous enforcement and questions about the agency’s SWAT team; the loss of good officers who have reportedly quit because of the current administration; harassment of certain individuals, including older veterans; and a flurry of lawsuits that are costing the taxpayers thousands of dollars. “The citizens do not feel safe in this county at all,” said Deborah McKown, a representative of the Teller County Tea Party, and a frequent critic of Ensminger.
McKown recently appeared before the county commissioners to request that Teller residents be informed of the bevy of sheriff-related lawsuits and the related costs for taxpayers. “The citizens have a right to know if their elected officials are getting sued,” said McKown, who has cited four active suits dealing with mostly alleged civil rights violations, besides those involving outside settlements. And when it comes to settlements, she says the taxpayers deserve more information than what they are now receiving. “We would like to get the best bang for our buck,” said McKown, when addressing the commissioners at a recent meeting. “This is taxpayer money.”
The sheriff, though, says he isn’t deterred by these attacks and sign displays and speaks quite highly of his two and a half-year debut as Teller’s head law enforcement leader. “I have made a conscious decision to concentrate on the positive and not to respond to these false allegations from a small handful of people,” said Ensminger. “I feel very good and confident with the way things are going and feel that the far majority of citizens support what we are doing.”
Moreover, the sheriff, who “absolutely” plans to seek a second and final term in office (see related story), cites the fact that the controversial signs make reference to the “Teller County Talks” website, which is renowned for criticizing him and his administration. This organization, formerly known as “Teller Watch,” has taken staunch shots at the sheriff, along with the local news media, including The Mountain Jackpot (TMJ) newspaper, this writer and former TMJ columnist Mike Parish. “They (critics of the sheriff’s department) are upset because their guy didn’t get to be the sheriff,” stated Ensminger. “It’s the nature of the job. There are people out there who aren’t going to like you and who don’t like law enforcement,” explained the sheriff.
Since he assumed the reins of the sheriff’s department, first as a temporary appointment to fulfill the remaining term of Kevin Dougherty, talk has circulated about recalls, but with no tangible results. Ensminger says when he beat Mark Manriquez in the GOP primary in the summer of 2010, he was told by the opposing camp, ‘Congratulations, but the recall begins today.’
What irks Ensminger the most is the viciousness associated with some of the attacks. In fact, a recent graphic display, capped by a fake business card, portrays Ensminger in an extremely unflattering manner. “It is almost like a form of domestic terrorism,” said the sheriff, when describing the nature of some of the attacks. Ensminger certainly has his supporters, including the new elected board of county commissioners. “We are very happy with the sheriff,” said Norm Steen, vice-chairman of the Teller County Commissioners. “He has done some real positive things.”
As for talk about lawsuits targeting the sheriff’s department, Steen said he has no concerns whatsoever. “We have to deal with facts. These are allegations,” said the commission vice-Chairman, in reference to McKown’s claims of civil rights violations and harassment claims. And Steen says it is not unusual for a county sheriff to be threatened by lawsuits. “We really have hardly any lawsuits compared to most counties,” added Commission Chairman Dave Paul.
Similar sentiments are echoed by other county leaders, who accuse the anti-Ensminger camp of exhibiting a bad case of “sour grapes.”
However, Kerrison says his campaign isn’t about the 2010 election, Teller County Talks or any web postings. He contends that Ensminger clearly has an ax to grind with him, stemming from a time when Kerrison wouldn’t allow him to install a large campaign sign outside the Smokin’ Q restaurant, when Ensminger first started his sheriff’s campaign. “It was political retaliation,” said Kerrison, when describing the nature of his arrest in 2012. Kerrison alleges that he tried to defend himself during a conflict that arose when a vehicle crashed into a fence outside his restaurant in early August 2012. An argument ensued between Kerrison and the driver of the vehicle, Roy Cornwell. Kerrison said he pulled out a gun, when he feared Cornwell was reaching for a weapon under his vehicle’s passenger seat.
According to Kerrison, the sheriff’s department didn’t respond to the incident, despite several calls for help he made to 911 and the main office, even though the agency headquarters in Divide is located less than a mile away from their restaurant. “They could have gotten here in a wheel chair,” complained Kerrison.
However, sheriff officials say the disturbance outside the Smokin’ Q barbecue restaurant was being monitored by their agency. They also cite the fact that the sheriff department must patrol a nearly 600-mile area and don’t always have officers readily available to respond to every call immediately. Finally, the episode ended with Kerrison getting arrested, when the couple involved in the dispute filed a complaint against him for pulling a gun and detaining them for a brief period. But Kerrison is questioning the way the arrest was handled and says initially, the incident was supposed to be pursued by the DA’s office. He claims that Ensminger rejected this option and orders were made to “break down the door” of his property if necessary in order to throw him in jail. Kerrison, though, says he turned himself in when he secretly learned about an arrest warrant.
The sheriff, though, completely denies these claims. “Everything he says about me is a 100 percent complete lie,” said the sheriff. “I really don’t know what his problem is. We have had hardly any encounters.”