A clerk at 7-Eleven is shielded behind a wall of plastic for added protection, April 10, 2020. No harm in taking extra precaution during the COVID-19 health crisis.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Like few others in recent human history, 2020 demanded superlatives. “Worst” and “most” are not overused in describing the year that was.

The pandemic was the most people ever affected by a global and national catastrophe at the same time.

In Aurora, it created the most precarious problems in the city’s history for businesses, workers, schools, hospitals, governments and everyone who lives here.

The pandemic, however, was just the beginning for much of the Aurora region.

Last spring, racial protests mixed with the threat of the coronavirus, bringing interstates and life as police knew it to a halt. Aurora awkwardly became an international sensation as police grabbed one damning headline after another.

Protests and sporadic violence heated up with the summer and statewide wildfires.

Summer devolved into a general election like no other.

And among the numerous once-in-a-lifetime disasters, Aurora region residents dodged myriad events that in normal years would be far more controversial.

Follow along as Sentinel Colorado staffers take you down the most memorable journey down memory lane most of us will ever know.

 


 

Mayor Mike Coffman receives a COVID-19 test Aug. 10, 2020. at the new free testing center at the Aurora Sports Park. Testing is free and available to anyone that wishes to be tested.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

COVID-19 changes everything

Years from now, when students flip their history book pages (or their hologram interfaces) to 2020, they’ll imagine how Aurorans must have felt when the new coronavirus spread through the world with the awesome speed of a runaway train.

COVID-19 first appeared in the Sentinel on Feb. 12. An editor posted an Associated Press dispatch from Russia, where a woman and her family possibly infected with a “new virus” had jumped out of a hospital window to escape self-quarantines required by officials.

“Everyone in my family is alive and healthy, thank God,” she said after the escape.

One wonders whether her success was short-lived. Already, COVID-19 had infected 40,000 people worldwide.

That figure proved to be paltry. The U.S. death count rose to 10 in early March, and then the first Coloradans succumbed to the virus amid stay-at-home orders and widespread panic. Businesses shuttered and, after initial advice from public experts not to wear masks, many residents wouldn’t leave the house without one. Strangely, toilet paper was impossible to find.

The terms “social distancing” and “self-quarantining” cemented themselves in the cultural lexicon.

Aurorans hunkered in. And, 10 months later, we’re still hunkered in. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and health officials are hammering out a vaccine distribution plan. Some medical staff have already received highly coveted doses.

But in the midst of the so-called third wave of COVID-19 cases, the picture is worse than ever.

COVID-19 became the leading cause of deaths for Americans during a week in December. On Dec. 9, the U.S. broke another record for single-day deaths attributed to the virus: 3,054, more than 9/11 and American deaths on D-Day.

Amid the silent carnage, conspiracy theories have flowered.

In July, about a quarter of Americans at least partially believed that powerful people had manufactured the virus. A Pew Research study found about one-third of 100,000 people sampled believed the pandemic had been sent by God to punish humanity.

The public health crisis remains an economic one as well.

Front line workers repeatedly told the Sentinel they’ve feared for their lives this year. Many small businesses owners say they’re on the verge of closure and financial ruin, while a handful of tech magnates saw their wealth balloon to unimaginable new heights; Elon Musk of Tesla reached $147 billion in personal wealth in December.

It’s impossible to know when life will get back to normal. But it’s clear that, whatever comes next, Americans will look back on this year with heartbreak and terror.

-GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer


 

With millions of early ballots cast before Election Day, there were minimal lines during the day Nov. 3, 2020, in Aurora. A lone voter casts his in-person ballot at the polling center at the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Election 2020

Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential election, but only after a days-long delay in results that agonized the American electorate. If power is transferred peacefully, Biden will take office next month amid a pandemic, economic crisis and climate breakdown.

The makeup of Congress is still uncertain. Democrats lost seats but retained control of the House of Representatives.

But the fate of the Senate is still undecided. Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper defeated incumbent Cory Gardner to represent Colorado. In Georgia, two Republican senators are locked into January runoff elections against Democrats. Those races will decide the Senate’s majority.

Locally, Aurora elected a diverse crop of new state lawmakers. This year in House District 41, Aurora voters swept in the state’s first Muslim legislator, Iman Jodeh. Next door in House District 40, immigrant Naquetta Ricks will become the state’s first Liberian-American lawmaker. They’ll work alongside Dominique Jackson, a Black woman representing Aurora’s House District 42.

