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Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock talks about the shooting at STEM School in Highlands Ranch on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

CASTLE ROCK — Sheriff Tony Spurlock is digging into a plate of enchiladas, trying to make sense of the wave of tragedies that rolled through his office in the past three years, when a worker at a Mexican restaurant recognizes him. 

“I don’t see you that much,” the man says, “except bad news on the TV.” 

And Spurlock, the Douglas County sheriff, has been in the news a lot: A deputy paralyzed in a shooting. A deputy killed in another. A suicide on his force. 

Events in the community also have traumatized his office. Two mothers died by suicide and took their children with them in separate incidents. Then there was the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch — a deadly attack where Spurlock saw his officers rushing out wounded students, one of them carried over a deputy’s shoulder bleeding from three bullet wounds. 

“You see that and you’re like — you’re in disbelief,” said Spurlock, a lawman for nearly 40 years. “I don’t care how long you’ve been in the business.”

Spurlock grew increasingly agitated as he listed what he and his deputies have been subjected to in recent months. “You’re going to make me choke on a chip, dude,” he told a reporter.

Spurlock leads a nearly 800-person office that has coped with episode after episode so shocking that some of his deputies resigned. More of his officers are seeking help from a reinforced mental health safety net in his agency, some for incidents that happened years ago.

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On top of all that, Spurlock injected himself into one of Colorado’s most heated political battles, supporting a new so-called red flag law allowing judges to order the seizure of guns from people who are a significant risk to themselves or others. The move has drawn rebuke from fellow Republicans in Douglas County and ignited an effort to recall the sheriff from office.

“I’m sure Tony is wondering when his turn in the barrel is going to be up,” said Aurora police Chief Nick Metz, one of Spurlock’s friends. 

A Douglas County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle outside of STEM School Highlands Ranch following a shooting that left one student dead and eight others wounded on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The story of Spurlock, 60, is the ultimate rise-through-the-ranks tale. 

He’s a Colorado native who gave up a brief stint working in jackpot rodeoing in 1980 to become a dispatcher at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. From there he worked in the jail, then as a patrol deputy, then in investigations, then as a member of the command staff. 

He was undersheriff for nine years, until he was appointed to replace Sheriff Dave Weaver when he left to become a county commissioner. 

In 2015 he was elected to his first term as sheriff and then reelected in 2018 to a final, four-year term. He was also picked in December to lead the County Sheriffs of Colorado. 

“I’ve spent my whole life here on this Front Range. I’ve been in Douglas County for over 40 years,” he said. “I’ve seen this place grow from nothing to what it is today. Some geniuses came along and saw the opportunity for Douglas County to grow to what it is today.”

Spurlock’s wife, Stacy, jokes that her husband has “been here since when dirt was new.”

In that span, he said, there has never been a more trying time for the sheriff’s office. Sure, there was the stretch in the ’90s when Douglas County became a dumping ground for murderers. But this is different. 

“We’ve always had a couple little things that go on,” he said. “But I think, no doubt about it, the last five years has been the most traumatic — at least to me. It’s affected the sheriff’s office.”

It takes Spurlock about an hour to rattle off everything that’s happened since Sept. 2, 2016, when Det. Dan Brite was shot through the chest in a Parker gun battle that left the suspect dead. Doctors gave Brite a 1% chance of survival, but he beat the odds, though he was paralyzed by his injuries.

That shooting sparked a change in Spurlock, Stacy recalls. “It was definitely a switch was flipped and he was a different person in response to getting ready to go over to see Dan at the hospital and responding to that,” she said. 

But Brite’s shooting was just the beginning.

Just a few months later, Jennifer Laber picked up her two young sons from school, gave them sedatives, drove them in the family minivan to the parking lot of an abandoned Sports Authority store in Highlands Ranch and fatally shot them both before taking her own life. 

“And my deputies take that call and they respond to that call,” Spurlock said. “Months later we have another mother who takes the life of her daughter and then takes her own life.”

About a year passed without a national-headline-grabbing incident, until early on Dec. 31, 2017. That’s when a group of Spurlock’s deputies tried to remove a mentally ill man from his home in the Copper Canyon Apartment Homes in Highlands Ranch and were met with a hail of rifle fire. 

Deputy Zack Parrish. (Provided by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office)

Deputy Zack Parrish, a 29-year-old father of two young children, was shot 11 times and died. Four other officers and civilians were wounded. The suspect was also killed.  

“We lost 10 officers after that,” Spurlock said. “They resigned and went into other businesses. Some of them transferred to civilian positions here. Those are things that happen, those are phenomena that happen around mass shootings or officer-involved shootings where there’s a lot of officers shot. It happened in Dallas. It’s happened everywhere.”

About five months later, Spurlock endorsed the first version of the red flag bill at the Colorado Capitol in 2018, a measure that had bipartisan support but was blocked by Republicans who at the time controlled the state Senate. 

