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Investigating 14 police shootings in 90 days

Posted: 11:07 PM, Apr 28, 2016
Updated: 2016-04-29 15:05:50-04
Investigating 14 police shootings in 90 days
Investigating 14 police shootings in 90 days
Investigating 14 police shootings in 90 days

Police chiefs and sheriffs across Colorado say they are alarmed by a violent 90-day period in which 14 law enforcement officers in the state were shot by criminal suspects in seven separate incidents. Three of the law enforcement officers died from their injuries.

Denver7 Investigates gathered data and reached out to law enforcement officials across the state for perspective on the rash of violence, which began the day after Thanksgiving with the mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and ended in late February with a failed eviction attempt in Park County that left both the suspected gunman and a deputy dead.

90 days in the line of fire

The following interactive timeline gives you a visual perspective on the number of incidents where law enforcement officers were shot in the state of Colorado: 

With 3 Denver officers wounded, the Chief looks for answers

“I'm hoping it's an anomaly, I am praying this is an anomaly,” Denver police chief Robert White told Denver7 Investigates in an interview about the 90-day rash of violence.

Three of the 14 officers who were shot are members of the Denver Police Department: Sgt. Tony Lopez Jr., Technician John Ruddy and Officer Rachel Eid. All three of the officers survived but Sgt. Lopez’s extensive injuries have kept him from returning to the job.  

“When that call comes, there's a little piece of me that is lost every single time,” Chief White said.

While none of the shootings were directly connected, Denver’s police chief pointed out one common factor in each incident: every suspect had prior run-ins with police.

“I just think that people just, they've lost respect for themselves. And when they're confronted by police in adverse situations in lieu of saying ‘Hey you got me. Let me pay the price for what I've done, let me go to jail or wherever it is,’ their response is, ‘Hey, I am not going. I am not going to go easily. And if it means that I have to take a life to do that, so be it.’ And that's [an example of] values.”

The police department said Ruddy has returned to work on light duty, while Eid has returned to work and is now in detective training. Lopez Jr. recently threw out the first pitch at a Colorado Rockies game and told a police photographer he will need to get at least one more surgery before he can return to work.

Plea deals, parole and the “sure and swift” factor

Denver7’s investigation reveals all three of the suspects in the DPD shootings and four of the seven suspects overall have felony records: Jason Wood, Gerardino Gonzalez, Phillip Munoz and Adrian Moya. Court records indicate all four had reached plea deals in their past that limited their prison time, and state records show all four had been paroled from prison at some point in their past.

Records show Moya’s parole ended in March of 2015. Munoz and Gonzalez were on parole during the implementation of an overhaul of Colorado’s parole policies known as “Sure and Swift” – an effort criticized by several current parole officers who risked their jobs to come forward to Denver7 Investigates. The effort is aimed at reducing the number of parolees who return to prison for technical violations of the terms of their parole.

“[The] recent shootings in Denver, in your professional opinion, were those preventable?” Denver7 chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski asked one of the parole officers.

“Absolutely preventable,” said the officer, who asked to keep their identity confidential fearing retaliation. “We can’t hold our offenders accountable anymore and they know it.”

Gerardino Gonzalez was on parole and was wearing an ankle monitor when he was shot and killed in the shootout that injured Officer Rachel Eid.

Parole records provided to Denver7 Investigates by the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) show “continued non-compliant behavior” including curfew and ankle monitor violations, failed drug tests and missed treatment. In the final four months of his life, Gonzalez went to jail three times briefly for what is referred to as a “sure and swift stay,” with the final hold ending less than two weeks before the shootout. Correctional officials also said Gonzalez was turned away from a parole-related “programming” appointment four days before the shootout because he did not have enough money for the required co-pay.

Correctional officials said Gonzalez’s violations were relatively minor and did not seem serious enough to necessitate his return to prison.

“I think there were good decisions made in that case. Did Mr. Gonzalez ultimately make a very poor decision? Absolutely,” said CDOC’s director of adult parole Melissa Roberts.

Phillip Munoz’s parole ended in September of 2015 – about three months before police said he was shot and killed after wounding Technician John Ruddy during a SWAT team’s attempt to arrest him on a felony warrant. Munoz received early discharge from his parole for earned time credit, even though parole records show numerous problems during the final months of his supervision. 

