Deputy’s death shocks city
Teen runaway confesses to shooting; prosecution continues
The memorial to slain Mesa County Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Geer still stands.
After Geer, a married father-of-two, was gunned down during a confrontation with a teenage runaway and drug user Feb. 8 near the corner of E and 30¾ roads in Pear Park, the memorial sprang up spontaneously.
Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis, speaking recently during court proceedings for accused killer Austin Holzer, said it was simple in the beginning; a typical roadside memorial where people brought flowers.
But Mesa County’s reaction to Geer’s death, the first line-of-duty death in his agency in more than a century, was extraordinary.
The memorial grew to the point where neighbors ran a power cord to it to allow lights to hang. It was so big at one point, Lewis said, that signs went up warning approaching motorists. When vandals damaged it, neighbors responded by putting it back together and organizing themselves to monitor it, he said. People were expressing grief for both the 10-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, and, as Lewis said, for the shattered notion that such violence against law enforcement doesn’t happen here.
“This was people trying to cope on a community and an individual level and (who) needed some outlet for, maybe, this new reality that has been presented,” Lewis said in court. “It does and can happen here.”
Today the memorial is smaller, confined mostly to a single pole festooned with ribbons, flags, pictures of Geer in his uniform and marked with orange traffic cones. But the impact of Geer’s life and early death lives on.
Lewis said his agency has lost deputies who couldn’t face coming back to work after Geer’s death.
Widow Kate Geer has spoken in court about the struggle of managing her grief while raising the couple’s two children alone and holding down a job. However, she has carried on her husband’s strong support of organ donation; she was even invited to ride on the Donate Life Rose Parade float in Pasadena, California, on Monday in memory of her husband’s sacrifice and the donation of his own organs. She will be joined by more than 20 others who have either had loved ones donate organs or those who have received organ donations.
Derek Geer’s accused killer’s case also remains ongoing.
Geer approached then-17-year-old Holzer at E Road near 30 3/4 Road after dispatchers received calls reporting a suspicious person.
Holzer, a runaway sex offender and drug user, had outstanding warrants and knew he was about to be arrested. He later said he was trying to induce Geer to shoot and kill him by struggling. The married father-of-two instead attempted to stop Holzer using a Taser; he never fired his gun.
Drivers passing by on E Road described seeing Holzer and Geer scuffling on the roadside. Some said they saw Holzer crawling away from the deputy on his belly before jumping up, leveling a gun that was hidden in his pants at Geer’s head, squeezing the trigger.
While Geer lay bleeding on the roadside, Holzer fled. Witnesses reported seeing him running, gun in hand with a bandana over his face. His shoes and gun were later found in his wake; Holzer was found hiding in a yard nearby.
He confessed to shooting Geer soon after his arrest, saying he initially drew the gun in order to shoot himself.
Geer was kept on life support for two days to arrange his organ donations.
Meanwhile, Holzer’s prosecution continues in Mesa County District Court; his attorneys are currently nearing the end of their weeks-long bid to have his case moved back into juvenile court. Prosecutors decided early on to prosecute Holzer as an adult. The now 18-year-old — who was 17 years and 10 months old when Geer was shot and killed — faces 40 years to life in prison if convicted of Geer’s murder as an adult. If Holzer’s attorneys succeed at convincing Mesa County District Judge Richard Gurley that he should be tried as a juvenile, he could be free as soon as soon as October 2018, when he is 20½ years old.
Gurley is being asked in his decision to balance a wide range of factors. Holzer was living on the streets and caring for himself for months before shooting Geer. His remorse remains in question; while his lawyers have called witnesses who described him as depressed and ashamed of his acts, prosecutors have presented testimony from others who said he was elated by his media attention and gleeful about damage to Geer’s memorial.
The defense has pointed to Holzer’s home life, being raised by a single father who was often absent while working in the oil fields, and suggested he needs treatment for his drug addictions and other issues rather than prison.
Prosecutors have pointed out that Holzer participated in extensive court-mandated therapy as a younger teen as part of his sentence after sexually abusing a young girl in his family.
Gurley is expected to issue his decision in writing sometime after the hearing concludes this month. His pending decision has become the most recent focal point for a case taken personally by many in Mesa County’s justice system.
“I would like to see this case tried in adult court,” Lewis told Gurley in court. “I don’t think another option would be something that would be acceptable to this community.”