The trial for the man who shot and killed a Mesa County sheriff's deputy two years ago was called off Tuesday when, a week into jury selection, the defendant agreed to plead guilty to reduced charges in exchange for the hope of freedom.
Austin Holzer, who was 17 years and 10 months old when he fatally shot Deputy Derek Geer in the face and neck on Feb. 8, 2016, originally pleaded not guilty to a slew of charges including first-degree murder and first-degree assault.
Hundreds of prospective jurors first reported for duty on May 18, and attorneys thought they would have a jury seated in the next week.
Holzer, whose attorneys didn't deny he had fired the fatal shot, was supposed to spend the next several weeks in trial.
Instead, on Tuesday, the now 20-year-old Holzer appeared before District Judge Gretchen Larson and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree assault and a sentence-enhancing count of crime of violence, a plea that will include a 70-year prison sentence.
He won't become eligible for parole for 40 years.
"This has been a long time coming," Mesa County Sheriff Matt Lewis said after the hearing.
"This has been over two years we've been waiting to experience what we just experienced in this courtroom and finally bring some end to what we expected to be a very lengthy trial in this case," Lewis said.
Holzer's case has been high-profile from the beginning. Geer was a Navy veteran who had worked for the department 15 years when he was fatally shot, leaving behind a wife and two children. Holzer was a teenage runaway with a sex offense on his record, a poor relationship with his long-since separated parents and a methamphetamine problem, a lifestyle he financed through theft and drug-dealing.
When the two met on a snowy roadside in Pear Park, Holzer knew he was wanted on a warrant. He didn't want to go to jail.
Geer warned him. Holzer struggled. Geer pulled a Taser. Holzer pulled a handgun and shot the 40-year-old in the face and neck.
When other deputies arrived on scene, they found Holzer hiding in a nearby yard.
Geer was kept on life support for two days to arrange his organ donations. He was only the second Mesa County sheriff's deputy to be killed in the line of duty. The first, jailer Edward Innes, was killed by an inmate in 1906.
Holzer's age was immediately a focal point in the case. Mesa County prosecutors Mark Hand and Trish Mahre filed charges against him in adult court, noting that at 17 years and 10 months, the teen had already been supporting himself for some time.
Public defenders Sheryl Uhlmann and Scott Burrill hotly contested the move, attempting to prove to District Judge Richard Gurley during a drawn-out series of hearings that Holzer should be treated like a juvenile. They pointed to his immaturity, his unhappy childhood.
Gurley in April 2017 dealt Holzer's team a blow when he ruled that the teen should be tried as an adult.
Gurley also rejected a request from the defense to move Holzer's case out of the county out of fear that publicity of the case would make it nearly impossible to seat an unbiased jury.
Holzer's trial was scheduled to begin in January. Holzer's attorneys implied in pre-trial pleadings that they intended to argue self-defense in Geer's shooting death. Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein indicated in an interview that his office intended to push for a life in prison sentence if Holzer were convicted of first-degree murder of a peace officer, an issue which Holzer's team was expected to fight.
The trial was delayed following a discovery violation by the defense, however, and was pushed into the spring. The case hit another road bump just before trial when, following an emergent family situation, Gurley had to step away from the case. It was re-assigned to Larson about a week before trial.
Holzer's trial got off to a slow start. Attorneys took a full week to speak to prospective jurors one-on-one, and had only just begun to interview them as a group Friday before the Memorial Day weekend began. The possibility of not being able to seat a panel of Mesa County jurors weighed heavily, according to Rubinstein.
"One of the concerns we had was whether or not we'd actually be able to seat a jury, which could delay the case even further," he said Tuesday.
It's not clear how negotiations for the plea unfolded, but Rubinstein said Geer's family members finally sat down with prosecutors at 7 p.m. Monday evening to discuss the details of what the deal would mean.
"I think the important thing for us was making sure that the family was comfortable with (the plea bargain)," Lewis said. "This is about doing right for them and about bringing justice for Derek."
Rubinstein said a legal complexity around whether a judge could sentence Holzer to life in prison without the possibility of parole was a factor in the deal as well. Colorado law prohibits life sentences for juveniles, but prosecutors originally thought they could pursue the sentence under an exception for the statute involving murder of a peace officer.
"There's a lot of unknowns about whether or not the Colorado statute authorizing that for juveniles is constitutional," Rubinstein said Tuesday. "That was what the family was most interested in avoiding: a lifelong battle and potentially getting a phone call 10 or 15 years from now that there was an error in the trial and they needed to start over."
Ultimately, Rubinstein and Lewis said, the family decided they were onboard with the sentence, which will ensure Holzer stays beyond bars at least until he's nearly 60 years old.
On Tuesday morning, it was clear word of the change in the plea had spread. The rows behind the prosecution's desk in the courtroom were packed with Geer's family members, friends and colleagues from several law enforcement agencies, some of whom appeared in uniform, many of whom elected to stand throughout the hearing.
Geer's patrol squad, the deputies who were on duty with him when he was shot, was in attendance.
The rows behind Holzer were mainly empty except for reporters, a stray defense attorney, and a few sheriff's office employees who had nowhere to sit on the other side.
Holzer only spoke to respond "yes," and "yes, ma'am," as Larson read through the terms of his plea and asked whether he understood what he was agreeing to.
Pleading guilty to the second-degree murder of Geer as a crime of violence. Pleading guilty to first-degree assault as a crime of violence. Pleading guilty to a new charge of first-degree possession of contraband for the shiv jailers found in his Mesa County Jail cell last August.
While Holzer's sentence is already decided, he won't be formally sentenced and his plea won't be formally accepted by Larson until Tuesday.
Holzer's attorneys didn't respond to a request for comment. Geer's family members said they wanted to wait until sentencing to comment publicly.
Lewis said the plea agreement has brought his office a sense of relief and closure.
"I think there was a lot of concern about things that may be said about one of our former deputies that wouldn't be things that were easy for the family to hear," Lewis said. "A huge weight has been lifted off of our shoulders. … We will never forget Deputy Geer. We will never stop honoring his sacrifice for this community, but we understand as an organization we must move forward and we must continue to do good things for this community."