Infighting between Douglas County’s leading death investigators is no closer to a conclusion than it was the day Coroner Lora Thomas found herself …
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Infighting between Douglas County’s leading death investigators
is no closer to a conclusion than it was the day Coroner Lora
Thomas found herself locked out of the sheriff’s office. That was
Jan. 11, the first day she took office.
The door remains locked, by order of Sheriff Dave Weaver.
Weaver and Thomas are at odds in a battle that has reached
beyond the public arena and into the hearts of families mourning
the loss of their loved ones. A public records request for
documentation between the two offices disclosed a series of email
exchanges and internal communications in a file more than an inch
thick — and growing.
At the heart of the debate is an argument over jurisdiction in
death investigations. Thomas insists the coroner’s office should
have access to death scenes early in the investigation, with or
without a search warrant. Weaver’s office disagrees. The sheriff’s
investigation takes precedence over the coroner’s access to a death
scene, Weaver said.
Meanwhile, families who have lost loved ones include families
touched by suicide, murder victims and unexplained deaths. Family
members are left hoping for little more than closure.
“It’s really an outrage,” said a family member who asked to
remain anonymous. “Here we are trying to close one chapter … and
we’re caught in the middle of political posturing going on, in an
election year no less.”
A long time coming
Voters said “no” to a 2011 ballot question to extend the
sheriff’s term limits, but the history between Thomas and Weaver
began in a different election year. It was 2005 when Thomas began
researching public records at the sheriff’s office. She was working
in support of Bob Sexton, a then-candidate for the sheriff’s
position up for election on the 2006 ballot, Thomas said.
By the time Sexton pulled out of the race, Thomas threw her
support behind Weaver, she said. Before the race was over, Thomas
continued to research public records on Weaver’s behalf.
“I was doing research about his (campaign opponent) for
(Weaver),” Thomas said. “He reimbursed me for my expenses in
Not true, according to the Weaver camp. Speaking on behalf of
Weaver, Undersheriff Tony Spurlock denies Thomas’ claims.
“We never paid her cash, we never hired her,” Spurlock said.
“(Weaver is) willing to take a polygraph if she is. Whoever is
lying resigns from office — how’s that for a deal?”
Thomas’ research into open records took a turn in 2007, when
Weaver proposed a ballot initiative to raise taxes for law
enforcement. Thomas provided county commissioners with a
spreadsheet comparing personnel expenses at the Douglas County
Sheriff’s Office to other sheriff’s offices throughout the
The numbers reflected that Douglas County was top heavy compared
to other agencies. Douglas County’s command staff comprised about
24 percent of its entire personnel budget, compared to an average
15 percent statewide, Thomas said.
Within weeks after Thomas shared her findings with
commissioners, who are charged with approving a ballot question,
the proposal was pulled from consideration, Thomas said.
Over the years, Thomas lobbied against other initiatives at the
sheriff’s office, including a 2008 proposal to impose an annual
registration fee for security alarm users throughout Douglas
County. That initiative gained county approval, and the rift
between Thomas and Weaver was set in stone.
When Thomas entered the 2010 coroner’s race, Weaver threw his
support behind her opponent, Carter Lord. Thomas’ victory placed
her in position to work closely with the sheriff’s office in a
strained relationship that extended throughout the sheriff’s
Undersheriff Spurlock is among the officials whose frustration
has peaked since Thomas took office. Calling her an “inexperienced
elected official,” Spurlock stands with Weaver to defend the
sheriff’s office protective stance on death scenes. The official
position is that to allow the coroner onto a scene without a search
warrant is tantamount to a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the
Constitution, which shields the public against illegal search and
The sheriff’s position has extended to a suicide at Chatfield
State Park, when a park visitor happened upon the body of a man who
hanged himself, a Highlands Ranch suicide scene, when the body of a
woman was discovered in a vehicle, three weeks after she was last
seen alive, and the passing of a Castle Rock teen in a death that
Murder case at risk?
Among the most troubling death investigations caught up in the
debate: the multiple homicide of Robert Rafferty and Amara Wells.
Four defendants face first-degree murder charges in the Feb. 23
double murder. District Attorney Carol Chambers has yet to announce
if she will seek the death penalty in the murder case. The prime
suspect is Christopher Wells, husband and brother-in-law of the
The conflict between the coroner and the sheriff’s offices
surfaced the day the bodies were discovered. In a series of emails
provided by Weaver’s office and sent to Weaver from Chambers,
Chambers expressed concern over the delay in getting a time of
death pronouncement from the medical examiner.