“I sat in this office with my chaplain, my undersheriff and we had this conversation,” Spurlock said of how he came to support the measure after the Parrish shooting. “We said, ‘We cannot continue to allow these tragedies if we have tools to put in place to help save lives.’”

Democrats regained control of the statehouse in 2018 and made the reintroduction of the red flag bill one of their top priorities. Spurlock was the only Republican elected official in Colorado who publicly supported the red flag bill during this year’s legislative session, staying steadfast when others in the GOP who had earlier backed the legislation walked away, citing changes that had been made to the policy.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock talks to reporters about the introduction of the red flag gun bill on Feb. 14, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

And that’s when the attacks from within the Republican party began, as did threats against his family and the talk of a recall. 

“People would not listen,” he said, calling himself a fierce protector of the Second Amendment. “They wouldn’t listen to the stories. They wouldn’t listen to the solution. I am not seizing guns. I am not gun grabbing. That’s not what this is about. This is about saving lives.”

Spurlock said he can’t shake the memory of the shootings of Brite and Parrish. He remembers exactly where he was when he learned what happened to his deputies. 

Brite was wounded the night of his wedding anniversary.

“I had my portable radio on and I could hear chatter on the radio. If you’ve been in the business long enough you can tell what’s normal chatter and what’s not. And I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’” Spurlock said. 

Then he heard: “Shots fired, shots fired. DB down.”

“I cannot get that out of my head, still today,” Spurlock said.

The morning Parrish was killed, Spurlock had been battling a nasty stomach flu that had him out of commission. It was early in the morning of Dec. 31, 2017, when his phone rang.

“It wakes me up. I hand the phone to my wife and I said see who this is. She sits up in bed and says, ‘It’s (Chief Deputy Steve Johnson) and we have an officer shot and they’re still engaging,’” he remembered. “This is the second time in 18 months that I have heard we have an officer down and we’re still engaging the suspect.”

He quickly showered and headed to the scene, worried that he was going to vomit. 

“We’ve been together for 20 years so there were lots of times where he would have to put on his uniform and rush out the door,” Stacy Spurlock said. ”He’s this jovial kind of guy. I’ve never seen him in that kind of full-on, serious cop mode.”

Spurlock has sometimes found it difficult to lead while dealing with the tragedies. He’s developed a close relationship with Parrish’s wife and parents and worked hard to help Brite through his recovery, visiting the wounded deputy in the hospital.

To cope, Spurlock has found comfort in conversations with his wife and other law enforcement leaders across Colorado and the country. He says he uses them as “buffers.”

“Just because I’m at the top, I don’t know everything,” he said. “I’m going through life just like everybody else is. But my responsibility is to lead them through these traumas. Find solutions. Find avenues for them to be taken care of. Find ways for them to vent.”

A scene from the response to the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting summed up the toll. After the suspected shooters had been apprehended and the wounded students hurried out to medical care, the body of the sole person killed in the shooting — 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo — had to remain while investigators processed the crime scene.

Kendrick Castillo. (Colorado State Patrol handout)

“And all my cops are going: ‘Why can’t we just scoop him up and get him out?’” Spurlock recalled. “Officers were standing by him. They were not going to let him be there alone in the hallway. They started treating him like a cop — he’s not going to be under a sheet by himself. That takes some tolls on some cops.” 

Even weeks after the shooting, the school was still a crime scene — an ongoing reminder of the chaos that had unfolded for anyone who entered.

“There were backpacks scattered everywhere. When you walk into that school, there was an eerie feel of what you saw,” he said. “Because you could see the emergency. If you’ve ever had the hell scared out of you and you drop everything and you leave — add that for like 150 kids and that’s what you saw in the rooms and the hallways and everywhere else.” 

A combined SWAT team waits outside the middle school entrance at STEM School Highlands Ranch after a shooting that killed one and wounded eight students. The shooting required the services of law enforcement across the Denver metro area, as well as the services of 79 fire department units, approximately 148 fire and medical personnel and three medical helicopters. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Brite, who said he suffered from depression and anxiety, and “even went down the road of suicidal thoughts” during his recovery, has returned to work. He recently began a role as the agency’s wellness director, where he’s seen a big uptick in the number of people seeking help. 

Det. Dan Brite. (Provided by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office)

“I’ve learned through this process that there are still some people that are still dealing with my issue that happened almost three years ago,” he said. “That was kind of eye opening to me that time doesn’t heal all wounds.”

(A veteran sergeant in the sheriff’s office died by suicide on May 2, less than a week before the STEM School shooting. “Everyone knew this guy. He was a trainer. An award-winner. He was just an amazing guy,” Spurlock said. “We don’t know today why he took his own life.”)

“The last three years we’ve had a lot of critical incidents,” Brite added, “and a lot of our people are walking about with a lot of pain.”

In March, as the red flag bill was clearing the Colorado legislature, Spurlock stood up in front of Douglas County’s three commissioners and asked them to reconsider declaring the county a so-called “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”

“I would encourage you to at least listen to the amendments, listen to the bill,” he told the commissioners. “I love this county and I love this state and I have been a protector of the Constitution since I put this badge on 39 years ago. … Don’t bully me. Don’t tell me to quit and move to the other side.” 

