by Beth Groundwater
The first two books in my RM Outdoor Adventures mystery series, Deadly Currents and Wicked Eddies (both shown above), take place in rural Chaffee County, situated in the upper Arkansas River valley in central Colorado.
The county has about 17,000 residents in the winter. Most of them live in the small city of Salida, where my whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner lives, and in the two towns of Buena Vista to the north and Poncha Springs to the west, at the base of the Monarch Mountain ski area, where Mandy works as a ski patroller in the winter. The Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) headquarters building, where Mandy works spring through fall, is in downtown Salida, one block from the river.
The county population doubles in the summer when tourists and part-timers flood in. They scamper around the county, engaging in whitewater rafting, mountain biking, hiking, climbing, fly fishing, off-roading, birding, horseback riding, antiquing and all the other warm weather activities the valley offers.
One fourth of Colorado’s 54 “fourteeners”, mountain peaks measuring over 14,000 feet in altitude, are located in the Chaffee County. One of those, Mt. Shavano appears on the patch of the Chaffee County Sheriff’s office (in the photo below). The patch shows the “Angel of Shavano,” an angel-shaped area of snow that appears on Mt. Shavano each June as snows melt (see second photo).
To learn how the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office operates, I interviewed Undersheriff Keith Pinkston, who is their lead detective. He is in charge of two other detectives in their small Investigations Division. He educated me on how their procedures differ from those I learned in El Paso County Sheriff’s Citizen’s Academy, where I used to live. Because the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office has only three detectives, patrol officers conduct their own investigations of crimes, except when the crimes are major, such as murder.
Chaffee County averages about one murder case a year, though the detectives need to investigate many more unintended deaths, fatal accidents, and suicides to rule out murder. Their (imaginary) murder rate has soared with the releases of Deadly Currents and Wicked Eddies!
Since the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office is small, they request outside help for many of the tasks associated with a murder investigation, and they are adept at coordinating with outsiders. They rely on the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to process much of the forensic evidence they collect at crime scenes. They may call in the investigator from the District Attorney’s Office to help. And, they may request officers from the Colorado State Patrol to work with their detectives to solve major cases.
While the county has an elected coroner, he is not a forensic pathologist. So, if an autopsy is needed, the body is sent outside the county to the Pueblo County Coroner’s Office located in the city of Pueblo, Colorado. This is what happens to the body of Tom King, the person Mandy Tanner pulls out of the Arkansas River in Deadly Currents, who dies on the river bank.
Keith Pinkston also explained how the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office works with river rangers like Mandy who discover dead bodies in or alongside the Arkansas River, or who pull people out of the river who later die. While the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for investigating deaths, the river ranger(s) who are the “first responders” are a part of the investigative team. The river rangers’ primary responsibility is extracting the body from the river, but they also share information with the detectives about what they found, and they may testify in court.
Mandy Tanner has a personal stake in the murder cases she becomes involved in the two books because they affect people she is very close to. Therefore, she gets tangled up in the investigations much more than river rangers usually do. Victor Quintana, the detective assigned to both cases (and Keith Pinkston's fictional counterpart), is willing to share information with her, because in Chaffee County, as in many rural counties, all of the law enforcement and fire/rescue personnel work and train together on search and rescue teams and become a close-knit community.
The vehicles the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office use are 4-wheel drive Ford Broncos (for frequent snowy or muddy road conditions) and Crown Victoria patrol cars. Every vehicle contains a rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun with lethal ammunition, and another one with non-lethal ammunition, all stored in brackets. Each deputy has their own patrol car.
Like many rural Sheriff’s Offices, Chaffee County’s constantly could use more funding. Only some of the deputies have Kevlar helmets and vests. And, the deputies are responsible for supplying their own sidearm, so there’s quite a variety. They also carry shoulder radios, handcuffs, pepper spray, and either an ASP tactical baton or a TASER.
The Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office may be small, and on a tight budget, but the deputies I met there had a friendly, professional attitude and took their assignments seriously. They were also very willing to help this mystery author with her research. What interactions have you had with your local sheriff's office or police department? What is your impression of them? If you'd like to learn more, you should see if they offer a citizen's academy like the one I attended in El Paso County.