Walk promotes safety along High Line Canal following Aurora shooting Sunday

Debi Hunter Holen, center left, walks with APD Chief Vanessa Wilson and others from the community along High Line Canal, May 24, discussing certain safety measures that can be taken to keep the popular trail safe.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | On Sunday evening, former Aurora City Councilwoman Debi Hunter Holen lost a walking partner.

Every day, the former Democratic lawmaker walks on the Aurora portion of the High Line Canal Trail that traverses just south of Del Mar Park. Sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by friends, she’s currently more than halfway toward meeting her goal of marching 2,021 miles in 2021.

But an injurious shooting Sunday night was enough to discourage one of Hunter Holen’s regular walking pals from joining her on the Aurora beltway due to increasing violent crime in the area. A woman was injured after being shot in the arm near the intersection of East Highine Drive and Lansing Street at about 8 p.m. May 23, according to officials with the Aurora Police Department. The shooting followed an ongoing neighborhood dispute, and authorities are actively searching for the suspected gunman. The woman who was shot is expected to survive her injuries.

Representatives from the nonprofit group The High Line Canal Trail Conservancy said the altercation occurred beside — but not directly on — the trail, a pathway owned by Denver Water that bisects the southeast portion of the metro area.

It was close enough to serve as the last straw for Hunter Holen’s walking companion.

“She reached out to me to say she won’t be walking with me anymore because of what happened,” Hunter Holen said.

So the former politico organized a walk advocating for enhanced safety in the area Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the shooting in the city’s High Line Villages neighborhood.

“This is our canal,” Hunter Holen said from the parking lot of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. “We have to claim it, or reclaim it and make sure that people know that it really is safe and a good place to find your sanctuary, your inner soul, your spiritual peace.”

About a dozen denizens joined Holen on her walk and talk on the beltway between Peoria Street and East Alameda Avenue, with law enforcement brass acknowledging that crime is up in the area but the trail remains a safe place to recreate.

“We have had an uptick in some violent crime and the community is concerned,” Police Chief Vanessa Wilson said.

Overall, major crime is up 40% so far this year, with 6,427 incidents of what officials designate the most serious crimes reported through the beginning of May, according to Aurora police statistics.

Yet most criminal incidents have not spilled onto north Aurora’s trail systems, according to Sgt. Tom Graham, the police area representative for the city’s northern District 1.

“We really haven’t had a lot of problems up there,” he said. “ … Every now and then something will pop up.”

A person was found dead along the Tollgate Creek Trail earlier this month, though police officials have designated the death as a possible suicide by overdose, and no foul play is suspected.

Both Wilson and Graham pointed to a pair of almost identical but unrelated incidents on the trail last summer as the last major violent encounters on the greenway.

Two separate women, one of whom was Hunter Holen, were attacked by two different men with planks of wood as they exercised on the path in early July 2020.

Hunter Holen sustained serious injuries to her head, finger and shoulder in the attack and received 32 staples in her scalp in the ensuing days.

“It was a traumatic experience, but I’m doing really well,” she said Monday.

The city is slated to install a bench in honor of her recovery along the trail next month.

Wilson, who has served as the chief of police for nearly a year, lauded Hunter Holen’s efforts to organize the advocacy walk, saying resident input is a tenet of the municipal police force.

“Without the community, we can’t solve crimes,” she said. “So we just need people to feel safe to report, safe to be good witnesses, and also to not feel fear where you live,” she told her fellow walkers.  “ … I’d love to go away from NextDoor and go back to the neighborhood, feet on the ground type of community stuff. I think we’ve gotten too virtual so that we don’t know our neighbors very well.”

The incident near the trail Sunday was one of three reported shootings in the city that left three people injured. None of the incidents were related, and all of the people who were shot are expected to survive.