Probe showed ‘mischief’ in police search
Statements attributed to three former Grand Junction police officers in an internal investigation show they expressed degrees of regret over their actions May 3 at a local transient camp, and that at least one of them that day wondered aloud whether he was committing a crime, according to documents obtained by The Daily Sentinel.
“Isn’t this criminal mischief?” Joseph Mulcahy asked his two colleagues as they moved through a Grand Junction transient camp known as The Point. Mulcahy’s partner, Phillip Van Why, recalled Mulcahy asking that question May 3, when Van Why was later interviewed during the department’s internal probe of the incident, according to the documents.
Sections of the officers’ internal affairs interviews were highlighted by Police Chief John Camper in letters of termination handed to each officer on June 3. The letters were provided to the Sentinel by the officers’ attorney.
Justin Roberts, 31, Van Why, 35, and Mulcahy, 28, made their case Tuesday to Deputy City Manager Rich Englehart for reinstatement at the department, and Englehart has 10 days to issue a decision. The trio was fired June 3 after nearly a month on paid leave during the Police Department’s internal investigation.
According to Mulcahy’s letter, when he was asked by an investigator whether “it ever crossed your mind” that he was committing criminal mischief on May 3, he responded, “It ... it did.”
“Then?” Mulcahy was asked.
“Yeah, yeah absolutely. Yes,” Mulcahy answered.
Van Why described Mulcahy cutting tires on bicycles at the camp after being “egged on” by Roberts, according to the letters.
“When (Grand Junction Police Standards Administrator Rick Dyer) asked you what you (Van Why) were doing this whole time, you answered, ‘Well, sir, I’m ... I’m as guilty as ... as everybody. Okay? I mean I was there, I could have stopped it. I could have said something, I didn’t. I mean I certainly didn’t tell them, ‘Hey, that’s not a good idea,’ ” Van Why’s termination letter reads.
Grounds for termination
Interviewed on Friday, Mulcahy, Roberts and Van Why insisted their tactics May 3 were consistent with training they received from the department when they cut open three tents, in addition to tires on two bicycles. Camper rejected that claim, arguing the three conducted an illegal, warrantless search, among other grounds for termination.
Erik Groves, a local attorney who represents the former officers, wrote in an e-mail that his clients believe the termination letters do not paint a complete picture.
“Much of what is quoted in the chief’s letter(s) is taken out of context,” Groves said. “These were lengthy interviews covering a wide range of issues. Nevertheless, the testimony given in the (internal affairs) interviews is entirely consistent with what we have said throughout this entire process.”
When asked to respond to Mulcahy’s admission, as alleged in internal affairs documents, that the actions May 3 constituted criminal mischief, Groves said, “Officer Mulcahy did not have any experience searching homeless encampments and what safety precautions were required.”
According to the letters, Roberts admitted cutting a tire on one of two bicycles at the camp, acknowledging it was a “piss poor decision” and “I really don’t have an excuse for it.”
The bicycle in question was upside down, and the chain was off the sprockets, “which would have made it inoperable anyway,” Camper noted.
Oreos and bananas
According to Camper’s letter, Van Why told the internal investigation he saw Roberts use his baton to hit several bananas and Oreo cookies that were on a table in the camp.
Roberts described the action as a “poke,” which drew a scathing rebuke from Camper.
“Maybe it was because you felt as though the homeless people had no right to, as you alluded to in your statement, ‘live the high life’ by treating themselves to some Oreos and bananas,” the chief wrote. “In fact, I would question your definition of what constitutes a ‘poke’ in your opinion, as some sort of cookie or banana remnant or a combination of both decorated the end of your baton so much so that it was a discussion topic between you and Officer (Robert) Heil later that day which ended up bringing the whole incident to light.”
According to a report from the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department’s criminal investigation, Heil said he and Roberts met briefly around noon on May 3 and that Roberts noted “something about debris on his night stick” after hitting food items at a transient camp.
During Friday’s interview with the former officers, Roberts said, “That entire conversation was taken out of context.”
“I don’t know,” Roberts replied.
“Nobody ever saw food on my baton,” he said. “We frequently lift up stuff with our batons.”
According to Camper’s letters, Van Why told investigators that Roberts said he “hated transients.”
“I don’t dislike anybody,” Roberts responded Friday. “I dislike criminal activity.”
Asked during the internal probe whether he thought what he was doing on May 3 could be considered criminal mischief, Roberts responded, “At the time, no,” before later adding, “Looking back at it, absolutely I can see that.”