Conflicting interests and tough questions

Essay by Ed Quillen

Drug laws – September 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Not a day has passed recently without someone asking me “What do you think about Ray James?”

Well, I think Ray’s a talented writer, but not always great about deadlines.

But I suspect that’s not what people have in mind when they ask.

Ray was arrested on July 31 in front of his apartment in downtown Salida, and Federal authorities have charged him with conspiracy to distribute more than 100 grams of methamphetamine. Upon conviction, the penalty for that offense is ten years to life in prison.

Also arrested in the same case were Dan Renfro and Paula Burckhalter, both former Salida residents. But few people have asked me about them (which is just as well since I don’t know them).

Ray James, however, has been a part of public life hereabouts for a long time. Back in 1981 or so, when I was managing editor of the Salida Mountain Mail, I hired Ray as a part-time sports writer because he scored the best on a test I had devised — which covered things like horse-shoe scoring and constructing baseball standings.

After I quit The Mail in 1983, Ray became a full-time reporter, and later, managing editor. Then he was news director at KVRH Radio. Ray also served as county Democratic chairman, and even ran for state legislature in 1988.

Ray moved to Alamosa sometime thereafter, and edited newspapers in the San Luis Valley, where he won a passel of awards. In the years since, Ray edited Ah, a now-defunct weekly based in Salida, and worked at Safeway. He’s won the Howard Chili Cookoff for three years running, and he ran for city council in Salida last fall.

That’s a lot of public involvement spread across much of Central Colorado, so it’s little wonder that so many people have been asking me about Ray James after hearing of his arrest.

But I can’t provide much in the way of answers. All Ray has ever tried to sell me was articles for this magazine — so I was as surprised as scores of other people by his arrest.

But Ray’s arrest has made me reflect upon other questions, questions about journalism, about life, and about what Ray wrote for Colorado Central earlier this year — a two-part series on local law enforcement.

Since his federal indictment alleges criminal activities that started in 1994, the question of Ray’s credibility arises.

The topic for that series originated after I heard numerous complaints about the growth of our police department and a few allegations of overzealous enforcement. When so many people — teenagers, business owners, lawyers, and long-time residents — talk about something, I figure it’s worth looking into. Perhaps it’s just grousing and rumors, but even so, it’s a public concern when the public starts expressing concern.

Get some solid numbers, find out if law-enforcement payrolls and budgets are expanding, and if so, why — that sort of thing. But doing so would take more time than Martha or I had.

Thus, when I ran into Ray James downtown one day last winter, and he asked if Colorado Central might have any work for him, I mentioned several possibilities, including the police story. Because his regional journalistic experience was far broader than mine, or indeed any writer I know of, I thought Ray would have an easy time arranging interviews and finding numbers.

Ray agreed, and wrote two articles. We edited and checked them, and they were solid. I’ve got no problems with what Ray wrote.

The major issue — that police budgets are growing at a much greater rate than population or inflation — is not some fabrication. It is a political issue — how should scarce public resources be allocated?

Moreover, some important questions remain. Does our relatively low crime rate merit so much police protection? Are people getting uncomfortable with all the additional sirens and police? Under what circumstances should apparently law-abiding citizens be stopped, followed or questioned in the interest of more rigorous neighborhood patrolling? Have some citizens been treated unfairly?

We wanted to put those questions on the table so people would discuss them. And we still think those are important questions.

But now we figure that there are also legitimate questions about the credibility and motivations behind our article.

Personally, I don’t see much evidence of undue bias in Ray’s series. If anything, I think Ray tended to be particularly accommodating toward the police, devoting far more space and research to their concerns, than to the concerns of their critics. But I can understand how others would disagree.

So what can I say? I now wish somebody besides Ray had written the police story, but I didn’t have an inkling of any potential conflict back when that story was assigned.

Of course, I’d like to blame Ray, but that presumes he knew of the conflict himself, which would only be true if he were guilty. And that’s something I really don’t want to conclude before the trial, and without knowing anything about the evidence.

Some mutual acquaintances, however, have assured me that Ray is innocent, that he was framed, and that even if Ray did do something, the charges were inflated.

But I don’t know that, either. Actually, I’m not even sure what the charge “conspiracy to distribute” means in Ray’s case.

But make no mistake, I consider drug trafficking a serious offense. Drugs are illegal, and the drug trade is vicious, amoral, murderous, deceptive, and directly responsible for the destruction of countless lives, cities, and countries. Perhaps the only thing more destructive than hard drugs is this damnable War on Drugs, which shreds our constitutional rights, makes drugs a very profitable business, and builds a climate of suspicion and hostility in a society teeming with snoops, spies, and snitches. The disease is bad enough, but this “cure” is worse.

So why do people — who would eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to save the rain forest, and abstain from tuna to save the porpoises, and boycott foreign countries to save the whales — buy meth, cocaine and heroin?

I don’t know.

Actually, at this point, all I really know is that I hate this cloak and dagger, James Bond, Lethal Weapon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, terroristic, spy-happy, drug-ridden, gun-toting, wiretapping era that seems to be driving all of America into a mood of distrust, suspicion and cynicism.

If, in the past, I’ve been critical of drug enforcement agencies, it’s not because I think drug addiction is a glorious right; it’s because I don’t think our current “solutions” work.

Even worse, I can’t help but suspect that our law enforcement agencies are growing, not because growth curbs drug usage, but because growth serves those agencies in terms of budgets, power and influence — because I certainly can’t see how they’re alleviating drug problems.

As I see it, part of the job of the police is to keep us honest and hold us up to certain standards. And part of the job of the press is to keep the police honest and hold them up to certain standards.

But in the long run, I don’t think things are going to improve until we all — police, journalists, businessmen, and citizens — start holding ourselves up to higher standards.

Thus, whether mistakes are honestly made or not, I think it’s important to acknowledge, and at least try to correct them.

And in that light, I’d like to apologize for inadvertently employing a police reporter under investigation by the police — since such a faux pas far surpasses the one Newsweek managed.

After all, Newsweek merely employed an anonymous novelist, not a suspected felon; and their novelist didn’t actually write their article speculating on who wrote his novel.

After he was bonded out August 9, Ray James came to see us, and immediately announced that upon the advice of legal council he couldn’t discuss his case. We didn’t mind as much as writers should have, however, since Ray was the first person we’d seen in days who wasn’t talking about his guilt or innocence.

Actually, Ray stopped by because he had previously offered to write a story on the latest proposal for exporting water from northern Saguache County, and he wanted to know if that was still a possibility — since he’d have some free time before his Oct. 15 court date.

“But I don’t want to do anything that would hurt Colorado Central or cause you embarrassment,” he said.

In the end, we decided to proceed with the story, since it’s up to a jury, not us, to determine Ray’s guilt or innocence of criminal charges.

Then again, maybe I only agreed because I would have felt sorry for anyone who wanted to spend what could possibly be his last days of freedom — researching water issues, which can be about as exciting as watching paint dry.

“But,” I cautioned Ray, “you are not writing anything whatsoever about the police.”

And it had better not turn out that Ray owns a passel of wells in the valley.

Before he left, I asked Ray if he had anything to say about his arrest, and he expressed his gratitude to Salidans and to the Salida Police for being unfailingly polite throughout his ordeal.

–Ed Quillen