Parole records show Munoz absconded and fled to New Mexico for 17 days in June, and he was deemed “high risk” in several notations. In May, records indicated someone complained about receiving threatening messages from Munoz. The records also indicated Munoz failed to report for scheduled drug tests in both March and April. Yet Munoz’s parole supervision ended in September.

“Are police officers in Colorado at greater risk right now?” Kovaleski asked another officer who came forward to expose what the officer calls flaws in the system. “There is extreme risk,” the officer responded.

Roberts said CDOC accepts responsibility for the behavior of all of the offenders it supervises, but also said such setbacks are common in the world of parole.

“We work in a dangerous business. We work with people who make very bad decisions. Some are trying very hard to make better decisions. Our job is to hold those accountable when they make poor decisions,” she said.

“I’ve been in jail and I f-----g hated it. I’d rather run than get caught by a cop.”

Denver7 talked with one of the sheriffs who lost a deputy during the rash of violence: Mesa County’s Matt Lewis. Deputy Derek Geer was shot Feb. 9 while trying to apprehend a 17-year-old accused of violating his probation on sex charges.

“In a 90-day period, 14 police officers and sheriff's deputies were shot in Colorado. Help us -- help people at home understand how. Why,” Kovaleski asked Sheriff Lewis.

“I don't know there's a universal answer for that, I really don't,” Lewis said. “It's tragic. But many of these are not interconnected, many of these are isolated instances.”

In Geer’s case, he had a run-in with a teenager who said he tried to get away because he did not want to return to jail. The police report says Geer used a Taser on Austin Holzer, and during the struggle, Holzer pulled out his gun and shot the deputy three times because he said he believed the deputy was going to shoot him.

Holzer is the only one of the seven shooting suspects during the 90-day period who was not reported to be injured or killed by return gunfire. With the investigation of the incident still ongoing, and Holzer’s trial still pending, Sheriff Lewis says it is too early address speculation that Geer may have hesitated to use deadly force on Holzer.

“There is always a debate and we sit here, months after this occurred. We sit here with the ink dry on the paper with some facts that were not readily available that day. I think it's always important that we consider that these are split second decisions made by deputies and police officers in the field at the time this is occurring,” said Lewis. “To say that this was either an overreaction or under reaction, I think is a bit premature … we don't have all of those facts and details. But I think it is something that we have an obligation to look at and make sure that if it was one or the other that we take some sort of corrective action and learn from those things.”  

“I didn’t shoot nobody. They shot me five times. I almost died.”

Adrian Moya, suspected of shooting a Northglenn police officer in December, told Denver7 Investigates from jail he didn’t do it.

“I ran away from the cop, they shot me,” Moya said. “I tried to get away. I was running.”

Moya spoke with Denver7 Investigates via webcam from the Adams County Jail, where he has been held since being released from the hospital after the shooting incident.

Authorities have said Moya shot Officer Tim Kuenning several times but the gunfire hit him in his anti-ballistic vest. Investigators said they found “defects” in the officer’s body armor and shirt after the shooting, and they found evidence that the iPhone in the officer’s shirt pocket stopped one of the bullets.

Court records show 24-year-old Moya has an arrest record including pleading guilty in 2011 to attempting to assault a peace officer and a guilty plea for drunk driving stemming from a police pursuit in 2012.

Moya told Denver7 Investigates he did have a gun the night of the incident with the Northglenn officer, but he claims he did not shoot at the officer. However the decision letter from the 17th Judicial District district attorney’s office says investigators found several fired casings from two different guns at the scene. Authorities did not find any evidence the other officer on scene fired his weapon.

Moya would not answer Denver7’s questions about how he obtained the weapon as a felon who is not legally allowed to possess a firearm. He also said he was drunk and under the influence of mushrooms and other drugs at the time of the incident.

Two major shootings claim two blue lives

The 90-day period of violence was book-ended by major incidents that left several officers wounded, a suspect dead and two law enforcement officers murdered.

It began on the day after Thanksgiving in Colorado Springs when authorities say Robert Lewis Dear Jr. entered the Planned Parenthood clinic armed with four SKS rifles and started shooting.

A recently-unsealed arrest warrant said Dear told authorities he saw a police officer approaching the building through a tinted window. Dear said the tinting on the window prevented the officer from seeing him, so he fired. Authorities believe that’s when he hit campus police officer Garrett Swasey, killing him. By the end of the hours-long siege, five other law enforcement officers were injured, and two civilians were killed.

