The Staffords’ cabin in the hills of rural Park County — long the family’s respite from metro Denver — became the site of a violent confrontation that a group of Community College of Aurora students say made them fear for their lives earlier this year.
Malarie Stafford-Mustacchio chose the quiet spot near Bailey for a film school project. Packing cameras and other gear for their weekend trip, the 19-year-old and four other students set out for the cabin on March 18.
Once Malarie got to the cabin, she watched as her friends struggled to make it past the snowy, sloping gravel road near the cabin. Kate Wilhelm was invited along by her friend, another CCA student, who drove the two of them to the cabin on that day. The driver agreed to speak with the Sentinel on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns for her safety.
The two were the last to join the group. Like the other students, they had a hard time making it over the snow-slick road, and before they knew it, they had gotten stuck.
Then, Kate and her friend noticed a man — who deputies have since identified as Jon Spencer — walking up to their car. An attorney representing Jon said the 28-year-old did not want to comment on the March 18 incident.
“It looked like he fell from the sky, honestly,” the driver said. “I thought it was one of our crew members, and so I rolled down our window.”
Jon immediately began questioning them about what they were doing there, claiming he owned the road and asking who they knew that lived nearby, the two women told The Sentinel.
“He was like, ‘You need to leave. You’re not where you belong,’” Kate said. She and her friend both noted Jon smelled like he’d been drinking and was slurring his speech.
Soon, Jon began hurling insults at the group. He singled out the driver for abuse in particular. But unlike the other students, some of whom had also gotten stuck on the same stretch of road earlier, the driver is Black.
“He goes up to the car, and goes up to the window, and was calling her a dumb, Black b – – – h and saying, ‘That’s why you can’t drive,’” Malarie said.
“He was calling us c – – – s and b – – – – – s, and saying we were worthless,” the driver said. “He said, ‘You’re a dumb, Black b – – – h.’ … He was insinuating that because I had dark skin that I was incompetent.”
One of the students captured part of the confrontation on video using their cell phone — in the video, the man identified as Jon argues with the driver, telling her “you’re Black, and you’re dumb.”
As more of Malarie’s group gathered around the car, they said they tried to explain to Jon that the vehicle was stuck and that they were trying to get off the road.
One of the students, who was the director of their film project, at one point shook hands with Jon, which seemed to de-escalate the situation. But soon, the three said Jon resumed shouting at them, telling them the county-owned road was private and that they needed to leave.
The driver said she turned to Kate to say that Jon was upsetting her. Then, she said Jon tried to reach in through the car window and grab her.
The situation escalated quickly. The director who shook hands with Jon stepped in between the two of them and told him not to touch her. The three women said Jon grabbed the director and began choking and punching him before taking him down to the ground.
They said that as Jon pummeled and choked the student on the snow-covered road, shouting that he was going to kill them, other group members tried to pull him away. Kate called 911.
“They asked if we were safe, and I said, ‘No, somebody’s beating up my friend,” Kate said.
“I just remember trying to pry his fingers off his throat,” the driver said. “He said, ‘I’m going to kill you guys.’ … It felt like his intent was to murder us.”
At that point, another man, who the students believe was Jon’s neighbor, approached with what looked like an AR-15 rifle. Malarie yelled to the others that the man had a gun. Some of them ran down the road.
“My friend was literally about to die in front of my eyes, and I was just terrified,” the driver said.
“I’m still just trying to fathom what happened to this day,” Kate said. “My brain wasn’t working at that point.”
But the second man returned to his vehicle and put his rifle away. At that point, the director had gotten the upper hand over Jon. Malarie said the man who had the rifle walked back toward the stranded Jeep driven by Kate’s friend. The three women said he made threatening comments about wanting to hurt the director before walking over to Jon and helping him beat the student.
“It was so scary,” the driver said. “I didn’t want to increase their anger any more but I didn’t want to see my friend die in front of me.”
“I really, really did not know what to do,” Kate said.
As Malarie struggled to pull the men off the director, he was able to slip away and run down the road, away from the car. Kate said his face at that point was “very, very bloody,” and Malarie said the director had a large swelling on his head.
Once the driver got her car free, reversing back up the gravel road, she joined the other students at the cabin to wait for deputies.
Arrest came the next day
Jon was arrested the following day in connection with two counts of third-degree assault and five counts of harassment — all misdemeanors. He has since posted a $1,000 bond and was released from jail.
The students and some of their family members have questioned why the charges Jon faces don’t include a bias-motivated crime enhancement, in light of the racially-charged language he used while accosting the driver. They also questioned why it took an entire day to arrest Jon and why the man with the rifle wasn’t charged at all.
Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw said Tuesday that a judge’s order prohibited him from discussing the specifics of the case, but when asked about the time elapsed between the March 18 incident and Jon’s arrest, he said, “I definitely have an opinion about it.”
The sheriff said his office would defer to the legal expertise of the 11th Judicial District Attorney’s Office regarding hate crime charges. When The Sentinel reached out to the district attorney’s office, they were told office employees had been instructed not to discuss the case with the news media.
In a now-deleted Facebook post, the sheriff’s office confirmed the basic facts of the case and said “the District Attorney’s Office has reviewed all of the statements from everyone involved and have declined to press charges for a hate crime at this time, nor will they be charging the neighbor for his involvement in the incident (because he thought he was defending his neighbor).”
“These college students were simply going to a friend’s house for a get-together and when they got stuck, they unfortunately encountered a person who was completely out of line and apparently prejudiced,” the post read. “This one incident should not reflect badly on the citizens of Park County, nor Sheriff’s Office staff, as the majority of our citizens would have gladly helped them get their vehicle rolling again.”
In a March 19 phone call with Malarie and members of her family, part of which the family recorded, a man who identified himself as the sheriff apologized to the family and said that he would review the conduct of deputies and determine why no one was arrested on March 18.
The sheriff later said that the deputies involved had not been retrained or disciplined for their conduct on the 18th. The names of the deputies were not available.
Call for help ends in confusion
Once deputies arrived on scene, Malarie and Kate said the group was ordered to come out of the cabin with their hands raised. After persuading the deputies that they weren’t armed, they went back into the cabin and tended to the director’s injuries.
The women present said the director had a large swelling on his head, and Kate said he seemed disoriented. When one of the deputies asked him whether he needed medical attention, the director said he didn’t know, and according to Malarie and Kate, the deputy said over her radio that the director had refused medical help.
The director told the deputy that he wasn’t refusing help. According to Kate, the deputy then told the director to “make up his mind,” and when he eventually said that he wanted assistance, Malarie and Kate said the deputy announced over the radio that the director had changed his mind.
Malarie’s mother, Becky, drove up from Aurora after her daughter called while the incident was still taking place. The three said the deputies cracked jokes as they interacted with the students and did not take statements from them at the time. They said deputies asked if the students could give formal statements the following day because they did not have the necessary paperwork with them at the time.
“It seemed like she was being trained in the moment, like she had never experienced something like this before,” Kate said of the deputy who radioed for medical help. “They just weren’t taking it seriously at all.”
“The police just seemed nonchalant, like it wasn’t even a big deal,” Becky said.
Malarie and Kate said law enforcement suggested the students would be safe to stay at the cabin that night. Malarie, her mother and the driver also said police told them they didn’t want to arrest Jon that night because they were worried about causing a domestic violence incident between Jon and his wife, and that they also hadn’t arrested the other neighbor.
“They said they didn’t want to start anything in the dark when it was just the two females,” Malarie said. Her mother said the deputies “seemed afraid, and that’s why they didn’t do anything.”
Instead of staying at the cabin, the group left, and Malarie and her mother drove the director to a hospital, where medical staff said he might have suffered a concussion. The director’s car was left at the cabin.
The next day, Malarie and her mom were part of a group that returned to the cabin to pick up the car and some camera equipment. They were accompanied by another sheriff’s deputy, who met them at the Loaf ‘N Jug in Bailey. They said the deputy cautioned them not to take longer than 30 minutes to get the car and other items that were left behind.
At the cabin, they said they also spoke on the phone with the sheriff, who would not promise that Jon’s charges would include a bias-motivated crime enhancement. Jon still had not been arrested at that time.
“We were amazed,” Malarie said. “I had gotten stuck, and our friend had gotten stuck, and we’re both white, and [Jon] didn’t say anything to us.”
“I don’t want people to be locked up for life, but I don’t know how I’m feeling,” the driver later said. “I just don’t understand how the protocol is supposed to be.”
Quiet community with a quiet problem
The allegations of a violent, bias-motivated crime aren’t the first to rock rural Bailey. Just last year, the FBI announced it was investigating the homicide of 17-year-old Maggie Long, the child of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants, as a hate crime.
Long was killed at her home in Bailey in 2017 after police say multiple assailants broke into her home, stole firearms and other property, tied the teenager up and set her on fire.
The Park County Sheriff’s Office also faced criticism for how they handled the Long case — the slain teen’s family and friends told Colorado Public Radio earlier this year that the office asked them not to talk to the media or publicly for a week after the fire and did not publicly release suspect information for several weeks, during which time suspects could have fled.
