Documents offer dramatic account from trooper who shot gunman on I-70 in May |

Documents offer dramatic account from trooper who shot gunman on I-70 in May

Will Grandbois
Law enforcement personnel at the scene of the shooting.
Christopher Mullen / Post Independent |

Convicted felon Thomas Ornelas sustained 11 gunshot wounds and Colorado State Trooper Eugene Hofacker suffered three gunshot wounds in the May 8 shootout on Interstate 70 that killed Ornelas and put Hofacker in the hospital, according to documents obtained by the Post Independent.

In a same-day interview with investigators, Trooper Shane Gosnell described the circumstances that lead him to shoot and kill Ornelas.

Gosnell reported that Hofacker was giving him a ride to a training in his patrol car and were in the left lane when they observed a red BMW parked to the side of I-70 at around 9 a.m. According to Gosnell, State Patrol policy instructs troopers to stop for all motorist assists in Glenwood Canyon, abandoned or otherwise, due to narrow lines, small shoulders, and lack of cell reception.

The pair pulled over, though the process of merging from the left lane reportedly brought the patrol car closer to the stopped vehicle than is standard for such stops, documents from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office investigation said.

Hofacker approached the passenger side of the vehicle, knocked on the window, opened the door and talked with the occupant, later identified as Thomas Ornelas, 40, of Montrose.

After getting out of the car, Gosnell said he heard what seemed to be an argument between Hofacker and the driver, and radioed in an intoxicated, uncooperative driver. Hofacker then approached the driver’s side door, which was slightly ajar, told the Ornelas to stay in the car and asked for documentation.

As Hofacker handed Gosnell the documents and asked him to run them, Gosnell reported that Ornelas told the troopers, “I don’t want you here. I don’t need you here. Just leave me alone.”

Gosnell said Hofacker then asked Ornelas to step out of the vehicle while Gosnell walked back to the patrol car to radio in the information. As he turned away from the road to block the wind, Gosnell heard a gunshot, followed by a scream and another shot as he turned back to the scene. He drew his gun and came around the patrol car to the front driver’s side. From this vantage point, he saw Ornelas holding a black semiautomatic handgun and Hofacker retreating backward and attempting to take cover.

After his first few shots had no apparent effect, Gosnell said he kept firing until Ornelas dropped to his knees, then fired more when Ornelas failed to drop the weapon.

Gosnell does not recall either himself or Hofacker issuing any verbal commands to Ornelas once the shooting began.

In all, Gosnell fired 14 rounds from his duty weapon. The weapon’s capacity was reported as 15 rounds in the magazine and another in the chamber. It was the first time Gosnell had used deadly force since joining the Colorado State Patrol in January 2011.

Once Ornelas was on the ground, Gosnell said he approached and kicked away the handgun. He observed that Ornelas was moaning but not moving much, and turned his attention to Hofacker, who was bleeding from the leg.

Hofacker reportedly told Gosnell that Ornelas had pulled the gun from under the driver’s seat, and that Hofacker had tried to pull his taser and his gun.

Shortly thereafter, Cpl. Coby Smart arrived and tended to Hofacker. Gosnell surrendered his weapon to Smart and Smart provided Gosnell with his own weapon while the scene was secured. He told Gosnell to handcuff Ornelas, who had not appeared to move since the final shot, according to the report.

When paramedics arrived, they tried unsuccessfully to revive Ornelas. He was pronounced dead at the scene by the Garfield County coroner at 10:45 a.m.

Meanwhile, Hofacker was taken to Valley View Hospital where he underwent surgery beginning at around 10:30 a.m. I-70 had been shut down and westbound lanes would remain closed until late afternoon.

At the hospital, fragments of at least three bullets were removed from Hofacker’s right elbow, right thigh, and right calf, according to the report.

According the Garfield County coroner’s report, most of Ornelas 11 gunshot wounds were confined to his chest and abdomen.

Gosnell’s first shot passed through Ornelas’s left wrist before striking him in the chest, where it grazed his left lung and pierced his diaphragm and spleen. Ornelas sustained 10 more shots in the chest, hip, abdomen, and crotch. Although the Coroner’s report listed the cause of death as multiple gunshot wounds, it noted that the eighth bullet, which passed through his heart and lungs, would have been fatal on its own.

“This gunshot wound was not instantly incapacitating, but was rapidly fatal,” read the report.

The forensic pathologist found no evidence that any of the gunshot wounds occurred at close range, indicating an approximate distance of 10 feet.

The autopsy also found evidence of past cocaine use by Ornelas, a blood alcohol level of .186 percent, and indications of steatohepatitis, a type of liver failure associated with alcoholism.

Ornelas was visually identified and had several distinguishing tattoos, including the name “Ornelas” across his upper back. He arrived at the morgue handcuffed and bearing two defibrillation pads from the attempted resuscitation.

The subsequent investigation into the shooting revealed that Ornelas was en route to his home in Montrose from the Denver area. He had indicated to a friend earlier in the day that he was having mechanical trouble and that he may need to be picked up. A search of Ornelas’ vehicle, a 2006 BMW that registered to Ornelas, uncovered a pair of bindles of suspected drugs, one on the driver’s side floor board and one under the driver’s seat. Each 4-ounce bindle field tested presumptive positive for cocaine, as did a pair of smaller bindles found on Ornelas’s person. Additional narcotics were later identified as methylbenzylpiperazine, which is a stimulant. Two flip phones and a smartphone were also found in the car and logged as evidence.

A Hi-Point 9mm handgun was also found at the scene and matched to a bullet removed during Hofacker’s operation. Those retrieved from the Ornelas were matched to Gosnell’s weapon.

Civilian witness reported seeing officers with guns out, officers giving care to a downed trooper, and emergency vehicles on route to the scene, but none appear to have witnessed the shooting itself.

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office turned over all reports, photographs, and other evidence to the Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s Office for their review. Included in their official report is a statement from the District Attorney’s Office.

“The Office of the District Attorney finds that Trooper Gosnell’s actions in shooting and ultimately killing Ornelas were justified and in self-defense and in defense of Trooper Hofacker,” it reads. “Accordingly, no criminal charges will be filed against Trooper Gosnell for his conduct in this incident.”

With Ornelas dead, the DA’s verdict effectively closes the investigation into the events of May 8.

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