Judge Not

Randall Zimmerman was branded a child molester. A jury finally set him free.

At first Randall Zimmerman wasn't sure whether he'd just awoken from a nightmare or if he was waking up to one. What happened the night before didn't seem real. Couldn't possibly be real. His name and face had been flashed on every news station in Denver like he was some kind of criminal. But when he went outside to get the papers in the morning, he realized he hadn't been dreaming.

"Educator accused of molesting; former youth pastor charged in assault of girl at Grace Chapel" the Rocky Mountain News declared. "Suspected sexual activity with girl occurred in early 1990s, police say," the Denver Post announced. No matter where he turned, he couldn't escape it. On the radio, Rick Lewis and Michael Floorwax were calling him a sicko.

Friends, relatives, colleagues, students and former youth group members had all heard the news, and none of them could believe it. Not Randy. Not the man who opened his home to kids when they had nowhere else. Not the guy many of them credit with saving their lives. Not the husband and father of two little boys.

John Johnston
Former student Hillary Smith says Zimmerman was 
everyone's favorite teacher.
John Johnston
Former student Hillary Smith says Zimmerman was everyone's favorite teacher.

It all started rather innocuously. Zimmerman was in his office at Aurora's Mrachek Middle School when Jeff Himes, an investigator with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office, called him to say that a young woman had filed a complaint with his office five months earlier, in December 2000.

"About what?" Zimmerman asked.

"Oh, nothing serious -- just light sexual contact," he recalls Himes as saying.

"He asked me if something like that had happened, and I said no," Zimmerman remembers. "He said, 'Good, I didn't think so, but we need you to come in and answer some questions so we can close the case.'"

When he hung up, Zimmerman phoned a friend who suggested he call an attorney. He flipped through the phone book, picked one out and called for some quick legal advice; he was cautioned against speaking with authorities. But Zimmerman wasn't too worried. Yes, he was shocked that this young woman from so long ago -- a woman Zimmerman and others describe as deeply troubled -- would make such an allegation, but he knew he was innocent. He figured it was only a matter of time before the investigator came to the same conclusion. So he ignored the attorney's advice and went to visit Himes.

When he arrived at the sheriff's office, Zimmerman remembers Himes asking him if he was a minister. He said yes and explained that he'd moved here from Chicago to attend Denver Seminary.

"He told me he had a friend who teaches at the seminary and that they go to church together," Zimmerman says. "He asked, 'Where do you go to church?' I said, 'I don't.' And he said, 'Why not? Aren't you Christian?'" Zimmerman, who just shrugged in response, could tell by Himes's tone that he disapproved. It set the tone for the rest of the meeting.

Himes and Kirby Hodgkin, another sheriff's investigator, questioned Zimmerman for about thirty minutes, telling him that a 24-year-old woman claimed he'd touched her and forced her to perform oral sex on him twelve years earlier, when she was in the sixth grade. But Zimmerman told them he hadn't even met the girl until she was in the eighth grade. The investigators took notes as he said this and proceeded to ask him questions about his work history, apparently unconcerned. They also asked him to describe the young woman who'd made the allegation. "I told them she was moody and had had problems with friends and that she said she'd been molested by a baseball coach," Zimmerman recalls.

Throughout the interview, he says, the two deputies pulled a good cop/bad cop routine, with Hodgkin playing the nice guy. Himes asked him if he'd take a polygraph, and Zimmerman agreed. Since it can take up to three weeks to schedule the test, Zimmerman asked what would happen in the meantime. Himes scoffed at this, Zimmerman says, telling him he could look up the procedures on the department's Web site. And when Zimmerman asked what to expect during the polygraph, he says Himes became even more antagonistic. After telling Zimmerman that he'd schedule the lie-detector test, Himes quipped, "You'll be able to walk out after that." His tone, Zimmerman recalls, implied that the polygraph would be the last part of the investigative process he'd be able to walk away from. "That was when I knew they weren't going to just close the case."

Taking the situation far more seriously, Zimmerman hired attorney Steve Newell, who told him not to take the polygraph, as it is inadmissible in court. Zimmerman didn't hear anything more about the case until Friday, June 1.

School had let out for the day, and Zimmerman was wrapping things up in his office at Mrachek, where he was an assistant principal. He was getting ready to leave, blissfully unaware that his cell phone wasn't working and that Newell had been calling desperately to warn him that the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office had issued a warrant for his arrest. Zimmerman had no idea that parked outside the school were three squad cars of deputies waiting to apprehend him as he exited. And as he stepped out into the sunlight, he remained unaware of what was transpiring. The cars were gone. Newell had gotten through to the sheriff's office, convincing them to let his client go home for the weekend; Zimmerman, he promised, would turn himself in first thing Monday. These were his last few moments of peace before his life changed forever.

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