Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin has announced he will run for a third, four-year term as sheriff in November.
Nowlin, a Republican, was elected sheriff in 2014 and reelected in 2018. So far, he is the only candidate, said Montezuma County Clerk Kim Percell.
Nowlin has 45 years of experience in law enforcement – with the Cortez Police Department and as sheriff, sheriff’s deputy, Colorado State Patrol trooper and detective.
In an interview Monday with The Journal, Nowlin said he’s running because he loves the job and serving the community.
“Community members tell me they want me to continue,” he said. “They have seen the progress we have made. The main goal is to continue to improve.”
Nowlin, whose job reaches from controlling marauding bears to murders, focused his discussion on his efforts to improve patrols, investigations, court security, detention and pretrial services.
He received a budget increase from the Board of County Commissioners for six new officers – three deputies and three for the jail – to have 24-hour patrol shifts and adequate backup.
“I was grateful for the commissioners’ help,” he said. “Calls for service continue to increase.”
He also said training and professionalism have created “one of the best departments in the state.”
“State statutes require 24 hours of training per year, and I require at least 100 hours of training per year,” he said.
Amid the drought, Nowlin trained a second officer to handle water issues in an effort to prevent conflict with education and enforcement. Agriculture deputies Dave Hughn and Nathan Horton responded to dozens of violations.
“Water is private property. It is illegal to divert what is not yours, or to not measure how much you are using,” Nowlin said. “Leaking ditches also became a problem – that is wasting someone else’s water, also illegal.”
Nowlin also installed dash cameras in patrol vehicles, then switched to body cameras for all officers before it became a state requirement this year.
Nowlin started state-funded education programs so that inmates could study with certified tutors and take high school equivalency exams.
In 2018, Nowlin supported a state law that made assaulting a police horse a felony.
Nowlin also is responsible for evacuations during wildfires. He managed preevacuations during the Plateau fire north of Dolores and evacuations during the East Canyon Fire near Mancos.
His second term, however, has not been without tension. Following is a look back at some of his high-profile cases.
Under Nowlin, the Sheriff’s Office investigated two high-profile murders in Mancos and Dolores.
In July 2018, Debra Gaylyn Riddle was arrested for the murder of her common law husband, David Mooney, at a residence west of Mancos. She was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In January 2018, Kevin Wade Folsom was arrested for the murder of James Lloyd Box Jr., who was shot on Haycamp Mess east of Dolores. Folsom was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years.
In February 2018, Sgt. Edward Francis Oxley was involved in a chase and shootout in McElmo Canyon. Oxley shot and killed Fordell Hill during an exchange of gunfire just inside the Utah border.
The FBI ruled that the use of force was justified, but a investigation by the Sheriff’s Office concluded that Oxley violated three policies during the chase – shooting from a moving vehicle and carrying and using unapproved ammunition. He pleaded guilty to first-degree official misconduct as part of a six-month deferred judgment and sentence and was fired.
On July 4, 2017 former Sgt. Brad Ray was involved in a standoff with a suspect in Pleasant View who was fatally shot. Internal and external investigations concluded that the use of deadly force was justified.
Tyrone Orvy Peabody, 53, was shot and killed after he fired at deputies at his residence on County Road 12. Officers had responded to a report of domestic violence and DUI.
Nowlin and his narcotics investigators have focused on drug trafficking, working with local, state and federal agencies.
Meth, heroin, fentanyl and black market marijuana have become more common in Montezuma County, said Nowlin, and threaten the health and safety of the community.
In Aug. 2018, Nowlin and his team took part in a multiagency marijuana raid at several properties in the county. An estimated 4,300 plants and 500 pounds of processed marijuana were seized as part of an investigation of a Chinese-speaking drug ring that surfaced in Rifle in 2016.
Eight people were arrested, but charges were dropped for all but four. Jimmy Dang, Qi Lin Wu, Lisa Yang, and Sang Teng pleaded guilty to drug charges and were sentenced in federal court.
In June 2019, Nowlin and cooperating agencies served warrants on six residences suspected of drug activity after an 18-month investigation. Eight suspects were arrested and charged with drug-related offenses.
Nowlin and narcotics Detective Victor Galarza gave community presentations this year in Cortez and Pleasant View about drug trafficking in the area.
“Cortez has become a hub of drug trafficking and distribution, and it comes from the south. Once it reaches here, it is pipelined to the rest of the state and country,” Nowlin said during a presentation July 28 at the Montezuma-Cortez High School auditorium. “We are putting this out to the community because what we are dealing with today is endangering every citizen.”