The city’s delegation to the state Senate now includes two Black women: Rhonda Fields, who won re-election for Senate District 29, and former Representative Janet Buckner, who will cast votes for Senate District 28.

Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, who represents a piece of southeast Aurora and eastern plains communities, is the city’s sole Republican representative.

Democrats were able to defend their majorities in both the state house and senate this election cycle, and they’ll have carte blanche to hammer out liberal policies in a unified state government with Gov. Jared Polis still in office.

But they’re preparing for a legislative session hamstrung by multiple crises: a raging pandemic, a recession and a budget shortfall limiting their aspirations — at least, for the time being.

On the ballot, Colorado voters also signed off on paid family and medical leave policies; wolf reintroduction in the mountains and Western slope; a tax cut; and a Gallagher amendment repeal.

-GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer


 

Extreme heat, wildfire records

In the summer and the fall, blazes broke the long-standing record for the state’s largest wildfire — not once, but twice.

The Pine Gulch Fire reared its head in August across Garfield and Mesa counties. Until firefighters contained the blaze in September, almost 140,000 acres were scorched. But the Cameron Peak Fire, west of Fort Collins, broke the record seven weeks later to burn 206,000 acres.

Other catastrophic fires outside of Boulder and Grand Lake forced thousands of people from their homes and burned hundreds of structures.

The devastating fire season was consistent with long-standing climate models predicting warmer and drier conditions in Colorado and the West because of greenhouse gas emissions. The wildfire season even survived a freakish summer blizzard blanketing northern Colorado.

Colorado also broke a record for the most days over 100 degrees. According to a joint report by the City and County of Denver and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, Aurorans can expect many more 100-degree days in future years unless global greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically cut.

-GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer


 

Thousands gathered June 27, 2020 at the Aurora Municipal Center, to protest and pay tribute to Elijah McClain, who died last year after an encounter with three officers from the Aurora Police Department. A march formed and took to I-225 before circling back to the AMC where the protest continued into the night.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Elijah McClain goes national

After the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and racial justice protests across the country, Americans learned the name of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man and massage therapist who played violin. McClain died several days after a violent encounter with Aurora police and first responders in Aug. 2019.

But it wasn’t until Floyd’s death, and mass protests headquartered at downtown Denver’s Capitol building, that demonstrators across the country began chanting McClain’s name.

Countless activists called out Gov. Jared Polis, Mayor Mike Coffman and local district attorneys for failing to charge and win convictions against Aurora cops Nathan Woodyard, Randy Roedema, and Jason Rosenblatt, who originally stopped and restrained McClain the night of Aug. 24, 2019. They also scrutinized Aurora Fire Rescue personnel for administering McClain an excessive dose of ketamine.

Candice Bailey yells to protestors with raw emotion, June 27, 2020 at the Aurora Municipal Center. Thousands gathered to protest and pay tribute to Elijah McClain, who died last year after an encounter with three officers from the Aurora Police Department.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Mass protests came to Aurora in June. Led by leftist groups including the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, thousands of demonstrators — mostly wearing masks — occupied Aurora’s municipal center and police stations and marched onto Interstate 225 In June and July.

In the July 25 fracas, a man drove a Jeep through the crowd on Interstate 225. A man later identified as 23-year-old Samuel Young is accused of firing a handgun toward the car, striking and injuring two fellow protesters.

Prosecutors didn’t levy charges against the driver of the Jeep, Kyle Faulkison, but they did announce dozens of criminal charges against Young and protest leaders, including a smattering of felonies.

District Attorneys in Arapahoe County’s 18th Judicial District and Adams County’s 17th Judicial District announced the bevy of accusations against the protest leaders, which include inciting a riot, theft, attempt to commit first-degree kidnapping and several others.

Protesters march toward I-225, July 25, 2020, during a protest and march calling for justice for the death of Elijah McClain.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The defendants named in the two jurisdictions are: 25-year-old Lillian House, 32-year-old Joel Northam, 33-year-old John Ruch, 44-year-old Terrance Roberts, 23-year-old Whitney Lucero and 33-year-old Trey Quinn.

Activists have since rallied to denounce the charges, which they say are politically-motivated.

It’s still unclear whether the protest movement will yield justice for McClain’s family or sweeping reforms in Aurora.

Protesters surround a vehicle of which the driver tried to force his way through the crowd of hundreds marching down I-225, July 25, 2020, suring a protest and march for Elijah McClain.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Meanwhile, a number of local, state and federal inquiries are scrutinizing Aurora Police Department practices and whether first responders should be charged in connection with McClain’s death.

