2019 was big: Big headlines, big problems, big changes

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2019 brought big changes and turmoil to  Aurora and the region.

It was a year that actions by police came  under intense scrutiny and Aurora essentially grew up to become a big city with big city  dreams, challenges and problems.

Here’s The Sentinel staffer highlights of the city’s tumultuous year in 2019.

From left to right, the father of Elijah McClain, LaWayne Mosley, their lawyer, Mari Newman, and Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain. From a press conference and protest at Aurora city hall Oct. 1, 2019. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

A year of police inspecting

The final months of the final year of the 2010s were rife with tumult for the Aurora Police Department.

Just in the past month, activists and city council members have called for an independent oversight committee to analyze any contentious incidents that bubble out of officers’ interactions with residents. Some 60 politicos, activists, and religious leaders gathered at an Aurora church Dec. 10 to memorialize their calls to action.

The same day as the community gathering calling for additional oversight, A CBS4 report found that an Aurora cop was found drunk in his unmarked cruiser in March, and ultimately remained on the force. The reporting eventually prompted City Manager Jim Twombly to ask former federal prosecutor John Walsh to review how the department handled the incident involving Aurora cop Nate Meier. Walsh’s inquiry will begin “immediately,” according to a statement from Twombly.

Then on Dec. 16, an Arapahoe County Judge sentenced a former Aurora police officer to 18 months of work release in the Arapahoe County Jail and five years of probation after he pleaded guilty to embezzling some $65,000 from charities intended to benefit families of police officers who are killed or injured on the job. The charities, the Aurora PoliceOrphan Fund and The Brotherhood For The Fallen Aurora, were both put on national watch lists that track unscrupulous nonprofit organizations because of Albert’s theft.

The recent causes célebres are underpinned by a pair of contentious arrests that resulted in the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain in August, and the non-fatal shooting of 22-year-old Andy Huff in October.

McClain’s death prompted multiple protests over several months at city council meetings and in front of the Aurora Municipal Center.

Aurora officers detained McClain at about 10:40 p.m. as he was walking home from a north Aurora convenience store Aug. 24, claiming he looked suspicious because he was wearing a ski mask. Though he was unarmed and not suspected of any specific crime, the interaction between McClain and officers quickly became violent, ending with the man being sedated with ketamine and transported to an area hospital where he died several days later.

The District Attorney tasked with legally analyzing the case, Dave Young, last month announced he did not have grounds to pursue charges against the involved officers or invoke a grand jury in the case, a move that prompted additional protests in front of city hall.

The McClain family’s attorney, Mari Newman, has repeatedly blasted the police department’s handling of the McClain case and indicated she plans to pursue civil action on her client’s behalf.

Huff’s attorney, Birk Baumgartner, was also vocal in his condemnation of Aurora police this fall, calling for 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler to charge the officer who shot his client in the back Oct. 10. Officers responded to Huff’s home in the Side Creek neighborhood to follow-up on a fight between Huff, his brother and a former room mate at the residence earlier in the day. Upon returning to the Huff home at about 11:30 p.m., officers reported seeing Huff run from the front yard into the home. He retrieved a shot gun — which officers saw through the home’s living room window — then “darted” from view, according to statements made by police. After seeing Huff holding a gun through one of the home’s front windows, Officer Alexander Ord fired at Huff five times, striking him in the buttocks. Huff survived the shooting.

Including the incidents involving Huff and McClain, there were a total of five cases in which residents were either killed or wounded following an interaction with Aurora police in 2019. A man wearing body armor died after exchanging with police at 1473 Kenton St. in January, and another man was shot and killed in March after he approached officers with a machete in the 2200 block of Dallas Street. A fifth man was shot and seriously wounded after he faced an officer while holding a rifle in the 9100 block of East 14th Avenue on Oct. 20.

Heading into 2020, the department will be searching for a new skipper for the first time in nearly five years as current Chief Nick Metz retires at the end of the year. Metz, 57, has faced blowback regarding his handling of the Meier incident in the final weeks of his tenure.

In an interview with The Sentinel earlier this year, Metz, who came to Aurora after more than a three-decade career with the Seattle Police Department, said his retirement was not spurred by any single event, rather the timing of several unexpected opportunities. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and work for his wife at a law enforcement-centered psychology firm.

