A Low Blow

Jeffco's finest haven't solved Stephanie Hart Grizzell's murder -- but they did arrest her grieving mom for interfering with police.

Last fall was a particularly trying time for Kelly Grizzell. Emotionally devastated by the murder of her sixteen-year-old daughter, Stephanie, she was dreading the approach of October 28, 2001 -- the day that would have been Stephanie's eighteenth birthday. She didn't think her life could get much worse.

She was wrong. Grizzell spent the early hours of her daughter's birthday distraught and in handcuffs, charged with harassment and obstruction of a peace officer. She was abused and humiliated, she says, by members of the same law-enforcement agency that is supposed to bring Stephanie's killer to justice.

It's been almost two and a half years since the bodies of Stephanie and her boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Nicholas Kunselman, were discovered in a Subway sandwich shop on West Coal Mine Avenue, not far from Columbine High School. The double murder sent shock waves through a community already reeling from the Columbine massacre and quickly became Jefferson County's most notorious open homicide investigation. But today only one detective is assigned to the investigation. And so far, the only person arrested who has some connection to the case is Kelly Grizzell.

Justice, Jeffco style: Kelly Grizzell fought the law.
Anthony Camera
Justice, Jeffco style: Kelly Grizzell fought the law.

The charges against Grizzell were resolved quietly during an unscheduled court appearance last month. (A previous hearing was postponed when the presence of a Westword reporter in the courtroom sent attorneys scurrying to the judge's chambers.) As with many criminal cases, there is more than one version of the circumstances that prompted Grizzell's arrest. But even so, the affair says volumes about the miserable, often hostile relationship between crime victims' families and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. That relationship has deteriorated dramatically in the wake of the Columbine and Subway shootings, which have prompted numerous attacks on Jeffco's tactics, competence and credibility. If Grizzell's experience is any indication, the situation isn't getting any better.

"This was a very minor thing," Grizzell says. "I touched an officer on the shoulder. I had to go back into that courtroom with a lawyer six times before it got dropped. They put me through the wringer, and it didn't need to be handled that way."

Jeffco officials, however, claim they handled the case with considerable tact and leniency. Police reports of the arrest, which vary greatly from the accounts provided by Grizzell and other civilian eyewitnesses, characterize her as uncooperative, belligerent and verbally abusive.

"We have a great deal of compassion for her situation," says sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Tallman. "We've tried to use restraint and understanding in dealing with her."

Grizzell didn't encounter much understanding last fall, she says. She was driving home on the evening of October 27 when she came across three unmarked deputies' cars making a traffic stop. The driver pulled over for a busted headlight was Lance Kirklin, one of the survivors of the Columbine shootings.

Grizzell admits she was feeling frustrated that night. Jeffco deputies had been conducting numerous traffic stops in her neighborhood, she says, and they seemed to be stopping chiefly teenagers from Columbine. She got out of her car and started asking questions.

"I wanted to know why it took six of them to pull over a car," she remembers. "It seemed like overkill. Yet they had nineteen calls to that Subway before my daughter was murdered, and they never did anything about that."

Witnesses say that Grizzell went up to Deputy James Lucas and told him, "You're harassing my daughter's friends and not doing enough to solve her murder."

According to Lucas's report, Grizzell then struck him in the stomach with her closed fist. Only one other officer on the scene, a cadet in training, claims to have seen the blow -- but the cadet's report describes the action differently: "The female then thrusted [sic] her right arm into Deputy Lucas's stomach."

Grizzell denies punching Lucas; she says she only tapped him on the shoulder. Her account is supported by Kirklin, who says he was out of his car, receiving a ticket from another officer, and had a clear view.

"She was pretty much bitching up the cop," he says. "The cop was trying to ignore her. He smirked and turned his back on her in the middle of a sentence. Kelly brushed her fingers against his right shoulder, and he turned around and freaked out. He said she struck him, but she barely touched him. He was saying to the other cops, 'Did you see that?'"

Whatever contact occurred, it apparently was not considered threatening enough to warrant Grizzell's immediate arrest. She was allowed to leave the scene while the deputies concluded their traffic stop. "I think our deputies used a great deal of restraint," Tallman says. "Typically, when an officer is struck, action is taken immediately. But they knew who she was and where she lived."

Because of questions about the status of Kirklin's driver's license and other matters, his car was eventually towed. (At the time, Kirklin's lawsuit against the sheriff's office over Columbine was still pending; it's since been thrown out by U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock.) Deputies then headed to Grizzell's house. Her husband told them she wasn't home, but they proceeded to search the residence anyway.

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