The Denver Post

Shooting puts focus on hiring

The Rocky Ford incident casts light on how few rules govern who can and cannot be a cop.

- By Christophe­r N. Osher

The Rocky Ford Police Department hired James Ashby as a police officer even though crime victims in another town where he had worked complained that he was belligeren­t and had treated them as suspects. Now he’s charged with murder.

Mickey Bethel became police chief of Rocky Ford after a former boss described him as “a cancer” on the Pueblo Police Department, where he was fired after a sex video of him and his wife with another man surfaced.

Bethel’s son, Justin, patrols the streets of Rocky Ford despite criminal conviction­s, some of them while a juvenile, for prohibited use of a gun while drunk, careless driving, possession of drug parapherna­lia and driving while ability impaired.

Rocky Ford hired Darin Poole, a former mixed martial arts cage fighter who was fired from the Adams County Sheriff’s Department after authoritie­s charged him with assaulting an inmate. He also had resigned from the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office amid controvers­y over his beating of a 63-year-old disabled man after a traffic stop, a beating described in court testimony as a pit bull attacking a dead chicken.

In a state with little regulation over who can and cannot work as a police officer, Rocky Ford is a potent example of the phenomenon

authoritie­s call “second-chance officers” — law enforcemen­t personnel who cycle from department to department despite serious blemishes on their records.

Rare murder charge

In the case of Ashby, who is no longer with the police force, prosecutor­s have filed criminal charges, including second-degree murder, in the fatal shooting of 27year-old Jack Jacquez Jr. on Oct. 12 in the home of Jacquez’s mother.

It is the first homicide case for an on-duty police shooting to be prosecuted in Colorado in two decades.

At least four of Rocky Ford’s 10 officers have had problems in previous law-enforcemen­t jobs or had criminal conviction­s that might have kept them from being hired at bigger department­s or in other states, The Denver Post found.

Although some states have strict laws regulating the hiring process, Colorado leaves the scope of background checks for police hiring largely up to local officials. The depth of those investigat­ions varies widely throughout the state — as rural communitie­s with limited budgets look for qualified police officers. Police often make less than $30,000 annually in rural Colorado, while in Denver they are paid more than $70,000 annually.

Some see the lax standards for hiring as dangerous, even lethal.

“That is the number one contributi­ng factor to my son’s death,” said Jack Jacquez Sr., who maintains that Rocky Ford failed to adequately investigat­e Ashby’s background.

“My son wouldn’t be dead if they hadn’t hired him,” Jacquez said of Ashby. “There should be a minimum background check requiremen­t. You are putting them in a position where they are carrying a firearm. They are supposed to serve and protect.”

New protocols

Rocky Ford City Manager Ian Kaiser said that since the fatal shooting, the city has put in place new hiring protocols and a new training program for officers.

“We’re vetting people now,” said Kaiser, who was hired as city manager in Rocky Ford about six months before the shooting. “We’re putting in good people the best we can when you can’t pay them very well here. We’re turning it around. We have to.”

Rocky Ford, population of about 4,000, isn’t alone. Russell “Wayne” Eller got hired as town marshal of tiny Dinosaur in northwest Colorado in 2006 after he claimed he had been a former CIA and FBI agent with a history of investigat­ing corrupt cops. In reality, he had been a reserve sheriff ’s deputy in North Carolina.

Dinosaur fired Eller later that year after evidence surfaced that he had been falsifying time sheets in an attempt to get a raise. He was charged with three felony counts for allegedly lying about his profession­al background and accepted a deferred prosecutio­n agreement.

The Mountain View Police Department, just west of Denver, also has come under criticism. At least six current and former officers, including the chief, have had past personnel issues at other department­s.

Background checks key

“Any larger enlightene­d agency does a thorough background investigat­ion,” said Dan Oates, the former police chief in Aurora who now is the chief of the Miami Beach, Fla., Police Department. “But smaller agencies in smaller states like Colorado don’t have robust investigat­ions. They might not even check with a prior employer.”

In Florida, Oates must check a state database that tracks past Florida law enforcemen­t employment before he can hire an officer. That database also details when officers have been fired or forced to resign from Florida agencies.

In Colorado, the attorney general’s office maintains a database that tracks where officers have worked in the state, but AG officials refuse to release the data to the public or even to chiefs wanting to check into the past employment of an applicant. Colorado’s database also doesn’t track firings or forced resignatio­ns, as Florida’s does.

“It’s a bare bones outfit in Colorado,” Oates said.