“It was more the timing of different things coming together and opportunities that may not present themselves again that really made the decision or me,” he said.

Longtime Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe will serve as Aurora’s interim police chief starting in the new year.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

 

Nickolas Vinson, left, with his mother, Celena Vinson, and stepfather, Oscar Lemar Owensby.

Aurora man who posted father’s murder to Snapchat sentenced to 33 years

A 21-year-old Aurora man who fatally stabbed his stepfather and later posted a video of his bloodied body to Snapchat two years ago was sentenced to more than three decades in prison in September.

Nickolas Vinson was sentenced to 33 years in prison for the December 2017 murder of his step-father, 50-year-old Oscar Lemar Owensby.

Vinson, who was 19 at the time of murder, confessed to stabbing Owensby 11 times, including once in the neck, using an approximately 7-inch-long blade “with a brass knuckle style handle,” according to court documents.

The stabbing occurred shortly before 7 p.m. on Dec. 14, 2017 at the bottom of a staircase in a home on South Rifle Street.

Vinson and Owensby had been arguing earlier in the day about “chores, chipping in with money and being helpful around the house,” according to an arrest affidavit.

Moments after stabbing Owensby, Vinson took a video of his body and posted it to Snapchat. In the video, Vinson’s mother was heard screaming while Vinson narrated: “Hey guys, I just killed him, I just killed him, I just killed him.”

Citing a coroner’s report, Defense Attorney Peter Harris said Owensby had methamphetamine and cocaine in his system when he was pronounced dead at the Aurora South Medical Center about 30 minutes after the stabbing.

Vinson’s mother, Celena Vinson, told the court her marriage with Owensby had frayed in the months before the stabbing due to Owensby’s drug use.

Vinson addressed the court dressed in dark blue, jail-issued scrubs while shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles.

“It’s like a living nightmare that I’m in right now,” said Vinson, who graduated from the Ombudsman Alternative Education program. “It’s a nightmare for (Owensby’s) family … we both lost someone that we loved.”

Medical professionals who evaluated Vinson after the murder said he had a low IQ, was prone to impulsivity, low-processing speeds and emotional dysregulation, according to his defense attorneys.

“I miss my dad every day. I understand how serious this is and what harm I caused. I just want to be the best person I can be in the future. … I just hope (Owensby’s) family can forgive me.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

 

Congressman Jason Crow and Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold speak at a public panel discussion about the importance of campaign finance reform, Feb. 19 at the Village Exchange Center.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

A First Term  for Congressman Jason Crow

Democratic Congressman Jason Crow spent his first year in Congress representing greater Aurora. The freshman lawmaker, who beat now-Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman in November 2018, arrived on Capitol Hill in January.

During his year in Washington, Crow has become adamant about oversight of local immigration detention centers. He demanded an inspection in February. Officials at the Aurora GEO Group Inc. detention center said they wouldn’t let Crow in because he wasn’t going through proper channels, despite being a congressman. Federal immigration officials later said Crow could have entered the facility if he hadn’t notified press he would be there requesting the visit.

Additionally, Crow joined fellow Democrats in
asking for an impeachment inquiry of President
Donald Trump. Crow, along with six other freshman Democrats from more moderate districts, helped push the inquiry into existence with an op-ed in the Washington Post.

This month Crow voted to impeach
Trump.

“Our system of checks and balances only works when we fight to protect it. The President’s actions are a threat to our national security and the very foundation of our democracy,” he said in a statement. “President Trump’s unprecedented abuse of power and obstruction of Congress leaves us with no choice but to proceed with impeachment. No man or woman is above the law in our country, including the president. It’s time for me to once again fulfill my oath to the Constitution.”

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

 

Protesters in the southeast Aurora Tollgate neighborhood Thursday night are targeting the home of Johnny Choate. Choate is the top official of the Aurora GEO ICE prison, a detention center for illegal immigrants. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

GEO ICE protests roil across the calendar

Tensions erupted over national immigration policy this year, and Aurora was at the center.

