Larimer County sheriff puts focus on transients after woman's death

Larimer County's top cop says more transients are moving to Larimer County and committing crimes.

FORT COLLINS - Larimer County's top law enforcement official took to social media at 2 a.m. Friday to lambaste Fort Collins leadership and service providers who "enable and encourage" criminality among transient people and travelers.

Sheriff Justin Smith's post came a day after Fort Collins police announced the arrest of Jeffrey Etheridge, a recently arrived transient man and convicted felon accused of sexually assaulting and killing 23-year-old Heather "Helena" Hoffmann.

Etheridge is a multi-state sex offender who is also transient.

"I assure you, it's no coincidence that our community, with a record low unemployment rate, is overrun by intentionally unemployed transients, preying on community members like Helena," Smith wrote. " ...The time for talk is over — as a community, we must demand immediate action to prevent more tragedies like the rape and murder of Helena from occurring again in our communities."

In his 876-word Facebook commentary calling on residents to "band together and demand changes in public policy," Smith stopped short of providing specifics on what he thinks needs to change to quell community unease and diminish criminal behaviors within a segment of Northern Colorado's population.

More transients are committing violent crimes, according to the statistics in Sheriff Smith's Facebook post.

Nearly one-third of the inmates in Larimer County Jail are self-identified as either homeless, transient or living in a local shelter. In 2011, it was around one-eighth of the inmate population, according to Sheriff Smith.

He also says the jail has seen a 25-50 percent increase in intake since 2014 and guards are forced to move inmates out to eastern Colorado.

Smith said this information comes through researching booking reports for the past several years.

Felony crimes within the 8th Judicial District have increased 85-90 percent over the last three years, according to the District Attorney's Office.

It's unclear what's driving transients to Larimer County but Sheriff Smith believes organizations that provide services for homeless people need a different approach.

"Don't do more of what's not working," Smith said.

Homeless Gear is a non-profit that is considered the "homeless hub" for Larimer County.

Workers have seen an increase in the transient community, according to David Rout, the executive director of Homeless Gear.

"This truly transient population of folks are coming in from different states and passing through Fort Collins," he says. "The truth is, we are extremely concerned about that issue."

Experts consider "homeless" drastically different from "transient." Officials say, transients move to a city with no intention of getting a job or staying.

Rout says the staff were quickly notified some transients were trying to take advantage of services, which is why policies were changed to limit services for transients, while homeless people could receive the full range of services.

"We were starting to see folks who would come in and request supplies and they were literally only here for a couple of days," Rout said.

Catholic Charities and the Fort Collins Rescue Mission have also noticed an influx of "new faces," or transients.

Sheriff Smith is now calling for a change to current laws. Specifically, laws that allowed last week's murder suspect to register as a transient sex offender with no legal residence.

The Fort Collins Coloradoan contributed to this report: http://noconow.co/2st93AN

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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