Repeat offenders target juvenile hall staff

Part 2 of 2 in the series Juvenile Justice in Colorado

By Arthur Kane |

DENVER — Zachary Curtis Oliver, the youth charged with attempted murder in the bludgeoning of a detention staffer with a rock-filled pillowcase at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center, was arrested or investigated three times in 2012, records obtained by show.

The arrests include suspicion of assault, drug possession and slapping an inmate at Mount View.

Another Lookout inmate, Richard Anthony Romero, charged with assault after he was accused of hitting a staffer in the head while trying to stab him with a sharp pencil at Lookout, had three alleged assaults on fellow inmates — including a court witness in an assault case against him, records show. Police also arrested him on suspicion of an assault of a staff member at Mount View in 2012, records show.

A investigation found a group of inmates who “liked” to attack staff and had opportunities to repeatedly do so, leaving guards scared, considering new careers and saying the state doesn’t give them the resources to handle violent inmates.

Lookout Mountain security officer Brad Nestel was attacked Jan. 19 by an unnamed 16-year-old boy who jumped off a toilet and punched Nestel in the face, Golden Police reports say. The boy assaulted many staff members — adjudicated seven times for assault mostly on staff — in his time at the facility, but “only a handful have pursued criminal charges,” report said.

PENCIL PROBLEM: Richard Anthony Romero is charged with trying to stab a juvenile detention staffer with a pencil, and records show he has several previous assault arrests.

The boy “is an extremely dangerous individual,” Nestel told the investigating officer, according to the police report. He “has no empathy, has no affect in his eyes and is completely aware of what he is doing every time he assaults someone.

“If something different isn’t done with (the unidentified boy), he will continue to assault and injure people,” Nestel said in the report.

The suspect “should be committed with YOS where the staff members have more resources to deal with his behavior … at LMYSC the only tools they have is their loud voice, handcuffs and hands.”

Youthful Offender System is a Colorado Department of Corrections program for youthful violent offenders convicted as adults.

Nestel, through a woman who answered his phone, directed’s questions to LMYSC supervisors, but in the police reports he raised a key issue as to why inmates with histories of assaulting staff and fellow inmates are given the chance to attack again.

Robert Werthwein, acting director of Colorado Department of Human Services Division of Youth Corrections, said he wasn’t familiar with the cases brought up, but it was worth considering a change in policies and practices.

“I don’t know the specifics of this case,” he said. “But we don’t want staff injured. We don’t want youth being injured.”

CDHS spokesman Dan Drayer, also without addressing specific cases despite providing examples, followed up on the repeat offenders question. He wrote that “ensuring the safety and security for youth, staff and community without violating a youth’s civil rights is of the highest priority for the Department.”

When an assault happens police are called for possible charges, Special Management Programs are used to control behavior and violent youths are separated from potential victims, Drayer said in his email.

CHARGES PENDING: Zachary Oliver is charged with attempted murder, accused of nearly killing a detention worker; records show he has a history of assault arrests.

But using police and court records, identified at least a half-dozen inmates who repeatedly attacked staff and fellow inmates. A few had juvenile charges filed extending their time in detention centers, but often they continued the pattern as their alleged crimes became more violent.

Oliver, born May 26, 1997 and now 17, was charged with attempted murder in adult court in September, but criminal justice records show he was investigated in January 2012 at Mount View after staff said he was caught with possessing two pills of anti-anxiety drug Lorazepam. A month later he was arrested on suspicion of hitting another inmate is the face that Oliver claimed spit on him, a misdemeanor. And in October of that year, police again were called when staff said Oliver slapped a fellow inmate at Mount View after taunting him with a gay slur, also a misdemeanor, records show.

Romero, born Sept. 8, 1996 and now 18, was arrested four times in 2012 — two on suspicion of misdemeanor assaults, once on a felony assault and once on a felony of intimidating a witness, records show. On Jan. 5, 2012, Romero was arrested after allegedly hitting another inmate in the face in a recreation line, records show. He had just received up to two years for another assault on the same inmate who pressed charges against Romero, court records say. Yet, apparently, CDHS did not separate the two. Jefferson County, on the other hand, declined to drive both in the same van to court when deputies learned of the circumstances regarding the case.

Six weeks later, Romero was arrested after he was accused of repeatedly punching a fellow inmate because the victim allegedly said something about Romero’s mother, reports say. Two months later, staff said Romero ran toward another inmate and assaulted him with closed fists because of an apparent gang rivalry. Finally, on Aug. 21, 2012, Romero was arrested after staff said he grabbed a detention security guard around the waist and, when she told him to stop, hit her in the back of the neck, records show.

