The call for shots fired near a parking lot was not an extraordinary event on a Friday night in unincorporated Adams County.
Sheriff Rick Reigenborn wanted to go anyway.
He punched the gas pedal and the engine revved on his black Chevy Tahoe.
“We’ll go over to that Pontiac call,” he said, referring to the street where he was heading. He switched on his sirens. “We’re just a few minutes away.”
The speedometer began to climb as he pulled onto Interstate 76. At the high point, it read 110 miles per hour.
And though Reigenborn occasionally paused to listen to his police radio, he never really stopped answering questions from two reporters along for the ride.
“I tried to look at things and go, ‘what can I do better, how can I test better? What am I lacking in?’” he said minutes before responding to the shots fired call. “Every day is testing day and every day you should be doing your best and performing at your peak every day.”
On this Friday night in April, the Rick Reigenborn of patrol deputy days was in his full glory. The one who always wanted to be in the action. The one with a trail of mistresses and divorces behind him and a shrine to Captain America in his office. A metro county sheriff who still responds to calls on the radio, happy to chase auto theft suspects on foot and, preferably, on camera.
But now he runs the fifth biggest sheriff’s office in the state and is facing his first re-election campaign.
His history, his seeming desire for attention and his lack of management experience when he got the job four years ago are giving his opponents plenty of fodder.
It started on his second day as sheriff in 2019, when Reigenborn handed sealed envelopes to 11 of the department’s top-level commanders. The letters put them on administrative leave and required a meeting with the sheriff before they could return to work.
Then he locked them out of the building until he could personally assess their loyalty.
The reason? They openly supported and campaigned for his opponent in the election.
Some of those experienced commanders did not keep their jobs, either by choice or through what they claim was effective termination. Then Reigenborn replaced a handful of them with officers with troubled pasts, including criminal charges, lengthy disciplinary histories, and dismissals from prior law enforcement jobs.
Now, as he faces a primary challenge for re-election, Reigenborn’s office is under investigation by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for discrepancies in record-keeping in the training division, the sheriff has brought attention to himself by live-streaming a high-speed chase and signing a deal with the controversial television program “COPS.”
Even Reigenborn admits he has made mistakes.
“Am I gonna make mistakes? Sure. Can I learn from 'em? I should. And I have,” he said. “Kind of like in a marriage there are some things that are just unforgivable. If you do these things, we just have to go our separate ways. And so maybe we can remain friends and that's hopeful, but sometimes it's like a bad divorce and people are just angry and bitter.”
Despite all of the internal upheaval, Reigenborn points to a number of successes on his watch including the completion of a mothballed DNA lab, the launch of a co-responder program and getting the Adams County commissioners to grant funding to hire another 17 patrol deputies for the growing county.
“There were a lot of things that were left a mess and had to be fixed,” he said. “I think we’ve done a lot of great things. People can sit around and talk about the past and here I am trying to tell you within a very short period of time, look at what we accomplished … We did a lot in three years.”
Colorado sheriffs are responsible for enforcing the law in unincorporated parts of their counties — anywhere not patrolled by a city police department. They also run county jails, and are responsible for getting inmates to and from court and providing safe conditions and health care for those inmates.
Measuring an agency’s performance is difficult. Multiple factors beyond a sheriff’s control can contribute to rising or falling crime rates. And some benchmarks, like vacancy rates or inmate lawsuits, are currently a challenge for most, if not all, agencies.
But not every law enforcement agency is the subject of a criminal investigation, and one of those is now hanging over Reigenborn’s office as he seeks re-election. It was launched in January by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Peace Officers Standard and Training, or POST, Board into a complaint of fraud.
Reigenborn confirmed that state investigators are looking into a complaint that his former undersheriff and director of training falsified training records.
Each year, every certified law enforcement officer in the state is required to complete at least 24 hours of continuing education courses, to keep them up-to-date on changes in law and techniques.
State officials received a complaint that former Training Division Chief Mickey Bethel logged on to an online training program on behalf of Undersheriff Tommie McLallen and completed required training hours for him.
McLallen, whose relationship with Bethel went way back in southern Colorado, told Reigenborn at the time that it was a “misunderstanding.”
