Rifle meeting shows dissatisfaction with Stagner case verdict
Shirley Otero believes the Michael Stagner verdict – innocent by reason of insanity – is “the biggest injustice” she’s witnessed in her life.
Otero was one of about 35 people attending a community meeting at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rifle on Tuesday evening to discuss the Stagner case.
“He knew exactly what he was doing,” she said. “What message does this send to the community? Plead insanity and you can get off.”
Representatives from the Rifle police department, the 9th Judicial District and the United States Department of Justice met with community members who wanted a deeper understanding of the Stagner verdict.
Stagner was judged legally insane and sentenced Tuesday to the Colorado Mental Health Institute’s forensic unit in Pueblo for killing four people and wounding three others in Rifle on the night of July 3, 2001.
Each department described its role in the Stagner investigation, painstakingly explaining Colorado law, the insanity plea, and reasons why Judge T. Peter Craven ruled Stagner not guilty of 18 counts, including eight counts of first degree murder. The entire meeting was translated into English and Spanish.
Since all of Stagner’s victims were from Mexico, Rifle’s Latino community has felt particularly affected by the shootings – and the verdict.
“If he was insane, he would have randomly killed people,” said Otero. “But he didn’t. He walked around and scoured the area. There were statements he made close to the time of the shootings that it was time that Mexicans get what they deserve because they are here illegally and feeding off the system.”
Otero, 45, a Job Corps coordinator from Grand Junction, described herself as “a Mexican born and raised in Colorado,” and made her impassioned speech near the end of the three-and-a-half hour meeting. Her comments, spoken in English and Spanish, met with enthusiastic applause.
“I know that many of these people are undocumented,” she said, looking around at the audience. “This is no secret. But if you’re here legally or illegally, you still have human rights regardless.”
Otero questioned Stagner’s ability to be released from the mental hospital and eventually go free, citing Rep. Scott McInnis’ claim following the tragedy that Stagner would never walk the streets again.
“A lot of politicians got involved in this and gave a lot of false hope,” said District Attorney Mac Myers. “But I will say here that as long as I am in office, Stagner will never be released from the state hospital in Pueblo. We have 20 years of documentation that illustrates his history of schizophrenia and his noncompliance with taking medication.”
Earlier in the meeting, Rifle police chief Daryl Meisner expressed his sense of grief and loss to victims’ families.
“We can never compensate for what happened to you or your families,” Meisner said. “This is the worst crime ever committed in Rifle.”
Rodolfo Beltran, one of Stagner’s shooting victims, wanted to know why, on the night of Stagner’s killing spree, police and paramedics asked him to remain lying down where he was shot. He was upset it took 45 minutes to transport him to Valley View Hospital.
Using a translator, Meisner explained that Rifle has only two ambulances and “they could only be in two places at a time.” Meisner also told him that emergency personnel asked Beltran to remain still since moving could have potentially killed him.
“There was blood all over my face,” Beltran said. “It’s a good thing my friends finally helped me sit up, because I wouldn’t have been able to breathe.”
“I’m glad it happened that way,” said Meisner, “because you are here with us now.”
“This isn’t happiness or good,” Beltran answered, “because there was no justice.”
Although the meeting had its tense moments, there was an overriding feeling that everyone – the victims, the victims’ families, Rifle’s Latino community, the district attorney’s office, law enforcement officials, and the community-at-large – shares the painful results of one man’s mental illness.
All agreed that Colorado’s insanity laws need to be altered. Stagner was found not guilty based on an earlier court decision holding that people who believe they are acting on a mission from God are insane.
“The laws have to change,” said District Attorney Mac Myers. “We need to involve more people who are voters.”
“Mac did a wonderful job with the laws he had to work with,” Meisner added. “With one voice we can join together to change those laws.”
Otero said she understood the complicated, emotional issues involved in the case, and although she expressed her frustrations at the Stagner verdict, she could see the positive sides of the meeting.
“I don’t mean any disrespect to the officials here tonight,” said Otero, “I understand the politics involved around this issue. We’ve paid a horrible price – and you can never put a price on people’s lives. But this gives us an opportunity for this community to heal.”
Rosa Salamanca, a mediator with the U.S. Department of Justice, offered community members tangible ways to do just that. She explained how to organize advisory boards, human relations commissions and community response teams, and encouraged people to get involved to help in changing laws and improving relations between different sectors of the community.
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