Updated: August 26, 2011 at 12:00 am
WALSENBURG • Almost halfway between Pueblo and Trinidad, the 150-year-old town of Walsenburg might seem like little more than a refueling stop along Interstate 25.
But on Aug. 10 that was where police and Colorado State Patrol troopers finally caught up with the Dougherty Gang, three siblings on the run from Florida who seemed like a throwback to Depression-era gangsters and were accused of leaving a cross-country trail of shootouts and robberies in their wake.
As small-business owners on Main Street opened their shops that morning, there was a sense that something wasn’t right. For Ken Martinez, owner of Darkwood Studio, the first sign of trouble was an ambulance whizzing down the main drag, sirens blaring and lights flashing.
“This was not usual, they were going faster than I ever seen them,” Martinez said.
Next, Phyllis Cordova, owner of the nearby Alpine Rose Café, ran over to Martinez’s shop in a panic. A tourist eating breakfast in the cafe told her the Dougherty Gang was in town and passed on the false rumor that they had shot and killed a state trooper.
“I loaded the .32 right away,” Martinez said.
On the outskirts of town, other Walsenburg residents thought they saw what looked like just another car crash on the highway.
Just after 9 a.m. that morning, Connie Pino, an employee at the Acorn Travel Plaza, a gas station off the interstate, saw a southbound car suddenly swerve, skidding across the highway, and flip onto the guardrail.
It was the three Doughertys, who had just swerved to avoid a spike-strip laid down by a state trooper.
“They all got out of the car real fast, like cockroaches,” Pino said.
Tony Raciborski, the general manager of the gas station, saw Ryan Dougherty run from the car and dash behind the neighboring Best Western-Rambler Hotel.
Raciborski pointed a phalanx of troopers in his direction, and they quickly pinned Ryan Dougherty to the ground.
Meanwhile, Lee Grace Dougherty jumped from the car and fled into an open field. Raciborski saw Walsenburg Police Chief James Chamberlain run after Lee. He shot her in the leg as she loaded and raised a gun.
Dale Clemmensen, another Acorn employee, heard shots fired and saw the Doughertys’ car flip. In his wheelchair, Clemmensen quickly pushed himself to the back of the store and out into the parking lot behind.
“When somebody’s shooting, you don’t know where the bullets are going to go,” Clemmensen said. As he took shelter behind the gas station, he saw Dylan Dougherty running through a field, making toward the thick shelter of tamarack bushes growing in a nearby arroyo.
In hot pursuit was Walsenburg resident David Vucetich and two other men.
Clemmensen watched as they tackled Dylan Dougherty.
The dramatic capture of the Doughertys was over in a matter of minutes, but this summer Walsenburg has seen more mayhem in a few weeks than in the past 30 years.
Two days before the Doughertys arrived, police from Alamosa chased a 14-year-old in a stolen car 72 miles into downtown Walsenburg.
The teenager crashed his car next to the county courthouse.
The high-speed chase had people on edge, Mayor Bruce Quintana said.
It was almost as if they were ready for something bigger, like the Dougherty Gang.
“When it first occurred, there was this aura of excitement,” Quintana said. “People said that they (the Doughertys) knew it would end up here.”
Walsenburg is a migrant place, Quintana added. It’s the kind of town that people often leave, like Quintana, and make their way back to years later.
Because of its location at the junction of Colorado 160 and I-25, Walsenburg is also a place where people get stranded when they run out of gas or money, Quintana said.
No one is sure why the Doughertys ended up in Walsenburg.
Quintana even heard a rumor that they were heading toward family in the area.
Regardless, the Doughertys’ decision to head toward Walsenburg was good for the local economy.
That day, lunchtime was busy at the Alpine Rose Cafe, Cordova said, with journalists, local police, state troopers and sheriff’s deputies all needing a place to eat.
Walsenburg could use the economic boost, said Chris Reiners, owner of the Fireside Café, also on Main Street. When Walsenburg’s second largest employer, the Huerfano County Correctional Facility, closed in April, the town lost nearly a quarter of its population.
Reiners guessed that some small-business owners in town are looking forward to the possibility the Doughertys will be tried in Walsenburg, bringing an influx of lawyers, law enforcement and the media.
For Quintana, the capture of the Doughertys and the eventual trials offer a temporary respite from the town’s economic doldrums.
“Our town’s finally in the spotlight for something positive!” he said.
In a town of 3,800 people, news spreads like wildfire. Quintana estimates that it took the whole town 15 minutes to hear about the Doughertys’ arrival and the details of what happened.
“Somebody in this town will call you in five minutes and tell you exactly what is going on,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean it’s true, said Randy Royse, a lifelong Walsenburg resident who works at the Fireside Café.
“Don’t believe anything you hear, and believe half of what you see in this town,” Royse said. “That’s what my grandfather tells me.”
Two weeks after the Doughertys were apprehended, the story of their capture is well-known. The streaks left by the siblings’ car still stretch across the road, and tourists stop to snap pictures off highway Exit 52.
Whether the Doughertys will be tried in Walsenburg for their Colorado crimes remains to be seen, but Walsenburg has had its moment of fleeting fame.
“We caught someone that no one else could,” Royse said.