The investigation has been underway for more than five months without producing charges. But Reigenborn acknowledged that even a hint of impropriety around his senior staff fulfilling their training hours is a major problem, and a personal affront, especially as he’s up for re-election.
“Completely betrayed,” Reigenborn said. “Especially because those training hours are so easy to get.”
Bethel and McLallen were reported to state investigators by a whistleblower inside the office, Reigenborn said.
The sheriff said he wished that the whistleblower, who he knows but would not name, would have come to him first. The individual is still working at the Sheriff’s Office.
“You would typically think they would come to me first to see if I would handle the situation,” Reigenborn said. “That’s the unfortunate part, I guess. He thought my friendship with those folks was stronger … but had he come to me, there wouldn’t have been any other recourse.”
Reigenborn said he asked the whistleblower if there were any reports of wrongdoing that implicated him.
“I asked him, are you implicating that I did something wrong?” Reigenborn said. “And he said, ‘No not at all, those two did.’ He told me that I’m not implicated in it.”
Reigenborn said he isn’t part of any investigation “as far as I know” and that he checked twice at the end of last year to make sure he had his required 24 hours of training to keep up his state certification.
CPR News requested copies of all the training records for Reigenborn, Bethel and McLallen. Both Reigenborn and McLallen appeared to have completed more hours of training in 2021 than is required, according to an Excel spreadsheet provided by the Flatrock Training Center. Bethel’s hours for 2021 were incomplete. Most of Bethel’s records shared in the open records request were hours completed in 2019.
CPR News was unable to verify the accuracy of the records provided.
CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina confirmed the investigation, but said she couldn’t say anything further because it is ongoing. It was first reported in January.
Turmoil in Leadership
Four years ago, Reigenborn, who had never been promoted beyond a patrol sergeant, stunned the Adams County Sheriff’s Office when he won the 2018 election, unseating the incumbent sheriff, Mike McIntosh.
Reigenborn said in a deposition in the lawsuit against him that he carefully watched which sheriff’s department employees contributed to McIntosh’s campaign. When he won, Reigenborn decided to have his newly minted undersheriff order the loyal out of the building, and take their access cards.
In short order, Reigenborn replaced the senior men with a group of hand-picked commanders who were either unqualified, had checkered pasts or have since gotten in trouble on the job in Adams County. Since 2019, he has fired some of them because he felt they either weren’t up to the task or because of the training records investigation.
- Tommie McLallen, the former undersheriff, previously worked as Pueblo County deputy and was fired. He also ran tiny police departments in Fowler and Walsenberg -- both of which have been disbanded -- before Reigenborn enlisted him to be his number two in Adams County. McLallen did not graduate from high school, but did obtain his GED. McLallen did not return calls and messages for comment on this story.
- Mickey Bethel, who Reigenborn put in charge of the Flatrock Regional Training Center, was charged with witness tampering in 2006 when he was an officer at the Pueblo Police Department. He was accused of influencing a man not to testify in court in order to keep a sex video that he made with the man and his wife from going public. Bethel was acquitted of the charges, but he lost his police department job. He landed as the chief of the troubled Rocky Ford Police Department before coming to Adams County. Bethel’s POST license is under review due to the criminal investigation and state records list him as “Retired While Under Investigation.” In an email, Bethel, 54, said, “I will not need/require that certificate any longer as I am officially and forever retired from law enforcement. The fact that my POST license status is “retired while under investigation” … is of absolutely no interest to me whatsoever at this stage of my life.”
- Mark Toth, the former head of patrol, was criminally charged, along with three others, in 2005 for assault and misconduct when he was with the Westminster Police Department. All were acquitted at trial, and all the records in the case and investigation have been sealed. Toth isn’t accused of wrongdoing at Adams County, but Reigenborn now says Toth left because, “he and I just didn’t see eye to eye in how leadership is.” Toth left the agency in May 2021. Toth declined to comment for this story.
