Shooting Over Trailer Theft Fuels Immigration Debate

Homeowner Charged With Attempted Murder; Theft Suspects Arrested 5 Months Later

An 82-year-old Wheat Ridge homeowner, Robert Wallace, was charged with attempted murder soon after police said he shot at two men stealing a trailer from his property in February.

One of the suspects, 28-year-old Alvaro Cardona-De Lorea, was shot through the eye, leaving him with brain damage and a disfigured skull.

The two men he shot at, however, remained free of charges for nearly five months until they were arrested last Friday.

The second theft suspect, Damacio Torres-Ochoa, 32, was arrested by federal immigrant authorities at his Boulder workplace on an immigration violation, authorities said. Wheat Ridge police arrested Cardona-De Lorea at a Westminster park.

Read the arrest affidavits for Damacio Torres-Ochoa and Alvaro Cardona-De Lorea

The trailer theft and shooting case has added fuel to the volatile debate over illegal immigration.

The Wheat Ridge Police Department has been the target of heated criticism by talk radio hosts, especially immigration-policy hawk Peter Boyles, for going after Wallace while letting the thieves remain free.

Police spokeswoman Lisa Stigall said the agency had to hold back while an auto theft task force investigated whether Cardona-De Lorea and Torres-Ochoa were involved in a car-theft ring.

"They were being investigated as part of a much larger theft ring," Stigall said. "In order not to jeopardize those larger cases, the smaller cases will take a step back."

When the theft-ring case didn't pan out, police moved to arrest the trailer-theft suspects, Stigall said. She noted that police kept close tabs on Cardona-De Lorea and Torres-Ochoa, and they always cooperated with authorities.

Alvaro Cardona-De Lorea, left, and Damacio Torres-Ochoa, are accuse of stealing Robert Wallace's trailer.

The case began on the night of Feb. 24 when Wallace called 911 to report that two men in a red pickup truck had hooked up to his flatbed trailer outside his home and driven off with it.

Minutes later, Torres-Ochoa drove the pickup up to St. Anthony's Central Hospital with the gravely wounded Cardona-De Lorea, according to police records. Hospital staff spotted a bullet hole in the truck's passenger window.

Police quickly connected the shooting to the theft of Wallace's trailer.

Wallace, a onetime amateur auto racer who still tinkers with cars, initially denied shooting at the men stealing his trailer.

But his mood changed when police said they would obtain a warrant to search his home.

"Bunch of thieves take my trailer" and "look now," the homeowner told investigators, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. "Guess this is not going to turn out good."

Read Robert Wallace's arrest affidavit

Wallace then produced a small handgun and said, "Here is what you're looking for," the affidavit said.

"I fired two shots in the direction of the truck," Wallace told investigators.

An acquaintance told police that Wallace told him he had "gotten off some shots ┬ůmaybe two" and had possibly hit the back of the fleeing pickup, the affidavit said.

Wallace was arrested on charges of attempted murder and felony assault two days after the shooting.

Police said Wallace's actions did not meet the requirements of Colorado's "Make My Day" law. It states that residents are justified in defending themselves against an intruder in their home if they have a "reasonable belief" the person poses a threat.

Questions persist about how police handled the investigation of the theft suspects.

7NEWS has found that the two men have a history of violations that raise flags about whether they're legally in the United States.

Torres-Ochoa was arrested for aggravated vehicle theft and other felony theft charges in Adams County in 2005, according to state crime records.

But the more serious charges were dropped and Torres-Ochoa was allowed to plead guilty to trespassing on farm land, court records showed. He received a deferred sentence, allowing him to have his record cleared if he stayed out of trouble for two years. He was also ordered to perform 20 hours of community service.

Yet, Torres-Ochoa was arrested again in 2008 for felony larceny in Adams County.

Agricultural trespass plea deals became a hot issue in the 2006 governor's race, when it was revealed that the Denver district attorney's office, under future Gov. Bill Ritter, repeatedly allowed people charged with serious drug or violent crimes to plead guilty to farm land trespass.

Like Ritter's office, other county district attorneys at the time used the agricultural trespass charge because undocumented immigrants were likely to plead guilty to the lesser crime to avoid deportation.

A 2006 Colorado law required law enforcement officers to report an arrested individual to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they have "probable cause" to think the person is in the country illegally.

In Denver alone, Cardona-De Lorea was cited six times for driving without a license, four times for driving without insurance and three times for driving without valid license plates between March 1999 and July 2005, according to court records.

Law enforcement officials told 7NEWS such violations can be a sign the person lacks the legal immigrant status required to obtain a driver's license.

Yet, Stigall said her department was surprised when ICE agents arrested Torres-Ochoa for suspected immigration violations.

"There was nothing that tipped off your police officers that possibly these guys were undocumented?" 7NEWS Reporter Dayle Cedars asked.

"No, there was nothing that said that their immigration status was in question," Stigall said. She noted that both men presented valid identification during the investigation.

"If a person is jailed, then there is a verification process that goes into play where ICE is notified and they move forward with their process," she said.

The theft suspects had a hearing in Jefferson County court Monday. Both men spoke in Spanish through an interpreter.

Torres-Ochoa asked for reduced bond, saying: "I have no money and need to be by my family."

Cardona-De Lorea's brother told Judge Thomas Vance the defendant suffered brain damage when he was shot in the head and has trouble with speech and memory.

"I don't know what is happening," Cardona-De Lorea said. "I don't know what this is about."

Each man's bail was $100,000 and Vance reduced Torres-Ochoa's to $27,500 and Cardona-De Lorea's to $25,000.

They both remained in jail Monday.