No arrests have been announced in connection with the killing, though the consideration of Long’s death as a possible hate crime came with more resources as well as the participation of the FBI and state police.
McGraw said he believed the two cases had “nothing in relation.” Dick Elsner, chairperson of the Park County Board of County Commissioners, said he also did not believe the two cases were indicative of a larger pattern of prejudice in the unincorporated community of Bailey.
“My feeling is they are isolated incidents,” he said. “I would hate to think that we have those issues in our department or in the community itself. We do have some people who are, I don’t know how you want to call it, racially charged? But I don’t think it’s greater than anywhere else in Colorado.”
“That type of thing has no place up here,” he added.
Data published by the U.S. Department of Justice indicates that the number of hate crimes in Colorado predicated on race, ethnicity or ancestry increased from 78 in 2018 to 184 in 2020. The total number of hate crimes increased from 123 to 283.
The Park County Sheriff’s Office reported one hate crime to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations in 2021 — a property damage case involving bias against Black people. The office previously reported one hate crime in 2020, two in 2019 and none in 2018.
One vocal advocate for charging the March 18 incident as a hate crime is former Colorado House of Representatives legislator Debbie Stafford, who is also Malarie’s grandmother and the owner of the cabin in Bailey.
Debbie said she forwarded information about the case to the FBI and that an agent had been assigned to look into it. Vikki Migoya, a public affairs officer for the FBI’s Denver field office, said the agency could not confirm or deny its involvement in the case.
While Debbie said the residents of the Harris Park neighborhood had been largely supportive after what happened, some lashed out at her on social media after she posted an article about it by Westword in a local Facebook group.
Debbie said she believed Jon and the other resident were newer in the area. While she said her relationship with her neighbors had generally been “cordial,” after the incident involving her granddaughter, she added, “I think they think they own everything around them.”
“My kids are afraid they’re going to come mow me down,” she said. “To think he’s angry with any of my grandkids… If they just pick us off out here… It’s pretty scary.”
Keeping facts in the case quiet
Jon Spencer and his attorney, Kylie Whitaker, appeared virtually in the courtroom of Park County Court Judge Brian Green for a pre-trial conference April 26. Arguing for restrictions on publicity ahead of a possible trial, Whitaker criticized the sheriff’s office for its Facebook statement about the case, which was later taken down.
“He gets half of the facts wrong from the case, and I’m not exaggerating,” Whitaker said. “There’s 18,000 potential jurors in Park County, and 10,000 people follow the Park County Sheriff on Facebook. So, assuming those people disseminate that statement or article to other people, … I question whether my client could even get a fair trial at this point in Park County.”
She also criticized a previous article about the case published by Westword, saying it was “very disparaging.” After 11th Judicial District Attorney Linda Stanley said she agreed that a potential trial needed to be “fair for all sides,” Green ordered the attorneys to limit the sharing of information about the case with the media and the public.
He also ordered Jon to have no contact with the five students and not possess firearms, alcohol or illegal drugs. When asked if he understood the order, Jon responded, “Yes, sir.”
At the same time, the students and their supporters held a rally outside of the courthouse in Fairplay. Debbie was there along with a handful of supporters.
They returned to the Loaf ‘N Jug in Bailey on May 1, where Debbie said about two dozen people joined to hold signs and show support for the students. She said the reception was mostly positive, with many people honking and waving.
Jon’s next court date is May 24. While the wheels of justice have begun to turn, the students and their families say they are still waiting for Jon’s neighbor to be charged in connection with the incident and for a bias-motivated crime enhancement to be included among the charges facing Jon.
Malarie, Kate and the driver said that they are all still processing the violent encounter which they said made them fear for their lives and the lives of their friends.
“I just keep replaying it in my head, like, ‘Maybe if we did this, it wouldn’t have happened,’” Kate said. “We’re just starting to slowly realize there was nothing we could have done differently.”
As for the driver, who was the target of the racially-charged language used on March 18, she said she has experienced anxiety while driving since March, because Jon knows her vehicle. She has also struggled with feelings of anger and vulnerability after she was unable to stop the two men from attacking her friend.
“It’s like, every day, I’m reliving it. Like, today is the day my friend gets beaten up,” she said. “I’ve never had that feeling of just wanting to kill someone, but I felt that way when they were trying to kill my friend. I wanted to help, but I didn’t want to hurt someone.”
“I’m just trying to move on, but it’s like it’s still going on.”