-Grant Stringer, Staff Writer


 

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., accompanied by the impeachment managers House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo. speaks to reporters, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. The U.S. Senate was poised to hear opening arguments Wednesday in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, with Democratic House managers set to make their case that Trump abused power and should be removed from office.(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Congressman Jason Crow appointed impeachment manager

Aurora’s own was at the center of the effort to impeach President Donald Trump at the beginning of the year.

Rep. Jason Crow, a freshman lawmaker who was elected in 2018, was named as an impeachment manager by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pundits speculated back in January that Crow was chosen partly for his purple-tinged district and military background. In the end, being an impeachment manager seemed to have little effect on Crow’s re-election bid. He easily bested Republican challenger Steve House, the former state GOP chairman, in November.

Crow was one of the last Democrats to call for impeachment. In a Washington Post op-ed in September 2019, he and six other freshman Democrats called for an inquiry. Politicos and pundits have called the letter a tipping point in events that led up the House vote. Pelosi launched the inquiry a day later.

“I didn’t think it was going to have the impact that it did, and that wasn’t the intent, either,” Crow said of the op-ed.  “I think we wanted to make a joint statement about why we were so disturbed by the allegations at the time, and what was at stake in our country, how this really did go to the core of our national security and our defense and supporting our troops.”

Trump was charged with abusing his power and obstructing a Congressional investigation into allegedly withholding aid from Ukraine in hopes they would launch investigations into Trump’s Democratic rivals. During the trial, Crow’s arguments mostly revolved around how vital military aid can be for soldiers on the ground. He often recounted his own experience as a Army ranger in Afghanistan.

Trump was ultimately acquitted of impeachment charges by the Senate in early February.

— KARA MASON, Staff Writer


 

APD Interim Chief Vanessa Wilson shows one of two photos of the three police officers mocking the death of Elijah McClain at the site of McClain’s 2019 encounter with APD, during a July 3 press conference discussing the photos in question
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Aurora police weather investigations, scandals, policy changes

From the very first day of 2020, this year has been one of evolution and entropy for the Aurora Police Department.

The municipal police force on Jan. 1 saw longtime veteran Vanessa Wilson step into the role of interim chief after a chaotic week of leadership changes at the end of 2019. Former deputy chief Paul O’Keefe announced late last Christmas Eve that he would not be leading the department following former Chief Nick Metz’s retirement at the end of the year. The announcement came two weeks after a local news report implicated O’Keefe in a scandal regarding an officer, Nate Meier, found drunk and passed out while on duty last March.

The Meier maelstrom continued into the spring when District Attorney George Brauchler announced he could not pursue charges against Meier or any of the officers involved in internally investigating the day he was found with a blood alcohol content of 0.43 — five times the legal limit — in his running cruiser. A month after Brauchler made his decision, a former federal prosecutor hired by the city to independently look into the Meier incident excoriated how Metz and O’Keefe skippered the controversy.

Screen grab from a video taken by ????? depicting Aurora police wrongfully arresting a family with children.

Former U.S. Attorney John Walsh in March said the two now retired chiefs made “critical missteps” and “significant errors of judgement” by failing to initiate a criminal inquiry into Meier and curtailing the internal investigation into his actions.

The COVID-19 pandemic began to tear across the country just days after Walsh briefed city council members on his findings, upending police staffing levels and how officers interact with the community they’re tasked with serving.

Arrests in Aurora plummeted in April after the city’s police department began issuing court summonses in lieu of taking people into custody whenever possible. Aurora officers physically arrested an average of 286 people per month between April and August, but in the five months prior to that span, local cops were putting handcuffs on an average of 715 people every 30 days.

Despite those sags in arrests, crime continued to rise throughout the summer, with spates of shootings and stabbings throughout the year’s hottest months. Violent crime was up 26% in the first three quarters of the year when compared to the same span in 2019, data show. Property crime was up about 14%.

The summer also saw Aurora police thrust into the international limelight as protests calling for racially equity in policing racked the nation. How the department handled the death of Elijah McClain in August 2019 regained magnified traction in the weeks and months after George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.

In mid-June, Wilson preemptively banned the control hold police applied to McClain’s neck the night he was detained on his way home from a north Aurora convenience store. The hold was later banned by a sweeping reform measure passed out of the state Legislature at a break-neck pace.

