During a promotion ceremony, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder speaks to his staff at the headquarters on Thursday, January 1, 2015. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
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Sheriff Bill Elder

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In the six months leading up to the June 26 primary election, in which El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder was vying for the Republican nomination, the county relentlessly touted its marijuana eradication efforts.

Records show the office put out releases about its busts up to four times a month.

A crackdown on black market marijuana growers was a pillar of Elder’s re-election campaign — he appeared at many of the busts to give interviews.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, deputies were serving more warrants for illegal pot grows than for any other crime. “That is an incredible tempo,” Elder said. “It completely obliterates anything that we’ve done in past years, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

He promised not to let up.

And records indicate he hasn’t — deputies have investigated at least 28 new grows in July and August. Elder just hasn’t advertised them.

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WEED BUST
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El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and others took part in combating an illegal marijuana grow off of Hahn Rd. on Thursday June 21, 2018 in Calhan. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette)

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Until an Aug. 2 tweet, the last marijuana raid the Sheriff’s Office promoted was June 21, when deputies seized an estimated $1.1 million in marijuana plants from an illegal grow off Hahn Road in Calhan. It also was Elder’s last public appearance concerning marijuana.

He won the Republican nomination for sheriff five days later.

In the month that followed, the office wouldn’t announce a single bust, despite records showing there were seven in which deputies seized 369 marijuana plants and 237 pounds of refined weed.

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Chart: Marijuana bust information released by the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in 2018
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A Gazette investigation revealed that the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office largely stopped promoting its illegal marijuana busts after the June 26 primary election in which Sheriff Bill Elder won the Republican nomination. The chart reflects media releases and other marijuana-related announcements by the Sheriff’s Office from January through August.

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The Teller County Sheriff’s Office announced its latest bust near Divide on July 27.

Colorado Springs police rarely, if ever, announce busts, though they often partner with the El Paso Sheriff’s Office on raids.

The change had some wondering if the pre-primary publicity about marijuana raids had been a political ploy to help Elder win the nomination.

The Sheriff’s Office denies it.

“Enforcement, that’s been consistent. Just today, we executed six warrants,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Natalie Sosa said Thursday, a day before a news release on the raid was sent out. “We’re just trying different ways of messaging.”

The June 21 raid, for example, was announced only through the office’s Facebook page, Sosa said.

Meanwhile, an Aug. 1 raid, netting 30 plants, 73.5 pounds of processed bud and one arrest, was shared only on Twitter.

“I’m just trying to find other, creative ways to message what we’re doing,” Sosa said, adding that marijuana enforcement remains “one of (Elder’s) top priorities.”

Sosa previously told The Gazette that the office is trying to limit the number of marijuana news releases it pushes out “to when there’s an arrest.”

The office sent 15 news releases from January through June, covering 26 marijuana busts, which The Gazette has mapped out across the county. Four of those busts, including the last one June 21, did not involve an arrest. The office did not notify the public about busts in July, despite conducting seven, one of which resulted in an arrest.

Sosa said the omission is partly intentional.

In the last two months, the office has been highlighting other types of crimes it investigates, such as the Colorado Springs shooting in which officer Cem Duzel was critically wounded, and two cases of animal neglect — 11 malnourished horses were seized in July from a property in Yoder and another seven horses and three dogs were removed from a home north of Black Forest this month.

In the meantime, deputies investigated 26 grows, 16 in August.

“Efforts haven’t stopped,” Sosa said.

Contact the writer at 719-636-0362 or find her on Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin.

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Kaitlin is a public safety reporter with a focus on investigations. She is a proud Ohioan, champion for local libraries, volunteer reading tutor and an expert ice cream connoisseur (mint chocolate chip!). She joined the Gazette in 2016.

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