HARTSEL — Robert Dear Jr.’s arrival here was part of a frenetic migration some locals derisively call the “green rush.”
Just as people rushed haphazardly into the Rockies for gold in 1858, many of Hartsel’s newcomers moved here from across the country after recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012, rancher Keith Wells said.
Locals identify Dear, the man accused of killing three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, with the marijuana migration because he and they often live in squalid, makeshift homes on the high plains. They worry that bad publicity stemming from the Dear case will damage the area’s tourist interests and hurt land values.
“This has made a bigger impact because of the news media associating him with the community,” said Ray Lyons, a rancher and pastor of the only church in town, the Country Church of Hartsel.
The discovery of Dear’s living conditions also triggered calls for zoning enforcement in Park County. After seeing Dear’s trailer, Undersheriff Monte Gore toured miles of crisscrossing dirt roads and found 287 marginal dwellings, including tents, homes built with driftwood and ramshackle old campers.
“If you look at where Dear is staying, you find a lot of people living exactly the way he was,” Gore said. “They have no running water. No septic systems. No heating. No electricity. Some are living in tents and cars. It’s quite concerning. This is something we need to address very quickly.”
Dear is being held without bail on charges he fatally shot Iraqi war veteran Ke’Arre Stewart, 29, campus police Officer Garrett Swasey and 35-year-old mother Jennifer Markovsky and wounded nine others at the Planned Parenthood building Nov. 27.
Dear’s Fleetwood travel trailer, sitting vacant 8 miles east of Hartsel within sight of U.S. 24, is a prime example for county authorities considering how to solve a brewing health, safety and crime quagmire.
Except for the noise of flapping trailer doors and rustling chickens, Dear’s property was quiet on a recent morning. The trailer’s broken front door flapped wide open in a stiff high-plains breeze after temperatures dipped to minus-12 degrees overnight.
Dear had addressed the extreme mountain cold problem in a home-made way that sends shivers up the spine of Hartsel Fire Chief Jay Hutcheson.
He had bored a hole in the side of the trailer and stuck a stove pipe through it. The pipe was attached to a wood burner planted a few feet from the front door. On the wall across the cluttered trailer were two small fire extinguishers covered partly with dried foam, indicating their past use.
“I’m sure that doesn’t meet any kind of zoning standard anywhere,” Gore said. During his tour near Dear’s trailer, he noted scores of trailers with identical makeshift wood stoves sticking out of trailers, Tuff sheds and tents.
There is a fort-like compound about a half mile northwest of Dear’s trailer that is built almost entirely of driftwood. There is a large tepee inside a wooden fence. Neighbors have a nickname for the man who lives here: “Armageddon.”
No one answered calls through a door-less entrance even though smoke poured out of a smoke stack. A van had become part of one wall of the half-acre lot. The van was plastered with bumper stickers railing against abortion, including one that read, “4,000 abortions a day. We need national repentance.”
Another household is about a mile east of Dear’s trailer. It’s fashioned out of different scraps, including branches and a large tattered tent. It’s surrounded by smaller tents and poles with large American flags. Some of the flags have fallen to the ground and look like rags. Shreds of the tent were blowing in the wind.
“There are a lot of squatters here,” neighbor Zigmond Post said. They live like Dear, with no running water or sewer, he said.
Dear bought 5 acres of land here with no utilities for $6,000 in October 2014. The low price comes with virtually no amenities: no paved roads, electricity or plumbing.
Just outside Dear’s trailer door was a blue bucket smeared with what appears to be human feces.
The trailer had no plumbing, Post said. Trash was littered around the inside of a tiny yard enclosed with wire fence. The trailer is outfitted with solar panels on the west side. Electrical cords snaked from the panels into several trailer windows.
A notice from an animal control officer taped to the front door warned Dear’s girlfriend, Stephanie Bragg, that two German shepherds would become the property of the Park County Sheriff’s Department if she failed to prove her intent to feed them.
Attempts to reach Bragg by visiting her and contacting family members by phone were unsuccessful. Some relatives said she did not have a phone and had to drive into Hartsel to call them on pay phones.
Remnants of the lives of two people were scattered about the tiny property on a vast snow-covered plain. Piles of driftwood braced the base of the wire fence.
A small tool shed sitting on a trailer was a few feet north of the chicken coop. The former occupants of the home also left behind a four-wheel recreation vehicle and a banged-up silver Kia sedan.
A snow shovel and ladder made out of two-by-fours lay on the ground.
A black wooden crucifix was affixed to the front of the trailer. A wooden plaque with words from a Biblical psalm hung from the wall of the cluttered tiny room. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me,” the inscription taken from the 51st Psalm said.
A handwritten note, left on a cabinet cluttered with items including four bottles of bourbon, was plainly visible from the porch through the open door.
“Please pray with me that I will be completely yielded to God with all my heart. Thank you for your testimony and loving the Lord so,” the note says.
The Planned Parenthood shooting reinforced concerns by Gore and others about who is moving into the county during the marijuana migration.
Almost all the new marijuana cultivation and business entrepreneurs are from other states, Gore said.
According to a New York Times profile, Dear sought companions with whom he could smoke marijuana in North Carolina, where he lived before moving to Colorado in 2014.
The sheriff’s office has assigned two deputies to investigate pot grow operations full time, and he has requested funding for two more deputies.
Gore said he gets two calls a week from residents who tell him they voted for the legalization but are having second thoughts after people moved next door and began pot grow operations.
“This could be overwhelming to the small town of Hartsel,” Gore said.
Many newcomers are violating state regulations for cultivating marijuana, including exceeding state limits for the number of plants that can be grown, he said.
Hartsel has become a destination point for a number of people who want to get away from others and live in isolation.
“Once in a while, you get someone who breaks over — who loses sight of basic moral values,” Lyons said.
The green rush is as destructive to Park County as the gold rush was to the Rockies, Wells said, while sipping coffee in the Highline Cafe and Saloon.
Prospectors polluted the land and left behind dangerous open pits, he said. People coming to Hartsel for pot buy cheap property and grow or smoke marijuana. And when they default on bank loans, they leave behind tattered tents and excrement, he said.
“It’s an unanticipated consequence of passage of recreational marijuana,” Hutcheson said. “The population has increased tenfold. Some of them grow marijuana legally. Most do it illegally.”
If Dear had shot up Hartsel, as he is accused of doing in Colorado Springs, there are plenty of folks who would be glad to throw a rope over a branch and hang him in short order, said Wells, who runs a ranch that has been in operation since 1860.
“The only reason he went to Colorado Springs is there is nothing here to shoot,” Wells said.
Kirk Mitchell: 303-954-1206, email@example.com or @kirkmitchell or denverpost.com/coldcases