Police didn't expect violence at Colo. eviction despite man's past
The officers who followed him into his mountain house were more concerned he would run away than turn his rifle on them
BAILEY, Colo. — Authorities brought numbers this time in case of trouble, but they never expected a long-delayed eviction would turn into a deadly shootout with a Colorado man who peacefully refused to leave his foreclosed home two years earlier.
Martin Wirth was acquitted of killing a man over a chess game more than 20 years ago, and he had recently threatened police.
But the officers who followed him into his mountain house were more concerned he would run away than turn his rifle on them. When the smoke cleared, three deputies had been shot, one fatally, and Wirth was dead.
"We did not force a violent confrontation yesterday," Sheriff Fred Wegener said Thursday. "Mr. Wirth did."
Wirth, 58, was a political activist whose life was pocked with violent outbursts and run-ins with the law that culminated in Wednesday's bloodshed.
The shootout shocked the community of Bailey, where the slain deputy, Cpl. Nate Carrigan, was a familiar face. It also stunned some of Wirth's friends, who recalled him as a well-intentioned activist worn down by years of fighting for his home.
"He definitely had an angry streak," said fellow activist Chris Mandel, who shot a video of Wirth posted on the website of the Colorado Foreclosure Resistance Coalition, an organization aligned with the Occupy Denver movement. "He was very idealistic. He really hated the injustice of the world."
In the video, Wirth said he refused to pay his mortgage because he claimed lenders were criminals who defrauded homeowners. The government-controlled mortgage company Fannie Mae took ownership of his home in 2014.
It was unclear why Wirth was allowed to remain for two more years. Wegener said a previous attempt to evict Wirth in 2014 ended peacefully after he talked to the sheriff's office. Deputies finally posted the eviction notice on his door Feb. 16, the sheriff said.
Eight officers returned Wednesday, instructed to remove Wirth and his belongings.
The sheriff said they were aware of Wirth's prior confrontations with law enforcement, including his January arrest for eluding a police officer, obstructing a law enforcement animal and driving without insurance and a license. Wirth told an insurance agent "I should just get my gun and shoot the first cop I see!" after he was denied insurance due to a traffic ticket, according to a police report.
Later, Park County deputies tackled him in the driveway of his home when he ignored their commands. Wirth denied making the threat and told deputies he did not own a gun, the report said.
He also was acquitted of second-degree murder in 1994 after fatally shooting his 24-year-old neighbor during an argument over a chess game.
Wirth testified that the man provoked him and lunged for his revolver before he shot him twice in the chest in Fort Collins, The Coloradoan newspaper reported.
He wrote disparagingly of the government and police in seething posts on his Facebook page.
"He was a person who was constantly saying the government was out to get him. Nothing was his fault, it was always someone else's," said Dan Spykstra, who got a protection order against Wirth in 2005 after he made violent threats at a court-ordered drug and alcohol counseling program.
Spykstra, who was running the program at the time, said he confronted Wirth after Wirth went off on an employee. Wirth threatened to put a bomb in Spykstra's mailbox and said, "I have you in my crosshairs," according to Spykstra.
"I did not think they were jokes," Spykstra said.
Wirth extended his activism to a state Senate campaign in 2014 as a Green Party candidate. He lost.
If Wirth had an aggressive side, Andrea Merida said she never saw it. He had been stressed in recent weeks about the possibility of eviction, but he "never took it out on people," the co-chair of the Green Party of Colorado said.
Many people in the rural neighborhood where Wirth lived keep guns to fend off wildlife, which is probably why he had one, she said.
Merida said Wirth would often let homeless people stay in his house when they had nowhere else to go.
Another friend, Tim Holland, who knew Wirth through their work with the Occupy movement, called him "a sweet man, a Bernie Sanders-eqsue populist with a gun who was willing to die for what he believed."
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press