For months, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa turned his office upside down in search of a missing Internal Affairs file he claimed was stolen by backers of a sheriff's candidate he called a "liar" and "corrupt."
But according to five sheriff's employees, the saga of the missing file was a ruse - all part of a "dirty-tricks campaign" by term-limited Maketa to shape the Republican primary that would pick his successor.
"This is a guy who had the file, but to protect himself politically, went after the staff pretending to think they stole it," said the employees' attorney, Ed Farry, summarizing the bombshell allegations at the heart of a new threat to sue the embattled, third-term sheriff.
The claims laid out in the seven-page document are part of a civil action, and no charges have been filed.
The claim alleges a slew of criminal violations by Maketa and his chief deputy, Undersheriff Paula Presley, including evidence tampering, attempting to influence a public official, bribing a witness, witness intimidation and misuse of official information.
On Wednesday, Maketa and Presley denied they had anything to do with the file's disappearance, and Maketa pointed out that three of the five employees lodging the claim were also behind an earlier threat to sue.
"If you truly want the facts, it doesn't take much research to realize that the horse is dead and you're beating on it," Maketa told The Gazette.
Said Presley: "I didn't even know whether or not there was a file. It was just reported to me through the chain-of-command that there was a file missing, and I reported it to the sheriff."
Each complainant is seeking at least $500,000 in damages. The document - a necessary first step before a lawsuit can be filed - was served to the El Paso County Attorney's Office on Tuesday and obtained by The Gazette. The District Attorney's Office previously said it is investigating criminal complaints against Maketa but didn't offer details.
Signing on to the latest civil claim are suspended sheriff's commanders Robert King, Mitchel Lincoln and Rodney Gehrett as well as Lt. Cheryl Peck and Sgt. Rob Stone - both Internal Affairs investigators at the time of the missing file controversy. The commanders are all on paid administrative leave. Peck is on active duty. Stone retired abruptly in the midst of the file investigation.
Their version of events puts a dramatically different spin on the saga of the missing file, which Maketa attributes to an inside theft by insurgent deputies.
The file is said to detail low-level financial improprieties by El Paso County sheriff's candidate and former sheriff's Lt. Bill Elder when he served as a supervisor in the Metro Vice, Narcotics and Intelligence unit. Now a deputy police chief in Fountain who is poised to inherit Maketa's office, Elder has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and maintains he was never the target of an Internal Affairs investigation.
According to the deputies' allegations, however, Elder's file existed - but was removed from a locked room by "Maketa and/or Undersheriff Presley," who planned to use the information within to sink Elder's candidacy for sheriff.
"Presley was then considering a run for sheriff. And Maketa was intent on being the kingmaker of the new sheriff so that he could obtain compensation and favors for himself and his paramours," the claim states, alluding to earlier allegations that Maketa promoted three women, including Presley, in exchange for sexual favors.
By installing his own candidate, Maketa sought to win consulting contracts "through which he would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars," the claims say.
The deputies allege the plan backfired when Peck reported the file missing in April 2013, after finding Elder's empty file folder askew in the stacks of a locked file cabinet in a locked room.
For months, Maketa took no action, the employees allege. But in December, Maketa and Presley reportedly launched an aggressive investigation in which employees thought to be Elder supporters were forced to take lie-detector tests and threatened with termination and criminal charges.
At one point, while being interrogated about the file, Stone reported that he believed the file was taken by Presley - allegedly prompting an obscenity-laced outburst by Presley in which she threatened to "kill" him, the claim says.
"I did not say that," Presley told the newspaper Wednesday. She said she has returned to work after leaving the office suddenly last week as computer hard drives were being seized from the Sheriff's Office as part of an ongoing employment investigation into the spiralling allegations against Maketa.
Peck, who says she was forced to conduct media interviews about the missing file, also alleges that Maketa spent months pressuring her to say that "at some point, she or other employees had given him the Elder file" to examine, which Peck maintains didn't happen.
"At this time, Maketa needed to be able to say that he had in fact seen the file, which of course he had because he took it," the claim says.
After refusing to promote Maketa's "false narrative," Peck was demoted to a night-shift patrol supervisor, the claim alleges. At least two other deputies resigned after submitting to lie-detector tests, The Gazette previously reported.
Maketa said the departures by those deputies and Stone came after the lie-detector tests indicated they were being deceptive when asked if they knew who took the file.
Stone's attorney, Farry, disputed that his client departed from the truth at any time.
"Not only is that absolutely false, but it is further evidence of Maketa's manipulation of lie-detector tests and investigations in the Sheriff's Office."
The sheriff said Wednesday that his comments to Peck were limited to trying to figure out when he had last seen the file.
Maketa said that he requested and examined it in the months before the disappearance but that he wasn't sure if it was when his office was in its current location, at 27 E. Vermijo St., or at the previous location, 101 W. Costilla St. He said Peck would have likely been the person who handled his request to view the file.
"I never pressured her, and I never thought she took the file."
Maketa said Peck's transfer came after she approached him with concerns that the controversy over the missing file was "ruining her career," a conversation during which she broke down in tears.
The sheriff said that after recognizing that she had been "through a lot of crap," he decided to transfer her to patrol and that her experience was needed on the midnight shift.
The issue of the missing file clouded Elder's candidacy but had little effect on his political future.
Despite the headlines, Elder prevailed at the Republican assembly, rising to the top of a three-man field that included former Sheriff John Anderson, whom Maketa supported after Presley decided against running for office.
Without an opponent in the general election, Elder's selection to sheriff is all but assured.
His unlikely victory came after Maketa released about 300 pages of documents relating to Elder's 19 years at the Sheriff's Office, including personnel records.
The disputed IA investigation involved allegations that a sergeant under Elder's command granted too much compensation time to VNI detectives - giving them time off equivalent to $2,200 in hourly wages.
Elder says he wasn't independently investigated and attributed the overpayment to an accounting error.
"I still say there was no file," Elder said. "There's not a way to remove something or steal something that did not exist."
Sheriff's deputies who say there was a file "might have been pressured" to make the statement, Elder said.
Gazette sources have suggested that the Elder file might have contained portions of an IA investigation conducted on the VNI sergeant under his command.
On Wednesday, Maketa said he takes no interest in the politics of his subordinates.
"I don't get involved in line-level political issues," he said. "I don't care. I really don't."
Gazette reporter Dave Philipps contributed to this report.