Back in 2009, a rash of thefts and burglaries in Douglas County’s Stonegate neighborhood had residents stressing out. Pressure on the sheriff’s department intensified after an intruder reportedly broke into a home there and groped an 8-year-old girl in her bed.
Then-Sheriff David Weaver tried to quell the panic a week later by assuring the community that his office had cracked the case. “I hope that the residents of Stonegate feel a lot safer knowing that an arrest has been made and that someone will be held accountable for what occurred,” he said.
But there would be no accountability for the crime rash, which didn’t stop after Weaver’s department made that arrest.
And there would be no accountability for the groping incident because the only evidence against the department’s suspect, a then-18-year-old neighborhood kid named Tyler Sanchez, was too flimsy to stand up in court, causing prosecutors to drop the charges against him three years later.
What’s worse — far worse — is that, because of a jury verdict Friday in a federal civil trial, there will also be no accountability for the sheriff’s department that tried to pin the case on the cognitively delayed teenager from whom its detectives coerced a confession.
“They got away with it. They got away with what they did to my son,” Cindy Sanchez said Friday, sobbing after jurors rejected the claim of malicious prosecution that Tyler, now 28 and living in Lone Tree, brought against the detectives.
In their dragnet of the neighborhood in July 2009, authorities arrested Sanchez on an unrelated trespass, then arrested him for the break-in and fondling incident a week earlier that was making headlines and causing parents in Stonegate to curfew their kids on summer vacation. The sheriff’s department cited his previous arrests for graffiti and underage drinking as probable cause.
But, in its haste to reassure the public, the office ignored glaring problems with the case.
The thin, 18-year-old redhead looked nothing like the 40ish, stockier, brown-haired intruder described by the victim. And the key physical evidence — DNA markers on the girl’s underwear — didn’t match Sanchez.
As if those oversights weren’t alarming enough, detectives Heather Mykes and Mike Duffy chose to overlook Sanchez’s hearing impairment and cognitive delays, both of which are noticeable under normal circumstances, but especially so when he’s under stress.
During 17 hours of interrogation over a 38-hour period with little food or sleep, video shows them grilling the tired Sanchez, who, alone without his parents or a lawyer, clearly was straining to understand, let alone answer their questions.
“I’m tired. I’m too tired,” he told them. “I can’t speak.” “I can’t even speak right now.” “I can’t think.”
After wearing Sanchez down, the detectives forced him to write a statement that, sentence by sentence, echoes the details they repeatedly fed to him during his interrogations.
Detectives admitted in court that they use all kinds of “tools” to coerce suspects under questioning. “It’s not the end of the world,” a third officer assured Sanchez when trying to prod a confession.
At times while questioning him, detectives Mykes and Duffy suspected, wrongly, that he was drunk or on drugs. At others, as was revealed in court last week, they thought he was “playing games” with them. Mykes at one point expressed concern to fellow officers that Sanchez had given a false confession.
But for weeks and even months after, according to court testimony, the detectives chose not to share those concerns with the district attorney’s office, and also failed to pass on documented information about Sanchez’s disabilities.
In the meantime, he spent four months in jail — much of that in solitary confinement — five months on restricted release when he wasn’t allowed in his own neighborhood.
Carol Chambers, then the elected DA in the 18th Judicial District, disputed that Sanchez was cognitively delayed and put forth the following theory for why testing of DNA found on the girl’s underwear pointed not to him, but to her father and to an unidentified man: “With the low-cut jeans that girls wear, she could have picked up anyone’s DNA off any surface her panties touched while they may have been riding up above her pants. I hate those low-cut pants,” she told me in 2010.
It wasn’t just an off-the-cuff comment. Chambers clearly had put some thought into her bizarre attempt to explain why the key physical evidence didn’t match the suspect her office was hounding.
“Depending on how long she had been wearing those panties and where, they could have rubbed up against the back of her chair at school, a restaurant, the couch at home that someone else had been sitting on, a bus seat, someone’s toilet seat if she did not pull them down far enough — there are many ways to get unknown DNA on clothing. Another kid could have snapped the elastic on her underwear — kids do that sort of thing.”
