Pubdate: Fri, 04 Apr 2014
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Page: Journal North 1
Copyright: 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Andy Stiny
Bookmark: (Drug Raids)


Officials Promise Full Transparency in Reviewing February's Taos

Residents and business owners in Taos Ski Valley say the "swaggering"
demeanor and heavily armed presence of a U.S. Forest Service law
enforcement officer assigned to the ski area may have set the tone for
a controversial drug sweep that now has the agency investigating itself.

Jackie Banks of the Forest Service's Kaibab National Forest in
Arizona, along with Cheri Bowen, a law enforcement patrol captain also
from Arizona, are part of an "After Action Review Team" that arrived
in the ski valley on Thursday to meet with valley officials and
residents about what happened on Feb. 22.

Accounts of a "saturation patrol" on that day from visitors, ski
valley administrators and employees say four armed Forest Service
officers used a drug-sniffing dog to check vehicles in the parking
area and along nearby roads, and were disrespectful and rude.

The officers issued a handful of citations for only "possession
amounts" of marijuana and prescription drugs, along with traffic
violations and warnings for infractions like non-use of seat belts and
cracked windshields.

The raid on a busy Saturday has provoked outrage among skiers and area
businesses. One Forest Service official was called a "Nazi" at the
grocery store in Taos a few days after the raid.

"We want to get to what happened," said Banks, who is acting as a
spokeswoman for the Forest Service review team. "This is really what
this review is about."

Taos Ski Valley operates on Carson National Forest

Ski area chief operating officer Gordon Briner, village of Taos Ski
Valley Mayor Neal King and village administrator Mark Fratrick met
with Bowen, Banks and another review team member on Thursday afternoon.

"Whatever their findings are, they are going to put it out to the
press," Briner said. He said the question of who ordered the drug
sweep was one of the things discussed. "That is high on their list of
things to identify."

Banks said in a telephone interview later she could not say who
ordered the operation and that's part of the review. "We want to make
this as transparent as possible," she said.

"We've never experienced anything like this at Taos Ski Valley in the
past as far back as anyone can remember," said Briner.

The review team will complete a draft report on the drug raid but it's
unknown how long that will take. "We are working quickly, this is
important to us both personally and professionally," said Banks.

She and Bowen said that, following their site visit Thursday, they'll
talk to more people by phone if necessary.

The Forest Service will "open it up to anybody and everybody who wants
to speak to us," Bowen said.

"We are trying to reach out to people individually and in small
groups" and "see what they think should have been done," said Banks.
But no public forums are planned.

"Gung-ho" officer?

Several valley business operators, including Kent Forte, who manages
the Edelweiss Lodge and Spa and is on the board of the Taos Ski Valley
Chamber of Commerce, cited the attitude and behavior of a particular
Forest Service officer as problematic.

Forte did not know the officer's name but said, "there is a new Forest
Service guy up here who seems kind of power hungry."

"I've seen him around and he's always wearing a bulletproof vest and
packing a lot of heat," said Forte.

Business owner and chamber board member Bob Reminger said, "there's a
local guy who is just way gung-ho."

Bowen identified the Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer assigned
to the ski valley as Tommy Barr. She had no comment about whether she
was hearing anything about Barr. The ski area's Briner said that Barr
was identified in the meeting as being one of the four officers who
participated in the drug sweep.

Briner said he understands that all four officers involved the
drug-dog raid will be interviewed by the review team.

The tone of the meeting with the Forest Service team was good, said
Briner. "We are anxious to hear the findings of the review team."

The Journal recently obtained Forest Service emails that appeared to
indicate that Forest Service law enforcement officers nationally were
facing a citation quota of 100 tickets a year.

Asked about that Thursday, Banks said, "Unfortunately we can't address
that directly ... . That's one of the pieces of information we have
gotten from complaints and the media."

In an off-snow year for Taos, and with many skiers and snow boarders
heading for the snowier slopes of Colorado, the timing of the drug
operation seemed like a kick in the gut for ski-related business in
the Taos area.

"I think it had the potential to give visitors the impression of our
town of whether we have a drug problem or we are a militaristic state
. it just seemed kind of absurd," said Forte.

Gary Johnson interviewed

Ex-New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a ski valley resident, former
Libertarian presidential candidate and proponent of drug legalization
who was incensed by the drug sweep, was interviewed Thursday by
telephone by Bowen and Banks.

Johnson said he told them that he was 61 years old and "I've never
(before) been subject to a 'saturation patrol' by a law enforcement
agency and was subject to it because I parked my car in that (the ski
valley) parking lot," he said.

The two women were "very polite" and apologetic, said Johnson. He said
he asked "what was the theoretical good" of the drug sweep. "What was
it they hoped to accomplish?"

Chamber board member Forte said he had not heard of prior incidents of
drug problems in the ski valley and noted that, with the abundance of
gravel roads in Taos and the ski valley gravel parking lots, cracked
vehicle windshields are not rare.

"To me, it seemed kind of ridiculous. Most of the citations were for
cracked windshields; I mean, come on, it's a ski town." 
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