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Roots of dissent: Accused Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Dear lived in Hartsel Flats area, a burden on local community

November 28, 2016 Updated: November 29, 2016 at 6:56 am
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Steve Bedigian shouts "freedom" from his "freedom tower" on his property in the Hartsel Flats area on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

HARTSEL - Tattered American flags lay draped in the dirt as Steven J. Bedigian paced the lonely ground where he plans to spend his final days.

On a 6-acre spread beside U.S. 24, Bedigian sleeps in a hole in the dirt under a tent while using castoff materials to construct a flag-themed tribute to his late father, a Korean War veteran, complete with a flag-draped coffin at the roadside.

"I came here to die a good death," he bellowed as a pair of small dogs ran circles around him on a recent evening.

Known among locals as the Flag Man of South Park, Bedigian is among a wave of recent settlers who have transformed the outskirts of this gritty mountain outpost 65 miles west of Colorado Springs. The RVs, Tuff Sheds and nylon tents where they live without electricity or running water have come to dominate the mountain-capped vistas that surround the unincorporated area.

Fueled by cheap land and a sluggish economy, the migration is imposing new burdens on a community ill-equipped to handle them, said Hartsel Fire Protection District Chief Jay Hutcheson, whose firefighters have responded to a record number of fires this year - more than the past three years combined.

Steve Bedigian shows off his property and his makeshift home in the Hartsel Flats area on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

"The enforcement aspect of this has become overwhelming," Hutcheson said, citing fears over sanitation and safety.

He added: "I brought it to the county's attention two years ago. Then the Robert Dear situation really brought it to light."

Dear and his girlfriend moved from North Carolina to the Hartsel outskirts in 2014, drawn to mountain solitude and Colorado's legal marijuana, Dear later told The Gazette. They settled in a landlocked RV just down the road from Bedigian.

Their crude home - still standing in an area known as Hartsel Flats - is equipped with solar panels, a wood stove and a ramshackle fence encircling a storage shed, chickens and a yapping dog.

Instead of solitude, Dear was dogged by fears that FBI agents were actively monitoring him, even breaking into his RV to plant listening devices.

During a Nov. 27, 2015, visit to his girlfriend at a Woodland Park hospital, he decided to make his "last stand" against his pursuers, choosing Colorado Springs to host the bloody showdown, Dear said in his Gazette interview.

Armed with at least one high-powered rifle and pursuing visions of inflicting as much damage as possible, he found directions to Planned Parenthood. By the end of a five-hour siege, three people lay dead, including a police officer, and five others were wounded.

Dear has been charged with 179 counts, but his prosecution is on indefinite hold while he receives mental health treatment at the Colorado State Mental Health Institute at Pueblo.

In the year since the rampage brought a national spotlight to living conditions outside Hartsel, Park County officials have bolstered code enforcement.

Preston Springer is pictured outside his home near Hartsel on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette  

But residents say problems are multiplying, coloring the town's reputation and imposing knotty social challenges.

Shelters started popping up within the past five years, but the situation compounded with the so-called "green rush" after recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012, many residents say.

"As far as I know it was just overnight - everything just started popping off," said Preston Springer, a rancher and construction crew foreman who lives in South Park Ranches, the same subdivision where Dear and Bedigian also lived.

From his family home perched in the hills, Springer said he watched with concern as the collection of makeshift shelters ballooned in the valley below.

Marijuana use is one thing, Springer said, but "you have to have a reliable means of dealing with your waste."

He suggested it was only a matter of time before the odor of raw sewage begins to fill the valley.

Many of the new residents bought land sight unseen in the sprawling, windswept subdivisions where 5-acre lots go for less than $7,000. The properties are hawked on the internet and sold by real estate companies that ask few questions.

Town officials disagree about the size of the migration.