First, a major protest this summer resulted in some protestors moving past a barricade at the north Aurora U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.  The protestors removed  flags —  a GEO Group banner, a U.S. flag and a Colorado flag —  and put up their own: a Mexican flag, an upside down banner that was a “thin blue line” emblem, which resembles an American flag, and another banner also disparaging police officials.

The protest took place outside of the detention center, which is owned and operated by the private prison company GEO Group Inc. The flag burning insighted political outrage, making national headlines and prompting elected officials, Republicans and Democrats, from Aurora City Council to Congress to disavow the actions.

Pro-ICE protesters at the Aurora GEO-ICE prison. Speaking about the support of ICE and President Donald Trump, these protesters arrived at the prison. Anti-ICE protesters are walking 8 miles from Denver to the site. The scene was from about noon from the planned dueling GEO-ICE prison protests in Aurora, Sept. 21, 2019. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/SENTINEL COLORADO

In September, advocates with Abolish ICE Denver and other immigrant rights groups protested in the Tollgate Crossing neighborhood in southeast Aurora neighborhood where Aurora GEO Group warden Johnny Choate lives. That protest prompted Aurora City Councilwoman Francoise Bergan to champion an updated targeted picketing ordinance.

A final vote is set for that ordinance in January.

Since the summer protests activists have taken to Aurora City Council to demand local lawmakers take action on regulating the local GEO Group detention center. Some lawmakers have asserted that local government has little authority over the federal facility. But the group did approve an ordinance that requires each prison facility in the city to report to the fire department infectious disease outbreaks.

In March, a Sentinel investigation confirmed that GEO Group hadn’t been reporting instances of mumps to the local health department like they should have been.

— KARA MASON,  Staff Writer

 

Sixth grader Luis Estrada pulls a book from the library May 6 at Vega Collegiate Academy.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Charter school drama  in Aurora school districts

It was a weird year for many charter schools operating in Aurora.

Many new charter schools — the autonomous, technically public schools which can supplement government education funding with private donations, gifts and grants — have opened in Aurora, while others saw stiff oversight from local school boards.

In the Cherry Creek School District, an aerospace-centered middle school overcame hurdles from district officials opposed to the project. After initially approving Colorado Skies Academy, the Cherry Creek school board reversed course and shot down the proposal. Officials first cited low enrollment as a concern, but later said the school would compete with the nearby Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, which also opened this year to provide aerospace and other technical education. The state school board overturned the district’s denial of Colorado Skies in January, and the school opened in August. That brought the number of charter schools in Cherry Creek up to three.

In APS, three new charter schools opened this August: Aurora Science and Tech, the first local branch of the Denver School of Science and Technology charter network; Empower Community High School, focusing on ethnic studies and small class sizes; and Aurora Community School, which would provide a slate of social services and resources for mostly low-income students.

But storms grew on the horizon for ACS. This fall, the district school board ordered the school to almost double enrollment so as to not be reliant on private donations in a tenuous financial situation. The school couldn’t move into a permanent location and was, at one point, operating out of a Crowne Plaza in Denver. School officials often did not respond to Sentinel inquiries about location and other matters impacting APS students.

District officials also attempted to close down Vega Collegiate Academy and HOPE Online Academy, but were overridden by the state school board, and denied a performing arts charter school a charter. That school, Visions Performing Arts College Prep, won authorization elsewhere and will open in August.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

 

Campaign finance reform angst at city hall

Councilwoman Nicole Johnston’s was successful in pitching an ordinance that restructured campaign finance reporting. It passed with one no vote from former Councilman Johnny Watson and was implemented in time for the 2019 municipal race, which saw record-breaking contributions.

The new law requires campaign finance reports be filed at 90 days, 60 days, 30 days, 14 days and the Friday before election day. Another finance report is required 30 days after the election. Previously, city code only dictates that candidates submit reports 90 days, 21 days, the Friday before and 30 days after the election.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

 

Robert Hazlehurst, IT and STEAM instructor, demonstrates an IoT, or internet of things, device to senior Ian Harling on July 30 at the Innovation campus. Photo by Ali C. M. Watkins/Sentinel Colorado

Cherry Creek Innovation Campus opens

After years of planning, it’s here. Cherry Creek district officials opened the Innovation Campus, a brand new, $63 million career and technical education campus that looks like more of a sleek technology company’s headquarters than a space for Aurora-area kids to learn how to fix a car, run a hotel or use steel-cutting machines.

