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If the Shoe Fits

Did prison officials look the other way while a guard's fetish turned violent?

Suppose you're the warden of a women's prison. Among your valued employees is a correctional officer named Dave, whose job puts him in charge of dozens of female inmates for long, lonely nights.

Dave is a popular guy among his colleagues. But there's also something odd about him. One day you learn that local police suspect him of being a world-class perv. They believe he's been stalking at least three women in the metro area for years -- burglarizing their homes, leaving them disturbing and graphic messages, boldly pursuing an elaborate kink that involves intimate relations with a certain brand of sneakers. He's already been identified by two victims, and the cops plan to arrest him as soon as all the evidence is in.

What do you do, boss?

A. Tell Dave to seek other employment, possibly at Foot Locker.

B. Reassign him to a job that doesn't involve custodial supervision of vulnerable women.

C. Sit tight and wait for the other shoe to drop.

In the case of David Christensen, Colorado Department of Corrections officials decided on the third option. That decision is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by a female inmate whom Christensen raped in 2002 at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, where the forty-year-old correctional officer continued to work the graveyard shift while under investigation in the stalking cases.

Attorneys for inmate Penifer Salinas say that Warden Joanie Shoemaker and other DWCF officials knew that Christensen was the prime suspect in several sexually charged criminal acts months before he assaulted Salinas, but they did nothing. The federal case is one of several arising from sexual misconduct by male guards at women's prisons in Denver and Pueblo ("Bulls Behaving Badly," May 6, 2004).

The stalking cases date back to 1999, when a Jefferson County woman discovered a pair of red Keds sitting on top of her car. She removed them and drove to her job at King Soopers; shortly after her arrival, a caller to the store reported that her lights were on. She went to the parking lot and found a pair of white Keds on her car.

More Keds showed up over the next few months, in various colors. One pair came with a note that addressed the woman by name. "I'd love to watch you tickle a little boy some day," the note read. "Keds...they feel good!"

In the summer of 2000, while the woman and her husband were on vacation, someone burglarized their home. The thief took the multiple pairs of Keds that had been piling up in her closet as well as photos, but didn't touch the couple's money or jewelry. The Jeffco investigator assigned to the burglary soon found a similar case in Greenwood Village and then another in Lakewood.

As the investigation heated up, so did the bandit's weird behavior. He made hang-up calls from pay phones to the victims' homes. The Keds kept coming, now inscribed with graphic sexual messages: "I love baby boy boners." "I love to suck small boys and tickle and rape them." "If I had a cock, I'd fuck little girls." "I'm a closet child molester." Some of the sneakers appeared soiled, as if the suspect had -- well, had his waywith them.

In 2001, Greenwood Village police almost caught the suspect when he approached a victim's front porch at midnight carrying a pair of sneakers. The man got away, but a surveillance camera captured his image. One victim identified him as a former employee at the King Soopers where she shopped. The woman who worked at King Soopers recognized him as David Christensen, her former co-worker whom she'd dated briefly ten years earlier. The relationship had never been intimate, she added, but Christensen had stalked her for months afterward.

Police soon learned that Christensen was a state corrections officer. He was from a respectable Catholic family and had been trying to get into law enforcement most of his adult life, applying to the Denver Police Department, Jefferson County and the state highway patrol without success. He was not married; he would later tell investigators that he'd been a compulsive masturbator since high school and was "not good with women."

Warden Shoemaker and other officials at the women's prison were notified of the investigation of Christensen in late 2001. They provided the police with a handwriting sample from him, a critique he'd written of a DOC sexual-harassment training video in which he'd appeared in various roles. The sample came back as a "highly probable" match to the writings about child molestation scrawled on the shoes.

Yet prior to his arrest, no one seems to have given serious thought to moving Christensen from his duties on the graveyard shift, where he was left alone with up to 72 female inmates for hours at a time. There had been several prior incidents of staff misconduct at the prison, but the DOC had not yet put surveillance cameras in the living quarters or the janitor's closets, where most of the instances of sexual relations between inmates and staff occurred.

On the night of April 1, 2002, Salinas, who was serving two years for car theft, went into one of the closets for cleaning supplies. Christensen followed her. The officer made her perform oral sex on him, she later told an investigator, then raped her, telling her to keep quiet or "she would never get paroled." The sex was rough and left her bleeding from her vagina, she said.

The arrest warrant for the stalking cases was signed that same day. A search of Christensen's home turned up drawings he'd done of the torture and sodomization of small children. The drawings were on the back of a DOC policy manual. Investigators also found a blond wig that he'd stolen from a Cherry Creek store and other paraphernalia that seemed to be part of his fetish rituals.

Christensen's immediate supervisor told people he was shocked by the arrest. He wrote Christensen a letter, offering to be a character witness. "I have seen fifty or a hundred people get into trouble over the last fifteen years I've been with DOC, but none have ever affected me like this," he wrote. "I like to think I'm a pretty good judge of character."

But a sergeant at the prison would later tell investigators he wasn't shocked at all. After the arrest, he reminded the supervisor of a 1998 incident, when the sergeant had caught Christensen running out of a women's bathroom, nervously wiping the front of his pants. In the bathroom was a female inmate with her breasts exposed. The sergeant claimed to have reported the incident to Christensen's supervisor, but no written record of the incident exists.

Salinas didn't report her rape for months. When she did, she also admitted to a consensual sexual relationship with another corrections officer. Christensen's supervisor tried hard to discredit her, according to Salinas's attorney, Julia Yoo.

"This has been devastating to her," Yoo says. "It wasn't just the rape itself but the way it was handled when she came forward. Nothing was explained to her. She was put in the hole and felt totally isolated. She didn't have access to her legal mail or letters from her mother. And other officers were retaliating against her. She had no idea Christensen had even been removed or arrested."

Attorneys for Shoemaker and other DOC officials say they couldn't predict that Christensen would assault inmates, but Yoo insists they should have taken more precautions. "They knew he was a predator and a dangerous person," she says. "Would they have taken that kind of risk if the potential victim was somebody related to them? I don't think so."

Christensen denied the rape, but he was found guilty of sexual assault by a Denver jury and sentenced to five years to life. He pleaded guilty to burglary and stalking counts in the Keds cases and got six years, to be served concurrently with the rape sentence.

Salinas, Yoo says, still has anxiety attacks when she hears keys rattling, as if her attacker is coming back for her. Now doing time at a private prison, Christensen has his own demons to confront -- including the hazards of being an ex-guard surrounded by inmates.

"I hope they don't know much about him," Yoo says. "Even though I'm disgusted by what I've seen in this case, nobody deserves to be attacked in prison. I wish he had received some help. His life didn't have to spiral out of control like this."

for related stories visit our "Crime and Punishment" archive.

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