Protesters and police, including Chief Vanessa Wilson, center, kneel together for eight minutes and 46 seconds during a peaceful protest against police brutality, following the death of George Floyd, Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Aurora, Colo. Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.(Philip B. Poston/The Aurora Sentinel via AP)

Weeks after the policy changes, the department became the subject of international backlash after officers deployed smoke canisters and foam bullets on protesters during a violin vigil held to commemorate McClain. Wilson issued a public apology for how officers interacted with crowds days later. Dozens of Aurora cops and local sheriff’s deputies were later named as defendants in a class-action lawsuit alleging authorities used excessive force at the gathering.

Days after that late June demonstration, Wilson fired a trio of officers — another resigned — who were found to have taken and circulated a photo mocking McClain’s death snapped on the block the 23-year-old was detained.

Additional protests sewed further discontent later in the summer when officers did not stop protesters from breaking windows and setting fires within the municipal courthouse — causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage — and shots rang out as a Jeep drove through demonstrators marching along Interstate 225.

Aurora police were again the epicenter of controversy in August after officers were filmed detaining a Black woman and her young children in a parking lot after erroneously accusing her of stealing a car.

APD Interim Police Chief Vanessa Wilson.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

In October, Wilson  — who was named the department’s first female chief in August — unveiled a new, multi-pronged plan to restore trust in the local police force.

The Aurora police and fire departments remain the subject of some half a dozen investigations announced in the fallout of McClain’s death. McClain’s parents have also sued the city and police department, claiming officers violated their son’s constitutional rights and caused his death.

— Quincy Snowdon, Staff Writer


 

Judge Bonnie McLean during a hearing at the Arapahoe County Justice Center.
File Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel

Legislature tees up new Arapahoe County Judicial District

Gov. Jared Polis on March 20 quietly signed a new state law that will calve Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln County cases off of current dockets in the 18th Judicial District, leaving only Arapahoe County cases in the jurisdiction that handles the majority of Aurora’s most brutal crimes.

Beginning in 2025, the three counties to the south and east of Aurora will emerge as an entirely new jurisdiction known as the 23rd Judicial District.

The remaining 18th Judicial District will then only handle cases from Arapahoe County, where more than 80 percent of Aurorans reside.

The state hasn’t added a new district to the 22 state court jurisdictions currently in its ranks since 1964.

To stand up the new district, the state expects to pay an estimated $2.2 million in one-time technology and transition costs from 2022 to 2025, with nearly $2 million in ongoing annual costs beginning in 2025, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

A pair of Democratic legislators from Aurora were among the bill’s prime sponsors: Rep. Mike Weissman and Sen. Rhonda Fields.

— Quincy Snowdon,  Staff Writer


 

Polis repeals Colorado death penalty, commutes sentences of Aurora killers

Following years of debate among state lawmakers, policy advocates and family members of the slain, Gov. Jared Polis in March simultaneously abolished the death penalty in Colorado and commuted a trio of death sentences previously handed to convicted Aurora murderers.

Polis signed a contested state bill that outlaws sentencing Colorado convicts to death. At the same time, Polis commuted the sentences of three former Overland High School students convicted of murdering several people in Aurora in the 1990s and early 2000s. One of those people was Javad Marshall-Fields, the son of Aurora’s Democratic state senator Rhonda Fields, who for years has railed against attempts to nix the state’s death penalty.

“In a stroke of a pen, Gov. Polis hijacks justice and undermines our criminal justice system,” Fields wrote in a tweet after Polis’ decision.

While progressive groups like the ACLU lauded the governor’s signature on SB20-100, George Brauchler, district attorney in the Arapahoe County jurisdiction where all three men were tried, joined the chorus of those who excoriated the passage of the measure.

“Buried under the coverage of an urgent, global pandemic, Gov. Polis wiped away three separate unanimous jury verdicts for some of the worst murderers in our state’s history,” Brauchler said in a statement. ” … Combined they have murdered seven innocent people. The decision to do it during a global pandemic is disrespectful to the victims, the jurors and the public.”

The state hadn’t executed a convict since 1997.

— Quincy Snowdon,  Staff Writer


 

Aurora couple sentenced to prison for abusing son, encasing body in concrete

An Aurora couple who admitted to submerging the remains of their young son in concrete and then placing them inside of a plastic animal cage were sentenced to decades in state prison in separate hearings earlier this year.

A Denver District Court Judge in February sentenced Leland Pankey, 41, to 72 years in prison, the maximum penalty allowed by statute, for a pair of charges: child abuse resulting in death and tampering with a deceased human body, according to the Denver District Attorney’s Office.

