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Sheriff’s Office: A dog attack, shots fired and assault highlight problems at Purple Cliffs

Durango Police Department helps respond to 911 call involving gunfire
Durango Police Department assisted La Plata County Sheriff’s Office with a call for service after a 911 caller reported shots fired at the homeless camp at Purple Cliffs in early June. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Law enforcement has long said homeless camping at Purple Cliffs south of Durango presents a danger on several levels, including the heightened potential for wildfires and the lawless nature associated with an unmanaged campground.

In highlighting the latter point, La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith recounted an incident last month involving a dog attack, shots fired and an assault.

The incident occurred about 7:30 p.m. June 2 when Sheriff’s Office deputies were busy on other calls and requested the Durango Police Department for assistance.

According to a police report, two officers responded to a 911 call reporting three to four gunshots fired at the campground. When officers arrived, they found multiple people standing on La Posta Road (County Road 213) who appeared to be in an argument.

Officers observed one man walking away, while other residents indicated he was the one “causing problems.” The residents said they didn’t want him at the camp any longer, according to a police report.

Purple Cliffs south of Durango on La Posta Road (County Road 213) in early June had more than 100 residents living at the campsite. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Officers observed blood on the man’s face. According to the man, a “medium-sized black dog” attacked him, biting him in the leg, which provoked him to kick the dog in self-defense, according to the police report. After the man kicked the dog, several other residents allegedly attacked him, throwing rocks at him and “sprayed him with an unknown chemical which was a white powder,” which officers observed on his clothing.

A white fire extinguisher with a “red substance smeared over it” was later found by officers at the campsite.

Other residents told officers the man who fired the shots had a firearm in his backpack, which prompted officers to detain him and search him.

Officers did not find a gun, and the man denied having a gun. But officers did find a box of 9 mm handgun ammunition containing “approximately 30 rounds with 20 empty spaces,” according to the police report. Officers also found empty shell cases where the gun had allegedly been fired.

The man initially refused treatment for his injuries, but after paramedics performed an exam he was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital to be treated for a “swollen” and “bloody mouth” and “approximately a two inch gash to his left temple and a possible dog bite to his right calf.”

The man has not been charged with a crime.

Chris Burke, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said residents at the camp declined to press charges against the man. They said, “He got what he deserved,” according to Burke. And no charges were pursued by the police department or the Sheriff’s Office.

At a joint meeting with the Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners, Smith said the incident is an example of the urgency he and his deputies face in removing the unmanaged camp.

Smith said he received a letter from a resident at the Escalante tiny homes village inquiring why the Sheriff’s Office took 40 minutes to respond to the incident. Smith said Durango police officers responded to the 911 call within 14 minutes.

“At that time, I had five staff in 1,700 square miles,” he said. “Two of them were tied up on a motorcycle-versus-car accident out at Tremble Crossing. One was tied up with a suspicious death of a gentleman being brought in by his friends out in Ignacio with Southern Ute PD (Police Department).”

Another sheriff’s deputy was responding to a 911 call in the Bayfield area. The fifth sheriff’s deputy was occupied with a fentanyl drug trafficking stop.

“We didn’t have the people,” Smith said “Within two minutes we said can the PD (Durango police) please help us? And they did.”

Smith said the unmanaged camp at Purple Cliffs where dozens of homeless people are living in tents and makeshift structures is untenable. He said at least nine children were living at the campsite as of late June.

He said he gave the fire extinguisher to residents in case of fire, but it was used to assault the camper who fired gunshots to scare away a dog that had attacked the man.


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