Down and Out

A sampling of Project Exile convictions.

• One of the longest sentences handed down under Project Exile was that of Juan Carlos Ovalle, who on November 25, 2000, was riding in the passenger seat of a Cadillac observed making an illegal turn by an Aurora patrolman. As the Caddy was being pulled over, the officer saw Ovalle toss a Tec-9 assault pistol out the window. Ovalle, who had a 1996 conviction for conspiracy to commit second-degree burglary on his record, chose to take his case to trial. A jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to 84 months.

More Project Exile cases have been brought against convicted felons for shooting into the air than for shooting at other people. Here are three examples:

• On July 4, 2000, Colorado Springs resident Karriem Johnson celebrated Independence Day the old-fashioned way: by smoking crack and shooting guns. Police responding to a report of gunfire found Johnson in his back yard with a crack pipe in one hand and a Smith & Wesson 9mm in the other. After watching him launch a few rounds to the heavens, the officers moved in. Johnson, then 23, was on probation at the time, having pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance earlier that year. He also pleaded guilty to his Project Exile charge. His sentence: 37 months.

• In January of 2001, Aurora Police Department officers checking out a citizen's complaint of shots fired in his neighborhood heard the crackle of gunfire coming from behind Scott Gabrill Hickman's house on Lima Street. There they found Hickman, two juveniles and three handguns. Waiving his Miranda rights, Hickman said the guns were his and that the juveniles "had only been looking at them." He also informed the officers that he had a 1997 felony on his record for selling marijuana. Sentence: 55 months.

• In June that year, a Denver officer saw Hugh Pacheco-Bello, then 33, standing at a bus stop at the intersection of Park Avenue and Champa Street, alternately waving a handgun at nothing in particular and shooting in the air. Pacheco-Bello, a citizen of Mexico, had been convicted in El Paso of possession of heroin in 1994. He pleaded guilty to Project Exile charges and got 38 months.

A few Project Exile defendants haven't been convicted felons, but illegal aliens. Two examples:

• On August 25, 2000, Denver officers cruising the 2200 block of Arapahoe Street stopped to question pedestrian Alfredo Lugo Martinez, then eighteen, who matched the description of a robbery suspect. Though Martinez turned out to have nothing to do with the robbery, according to a police report, he "spontaneously told officers he was in possession of a .25-caliber pistol." The officers ran his name and found that Martinez had been deported three times in recent months after being caught crossing the border in Texas. He was charged under Project Exile with possession of a firearm by an illegal alien. Martinez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 21 months.

• Last June, a confidential informant called the Project Exile hotline to report that Australian citizen Peter Schellenberger was living in Steamboat Springs, that the 24-year-old Aussie's student visa had expired, and that he kept guns in his apartment. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms put Schellenberger under surveillance. Days later, an agent overheard him talking with friends in a Steamboat Springs bar about going target shooting. The agent obtained a search warrant for Schellenberger's residence on Apres Ski Boulevard, where the agent found a rifle and a pistol. Schellenberger's visa had expired two months earlier. He pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by an illegal alien and was sentenced to 110 days.

Finally, apart from moving violations and confidential informants, domestic disharmony has been the cause of most Exile convictions:

• Early in the afternoon of January 5, 2000, Denver Police Department officers responded to a radio call concerning a fight outside a home on south Quitman Street. At the scene, the officers found Chad Dean Sears and several other men standing in the garage. No evidence of a fight was observed, but while the officer was questioning the men, Sears's wife showed up, became angry, and told the officer she was "tired of drugs and guns all over the house." She gave the officer permission to search the home and suggested that he break into a safe in the basement using tools she handed him off a wall in the garage. Inside the safe, the officer found four rifles, two handguns and two shotguns, along with "Internet-generated information on how to synthesize narcotics." Sears had been convicted in 1999 of possessing methamphetamine. He pleaded guilty to a Project Exile charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and was sentenced to 41 months.

• On June 11, 2000, Denver cops were dispatched to a house in the 4600 block of Clay Street on a domestic-violence call. In front of the house, they contacted Robert John Roybal, then 25, and his girlfriend, who said Roybal wouldn't let her leave and was threatening to kill himself with a gun. Police went in and found a Mak90 Sporter rifle in Roybal's bedroom. Roybal pleaded not guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, but a jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to 63 months. According to police reports, when he saw the officers coming out of the house with the rifle, Roybal told his girlfriend, "You know I only have that for protection from the UTAs [the Untouchables, a Denver street gang]. I'm on parole for drugs, and I only have six more months to go. Now I'm going down."

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