DougCo Sheriff Says Coroner Hindered Homicide Investigation

CALL7 Investigation Finds Sheriff, Coroner Clash Over Crime Scene Procedures, Access To Secure Areas

Douglas County Sheriff Dave Weaver is accusing Coroner Lora Thomas of committing crimes during death investigations, including official misconduct that could have jeopardized the capture of suspects in the one of the biggest homicide investigations in the county.

Thomas said Weaver is improperly trying to control her office, which is independently elected, and she believes she has followed the law.

Weaver also said he believes Thomas is violating the Constitution by searching property without a warrant or consent of family when a body is found.

The most explosive charge is that Thomas issued a news release the day after the February Keene Ranch homicides, saying that the victims died of sharp force injuries, despite pleas by sheriff's investigators to not include those details. Sheriff’s investigators didn't want Thomas to release the cause of death at that time, and she offered to delete that information if she and her staff were granted access to the sheriff’s gym and vending machines, documents and interviews show.

“I have never in my life seen anything like this in 30 years of law enforcement,” Weaver told CALL7 Investigator Tony Kovaleski. “The thing that happened, which is very shocking to me, was it got to a point where the coroner said, if you allow me access to the sheriff's office, to your gym and candy bar machine, I won't release this information.”

Weaver said the information on the victim’s injuries was only known to the killers and having that information out there might have made it difficult to make arrests.

“By issuing that press release did the coroner put the investigation in jeopardy?” Kovaleski asked.

“In my opinion, at the time, yes,” Weaver said.

Thomas conceded that she should not have linked the news release to gym and vending machine access, but said she is committed to transparency and believed the information was important to release.

“Did you attempt to negotiate office access in exchange for not putting out a media release,” Kovaleski asked Thomas.

“That was a terrible mistake on my part, and I did do that," she said.

“You potentially impact their ability to put a bad guy behind bars,” Kovaleski said.

“I obviously didn’t do that because the sheriff’s office did a wonderful job in that investigation, and they had four people in custody by Sunday evening,” Thomas said.

Documents obtained by CALL7 Investigators show that sheriff’s staff were on their way to ask a judge to block Thomas from releasing the information, but she sent the news release before the deputy could get to the judge. Minutes later, a sheriff’s spokesman sent out a news release asking media organizations not to report the sharp force injuries and nearly all complied.

The Keene’s Ranch investigation highlights a clash between Weaver and Thomas that started the day she took office in January.

“Nowhere do I read that the sheriff has the responsibility to supervise the coroner,” she said. “I have a wonderful working relationship with all of the other law enforcement agencies in this county.”

Thomas also said Weaver blocked access for her staff to the sheriff’s gym and vending machine.

“The day I was sworn in with no notice or explanation, suddenly (she and her staff) weren't able to go there,” she said, pointing at a door leading to the sheriff's office.

Weaver said blocking access was necessary to increase security in his office.

He is also upset at Constitutional violations by the coroner he said his staff witnessed.

“I feel that the coroner's office is violating the 4th Amendment of search and seizure,” Weaver said. “Searching homes without authority, without consent, without a warrant."

Thomas said she is not violating the law and conducts searches like every other coroner in the state.

“I believe that the coroner has the right to look in the house for whatever information is needed to determine the cause and manner of death,” Thomas said.

Documents show the Douglas County attorney sided with Weaver, saying consent or a warrant are necessary to conduct searches.

But Thomas said sometimes families are not available to consent and when there is no evident crime a warrant won’t be issued. Thomas has asked the Colorado Coroners Association for a legal opinion backing her up and said she may ask for legislation to clarify the rights coroners have to search private property.

Weaver’s staff has threatened to arrest coroner investigators for allegedly illegal searches, but Weaver said he has decided to just document the alleged improprieties. He said he doesn't want to make a scene in front of family of the dead person.

Sheriff’s investigators also asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney to investigate the alleged official misconduct in the Keene's Ranch news release incident. But CBI and district attorney believed there is not enough information to prove a crime, records show. Undersheriff Tony Spurlock came to the same conclusion in a police report obtained by 7News.

“This case investigation started as a criminal inquiry, however, I do not feel, given the above facts in their totality, that there is sufficient evidence to proceed to achieve prima facie in this case,” wrote Undersheriff Tony Spurlock. “Therefore this case will be closed as an incident/informational document.”

Spurlock told Kovaleski that Thomas' actions still could have compromised investigations, and Weaver left open the possibility of asking for charges in the future.

The two departments have also clashed over whether sheriff’s investigator should help carry bodies at crime scenes and whether coroner investigators are unnecessarily distressing victims' families by duplicating interviews already completed by sheriff’s investigators, records show. Sheriff’s investigators say coroner staff has accidently dropped bodies in front of family members.

Thomas, for her part, has accused sheriff’s investigators of blocking access to a body for hours and not notifying her of the Keene’s Ranch homicide. She said her office learned of the deaths from news reports.

Politics may be responsible for the bad blood between two of the county’s top elected officials, records and interviews show.

Thomas said Weaver endorsed her opponent in last year’s contentious Republican primary for coroner and provided 7News a picture of Weaver with the other candidate. Weaver said he did not endorse anyone.

Another issue is whether Thomas sees the coroner’s office as a stepping stone to the sheriff's job, which could affect Weaver if voters lift term limits.

“Do you have aspirations to be sheriff?” Kovaleski asked.

“Right now I’m committed to being the coroner for Douglas County,” she said.

Both sides agree the fight is unseemly and could hurt the effectiveness of law enforcement in Douglas County.

“This has to cease now,” Weaver said. “The games, the politics of it has to cease now.”

Thomas said she isn't playing politics.

"I'm able to put my politics aside, and I hope it's not about politics," she said.

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