‘Face of GJPD’ dies at 54
On the morning of Nov. 20, 2008, a snappy businessman from Michigan strutted inside the former Fuji Massage building, the now-defunct brothel once located at 762 Horizon Dr.
A smartly dressed Robert James White III had made arrangements with the owner, Nan O’Reilly, and a Realtor to discuss the purchase of the business. White asked for business records, eager to know the financial health of the operation.
White, better known as Grand Junction Police Department Cmdr. Gregory Assenmacher, was wearing a wire.
His fellow cops listened in as O’Reilly engaged in extensive discussion, arguing with the Realtor about implications for capital gains taxes, if she sold. Roughly a half-hour into the exchange, officers burst into the room and arrested O’Reilly — her records neatly displayed.
Assenmacher stayed in character.
“Greg was saying, ‘Hey, wait, I’m just a businessman from Michigan,’ while Nan’s yelling, ‘I don’t speak English,” recalls Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Rubinstein.
Assenmacher craved the action, he said.
“As a police commander, you kind of lose that ability to be part of it,” Rubinstein said. “I mostly remember how excited he was to be doing undercover work.”
There were countless other investigations, but many more important non-work-related endeavors that defined Assenmacher, friends and colleagues said Wednesday.
“I think for a big portion of this city, when they think of the Grand Junction Police Department, the face that they picture is probably Greg’s,” Police Chief John Camper said, “He was that kind of ambassador for us.”
Assenmacher, 54, was exercising at home Tuesday night when he collapsed and died. His youngest daughter, Madison, called 911 “and made a heroic effort at CPR” aside from those by responding paramedics, Camper wrote in an email Tuesday night, announcing the loss.
“His commitment to solving crime and making Grand Junction a safer city will not soon be matched,” Camper wrote. “Most importantly, we all knew him as one of the kindest and most giving men that we have had the pleasure of knowing. He will be deeply missed for years to come.”
Assenmacher had served with the police department since 1981, volunteering along with the way to work with Mesa County Crime Stoppers, the Junior College World Series and the Western Colorado Honor Flight for World War II veterans, among other activities. Among his accomplishments, Assenmacher spearheaded an effort in 2007 to review a series of Grand Junction cold case murders, which resulted in the 2010 conviction of Jerry Nemnich for the 1975 slaying of Linda Benson and her daughter, Kelley Ketchum.
Funeral services are pending.
Assenmacher is survived by his wife, Deletha, and daughters, Haley and Madison.
‘LIKE GREG UNDERSTOOD’
His first and only job in law enforcement was in Grand Junction. Assenmacher was among a wave of would-be officers from Michigan who came to Grand Junction in the early 1980s, working with friends like Mike Nordine. They were assigned as school resource officers, with Assenmacher primarily working East Middle School in those early years.
“I don’t think,” Nordine said, fighting back tears repeatedly during an interview. “I don’t think I know or have known anyone else as generous, or had as much concern for other people and this community.”
“With all the new guys we’ve got coming in ... if we could somehow get them to understand the business like Greg understood it,” said Nordine, interim Palisade police chief and commander of investigations in Grand Junction. “Yeah, there’s enforcement and wanting to throw the bad guys in jail, but another, almost bigger component is the relationships, the problem solving and helping people that tends to get swept under the rug with a lot of younger officers.”
Assenmacher, while on the school resource beat, was honored as the city’s employee of the year for time he spent away from the job consoling the family of a young student who committed suicide in 1987, Nordine recalls.
Assenmacher volunteered with a former nonprofit agency, Youth Who Care, which once sponsored a three-day marathon from Grand Junction to Denver, which he participated in. Assenmacher later served on the board of directors for the Western Slope Center for Children and was also involved with Mesa County Partners, among other youth-focused activities.
“He was the kindest man I’ve ever known, giving of his time and energy to kids,” said Illene Roggensack, former director of Youth Who Care.
