No time behind bars for five implicated in historic jail theft
A year after a historic jail cell was stolen from the Gold Hill Mesa development and cut up for scrap metal, all five suspects in the theft have been convicted and sentenced.
Ironically, none of them will wind up going to jail themselves. Still, three of them must pay restitution and, according to Detective Dennis Mallett of the Colorado Springs Police Department, the police investigation helped solve several other theft cases.
But that good news only relieves some of the aggravation - and none of the cost - for Bob Willard, leader of the Gold Hill Mesa ownership group. The theft ended plans to use the rare cell as part of a permanent local-history display on site, and the way the courts' victim restitution worked out, his insurance company will get all $8,000 of the court-determined value. Gold Hill itself will only net $3,000 because its insurance policy had a $5,000 deductible.
After the theft, Willard told the Westside Pioneer he had worked with police and urged them to “go for it; I want them [the perpetrators] in jail.” But in a complicated legal web, where all the thieves had been in trouble with the law before and entered plea bargains in exchange for varying degrees of court cooperation, Willard did not get his wish.
The jail cell dates back more than 40 years on the Westside, when it came into the hands of the late Clarion Chambon, who had started Surplus City after World War II. The unit passed on to Dave Lippincott when he bought the business from the Chambon family in 1985. In an interview with the Westside Pioneer in 2005, Lippincott described the cell as a “Pauly Jail” from St. Louis, Mo. It was believed to have been made around 1890 and used at either the old county jail or courthouse downtown. Weighing be-tween 4 and 5 tons, it had a working door, with two metal beds, one above the other, and cut-outs in the walls where a sink and toilet used to be.
Not long before he closed Surplus City in 2006, Lippincott sold the jail to Willard and Gold Hill Mesa. Willard's $8,000 insurance policy was based on his purchase price, but he also had the unit appraised, and was told it was one of only two in the world and its true worth was as much as $30,000.
Plans called for the cell to be part of a public plaza and local-history display that Willard envisioned near the tall smokestack that reflects the property's own rich past as a mill for Cripple Creek gold. In preparation for that, Willard had the cell moved there. Currently, however, the smokestack is in a fairly deserted part of the 210-acre property, off an informal dirt road, well away from Gold Hill Mesa's homes and dedicated right-of-ways.
So it was on March 25 of last year that, according to Police Detective Mallet, Jessica Ramsey and Kenneth Hanowell drove into Gold Hill and approached the jail with cutting equipment.
Both already were in the legal system for incidents involving stolen items and Ramsey is known as a “big-time scrapper,” Mallett said. But with the jail cell, Ramsey would initially attempt to wriggle off the hook by telling police she “found it abandoned in a field,” the detective said. “What she didn't say was that she didn't own the field.” He added, “What makes us laugh is saying she found it. We hear that in every case.”
But Mallett had to admit that police were lucky to catch the thieves. For one thing, Willard was away at the time, not to return for another week, and with the jail's out-of-the-way location, no one who worked at the development realized that anything illegal was going on. Ramsey even told a TV reporter shortly afterward that she was helped in the loading process by an unwitting Gold Hill Mesa employee.
The theft had its own internal strife. Two other metal scrappers, Joshua Vaughan and Charles McNew, both on probation at the time (Vaughan for stealing copper from the former Express Inn and McNew for stealing wire from city street lights), came across the jail. By then it had been partially cut up by the team of Ramsey, Hanowell and Darrell Perry. McNew and Vaughan wanted in on the project, but “Ramsey told them it was her deal,” Mallett said, so they agreed just to take money from her for the cost of the gas to drive the last fourth of the jail to a local metal scrapping yard.
It wasn't until April 1, 2012, that Willard returned. When he discovered the jail was gone, he immediately reported the theft, he said.
And that's when police caught their break. “We go to the scrap yards two to three times a week,” Mallett said. “We were at [a local scrap yard] and we mentioned that someone stole a jail. The person there remembered Jessica Ramsey and that she had been there with a jail. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.”
Adding to the good fortune were the auto-photos that the scrap yard takes of customer vehicles that clearly identified the truck with the jail and its license plate.
But police were unable to save the historic piece itself. “I was called in to confirm it was part of our jail (I had pictures to prove it),” Willard said. “It was not held as evidence because the metals are cycled almost daily. So by the time the confirmation was made, the metal had been moved out of town for processing. The detective told me that scrap metal goes out every 24 hours and is usually melted down right away. By the time I identified the jail it was probably an iron ingot.”
Based on information he's received, Willard said the value the thieves got out of the jail was $730.
Asked what would lead people to work so hard and risk jail for such a comparatively small amount of money, Mallett suggested that in general a desire to obtain drugs can be the main incentive in illegal scrapping activities.
For those who may wonder why scrap yards might not have second thoughts about accepting, for example, an old jail or even wire from a street light, the detective said that there is not a lot yards can do if an item is not known to be stolen. “The problem is, people don't report it,” Mallett said. “Contractors think it's the cost of doing business.” But the damage can add up. In one recent theft case, he said police found over a ton of new copper pipe and brass fittings.
One bright side from the jail heist was that police got tips from the investigation that helped them find other thieves and recover stolen property within a roughly half-mile circle around a house where criminals were living on Conejos Street (just east of I-25).
“We learned about all these guys, where they were staying and what they were doing,” Mallett said. Theft victims included the Toyota dealership in Motor City, the Van Briggle business on South Tejon Street and some “mini-scrap yards” on Las Vegas Street. When thieves like that “find an easy mark,” he continued, “they're going to hit it till there's nothing left to take.”
As one of those who's been “hit,” Willard's personal disappointment is magnified by taking a financial loss, despite having helped police solve the case. He said he will talk to his insurance company about possibly getting his deductible back. If not, “I'm paying twice,” he pointed out (the deductible plus losing the jail he'd paid for).
At the same time, Willard said he was glad to hear that other cases had been solved as a result, and asserted that if he had it to do over, he would work with police again. “Every citizen has a responsibility to do what he can, because this kind of thing can hurt a lot of people,” he said.
Below are the sentences that the five arrested in the jail cell theft eventually received in District Court.
(Note: According to Shelly LaGrill, an executive assistant in the District Attorney's Office, the court-ordered restitution amounts for Ramsey, McNew and Vaughan are not exclusive of each other, but mean that each must help pay the insurance-listed value of the jail, which was set at $8,000, plus interest, totaling $8167.02. In their plea-bargains/sentences, Ramsey and Vaughan were each ordered to pay actually more than that, reflecting restitution for additional cases involving theft and/or burglary in which they were implicated.)
Westside Pioneer article