By Owen Woods |

ROBERT Willett is ready to hit the ground running.

After months of battling through his own legal fight, Willett will now face Anne Kelly in the 12th Judicial District Attorney’s race in his bid to regain the office.

“You know, I just felt the calling to go back and do some of those homicides that are still pending and are cases I worked up and charged. I think I have an obligation to go back and serve and just carry on the tradition, rebuild the office.” 

– Robert Willett

HHE returned to his job in the 4th Judicial District and thought he would stake out the 2024 district attorney’s race, but then something else happened.

“You know, my wife and I hadn’t gone to church in a couple of months, we were just busy doing other things. And so we decided to go to church that Sunday (following the case against him being dismissed) and it was a kind of a sermon that really kind of aligned with what was going on in my life at the time.

“And I got back to the house, and on my phone there was a voice message from Morgan Carroll, the state Democratic Party chair, and she said, ‘I want you to run for DA.’”

After some soul searching and talking with his wife, he decided, “You know, I think I’m going to do it. And I think I need to do it.”

So he entered the race and will face Anne Kelly in November for what will be the remaining two years of Payne’s original four-year term. The DA’s office will then cycle to its normal election year in 2024.

“You know, I just felt the calling to go back and do some of those homicides that are still pending and are cases I worked up and charged. I think I have an obligation to go back and serve and just carry on the tradition, rebuild the office.” 

If elected, he said the experience he’s earned working in the larger El Paso and Teller counties of the 4th Judicial District will help him. 

“One of the things that I think we really need to do down there is get our computerized systems up and really working effectively,” he said.

The 4th Judicial DA’s efficiency for hiring support staff is also something the Valley could benefit from, he said.

But the real experience he has been gaining has been in the type of cases the 4th Judicial District sees compared to the six counties in the San Luis Valley. 

“They have a lot more experience with very serious pattern type crimes – pattern aggravated robberies, sexual assault type crimes. I plan on bringing that experience back to the Valley.”

He said he participated in seven trials last year, and four were sexual assault cases. “I have a lot of experience in that. I just think I have a lot of experience with serious crime and dealing with victims in an effective, compassionate and empathetic way to get just results.”

There are three issues that will need the most time and attention, he said. Those are the office budget, recruitment, and the backlog of cases.

Already he has recruited two attorneys to join him if he’s elected. But, he said, he wants to make sure that he addresses funding by having one-on-one conversations with county commissioners to ensure that whatever was cut, can be restored. 

One thing he’d like to see is the DA’s satellite office in Del Norte operational again. Bringing attention to the north side of the Valley is a priority, he said.

“I think those people deserve attention, just like you know, people in Alamosa, Conejos, and Costilla. I think it’s a big enough area with enough going on, we need to have that satellite office running. So I’m gonna have to look into restoring that,” Willett said.

“I think having to rebuild bridges with law enforcement and community groups, there’s gonna be a rebuilding process, I think for the first at least six months and probably that first year.”

A top priority is addressing the backlog of around 300 cases, which current DA Anne Kelly said will take about a year. He said one of the attorneys planning to join him if elected will be in charge of triaging those cases. 

“People lose interest, people get disgruntled because of the way they were treated, may not want to cooperate. We have to reach out and try to rebuild those relationships as well,” he said. “But really, it’s going to be her job to kind of go through that and just get what we can out of it and get those things charged. 

“In addition, we’ve got cases coming in all the time. So it’s going to be juggling chainsaws, essentially trying to get all that done.”

Addressing drugs and drug crime in the Valley is also on Willett’s radar. He doesn’t believe drug users deserve prison and that diversion programs for low-level offenders are effective. A treatment center, he said, is a better option for the Valley to have to combat its drugs. 

“No one wants to put drug users in prison. I don’t think we want to put low level offenders in prison or things like that,” Willett said. “I think we want to get them under supervision, so we can get them some help.”

Drug dealers are a whole different story, he said. Addressing drug dealers requires “just good old-fashioned, shoe-leather police work.” Looking at habitual and aggravated offenders and determining what can be done about them requires more than just a generalized view, he said.

“You know, and the thing about the law is, there’s every tool in the toolbox right now to do what you need to do. It’s just whether the prosecutor in that particular jurisdiction is going to use that tool. And you know, a hammer is not the tool for everybody.”

Some people you can work with, he said, and some people are hardened criminals. Whether the offenders need community corrections or intensive probation with jail time needs to be looked at without a template, he noted.

A prosecutor can’t just go “‘Well, this guy committed this crime, that’s what he’s gonna get.’ You have to treat people somewhat similarly. But you also have to look at their backgrounds, egregious lists of that particular crime,” said Willett.

His opponent, Anne Kelly, noted that the creation of a drug task force could be an effective and efficient way to address the drug supply and drug suppliers in the Valley.

Willett worked in the West Metro Drug Task Force in Denver-metro. “You know, drug task forces have their purposes. But I think sometimes you have to be really careful because there are some things that can happen if that gets out of control. I’m not saying I would not want to see something, you know, along the lines of a task force, but I’d have to look at these specific plans.”

He’s in favor of sending officers to specialized training and having people trained to operate in those environments, but he said, “direct task forces have to be run properly, you can’t just let them get out of hand.” 

Willett too wants to open the doors of the DA’s office to not only law enforcement, but to the public. Having an open door to law enforcement is “just part of the job.” Part of that transparency involved calls at 3 a.m. “from law enforcement officers asking questions, and I’ve never told them not to do that.” 

Part of that, too, he noted, was an on-call system where he would get called out to crime scenes and serious criminal incidents at all hours of the day. 

He hasn’t yet had the time to talk with law enforcement leaders in the Valley to hear from them and their worries. The important part, he said, is to make sure they all get back on “the same sheet of music.” 

He said he’s had his eyes opened during his time in and out of court. Speaking about anecdotes of crooked politicians in the south, he never imagined something “like that would happen in Colorado.” He considers Colorado a politically clean run state. 

As he’s thought about his own case, he said a conviction integrity process to ensure there are no wrongful convictions could be a good idea for the 12th Judicial District. He said larger DA offices have a process to evaluate potentially wrongful convictions. 

A wrongful conviction doesn’t happen often, but a process to ensure there are no wrongful convictions is an idea he wants to consider because there “are people (convicted) who are innocent.”   

“And again, I don’t think that happens in Colorado a lot,” he said. “But it happened to me. So who’s to say it hasn’t happened elsewhere?”

How does Willett’s prior experience in the 12th Judicial give him an edge over his competition? 

“I think Ms. Kelly’s probably qualified, you know, on paper, but I know the people down there, I’ve done a felony jury trial in every county in that jurisdiction, and I think I’m the only prosecutor, to my knowledge, that can say that. I even did a felony trial in Mineral County a couple years ago, I mean, you hardly ever have those go.” 

Citing the unique differences that make up each county, Willett said knowing how all those play into the work of a district attorney “gives an advantage to somebody who’s on the home team and knows that situation, and knows how to handle that and address that.

“And, you know, it’s just a matter of essentially putting in the time, and Ms. Kelly hasn’t done that. She hasn’t been there but maybe a month or so. And so you know, again, I’m not slamming her but she just simply couldn’t have developed that wealth of experience that I have.”

He has a home on 14 acres, close friends and colleagues, and a history in the San Luis Valley. All of those things make it a special place for him, he said. 

“It’s kind of an indefinable thing, I think, in a lot of ways,” he said. “I think a lot of people come there, and just kind of fall in love with the place.”

He’d like to serve the Valley he calls home as district attorney once again.