The city is on its third police chief in less than a year. Emotions and stunning history was drawn back as Aurora marked 10 years since the Aurora theater shooting. Hoping to ride a “red wave” into regaining political ground lost the past several years, Republicans statewide instead lost every race for statewide offices and lost even more ground in the Legislature.
Those are barely even the highlights of a year filled with highlights.
Here’s a selection of the many headlines that made 2022 a memorable year:
Aurora remembers the theater shooting a decade later
A decade after a gunman killed 12 people and wounded dozens more at a packed movie theater during a midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises,” there is still one word that sticks with victims, their families and the community: resilience.
After the shooting, “Aurora really showed up for one another,” Heather Dearman said in July when her family released balloons on the Aurora Great Lawn in honor of her 6-year-old cousin Veronica Moser-Sullivan. But “it wasn’t the shooting that made us tough and gave us the strength to carry on, it was our resilience that did that.”
Ten years have passed since July 20, 2012, but emotions are still raw, the community still grieves tremendous loss and gun law reform continues to be a major issue, just as it was in the days following the shooting.
In many ways, resilience from the shooting has fueled change, in more ways than one. Senator-elect Tom Sullivan, the father of a 27-year-old man killed in the shooting, has made gun control a central part of his political platform. He plans to take further action, possibly with raising the age to buy assault-style weapons, in January when the new legislative session starts.
Resilience has also pushed the community to keep remembering the lives lost.
After her son A.J. Boik was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, Theresa Hoover said she couldn’t imagine making it through the next 10 minutes, let alone the following 10 years.
For her, the decade has been marked by “missed firsts, missed birthdays, missed graduations” and many other events that A.J. should have been at. But through her faith, it’s also brought growth and a measure of peace, she said.
This year, Capital Six Brewing partnered with Boik’s family to brew “A.J.’s Haze,” a hazy IPA with a citrus aftertaste. A portion of the proceeds from each of the beers sold will go to the 7/20 Memorial Foundation.
“I think it’s best to do something good instead of making it a sad day,” Hoover said in July, as friends and family gathered for the official public release of the brew.
Survivors have found great strength in resilience, too.
Zack Golditch, who was in high school at the time of the shooting, hopes he’s able to positively alter the path of another Aurora Public Schools student with a life-changing scholarship made possible through the Hero’s Journey 5K, which had its inaugural race this summer. Entry fees went toward a scholarship for an Aurora Public Schools student that culminates a dream Golditch — who graduated from Gateway High School a year after the tragedy — has had for a long time.
“My life was changed that night and hopefully this scholarship can change the life of another student in a good way,” Golditch, 27, told The Sentinel.
This year, Colorado experienced another mass shooting, this time in Colorado Springs at a gay night club where five people were killed. In response, local city lawmakers, who know the pain a community faces after such an event, affirmed their support for the LGBTQ community. — SENTINEL STAFF
Asylum seeker dies in GEO custody
The public is still awaiting details on the death of Melvin Ariel Calero-Mendoza, who was in an privately-owned immigration detention center in Aurora when he was rushed to the hospital and then pronounced dead Oct. 14.
Calero-Mendoza had been at the facility since May 2, according to ICE. He was apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol April 13 and was at the Aurora facility awaiting completion of his removal proceedings.
On Oct. 5, a judge with the Executive Office of Immigration Review ordered Calero-Mendoza’s removal and denied all relief. A 30-day period was granted before removal to accommodate any potential appeals.
As of this publishing, the autopsy was not yet available from the Adams County Coroner’s Office, which handles such investigations. — KARA MASON, Sentinel Managing Editor
Aurora gets omicron boosters, vaccine education
While 2022 marked the second full year of living with COVID-19, its fallout and targeted vaccines, local leaders are still working to encourage people to get them.
Omicron boosters arrived in the state in early September.
“I eagerly rolled up my sleeve to get the omicron vaccine dose because it’s a safe and easy way that I can protect my family, and our community, and have peace of mind. These updated vaccines went through a thorough approval process and now we are thrilled they are finally available to protect Coloradans from the omicron variants,” Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement following his jab this fall.
Since then, as more people shed masks and abandon social distancing measures, local health organizations and even school districts have taken on the task of informing the community of how important COVID-19 vaccines are in preventing serious illness, which in some cases can still cause death.
This semester, Aurora Public Schools received a grant from the Institute for Educational Leadership and Kaiser Permanente specifically for increasing COVID-19 vaccine confidence and improving vaccine equity.
