Sniper cleared in shooting
Deputies justified in killing parolee, DA says in letter
A sniper with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office “had no other reasonable choice” but to shoot a parolee who repeatedly pointed an assault rifle in the direction of an armored law enforcement vehicle, District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said Monday.
In a letter from Hautzinger sent to Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey, Hautzinger praised law enforcement’s handling of an hours-long standoff on East Orchard Mesa on Dec. 14, 2013, which ended with a flurry of gunfire from sheriff’s deputy Blake McClellan, killing 49-year-old Lawrence Sanchez.
“Less lethal munitions were contemplated when possible and efforts were made to get Mr. Sanchez to comply and cooperate,” Hautzinger’s letter reads. “When Mr. Sanchez pointed his weapons directly at the Bearcat (armored vehicle used by local police) from approximately 40 feet away Deputy McClellan had no other reasonable choice but to fire his weapons.”
Sanchez suffered a pair of gunshot wounds — to the chest and abdomen — while an autopsy showed he had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.232 percent. That’s nearly three times Colorado’s standard for driving under the influence.
He was wanted after walking away from a community corrections facility in Pueblo on Sept. 30, 2013. A warrant for escape wasn’t issued for Sanchez’s arrest until Oct. 18, 2013, Hautzinger’s letter said. State authorities were tipped that Sanchez might be with an acquaintance in the Grand Valley at 3210 B 1/2 Road. Parole officers were outside around noon on Dec. 14 when Sanchez reportedly walked out of the home carrying an assault rifle, then took up a position in an adjacent field and behind a tree.
“Preliminary attempts to communicate with Mr. Sanchez were by MCSO Deputy Justin Bynum, but he was too far away from Mr. Sanchez to communicate effectively,” the letter reads.
Around 2 p.m., the Bearcat tactical vehicle was brought to the area and deputies were in contact with Sanchez via loudspeaker.
“Deputy Salazar made multiple references to family and Christmas in an effort to get Mr. Sanchez to surrender peacefully,” the letter said. “Mr. Sanchez was heard to reply that they would have to come and take him out, that he did not have anything to live for and he had lost his family. Mr. Sanchez was also observed placing his rifle under his own chin several times.”
McClellan, a trained SWAT sniper, took a position on top of a shed at 281 32 1/2 Road, roughly 250 yards east of Sanchez’s position. Less-lethal measures were considered but ultimately ruled out, the letter said.
“It was apparent that in order to deploy less lethal measures, SWAT Team members would have to exit the Bearcat and expose themselves directly to the risk of Mr. Sanchez firing upon them,” Hautzinger’s letter said.
McClellan around 3:30 p.m. fired an initial shot at Sanchez, who raised up suddenly and appeared ready to shoot. The shot missed. McClellan explained his decision to fire this way:
“Deputy McClellan later told CIRT investigators that he fired the first shot because he was concerned for the safety of anyone down-range from where Sanchez was pointing his rifle,” the letter said. CIRT is the Critical Incident Response Team that investigates officer-involved shootings in Mesa County.
He hadn’t been ordered to fire, the letter noted.
“He knew the SKS rifle Mr. Sanchez was armed with fired a high-powered round and believed that anyone in the area was in danger ... The closest people to Sanchez were in the Bearcat and there were people beyond them down C Road within a quarter mile away. Other officers were behind patrol cars.”
Tactics changed around 4 p.m. A decision was made to get closer to Sanchez using the Bearcat. It slowly moved forward and stopped about 40 feet from him.
“Unfortunately Mr. Sanchez immediately became significantly more agitated,” the letter said.
Sanchez was said to have repeatedly pointed the weapon at the Bearcat. McClellan, meanwhile, reported being told by a SWAT team leader, “if you have a target.”
Forty-five minutes after the first missed shot, he fired again “and immediately saw Mr. Sanchez go down.”
“Deputy McClellan immediately chambered another round and he then saw Mr. Sanchez’s gun come up again and point again toward the Bearcat,” the letter said. “Deputy McClellan fired a third and final shot.”
When SWAT officers moved in, a wounded Sanchez “asked to talk to the person he’d been talking to earlier (sheriff’s negotiator). Mr. Sanchez did not make any more statements.”
He died at St. Mary’s Hospital.
Authorities later determined the SKS rifle used to menace officers had been stolen Dec. 12 from 3201 B 1/2 Road by unknown suspects.