The Innovation Campus opened Aug. 12.

The school programs include hands-on training in computer science, advanced manufacturing, the health industry, hospitality, and aviation and car mechanics.

The high-tech learning tools will enable high school juniors and seniors in Cherry Creek schools to graduate ready to work, with a technical certificate already under their belt. Cherry Creek schools includes parts of many metroplex municipalities, including Aurora and Centennial.

About 1,100 students were already enrolled for this semester, officials said. Those students will stay at their current Cherry Creek high schools, but commute on a bus or in their own cars to the campus for scheduled classes during regular school hours.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

 

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke held a town hall, Sept. 19, on the west steps of the Aurora Municipal Center.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Aurora gets the presidential treatment

As will likely be the case for most of 2020, Aurora became a hotspot for presidential hopefuls this year. The city saw two presidential candidate visits this year. Elizabeth

Elizabeth Warren speaks to the crowd during an organizing event for her 2020 presidential campaign, April 16 in the hangar at the Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Warren attracted more than 1,500 curious voters to Stanley Marketplace in April. In September, Beto O’Rourke, who has now suspended his presidential campaign, campaigned at the Aurora Municipal Center.

Why Aurora? Political experts say the changing demographic is attractive to candidates, particularly those hoping to nab the Democratic nomination. Colorado pollster Floyd Cirulli told the Sentinel in April it was really no surprise that Warren, a progressive Democrat, was testing the waters in Aurora, which continues to elect progressives to local offices and ousted a Republican Congressman in 2018.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

 

Juston Cooper leads a rally against Prop 1A, which seeks to raise property taxes in Arapahoe County to fund a new jail. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Voters quash proposal for new Arapahoe County jail

Arapahoe County voters in November roundly rejected a proposed property tax increase that would have funded the construction of a new jail beside the Denver Broncos training facility in Centennial.

The county electorate rejected the proposal, which would have increased property taxes by an average of about $5.66 a month, by a 2-1 margin.

For years, officials at the 33-year-old jail have said the building is too worn down to revamp. Originally built to house 386 inmates, the jail now houses anywhere between 1,100 and 1,200 people on any given day, according to county statistics. Nearly all of the inmates are housed in one of the facility’s six pods — two more were tacked onto the original four in the early 2000s — and triple bunked in 68-square-foot cells.

The new facility was blueprinted to house 1,612 people and expected to cost $464 million.

Opponents of the measure had advocated for enhanced criminal justice reform at the state legislature instead of the construction of a new detention facility.

Following the failed bid, Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown lamented the loss, but suggested county officials will revisit the proposal, possibly via alternative means, in the coming years.

“We’ll be back because we still need a modern facility and because we still need a safe facility,” Brown said.

Earlier this year, Brown said future efforts could
include issuing certificates of participation, which are often viewed as a means of circumventing stipulations outlined in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or pursuing another ballot measure.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

 

A pipe will be laid underground to distribute oil more efficiently than the current practice of trucking it to it’s destination. At a study session Monday, city council members voted 6-4 to essentially back oil industry interests, partially in reaction to new state regulations. The vote was not binding and will be subject to amendments when it goes to the council floor for first reading on Nov. 24. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

Sweeping oil and gas changes in Aurora and across the state

State Democrats completely changed how oil and gas development is approved with the passage of Senate Bill 181 this year. Instead of moving through the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and then onto local government approval, cities and counties have complete control over what to approve.

Previously, local governments would often tell frustrated constituents their hands were tied by state rules. In response to the new state law, which oil and gas developers said would severely disrupt the market, Aurora approved operator agreements, which set in place a set of rules for all related development.

Outside legal counsel told city council members this year some of the pros of using operator agreements, include: minimizing the risk of lawsuits, being able to negotiate enhanced protections and offering a streamlined permitting process.

Some elected officials in Aurora have boasted the city has some of the strictest regulations in the country now because of the agreements. But authorizing the negotiations hasn’t come without some challenges. Citizens have griped to lawmakers that the public has little say about the development proposals because negotiations are done behind closed doors, in executive session.

Many of the oil and gas agreements have been fast tracked at the request of the applicants.