B Lewis, a community schools impact manager at APS, said that in 2020 the district realized that there was a lot of misinformation circulating about the vaccine, and decided to partner with Tri-County to make sure it was consistently delivering accurate and reliable information to students and their families.
With the conclusion of the Tri-County Health Department, individual county health departments in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties will take on infectious disease prevention efforts. — SENTINEL STAFF
Aurora gets immersive Dalí
Much changed in Aurora this year, including the city’s notoriety for art.
“Dalí Alive,” a 13,000-square foot immersive display at Stanley Marketplace, made its debut in north Aurora.
Salvador Dalí is known for his art, but mostly for his personality that accompanied his art. The immersive exhibit puts both on display and shows visitors the man behind the images that have become iconic.
Similar to other immersive exhibits that have come before it, giant dancing versions of some of Dalí’s most well-known works tower over guests. “The Persistence of Memory,” which was apparently inspired by a piece of Camembert cheese melting in the heat, and “Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee,” painted of his muse Gala well after the artist’s prime, are both among the images that float around the space.
“Dalí Alive” runs through Jan. 29 at the Hangar in Stanley Marketplace, 2501 N. Dallas Street. Tickets for adults start at $39.00 with discounts for children and seniors. For more information and to buy tickets, visit thelume.com. — KARA MASON, Sentinel Managing Editor
Annette chef recognized with James Beard award
If this year you indulged in one of Aurora’s best burgers, presented on fresh English muffins, or drooled over potato gnocchi served with roasted chestnut puree, caramelized fennel, cippolinis and crispy prosciutto, then you’ve eaten from one of the country’s top chefs.
Caroline Glover of Annette, located in Stanley Marketplace in north Aurora, was named best chef in the mountain region by the James Beard Foundation this summer.
Glover, who founded Annette in 2016, was a semi-finalist for the category in 2018 and 2019 as well as a nominee in 2020. She accepted the 2022 award June 13 at the awards ceremony in Chicago, making her the first chef in Aurora to earn the prestigious title.
She told The Sentinel that after the stress of the past two and a half years, receiving the award felt surreal.
“Getting this award, it felt like a silver lining to a really hard time,” she said.
Glover said that the restaurant’s staff, which is currently 18 people, worked harder than it ever had during the pandemic to come up with creative ways to remain profitable and serve customers.
Accepting the award, Glover told the audience that because of her staff, Annette was able to pivot to a to-go model in the days of the pandemic, “and many more iterations after that,” she said. — SENTINEL STAFF
Roe repeal felt locally
Colorado has some of the strongest abortion protections in the nation, but after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade in June local health providers almost immediately began to feel the strain from so many patients from out of state coming to Colorado to seek abortions.
As of early August, one-third of patients coming to Planned Parenthood locations in Colorado for abortions were from other states, which has slowed down appointments for people no matter where they live.
“There is a ripple effect where if those appointment times are out three weeks it doesn’t matter if you’re from Texas, Nebraska, South Dakota or right down the street in Denver,” said Dr. Kristina Tocce, who works at Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains at a listening session at the CU Anschutz School of Medicine campus with Congressman Jason Crow this summer.
Healthcare providers worry that the repeal will make pregnancy and childbirth more dangerous for women and put doctors in potential legal danger. It’s also making medical school more difficult for students in states where abortion is now completely illegal.
Anschutz assistant professor Dr. Aaron Lazorwitz said that the school’s OBGYN department has already been contacted by schools in other parts of the country asking if it can help educate their OBGYN residents.
“We’ve had programs from Texas and Oklahoma reach out to ask, ‘can you help train our residents? Because we can’t train them anymore,’” he said.
Colorado voters have repeatedly rejected ballot measures to make the state’s abortion laws more restrictive. In the spring, the Colorado Legislature passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which guarantees the right to an abortion in state law. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, legislators say it’s likely that the upcoming legislative session will include more bills geared towards increasing protections for reproductive healthcare. — CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
New county health departments form
Following the votes last year to disband the Tri-County Health Department, Adams and Arapahoe counties spent the year putting plans in place to form their own, individual-county health departments that will come online at the beginning of 2023. The new departments will be helmed by many of the same people, as hundreds of Tri-County employees have signed on to work at one of the departments come January.
The Arapahoe County department will be led by Jennifer Ludwig and the Adams County department by Kelly Weidenbach, both former Tri-County employees. Public health officials say they have been working to make the transition as seamless as possible and hope that the switch to single-county departments will make it easier to focus in on specific issues affecting residents of each county.
“Arapahoe County is a big county but we can still build more intimate relationships as a single county health department,” Ludwig said. — CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
Colorado keeps blue
Democratic state leaders kept their seats in 2022.