While the sheriff’s office maintains time of death can be
determined by the time the crime was reported to dispatch, Chambers
cautioned that “the bottom line is being able to ultimately prove
the case and having the best evidence to do so,” she writes.
Chambers, of the 18th Judicial District, is among a long list of
officials who have weighed in on the battle. The list includes
County Attorney Lance Ingalls, the Colorado Coroner’s Association
and the Denver office of the medical examiner, which was among the
first with an official opinion.
Donald Bell, chief investigator with the Denver office of the
medical examiner, in February 2010 asked the American Board of
Medicolegal Death Investigators for a formal investigation into the
issuance of Thomas’ board certification. The board returned a
decision clearing Thomas of allegations against her, a
correspondence she shared with Ingalls within two weeks of taking
office. Her brief note about the procedure could prove to be
“I hope we don’t have (four) years of this,” Thomas wrote.
Committed to the end
Conflict is nothing new to Thomas, who in 2003 left a 26-year
career with the Colorado State Patrol as the highest-ranking female
in the agency. Her departure was clouded by a discrimination
lawsuit against the patrol that was settled out of court. The terms
of the settlement are protected by a non-disclosure agreement,
Weaver broke his silence with an Oct. 25 email sent to Community
Media of Colorado, lashing out against Thomas’ public complaints
aimed at his office.
“Think of the forensic evidence that may be lost or destroyed if
someone unnecessarily enters and leaves a homicide scene before it
is properly processed by the crime lab,” Weaver says. “As your
Sheriff, I am ultimately responsible for the investigation and
criminal case in the event of a homicide.
“This has forced the Sheriff’s Office into a difficult situation
and, rather than sit down to work on issues, it seems that the
Coroner chooses to complain to the media.”
The chasm has yet to impact a criminal investigation, but a
resolution should come sooner, rather than later, Chambers
Weaver said he has advanced complaints against Thomas to
Chambers’ office. But Chambers said no complaints have been
formally filed nor has her office been asked to get involved.
Chambers’ view is that the coroner should be afforded the same
access to death investigation scenes as sheriff’s
“It appears to me the sheriff’s office is not letting the
coroner on the scene until their investigation is done,” she said.
“In fact, the evidence a medical examiner can provide to us in a
timely fashion is very valuable. We would prefer a medical examiner
be allowed onto those scenes as quickly as possible.”
In an email to Weaver dated Oct. 14, Thomas provided details of
death investigations from August and October in which the sheriff’s
office “interfered with the duties of the coroner’s office,” Thomas
said. The cases document instances where the sheriff’s office
failed to notify the coroner of a death or denied access to a scene
— both of which impeded the coroner’s ability to either determine
death or collect evidence to support cause of death, she said.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is the only agency in the
county that does not notify the coroner’s office at the start of a
death investigation, Thomas said.
“The time has come for the sheriff’s office to stop interfering
with the coroner’s office so that our citizens in unincorporated
Douglas County receive the same customer service that other
municipalities and counties in the state provide,” Thomas said. “It
is in the best interests of all concerned that coroner
investigators be allowed into death scenes without being threatened
Legal debate unresolved
Chambers weighed in with the opinion that, in exceptional
circumstances involving a suspicious death or homicide, law
enforcement officials are afforded exceptions to the Fourth
Amendment. Those exceptions extend to coroner’s investigators and
Chambers’ office provides 24-hour assistance to any law enforcement
official who needs clarification of the constitutional provision,
Chambers has asked Weaver and Thomas to sit down and resolve
their differences. Weaver has declined the invitation, instead
offering a non-biased mediator, an offer that has yet to be
accepted by Thomas, Spurlock said.
At press time, the two officials had yet to meet for a
resolution and families remained standing with questions
unanswered. In the absence of sanctions against elected officials
for public bickering, those families might represent the only
public body with the ability to hold Weaver and Thomas accountable
for their actions, Chambers said.
“(Weaver and Thomas) are directly accountable to the people who
elected them into office. That is their only real accountability,”
Chambers said. “We would much prefer they get along and work well
together for the people we all represent, but we do not think it is
impacting criminal cases.”
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