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In Eagle, End of Case Brings Mixed Feelings

Some residents will miss being in the spotlight. Others long for a return to normal.

September 02, 2004|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

EAGLE, Colo. — Mario Chavez is going to miss Kobe Bryant.

The 17-year-old, his hat cocked sideways, looked downcast Wednesday as he pondered the news that the prosecution had dismissed its rape case against the Laker basketball star.

"It's been kind of exciting having him here," Chavez said, lingering outside a gas station. "I used to go over to the courthouse and watch him come in and out. I'll miss not having him here."

For the past year, residents of this small town amid clear rivers and jagged peaks have watched as hordes of journalists descended, armed with cameras, notebooks and endless questions about what made the place tick.

Now it seems Eagle's time in the public eye is over. Over the next few days, this alpine community of skiers and fly-fishermen will be free of Bryant's celebrity. Some, like Chavez, will miss the excitement, while others can't wait for it all to go away.

"When this case first started, it was the only thing people here talked about," Ken Hinchliffe said. "Reporters would come around asking questions. Some were pushy. They wouldn't take no for an answer. Then as time went on, it became less and less an issue."

Hinchliffe, a 42-year-old landscaper who cuts the grass at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, where Bryant was staying the night of the alleged attack, said the attention wasn't all bad.

"We were in the limelight. Us, the city of Eagle, was in the limelight," he said at the Broadway Bar downtown. "But now that the case is dismissed, there is a sense of relief, absolutely."

Townspeople said the first few weeks of media attention were the worst. Television reporters shoved their way into local bars and restaurants looking for quotes and "slice of life" anecdotes for viewers around the globe.

When the pretrial maneuvering began last year, the focus shifted to the small Eagle County Courthouse on the edge of town. Hotels and restaurants profited from reporters, lawyers and legal analysts. Parking lot owners cashed in on television news crews desperate for places to park their lumbering trucks. Residents faced rare traffic jams and nosy visitors asking about Bryant and his accuser.

Carmen Cruz, 21, said that wherever she went she was questioned about Bryant.

"I was in Cancun and people would ask me about it," she said. "I think a lot of people are glad to see this end here. I think there is a sense that people want to get back to normal."

Jeremy Curtis, 26, said it was not in the nature of mountain people to seek publicity and attention. "A lot of people in the Vail Valley put this case behind them months ago," he said. "People in the mountains prefer a more laid-back lifestyle. If they wanted attention, they would go live in a city. The only reason this is still a story is because the media keeps it going."

Residents have been split all along about the accusations. Some backed the woman; others chose Bryant.

With the dismissal of the case, many agreed it would be tough for the 20-year-old accuser to live a normal life again.

"I think it's closure for both of them," said Scott Sutton, a mountain rescue worker. "I also think if anyone would be forgiving, a small town would be forgiving. She deserves to be treated fairly."

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