Man shot on I-70 armed, extremely high on meth
Garfield County deputies Justin Wareham and Lester Gherardini were justified in the February shooting death of Brian Fritze after a chase on Interstate 70, 9th Judicial District Attorney Sherry Caloia said in a letter this week to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Fritze was armed with a loaded handgun and had an extraordinarily high level of methamphetamine in his system when the deputies simultaneously opened fire with AR-15 rifles, Caloia’s letter and an autopsy report made public Tuesday said.
Caloia said no changes would be filed.
“We commend the deputies for their dogged actions to this quickly evolving situation,” Caloia wrote. “The deputies reasonably believed that Fritze was irrational, armed and dangerous and desperate and could very well use deadly physical force against members of the general public as an attempt to flee the scene. Under the specific facts of the case, the Office of the District Attorney finds that the deputies’ actions in shooting and ultimately killing Fritze were justified in defense of themselves and others.”
In her letter, Caloia laid out a detailed chronology of the events before Fritze was shot to death on the side of I-70 near Canyon Creek on Feb. 10.
Around 2 p.m., Caloia wrote, Fritze violated a protection order by slamming his wife against a wall and brandishing a weapon that later turned out to be a BB gun. He had a real firearm, Caloia wrote, on I-70.
He fled the scene of the attack on his wife before police arrived, but was later spotted near a well pad near Parachute, prompting a 90-100 mph chase along the Interstate beginning at mile marker 81, with Fritze weaving his red Dodge pickup truck in and out of traffic.
After the Colorado State Patrol used spikes to flatten the front tires of the truck, Fritze exited the interstate at Canyon Creek, where he was trapped by deputies and police on both side of the ramp.
A K-9 unit was brought out while Wareham instructed Fritze to get out of the truck with his hands up. He continued to order Fritze to surrender as Fritze exited the truck and pointed a handgun at his own head before lowering it and fleeing on foot back toward the highway, which still had traffic in both directions.
“Fritze turned his hand and body to look toward the deputies and then raised his right arm with the weapon. Wareham ordered him once again to stop or that he would shoot,” Caloia wrote.
Wareham and Gherardini fired almost simultaneously with their sheriff’s office issue AR-15 rifles. They kicked Fritze’s gun away and checked his vitals before another set of deputies performed CPR until EMS arrived and transported him to Valley View Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:05 p.m.
Per protocol, Wareham and Gherardini were removed from the scene and assessed by a trauma team. They underwent a psychological assessment before they returned to duty several weeks later.
“We want to make sure we take care of our guys,” said Sheriff Lou Vallario.
“Both of them gave a lot of credit to the amount of training we provide to help them to make the decision,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation conducted an extensive investigation, which included taped interviews with law enforcement from on the scene, passing motorists, the deputy who responded to the earlier call, and friends of Fritze and his wife.
The report has not yet been made public, but was provided to the DA’s office.
“The witnesses and officers present at the scene recounted very similar facts and timelines of events,” she wrote.
Gherardini, in his interview, recalled responding to a previous domestic violence call in which “Fritze was openly hostile to Gherardini and told Gherardini during the previous contact that he ‘would not go back to jail,’” Caloia wrote. He told investigator that he feared that Fritze might hijack a vehicle or start shooting on passersby, a sentiment echoed by some civilian witnesses. Wareham expressed concern for the residents of nearby Canyon Creek.
An interview with Fritze’s wife, who had recently served him divorce papers, portrayed him as “erratic and emotional” in recent weeks. She said he had been using meth and losing weight, and she suspected he may have taken her .22-caliber handgun.
A loaded .22-caliber Ruger handgun was recovered at the scene of the shooting, along with some shells and a pipe with white residue consistent with meth.
HIGH METH LEVEL
Fritze’s father Melvin later wrote that his son was “always friendly and never knew a stranger,” but “alcohol and drugs were always there as his demons.” After turning his life around for a while, he said Brian had a “break with reality” in late 2014. His father suggested that he may have let law officers “do the job he couldn’t do.”
“It’s a very human tragedy and our entire family grieves, but we all feel Brian has at last found some peace,” he wrote.
An autopsy report would later reveal that Fritze had a blood methamphetamine concentration well in excess of the 200-600 nanograms per mililiter level reported in methamphetamine users who “exhibited violent and irrational behavior.”
The autopsy further found that Fritze was struck by four direct shots in the chest, back and side, and was struck by at least one and probably two ricochets. Although a chronology was impossible to establish, the report indicated that the shot to his chest, which passed through his heart and both lungs “was not instantly incapacitating but was rapidly fatal.”
The autopsy found no indication that any of the shots were fired at close range, and Caloia indicated that the deputies were about 40 yards away when they fired, too far to use a Taser. The officer in charge of the K-9 unit, meanwhile, chose not to release the dog for fear that it might go after Wareham instead of Fritze, or potentially end up in the highway and be hit by a car.
Caloia also viewed the deputies’ simultaneous decision to use deadly force as telling.
“The timing of the shots fired by each deputy independent of the other illustrates the reasonableness of their fears. The number of shots taken by deputies was necessary, and the firing ceased when the suspect was no longer standing and ceased to move,” she wrote.
“It is impossible to know what Fritze was thinking when he fled with a handgun and refused to heed commands, but his history, his prior statements to others, and the presence of excessive amounts of methamphetamine in his system provide context for his actions.”
Had he survived, she said, Fritze likely would have faced charges of assault, menacing, eluding, driving under the influence and reckless endangerment, among others.
Vallario said he didn’t believe Fritze’s previous criminal history played a role in the officers’ decision to shoot.
“The event that occurred is based on what occurred at that moment,” he said.
Vallario wasn’t surprised by the district attorney’s decision.
“I wasn’t privy to all of the investigation, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate that these guys did anything wrong,” he said. “I’m very sorry for the Fritze family, but I’m glad that no one else was hurt.”
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