Thanks to 144-year-old law, coroner is top cop in rural Colo. county
"We always joked about it," said coroner Raymond Kern. "Then it happened"
By Elise Schmelzer
The Denver Post
CHEYENNE COUNTY, Colo. — The coroner is now the top law enforcement official in Cheyenne County thanks to a 144-year-old Colorado law that elevated him to the position after the sitting sheriff was arrested on a domestic violence charge then arrested again for asking his deputies to check on the alleged victim in the case.
After the recent departure of the undersheriff, two relatively new deputies were left to patrol the county's 1,800 square miles near the Kansas border, an area that's home to about 1,750 people. One deputy, who is serving as acting undersheriff, became a certified Colorado law enforcement officer in 2017 and the other deputy was certified in 2020.
Cheyenne County leaders worry about the lack of manpower since there are no other law enforcement agencies in the county, though they said the two deputies are working hard and take the job seriously. When fully staffed, the sheriff's office employs a sheriff, an undersheriff and three deputies, Cheyenne County Commissioner R.J. Jolly said.
"You need to have to law enforcement if something goes wrong, so it makes you a little nervous," Jolly said. "But we'll be fine. We're just hoping and wishing that nothing big happens."
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The county coroner, Raymond Kern, said taking on the title of the county's top law enforcement officer while Sheriff Jeffrey Miller is on administrative leave for his criminal charges hasn't changed his life much. The deputies run the show and the former undersheriff is helping out with the administrative paperwork, he said.
Kern has no law enforcement experience and, along with his duties as elected coroner, works as a truck driver and a cattle rancher.
He said he knew about the quirk in Colorado law that could make him sheriff if the sitting sheriff couldn't fulfill his duties.
"We always joked about it," Kern said. "Then it happened."
Two criminal cases
Miller was elected Cheyenne County sheriff in 2018 and previously served as undersheriff. He was arrested Sept. 24 after his wife and two neighbors called 911 to report that Miller grabbed his wife by the neck and pushed her into the side of a house.
Responding Cheyenne County deputies requested help from the neighboring Kit Karson County Sheriff's Office since the alleged crime involved their sheriff, Miller's arrest affidavit states. The neighbors and Miller's wife told investigators that Miller followed his wife to the neighbors' house in his patrol vehicle with the lights activated, the affidavit states.
Miller walked up to his wife's car, popped the hood and tried to disable the car, according to the affidavit. When his wife confronted him, Miller grabbed her by the neck and pushed her approximately 10 feet into the side of the house, the affidavit states.
Miller told investigators he was drunk and said he didn't remember whether he attacked his wife or whether he drove his patrol car after drinking.
Prosecutors with the 15th District Attorney's Office charged Miller with three misdemeanors: harassment, DUI and official misconduct. The judge signed a protection order that forbade contact between Miller and the victim or witnesses in the case and Miller was released from jail on a personal recognizance bond.
Miller was placed on paid administrative leave while the case progressed.
But 12 days later, Miller was arrested again after asking the deputies who worked for him to check if his wife was at a friend's house.
The Cheyenne County undersheriff at the time, Mike Buchanan, reported to the Kit Carson Sheriff's Office that Miller texted him and two other Cheyenne County deputies asking them to check on his wife.
"If it won't get me in trouble or you guys, could you tell me if (wife's name) is at (friend's name)?" Miller texted the group, a copy of the message included in his arrest affidavit shows.
Deputies told investigators from the Kit Carson Sheriff's Office that they had received similar requests from the sheriff multiple times prior to Miller's domestic violence arrest.
Prosecutors charged Miller with violation of a protection order, a misdemeanor, in connection to his request. He posted a $500 bond.
Neither Miller nor his attorney returned calls seeking comment for this story.
County in limbo
Miller's extended administrative leave has put Cheyenne County in a difficult position, county leaders said. Since he is an elected official, he cannot be fired and county residents must instead recall him.
Three residents started the recall process on Oct. 27, records from the Cheyenne County Clerk and Recorder's Office show. The petition states that because of Miller's charges, "we believe he is no longer able to perform his job of protecting and serving the citizens of Cheyenne County." They have 60 days to collect 25% of the total votes cast in the sheriff's race in 2018. If they are able to collect those signatures, voters will get to decide whether to keep Miller as sheriff.
The county commissioners asked him to resign, but he refused, Jolly said. County leaders are deciding on a month-to-month basis whether Miller's leave will be paid or unpaid, Commissioner Ronald Smith said.
Buchanan left his position as undersheriff after Miller's second arrest. That means Kern will fill in as sheriff for an undefined amount of time until the recall is complete or the criminal cases end.
"When there is no sheriff in any county, it is the duty of the coroner to exercise all the powers and duties of the sheriff of his county until a sheriff is appointed or elected and qualified; and when the sheriff for any cause is committed to the jail of his county, the coroner shall be keeper of such jail during the time the sheriff remains a prisoner," state law mandates. The law was enacted in 1877, one year after Colorado became a state.
Though the use of the law is rare, Kern is not the only Colorado coroner called to serve as sheriff in recent years.
Sedgwick County Coroner Howard McCormick in 2016 took over the sheriff's role when the sheriff at the time, Tom Hanna, was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman in his custody. He was later acquitted of sexual assault but convicted of official misconduct.
Other states, including Alabama and North Carolina, have similar laws.
Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, president of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, said there's no momentum to change the law since it doesn't come into play often.
"It's a quirk in the law that we rarely see, but when it's utilized it's probably for a good reason," he said. "You have to have somebody to take over the role and unfortunately this is one of those difficult situations where it comes into use."
Kern said he has not yet had to do anything as sheriff and the two deputies and former undersheriff have handled everything thus far. Sheriff's offices in neighboring counties have also offered to supply manpower if needed, Kern said.
"In a small county like this it's not too bad since I know everybody already," said Kern, who has lived in Cheyenne County his entire life.
Jolly hopes a more sustainable solution will come before winter strikes the county. One of the primary duties of the sheriff's office is to respond to crashes on the highways that run through the county's towns. In winter, storms can make the roads more dangerous, Jolly said.
"Hopefully we'll get this figured out before our first big blizzard," he said.
Even with the help from neighboring counties, the need for someone to be on call 24/7 is wearing down the two deputies left at the Cheyenne County Sheriff's Office, Jolly said.
"It's just kind of a bad deal," Jolly said. "But it is what it is. You just gotta pick up the pieces and move forward."
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