Gov. Jared Polis, Attorney General Phil Weiser, Secretary of State Jena Griswold, State Treasurer Dave Young and legislative lawmakers cemented Colorado’s place as a burgeoning blue state, despite historical trends that show the opposing party often fairs better in midterm elections. Democrats kept the state House and Senate.
In Congress, Rep. Jason Crow returned to Washington with a double-digit lead over GOP challenger Steve Monahan, who ran as one of the most moderate Republicans in the state.
In conservative CO-03, which encompasses southern Colorado and the Western Slope, Lauren Boebert faced one of the fiercest re-election challenges in Congress. She won by just more than 500 votes, which was determined after an automatic recount.
In 2023, Aurora and other communities across Colorado will embark on municipal elections. A handful of Aurora City Council seats are up for re-election, along with the mayor. Mayor Mike Coffman inched out a win in 2019, a year after he lost his congressional seat to Crow. — KARA MASON, Sentinel Managing Editor
Denver Fashion Week gets a taste of Aurora
Aurora’s Fashion Factory owners Skye Barker Maa made her runway debut in 2022, hoping to inspire others and perhaps take her designs global.
The new line is called SKYE|AIRE and the first collection has its roots in Denver, by way of the deep sea. The pieces mimic the patterns and shapes of stingrays, jellyfish and other aquatic life. Barker Maa has dozens and dozens of photos on her iPhone from the Denver Aquarium, where the inspiration struck earlier this year.
“My 14-year-old son and I had a mom-son date, and he wanted me to take him to the aquarium and I was cranky about it, because I didn’t want to spend 30 bucks a pop. I’m like, we’ve been to the aquarium a million times. Let’s go to the movies or something,” Barker Maa recalled. “But he took me to the aquarium and I was just watching these stingrays and I was like — that’s it. I saw an entire collection in the Denver Aquarium.”
While the fashion industry isn’t as bustling in the Denver metroplex as it is in other major cities across the country, Barker Maa sees potential, especially in her Stanley Marketplace-based studio where almost a dozen sewers work full time. They were a significant part of getting SKYE|AIRE to the runway.
“I think Denver is a great place for it,” Barker Maa told The Sentinel. “And I think there’s a good solid need for it, but finding a place where you can pay the rent and do that is hard. The arts in general are like that…You’re not going to drive the Mercedes in the arts, but keeping the lights on and keeping people paid and hopefully driving the Honda that works is kind of the goal. But there’s a super high need for what we’re doing.”
Factory Fashion, which employs a dozen sewers with full-time work, is Barker Maa’s latest creative endeavor. She also owns Factory Five Five, a self-described funky art warehouse, co-owns the Sky Bar, a cocktail lounge that “celebrates the golden age of air travel,” and sold Neighborhood music, which she started after her son expressed interest in learning piano, earlier this year. — KARA MASON, Sentinel Managing Editor
Book pulled from shelves at school library
A sex education book has been removed from circulation in Cherry Creek School District libraries following a parent complaint that prompted an internal review of three books.
The district reviewed “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and “Flamer” by Mike Curato and ultimately decided to remove “Let’s Talk About It” from shelves due to concerns over how it discussed sexting. The book was available in libraries at two district high schools but had never been checked out.
During public comment at the district’s September school board meeting, parent Sarah King said she wanted the books removed because of their sexual content and because they promoted “vile and depraved acts.”
“These books sexualize children and destroy their innocence,” she said.
All three books, two of which are graphic novels/memoirs about coming of age as an LGBTQ person, have been heavily targeted for removal at school and public libraries across the country in a wave of book bans being organized by conservative groups.
A recent report from free speech organization PEN America found that from July 2021 to June 2022 there were over 2,500 instances of individual books being banned in schools across the U.S. The majority of attempts to ban books were being led by organized political groups, PEN said, of which the organization identified more than 50.Over 40% of banned books had LGBTQ themes or characters, and 40% featured main or secondary characters of color, the report said. Another 22% included sexual content.
In Colorado, conservative parent groups largely failed to make gains at the ballot box this year. Molly Lamar, a Cherry Creek parent who had spoken out against critical race theory being taught in schools, lost the race to represent Colorado’s Sixth District on the state Board of Education to incumbent Rebecca McClellan. Gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganhl, who described herself as a “mad mom” and promoted an unsubstantiated claim near the end of the campaign that students in Colorado schools were self-identifying as animals lost by over 18 percentage points to incumbent Jared Polis. — CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
APS superintendent steps down
After nine years with the district, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn announced he would not be seeking to renew his current contract and would be stepping down at the end of this semester. An interim superintendent will be appointed for next semester as the board searches for his replacement.
