KUSA – In the midst of a high-profile murder investigation and federal lawsuit involving the death of an officer, the sheriff of Park County, Colorado has been living in Florida.
Sheriff Fred Wegener didn’t seek reelection in 2018 to keep the position he’s held for nearly 20 years. In late July 2018, Wegener sold his home in Grant, Colo. and announced the next month he was retiring on his own schedule.
But Sheriff Wegener didn’t retire. He withdrew his resignation and kept his salary. County commissioners said he rented a place in Park County and took vacation, intending to remain the active sheriff until the end of his term.
On Dec. 6, Wegener responded to an email from 9NEWS questioning his absence from Park County.
“I came down to Florida in August on vacation, as you can imagine I have quite a little bit. I am back and forth, handling the day to day issues by e-mail. Thank you for you (sic) interest.”
Wegener did not say how often he returns to Park County. Park County Undersheriff Dave Wholers told 9NEWS he believes Wegener spends about a week each month in the county before returning to Florida.
Photos on Wegener's Facebook page show the sheriff has made time for fishing. In one picture, he dons a straw hat and holds a large bass up to the camera. The caption in the picture reads, "Found where the bigger ones were!"
Wegener declined an interview with 9NEWS to address community concerns about lack of leadership and a staffing shortage in the department.
“No I’m not meeting with the media. Thank you,” Wegener responded in an email.
Undersheriff Wholers said Park County commissioners budgeted for 26 sworn officers in 2018. There are currently 16 deputies patrolling the county and ten job openings. Wholers said 11 deputies left Park County in 2018.
Sheriff Wegener was first elected Park County sheriff in 1999. He led the department through the Platte Canyon High School hostage-taking in 2006 in which 16-year-old Emily Keyes was shot and killed.
Wegener was sheriff during the shooting death of Cpl. Nate Carrigan in 2016. Carrigan's family later filed a federal civil suit against Sheriff Wegener and Capt. Mark Hancock.
Wegener was at the helm when 17-year-old Maggie Long was killed. The Platte Canyon High School senior was first reported missing after she didn’t show up for a school concert on Dec. 1, 2017. Her body was found inside her family’s home in Bailey.
The house had been set on fire. A large safe, valuables and guns were stolen. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation and FBI joined the case, but the Park County Sheriff’s Office remains the lead investigating agency, according to the FBI.
Sheriff Wegener has not held a public press conference about the Long case since February.
Park County commissioners did not respond to interview requests regarding Sheriff Wegener’s absence. 9NEWS reporter Noel Brennan and photojournalist Bryan Wendland sought answers during a Dec. 13 county commissioners meeting.
Park County attorney Erin Smith denied access to 9NEWS cameras during the public county commissioners meeting. County commissioner Mike Brazell later told 9NEWS a camera in the meeting would be “disruptive.” Smith also said cameras encourage "grandstanding."
9NEWS requested and obtained an audio recording of the meeting from Park County. The CD recording, however, did not capture the audio from the microphone used during public comment.
During public comment, 9NEWS reporter Brennan asked commissioners if it was appropriate for the sheriff to be living in Florida and working through email.
“We’re a statutory county, which means that the sheriff is a statutory position,” answered Commissioner Dick Elsner. “We as board of county commissioners have absolutely no control over the sheriff.”
Brennan asked commissioners to address community concerns about leadership, staffing and morale in the sheriff’s office.
“One, I have a problem with the citizens of Park County going through the news to talk to us,” Elsner said. “I have not received emails concerning the sheriff. We as – me personally, yes, I know we have issues.”
Elsner explained the county is constrained on what it can pay deputies and reiterated that Park County voters choose their sheriff.
“We look forward to working with the new sheriff to get a lot of these issues resolved and I’m thinking, you know, I’ve talked to him several times and he’s looking forward to working with us,” Elsner said.
In January, Tom McGraw will take over as Park County sheriff. In the meantime, the active sheriff of the county will continue to take a paycheck and cash it in Florida.
Read 9NEWS reporter Noel Brennan's exchange with Park County commissioners:
9NEWS was able to boost the volume of the audio recording provided by Park County. Brennan's questions were only audible through the commissioners' microphones.
