Ex-officers defend raid

Joseph Mulcahy, right, talks about the day when he and two other former Grand Junction police officers, Justin Roberts, left, and Phillip Van Why, center, searched for a theft suspect in a transient camp along the Gunnison River. That search led to the firing of the three officers.

Three former Grand Junction police officers claim the use of knives to cut tents at a transient camp was consistent with their law enforcement training, while insisting May 3 wasn’t the first time local officers have used such tactics at a transient camp.

“Had I known I’d lose my job for looking for a felony suspect, I’d have never gone down there,” Joseph Mulcahy, 28, among the three officers fired earlier this month by Police Chief John Camper, told The Daily Sentinel last week.

Mulcahy, Justin Roberts, 31, and Phillip Van Why, 35, were interviewed Friday in the presence of their attorney. The three are scheduled today to make their case in formal appeal hearings to Deputy City Manager Rich Englehart, who will have 10 days to either sustain Camper’s decision, modify it or overturn it.

Camper on Monday rejected the former officers’ main claim.

“Cutting the tents was not consistent with professional law enforcement training standards or any training provided by the Grand Junction Police Department,” Camper said in an e-mail, while declining further comment because of the officers’ active appeals.

In announcing the firings June 3, Camper said an internal investigation found the officers’ use of knives “had no useful law enforcement purpose.”

The fired trio disagrees.

“We weren’t down there trying to be malicious, to go crazy.  We were there for a very specific reason,” Roberts said.

Camper has said the officers were searching for a suspect in the theft of copper wiring, a suspect who at the time was wanted only for questioning in the incident.

The officers said an arrest warrant hadn’t yet been issued for 42-year-old Jonathan Llewellyn.

“The detective (Rob Faussone) said he had probable cause for his arrest, and if we didn’t locate him, he was going to apply for a warrant,” Van Why said. “He also asked for us to look for evidence of the crime.”

Theft of twist-lock plugs

Specifically, they were told to look for twist-lock plugs, which are more expensive than standard electrical plugs and “very valuable to the victim,” according to Van Why.

Mulcahy said he knew from prior contacts that Llewellyn had camped in a stretch known as The Point, a sliver of land covered in thick brush near the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers. The area also is in the jurisdiction of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department. As cross-deputized sheriff’s deputies, the officers claim they were empowered to issue citations to anyone they found camped illegally in the area.

“We’ve cited people for trespassing numerous time before,” Mulcahy said, adding they radioed their location to dispatchers on May 3 before entering The Point.

“You drop down into some dense brush and have limited visibility,” he said. “You’re talking about 15 to 20 tents, maybe even more, spread out along a quarter-mile area.”

While announcing their presence, the former officers said nobody responded, though they did hear the barking of a dog. They said they entered the area with guns drawn.

“This is a haven for violent crime and I’m taking every precaution to make sure I go home that night,” Mulcahy said, as he, Roberts and Van Why offered a vague account of who did what.

“It’s fluid throughout the camp and we change up roles,” Van Why said. “It’s not one person doing one thing and another person doing another.”

The officers said they moved through the camp under a training principle known as “contact and cover,” one officer approaching tents and a colleague pointing his handgun near the target.

“We found a burn pit with copper wire insulation in it,” Van Why said, later adding they found what initially appeared to be a handgun — later determined to be an Air Soft pistol — next to one tent.

The officers acknowledged “disabling” two bicycles, cutting tires, which Van Why said was done “to ensure our suspect did not flee” from the area. At this point, they said, they had not seen anyone or heard any responses when they had identified themselves as Grand Junction officers.

“Shockingly, people don’t always come out when we announce ourselves,” Mulcahy said.

Mulcahy’s statements in the internal investigation, however, paint another picture.

According to Camper’s letter of termination for Mulcahy, the former officer acknowledged having no justification to cut the tires, while telling an investigator it was a “bad decision,” and further believed it was “unclaimed property.”

“What is even more disconcerting is that, based on statements from at least one other officer present at the time, none of the bikes appeared to be operational, thereby calling into question any legitimate reason for cutting it in the first place,” reads Camper’s letter.

Booby traps

The officers acknowledged cutting into three tents, which were closed, and all too big to simply pick up and shake in order to determine if anyone was inside.

According to a report generated in an investigation completed by the Sheriff’s Department, damage or slashing was confirmed on four tents — owners of a fifth tent claimed damage but never showed for an interview with investigators. On two of the tents with confirmed claims of damage, supporting poles also were reported damaged, the report said. One man claimed the interior contents were ransacked, while contents of a backpack and a Coleman lantern were also missing.

“We’re only aware of these three (tents),” Erik Groves, an attorney for the officers, said Friday. “If there’s a fourth, it must have been done by somebody else.”

Why not simply unzip the tents at the doorway? The officers defend themselves by citing their training, saying they would have been exposed under that scenario to a “fatal funnel,” with potential for injury or death.

“In addition to booby traps with feces and urine, there are barbs and fish hooks you have to worry about,” Van Why said.

Roberts added of the tent slashing, “you’re taught to be as tactful and as safe as possible. It’s consistent with our training and everything we’ve been taught at the department.”

“If Chief Camper wants to change tactics of the Police Department, that’s fine, but there’s a proper way to do that through retraining and proper forms of discipline,” Groves argues.

Van Why claims the same tactics were employed by officers in the spring of 2008, when police assisted code enforcement officers in the removal of transient camps.

“We cleared (camps) in the exact same way we did on May 3,” Roberts said.

In records obtained by The Daily Sentinel under the Colorado Open Records Act, the city’s code enforcement division acknowledged the participation of Grand Junction police officers in “clean-up” projects involving transient property on four occasions at separate locations dating to April 2008. The documents do not delve into the procedures or methods for removal or list participants from the police department.

“... In all cases, notice was given to the persons residing in these camps that a clean-up was going to occur and that they should remove anything of value and they were given time to do so,” reads an e-mail from the city’s code enforcement department to the Police Department, sent in response to a query from the department.

Camper on Monday confirmed that, among the reasons cited for the firings, was the department’s finding that the officers’ actions on May 3 constituted an illegal, warrantless search of property.

The officers’ formal letters of termination were released by Groves.

“Frankly,” Camper wrote in the letters, “I’m at a loss, given the very limited information that Detective Faussone provided, as to how the three of you could even try to justify entry into a tent using the zippered door, let alone cutting a window through the side or the top without the benefit of a search warrant, arrest warrant or the owner’s consent, which would have allowed you to do it legally.”

Groves, on the other hand, cites case law in claiming that as “trespassers,” the transients in question on May 3 had “no reasonable expectation of privacy” and protection under the Fourth Amendment.

The officers on Friday also cited the U.S. Constitution in defending their decision to not speak with sheriff’s investigators in the criminal probe of the incident, despite their claims of no wrongdoing.

“We were exercising our rights,” Roberts said.


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