Shoot­ing puts fo­cus on hir­ing

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

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - 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.

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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