GREELEY — An investigation by Complete Colorado shows that the jails in just three Northern Colorado counties combined hold over 100 inmates awaiting trial on some type of murder charge, an unprecedented number according to the sitting sheriff of one of those counties and a former prosecutor, who adds that Coloradans would be shocked at what those numbers may look like statewide.
Current Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams has been with the sheriff’s office in some capacity for 25 years, while former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler has been a prosecutor for 28 years. In their combined 50-plus years of putting bad guys behind bars, neither of the two men have seen anything close to what is happening in Colorado right now.
The problem, both men said, lies with a combination of Gov. Jared Polis’ mandates to release certain criminals because of COVID, the shutdown of the court system because of yet more Polis COVID mandates, and the Colorado legislature making “lessor” crimes irrelevant. The result is that crime in Colorado is up, and jails are housing some of the most heinous criminal suspects at alarming rates, numbers that Reams and Brauchler do not believe will slow anytime soon.
The three counties
Complete Colorado filed open records requests on the jails in Weld, Larimer and Adams counties, asking for the names and booking dates of anyone being held on any type of felony murder. Among the three Northern Colorado counties that abut to each other and account for one-fifth (1,185,499 as of 2019) of Colorado’s total population (5,759,000 as of 2019), there were 103 inmates awaiting trial for the killing of 109 people.
Charges ranged from vehicular homicide to first degree murder and included attempted murder. The numbers are fluid and change daily, but as of publication only seven of the original 103 had been adjudicated in the past month.
Of the 103, 81 have been booked since COVID restrictions began in early 2020.
“We’ve had spikes where we get more in for violent crimes, but nothing quite like this, not 38 people waiting to go to trial,” said Reams, a Republican, about the time he’s spent in Weld law enforcement. “They’ve been in there awaiting transfer, but never numbers like this — awaiting trial and not connected to another guy — nothing where you have 38 individual suspects of individual murders or multiple murders.”
Reams was referencing to times when he’d have three suspects in jail all waiting trial for the murder of the same person.
Brauchler, a Republican, agrees. He said although he doesn’t know the exact numbers in his former district, which encompasses Douglas, Arapahoe, Elbert and Lincoln counties — another 1 million people of Colorado’s total population — he believes they are likely close to those in Northern Colorado. He said the limited number of trials that took place over the past 18 months is unprecedented.
“There are a tremendous number of homicides in the pipeline that need to be resolved,” Brauchler said. “And it puts pressure on us to resolve what Democrats like to refer to as lower-level felonies. It is still felonious behavior, but it causes prosecutors to be aggressive with finding resolution to those lessor crimes and plea bargain or not bring charges because they know they still have the same limited number of trial days and jurors.”
‘Laid right at the feet of the legislature’
More concerning for both men is that they see legislation coming out of the Capitol that is only encouraging criminals, and they both fear that crimes against property is going to increase exponentially, which in turn will increase crimes against people.
“This is laid right at the feet of the legislature,” Brauchler said. “They have gone out of their way to decriminalize property crimes.”
Brauchler also pointed out Senate Bill 21-062, which would have essentially made it nearly impossible to arrest someone for crimes such as motor vehicle theft or other property crimes.
That bill was eventually pulled, but Democrats brought back Senate Bill 21-273, which almost passed and only changed slightly to say that in some circumstances you could arrest them, but they would have to be released on personal recognizance bonds.
“What we know about COVID is they already stopped taking motor vehicle defendants into jail and there has been an unprecedented surge in motor vehicle theft,” Brauchler said. “We’ll get more and more as people realize there are minimal consequences. When you stop enforcing the law on property crimes you naturally see an increase in crimes against people, combine that with lack of trials, and you get what we have.”
The numbers are staggering
In Weld, there were 38 people awaiting trial on felony murder charges. Among those, four have since been adjudicated, but Reams said he has had more come in since Complete Colorado’s records request, so the numbers are continuing to grow. Twenty eight of the 38 were booked since the start of COVID, 18 are charged with 1st Degree murder in the deaths of 24 people.
