Three Grand Junction cops fired
A trio of Grand Junction Police Department officers were fired Thursday after an internal investigation confirmed they used pocket knives to slash tents, bicycle tires and clothes lines while searching for a suspect at a transient camp last month.
Officers Justin Roberts, 31, Phil Van Why, 35, and Joseph Mulcahy, 28, however, will not be prosecuted for those same acts, District Attorney Pete Hautzinger said.
Two other officers were handed what Police Chief John Camper called “minor” internal discipline for failing to report what they had heard about the incident.
Camper said the three officers who were fired were cooperative with the internal investigation — a condition of continued employment — but none of them agreed to speak to Mesa County Sheriff’s Department investigators who worked a criminal probe. According to reports generated in the Sheriff’s Department investigation, the three officers declined to speak after retaining attorneys.
Camper told a news conference the officers had failed the department’s standards.
“I’m angry because our department is truly concerned about the growing transient problem in this community, but now any steps I would take to try and address that issue cooperatively with other agencies would likely be viewed as either vindictive or pandering,” Camper said, reading a prepared statement. “When we act in a mean-spirited or retaliatory manner, we not only let down our citizens, but we let down ourselves as well.”
Officers on the morning of May 3 went to “The Point,” a series of camps near the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers, in search of a man wanted for questioning in a theft investigation involving copper wiring, Camper said.
At the time, there was no warrant for the man’s arrest, but Camper said the man was contacted and arrested at a later time.
According to a report, a sheriff’s investigator was able to confirm nine people had specific claims of damage, totalling $977, including five tents that were slashed or otherwise damaged, including poles broken, as well as cut tires on three bicycles.
Joseph Widener, 59, who was interviewed May 10 while incarcerated at the Mesa County Jail, said he traded his $200 hiking boots in order to get his tent, which he returned to find slashed.
” ... he stated his five sleeping bags inside were wet from some unknown liquid,” adding the interior of the tent had been “gone through,” the report said.
According to the report, Widener told investigators “all the clothing he had hung up to dry was now down on the ground. He stated the stuff in his storage (second) tent was strewn about.”
Ryan Loper, 26, told investigators he encountered a group of three to four officers near the Orchard Mesa Cemetery. Loper said one officer told him it was “none of his business” why the officers were there, and he was told to leave.
When he later reached his camp, Loper said his 10-foot-by-12-foot tent was slashed corner to corner.
“He stated the tarp covering his tent was also cut down and the poles were damaged,” a report reads. “He had to spend the rest of his money on a new tent.”
According to the Sheriff’s Department reports, six Grand Junction officers agreed to interviews in the criminal probe, including at least two officers who had after-the-fact encounters with the now-fired officers. None of the conversations was immediately brought to the attention of superiors.
Officer Robert Heil told investigators that Roberts, during a noon conversation the two had on May 3, noted having food still stuck on his night stick.
“He stated officer Roberts told him he had been hitting some food items at a transient camp,” the report said, adding Roberts acknowledged cutting tents in the area but provided no reason for the action.
“... it’s no big; just abandoned stuff ... property down there,” Heil said he was told by Roberts.
Heil added he initially believed Roberts was just “talking stuff.”
Roberts joined the department in September 2006, Van Why in April 2007 and Mulcahy in August 2008. Mulcahy and Van Why had received minor discipline in three separate internal affairs investigations prior to their firing, Camper said.
Among the incidents, Mulcahy received “counseling” after he apparently failed to place his patrol car into proper gear after he tried to park it during an incident in 2009, causing the vehicle to roll backward into a ditch.
A CRIME, NO CHARGES
Hautzinger wrote in a letter to Camper and Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey that the criminal investigation showed a “weak” case. Camper distributed the letter during Thursday’s news conference.
“There are no eyewitnesses to the alleged criminal acts, there is no forensic evidence, the property was left unattended for several hours in an open field accessible by the general public and a significant number of the victims declined to cooperate,” Hautzinger wrote.
Camper and Hautzinger on Thursday cited state statutes that mandate information gathered in an internal affairs process can’t be shared with prosecutors or a criminal probe.
Hautzinger said a case essentially would boil down to evidence that property was left undisturbed on the morning of May 3, but was “very clearly found damaged by the victims later in the day,” with the officers in the vicinity in the period between.
“While I have little doubt that criminal acts took place, I see no hope of being able to prove who committed them,” Hautzinger wrote.
Jacob Richards, a local homeless advocate whose formal complaint on May 5 spurred the investigations, expressed gratitude at the efforts of Camper and his staff.
“They took it seriously from the start,” Richards said.
Richards, who was recently provided with 11 new tents for the individuals involved in the incident, said he still is trying to locate two people whose property was damaged, and he is waiting to visit a third person who resides in the Mesa County Jail.
“I know some of the victims haven’t ruled out pursuing a civil action,” he said. “A few lawyers have been calling.”