The district’s 16th leader and first Black superintendent, Munn led the district during some of its most challenging times and was in charge of navigating the switch to online learning and all of the other difficulties of the pandemic years. During his tenure, the district’s academic achievement and graduation rates have improved, but it has also struggled with declining enrollment and an increase in youth violence during the pandemic. Since the most recent school board election in fall 2021 Munn has increasingly clashed with the board of education, and said that his exit stems from a “conflict of vision” with the board over the district’s future.
The current APS chief of staff Mark Seglem will lead the district in an interim capacity next semester while Munn steps into an advisory role. The board is beginning its search for a new superintendent, which education experts say could take time as there are not a significant number of candidates who have managed a district of APS’ size and complexity.
At a board meeting earlier this month, Munn thanked the district’s students and families for allowing him to serve them for almost a decade.
“It’s something that I will never take for granted,” he said. — CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
Blueprint APS work continues, despite protests
In the spring, the Aurora Public Schools voted to accept the superintendent’s recommendation to close Sable and Paris elementary schools as part of Blueprint APS, the district’s long-range facilities plan. As part of the plan the district has closed or is scheduled to close a number of neighborhood schools due to declining enrollment, which it says makes it harder to ensure that all students are getting the same resources and strains the district’s budget. The announcement was met with dismay from the Sable and Paris communities, who said that they felt blindsided by the decision and argued that the schools were important hubs for the neighborhood’s high immigrant population.
After a campaign from teachers and families to keep the schools open, the board initially voted to reject the superintendent’s recommendation but then voted to accept it at a later meeting, provoking frustration. The district is now accepting proposals for how the buildings will be repurposed after they close at the end of the current school year.
As part of Blueprint, two new magnet schools focused on visual and performing arts and entrepreneurship opened this school year, and more will follow in the coming years. The board also voted to create two P-TECH programs, a six-year program where students graduate with a high school diploma, an associate’s degree and workforce experience. One of the programs will focus on health and the other on construction management and be located in the new STEM building currently being constructed at the Community College of Aurora. — CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
CCSD day treatment center gets name, partner
The Cherry Creek School District announced this summer that it has partnered with Children’s Hospital Colorado and the CU Anschutz department of psychiatry to staff the mental health day treatment center it is constructing.
The center is a response to what providers have described as a pediatric mental health “state of emergency” in Colorado, as a rise in acute mental health needs in children and teens runs up against a shortage of providers. The treatment center will have educational staff from the district, while CU and Children’s Hospital will provide the staff for the clinical aspect of the program. It will be equipped to work with students dealing with a range of psychological issues, including students who are dealing with comorbid problems such as eating disorders or substance abuse.
The $15 million facility is being constructed with money from a 2020 bond measure approved by voters and is anticipated to open in the fall of 2023. At a December school board meeting, it was officially given the name Traverse Academy.
“This name is a nod to the four great Traverses in Colorado mountain climbing, representing the obstacles to be overcome to move from one great peak to the next,” board documents said.
CCSD assistant superintendent for special populations Tony Poole said the partnership is believed to be the first of its kind.
“We really do hope that this can be a model for schools not only in Colorado but across the country,” he said. — CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
Aurora rolls out ban on homeless camping
Aurora’s City Council finalized their ban on homeless camping in the city, including a policy for storing some of the belongings of those displaced by homeless encampment sweeps.
The policy, passed May 9, promises that people working on behalf of the city to abate encampments will “recover personal documents and identifications observed in the trash and debris and turn this property over to the Aurora Day Resource Center.”
“City staff and City agents will not sort through the trash and debris to look for personal documents or identifications,” the policy says.
Council members finalized a ban on unauthorized camping earlier this year, which included an amendment initially proposed by Councilmember Crystal Murillo that directed the city manager’s office to come up with a policy for storing leftover personal property.
Murillo said she believed more work was needed to treat homeless campers humanely in light of the new camping ban, but that she was comfortable voting on the policy as it was.
“This is not the most comprehensive way to address storage, but given the conversation at the last meeting, I think that a policy is better than no policy,” she said.
Council members voted unanimously to introduce the policy. Items will be stored for up to a year at the Aurora Day Resource Center, which the city is also considering turning into a 24/7 shelter.
On May 2, Assistant City Attorney Tim Joyce told the group that the policy was the last thing standing in the way of stepping up enforcement to align with the goals of the camping ban, though the city was still in the process of creating more shelter space.