In Larimer, 22 people were awaiting trial on felony murder charges, one has been adjudicated, 18 were booked since COVID and 18 are in on 1st Degree murder charges.
In Adams, there were 43 people awaiting trial on felony murder charges, two had been adjudicated, and 35 were booked since COVID began. It is unknown, however, how many of the 43 are 1st Degree charges as the data was not as complete as that provided by Weld and Larimer. Initially, jail manager Susan Argo said Adams County was unable to complete the request as they don’t track their inmates by charges because “we enter the arrest in such a manner that the underlying charge is not always designated, many times it would be a (fugitive of justice) arrest.”
However, Adams County Sheriff Richard Reigenborn disagreed, saying they house inmates in specific pods based on their charges. As a result, he had Argo complete the request manually. However, because Complete Colorado didn’t request the actual charges from any of the jurisdictions and Weld and Larimer only gave that information on their own, Adams County’s information did not include the charges, only the names and booking dates. Argo also initially requested a charge of $90 for the report, but Reigenborn’s office waived those charges voluntarily.
Reigenborn, who is a registered Democrat, told Complete Colorado he believed getting this information out was important because his office also opposed all of the legislature’s bills minimizing certain crimes and making it harder on his officers to do their jobs.
“The governor put out guidance that jails were supposed to cut people loose; that’s on him,” Brauchler said. “They are going right back out into the street with no supervision and reoffending and the legislature did nothing to mandate the collection of evidence of how many people are out and recommitting. I don’t think the legislature wants to know.”
The ‘tidal wave’ is here
Brauchler said history has shown that there is generally a surge in lawlessness with economic downturns, but he doesn’t accredit it to this upswing.
“I don’t think if it roars back it’s going to change,” Brauchler said. “We are placating criminals, making excuses for them, and at the same time attacking our law enforcement. I’ve never seen the two come together this way. There is no end in how far this criminal attitude can expand with the current leadership in state offices. Months ago, I said I could see this tidal wave coming, and it’s here.”
“All these things are coming together at the same time,” Reams said. “When the court system is so clogged, and we’re not going to trial, it forces prosecutor to get some amount of punishment so they get really creative plea agreements, and the bad guys know that so long as I don’t’ cross a certain line I’m not going to jail. And if I fight it, my likelihood of any charge goes down. They know the court process.”
Reams said it causes him additional problems at the jail because housing is so specific.
“These people typically can’t be housed in normal population because of the severity charges,” Reams said. “And during COVID, we are already restricted to what we can do, adding that burden, makes it much more difficult.”
Reams said the length of stay in the facility has gone up during COVID by 16 days. The average is 22 days. Now its at 36-38. That is not including the murder inmates, who generally are in for around 9 months.
However, several of the inmates on trial for murder are into their second year. Seven inmates were booked on their charges no later than March of 2020, including the double-murder suspects William Roberts, who is accused of killing his two roommates over feeding the dog table scraps and Kevin Eastman, who is accused of killing jazz musician Scott Sessions and Heather Frank, the woman he was purported to be dating, in a love triangle.
‘We are marginalizing crime’
“There’s no motivation to entering a plea,” Reams said concerning the legislature’s getting rid of death penalty in Colorado during the 2020 legislative session. “Between 2019 and 2020, there has been a 32 percent increase in crime in unincorporated Weld County. We are marginalizing crime saying some crimes are not important anymore, that is squarely on the governor’s shoulders for locking down the state, putting draconian measures in place, and the effect it had on the court.”
That is likely to get worse as this past session Democrats passed Senate Bill 21-124, which removed life without parole as an option for sentencing as well. First Degree murder is now punishable by 16-48 years in prison, a sentence similar to 2nd Degree murder.
Brauchler said he wishes there were a statewide murder ticker for residents to understand just how violent Colorado is becoming because of the new laws in place.
Personal recognizance “bonds are pretty prevalent,” Reams said, adding crime appears to be down because the jails are empty, but it’s a false narrative being spread. “Even if someone is getting arrested, the likelihood they are staying arrested is low. It’s a revolving door. If you did a statewide murder ticker people would be floored.”
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