NOEL BRENNAN: My name is Noel Brennan. I’m a reporter with 9NEWS. I respectfully understand this is not a Q&A session, and you’re not obligated to answer any of my questions, but for the sake of transparency I hope that you will. As I know you probably understand, Sheriff Wegener took vacation in August, has been going back and forth between Florida and Park County during that time and is still the active sheriff of Park County. So, I guess my question to you is, is it appropriate for the sheriff of Park County Colorado to be living in Florida and be doing most of his work through email and continue to get paid with taxpayer dollars?
COMMISSIONER DICK ELSNER: Okay, I’d like to make a comment on that. We’re a statutory county which means that the sheriff is a statutory position. We as board of county commissioners have absolutely no control over the sheriff. We can’t hire him. We can’t fire him. The people of Park County are the ones that hire and fire. It’s the case that if there was enough time, they could do a recall, but that – because his term is up in January, that remedy isn’t open to them, but it’s the people of Park County have the ultimate decision on what their sheriff does and what they can accept. We as a board of county commissioners have no control over that.
COMMISSIONER MIKE BRAZELL: The budget. We can only control the budget of that department and that also includes the clerk, treasurer, the surveyor, the assessor.
COMMISSIONER ELSNER: And as far as his salary is concerned, that is set in state law. We have no control over his salary or what he gets paid. All of that is under state law and if you know, you want to go through and read all the state law, you can figure out, okay, he’s going to be paid this much. There are no requirements as to how much time he actually spends. There is a requirement as to whether he’s a resident here or not and there have been a couple of cases that say well you know, yes, he’s renting a place here, and he’s a registered voter here, so by all standards that I know of, he is a resident of Park County.
BRENNAN: Is it not your job, though, to address the concerns of the county? Relating to the sheriff’s office? The sheriff’s office is not answering questions about such concerns. Is it not under your purview to address those?
COMMISSIONER ELSNER: Because it’s a statutory position, we have no control over what the sheriff department does.
BRENNAN: Are you involved at all in discussions with the sheriff’s office?
COMMISSIONER ELSNER: At this point, I think we’re done.
BRENNAN: I think the difficult part is there have been so many concerns expressed to us and there’s been a lack of answers from the acting sheriff. There’s concerns about lack of leadership in the department, lack of morale and lack of deputies, frankly, that are patrolling Park County. I know this is the sheriff’s department that we’re talking about, but as county commissioners, do you not have some of the same concerns?
COMMISSIONER BRAZELL January 8th, they’ll be a new sheriff sworn in and that’s in three weeks or so, and we’re looking forward to that date.
BRENNAN: But did this not begin in August?
COMMISSIONER ELSNER: One, I have a problem with the citizens of Park County going through the news to talk to us. I have not received emails concerning the sheriff. We as – me personally, yes, I know we have issues. I know just about every sheriff’s department in the state of Colorado has problems with enough deputies and it’s not because of anything the sheriff’s department is doing. I think it’s becoming a much more dangerous position that it’s difficult to recruit because counties are so constrained in their budget. You know, with Gallagher coming up and all of the issues that we have in our budget, we’re very constrained on as far as what we can pay. Yes, we are concerned. I think every one of us is concerned, but again, it’s the people of Park County who choose their sheriff. Four years ago, they chose their sheriff. This last November, they chose a new sheriff and when that new sheriff takes over, we are looking forward to working with him to try to resolve as many of these issues as we can given our budget constraints and you know, all of those – those problems that we have. We have budget constraints on everything and we look forward to working with the new sheriff to get a lot of these issues resolved and I’m thinking, you know, I’ve talked to him several times and he’s looking forward to working with us. It’s just we as a board of county commissioners do not control the sheriff’s office. That’s very clear in statute. We do not control how he works. We tell him, ‘this is your budget,’ but that’s about all we can do.
BRENNAN: Understood, and I appreciate the response. I do find it hard to believe that you haven’t heard concerns. I mean, you can find them on online forums where people in Park County are talking about such concerns. To not have anyone reach out to county commissioners about this?
COMMISSIONER BRAZELL: We realize that there’s a number of problems in that department and look forward to the new sheriff and new opportunities for change to benefit Park County as best we can.
BRENNAN: Thank you guys for your time.
COMMISSIONER BRAZELL: Thank you.