Roggensack and Assenmacher became friends, while the officer tapped his brother’s fame—former Major League Baseball pitcher Paul Assenmacher—for game tickets during a youth conference in Atlanta, Roggensack said. “We’d take the kids out for hot dogs and hamburgers, afterward,” she said.
Sports, particularly anything Michigan, was a major passion.
“His mind was like a steel trap, but not only for sports,” Nordine said. “He had this unbelievable ability to remember detail, not only for sports but events and criminal activity and he could put things together over time that helped in solving cases.”
As a member of the department’s SWAT unit, Assenmacher was shot in a leg and backside during a standoff with a barricaded man in 1987. Nobody can recall how much time he took off from work, but Deputy Chief John Zen remembers his wife, Shari, taking him food.
“He was milking it for all it was worth,” Zen recalls, laughing.
Assenmacher pondered a run for the office of Mesa County sheriff in 2009 but abandoned it after voters that year waived term limits and allowed a third, four-year term for the office. The vote essentially guaranteed the continued administration of Sheriff Stan Hilkey.
“Greg and I have had a lot of fun over the years talking about the first time I met him, Dec. 26, 1984, when he gave me my very first traffic ticket,” Hilkey said in a statement.
At the time an employee at a downtown Grand Junction sporting goods store, Hilkey said he “blew a red light” and was pulled over by Assenmacher, who promptly wrote a citation. Hilkey remembers paying a fine.
“Greg was a significant piece of the fabric of our community.His loss is a blow to us all,” he said.
A vet in need
Late in his career, Assenmacher volunteered with Western Colorado Honor Flight, an effort to get World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to see the capital’s memorial to the war.
Assenmacher grabbed an apron and started serving veterans drink and food, Camper recalls of one flight.
True to form, Assenmacher quickly made friends with officers in Washington D.C. Assenmacher arranged a lights-and-sirens police escort to the memorial, cutting through rush-hour traffic, Camper said.
“We probably had all of D.C. cussing us, but it was pretty impressive to the vets,” he said.
In what Camper described as his last conversation with Assenmacher—on Tuesday afternoon—the men discussed a 90-year-old veteran currently in the care of the VA Hospital in Grand Junction.
“He’s a bona fide World War II hero, here in town, who used to come in and see me all the time, but he’d suffered a fall and broken his hip.” Camper said. “This guy was living in a fleabag motel and they were fleecing him for $1,500 a month.”
Without being asked to intervene, Assenmacher and another Grand Junction resident took care to get the man into “much better housing,” setting up storage for his personal belongings, the chief said. Assenmacher then tracked down the man’s family in New Jersey, who’d long ago lost contact with him.
Assenmacher and the family in New Jersey became friends. He hosted them in Grand Junction for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I haven’t been to the VA Hospital yet to break this news to him, and I’m dreading it,” the chief said of the veteran.
The kindness touched young and old.
Darren Coltrinari, 28, grew up down the street from Assenmacher’s former residence on Orchard Mesa. The officer was also his Little League baseball coach. Every “first snow” in the Grand Valley, neighborhood kids had a standing invitation to visit Assenmacher’s backyard for his annual “Snow Bowl,” a tackle football game.
“He had an energy everyone gravitated to and we were comfortable having a police officer in the neighborhood,” Coltrinari said, recalling Assenmacher usually played quarterback during the games.
“Get Greg out of his police uniform, he’s just a big kid,” he said.
Mark Himmerite, 53, a contractor in the energy industry in North Dakota, heard from Assenmacher just last week.
Himmerite, whose sister, Linda Benson, and her daughter, Kelley Ketchum, were brutally murdered in 1975 at the hands of Jerry Nemnich, had remained close to Assenmacher since Nemnich’s 2010 conviction.
Assenmacher led the way in the investigation, reopening and prioritizing the 30-year-old cold case in 2007.
“He called last week and said a friend of his had a place to stay (in North Dakota) if I needed it and that he knew housing up here is tight,” Himmerite said. “He was a very diligent man, very dedicated to his work. Just one of the good guys.”