Pankey’s wife, Elisha Pankey, 45, was sentenced to 32 years in prison for her role in her son’s death in August.

Investigators said the Pankeys, former residents of the Extended Stay America hotel in Aurora, abused their son, Caden McWilliams, after speaking with a woman who previously shared a jail cell with Elisha in December 2018. Elisha was briefly incarcerated in the same pod as the woman after Aurora detectives found heroin with her name on it and levied a drug charge against her.

The informant told a detective with the Denver Police Department that Elisha had admitted to forcing McWilliams to stay in an animal crate until he died in an Aurora hotel room two summers ago.

The woman told authorities that Elisha admitted to ignoring the boy’s pleas for water in July 2018. Though the boy cried out that he was thirsty, Elisha said “she just stayed in bed,” according to an arrest affidavit that was unsealed three months after it was written.

Elisha and Leland woke up the next morning to find McWilliams dead in the animal carrier, according to the arrest document. They then loaded the container into their car, filled it with concrete and left it in a Denver storage facility.

Police eventually found the container inside the facility on East Evans Avenue and located McWilliams’ body after multiple cadaver dogs signaled in front of the vessel.

McWilliams died of unknown causes, though he was likely malnourished when he died, according to court documents. Several of his bones were broken.

Prosecutors ranked the case among the most lurid to have ever been presented to the Denver District Attorney’s Office.

“The horrific death of Caden McWilliams shocked the conscience and was incomprehensible to the people of Denver,” District Attorney Beth McCann said in a statement.

— Quincy Snowdon,  Staff Writer


 

Ble Kore enters the courtroom, Feb. 27, 2020, at the Arapahoe County Courthouse to receive his sentencing for the charge of two counts of sexual assault.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Man sentenced for raping girls near Overland High School campus

A serial rapist convicted of sexually assaulting two Overland High School seniors over the course of several hours in September 2018 was sentenced in February to more than a decade in prison.

An Arapahoe County District Court judge sentenced Ble Kore, now 26, to 12 years to life in prison for a pair of felony sexual assault charges. It took jurors just 45 minutes to convict Kore on the two counts following a five-day trial one year ago.

A native of Ivory Coast, Kore raped a 17-year-old girl after picking her up as she was walking home from school on Sept. 13, 2018, according to court documents.

Kore pulled up beside the girl and told her “he had someone watching her mom,” which prompted her to get into the passenger’s seat of the car, according to an arrest affidavit. Kore then drove to the guest parking lot of the girl’s own apartment complex, climbed over the vehicle’s center console and raped her in the passenger’s seat.

“Mr. Kore is the monster of every parent’s nightmare,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Danielle Jaramillo said at the sentencing hearing.

Kore proceeded to rape a second 17-year-old girl in the same car, a black Volkswagen Pasat, shortly after the first assault. Police determined Kore picked up the second girl as she left guitar practice, parked nearby and raped her.

Investigators linked Kore to the crime using expedited DNA testing conducted by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Kore has an extensive criminal record dating back five years, according to CBI records. In October 2013, he was sentenced to one year of probation for a domestic violence incident in which he was charged with multiple counts of assault. A slew of additional traffic and assault charges filed against Kore in 2016 were dismissed, records show.

District Attorney George Brauchler classified the case as one of the more heinous sexual assaults he’s encountered in 26 years of prosecuting in the state.

“In terms of aggravated sex assault cases in the state of Colorado, this has got to be in one percent of one percent of one percent,” he said. “I’ve just never seen anything like it.”

Because all sex offenses in Colorado carry indeterminate sentences, a state panel will evaluate Kore at the conclusion of his 12-year sentence to determine if he’s fit to be released. If he is not deemed suitable for release, he can theoretically be detained for the rest of his life. If he is released, he faces a minimum of 20 years on parole.

Kore is currently incarcerated at the Arkansas Correctional Facility in Ordway. He is eligible for parole in spring 2030.

— Quincy Snowdon,  Staff Writer


 

Suspected Aurora hammer murderer arrives in Colorado, pleads not guilty to murder charges

A man accused of murdering a Lakewood woman and three members of an Aurora family with a hammer in the mid 1980s arrived in Colorado earlier this year after spending more than 30 years in a Nevada state prison.

