Police still looking for answers one year after cop shooting | PostIndependent.com

Police still looking for answers one year after cop shooting

Pete Fowler
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Post Independent/Kelley Cox

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado ” More than a year after a Glenwood Springs police officer was shot, no one else has been linked to the crime and authorities still won’t discuss why they arrested two men then released them weeks later for a lack of evidence.

Nor will they rule out either man as a possible suspect.

Former Glenwood Springs Police Officer Dustin Marantino was shot in the chest the night of July 29, 2007. He was investigating suspicious activity at a vehicle impound lot near the Glenwood Springs Airport. He survived thanks to a bulletproof vest and now works for the Rifle Police Department. He didn’t return messages left at the department and at a radio dispatch center.

Authorities arrested Sergio “Smokey” Esteban Ramirez, 21, and Mauricio “Flaco” Villa Garcia Pena, 21, on Aug. 5 and Aug. 9 last year on suspicion of the shooting.

Garcia Pena was accused as an accomplice while Ramirez was accused of being the shooter. On Aug. 22 last year, 9th Judicial District Attorney Martin Beeson said there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges in court and the two were subsequently released from jail. Beeson later said another suspect was arrested in connection with the shooting but released after passing a polygraph test.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, whose office is in charge of the investigation, responded to an interview request by e-mail and said the decision of whether search warrant and arrest warrant affidavits should be unsealed is up to the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. Beeson said he would not change his position that the documents must remain sealed because they could jeopardize the investigation.

Beeson and Vallario have said they can’t discuss what led to the arrests because releasing any information at all could compromise the investigation and the ability to prosecute the case, and it could put witnesses at risk. They have said no mistake was made in the arrests and law enforcement met the legal burden of probable cause for the arrests, which were executed on warrants signed by a judge.

Last year Beeson and Vallario said releasing the men was a strategic decision to buy more time and they were confident about the investigation. Last week Vallario said the investigation is still ongoing.

“We continue to get tips and other information from various sources that we follow up on,” he said.

But he didn’t reply to additional questions about how much money and time have been spent on the investigation and how many investigators are working the shooting. Asked at what point investigators could say Ramirez and Garcia Pena are cleared of suspicion or not, he replied, “‘Cleared of suspicion’ is a state of mind. The charges against them were dismissed. Everyone will have to decide for themselves what that means. Only they know the truth.”

Vallario said until a jury convicts someone in the shooting, practically everyone could be a suspect. In response to the question about when or if he could say the men were involved or not, Vallario added that he mistrusts the media and questions the media’s motives.

“No matter how hard I try to believe they want to do the right thing, I still go back to ‘It’s all about selling advertising space.’ Call me skeptical,” Vallario said in an e-mail.

Attorney Ted Hess, who represented the two suspects, said he still believes the arrests were based on the unreliable statements of one of the suspects’ acquaintances ” Anthony “Speedy” Villegas. Villegas had a strong motive to please authorities for leniency in other criminal cases, Hess said, and he had a hostile relationship with Ramirez and Garcia Pena.

Just before the arrests of Ramirez and Garcia Pena, authorities arrested Villegas on outstanding warrants and said he knew something about the officer shooting.

Villegas wasn’t accused of involvement in the shooting.

“Quite frankly, the only reason that the DA won’t concede to release the information that they’ve filed under seal and that the sheriff opposes is because it would expose the Sheriff’s Office to the very flimsy evidence that they had in the first place and prove to be a source of embarrassment,” Hess said.

About the theory that a false tip from Villegas led to the arrests, Vallario said, “They are entitled to their opinion based on what they believe they know.”

Villegas received a one-year sentence in an unrelated motor vehicle theft and for a scuffle with jail deputies. He was out on parole but got arrested recently and is still in jail for allegedly stealing shoes from the Glenwood Springs Mall. His attorney, public defender James Conway, said, “Mr. Villegas did not have any information about the officer shooting and he declines to be interviewed.”

Hess said there’s “no chance” Ramirez and Garcia Pena are guilty but there’s not enough evidence to prove it because of the unusual outpouring of alibi witnesses.

Several supporters appeared at court hearings after the arrests insisting law enforcement had the wrong men. Eight or nine showed up for Ramirez’ advisement hearing and produced a list of 11 alibi witnesses.

“It was pretty amazing to see the number of people that came forward,” Hess said.

It would cost time and legal fees to try to get access to the documents that could explain why authorities suspected Ramirez and Garcia Pena.

Attorney Chris Beall said, “The question is whether the investigation is truly ongoing. … To say it’s an ongoing investigation is not sufficient under the First Amendment for law enforcement to prevent the public from having access to court records.”

Beall is a private attorney who also works with the Colorado Press Association, of which the Post Independent is a member. He said to unseal the affidavits, someone must file a legal motion asking a judge to review them and determine what could be released. Things like specific details known only to the perpetrator may not be able to be released, he said, but the rest of the affidavits could be disclosed.

He said it’s not unusual for law enforcement to refuse to discuss this case, since officials wouldn’t want to be perceived as violating a court order sealing the documents. But he added, “From the press association’s point of view it is deeply troubling the extent to which law enforcement agencies seem to believe that it’s appropriate to place under seal these types of records, especially for such a long period of time.”

David Harrison, an attorney with the Boulder-based Miller and Harrison, LLC criminal defense lawfirm, said there is potentially no statute of limitations on the amount of time that could pass before investigators must file charges in an attempted murder of a police officer case. He said it’s “not unusual at all” for authorities to refuse to disclose information about an ongoing investigation, but he added, “Prosecutors often hide behind the ongoing investigation cloak to not release information and it’s not inconceivable that they’re correct that it would hurt the investigation if some information got out, but they seem to have a tendency to use it pretty broadly.”

Harrison said it is “extraordinarily unusual” for a DA’s office to actually go so far as to say that suspects are innocent “because they’re not in the business of clearing people from crimes. They’re in the business of convicting people.”

The unresolved investigation into the shooting of one of his officers still bothers Glenwood Springs Police Chief Terry Wilson. He added that any unresolved investigation troubles him and police still agonize over an unsolved murder at Wal-Mart in 2002.

“It is frustrating, but it’s kind of the nature of the business,” he said. “Not every crime gets solved. … There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t hope you’re going to get the phone call or piece of information that will turn it around and make the investigation fruitful.”

Contact Pete Fowler: 384-9121


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