Based on local and federal estimates, there may be hundreds more homeless people than shelter beds. — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer
Aurora rallies to support immigrants and refugees
Following the fall of the Afghan government last year and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Aurorans have rallied to support immigrants and refugees arriving to the city.
Between October 2021 and September 2022, Colorado welcomed more than 2,700 immigrants from Afghanistan and Ukraine, according to the state’s Refugee Services Program. Colorado expects to receive as many as 2,000 refugees from Ukraine alone through fall 2023. Around 900 refugees from Cuba have also arrived in Colorado in the past year.
Following the Russian invasion, Gov. Jared Polis met with Ukrainian Americans at Ukrainian-owned Wake and Take Coffee in Aurora. In a 2016 diversity report by the City of Aurora, Ukrainians were the 11th most populous immigrant group in the city of more than 360,000 people.
“We, as Coloradans all stand with Ukraine and your stand for peace, and we want to do everything we can to end the invasion and help make sure that your family members are safe,” Polis said in March.
In October, organization Welcome.US held a job fair at the Community College of Aurora specifically for immigrants and refugees. The fair was open to everyone, but specifically focused on recent arrivals from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Several hundred people attended, some of whom were hired right on the spot.
“We want to inspire employers to hire refugees,” said Maytham Alshadood, a director of partnerships for the organization and former deputy chief of staff for Congressman Crow.
The African Community Center also held its first refugee Thanksgiving since the pandemic began in Aurora, where immigrants get to experience their first American Thanksgiving and enjoy food from a variety of cultures. In a year that has seen a dramatic increase in refugee resettlement to Colorado, organizers said it was meaningful to be able to connect.— SENTINEL STAFF
Under pressure from conservatives, Aurora fires police chief Vanessa Wilson
After days of foreshadowing, Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly fired Police Chief Vanessa Wilson on April 6, saying it was time for a “change in leadership” of the city’s police department.
The termination brought Wilson’s two-year tenure as chief to an abrupt end, eliciting complaints from local activists and elected officials alike.
Wilson was appointed by Twombly in August 2020 after serving as interim chief for about seven months. She will be paid a year’s salary for the termination “without cause,” according to city officials and the terms of her contract.
Some Aurora officials said they backed Twombly’s decision to sack Wilson, despite the immediate blowback.
Mayor Mike Coffman endorsed Twombly’s decision during the news conference, though unlike the city manager, he did mention specific reasons for supporting a change in leadership.
“Given the challenges that we had when she came on, I think (Wilson) was the right person for the right time at that time,” Coffman said. “Given the fact that we have rising crime, given the fact that there was a lack of urgency in her leadership, and resolving the problem certainly caused me to support the city manager’s decision.”
The mayor insisted that the city would continue to carry out the reforms that Wilson began.
Twombly said neither the rise in crime in Aurora nor a scathing audit of the department’s records section released were grounds for the firing.
“Chief Wilson prioritized community involvement. This is something we all recognize as a strength of hers. However there is more to achieve that involves management of the police department,” he said.
“There also needs to be effective management of department operations, engagement with officers and staff, and a strategic approach to moving the department forward.”
Wilson’s lawyer told The Sentinel the termination was “a concerted campaign by Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky and other conservative city council members to smear Chief Wilson’s reputation and credibility.”
The chief said in a statement that she was “thankful for the opportunity to serve the people of Aurora” and “proud of its police officers and what we’ve accomplished together.”
Chris Juul, who formerly served as division chief, took over temporarily as acting chief. During previous vacancies, the deputy chief, currently Darin Parker, stepped into the role.
Many of those who advocated for reform in the wake of police scandals described the firing as a betrayal of the city’s commitment to reform.
Sheneen McClain, whose son Elijah died at the hands of Aurora police and paramedics in 2019, said she was pessimistic about the future of the department. McClain was disappointed by Wilson’s firing, calling the former chief a “good person” who “stepped in to clean up someone else’s mess.”
“So what (if) she’s not patting all the police officers on the back? Should she? The police department of Aurora has a history of killing people and justifying it with their rules,” McClain said. “She was cleaning it up, and they got rid of her. So, nobody should be trusting that Aurora, Colorado, is going to change. The ink hasn’t even dried on the consent decree before they’re totally going against it.” — SENTINEL STAFF
Hundreds displaced after explosion at central Aurora apartment complex
More than 350 residents of a central Aurora apartment complex remain forced from their homes after an explosion inside the large complex blew a large hole through an outside wall Sept. 10.