Alex Christopher Ewing, 60, was extradited to the Arapahoe County jail from a prison in Carson City, Nevada in March to face a quartet of murder charges tied to the 1984 killings, according to the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Alex Christopher Ewing

The court held several hearings in Ewing’s case over the course of the year, culminating in a not-guilty plea entered by the suspected killer when he was arraigned in November.

Colorado law enforcement officials used updated DNA analysis in 2018 to suspect Ewing of murdering 27-year-old Bruce, 26-year-old Debra and 7-year-old Melissa Bennett in their Aurora home in January 1984. The Bennetts’ younger daughter, then-3-year-old Vanessa, was also severely injured in the attack, but survived.

Ewing is also accused of sexually assaulting and brutally murdering a 50-year-old woman from Lakewood a week before the Bennett killings. He faces separate charges in Jefferson County for that crime.

Ewing had been incarcerated in Nevada since the summer of 1984 after he escaped there while being transported to Kingman, Arizona, from St. George, Utah, for a court appearance on attempted murder and burglary charges. While on the lam, he severely beat a woman and her husband with an ax handle in their bedroom near Henderson, Nevada, per court records.

Ewing has been incarcerated at the Arapahoe County Jail since arriving in Colorado. He’s scheduled to appear next in court on April 19.

— Quincy Snowdon,  Staff Writer


 

Mason wins DA’s post in Adams County, Kellner squeaks victory in Arapahoe

A pair of veteran state prosecutors of opposing political stripes won posts to serve as district attorney in the two judicial districts that encompass Aurora in the 2020 general election.

Democrat Brian Mason easily bested Republican Tim McCormack in the race to become the top prosecutor in north Aurora’s 17th Judicial District, while Republican John Kellner edged Democratic challenger Amy Padden by less than two thousand votes in the jurisdiction that covers all of Aurora south of East Colfax Avenue.

Mason was announced the victor two days after Election Day, though Kellner had to wait more than a month before he could formally celebrate his win as the tight race went to an automatic recount.

Both new prosecutors have worked for years in the officers they’ll soon helm. Mason most recently served as a trial manager, and Kellner has overseen a cold case unit as a chief deputy district attorney.

Both men will replace their current term-limited bosses: Democrat Dave Young in the 17th and Republcan George Brauchler in the 18th.

Mason and Kellner will begin their new roles in early January.

— Quincy Snowdon,  Staff Writer


 

Investigators believe Daniel Pesch, 36, drew graffiti on the facade of the Tri-County Health office at 15192 E Hampden Ave. and repeatedly threw rocks through the building’s windows between April 15 and May 11, causing thousands of dollars in damage

COVID-19 angst fuels vandalism, shooting, assault

Guidelines, recommendations and mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic produced violence and property crime across the Aurora region throughout spring 2020.

Several high-profile crimes were reported to Aurora police in May as officials asked residents to wear masks and keep their distance from others in an effort to curb the spread of the lethal virus.

Aurora police accused Daniel Pesch, 37, of drawing graffiti on the facade of the Tri-County Health office at 15192 E Hampden Ave. and repeatedly throwing rocks through the building’s windows in late April and early May, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

Investigators eventually recommended charging Pesch with felony criminal mischief and a pair of misdemeanors: defacing property and harassment, according to court documents. He remains incarcerated at the Arapahoe County Detention Center in lieu of posting a $28,000 bond.

During the same time Pesch was accused of vandalizing the local health building, another person sent an email sent to a Tri-County secretary calling for “a hot-shooting, no-bulls*** civil war,” according to documents provided by the Greenwood Village Police Department. County officials declined to pursue charges in that case.

Two days after that email was sent to Tri-County officials, police asked for the public’s help identifying a trio of young people accused of violently assaulting a Target customer who had asked the group to give her more space while shopping.

Two young women and a man in his teens accosted the shopper before throwing a box of tissues at her head, police said in May. The Target customer then fell to the ground while the group continued to beat her, eventually breaking multiple bones.

The three suspects, seen in surveillance screenshots provided by police, fled the store in a dark red SUV. Aurora police did not immediately respond to requests to clarify whether any of the suspects were ever identified or arrested.

And on May 15, a Denver man was accused of shooting an Aurora Waffle House line cook in the stomach following a disagreement about wearing face coverings in the late-night restaurant, according to court documents.

Prosecutors have filed attempted first-degree murder and several other felony charges against Kelvin Watson, 27, for his suspected role in the shooting of Brian Guhler, a 25-year-old Waffle House line cook.