- Chris Laws, who Reigenborn hired out of retirement to run the jail, received a summons from Thornton Police for trespassing earlier this year. Laws appears to have been involved in a minor domestic incident when he showed up at a family’s home, and initially wouldn’t leave, looking for a 20-year-old pregnant woman who lived there. Laws, 53, told police she was his friend. Reigenborn said Laws has been cleared of wrongdoing, and still runs the jail. Laws did not respond to an email or a message left with the department’s public information officer.
- Another top commander, John Bitterman, was convicted in 2020 of careless driving resulting in death after he ran through a stop sign at a rural intersection and an 85-year-old woman died. Investigators found he was logging onto his computer before impact. Bitterman is still employed in Adams County and was promoted to patrol division chief. He did not return an email seeking comment, but Reigenborn said Bitterman has excelled in his current position and helped track crime rates across the county.
Law enforcement experts said this kind of turmoil in the leadership ranks has downstream effects on the lower-ranking deputies and the organization as a whole.
“I think that it is disruptive to the agency,” said Dan Corsentino, the former sheriff of Pueblo County, who now testifies on sheriff office policy and excessive force cases. “There's a question that starts to surface about the integrity of the agency as a whole.”
The sheriff is responsible for enforcing the laws in unincorporated Adams County and, when needed, assisting investigations in the smaller municipalities within the county, like Thornton, Northglenn and Brighton. There are more than 600 people including 434 sworn deputies in the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, with a budget of almost $100 million. The sheriff also runs the jail, which in Adams County has 1,600-person capacity.
Current senior leaders, not authorized to speak on the record, say the disruptions have sparked resignations and difficulties in recruiting people to work there. Reigenborn said they have 22 open positions currently and have wrestled with finding enough people to apply for positions. Other law enforcement agencies across the state have similar struggles: There are 50 officer vacancies currently at the Aurora Police Department and 80 at Denver Police. At the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, there are 74.
“It’s a struggle,” Reigenborn said. “It’s about one person off of every shift. So it’s not horrible, horrible, but we’d like to take some of that stress off.”
CPR News reached out to a handful of deputies, sergeants and commanders currently working in Adams County and no one would go on the record to talk about what it’s like to work there. Some said they liked Reigenborn and some of his policy changes were welcome, but they didn’t want to be quoted in case he lost his re-election and they would face a new boss in the fall.
“The sheriff knows that our employees are our agency’s most valuable resource,” said Undersheriff Paul Gregory, who declined an interview about the climate there but sent an emailed statement. “He has put good people into good places who can make critical decisions and focus on employee growth.”
The county has a history of politically motivated firings that stretch back at least 30 years, according to records. Three of the last four sheriffs have been sued over political terminations with damages and settlements totaling about $2.5 million in taxpayer money since 1997.
Four of the top commanders Reigenborn pushed out in 2019 are currently suing the sheriff in federal court, claiming he fired them because they supported the former sheriff, Mike McIntosh. That lawsuit is ongoing.
One of those plaintiffs, Gene Claps, is also running against Reigenborn in this month’s Democratic primary. From his perspective, Reigenborn replaced career law enforcement officers who had deep knowledge of the county with outsiders with professional baggage.
“I have never seen anything quite like this where a person says the past administration was based on a good old boy philosophy,” Claps said. “And then you write the book on a good old boy administration.”
'The Good Old Boy Club'
Reigenborn insists that he shook up the office to get rid of the popularity contests, where merit mattered far less than relationships. Reigenborn said he had first-hand experience with the difficulty in rising through the ranks in a department he had spent decades in.
Reigenborn, 58, has lived in Adams County since his mother moved there when he was four months old. After graduating from Brighton High School in the mid-80’s, Reigenborn skipped college and apprenticed as a diesel mechanic at Cummins Diesel Power for a short time. He still loves cars and has a six-car garage at home that contains, among others, his first car from high school: a 1963 dark blue Chevy Impala.
Reigenborn thought about joining the fire department, but a friend at the Brighton Police Department, who years later was fatally gunned down on the job in a shooting at a bar, suggested he go on a ride along on patrol.
“And that was how I got hooked into law enforcement,” said Reigenborn. “It's a lot of fun.”
