AURORA | An Aurora detective was found guilty Tuesday of violating a restraining order between her and her now-ex-wife, in an incident where she was driven to the home she shared with her estranged wife by an Aurora police commander.
Julie Stahnke, a 20-year Aurora Police Department officer, was sentenced to 12 months of probation, 20 hours of community service and a mandatory domestic violence evaluation in connection with the incident, which occurred November 2021.
Denver Judge Barry Schwartz, who presided over the two-day bench trial, called Stahnke’s decision to return to the house to get her truck “poor judgment,” admonishing her and fellow Aurora police officer, Division Chief Cassidee Carlson, for their involvement in the commission of a crime.
“As an officer, Ms. (Stahnke) had some greater obligation to know better, that it would have been woefully inappropriate to go to someone’s house at night after you’ve been ordered to stay at least 100 yards away from that person,” Schwartz said Tuesday.
“These are police officers, and if anybody should know — both officer Stahnke and Division Chief Carlson — they should understand that a technical violation of a protection order is a violation of a protection order, and it’s a violation of the law. … I found that to be troubling.”
The judge rejected a motion by the prosecution to amend their original complaint against Stahnke to include an incident the following day involving their return to the Denver home and the request of a civil assist where Carlson’s cousin, a Denver police officer, was contacted. Stahnke’s attorneys had said they were concerned about their inability to get information about the assist from Denver officials.
The Sentinel reported Nov. 7 that Carlson’s involvement in separate episodes of Stahnke’s restraining order violations prompted the internal investigations into Carlson’s participation.
Carlson was accused by APD’s internal affairs unit of behavior unbecoming an officer as well as being untruthful during the investigation. Chief Oates set aside the accusation of conduct unbecoming and instead promoted her from commander to chief of the patrol division.
In an email following the verdict Tuesday, department spokesman Matthew Wells-Longshore said Carlson would not face consequences related to her testimony. He said an internal affairs investigation against Stahnke would proceed now that the trial had concluded, and that she is currently employed by the department in a non-enforcement capacity.
Stahnke was arrested in connection with domestic violence toward her then-wife on Nov. 22, 2021. The charges — assault and disturbing the peace — were later dropped, and Schwartz ruled Tuesday that the subsequent violation was not an act of domestic violence.
While waiting to be released from jail, during a remote court hearing, Stahnke was read a protection order, which required her to “vacate the home of the victims, stay away from the home of the victims and stay away from any other location the victims are likely to be found” and specifically directed her to stay at least 100 yards from “the protected persons, wherever they may be found.”
Stahnke testified Monday that she had difficulty hearing the details of the order as it was being read because her jail cell was located near an activity room, and because she is deaf in one ear. Regardless, she said she told the court at the time that she understood the order because she was hungry, hadn’t slept and “just wanted to get out of there.”
Stahnke’s attorneys also argued that the order was vague because it did not specifically mention the address of the Denver home that Stahnke shared at the time with her estranged wife as a place where Stahnke could not go.
“At its core, this is a case about bad information, the Denver police jumping to conclusions while investigating this case, and then, to a certain extent, prosecutorial overreach,” defense attorney Stephen Holmes said. “Ms. Stahnke didn’t harass, molest, intimidate, retaliate against, threaten or tamper with … the protected party in this case.”
Prosecutors argued it was clear that the order barred Stahnke from the home, as Stahnke’s ex-wife was likely to be found at her home.
Carlson, who at that time held the rank of commander, picked Stahnke up from the jail. Carlson said when called as a witness by the defense on Monday that she had been friends with Stahnke since joining the agency and knew Stahnke’s ex-wife, and that she went to pick up Stahnke both as a friend and to provide her with leave paperwork on behalf of the department.
According to Carlson, Stahnke looked “wrecked” and “exhausted” upon leaving the jail. Carlson said she asked how Stahnke was doing, and Stahnke said she just wanted to retrieve her truck, which was parked in front of or next to her and her wife’s home.
Carlson said she asked to look through the paperwork Stahnke had been given at the jail, but that it did not include a copy of the protection order.
Carlson said she was familiar with orders prohibiting domestic violence suspects from contacting their alleged victims, and thought there was “probably” a protection order in place against Stahnke, but did not know the details of the order or whether it would bar Stahnke from approaching the home.
She said she did not believe Stahnke picking up her truck would be a problem, since Stahnke had the keys and would not need to contact her wife.
Schwartz criticized Carlson for her involvement in the incident during sentencing, saying the division chief had exercised “immensely poor judgment.”
Stahnke’s ex-wife said Monday that she was alerted to Carlson and Stahnke’s arrival by the sound of car doors closing, looked out of her upstairs bedroom and saw the two. She said the two embraced, and then Stahnke looked upstairs from the street and made eye contact with her.
Stahnke testified that, while embracing Carlson, “something caught my attention and I looked up” but that she “couldn’t see who was in the window.” Her ex-wife said she was told by a victim advocate that Stahnke could not come within 100 yards of the house and called police when she saw the two.
While the defense stressed that Stahnke’s truck was parked on a public street and that she did not walk up to or try to enter the home, the prosecution argued that seeing Stahnke arrive accompanied by another police officer in spite of the protection order would have been intimidating and given the impression that Stahnke was “above the law.”
“This was right after she was arrested for a domestic violence offense. The victim had finally had an opportunity to have some protection and have some control over her life,” prosecutor Taylor Leighton said. “It’s very intimidating to have a police officer bring her police officer friend to your house in order to violate the protection order.”
Carlson testified that Stahnke was within 100 yards of the home. Carlson also told Stahnke’s attorneys that the home appeared dark from the outside when Stahnke arrived, and the defense questioned whether Stahnke could have known about her ex-wife being home.
Schwartz, however, remarked on the language in the protection order that barred Stahnke from going wherever the victim would likely be found, saying “one would expect that they would be found at their house.”