Three people were injured, possibly from flying debris during the explosion, witnesses and officials said. All sustained minor injuries, fire officials said.
Some residents said fire officials were reporting structural damage to the building’s foundation.
“Volunteers are standing by to provide comfort and care,” Red Cross officials said in a statement. “Disaster health and mental health services as well as individual disaster assistance and feeding services are available.”
Hours after the explosion, some people living the complex were in bathrobes or under Red Cross blankets waiting to hear about retrieving personal items or temporary housing, residents waiting outside said.
Calls from The Sentinel to apartment property managers were not returned.
Aurora Fire and Rescue said they were called to Parkside Collective Apartments at 14565 E. Alameda Ave. just before 10 a.m. to investigate reports of smoke.
“At this time it is unknown what the exact origin of the explosion was but all searches have been negative, and all crews have mitigated hazards and are out of the structure at this time awaiting assistance with utilities control,” fire officials said.
A few days later, residents of the Parkside Collective apartments received more unwelcome news — their building would be uninhabitable for the rest of the year.
“This was a building that had kids, and veterans who were just discharged, and people with no relatives,” said Dexter Brooks, a Parkside resident who started a Facebook group with his neighbors who were impacted by the explosion. “We’re trying to connect with people so we can all be on the same page.”
On the morning of the explosion, a building alarm directed Brooks and other Parkside residents to leave their apartments due to an emergency.
“All of the sudden, there was this huge blast,” Brooks said. “I was standing right there, and it was like a movie. I was probably shaken for about two or three hours after that. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.” — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer
Dan Oates, chief during Century 16 shooting, returns to lead Aurora Police Department
Former Police Chief Dan Oates was tapped to lead the Aurora Police Department again on an interim basis as the city continues its search for a permanent replacement for Vanessa Wilson, who was fired April 6.
Oates led the department from 2005 to 2014, a time period that included the Aurora theater shooting, which killed 12 people and injured dozens more.
He went on to lead the Miami Beach Police Department and later served as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department and the St. Louis City and County police departments on crime reduction strategies and organizational reform efforts.
“I’m honored and flattered to be coming back to help out Aurora in this challenging time,” the new interim chief said during a news conference. “Aurora has a very special place in my life and the life of my family. We raised our two children during those formative nine years, from when they were in middle school through high school.”
He said building trust with the community was a top priority and also that he “loved the cops in the Aurora PD,” saying “there’s a lot of talent and dedication in that organization.”
“Dan brings focus to crime reduction, community engagement and internal leadership that will serve our community well during this transition. He will also provide critical guidance as we begin to seek community input in selecting a permanent chief,” City Manager Jim Twombly said in a statement.
Oates and Twombly also stressed the city’s ongoing commitment to the police and fire reforms outlined in the consent decree negotiated between the city and the state attorney general’s office.
“This is the roadmap to improving the image of the department, which, you know, cops may or may not acknowledge it, (but it) is terribly, terribly important to them. They want to feel good about the agency they work with,” Oates said.
Oates handed over the reins of the department to former Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, who was hired in November as another interim chief. — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer
Interim police chief dismissed police “behavior unbecoming” conviction, promotes commander
An Aurora detective was found guilty in December 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.
The case was part of a larger controversy surrounding former interim police chief Dan Oates in November. Then The Sentinel and Channel 4 News reported that Oates had altered two department oversight boards and unilaterally upended discipline of at least two officers amid demands for more police department transparency and accountability.
“As chief, it is my sole responsibility to decide what discipline is appropriate,” in a written statement to inquiries by Channel 4 investigative reporter Brian Maass. “I know how to hold cops accountable for misconduct. But when an internal affairs investigation does not prove misconduct, it is also my job to stand by that finding as well.”
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 Nov. 29.
“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 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 Nov. 29, 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.
Aurora’s most recent interim police chief, Art Acevedo, said earlier in December he would review each of the cases and Oates’ decisions to overlook Carlson’s IA discipline conviction and then promote her. — SENTINEL STAFF
Ex-police chief’s partner charged for calling in phony child abuse tip against Aurora councilor
The former partner of ousted Aurora police chief Vanessa Wilson was accused in May of fabricating a report that claimed Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky sexually abused her toddler son, according to an arrest affidavit.
Robin Niceta, 40, faces charges of retaliation against an elected official, a sixth-degree felony, and making a false report of child abuse as a mandatory reporter, a second-degree misdemeanor. Police say Niceta worked in the Arapahoe County Department of Human Services at the time she made the false report.
The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office said Niceta was booked May 16 at the Arapahoe County Jail and released in lieu of a $4,000 bond.
