There was a time when Henry Solano thought that he might have had a place in the space program. After leaving home and high school in Florence, Colorado, in fact, that was the plan. He headed off to Cleveland, and Case Western University, to build the foundation for his place in the stars and perhaps even a shot at being an astronaut. But after three years at this prestigious, world famous school, he found neither space nor engineering were his true calling.
Though Solano later earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Denver in Mechanical Engineering, he found his place in law. In 1976, armed with a law degree from the University of Colorado, he passed the bar and was baptized as an attorney. He’s been riding a rocket ever since.
Today Solano is the District Attorney in Las Animas and Huerfano counties, two counties whose combined populations might not even make up a zip code in some of the places Solano has hung his shingle. His résumé is very nearly platinum.
He has served as an assistant Attorney General for two Governors; held high level positions under two Presidents, including a stint as U.S. Attorney in Colorado; taught at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; been a partner at several white-shoe law firms; served on several prestigious boards of directors, including the Southern Poverty Law Center. Basically, he has played in the big leagues of contemporary American law.
So, with an all-star legal career in government and the private sector as a calling card, what drew him to a place like Trinidad? The answer is not that complex. “At the end of the day,” said Solano, “I was (winning) victories for predominantly corporations.” That, simply, wasn’t enough.
As the DA in two southern Colorado counties, “I literally had the opportunity to be involved in policies. There was a public service element that was wanting…the call back into the public sector became large.” And then, there were also deep roots in the area.
Solano’s family dates back in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado to the 19th century. Farming, ranching, and mining, the building blocks for many Latinos in the region going back generations were a part of his makeup. In Trinidad, he could reclaim his roots and perform a service---public service---woefully needed in a place not exactly ignored but certainly in need.
As a new DA, a job Solano took over in 2017, he inherited a ‘to-do’ list that no community should have to live with. “Theft, drug-related crimes” Solano said, were just the beginning. “In the last three years, we’ve had seven homicides. The level and nature of the crimes has increased.” Drugs, he said, are pervasive. Trinidad and I-25 are a key migratory route for Mexican cartels to transport drugs.
But nothing is easy for a new DA even one with the polished background of Solano or anyone else who holds the title. “When I took over, for both counties, there were only three prosecutors,” he said. One of those prosecutors was Solano, himself. With only himself along with a single prosecutor for each county, cases that should have been prosecuted were often dismissed or pleaded down to a level inspired by necessity.
The cases Solano’s having to dismiss are misdemeanor and traffic cases. DUI cases and domestic violence cases are always prosecuted. Low-level drug possession cases are often dismissed but not cases involving distribution of drugs. Property crimes are also often dismissed. “I don’t like the fact that we have to dismiss any cases,” he said. But help is on the way. He’s expecting to double his staff of prosecutors soon.
Solano’s courtroom schedule, he admits, does take precious time away from boosting the professionalism and focus an office like his demands. “What tends to be last,” he said, “are the administrative things…but I have to deal with the cases first.” It’s a lament he wishes he didn’t have. But it’s a reality when you’re the law in a region spread over two vast southern Colorado counties. “We’re in crisis mode, literally and virtually every day but I have to catch what needs to be caught.”
The job is certainly taxing and it’s forced Solano to give up a lot of things he’d like to remain involved with, among them “sitting on the Board of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” an organization that has waged a battle for civil rights for decades. He does manage to catch late night movies “to let the mind rest,” and finds solace in church. Spiritual needs have not been neglected. He understands the need to escape as time permits, not only for his own peace of mind, but to maintain a semblance of balance in his life.
Most of his time is centered in Trinidad but he and his wife of 48 years, Janine, do return to their north Denver home regularly where they can spend time with their two daughters, their grandchildren and their chickens that occupy a comfortable spot in their yard. The Solanos’ also have a son who lives in New York.
Solano had no illusions that being the law in two sprawling Colorado counties would be ‘early retirement.’ But the region is a part of his New Mexico and Colorado roots. And for the Solanos, it’s also home.