In 2018, the City of Aurora brought in a total of $284,387 from oil and gas sector taxes, including local taxes and state and federal taxes allocated to the city, according to a city spokesperson. From 2014 through 2018, the City received over $1.7 million. $1 million of that money was appropriated for affordable housing in the 2019 budget.

Staff said they expect that number to increase in the future and sustain that affordable housing fund.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

 

Aurora Central High School
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Aurora Sentinel

Hand-wringing, policy challenges as Aurora school districts lose students

This year, Aurora school districts have been plagued by declining enrollment overall but packed classrooms in some areas, bringing a host of funding and policy challenges for local Superintendents and school boards.

In Aurora Public Schools — the school system covering much of north and central Aurora — officials braced for net losses of students at one of the highest rates of any Colorado school system, reflecting new community demographics, although the actual losses turned out to be somewhat gentler. APS lost about 500 students from the 2018-2019 school year to this year, compared to the expected 1,500 student drain.

District officials say the district is also losing students because many students are leaving APS for other schools. Despite the losses centrally, Aurora is seeing strong growth on the city’s eastern flank.

In December, a new Board of Education re-drew some boundaries of east Aurora P-8 schools to buttress Vista PEAK, Murphy Creek and Aurora Frontier from overcrowding. Some students will be moving schools come August 2020.

But as a whole, the drain of students is expected to rob the district of some state funding and leave some classrooms emptier than they should be, threatening some schools.

Without strategic changes, officials say, APS could become plagued by empty schools. After long discussions, the district has decided to create some larger schools by expanding some neighborhood school enrollment boundaries. The district will eventually also be divided into a number of regions based on “specializations,” such as engineering or aerospace. Some schools may be closed.

Declining student enrollment is also a thorn in the side of the Cherry Creek School District, which educates kids in south Aurora as well as parts of Greenwood Village, Denver and Centennial.

CCSD is planning for the largest decline in student population in its 68-year history, Superintendent Scott Siegfried said in March. It’s unclear whether student body declines were as large as expected this year, pending data released next month. A lower student body may mean less funding typically allocated per-pupil.

Siegfried has said student population predictions will likely hand the school district a double whammy.

Not only are there expected to be fewer students, reducing state per-student contributions, but the district is expected to see a higher percentage of students who require more expensive, specialized instruction, officials said.  More students are predicted to require extra English instruction, special education and have mental health needs — in short, more funding and staff expertise.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

 

APS staffer, 1990s CU football standout killed in Eaglecrest High School
parking lot

Anthony “T.J.” Cunningham, an assistant principal at Hinkley High School and former University of Colorado football star, was shot and killed in the parking lot of Eaglecrest High School Feb. 17 after getting into an argument with a neighbor about parking.

He was 46.

Investigators determined Cunningham had agreed to meet his neighbor, 31-year-old Marcus Johnson, in the Eaglecrest parking lot to discuss a lingering parking dispute. The two men lived near one another in unincorporated Arapahoe County.

Anthony “TJ” Cunningham

Authorities allege Johnson shot Cunningham three times, striking him in the head and chest, according to a probable cause statement filed Feb. 19. Cunningham, who was only holding a bottle when he was shot, died at a Parker hospital the next day.

Arapahoe County Sheriff’s deputies arrested
Johnson at his home on South Rome Street about 15 minutes later.

Cunningham, who went by the nickname T.J. for
Tony Jr., was a defensive back and wide receiver for the buffaloes from 1992 to 1995. He was later drafted by the Seattle Seahawks.

Johnson, who is being held without bond at the Arapahoe County jail, has pleaded not guilty to the first-degree murder charge levied against him.

A week-long trial is scheduled in Johnson’s case beginning Jan. 7, 2020.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

 

Mayor-elect Mike Coffman at city hall, announcing his victory in the Nov. 5 election. PHOTO BY PHLIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Congressman Mike Coffman reinvented as Aurora mayor

After more than a week of slow ballot counting and days of tracking down problem ballots, former GOP Congressman Mike Coffman won Aurora’s most expensive and competitive mayor’s race by a nose.

He won the race with less than 36% of the vote, less than a percent more than local NAACP president Omar Montgomery, who attracted endorsements from gun control advocate former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, Eric Holder and a host of state Democrats.