Soon Reigenborn was volunteering his time to work patrol, up to 30 hours a week for the Brighton Police Department. He graduated from the police academy, and became a full-time deputy for the Adams County Sheriff in 1991. He started in the jail and then shifted to patrol after a few years.
It was patrol where Reigenborn felt most comfortable, where he could be closest to the action.
Reigenborn has a shrine to Captain America in his office - a comic book hero that represents American righteousness. He has part of the Teddy Roosevelt speech “Man in the Arena” etched into his office door. “Because there is no effort without error or shortcoming,” is written in all capital letters.
Reigenborn drinks a lot of Pepsi and said he avoids alcohol because it sets a bad precedent for leadership -- he said he may have a beer if he and his wife are on vacation out of state. His nature is friendly, open and confident. He admitted that he didn’t do any Internet research into the people he brought in to take top commander positions after he was sworn in.
Reigenborn works hard, he said, on transparency -- the word is plastered all over the Adams County Sheriff’s homepage. In about eight hours of interviews for this story, Reigenborn never asked to go off the record and never showed any discomfort -- even when questions veered into his personal life.
On the job, he has tried to learn the patrol deputies’ names, there are roughly 120 of them, and is often out patrolling himself, arriving at scenes and fistbumping them.
Even from the top seat, Reigenborn is fueled by the pursuit. He relishes high speed chases -- including his own live stream of one in January where he personally chased an auto theft suspect. “Buckle up, here we go,” he says into the camera. “It was fun,” he later told a TV reporter.
But despite his love of patrol, Reigenborn always harbored ambitions for more.
He worked to meet the physical requirements of SWAT, including running the 8-minute mile, but said he was turned down when he applied because of the “good old boy club.” Reigenborn said despite meeting the qualifications, he had a hard time breaking in.
“It was a struggle, I tried three different times getting on the team. It was frustrating,” he said. “It never set well with me.”
Reigenborn said he hired an attorney and threatened to sue the sheriff if he didn’t get promoted to SWAT. He took the test for the fourth time, and then Sheriff Doug Darr let him on.
Reigenborn has a SWAT tattoo and still wears a ribbon given to first responders to the 1999 Columbine school shooting. His team helped clear the first floor and library after the shooters were dead.
He eventually moved to the North Metro Task Force, where he solely focused on narcotics investigations.
Reigenborn tried to get promoted, but he ran into problems with another supervisor who didn’t like how much time he spent on his shifts at bars.
He said he was preventing crime by patrolling bars in his district — particularly around closing time. One of his supervisors thought he was spending too much time in adult establishments. At one point, Reigenborn said, he was outright banned from going to bars on his shifts.
“He spent more time at Saturday Night Live (a strip club) and hanging out at (local bars) than he did patrolling his own district,” said Mark Mitchell, a former commander who was terminated by Reigenborn in the early days of his term. “He knew every stripper’s name, he knew every bouncer’s name … that’s why I couldn’t support the guy. I wasn’t mean about it, I just didn’t think he was qualified to be sheriff.”
But Reigenborn said he talked then-Adams Sheriff Doug Darr into his approach and got his promotion to sergeant.
“I knew that when I used to drive around the district and hang out at the bars near closing time because I knew that’s when the assaults and sex assaults would happen,” Reigenborn said. “I knew it.”
Even though Reigenborn faced the occasional foe above him, he remained ambitious. He wanted to become a top commander in the sheriff’s office.
“I really just wanted to promote to commander, and I had tested a few times and it had always seemed like it's continuously been the good old boy club,” said Reigenborn. “If you were one of the guys you could get in, if you weren't, you didn't get in”
Reigenborn would try another way to get promoted: Run for sheriff. The year was 2014.
“Reigenborn had to run for sheriff because he didn’t get promoted, that in and of itself it should tell you the mindset of this guy,” said Mitchell, the former commander who is currently suing Reigenborn in federal court. “So instead of saying wow I should go to school or I should get some training … so I can advance and promote my career, he says, no I’m going to run for sheriff so I can get promoted. That’s Rick Reigenborn.”
Darr, the then-sitting sheriff, was term-limited and Reigenborn, then a relatively low patrol sergeant, filed paperwork to run on the Democratic ticket. He would face off against Mike McIntosh, then a commander at the sheriff’s office, who was a Republican.
