‘Staggering’ number of defendants in homicide cases
Prosecutors in Mesa County are dealing with 21 murder- and homicide-related cases, three of which involve killings that happened more than 16 years ago and two of which have defendants still evading arrest.
The defendant list includes a teenage girl who is alleged to have killed her foster mother and a 19-year-old man who battled to be prosecuted as a juvenile in the killing of a deputy sheriff.
The case list also includes gang-related slayings, crimes of passion and a tragic killing stemming from a running gunfight.
The number of homicide- related cases pending in the county is “staggering,” said Bill Gardner, a former Grand Junction police chief and former Mesa County undersheriff.
“It’s even more staggering when you figure in the cases that we’ve dealt with already this year,” District Attorney Dan Rubinstein said, noting the successful prosecutions of Lester Ralph Jones in the murder of Paige Birgfeld and that of Rebekah Wallin and Shanna Gossett in the killing of Bethannie Johnson.
As it breaks down, the prosecutor’s office has more homicides than attorneys who prosecute homicide cases, and many of those involve high-profile and high-stakes trials. The 22-attorney office includes 15 spots for prosecutors who handle felony cases.
“We lost three of our five senior trial deputies in the last four months to higher-paying, lower-stress prosecution jobs with other offices,” Rubinstein said.
What it boils down to is that each of the attorneys who handle homicides has an average of about four cases so far this year.
There is no such thing as a routine homicide case, Rubinstein said, but many of those now pending, as well as the Jones case, have been complex, which means time-consuming and expensive and possibly beyond the means of many offices.
“Many jurisdictions would have never filed it because it’s so complex,” Rubinstein said.
Jones avoided a guilty verdict in his first trial and was convicted in the second one.
His is not the only case to get a second trial.
Michael Blagg is in the Mesa County Jail awaiting his second trial in the 2001 killing of his wife, Jennifer. The trial is to be conducted in Jefferson County.
A second trial also is going forward in the case of Julius Sutton, whose convictions of murder, arson assault and other crimes in connection with the death of Bill Smith in 2012 were overturned.
The oldest case now awaiting trial is that of Rafael “Shorty” Garcia, who faces a charge of first-degree murder in the killing of Charles Porter on July 4, 1989.
Old cases pose problems that more recent ones do not. Witnesses might no longer be alive, others might have moved and have to be tracked down. Issues about evidence can arise and other problems can crop up.
“Obviously the out-of-pocket financial costs are huge on older cases,” Rubinstein said.
Seeming cold cases, such as that pending against Jaime Cardenas and Fidel Silva, demand time, Rubinstein said, noting that he maintains regular contact with the family of the man who was shot to death on North Avenue, Jorge Carrasco, in 2011. Cardenas and Silva fled after the 2011 killing.
Similarly, the district attorney’s office is awaiting the opportunity to try Jose Tanori-Ruiz in the 1993 death of Beatrice Montes. Tanori-Ruiz hasn’t been arrested, but the case against him remains active.
The DA’s office also is preparing to try Austin Holzer for first-degree murder in the Feb. 8, 2106, shooting death of Mesa County Deputy Sheriff Derek Geer. Prosecutors prevailed this spring in a protracted battle to try Holzer as an adult.
One way to hold down the costs of prosecutions is to reach agreement with defendants, which has the added benefit of certainty. Plea bargains include agreements not to appeal.
“The biggest fear we have in any murder case is the one like the Blagg situation, where you put all your resources into a trial and years later you have to make a phone call” to the victim’s family and inform them that a new trial has been ordered.
“In my world, no conviction is final,” Rubinstein said.
The office policy, however, is to follow the wishes of family members and the voters, he said.
“We don’t back down from fights we think our community wants us to fight,” Rubinstein said.
Other homicide-related cases being handled by the prosecutor’s office include:
■ Terrence “TJ” Richardson, first-degree murder in the death of Caleb Fettig on Dec. 5, 2016;
■ Matthew Mitchell and Michael Anthony Dupont, first-degree murder charges in connection with the Oct. 16, 2016, killing of Paul Davis in Palisade;
■ Amy Trusty, a felony count of accessory to murder in the death of Davis;
■ Aleksandr Kolpakov, a second-degree murder charge in connection with the killing of Heather Anable on May 14;
■ Stephanie Hauck, second-degree murder in the stabbing death of foster mother Linda Smith on Feb. 13;
■ John Stene, awaiting charges in connection with the June 17 killing of Travis Carothers;
■ Richard Alexander Byrd, Rufus Billups, Gregory Clark, first-degree murder charges in connection with the March 15 slaying of Dion Nixon;
■ Alexander Fedak, criminally negligent homicide in the death of his girlfriend, Shandie Case, on Nov. 16. Authorities allege that Fedak shot Case unintentionally while engaged in a running gun battle with another driver;
■ Jeremy Mushrush, manslaughter in the shooting death of 11-year-old Caden Randolph;
■ Grace Aragon, awaiting sentencing for negligent child abuse resulting in the death of her 9-month-old son, Ryan Kruckenberg, on June 24, 2106.