Chambers let felony charges hang over Sanchez for almost three years until her deputy admitted the evidence against him was too flimsy and dropped the case in 2012.
With help from his family, Sanchez then filed a federal civil suit against the detectives for malicious prosecution. Other detectives named in the case settled out of court. But there was no settlement with Mykes and Duffy, who in depositions and in court admitted to ignoring their own training on false confessions and permitting videotape of their early-morning interrogation after his arrest to be destroyed. Arguing that they exploited his disability and fatigue, Sanchez’s lawyers sought a $2.7-million jury award of which they said Duffy should be responsible for one-quarter and Mykes for three-quarters.
“What could be more willful and wanton than prosecuting a person for a crime you know they did not commit?” lawyer John Culver said in his closing argument Thursday after nine days of trial. Calling the case “a gigantic embarrassment for all the law enforcement officers and all the district attorneys who were involved,” Culver urged jurors to “send the message that this kind of overzealous policing is not acceptable.”
Deputy Douglas County Attorney Kelly Dunnaway, in turn, questioned Sanchez’s constellation of hearing and cognitive limitations, calling them “idiosyncrasies” rather than disabilities. He justified the way detectives treated Sanchez by citing the pressure they faced to solve the crime and the then-teen’s failure to pass a lie-detector test. “What is more reliable than a polygraph test?” he asked jurors.
He also cited Sanchez’s ability to “mask his condition.” “How is a deputy supposed to differentiate between stress and cognitive disability?” he asked in his closing. “All they did was do their job, and there is no malicious prosecution.”
Even though prosecutors ultimately dropped the criminal charges, Dunnaway argued there was no proof that Sanchez’s confession was false and urged jurors to “take off the 20/20 hindsight cynical glasses” through which he said Sanchez’s lawyers viewed the case.
Jurors did just that, and after seven hours of deliberation returned to the courtroom without looking at Sanchez or his family and announced their verdict for the detectives. The decision was unsurprising, given that the malice component in malicious prosecution cases is tough to prove and that juries are apt to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt.
It is not my place to Monday-morning quarterback the outcome of the civil trial, nor to stand in judgment of those jurors.
But I will point out the irony of Douglas County calling Sanchez’s complaints cynical.
I’ve followed this case for almost 10 years and have seen videotapes in which detectives Mykes and Duffy, as well as their colleagues, exploited Sanchez’s clear vulnerabilities and forced him to confess.
I’ve watched several times over several years in court as detectives and prosecutors have downplayed disabilities that are markedly clear to me and should be equally clear to anyone who’s had more than a passing interaction with Sanchez.
Each of those times, I’ve seen his confusion and anxiety as he has slumped over a courtroom table. And each of those times, I’ve seen the pain on Cindy and Anthony Sanchez’s faces hearing the disconnect between what they, their families, Tyler’s teachers and counselors know to be their son’s serious, lifelong limitations and the way law enforcement has minimized them.
It was clear to me then, as it still is now, that it was more important for authorities to nail someone in the Stonegate case than to make sure they nailed the right person. It is equally clear, both then and now, the lengths to which some law enforcement agencies will go avoid admitting when they mess up.
If there is anything cynical about this case it’s that Dunnaway saw fit to characterize Sanchez, who seemed not to be tracking developments in the courtroom, as feigning incapacity.
Cynical is the fact that Mykes — the main manipulator in the interrogation and investigation — not only kept her job in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department, but since has been promoted from detective to sergeant. Neither she, current Sheriff Tony Spurlock, nor the department’s spokeswoman have had the professionalism or integrity to respond to inquiries for comment.
It is cynical, too, that then-Sheriff Weaver has gone on to become the Trump administration’s appointee to head the U.S. Marshals Service in Colorado.
Call me cynical, but I felt sick in court Friday watching these detectives who not only failed to solve the Stonegate break-in and fondling case, but terrorized an innocent, disabled kid in the process, patting each other on the backs and high-fiving for having, as the Sanchezes said, gotten away with it.