Guhler told police that he declined to serve Watson and another man on May 14 after the two entered the restaurant without face masks. Investigators alleged that Watson returned to the Aurora eatery a day later and confronted and shot Guhler in the stomach as the latter was attempting to flee out of a back door.

Watson posted a $100,000 bond and was released from custody on May 19, records show. He’s scheduled to appear next in court Jan. 12.

— Quincy Snowdon,  Staff Writer


 

Precautionary COVID-19 signage is affixed to the front entrance of North Middle School, Oct. 27, 2020.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

COVID-19 causes a tumultuous fall semester for Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District

The coronavirus led to a hectic fall semester for Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District, as both navigated how to operate safely in the midst of a pandemic. Cherry Creek put together an ambitious plan to start the semester in person, with elementary school students in school all the time and middle and high school students operating in a hybrid model. The district hoped that mask wearing, cohorting and quarantining students and staff who became exposed to an infected person would be enough to limit the spread of the virus. And it was: for 11 weeks.

The district had more in-person learning than any other metro district, but brought students back to online learning in November when cases surged in Arapahoe and Adams counties.

APS initially also planned to start the school year in person, but the board ultimately voted to have students begin remotely and transition back to in-person learning in October. However, the planned return to the classroom was cut short as students were sent back right as cases in the region were rising again, and the board once again voted to have students continue online learning in an emotional meeting where they acknowledged that there were no good options. The decision frustrated many district families, who voiced their discontent with online learning.

“I don’t think I’ve met one person who actually likes remote school,” Murphy Creek Middle School student Brooklynn Colbert told the Sentinel. “In the beginning of the day when people do have their cameras on, you can see in their faces that they’re ready to be done already.”

After public health officials gathered more data about how the pandemic works in schools, both districts are now poised to bring students back to the classroom in January. How well it will work depends in part on the incidence rate of COVID-19 in the community. What that will look like after the holidays remains to be seen.

-CARINA JULIG, Staff Writer


 

Students wearing facemasks sit socailly distanced in a classroom at East Village Community Elementary School, Aug. 20, 2020. Photo by Jeremy Chavez/Cherry Creek Schools

Cherry Creek Schools successfully passes a bond and mill levy in 2020 election

The results of the presidential election took an agonizing amount of time to come in, but on election night it quickly became clear that the voters of Arapahoe County overwhelmingly supported measures 4A and 4B, a bond and mill levy for the Cherry Creek School District.

Measure 4A, a mill levy override, will increase operating revenue by $35 million and bond measure 4B will raise $150 million to fund deferred maintenance and district projects.

The district asked for the measures to offset COVID-19 budget cuts that took $25 million from its 2020-2021 budget and will likely take $35 million from next year’s budget.

With the passage of both measures, Superintendent Scott Siegfried said a lot of strain will be taken off the district budget.

“It allows us to plan for the future of our kids,” he said. “We have a great opportunity to not feel the full impact of the state’s budget cuts on us.”

The 4A budget election will raise $35 million for the district to offset those cuts, and would be distributed proportionately to every school in the district.

The money from measure 4B will go towards $150 million in construction and deferred maintenance identified by a task force. The list includes renovations to Village East Elementary School, increased maintenance on aging schools, expanding the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus and safety and security upgrades, such as putting deadbolts on classroom doors in every school.

The money will also go toward the creation of a $7 million mental health day treatment center and a new elementary school on the east side of the district.

Mental health was a source of concern for the district pre-pandemic, and will likely be an even more pressing need for its students in its aftermath, making the day treatment center even more of a necessity.

“It might be the most important $7 million this district ever spends,” Siegfried said.

–Carina Julig, Staff Writer


 

Second year University of Colorado School of Medicine stident Candace Cephers is co-chair of CU Anschutz’s Black Student Collective, a new group advocating for racial justice on campus and thoughout the medical field. Photo provided by Candace Cephers.

Black students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical School advocate for racial justice

As the nation wrestles with ongoing police shootings of Black people and a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic patients, a new group at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is working to make the campus more equitable for Black students.

CU Anschutz’s Black Student Collective was formed in June in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and other Black people whose deaths have sparked nationwide protests. Candace Cephers, co-chairperson of the organization, said the group originated off of White Coats for Black Lives, a national organization of medical students campaigning to dismantle racism in the medical field.

“We all just came together because community was crucial for us at this time,” said Co-chairperson Oluwatosin Adebiyi, who noted that in her graduating class of 186, there are only 11 Black students, less than 6%.

Cephers and Adebiyi worked with about 40 other Black students on campus, mostly in the School of Medicine, to create a formal document outlining concrete changes they wanted the school to make.

