DA takes federal prosecutor job
Governor to fill vacancy anticipated after departure of Hautzinger
District Attorney Pete Hautzinger will leave office later this year — the third year of his final term — to head up the Grand Junction branch of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, The Daily Sentinel has learned.
Hautzinger, along with a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, confirmed that a non-binding offer was made last week, and accepted, for Mesa County’s top prosecutor to lead federal criminal prosecutions in Grand Junction, potentially by this fall.
The offer is contingent upon Hautzinger passing an FBI background check, a process of six to eight weeks or longer.
With a binding job offer in hand, Hautzinger said he will give his resignation to Gov. John Hickenlooper potentially sometime in August. The governor will be tasked with picking a successor to finish Hautzinger’s third and final term, which expires January 2017.
Elected first by Mesa County voters in November 2004, Hautzinger can’t run again because of term limits. He said he will stay until Hickenlooper appoints a successor.
“It’s bittersweet, but the chance to stay in prosecution, and in Grand Junction, is something I can’t pass up,” Hautzinger, 53, said of leaving office early. “It’s something I need to do for me and my family.”
“I’d be surprised if we didn’t have a new DA by the end of October,” he added.
Voters will select their new district attorney in the November 2016 general election.
John Walsh, U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, formally offered Hautzinger the position last Thursday. Hautzinger said he was in negotiations for several weeks after being approached by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver.
“Pete is a prosecutor’s prosecutor and has demonstrated that he thoroughly understands and represents the Western Slope,” Walsh said in a prepared statement. “We in the U.S. Attorney’s Office feel like we’ve won the lottery; we are thrilled to have Pete coming on board to continue his powerful record of public service, and to help ensure that federal law enforcement on the Western Slope is strong, effective and responsive to the needs of the community.”
Grand Junction is currently without a designated federal prosecutor. Lawyers in Durango and Denver have been covering criminal court dockets in Grand Junction since the April departure of Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmyer, who quit to teach at a law enforcement training center in New Mexico.
Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver, said Hautzinger will have the title of branch chief in Grand Junction, including independent authority to open federal criminal investigations and decide which cases go before a Grand Junction-based federal grand jury.
“The chief judge has made a commitment to have an enhanced (federal) presence here,” Hautzinger said. “I hope before long a U.S. district judge will be based in Grand Junction, which I think is merited by our population base and geographical situation.”
In March, the clerk of the court for the United States District of Colorado announced a new “Western Slope protocol” for criminal cases originating in Grand Junction and Durango, meaning more cases of regional interest will be staying in western Colorado.
In many past federal cases of interest, western Colorado residents have been forced to make the trip to Denver for pretrial hearings or jury trials.
Hautzinger, meanwhile, apparently accepted his new position three days after 52-year-old Michael Blagg was scheduled to stand trial a second time for the 2001 murder of his wife, Jennifer. The trial was scheduled over six weeks starting in April 2016. Hautzinger is personally leading the Blagg prosecution, assisted by Chief Deputy District Attorney Trish Mahre. Blagg’s looming retrial, labeled last week by a judge as a “600-pound gorilla” in its scope, was the source of some hesitation in taking the job, Hautzinger said.
“My first answer frankly was, ‘Yeah, I’d be interested but not until I’m done with Michael Blagg,’” he said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Hand will be stepping into Hautzinger’s role in the case.
“I’m very comfortable I’ve built up a team of people who know how to handle first-degree murder cases and I’m very confident they’ll handle this case, and others, with excellence,” Hautzinger said.
Hautzinger said he knows one likely in-house applicant for the short-term district attorney vacancy: Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein.
“Until there is a vacancy to fill I intend to keep my focus, as well as the rest of the office’s focus, on the many complex cases going through our office right now,” Rubinstein said.
The process of filling Hautzinger’s vacancy wasn’t clear Tuesday. In selecting a replacement last fall for Weld County district attorney after Ken Buck’s election to Congress, the governor’s staff accepted applications before conducting two rounds of interviews with representatives of Hickenlooper’s Office of Legal Counsel and the Department of Public Safety.
Hickenlooper reportedly sat in on the second round of interviews before making a selection.