Arizona requires local agencies to contact all past employers, review past police personnel records and do lie detector tests in addition to criminal background checks before making hires. State officials there also audit local agencies to make sure they are taking those steps along with other state requiremen­ts before hiring an officer.

No review for Ashby

In the Rocky Ford case, the former police chief, Frank Gallegos, has said he hired Ashby in 2013 without reviewing the internal affairs investigat­ions and complaints against Ashby in Walsenburg, where Ashby worked from 2009 through 2013.

Walsenburg Police Chief Tommie McLallen said Gallegos only asked for the dates of Ashby’s tenure there and asked general questions about his employment. He said Gallegos didn’t probe further after he told him Ashby wouldn’t be eligible for rehire in Walsenburg.

“He was a challenge to work with,” McLallen said of Ashby.

A further review of the Walsenburg personnel records would have shown Ashby was discharged from a Pueblo Kmart after working for a month in loss prevention before going into police work. On his Walsenburg applicatio­n, Ashby said the discharge was the result of a complaint from a co-worker.

Personnel file

His 96-page personnel file shows Walsenburg residents complained that Ashby used foul and derogatory language and was quick to escalate matters. His superiors admonished him for using profane language with a probation official and for sexually harassing a dispatcher. He resigned while being investigat­ed for allegedly using excessive force against female members of a family that had called police to remove their drunken brother.

Demi Vallejos said Ashby treated her as a suspect rather than as a victim after her family asked police to remove her drunken brother. She accused Ashby of placing her in handcuffs and body-slamming her into the pavement after she questioned why he was arresting the wrong family member.

Ashby resigned while those allegation­s were being reviewed. After his departure, the Walsenburg department eventually found her complaint unfounded.

Four months after he was hired to work as a police officer in Rocky Ford, Ashby stopped Jacquez, who was skateboard­ing along a main street, followed him to his mother’s home and fatally shot him in the back.

Under investigat­ion

At the time of the shooting, Ashby was under investigat­ion for an excessive-force complaint, and he had been the subject of two other internal-affairs investigat­ors in Rocky Ford, records show.

Ashby told investigat­ors he thought Jacquez was a burglar and that he believed Jacquez was going to attack him with a baseball bat.

But Ashby never identified himself as a police officer and had no reason to believe Jacquez was committing a crime before the shooting, the Colorado Bureau of Investigat­ion found. Investigat­ors also found that Jacquez was not a threat when Ashby fired his gun twice, striking Jacquez once.

The investigat­ors said Ashby lied about circumstan­ces before and after the shooting. The physical evidence contradict­ed Ashby’s statements, as did the version of the events provided by a brother of another Rocky Ford officer who was riding in the marked police car with Ashby, the investigat­ors determined.

Ashby, whose trial is scheduled for January, has pleaded innocent.

Other officers

Regarding the other Rocky Ford officers’ background­s, Bethel said he did not hire his son and that most of his son’s past offenses occurred when he was a juvenile. Poole was acquitted of the charges that got him fired from Adams County, and a lawsuit against him stemming from the Sedgwick incident was unsuccessf­ul.

After the Jacquez shooting, Kaiser, the city manager, promoted Bethel from captain to chief. In 2006, Bethel was fired from the Pueblo Police Department following disclosure of the sex tape he made with his wife, Tammy, and another man with a long criminal history.

Kaiser said Bethel has done a good job as the new chief in Rocky Ford, as have the officers that remain under him. He stressed that a Pueblo jury acquitted Bethel, the chief, of a criminal charge of official misconduct, and the judge threw out a witness-tampering charge. He also noted that Bethel received a $20,000 settlement after filing a federal lawsuit accusing his superiors in Pueblo of targeting him for retaliatio­n because of his and his wife’s sexual preference­s.

“The state recognized him as a cop,” Kaiser said. “So why wouldn’t I?”

“There should be a minimum background check requiremen­t. You are putting them in a position where they are carrying a firearm.

They are supposed to serve and protect.”

 ??  ?? Rocky Ford Officer James Ashby, left, is charged with murder in the death of Jack Jacquez Jr., right.
Rocky Ford Officer James Ashby, left, is charged with murder in the death of Jack Jacquez Jr., right.
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 ??  ?? Jack Jacquez Sr., 60, has spent the days since his son was killed poring over the facts of the case, trying to understand what happened. Jack Jacquez was shot and killed in his mother’s home by a Rocky Ford police officer in October 2014. Mahala...
Jack Jacquez Sr., 60, has spent the days since his son was killed poring over the facts of the case, trying to understand what happened. Jack Jacquez was shot and killed in his mother’s home by a Rocky Ford police officer in October 2014. Mahala...

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