Former city council members Renie Peterson and Ryan Frazier, who served in the early-2000s and then ran for mayor and Senate later, and current councilwoman Marsha Berzins also vyed for the seat.

“The City of Aurora has been my hometown for the past 55 years, and I’m honored to receive a vote of confidence, by one of the most diverse cities in America, to be their next mayor, and to shape its future,” Coffman said in a statement after declaring victory.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

 

Pictured: The charred remnants of a home on East Linvale Place in Aurora Nov. 19, 2018. An explosion caused a large fire at the Heather Gardens senior community at about 5:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16. One person was killed in the fire. Credit: Philip B. Poston / The Sentinel.

Gas explosion rocks the region

No charges for any involved in Heather Gardens gas explosion that killed 1 in 2018

Investigators determined in November that the workers who inadvertently bored into a natural gas line shortly before an explosion killed an 82-year-old woman and injured three others in Heather Gardens in 2018 will not be charged with any crimes in connection with the incident.

Authorities confirmed that contractors laying conduit on behalf of Comcast along East Linvale Place on Nov. 16, 2018 struck a gas line with a directional boring drill around 4 p.m., according to police documents. The gas then leeched through the soil and into the home of 82-year-old Carol Ross at 13962 E. Linvale Place, where it ignited via unknown means at about 5:30 p.m.

Ross was killed in the blaze, and three other people were injured, including one firefighter.

Ramiro Colmenero, a Bohrenworks contractor involved in the boring operation, told investigators the crew was laying conduit, though “there were no ‘marks’ for utilities” in the area — only marks and flags to delineate lines for the retirement community’s sprinkler system, according to an Aurora Police Department offense report.

Colmener, who was 21 at the time of the explosion, said his supervisor on Nov. 16, 30-year-old Josh Joiner, “told him to ‘make the shot,” with the drill despite the lack of markings, according to the police report.

Colmenero began to smell gas while an operator was extracting conduit through a boring hole, at which point he called 911. The explosion occurred about 90 minutes later.

Several other Heather Gardens homes were decimated in the blaze. An exact ignition source was never officially determined.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

 

Aurora West dean accused of threatening staffers with gun
found dead

A dean at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy accused of threatening school staffers with a gun earlier this year was found dead in a Denver home in November, according to the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner.

Pictured: Tushar Rae. Photo provided by the Denver District Attorney’s Office.

Tushar Rae, 31, was accused of bringing a handgun to Aurora West on April 3 and threatening to shoot the kneecaps off of two school administrators, according to court documents.

Rae also allegedly told Former West Principal Taisiya Tselolikhin: “Try and f**k with me … I don’t want to hurt you, I’m going to hurt all the people around you,” according to an arrest affidavit filed in Arapahoe County court.

Rae was arrested shortly after the incident, but posted a $200,000 bond and was released, according to county records. He was arrested again days later in Denver on suspicion of several domestic violence-related charges in that city.

Tselolikhin told police that in March Rae pointed a handgun — the same weapon he was accused of using to threaten administrators at Aurora West — at Tselolikhin’s chest, then moved the gun slightly away from her before firing one round. Tselolikhin was not injured in the incident.

Rae had pleaded not guilty to all charges filed against him, and he was slated to stand trial in two separate cases in February and March.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer

 

Council member Alison Coombs is sworn in during the Dec. 2, 2019 meeting of the new Aurora City Council. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Aurora City Council Goes Blue

While Aurora elected a former Republican congressman to a mayor, the council now leans left.

Juan Marcano, elected to represent Ward IV, and Alison Coombs, in Ward V, ran on progressive platforms and were endorsed by a bevy of organizations that lean politically left. Their election means a progressive member of city council looking for six votes on a friendly cause has a good chance at finding them.

Coombs’ and Marcano’s elections were celebrated among Democrats. Mayoral candidate Omar Montgomery, who trailed Mayor-elect Mike Coffman by just 215 votes, congratulated the duo on their election when he finally called an end to his campaign nearly two weeks after ballots were due.

