2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Scandalous behavior by El Paso County sheriffs is not new

Published: June 15, 2014, 8:00 am, by Bill Vogrin

You might think the Pikes Peak region has never seen anything like the headline-grabbing scandal that has left El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa disgraced and apologizing for “inappropriate behavior” as authorities investigate and his fellow elected officials line up to demand his resignation.

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa

No doubt you’ve heard the accusations that Maketa had inappropriate relationships with three female subordinates in his office, even sending one a half-naked selfie.

He’s also accused of dismantling oversight of the county budget, creating a hostile work environment, using taxpayer money to travel with the women and giving them raises and promotions despite questionable qualifications.

Then there’s the missing Internal Affairs file. Five employees allege the file disappeared as part of a dirty tricks campaign by Maketa, whom they accuse along with Undersheriff Paula Presley of evidence tampering, attempting to influence a public official, bribing a witness, witness intimidation and misuse of official information.

If you are like me, you are thinking we’ve never had such behavior from our sheriff.

You’d be wrong.

The Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette, Sept. 26, 1901. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District

The Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette, Sept. 26, 1901. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District

I certainly was. Because I’d never heard of William R. Gilbert.

Gilbert first showed up on the front page of the Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette on Sept. 26, 1901, as one of the GOP nominees for county office.

A large photo showed a clean-shaved man with slicked-back hair in a coat, white shirt and bow tie sternly looking off camera.

The story described Gilbert as a 43-year-old Iowa native and a high school graduate who had managed a wholesale flour and feed store, then worked as a carpenter before starting a career working for railroads in Iowa and Kansas.

Gilbert became ill and moved to Colorado where he worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad as foreman of bridges and building between Denver and Pueblo.

In January 1898, he became superintendent of bridges, building and water service on the Colorado Midland Railway — the first standard-gauge railroad built over the Continental Divide. It ran from Colorado Springs to Leadville and on to Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction.

His 20-year-old son, Merle, also worked for the Colorado Midland.

Gilbert was a Mason, a Shriner, a member of the Elks and the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization responsible for bringing many “lungers” to the Pikes Peak region seeking a cure for tuberculosis at a sanitarium of open air huts it built on Mount Saint Francis.

Sounds like a typical politician. What was so scandalous about him, I wondered?

So I called a couple of history experts, Bill Thomas, photo archivist at the Pikes Peak Library District, and folks in the archives section at the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum for some research help.

Boom!

Next thing I know, I’m reading some not-so-typical stories about Gilbert.

Standard Mill, left, and Philadelphia Smelting & Refining Mill, right, with houses in foreground and Pikes Peak in background. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District.

Standard Mill, left, and Philadelphia Smelting & Refining Mill, right, with houses in foreground and Pikes Peak in background. Courtesy Pikes Peak Library District.

First came stories suggesting Gilbert helped incite the labor wars of 1903-04 in the Cripple Creek mining district, a violent and deadly conflict that led to mine owners breaking the union.

Then I saw a little story about his marriage, his “dual life” and his quickie divorce!

Perhaps you are wondering how the El Paso County sheriff was blamed for inciting labor wars in Cripple Creek. It started with efforts by the Western Federation of Miners to organize smeltermen at the mills in Colorado City, now the west side of Colorado Springs.

Assorted books, including “The Colorado Labor Wars: Cripple Creek 1903-1904” published in 2006 by the Pikes Peak Library District, explained Gilbert’s role.

In August 1902, the union organized the Colorado City Mill and Smeltermen’s Union No. 125, whose members worked at the Standard, Portland and Telluride mills.

Spencer Penrose

Spencer Penrose

The owners of the Standard — Broadmoor founder Spencer Penrose, his close friend Charles Tutt and Charles MacNeill, the mill’s general manager — opposed the union. So the Standard Mill hired a Pinkerton detective who infiltrated the union. The mill then fired 42 union workers.

The union demanded their reinstatement and the mill refused, prompting the smeltermen to strike on Feb. 14, 1903.

Under Gilbert’s watch, sheriff’s deputies provided security for the mill at the owners’ expense.

Then Gilbert deputized MacNeill for the duration of the strike.

The mill hired strike-breakers, causing tensions to mount along the picket lines. Gilbert responded by appointing 70 deputies for strike duty.

But MacNeill wanted more troops to protect the mill.

So Gilbert asked Gov. James Peabody to send in the state militia, falsely claiming the striking smeltermen were rioting. Published reports said there were periodic brawls but no rioting. In fact, the arrival of National Guard troops and subsequent military occupation was opposed by many in Colorado City, the books report.

The troops caused tensions to escalate and miners in the Cripple Creek mining district went on strike in sympathy with the smeltermen. That’s where the conflict turned violent and resulted in about 30 deaths due to suspicious explosions and a cable car death.

Historians say Gilbert’s request for Peabody to send in troops is to blame for much of what happened.

William R. Gilbert, circa 1901, courtesy Pikes Peak Library District

William R. Gilbert, circa 1901, courtesy Pikes Peak Library District

But he defiantly defended his actions in his April 28, 1904, letter of resignation, while acknowledging he’d been “subjected to severe criticism and, on some occasions, scathing denunciation for doing what I believed then and still believe to have been my duty.”

Gilbert said he was honest and conscientious as sheriff, an apparent response to allegations he illegally conspired with mill owners.

“I feel that no apology is necessary for any of my official acts,” Gilbert wrote, adding that despite the “unpleasantness in the past,” he would “bear no malice or ill will toward any citizen of El Paso County.”

With that, he disappeared to work in Nevada or Los Angeles, according to various newsclips.
But that wasn’t the end of his headline-generating days.

There was one more mention of him in Colorado Springs, with his wife, Harriet, and son, Merle.

The Colorado Springs Gazette, Nov. 27, 1906

The Colorado Springs Gazette, Nov. 27, 1906

It was a Nov. 27, 1906, Gazette story under the headline: “MRS. GILBERT FREED.”

It was a four-paragraph story describing how Harriet showed up at the El Paso County Courthouse shortly before closing on the previous day seeking a divorce.

She accused Gilbert of “extreme cruelty” and wanted no alimony from her husband of 26 years.

“A jury was quickly secured and a divorce granted with in a few minutes,” the story reported.

Although Gilbert had been seen in Colorado Springs for several days, he did not appear at the divorce hearing.

Only Harriet and their son, Merle, testified, detailing Gilbert’s cruelty.

“A pointed feature of the complainant’s evidence was the statement that her husband had admitted to her that he had led a dual life during the three years prior to their departure from Colorado Springs,” the story reported.

Dual life, huh?

Experts say Harriet was able to file for divorce here because of the “extreme cruelty exception” and the fact the abuse — either mental or physical — occurred in Colorado.

City directories and other records show Hattie, as she was known, stayed and lived with Merle and his family. She died in 1932 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery.

Gilbert’s fate is unknown. He seemed to vanish. (Leaving no half-naked selfies behind.)

You know, you can’t make this stuff up.