Nathan Baird smiles and then a laugh jumps from his lips. He was talking earlier this week about our current district attorney and how TV cameras caught him knocking down an awful lot of beer in a local bar one recent afternoon and then captured him driving back to the DA's office. The office where he prosecutes people for all kinds of things. Drinking and driving, for example.
"This is a funny town," Baird said, and a chuckle danced in the air.
But then, quickly, the laugh died and Baird was silent. He remembered what the last district attorney did to him. And there is nothing at all funny about that.
That DA, Jeanne Smith, wanted to put Baird in a state prison for 12 years. Accessory to murder, she claimed. For two years she pushed hard with the case, turning Baird's life into mush and draining his and his mother's bank accounts.
Every day during those two years, Baird claimed the case was nonsense.
Turns out he was right.
Now, slowly, he's fitting the puzzle pieces of his life back together. He has a computer consulting business. He's back in college, studying physics and energy science. Listen to him for a moment:
"I want to start my own energy company with new technology that turns trash into energy via plasma conversion," he said. "We can use electricity to create temperatures hotter than the sun that will turn the trash into the fourth state of matter. There's solid, liquid, gases and, you know, plasma. All molecules disassociate, and you know how everything is made up of elements? Well, this process breaks all matter into individual elements and also pulls out the hydrogen gas, which can be used for energy. And it creates an obsidian stone of metal and silicates, which can be extracted for recycling. It's the kind of thing that can absolutely save the environment."
He studies that sort of thing and other things that are really complicated now at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. In 1999 he earned an associate of science degree from Pikes Peak Community College. He had big ideas. Big plans.
But on May 5, 2003, hell knocked on his door.
Baird had met a Fort Carson soldier named Jesse Kaufman twice before that day. Baird had taken in a female roommate a few months earlier. He needed the rent money. Kaufman subsequently had started dating the woman.
But on that cool day in May, Kaufman asked Baird if he wanted to take a drive to Chicago. They'd have to take Baird's red Chevy Camaro. Kaufman said they'd hang out with some of the soldier's friends. Kaufman was using Baird, and Baird's car, to get away from Colorado Springs.
But Baird, a skinny, quiet and somewhat nave 23-year-old, didn't know. He jumped at the road-trip offer. When they got to Chicago, Kaufman made a dizzying announcement. He told Baird that a day earlier he had stabbed two Fort Carson soldiers, killing one of them, outside a downtown bar. Light-headed, Baird used his cell phone to call his mother. He told Kaufman he just wanted her to know where he was. He promised not to tell Kaufman's grisly story.
In the passenger seat, the 220-pound soldier glared at the 140-pound Baird. He took out a knife and made a slashing motion across his own throat. The message was clear.
Kaufman wanted to flee to Canada. Baird instead talked him into driving to Florida, where Baird's father lived. A day later, with Kaufman out of sight, Baird told his father the story. He begged his dad to call the police. An hour later, Kaufman was arrested. He's now serving a life sentence.
"I never tried to help him get away," Baird said. "I just wanted to be in a safe position with my dad or somebody who would help me. I figured Jesse was going to kill me, too."
When investigators in Colorado Springs peeled back the pages of the bizarre story, the DA made a stunning move: She charged Baird with being an accessory to murder and being an accessory to the second stabbing. Baird the guy who got the killer arrested was looking at a dozen years in prison, at the least.
For some 20 months, Baird says he was savaged by Smith and her deputy prosecutors. They wanted a confession. Baird's story appeared in the Independent in January 2005 (csindy.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A13877). Smith left office that same month, a few months before the scheduled trial. New DA John Newsome today mired in a re-election fight because of his on-video drinking escapades quickly decided the case against Baird was ridiculous. He dismissed the felony charges.
But Newsome also gave us a little glimpse into the gearbox behind the 4th Judicial District's wheels of justice: "He gave me a list of Class 3 misdemeanors, which are just one notch above petty offenses, and said "pick one,'" Baird recalls.
Baird had not, of course, committed any crime, even one on the misdemeanor list.
From his attorney, Joel Losavio: "They said, "Plead guilty to a Class 3 misdemeanor and we don't care what it is.'"
They picked Colorado law 18-8-108. "Compounding." It's defined as "accepting or agreeing to accept any pecuniary benefit" in return for not reporting a crime.
Baird, of course, had not received "benefit" of any type from his two-day car trip with the murderer. Unless a few years of nightmares can be considered a benefit. And he was the one who reported the crime as soon as the 220-pound lunatic with the knife was out of earshot.
But Baird gave in. He didn't have any more money to fight the DA's office. He entered a guilty plea to the phony misdemeanor charges and paid a $250 fine. He also was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation and put in 50 hours of community service at a church.
Today Baird is a junior at UCCS. He is restarting his life in short bursts. Even with the baggage handed him by an inept district attorney's office a few years back, he is beginning to excel. His physics professor, Dr. John Jackson, founder of the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado and one of the world's leading authorities on the cloth that is possibly the burial shroud of Jesus, asked Baird to join the research team.
Baird believes the false criminal charges stole a chunk of his life.
"I think all the time of what I would be doing now if it hadn't happened," he said. "Before, I was a pretty free spirit. I was ready to take on the world. I was so excited about life. I'm just starting to get back to that level.
"Now I think it's safe to go live my life again."