What will the agenda of this new city council look like? Members of the new majority coalition have pointed to a short list of common goals: a hard look at some form of oversight of controversial police cases, more and regimented oversight of oil-and-gas development, a more supportive role backing city immigrants and lawmakers taking a hard look at a bevy of social issues.

Everyone points out, however, that most of the city council agenda will look much like it always has. Aurora lawmakers will continue to approve developments, businesses, spending and agreements among other governments. No matter whether the city council is red or blue, left or right, listening to stop-light controversies and weighing in on snow-plow routes is still predominantly what city council members do.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer

 

Principal Gerardo De La Garza, top center, visits a ninth-grade English language arts course, Nov. 4, 2019. APS school board members recently approved a recommendation for forge ahead with Aurora Central High School’s innovation school status. The arrangement allows for relaxed rules to spur better results at the long-struggling school. Photo by Grant Stinger/Sentinel Colorado

Aurora Central struggles  to improve, sees more oversight

After almost a decade of low test scores and little improvement, students at Aurora Central High School will have a new consultant working in schools and more oversight from state education officials.

The State of Colorado’s Board of Education voted in November to scrutinize Central again in just one more year to see whether ample improvements have been made. For years, the school has been instituting reforms to improve test scores and a school culture once described as “toxic and chaotic.”

Those reforms have included freeing the school from some state and district rules to spur “innovation,” hiring a private consultant to work on academic systems, improving communication between teachers to support struggling students and regularly deploying staff into neighborhoods to meet with families.

Central officials say the school has made leaps and bounds in teacher retention, attendance and other markers of a healthy school culture. But five years after reaching the end of the state’s accountability clock, academic achievement is still low.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

 

Toxic waste potentially leaking  from east Aurora military base, Superfund site

Following a Sentinel investigation into toxic waste potentially leaking from the Lowry Landfill Superfund Site, Aurora U.S. Congressman Jason Crow visited the site with U.S. Rep Ken Buck, Aurora Mayor Bob LeGare and officials. The Sentinel found skepticism stirring among east Aurora residents that the toxic waste site was containing about 140 million gallons of cancerous materials. Evidence suggests that waste may be leaking underneath the Murphy Creek Golf Course and toward homes. Health researchers at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have criticized the Environmental Protection Agency and polluters for taking lackluster actions to keep the public, and environment, safe.

CDPHE officials are also conducting “emergency testing” of cancerous contaminants found on Buckley Air Force Base that may be moving off-base, toward surface creeks and hundreds of private drinking water wells. Chemicals dubbed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, have contaminated drinking water all across the country due to military trainings and firefighting operations involving fire-suppression foams. It’s unclear whether private homes have been impacted. Elevated levels of some PFASs have been linked to a slew of serious health issues.

— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

 

2019 BY THE NUMBERS

18 — The number of months former Aurora Police Officer Roland Albert was sentenced to work release in the Arapahoe County Jail after he pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $65,000 from accounts tied to charities benefitting families of cops slain or injured on the job. He was also sentenced to five years of probation and four years in state prison, though the prison sentence was suspended unless Albert violates other provisions of his sentence.


47 — The number of years the Aurora Police Association served as the Aurora Police Department’s designated union. The Fraternal Order of Police’s Lodge 49 replaced the APA as the department’s chief bargaining unit in August. The APA had been the department’s designated union since 1972.


33  — The number of traffic related fatalities reported in Aurora between Jan. 1 and Dec. 23. A dozen of the people killed in traffic incidents this year were pedestrians.


90 — The number of minutes it took an Arapahoe County jury on Dec. 10 to convict a 25-year-old Aurora man of sexually assault two different girls on a single September afternoon in 2018. The convict, Ble Kore, is due to be sentenced Feb. 27.


6 1/4 — The length in inches of a partially cooked bratwurst found in the throat of a woman who had been strangled to death by an acquaintance in December 2017. The woman’s attacker, 51-year-old Terrence Straughter, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in August.


67 — The percentage of inmates at the Arapahoe County Jail on a Thursday in late September who were classified as pre-trial detainees, meaning they had been charged with crimes but had yet to be convicted of any wrongdoing. Arapahoe County voters emphatically rejected a proposed ballot measure in November that called to increase property taxes and build a new $464 million detention facility beside the current structure in Centennial.

— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer