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Long-awaited ex-Sheriff Maketa's trial begins Tuesday

June 26, 2017 Updated: June 27, 2017 at 12:41 pm
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Former El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa waits inside of the Terry R. Harris Judicial Complex on the first day of his jury selection for the trial on Tuesday June 27, 2017. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

Lance Benzel will be providing live updates from today's proceedings. Check the Twitter feed (at right for desktop users, below on mobile) for the latest.

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Thirteen months after his legacy was rocked by allegations of corruption, embattled ex-Sheriff Terry Maketa is getting his day in court.

But are prosecutors ready to hold up their end?

The former Republican powerbroker is due for a two-week trial in 4th Judicial District Court with that open question swirling in the background, fueled by recent disclosures.

In May, one of two 18th Judicial District attorneys assigned to prosecute Maketa unexpectedly resigned, creating what his co-counsel called an "impossible" burden on the team and leading a judge to approve a monthlong trial postponement.

Last week, prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss two of the nine counts against Maketa, with an alleged victim telling The Gazette that proof problems were to blame.

Whether those developments were mere hiccups or signs of dysfunction that could doom Maketa's trial could soon be clear.

"The fact that they couldn't prove some of the charges doesn't mean they can't prove the others," said retired Denver criminal defense attorney Phil Cherner, who cautioned against placing too much stock in the recent motion for dismissal. "It doesn't happen a lot, but it's certainly not extraordinary."

The process of winnowing a field of 90 potential jurors into a panel of 12 (plus alternates) begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday and could last all morning or all day.

Maketa, 51, served much of his 12 years in office as a rising star on the political scene, winning re-election with such ease that some Republican insiders floated his name as a potential candidate for governor.

In a show of strength, he even managed in 2012 to convince tax-averse El Paso County voters to approve a tax increase to fund "urgent public-safety needs."

Behind the scenes were hints of turmoil, however. For years, Maketa battled rumors of improprieties at the Sheriff's Office, but it was an article accompanied by a shirtless selfie of Maketa on the front page of The Gazette that brought to light accusations of sexual misconduct and abusive treatment of employees.

The article outlined complaints written by three Sheriff's Office commanders, alleging discrimination, a hostile work environment and financial mismanagement. Maketa defended his record but stepped down amid the turmoil that enveloped his office.

For Maketa, the stakes were ratcheted up in May 2016, when a county grand jury voted to indict him and two subordinates on separate claims of abusing power.

Maketa was charged with nine counts, six of them felonies. Although prosecutors petitioned to dismiss two of the counts - kidnapping and false imprisonment - court records show they remain pending, though the judge could toss them before jury selection is complete.

Among the allegations leveled at the three were that they conspired to force a domestic violence victim to recant her story to protect a deputy she accused of punching her - then jailed her for making what they described as false statements.

In another alleged scheme, Maketa threatened to pull a $5.2 million contract with the jail's health care provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., unless the company fired an employee who refused to support former Undersheriff Paula Presley's aborted campaign for sheriff in 2013.

The grand jury also found that Maketa maneuvered to place three deputies on the so-called Brady list - a court document identifying officers with credibility issues - allegedly in retaliation for their lack of loyalty.

The indictment also alleged a campaign to subject three deputies to internal investigations in 2013 concerning a missing internal affairs file said to contain a record of misdeeds by former deputy and then-sheriff's candidate Bill Elder.

That investigation was convened even though one of Maketa's co-defendants, Presley, admitted having the file in her possession, the indictment alleges.

Presley, 52, also faces nine counts, while former sheriff's Cmdr. Juan "John" San Agustin, 47, is charged with two felonies.

Allegations against Maketa have likewise generated lawsuits and threats of lawsuits that ended up costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to county spokesman Dave Rose, the county has so far settled employment-related claims totaling $353,000. The county also paid $250,000 in legal expenses, he said. At least one lawsuit remains pending in U.S. District Court in Denver.

For court watchers, the Maketa trial promises plenty of spectacle - including a rematch between two respected Colorado attorneys.

The lead prosecutor, Mark Hurlbert, previously squared off against Maketa's lawyer, Pamela Mackey of Denver, in the sexual assault case against former NBA giant Kobe Bryant in the early 2000s. Hurlbert, then the district attorney in Summit County, ended up dismissing all counts against Bryant in a case that spawned headlines across the country.

The 18th Judicial District was assigned to prosecute the case after El Paso County District Attorney Dan May recused himself to avoid the appearance of impropriety because of his association with Maketa.

This story has been revised to reflect that 90 potential jurors will be brought for jury selection.

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