Jurinsky said she believes the false accusations were made in retaliation for criticism of Wilson. She emerged as one of Wilson’s most outspoken critics before the chief was fired by City Manager Jim Twombly in April.
The story was first reported by the Channel 4 News.
The affidavit, signed by an Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office sergeant, says Niceta called the Department of Human Services anonymously to report that Jurinsky had abused her son in the presence of her employees.
The call was placed on Jan. 28, the day after Jurinsky appeared on KNUS host Steffan Tubbs’ talk-radio show and criticized Wilson’s leadership, referring to Wilson as “trash.”
Investigators with the department later determined that the allegations against Jurinsky were unfounded, and law enforcement concluded that Niceta placed the call after finding that her number matched the number of the anonymous caller and in light of forensic analysis of Niceta’s cell phone and county-issued laptop.
It’s unclear whether Wilson knew about the allegations her partner made and when. Jurinsky said she believed that if Wilson knew, she should also be prosecuted. — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer
Aurora used exemption to state records law to withhold details of sexual harassment allegations against councilor
Allegations that Aurora Councilmember Steve Sundberg made sexually suggestive comments around city staff were investigated and confirmed but kept from the public under a Colorado law that gives cities broad discretion to withhold records related to sexual harassment.
A group of three other council members decided not to discipline Sundberg, because, according to Sundberg, the allegations were “minor,” and he reportedly apologized. No recordings were made or minutes taken of the council group’s meetings.
A confidential source reported the allegations against Sundberg to The Sentinel, which requested relevant records from the City of Aurora, including an email sent to council members that contained a third-party report on the matter.
The city refused to turn over those records and initially refused to provide a specific legal reason for doing so. Senior assistant city attorney Dave Lathers eventually acknowledged that records were withheld under a portion of Colorado’s Open Records Act allowing local governments to block the release of records having to do with sexual harassment allegations.
The Sentinel obtained a copy of the April 20 report from a confidential source and confirmed the document’s authenticity with multiple council members.
Open government advocates say that, while the state’s public records laws were written to protect the privacy of victims, by allowing cities to withhold “any records of sexual harassment complaints and investigations,” the law also allows cities to hide the results of those investigations from the public, which may have the secondary effect of shielding perpetrators from scrutiny.
“There’s a strong public interest in knowing the outcome of these investigations,” Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition president Steve Zansberg said of the law. “Allowing those who have been accused of sex harassment to go unidentified for years on end is not consistent with the general view that this workplace conduct is unacceptable and should be eradicated.”
Sundberg later alluded to the situation at the conclusion of a City Council meeting and described some details of the incidents to The Sentinel. On May 9, Sundberg told the council that, in December 2021, he was in “a nervous and challenging situation in which I blurted out a joke or a story which was about a prank.”
“Upon completing that I realized it was an inappropriate thing to say,” he said. “I do genuinely care about other people and how I treat them, so I am meeting with a couple of staff tomorrow to apologize, have a crucial conversation about that and move on with important city business.”
Councilmember Ruben Medina, who along with Alison Coombs confirmed the authenticity of the report received by The Sentinel, said he was told by council evaluation committee members that no action would be taken against Sundberg after he apologized and completed workplace behavior training.
“When something like that happens, it taints us all,” Medina said.
Medina also shared an email that he sent to council members in May, in which he blasts Sundberg for his conduct toward city employees.
“It shows disregard for others and no respect or moral fortitude. Especially, someone in a power position telling subordinates,” Medina’s email reads in part. “You are a grown man, not a child who did not know. To me this shows a pattern because you not only did this once but twice.”
Since the 1990s, cities like Aurora have been broadly empowered to withhold records related to sexual harassment allegations. Zansberg said the law was meant to protect government workers from the stigma and retaliation that sometimes results from reporting sexual harassment as well as to protect officials from false accusations.
“But it is ironic that when people have been identified as having been the subject of a complaint that the public is not entitled to know the outcome,” he said. “If it’s possible to disclose the records and at a minimum the findings of the investigation without identifying the accusers, that would be a far better regime.” — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer
Aurora Community College students recount racially-charged attack on mountain road
A Bailey man who in March allegedly attacked a group of Community College of Aurora film students while using racially-charged language has pleaded not guilty to charges of assault and harassment.
When one of the students’ cars got stuck on the icy road near his home in rural Bailey, Jon Spencer, 29, reportedly confronted and attacked the group, after calling the driver a “dumb, Black b—h.” He was charged with two counts of third-degree assault and five counts of harassment. All charges are misdemeanors.
