Pat Sullivan won, taking the secret of how he did it to his grave.
The former Arapahoe County Sheriff, who went from hero to sub-zero during a decades-long career, died at 78.
The mysterious debacle of the last years of his life came with an exclamation mark this week. He actually died on May 1, according to coroner officials. Fuzzy news about his death has floated in and out of the local zeitgeist, like Sullivan himself.
It’s just another frustration in his story. One of the things that drew me to journalism was my self-aggrandized ability to sniff out BS and turn it out in a story.
When it came to Sheriff Pat, I never even once saw a blip on my dubious radar.
I wasn’t alone. Sullivan was able to hide from nearly everyone that, besides being a consummate law enforcer, fixated on protecting the public and the peace, he was also a diabolical creep. That’s the infamy that made his May 1 death worthy of news again. It was his malevolence.
If you didn’t know or just forgot, Sullivan was a pretty famous law enforcer in the Aurora area not so very long ago. A staunch, anti-drug, rule-of-law, Republican sheriff with a heart, Sullivan rose to fame here, and across the nation.
I was just starting out my career when Sullivan made national news in 1989 driving his police car through a fence outside a house and rescuing a teenager and two deputies from a nutcase rape suspect holding them hostage.
I relived that story with Sullivan more than once in the 30 years or so I covered him. The stunt was so amazing it helped elevate him to being tabbed as the nation’s sheriff of the year in 2001.
I talked with Sullivan a lot over the years about a long list of crime and public safety problems that haven’t changed all that much in decades.
Meth and crack cocaine were big problems back then. He talked passionately and convincingly about how these drugs were public enemy number one, fueling much of the crime in the region. He was hardly a showboat, but he loved the media, and the media loved him.
As homes began to be built around the nascent Aurora Reservoir years ago, Sullivan drove me around the region, pointing out where a variety of old unexploded military ordnance had been found among the construction sites of tony houses. The region had been a training-bombing site for Lowry Air Force Base during World War II. Housing development wasn’t really the purview of the sheriff’s department, but he seemed to have his hand in just about everything.
Some of his prize possessions in his office were giant shell casings retrieved from the area.
He was a kind and rather comical character. He was a slight man who seemed as if he’d been born bald with tufts of snow-white hair on the sides of his head. He had a kind of nasal quality to his voice that made him sound like a character actor playing himself, the sheriff. His pretty mild demeanor belied his 1989 act of heroics.
He loved to talk. I rode around in a golf cart with him for hours once during World Youth Day, when Pope John Paul II came to Cherry Creek State Park in 1993. Despite the monolithic visit, Sullivan actually had a large role in security during the international event. A pretty wonky guy, he was able to detail how even the security of the Porta Pottys was crucial to the safety of the papal extravaganza.
While it was far from a clue about the sleazy and cruel life that would eventually overwhelm him, I remember touring a mock catastrophe drill with Sullivan not long before he retired. We stood in the shade of a canopy at Fitzsimons Army Post as medics bustled around treating fake burns and broken arms. He became unusually passionate and animated when talking about the need for the region to be prepared for the worst that could happen, because the worst will always happen, he said.
Even though it was years after the Columbine Massacre, I wrote it off to that and the world of policing after the 9/11 bombings.
It was a shock when he retired in 2002. Sullivan has always been there. The county jail was named after him. After he stepped down, he became a prominent part of Cherry Creek schools district, heading up security there. It was a major role after the murders at Columbine. We talked at great length about how to harden schools from Columbine-like attacks. Out of his iconic uniform, he seemed the same, “I-can-fix-this” guy he always was.
Never once, ever, did I think, “I wonder if he’s actually a meth head who gives the drug to vulnerable and messed up young guys in exchange for sex?”
I should have. He was the worst, getting himself and other men hooked on an insidious drug that he used as a leverage for date rape. He did it over and over, for years, apparently. Finally, some of his victims turned to Aurora police, who set up a video sting, busting him.
During his trial, I watched the video of his bust over and over, aghast at the casualness Sullivan had in tossing a bag of drugs to a victim, flopped on a bed as he started watching porn and struck up easy banter.
Even after being busted, he infamously failed to meet conditions of a soft-ball court plea. He was a manipulative and deceitful probationer, lying about his continued drug use, officials testified at a hearing. That’s when days in jail turned into months in prison.
I was fascinated and befuddled by how malevolent and callous he’d become, and how blindsided I’d been for years.
I’m not naive. I’ve covered an encyclopedia of stories about how shocked friends and neighbors are when a person somewhere who seemed so nice would end up doing something so heinous.
As humans, we want to believe the best about people. It’s mostly just reporters who are inclined to forensic skepticism.
There are a variety of theories about people who lead double lives. First of all, experts say it’s more common than you think. Researchers consistently report that about 25% of men and about 15% of women admit to infidelity during the course of their marriage. Sneaking out for sex with an acquaintance, however, is nothing compared to the shocking double life led by Sullivan.
One theory behind destructive double lives is that it’s a self-defeating proposition in people who feel they don’t deserve success or happiness. Another theory is that people who adopt second lives like this fall deep into antithetical behavior as some kind of weird defense mechanism, creating a contrast that satisfyingly keeps their two worlds far, far apart.
From the time Sullivan’s sordid alternative life became public, I wanted to know how and why. Part of the why was obvious. Drugs. Anyone who’s been around people using meth get it that the drug and the addiction spur lurid and irrational behavior. But why did he do it the first time? And the second time? I wondered if, after months of finally being forced off the drug while in prison, did he finally fashion any regrets?
Over the past several years, I reached out a few times, pitching him with a chance to talk and tell the world his story. He never even said no.
Somehow, I always held out hope I’d get my chance, and the Sullivan I’d known for years and talked to for hours would give up secrets that helped explain how expert his stealth was, and what part the drugs played in his charade.
I was aching to know how two vastly different people survived so long in the same body.
But he died. It’s not even clear what killed him yet.
Unless he revealed all he was and knew to someone else, who might pass it on to the rest of us, we’ll never know how he remained so opaque, at least to me. And so all of Sullivan’s life is a loss for all of us. Whatever gruesome game he was playing, I guess he won.
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