The warrant says Dear confessed to committing the shooting spree because he was angry about what he termed the killing of babies and the selling of baby parts.

The second major shooting occurred February 24 when Park County sheriff’s deputies attempted to serve an eviction notice to activist Martin Wirth, who said in online postings he refused to pay his mortgage. Authorities have said Wirth shot and killed Deputy Nate Carrigan and wounded two other deputies before the deputies shot and killed him.

Wirth had a long-standing dispute with the sheriff’s office while fighting his foreclosure and had even sued in federal court attempting to stop the actions. He had also posted repeatedly to Facebook with anger about police-involved shootings across the country, at one point writing, “It's time to treat them like assassins.”

While neither Dear nor Wirth had serious criminal records, both had previous run-ins with police. According to court records, Wirth had a pending court case for eluding a police officer, obstructing law enforcement and driving under restraint during a Jan. 20 incident. Wirth was also charged with murder in 1994 after police said he shot a man after they fought during a chess game, but he was acquitted by a jury.

The New York Times reported Dear was arrested and convicted in 1991 for illegal knife and gun possession. The Times also reported Dear was arrested in a 1992 rape case but there is no record of him being convicted. In 1997, his wife accused him of hitting her but did not want to press charges. Dear reportedly moved to Colorado in 2014, and Denver7 did not find any records of any prior arrests in this state.

The Ferguson effect?

Larimer County’s sheriff Justin Smith told Denver7 Investigates he believes at least part of the outbreak of violence in Colorado can be explained by the national attention paid to police-involved incidents like the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md.

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“It's created an environment that's been extremely difficult and taxing for the men and women that wear the badge,” said Sheriff Smith.

Smith said he’s angry about political rhetoric, coming from both the White House and Colorado legislators, about the topic of excessive force from police.

“I've sat in meetings where I had legislators insisting that the penalty for assaulting an officer should be reduced, that mandatory sentences for assaulting an officer and resisting arrest needed to be eliminated,” Smith said. “Those words and that rhetoric have brought us a lot of the problems we're seeing today.”

“What happens in Baltimore impacts what happens in Denver. What happens in Denver impacts what happens in Kansas City. What happens in Washington impacts what happens in Los Angeles,” Denver’s police chief Robert White said.

“What message do we as journalists need to share with the public after what has happened here?” Kovaleski asked White.

“I would ask that you balance that reporting with the good things that the officers are doing which far outweighs those incidents where officers are placed in harm's way, or where … you're in a situation when you do something controversial,” he responded.

When asked about the “Ferguson effect,” Mesa County’s Sheriff said his deputies are trained not to worry about the public perception of their actions. He said that’s only possible when law enforcement builds a positive relationship with the people they vowed to serve and protect.

“I'm so grateful that I don't live in some of those communities that you mentioned. I live in a community where we have a wonderful relationship with the people we serve … that we have worked for for years and years and years and believe that it is a precious commodity,” Sheriff Lewis said. “Because of that, when things like this occur, there's a belief right from the get-go that we've done a good job. And if we haven't, there's an expectation that we will go out there and say we didn't and we will own up to it.”

Cases ongoing and sealed

Denver7’s investigation of these incidents was limited because the official investigations of every incident are still ongoing, meaning most of the records related to the cases are being kept confidential. In six of the seven cases, law enforcement officers shot back at the suspects, necessitating officer-involved shooting investigations by protocol.

Of those six incidents, only two of those officer-involved shooting investigations have been completed and released publicly: the shootout between Denver Police Sgt. Tony Lopez Jr. and suspect Jason Wood , and the Northglenn incident involving Adrian Moya. In each case, the district attorney’s offices determined the officers would not be criminally charged and they were justified in shooting at the suspects. Because those suspects survived and are now awaiting trial, more complete records are not yet released publicly. 

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Tony Kovaleski
Tony Kovaleski is the award-winning chief investigative reporter for Denver7 Investigates. Connect with Tony on Facebook , on Twitter , or by email to Tony@TheDenverChannel.com . If you have a story idea or a tip for our investigative team, email Denver7 Investigates or call our tip line at (303) 832-0285. You can remain anonymous.  

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