But the commissioners voted unanimously to join dozens of other counties in the state in a mostly symbolic step meant as a rebuke against the policy. In addition, the Douglas County GOP passed a resolution condemning the red flag bill

The fever pitch over Spulock’s involvement in the red flag bill has led to a recall effort, a move that has been mostly wielded in Colorado by Republican defenders of gun rights unhappy with Democrats’ actions on firearms. 

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Robert Wareham, one of the leaders in the effort to recall Spurlock who says the sheriff has fostered “a culture of institutional arrogance.”

Wareham added: “We’ve had officers shot. We’ve had officers killed. We’ve had civilians killed. And there doesn’t seem to be anyone asking: Why?”

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Wareham thinks Spurlock has become too powerful as Douglas County’s sheriff and that his office is too focused on loyalty. He calls Brite’s shooting a “mishandled event” and the circumstances surrounding Parrish’s death a “botched situation.”

“Frankly, the way it was handled, if Tony Spurlock had any honor at all, he should resign,” Wareham said.

(Wareham and Spurlock had a personal relationship in the past. Stacy Spurlock worked at Wareham’s law firm. Wareham also attended the sheriff’s office reserve deputy academy, but did not complete the course. But, Wareham maintains, “this isn’t personal for me.”)

Spurlock said those who question the deputies’ actions in the Parrish shooting are wrong and fiercely defends his actions leading the sheriff’s office. Brite said that he stands by the decisions that were made the say he was shot, adding: “I, to this day, still agree with that 100%.” 

Spurlock also points out that he ran unopposed in 2018 and that if people were unhappy with the job he was doing they would have challenged him.  “I was untouched. Democrats did not run anyone against me. Republicans did not run anyone against me. Independents did not run anyone against me. No one,” he said. 

But Matt Arnold, another leader in the recall effort, points out that the first version of the red flag bill wasn’t introduced in the Colorado legislature until the final days of the 2018 lawmaking term — after when Republicans in Douglas County gathered to decide who would be on their primary ballot. 

“Tony portrayed himself as someone he was not in order to get the renomination for a second term unopposed,” Arnold said, adding that he thinks the red flag bill violates several constitutional amendments.

Lawmakers debate House Bill 1177, the red flag gun bill, in the Colorado Senate on Thursday, March 28, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Spurlock said people knew where he stood. “They knew my stance. I’m not wishy washy.”

So far, the recall effort has raised only about $11,000, with $10,000 coming from a single donor, Castle Rock-based Liberty Infrastructure LLC. Wareham and Arnold say they probably won’t submit their petition to the Douglas County clerk until the fall, a strategic move they hope will allow them to collect the roughly 34,000 valid signatures in 60 days they need to force a recall election. 

“It’s been well planned,” Arnold said. “It’s being well resourced. It’s proceeding with a strategy and not just chasing publicity.”

Right now, Spurlock says he’s not concerned about the recall effort. He said he hasn’t “raised a dime” and is focusing on managing his department. He said he’ll reevaluate if his opponents collect enough signatures and that people have already committed to financially back him should he need it.

“The people of Douglas County overwhelmingly voted me into office,” Spurlock said. “I was unopposed at 130,000-some votes. I get 10 to 1 phone calls emails and support for what I’m doing as the sheriff, not only for red flag but many other things.”

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock leaves after the memorial service for Kendrick Castillo, who was killed in the assault on the STEM Highlands Ranch School, Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Highlands Ranch. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

In the days following the STEM School shooting, the Douglas County commission voted to allocate $10 million more for improvements to school security

Spurlock said that drew a wave of vendors offering solutions to keep students safe.

It took two days with a person dedicated only to reviewing the proposals to wade through all of the offers, he said. “We were not going to turn anyone away because that might be the one program that saves the world.” 

The situation summed up how Spurlock views his role as Douglas County’s top law enforcement office: with constant anxiety about keeping his constituents safe. He wears a bracelet on his wrist that says “Never give up.”

“I think what you don’t necessarily see as vividly when he’s standing at a podium and a press conference is how much he cares about people and the emotional toll, perhaps,” said Col. Matt Packard, chief of the Colorado State Patrol and a friend and confidant to Spurlock. “That’s a man who loves what he does and loves the people that he works with and for. They come first.”

Most see Spurlock as having rolled with the punches fairly well — “He’s the guy for the job right now,” said Tim Ralph, the sheriff’s office chaplain — but the roller coaster has taken a toll. 

Spurlock said the sheriff who preceded him, Dave Weaver, told him that if he did the job right, he would be exhausted when he finished his term. Barring a recall, term limits would have him leaving office in early 2023, after which he plans to retire. 

“I’m hoping that my next three years are a sleepy, Mayberry time in office,” Spurlock said. “But I say that with a grin on my face only because I know that is not likely. I suspect at the end of my three years and how many other weeks left I’m going to be good and tired.”

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...