After decade on job, DA leaving his post

District Attorney Pete Hautzinger is packing up his office at the Justice Center and will serve his last day as Mesa County's top prosecutor today. Hautzinger will be sworn in at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver to head up its Grand Junction branch, leaving office early. By state law, Hautzinger would be forced out of the district attorney's office under term limits in January 2017.

Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger today leaves a stack of unfinished murder cases behind him.

He also takes with him an argument for having built one of the best district attorney offices in Colorado — a claim he was making just last week while interviewing potential new hires.

"I loved this job," the 53-year-old prosecutor said this week, his office strewn with boxes packed with various wall decorations and honors.

"It's the only job I ever wanted. I don't think I'll do anything as meaningful and fulfilling as this."

His next gig starts on Monday with a ceremony in Denver. A state prosecutor for nearly three decades, Hautzinger will be sworn in at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver to head up the Grand Junction branch, leaving office early. He would have been forced out under term limits in January 2017.

Hautzinger was first elected in 2004.

The local federal prosecutor's job has been vacant the past six months, Hautzinger noted.

"I would have preferred to have finished off (accused killer Michael) Blagg myself, but they can't leave this position vacant until January 2017," he said. "At some point I have to think about me and my family in the long run."

Formerly at the top of Hautzinger's priority list was Blagg's retrial in the 2001 slaying of Jennifer Blagg, at the couple's Redlands home. The trial is scheduled over six weeks starting March 4.

Later this month, Mesa County prosecutors will take Douglas Thames to trial in the 1994 murder of Palisade's Jacie Taylor. Robert Dewey spent 18 years in prison for the crime he didn't commit and was exonerated thanks in large part to the same district attorney's office that wrongfully convicted him.

Hautzinger's office is also prosecuting Lester Jones in the death of Paige Birgfeld, the soccer mom and escort whose 2007 disappearance focused a national spotlight on Mesa County prosecutors and law enforcement.

When he was elected in November 2004, Hautzinger said he was the lone prosecutor with lead role experience in a first-degree murder case. Today, there are six such staffers, he said.

"I'm very confident I'm leaving an office full of talented, dedicated professionals who are more than capable of handling cases of this nature," Hautzinger said. "The office really is in fine condition."

Still, nearly 11 years after being elected, Hautzinger can't fully staff all of Mesa County's felony courtrooms and has long railed against funding inequities for Colorado district attorney offices. Calling the system "bass-ackwards," Hautzinger has spent time in Denver in recent years bending ears about the issue.

"The state as an entity throws tens of millions of dollars at a public defender system and then leaves it to the counties to fund local DA offices," he said. "We have fewer attorneys than the public defenders, who maybe handle 65 percent of the cases (in Mesa County).

"It doesn't make any sense. I don't think your average taxpayer thinks it makes sense."

Hautzinger's office is also notable for what it lacks. The office is unique in that it has had no investigators on staff since 2010, a casualty of budget cuts the year prior.

The impacts haven't all been negative, he argues.

"I think our lack of investigators has made the two largest agencies (Grand Junction Police Department and Mesa County Sheriff's Office) better at investigative functions," he said. "I need lawyers in the courtroom more than I need investigators outside of it."

Hautzinger, unlike some Front Range colleagues, also functions without the filter of a public relations spokesperson. The son of late Colorado journalism legend Sue O'Brien, the longtime opinion page editor of The Denver Post, Hautzinger said he's at ease personally handling media queries.

Three of Hautzinger's deputies have been named prosecutors of the year by the Colorado District Attorney's Council.

One of two Colorado prosecutors who served on the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, Hautzinger also was appointed to a Discovery Task Force established by the legislature to come up with better methods for providing police reports to defense attorneys.

Hautzinger also played a role in Mesa County's selection as one of three seed sites nationally for implementation of the National Institute of Corrections' Evidence-Based Decision Making project, aimed at injecting best practices into the criminal justice process.

The office in 2007 pushed for the opening of the Summit View Treatment Center, Colorado's first lockdown facility for treatment of methamphetamine addiction, which was built in response to waves of meth violence in the Grand Valley.

Seven years later, in 2014, the office prosecuted 364 meth-related cases, 28 for heroin, 23 involving cocaine and 23 for marijuana.

"I'm certainly not standing on a hillside declaring victory over methamphetamine," Hautzinger said. "But I think we've made a ton of progress."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein, who will be sworn today as Hautzinger's successor, said Mesa County office policies prior to Hautzinger often required a deputy prosecutor to pursue a habitual criminal prison sentence of nine years or longer for cases involving simple meth use.

The result: Addicts sent to prison, but receiving no treatment and returning to commit more crimes.

"There used to be much more of a focus on the charged offense, rather than solving the underlying problem," Rubinstein said. "It was a bold move for Hautzinger to recognize that public safety is compromised if you don't address what is driving the criminal behavior."

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