Reigenborn and McIntosh went to Brighton High School together, and had worked together much of their careers. But McIntosh had been promoted up the ranks, while Reigenborn remained stuck as a patrol sergeant.
McIntosh said he was mentored by Darr to someday take over the office; Darr supported McIntosh even though Darr is a Democrat and McIntosh is a Republican.
Reigenborn’s gamble didn’t pay off. He lost to McIntosh, and he said he felt any hope of advancing his career after that was dashed.
“I had to go back to work and people were making really nasty comments for me trying to promote and do better,” he said. “It was disappointing. Some of those people you thought they were your friends, they are friendly to your face. And then you lose the election and they walk behind the halls and make horrific comments behind you, calling you a loser. I’m a loser because I tried. I’m a loser because I tested and came up short.”
McIntosh said after he became sheriff in 2015 he didn’t have any plans to demote Reigenborn, ask him to retire, or terminate him.
“I never asked for that, and quite honestly, there were some folks that thought that he was a pretty good road sergeant, that he was pretty good to his troops,” McIntosh said.
Regardless, Reigenborn, at the time only 50, said he felt like he had to leave.
“I felt like it was going to be too contentious for me to stick around,” he said.
Reigenborn collected retirement and took up scuba diving. He mulled over moving out of state, but couldn’t make that work with custody of his children in the metro area. He said he felt young to be at loose ends and tried to find work elsewhere. He said he felt wounded by his loss.
He applied for a job in neighboring Arapahoe County, under then-Sheriff Dave Walcher. “Sheriff Dave Walcher made phone calls back to Adams County and that kind of ended that,” said Reigenborn. Walcher said he has no recollection of Reigenborn applying at Arapahoe County.
McIntosh said any difficulty Reigenborn had finding a job was because of his reputation. Reigenborn has been married three times. He was twice the subject of restraining orders requested by women and, McIntosh said, Reigenborn’s personal and professional lives intersected in unwelcome ways.
“He had an affair with another deputy's wife who was working at the Sheriff's office while he was married to another gal that was working at the Sheriff's office. So you can imagine what a mess that creates. So they end up getting a divorce,” said McIntosh. “He ended up having an affair with one of our dispatchers, she became pregnant, she has a child.”
Reigenborn admits to personal transgressions decades ago but said it’s unfair for his opponents to keep bringing it up.
“Did I have a relationship with a dispatcher back in 1994? I did. Do I have a child? Yep, I sure do. But that doesn’t make me a poor leader,” he said. “Again, that’s the time where you look back, how long do you hold someone to a cross? You’re talking about something from 1994. That’s a long time to hold a grudge.”
After a brief stint at a private company in Virginia, Reigenborn came back to Adams County and taught kids how to drive. He finally found a part-time detective job at the tiny Mountain View Police Department on the western border of Denver.
In January 2018, Heath Gumm, a young Adams County Sheriff’s deputy, was fatally shot during a foot pursuit in Thornton. Reigenborn said he watched media reports at the time, and was disappointed in then-Sheriff McIntosh’s lack of transparency about what happened.
Reigenborn said it was the handling of Gumm’s death that spurred him to run again.
“That was really what made that a turning point for me,” he said. “All right, I need to run again.”
McIntosh recalls a different motivation for Reigenborn. McIntosh said the two met over coffee before the 2018 election.
“He told me, he said, 'if you make me a lieutenant, I'll come back to the organization, and I will not run against you,’” McIntosh said. “And we weren't interested in that. Not that he would've never got there, but from what we had seen, he wasn't lieutenant or commander material when he left. He said 'I really don't wanna run, but I kind of need a job.”
Reigenborn denies that conversation happened.
Reigenborn’s 2018 election campaign was barebones. He reused old signs from the 2014 bid, and employed a campaign team composed of his immediate family. He talked a lot about the need for collective bargaining, and vowed to make internal policies fairer for deputies. He said he targeted and canvassed neighborhoods that didn’t turn out in large numbers in 2014.
