Finger pointing continues between Douglas County sheriff and coroner

Families are getting caught in the middle

Posted 11/12/11

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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Finger pointing continues between Douglas County sheriff and coroner

Families are getting caught in the middle

Posted

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 cash.”

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 state.

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.

Tension swells

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 staff.

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 seizure.

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 remains unexplained.

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 murder victims.

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 prophetic.

“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, Thomas said.

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 said. 

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 investigators.

“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 with arrest.”

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 said.

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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