Ultimately, they drafted a resolution with 25 action items for reducing racial injustice and a multi-year plan for implementing them. The action items include evaluating the school’s curricula for racial bias, recruiting more students of color and making the campus police’s use of force policies more transparent and restrictive.

The collective met with the administration, which was receptive to the resolution and is working to implement them in a several-year process.

The collective wants to be a force for change in the medical field, which Adebiyi said is long overdue for a reckoning with racism.

“Angela Davis said, ‘in a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist,’ and I think in medicine we have a long history that is tainted with supporting racist agendas,” Adebiyi said.

–Carina Julig, Staff Writer


 

Community College of Aurora student Asad Nabizadah, walks across the schools campus after attending a two-day class session, Sept. 15, 2020.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Community College of Aurora works to support students through pandemic

When the pandemic arrived in Colorado, the Community College of Aurora jumped into action to help its students with the transition to online learning.

It instituted a laptop loan program for students who didn’t own a computer, and worked with Comcast and Xfinity to get students affordable internet.

Many of CCA’s students are low-income or first generation, and didn’t have as much institutional support as traditional college kids did when the pandemic hit.

The college created a form for students to share what challenges they were facing, and assigned caseworkers to work with students one-on-one to connect them to resources. Using CARES Act funding, the college also established an emergency fund for students, knowing many had lost their jobs and were struggling financially.

It also applied and received a number of grants from, including $15,000 from the Rhodes Community Foundation that it is using to support undocumented students.

In a way, CCA is in a better position than four-year universities because it isn’t struggling with losing revenue from things it never had to begin with.

“We don’t have residence halls, we don’t have athletics,” dean of students Reyna Anaya said. “For those folks those often are auxiliary funds and they bring in a lot of money, and they help run the institution. We’ve always had to operate without that and I think that has really set us up for success in being able to plan through this pandemic.”

The college opened up a time capsule from 1991 this fall, unearthing documents and paraphernalia from the college’s early years. It installed a new time capsule to be opened in 30 years filled it with things representing 2020, including masks, hand sanitizer and articles about Elijah McClain.

CCA president Betsy Oudenhoven, who is retiring in July, said that she hopes the incoming Biden administration will bring in renewed support for community colleges.

Biden comes into office with a higher-education agenda that would be a boon to the nation’s community colleges. And soon-to-be First Lady Jill Biden, a longtime community college professor, is expected to make sure those institutions aren’t overlooked.

“For community college people, we feel like we have advocates in the White House now who really understand what we do,” Oudenhoven said.

–Carina Julig, Staff Writer


Community College of Aurora students, clockwise, Andrea Camacho, Gisselle Morales and Ita Upuese rehearse through a Zoom call for their upcoming virtual performance of Black Flag. Photo provided by Stacey D’Angelo

Local schools bring the arts to students remotely

How do you teach art or drama over a computer screen? Creatively.

With local schools going remote over the fall semester, art and drama teachers had to come up with ways to teach students their craft over the computer.

For Vista PEAK Preparatory art teacher Angie Willsea, that meant assembling packets of art supplies for her students so they had things to draw with during online lessons. She even hand-delivered some of the kits to students who weren’t able to drive to campus.

“It’s important for them to have the materials in their hands and not be tied to a screen the whole time,” she said.

Vista PEAK drama teacher Heathe Stecklein worked to fit the craft to the medium, and had his students create their own radio plays they could perform remotely.

“Even though we’re teaching classes that we’ve taught previously, we’re basically rewriting and re-imagining the curriculum that we’re presenting so that it can fit in this format,” Willsea said.

The Community College of Aurora also rose to the challenge, performing three plays this fall live over Zoom, including one for children that discussed race and racism.

Despite the challenges of Zoom, D’Angelo said she felt like it was important to honor the process of live theater, instead of prerecording a show and sending it to people to watch.

“We’re revealing what life is really like for folks right now,” she said.

–Carina Julig, Staff Writer

 

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Jake Testa
Jake Testa
5 months ago

Aurora has always had its share of problems due to “some” of the people who live there. Unfortunately the problems have only increased as time as gone by. White flight has taken hold and once stable, safe neighborhoods are crime ridden and run down. I loved living in Aurora in the late 1980s, I would not live there now, not even out by Southlands. If I came back to Colorado I would only consider West of I25 and South of the Tech Center area, probably Highlands Ranch, Ken Caryl area.