Galarza said investigations in Colorado and across the country often link drug sources to Mexican cartel organizations.
Nowlin wants to expand narcotics investigations, which require coordinated arrest sweeps and regular training.
“It is an important piece in what we do. If people elect me, another goal will be to increase the drug task force in cooperation with the state and federal agencies, and the Ute Mountain Tribe,” he said.
Nowlin cited his creation of the mounted patrol unit as another highlight. Officers on horseback connect with residents, he said, during public events, patrols and search and rescue operations.
“It works well. People of all ages walk up to an officer on horseback and want to talk, where they are less likely to do so with patrol cars,” he said.
After two children were kicked and injured by a patrol horse during Dolores’ Escalante Days in 2018, Nowlin limited the horses’ contact with crowds. And stationary horses now must stand tail to tail to prevent another kicking incident.
The jail reported an outbreak of 14 positive COVID-19 cases on Oct. 13, then 28 cases on Oct. 20, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
As the coronavirus spiked, Nowlin ordered in an Oct. 6 letter to area law enforcement agencies that intake at the Montezuma County Detention Center would be limited to suspects accused of Class 1 through Class 3 felonies, sexual assault and mandatory domestic violence arrests and/or protection order violations. All other suspects should be issued a summons, Nowlin said.
District Attorney Matt Margeson of the 22nd Judicial District, objected to the order, saying it conflicted with Colorado law and was issued without consulting the DA’s office.
Nowlin stood by the order.
“I had no choice. We only have so many holding cells. I could not risk it spreading it further into the jail,” he said.
The COVID outbreak was resolved, and the order rescinded.
Nowlin’s department is keen to enforce animal cruelty laws.
In April 2018, he seized 18 “emaciated” horses on County Road N, leading to the conviction of a woman on an animal-cruelty charge. She was ordered to pay $6,000 in fines and barred from owning a horse for two years.
In July 2021, Nowlin ordered the temporary seizure of 14 dogs from a property on County Road P for suspicion of animal neglect.
The state veterinarian and brand inspectors were called in to evaluate dozens of livestock on the 11-acre property. Nowlin suspected the animals lacked sufficient food and water, but conditions had improved, and the veterinarian determined a seizure was not required.
The Colorado Humane Society recommended that the collection of 30 livestock be reduced to 10 to 12 based on the size of the property.
Later that month, county Judge JenniLynn Lawrence ruled there was not probable cause for seizing 13 dogs. Twelve dogs were returned to owner Sharon Ward, and one was returned to owner Lousinda Ward.
Lawrence found probable cause for a dog owned by Sharon Ward to be seized and impounded. The dog recovered from a collar injury, Nowlin said, and has been adopted.
“The goal is to improve the living conditions for the animals,” he said. “I hope they listen to us and do the things they need to do.”
Creating a detox center in Montezuma County remains a long-term goal for Nowlin, but finding funding and a location has been a challenge.
A four- to five-room room detox center with three to four staff would free up jail space and help address alcohol and drug abuse, he said.
A detox center would focus on arrestees with minor and misdemeanor offenses relating to intoxication. Counselors would be on hand to help inmates with mental health and addictions.
“The community sees this need too, Now it is time to come together and make it a reality,” he said.
The jail was not meant to be a detox center, Nowlin said.
Jail policy calls for intoxicated inmates to be taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital for evaluation. If cleared by medical staff, they must be admitted to the jail and monitored. Nowlin wants to research a system in which they stay under hospital care until their alcohol levels fall.
In July 2021, Kelory Newman, an inmate at the Montezuma County Detention Center, was found unresponsive at the jail, and later died.
Newman, 30, had been arrested at Veterans Park on a bench warrant, said Cortez Police Chief Vern Knuckles.
Newman’s BAC test at the jail registered 0.421, Knuckles said. The level can be fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was evaluated at Southwest Memorial Hospital and cleared for jail, Knuckles said.
Nowlin said Newman was monitored in jail every half-hour through the night. But when lunch was brought to him, he was unresponsive. He was taken to Southwest Memorial, where he died.
Deciding to seeking a third term as sheriff was easy for the veteran lawman, famously known for chasing down nuisance bears in Dolores with rubber bullets.
“I love helping people and enforcing the law in order to protect the innocent,” he said. “The law enforcement code of ethics is something I read everyday. I love working with this agency and the community. Everything we do is to better serve the public.”