The records do not detail whether there were charges or adjudications in the 2012 cases for the inmates.

Reports show that even when a juvenile is arrested by police, the officer drives him to a booking station and returns him to the juvenile facility in which the incidents happened.

After he was transferred at some point to Lookout Mountain, Romero was charged with three felonies in a Sept. 21 incident in which he allegedly threw pencil shavings at staffer and tried to stab him with the pencil, hitting him in the head and finally grabbing a sharp piece of plastic and wielding it as weapon, court records show. Authorities also found a sharp piece of metal on Romero during a strip search, police reports say.

Prosecutors said the 2014 cases against Romero and Oliver are pending. Romero’s attorney declined comment, and Oliver’s public defender failed to return a call or respond to an email.

Police records also show other inmates had repeated violent histories.

On Sept. 13, 2013, Alexander Galvan, born Jan. 18, 1995 and now 19, hit and punched a staff member repeatedly in the neck and head and hit him with a chair, according to police reports. Galvan was angry because staff disrespected other members of his gang, police records say. The report notes that Galvan had a history of “multiple” staff assaults, but details were not in the report.

On May 30, an unnamed 16-year-old who had been adjudicated nine times with assault in the past year, started punching a staff member because he was told he couldn’t play volleyball, police records show. His volleyball privileges were suspended because he was on a safety intervention program, a report says.

At Spring Creek, an unnamed inmate collected five separate second-degree assault charges against staff between March and August of this year, according to a report about a sixth assault charge Aug. 22. The suspect also was charged with assault, interference with school officials and criminal mischief in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, according to the report. In the Aug. 22 incident, the report said, the boy hit a staffer twice in the face because the employee wanted the inmate to remove a blanket from his cell window.

At Spring Creek on Jan. 13, 2013, an inmate struck and tried to stomp a staffer, who fell to the ground and tore his rotator cuff, police reports show. The inmate was upset because he was told to go to his cell and wasn’t allowed to go to his victim empathy class. Another staffer, Heather Krueger, told police the suspect “liked to assault staff,” and the police report bears that out. The unnamed suspect had six assault cases in 2012 and 2013 and three cases outside the facility, including two assaults and one false reporting case.

“While looking through all of the listed reports, the common denominator was (redacted) assaulting staff members of Spring Creek Juvenile Detention Facility,” the investigating officer wrote.

Despite his violent history, seven of the nine cases were wrapped into a Sept. 24 plea agreement that gave the youth just two additional years in juvenile detention, records show.

Police records show that Werthwein’s staff is afraid of some of the inmates.

On Jan. 17, two staffers were breaking up a fight during a dodgeball game at Lookout Mountain, when Gregg Lamire Jones, born Oct. 21, 1995 and now 19, kicked, punched and gouged the right eye of a staff member as other inmates cheered him on to hurt staff, police reports say. Staff member Damon Carver told police he was “terrified” during the incident.

Xavier Lopez, born March 21, 1995 and now 19, attacked staff member Pete Yslava at the Lookout facility on Sept. 10, 2013, police reports say. Yslava, who suffered a concussion, told police he was reconsidering his career choice after the attack by the gang-affiliated inmate.

After banning seclusion as consequence for violence in July, juvenile detention staff primarily use Special Management Programs to control violent inmates. The programs are supposed to keep youths from others with whom they have problems, limit or exclude perks like watching TV and provide additional counseling. But the records obtained by show SMPs don’t always stop violent behavior.

Lopez was on a SMP when he attacked Yslava, and the 16-year-old who attacked Nestel had just been removed after a year on an SMP, records show.

Drayer wrote that CDHS staff has to deal with youth who “come from troubled and often very violent pasts,” but other states have found alternative methods to control violent inmates.

In 11 states, judges can sentence an offender to youth corrections with the caveat that if he continues inappropriate or violent behavior he’ll be transferred to adult prison after turning 17 or 18.

Nine states also have lowered the age when a juvenile is automatically tried in adult court, according to a study from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Colorado Joint Budget Committee chairman and state Sen. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican who has expressed repeated concerns about the facility in the Springs, said he isn’t even allowed to know about repeated offenders or what happens to them.

“They don’t give us the information because of privacy,” he said.

Werthwein said he is willing to look at how other states handle violent inmates, as well as other policy changes.

“We’re willing to evolve and improve,” he said.