Rifle killer asking for supervised outings
A judge on Thursday will consider whether a man who was sent to a state mental hospital after killing four people and wounding three more in a mass shooting in Rifle 11 years ago should be allowed to make supervised community outings.
The request by Steven Michael Stagner, 53, will be heard by Ninth Judicial District Court Judge Denise Lynch during what’s scheduled to be a full-day hearing.
Stagner was found not guilty by reason of insanity on murder, attempted murder and other charges in connection with the incident just before midnight on July 3, 2001. The shootings occurred in the area of City Market and a nearby trailer park, and the victims were Mexican nationals.
Following the verdict, he was admitted to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo. There, evaluators have recommended that he be allowed to take trips off-grounds for supervised work and for leisure outings such as eating at restaurants, going to movies and taking hikes. He would be kept within sight of mental hospital staff at all times.
The Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s Office is opposing the request. In a court filing, it cited “the extreme and severe nature of Defendant’s mental illness, its highly unpredictable nature, and the deadly consequences that have stemmed therefrom…,”
The filing said that “allowing Defendant to roam among the public, whether supervised or not, is simply too high a risk to take.”
It also said that despite the deaths of innocent people and the “trail of destruction” that resulted for seven families,” the hospital “seeks to begin the process of reintegrating Defendant back into society with the goal of eventually releasing Defendant back in to the community.”
A hospital report said the privileges “would not enable Mr. Stagner unaccompanied access to the community, nor would (they) precipitate community placement.”
“Mr. Stagner will continue to reside at” the hospital, the report said.
It said the supervised outings would benefit Stagner by providing opportunities “to generalize his skills, thereby reducing his risk to others.”
The hospital said that the “problem preventing Mr. Stagner from progressing to the community appears to be the strong reaction elicited from the nature of his … offense and the resistance that is anticipated” in court in Garfield County.
In 2006, District Attorney Martin Beeson opposed, and Lynch denied, a request for a special furlough to allow Stagner to participate in a supervised camping trip.
Hospital officials indicate Stagner initially was reluctant to seek off-ground privileges, as well as other ones over the years, which they cite as evidence of his sadness and remorse over the shootings. Last year, during an interview with a hospital committee, he broke down in tears discussing the incident and had to leave the room, the hospital said.
In support of Stagner’s request, the hospital says he’s been allowed five years of unsupervised privileges on the unsecured hospital grounds without escaping, abusing substances, assaulting others or causing other problems.
Stagner is a Rifle native and 1977 Rifle High School graduate who began displaying mental problems in the early 1980s after his return from the Army. He was first hospitalized in Pueblo in 1983, and was diagnosed then with schizophrenia. He was treated multiple times at the Grand Junction VA Medical Center. He also was taken there by police and Secret Service agents after making a threat against President Clinton in 1995, court records show.
They show he also had a history of substance abuse and religious delusion, referring to himself as Michael the Archangel and talking of the need to protect women and children and “wipe out evil people.”
The morning of the shootings, a witness reported that Stagner was jumping in and out of traffic and yelling at vehicles in Grand Junction. Grand Junction police say he then stopped in their station and said “there’s going to be a turkey shoot,” without elaborating.
After the shootings, Rifle police found Stagner hiding behind a minivan and arrested him without incident.
He had said he had planned to fire his gun to celebrate the Fourth of July, and told police he didn’t remember anything about the shootings until after he was in jail. He also said he had been off his medications for days and also had gone days with little sleep.
He also denied hating Latinos or the victims, whom he didn’t know.
Stagner reportedly called one of the victims an “(expletive) Mexican” before shooting him. In 2009, the hospital reports, a staff member there said Stagner had commented, “Send me to Mexico with a bunch of weapons,” but Stagner denied making the comment.
Prosecutors call Stagner’s history at the hospital “far from spotless or reassuring,” noting that it mentions several instances in which he displayed what the hospital called “warning signs” despite being on several medications.
However, the hospital referred to signs such as “minor relapses” that often occurred around the anniversary of the shootings.
Some of the warning signs have included racing thoughts, changes in sleep patterns, increased irritability and displays of hyper-religiosity, such as commenting in 2007 that he was “full of the Holy Spirit and could bring home the troops,” the hospital reported.
It said medication helped resolve some of these symptoms, and Stagner also has become able to correctly identify these early warning signs. He also has acknowledged a potential to “become lethal” if he goes off his medications and has said he no longer wishes to keep weapons. “If you don’t have a weapon, you don’t use it,” he told an interview committee.
A committee report acknowledged that Stagner has made comments that raise questions about his insight and remorse. It quoted him as saying, “The Army trained me to kill. … It could happen again if I had to defend myself. … That night something happened to me … it scares me.”