“We looked at our last campaign and said, where did we lack? What could have been stronger?” he said. “And we started plugging holes and talked to old, old Democrats and asked how to be successful. We took their playbook. And it worked.”
Amid the Trump presidency, the political climate favored Democrats in 2018. Despite being outspent by McIntosh more than 8 to 1, Reigenborn won the rematch, and got the job he long coveted.
Those close to McIntosh braced for the worse, some began cleaning out their offices not long after election day before they even talked to Reigenborn. Others vented on social media.
“It makes me completely sick that some complete dumba– will win as sheriff with no ability only and I mean only because he has a “D” in front of his name,” wrote the department spokesman Jim Morgen on Facebook after the election.
Morgen ended up apologizing to Reigenborn, and Reigenborn said he didn’t fire Morgen according to a 2021 deposition. Morgen is currently an investigator for the Jefferson County District Attorney.
McIntosh is now running in the Republican primary for sheriff.
'The office of the sheriff is me'
On Jan. 8, 2019, Reigenborn was sworn in at the Adams County Fairgrounds in a public ceremony. Later in a back conference room Reigenborn privately swore in his new undersheriff, Tommie McLallen.
Reigenborn had met McLallen through their involvement in the Fraternal Order of Police. McLallen was a former deputy sheriff in Pueblo County. After successfully suing over an unlawful termination in Pueblo, McLallen took over as chief of police in Fowler, CO near Rocky Ford, in far southeastern Colorado. When the Fowler Police Department was disbanded McLallen became chief of the Walsenburg Police Department until it too was disbanded.
McLallen had formed a close friendship with Reigenborn, and helped on both his campaigns.
And on McLallen’s first day, Reigenborn handed him a stack of letters to deliver to command staff. Then he had the command staff escorted out of the building.
“And he said, ‘go deliver these, collect the keys, access cards…,” McLallen said under oath in a deposition related to the lawsuit.
The letters placed those senior leaders on administrative leave until they could meet with Reigenborn, who said he was going to have trouble trusting anyone “embedded” with the former sheriff.
“How can I ensure they’re going to take my mission and move forward with the direction I want to take the agency?” Reigenborn said.
It turns out, Reigenborn had been keeping tabs on who was loyal throughout his campaign. In a deposition, Reigenborn said he monitored the state campaign finance database and knew top commanders were giving significant contributions to McIntosh.
Reigenborn said the letters weren’t “termination” letters, but he wanted to meet with the staff to assess loyalty and fidelity to the office. Of the 11 senior leaders who received letters, six retired or resigned. Two of those took a severance package from Adams County and four walked away and later sued him. Some stayed in current positions.
“I didn’t fire those folks,” he said. “They could have reached out to me and said, ‘hey, you know, yeah, I supported him, but I'm going to get behind you 100 percent. They didn't reach out either, and I didn't feel that it would be appropriate for me to reach out to them, having not been sworn into office, to ask them where their loyalties lie.”
Asked later by an attorney if Reigenborn was looking for loyalty in the office of sheriff or him personally, he responded: “The office of sheriff is me.”
With a primary election underway, Reigenborn appears to actually be the underdog again — at least when it comes to money. Through June 1, his opponent, Gene Claps, has spent more than five times more than Reigenborn.
Claps is a long-time Adams County business owner. He raises animals and sells eggs and meat with his family. He started with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office in 1995 as a volunteer. He started as a full-time deputy in 1997. He was promoted through the ranks for more than three decades, working on homicides, traffic, with school resource officers and was eventually promoted to commander and then a captain in the jail. When he received the letter from Reigenborn, he was division chief of the jail.
As Reigenborn stares down the politics side, much of his office’s turmoil and internecine battles are unresolved: There is still the active criminal investigation. The lawsuit against him is still pending in federal court. And doubts about the effectiveness of his leadership continue to exist at the highest levels of the county and inside the sheriff’s office.
For Reigenborn, these battles have shaped him, even changed him, these last four years. He said, mostly, he feels more generous with forgiveness.
“I don’t think you understand all the roles and responsibilities the sheriff has until you sit at the table … It made me a better person,” he said. “People are going to make mistakes.”