Maketa juror: Lone holdout kept ex-El Paso County sheriff from being convicted

Author: Lance Benzel, The Gazette - January 14, 2018 - Updated: January 17, 2018

El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa ducks under a microphone cord as he avoids reporter’s questions on his way to speak to the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday, June 17, 2014 at Centennial Hall. (The Gazette file photo)

If not for a lone holdout juror, former El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa would be a convicted felon.

Mary Mraz, jury forewoman in Maketa’s corruption trial that ended in a hung jury last July, said the vote to convict on at least two felonies was 11-1. Maketa is scheduled to be retried on the charges before a different jury in less than two weeks.

According to Mraz, the holdout juror seemed to have an affinity for Maketa – calling him “Terry” throughout deliberations. The woman, she said, shocked other jurors by declaring at the start of deliberations that she didn’t believe “any” of the witnesses. One of those witnesses was a Verizon employee called to the stand to introduce phone records into evidence.

“If she hadn’t been on the jury, I believe he would be in jail right now,” Mraz said.

Formerly a rising star in El Paso County Republican politics who was once floated as a candidate for higher office, Maketa is set to be retried Jan. 23, beginning with jury selection, which is likely to take more than a day. He faces four remaining charges, including two counts of extortion, both felonies. One of those counts carries a potential prison sentence of up to six years.

Mraz’s account of near-unanimity among panelists rebuts defense claims that Maketa was charged on thin evidence for what amounted to difficult administrative decisions. It also could help explain why prosecutors quickly pressed for another trial after initially saying they would need time before making a decision.

Maketa, 53, was indicted in May 2016 on charges he abused his power to settle scores with insurgent deputies and hamstring political rivals, marking a new chapter in months of intrigue surrounding his leadership. The charges alleged that he illegally disciplined or fired several deputies; threatened to terminate a $5.2 million-per-year jail health care contract unless the contractor cut ties with a political rival; and that he jailed a domestic violence victim after she lodged accusations against a personal friend of the sheriff.

After a two-week trial that began in late June, jurors deliberated for roughly five hours before announcing they had reached a deadlock on four counts representing the bulk of the case against him.

The panel agreed to acquit Maketa on three counts where opinions about his guilt were more divided, Mraz said.

Panelists were generally unable to overcome broader disagreements about the testimony of Kelli McMahan, a former jail nurse who reported that Maketa ordered her jailed after she accused one of his friends, an ex-deputy, of domestic violence. Although Mraz said she believed the woman, other panelists were struck by inconsistencies in her testimony and couldn’t be convinced that McMahan was completely truthful.

Mraz said she agreed to vote for an acquittal on the McMahan counts – both felonies alleging victim tampering – out of a sense that “something needs to be accomplished.”

The panel also disagreed on whether the firing of then-deputy Charles Kull was due to illegal retaliation or good cause and acquitted Maketa of official misconduct, a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors alleging adverse actions against two other deputies were among the unresolved counts. Kull, who won an $88,000 civil settlement from El Paso County for retaliation claims, was later reinstated at the Sheriff’s Office and serves as a lieutenant under Sheriff Bill Elder.

During a more than hourlong interview with The Gazette, Mraz described Maketa’s defense as “smoke and mirrors” and said that testimony proved the Sheriff’s Office was “a hot mess” during Maketa’s third term – troubled by infighting, politically motivated Internal Affairs investigations and friendships that soured into ugly rivalries.

How deputies focused on anything other than watching their own backs was a mystery, she said.

“It was like, ‘Do you guys have time to worry about anything else?'” Mraz said.

Nor is she convinced that infighting among deputies is no longer a concern at the Sheriff’s Office: “What if somebody comes in next term who was a Maketa fan? Then yeah I’d cover my butt and run.”

Mraz, 57, is the wife of a former Air Force Academy instructor, a former museum docent and one-time owner of a Colorado Springs yarn shop. She denied the newspaper’s requests for an interview after the mistrial, deciding along with fellow jurors to leave the courthouse without speaking to anyone, including attorneys.

A day or two later, she reversed course and tracked down the prosecutors to report how narrowly the jury was divided on much of the case, encouraging them to try again, she said.

She agreed to break her public silence this month after a follow-up request by the newspaper in December, partly to let the community know why the panel left its business unfinished, she said. Mraz could not supply the names of fellow jurors, including the woman she said blocked convictions.

A jury foreman or forewoman is tasked with keeping the discussions fruitful. The person in that position also notifies bailiffs when the jury has questions and hands up the verdict forms in open court before the judge announces them publicly.

Deliberations hit a snag almost immediately, when the lone holdout made it clear she wouldn’t consider voting guilty, Mraz said. During the trial, the holdout took few notes, and her sweeping dismissal of testimony left others stunned.

“Jaws just hit the floor,” Mraz said. “I think she was not maybe a plant, but I don’t think she was honest when she answered the questionnaire that she didn’t have an opinion coming into it.”

The panel had a diverse mix of ages and ethnicities, including a technology worker, a dental technician, an entrepreneur and an employee of an auto dealership.

Their debates occasionally grew tense, but stayed largely civil, the former forewoman said.

“Some of the jurors got very vocal with her (the holdout). She pushed back from the table and said, ‘Whoa, don’t attack me,'” Mraz said, asserting that other jurors were at pains to be polite in discussing their disagreements.

After a mistrial was declared, most headed toward their vehicles with an air of defeat, but the holdout seemed “happy and excited,” she said.

Mraz offered high marks for the special prosecutors who tried the case, Mark Hurlbert and Chris Wilcox, saying they made a thorough presentation of the facts “without being over the top.” Both are from the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, comprising Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties. The office was appointed to prosecute after El Paso County District Attorney Dan May recused his office to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Her reviews of Maketa’s team – headed by prominent Denver attorney Pamela Mackey, who famously represented former NBA player Kobe Bryan on rape allegations that were ultimately dismissed – were less complimentary.

“I felt like they did smoke and mirrors to confuse people more than anything,” Mraz said. “And they didn’t present an alternate story line for the facts.”

Prior to trial, Mraz said she knew little of Maketa or the allegations against him.

After hearing from witnesses and seeing the evidence, she said she would be troubled if he is acquitted.

“I’d be disappointed with the system,” Mraz said. “It’s not like he’s a rapist or murderer, but those aren’t the only things that impact people negatively. And it would give the signal to everybody else, that, well he got away with everything, it’s probably OK.”

Lance Benzel, The Gazette