Dan Hotsenpiller, district attorney, 7th Judicial District, last week completed his review of a fatal shooting by Montrose County Sheriff's Deputy Bruce Schmalz on Nov. 11, 2016.
Deputy Schmalz was patrolling the west end of Montrose County when he was ambushed by a person he did not know and had not interacted with in any manner. According to Hotsenpiller's report, Deputy Schmalz was essentially a sitting duck in his patrol vehicle, unable to call for backup because he was out of cell phone and radio range. After the suspect, later identified as William Score Jr., fired several shots into the hood and windshield of the patrol vehicle, his gun apparently jammed. He was reaching into his jacket in what appeared to be an effort to obtain further ammunition when the deputy fired several shots, killing Score. Deputy Schmalz was shot in the hand, although he did not realize it until later.
The district attorney determined Deputy Schmalz's use of force was justified. "The threat was real, the threat was immediate, the threat was continuing and the threat was deadly," Hostenpiller said in a letter to Montrose County Sheriff Rick Dunlap dated Jan. 31.
His findings were based on an extensive investigation conducted by the Seventh Judicial District Critical Incident Investigation Team (CIIT). Jason Warth, Delta County sheriff's investigator, was the team leader. Detective Sgt. Greg Birely and Officer RDean Young of the Delta Police Department also participated in the investigation. The CIIT unit involved nine separate law enforcement agencies and 18 officers from within the 7th Judicial District.
This group of investigators is often called the "shoot team," but DPD Chief Luke Fedler explains team members are tasked with investigating any serious injury or death where law enforcement was involved, including the death of an inmate in jail or a suspect in the back of a patrol car. About a year ago, the CIIT investigated an incident where an individual died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. That man was engaged in a standoff with officers, but the investigation proved they did not pull the trigger.
Det. Sgt. Quinn Archibeque, Delta County Sheriff's Office, was not involved in the Montrose County investigation but has been a CIIT team member in the past. He explains the impacted agency first contacts Sgt. Tim Cox, Montrose Police Department and CIIT commander. Sgt. Cox issues a call to detectives and investigators in the 7th Judicial District and those who are available gather for a briefing. A lead investigator is appointed and he then delegates assignments, from conducting interviews to visiting the scene to gathering evidence for analysis. While the affected agency is not involved in the investigation, a seasoned officer from that department often acts as a liaison.
Because team members are so spread out, from Telluride and Mountain Village to Gunnison and Delta, a great deal of communication is done by email and telephone. Over the course of several months, team members may actually get together just a handful of times.
The lead investigator makes sure all the bases are covered, then writes the final report that's presented to the district attorney and to the chief or sheriff of the impacted agency.
"When an officer shoots at a suspect and they're killed, as in this situation, it's a homicide," Archibeque explained. Investigators delve into the circumstances surrounding the shooting. In this case, they were aided by video footage from the patrol vehicle and the deputy's own account. Ultimately, the decision on whether to charge the officer with homicide is up to the district attorney.
Archibeque said an independent investigation of use of force is required by state statute, although each agency can decide whether to use the Colorado Bureau of Investigation or a team as in the 7th Judicial District.
Archibeque believes the CIIT is particularly beneficial "because we're drawing from years of experience with these investigators. While I've only been involved in a handful of them, I'm right next to guys who have been doing this for 30 years. It's very beneficial to draw from that knowledge."
Regardless of the circumstances, a thorough, independent investigation assures transparency for the public and for law enforcement.
The seventh annual Eckert Crane Days, the annual viewing of the sandhill cranes migrating north from New Mexico through Colorado's West Slope, will be March 16-18. Representatives from the Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society (BCAS) will be at the viewing site east of Eckert at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, 9 to 11 a.m. each day, to answer questions and provide binoculars and spotting scopes.