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2 holdouts’ doubts about accuser spared Maketa felony conviction at second trial, juror says

Author: Lance Benzel, The Gazette - March 4, 2018 - Updated: March 14, 2018

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Former El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa ducked a felony extortion conviction last month because two jurors thought his accuser was too “aggressive” at work and deserved to lose her job.

Both holdouts were men who believed that Wendy Habert — a jail health care contractor whose brash management style and salty language drew a withering focus from Maketa’s defense team — made enough waves in the workplace that Maketa was justified in pushing for her to be fired.

“Her personality — that’s what it was,” said juror Maria Williams of Black Forest. “Maybe they had experiences with difficult women.”

Williams detailed the jury’s 10-2 split in favor of conviction a day after charges were dismissed against the former lawman, underscoring how closely he came to being a felon at back-to-back mistrials. The forewoman at his first mistrial, which ended in July, said a lone holdout juror — in that case a woman — was all that stood between Maketa and guilty verdicts.

“If she hadn’t been on the jury, I believe he would be in jail right now,” forewoman Mary Mraz told The Gazette in January.

Maketa was indicted in May 2016 alongside two deputies in a wide-ranging corruption case alleging that they colluded to punish Maketa’s personal enemies and political rivals — firing Habert, jailing a different woman and pursuing career-ending sanctions against three deputies. Cases against former Undersheriff Presley and former Cmdr. Juan “John” San Agustin were later dismissed.

A judge signed an order dismissing the case Monday, closing the book on the nearly two-year long prosecution without a single conviction. Together, the two juries acquitted Maketa of two felonies and three misdemeanors, and prosecutors dismissed two felony counts against Maketa before his first trial.

Wendy Habert’s 2014 termination by the jail’s for-profit medical services provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., was the basis for the most serious counts Maketa faced at a retrial that ended last month. Gazette file photo. 

Habert’s 2014 termination by the jail’s for-profit medical services provider, Correctional Healthcare Companies Inc., was the basis for the most serious counts Maketa faced at a retrial that ended last month – felonies alleging extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion, punishable by up to six years in prison.

Prosecutors said Maketa broke the law when he threatened to yank the company’s $5 million per year contract unless it sacked Habert for what they called an illegal reason – her refusal to assist Presley, a close Maketa ally, campaign to succeed him as sheriff.

The firing marked a dramatic about-face in relations between Habert and Maketa. The one-time sheriff’s deputy managed all three of his successful campaigns for sheriff, and she routinely touted her close ties to the sheriff before she fell from his favor, witnesses said. Habert later won a civil settlement related to the termination and now works for Correct Care Solutions, which acquired CHC.

Williams, 52, a former lobbyist with a Washington, D.C., law firm, said the jury was split 6-6 on its first vote, with all five men and one woman initially voting “not guilty” on all counts.

During the course of 11 hours of deliberations split over two days, all but two of the “no” votes switched sides as the jury examined the timeline of Habert’s firing and took a closer look at witness testimony and evidence, Williams said. Ultimately, 10 members of the panel concluded that Habert’s refusal to work with Presley led her to falling out with Maketa.

They were unable to convince the holdouts, however.

“People like me and others explained that aggressive personalities are often found in political campaigns, in law firms and in sales and marketing,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, that type of personality is an extreme asset.”

The seven women on the panel “were more aggressive than men as far as wanting a conviction,” she added.

The panel unanimously agreed to acquit Maketa of misdemeanor counts of official misconduct because they weren’t convinced that he intetionally tried to punish two former deputies when his office moved for sanctions against them for apparent misconduct.

Williams gave high marks to attorneys on both sides. Maketa’s defense team was led by Pamela Mackey, a high-profile Denver defense attorney, but 18th Judicial District special prosecutors Mark Hurlbert and Chris Wilcox were hardly “outshined,” she said.

“I thought both of the gentlemen from the prosecution did an excellent job of laying out the facts and presenting a complete case for the jury,” Williams said.

Williams mentioned one caveat in her praise of prosecutors, saying they could have been more thorough in specifying the limits of a sheriff’s power. The notion that the “buck stops with the sheriff” – and that Maketa was free to fire whomever he pleased – was a factor for the holdouts, she said.

“We didn’t have a clear-cut understanding of the authority that a sheriff has,” she said.

Special prosecutors were appointed after 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May recused his office, citing the potential for conflicts.

Despite reaching the conclusion that Maketa was guilty, Williams said she supported the decision to drop the case against Maketa, especially after acquittals by both panels had narrowed the case to a single issue – whether Habert’s termination was warranted. “There’s always going to be that one person who believes the Wendy Habert was a difficult enough employee to instill reasonable doubt,” she said.

In comments echoing those of the forewoman at Maketa’s first trial, Williams said her jury was stunned by the level of dysfunction at the Sheriff’s Office under Maketa. She blamed Maketa for creating “the most toxic environment we had ever heard about.”

“I think that enough evidence was presented during the trial that convinces me that Terry Maketa needs to find a different line of work,” Williams said. “Public service is not a good fit.”

Mackey didn’t respond to a voicemail left with her office requesting comment; Habert also couldn’t be reached.

Lance Benzel, The Gazette

Lance Benzel, The Gazette