Spencer remotely attended a hearing overseen by Park County Court Judge Brian Green, who along with one of the students, Malarie Stafford-Mustacchio, expressed frustration about the lack of progress in the case. Green said he was reluctant to further postpone Spencer entering a plea.
“If we do it again, it just starts to feel like this doesn’t even matter to the court or anybody else involved,” Stafford-Mustacchio said.
Defense attorney Ehren Penix said attorneys involved in the cases needed additional time to comply with the state’s Crime Victim Rights Act, which requires that victims of certain crimes be informed and permitted to be present during critical stages of the criminal justice process.
“They still need some additional time to do VRA and to contact those individuals prior to us coming to a resolution here,” Penix said. “We believe a resolution is forthcoming.”
Regardless, he entered a plea of not guilty on Spencer’s behalf after Green insisted on him submitting a plea. Green said the plea would not “prohibit the parties from negotiating.”
Green tentatively scheduled the jury trial on the matter to begin Feb. 2 2023. — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer
Aurora lawmakers reject Native American land acknowledgement: ‘This is God’s country.’
Conservative lawmakers rejected the idea of introducing city events with an acknowledgment that Aurora was established on former Native American lands, invoking God and gripes with the language of the statement.
While Councilmember Crystal Murillo said the statement would “show a sign of respect to our indigenous community,” Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky said she wouldn’t support a land acknowledgment unless the group would “also acknowledge that this is actually God’s country.”
“That’s the only way I’m going to in any way, shape or form be for this,” Jurinsky said.
Land acknowledgments have been adopted by cities across Colorado and the U.S. as a way of recognizing the unique relationship between indigenous Americans and the lands they inhabited before the arrival of European settlers.
Acknowledging the historical relationship between tribes such as the Arapaho and the lands they once controlled may encourage members of the public to research Colorado’s colonial past, said Lee Spoonhunter, a member and former chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.
“I welcome it. The land of Colorado — all of the way from Lamar, to Denver, to Estes Park and Fort Collins — that’s our ancestral homeland,” Spoonhunter told The Sentinel. “I truly believe that more education and awareness of how we lived in those homelands helps everyone understand how far we’ve come in America’s history.”
Sara Valencich of the city’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion said the acknowledgment was meant to specifically recognize the groups that once called the area of Aurora home, and that the statement was “our way of simply acknowledging that the land that we live and work on was originally stewarded by individuals centuries and centuries ago.”
“Centuries and centuries ago, that’s God,” Jurinsky replied.
Mayor Mike Coffman later announced that he would read a land acknowledgement anyway at the start of council meetings, at his own discretion. — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer
Second Chance Bikes founder, Ernie Clark, dies at 66 — ‘He made us who we are’
Ernie Clark — the affable ex-cop behind Aurora’s nonprofit Second Chance Bicycle Shop — died Nov. 9 following a “medical episode,” according to his family. He was 66.
Ernie leaves behind a decades-long legacy of helping thousands of people by providing bicycles to young children, homeless people and others in need.
He accomplished all of this despite having to pick up and move his shop several times. Most recently, the redevelopment of the East Bank Shopping Center in southwest Aurora forced the shop to close its doors in October.
Betty Clark said her father lived for the thank-you cards he received from elementary school children grateful for the free bikes they received through his shop. Whenever her dad met one of her friends, Betty said, he would ask if they had a child, so he could ask if their child owned a bike.
Even after undergoing surgery to remove a mass on his kidneys in July, Ernie was eager to keep up with the requests of schools and Aurorans desperate for a set of wheels.
“He might as well have had the middle name ‘bicycle,’ because he truly lived it,” Betty said. “This man spent his days when he wasn’t at the shop answering his phone and talking to people every day. He couldn’t not answer it at dinner. He wouldn’t let it go to voicemail.”
As news of Ernie’s death became public, city officials released statements recognizing his stature in Aurora.
“Ernie Clark gave everything to improve the lives of children, veterans and many others in our community,” wrote Councilmember Alison Coombs, whose ward includes the East Bank Shopping Center and who was involved in efforts to relocate Second Chance prior to Ernie’s death.
“He took great pride in giving so many the joy and freedom of having a bike,” she said. “He has inspired many to carry out this legacy. He will be greatly missed.”
Betty said the family is planning on holding a public memorial service for Ernie, and that they would release information once the details of the event are finalized.
While Ernie’s death and the East Bank redevelopment may have cast uncertainty over the future of Second Chance, Betty said she is committed to making sure her father’s legacy lives on.
“I told him, come hell or high water, we’re going to keep it going,” she said. — MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writer