The Hartsel Fire Protection District estimates that upwards of 500 otherwise vacant parcels have occupied shelters of some type, ranging from sheds to tents. Sheila Cross, director of Park County Development Services, said her office estimates that less than 50 of those host full-time, year-round occupants. She couldn't say how many live in substandard dwellings for part of the year.

By contrast, there are 836 registered voters in the unincorporated community's population.

"It hasn't slowed down any, just by observations from the highway," said Park County Assessor Dave Wissel, referring to new shelters that seem to pop up by the day.

In the past year alone, 184 vacant lots were reported sold across the Hartsel area, many of them in South Park Ranches and Hartsel Springs Ranches, where much of the problem is confined. The same areas have expensive homes perched in the hills overlooking the settlers.

After the Planned Parenthood attack, some residents living in shelters on private land grew uncomfortable with the assessor's office employee who came to photograph their land, spurring fears for the employee's safety.

"We moved her somewhere else, just to let things die down a little bit and keep our people safe," Wissel said.

The woman has since returned to her normal duty areas.

The explosion in emergency calls is fueled by out-of-control trash fires, faulty generators and embers dumped in the woods, among other hazards, officials say.

Getting to the emergencies can be difficult, because many lack addresses.

"A lot of them are societal dropouts. They just don't want to be a part of it," Hutcheson said.

Mental health issues also contribute to the increase in emergency calls, Hutcheson said.

The Fire Protection District recently responded five times to one woman whose only address was a Forest Service road and a description of a particular rock in the woods.

Two years ago, Hutcheson encountered a family of five living in a tent. While removing a woman on a stretcher, he said he "postholed in 3 ½ feet of snow" and fell backwards, fracturing a vertebra. "Surgery. Plates. Screws," he said in recounting the episode.

Other calls have brought his workers to places where people "are living in their own filth, with no sanitary precautions at all," he said.

Park County Human Services staff has expressed alarm over the children living in substandard conditions, Hutcheson said, and the only church in Hartsel is trying to raise money to purchase "tiny homes" for those in need, including for Dear's girlfriend, who remains an area resident, officials said.

In seeking to slow the growth, Park County commissioners have strengthened a camping ordinance that formerly allowed people to live in an RV or other non-permanent dwelling for up to six months in a calendar year.

Park County Administrator Tom Eisenman previously described it as an unenforceable ordinance that contributed to the homesteading boom.

The new code, which went into effect in August, allows up to two weeks of camping on vacant private land without a permit. Residents may now obtain permits for up to two months of camping, but only if they have a full septic system.

The county implemented a grace period that will expire at the end of this month.

So far, approximately 160 written warnings have been mailed to people who could be in violation, said Cross, of Development Services.

With just two code enforcement officers assigned to the entire county, Hutcheson said he is skeptical the new codes will produce meaningful change.

"The county's trying to regulate it away, and it's not going to go away," he said.

Bedigian, 59, said he was ticketed this fall for keeping "rubbish" on his property. He intends to argue that what authorities call garbage is actually art. He hopes that Jim Bishop, the proprietor of Bishop Castle, an eccentric tourist stop in southern Colorado, will testify on his behalf.

Beside the highway, the flag-draped coffin and a 12-foot "Freedom Tower" anchor what he calls "Sgt. Mike's Sculptured (sic) Gardens, Fountains & Fabled Abodes," after his father, a former Marine Corps sergeant.

The fraying flags - which whip in the wind and carpet the ground - are meant to symbolize how veterans like his father are ignored after their sacrifices, Bedigian said. A generator powers strands of Christmas lights decorating his subterranean home, where he sleeps except for a few nights a week he spends at a friend's place in Colorado Springs.

One day, his windswept property will be an oasis for "weary travelers" and a distinguished place to keep his father's ashes, he said.

Bedigian, who said he suffers two types of cancer, including melanoma, said the Spartan conditions and hard winters keep him strong.

While sheriff's deputies, firefighters and others have urged him to hunt for more stable lodging, Bedigian says no one can make him leave.

"I'm going to show these people what can be done with nothing."

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