The Good, The Bad & The Mad

What happens to the mentally ill in the justice system is just crazy.

On a bitter winter morning four years ago, Heather Gooch stood in her apartment on South Bannock Street and listened to the awful thumping. The noise was coming from the floor above and getting louder, as if someone was slamming weights down again and again.

Gooch had never heard anything like it. She thought whatever it was might come crashing through the ceiling at any moment.

The apartment above her belonged to Thomas Eric Espinoza, a 33-year-old self-employed hauler of scrap metals. Espinoza was a strange, glowering presence in the six-unit building. He was short — five feet, seven inches — but had a thick build that seemed made for fighting. He was intimidating, even menacing, in his dealings with other tenants, and Gooch wasn't eager to confront him.

Thomas Espinoza complained of voices telling him to hurt people; he blames his mental problems on the fire he was in as a child.
Thomas Espinoza complained of voices telling him to hurt people; he blames his mental problems on the fire he was in as a child.
NAMI Colorado executive director Lacey Berumen wants state lawmakers to fix a breakdown in services to the mentally ill.
mark manger
NAMI Colorado executive director Lacey Berumen wants state lawmakers to fix a breakdown in services to the mentally ill.


To hear Thomas Espinoza's confession and view a history of insanity defenses, click here.

Still, something had to be done. Amid the loud thumps, Gooch could hear a female voice — faint, groaning. Gooch didn't have a phone, so she drove five blocks to a convenience store and dialed 911 on the pay phone.

A dispatcher aired the call at 8:27 a.m., January 6, 2004, as a possible domestic disturbance. Englewood police officers Kevin Sage and Sherri Christensen reached the location almost as quickly as Gooch got back home. She let them into the building and asked them not to tell Espinoza that she was the one who'd called.

Sage and Christensen went up to the top floor and banged on Espinoza's door. They could hear loud music and someone moving around, but no one answered. They went back down to Gooch's apartment, looking for a manager. Gooch told them she'd just seen Espinoza going out the back of the building.

Christensen ran outside and headed for the building's rear exit, gun drawn. She saw a man with a shaved head walking away from her. "Police!" she barked. "Stop! Put your hands in the air!"

The man complied. Christensen ordered him to the ground. Sage covered the suspect while Christensen moved in to cuff him. As she drew close, she saw that the man's hands, the sleeves of his sweatshirt and his jeans were soaked in blood. Christensen asked where all the blood had come from.

"I tried to kill my neighbor," the man said.

"Why?" Christensen asked.

"She tried to get me kicked out of my apartment," he muttered.

Sage grabbed a couple of other officers who'd just arrived and headed back into the building. The back door of Espinoza's apartment was ajar. Inside, behind a couch in the living room, was the battered body of a female. Sage tried to find a pulse; the slender wrist hung in his hand lifelessly. The woman had been beaten and kicked with an incredible degree of force and rage, spraying blood across the walls and even into the next room. The damage to the face was so severe that at first investigators thought she must have suffered a gunshot wound. A purse was on the floor beside the victim.

Her name was Stacy Ann Roberts. She was 29 years old, and she had lived in the apartment across the hall.

The suspect, now identified as Thomas Espinoza, sat cuffed in Christensen's patrol car. He seemed calm and rational to the officer — and preoccupied with his ringing cell phone, which he was unable to answer. He wanted Christensen to call his girlfriend and tell her he'd been arrested. The only concern he expressed about the body in his apartment was its probable effect on his own plans.

"She's dead, isn't she?" he said. "Fuck. Fuck. I'm going away for a long time."

Englewood detectives took Espinoza to Swedish Medical Center for treatment of deep gashes in his right hand. While there, he waived his Miranda rights and told them that he'd argued with Roberts and her husband a few months before about a parking space. That morning he'd gone downstairs to check his mail, and as he returned to his apartment, Roberts was locking her door and leaving for work. He'd come up behind her on the narrow landing both apartments shared and, without a word, started hitting her. Then he'd grabbed her by the hair and dragged her into his apartment, where her struggling just enraged him more.

He repeated the same story in a videotaped interview at the police department later that day. He could offer no coherent reason for his explosion of anger. He didn't even know the victim's name. "I can't explain it," he said. "I couldn't stop.... It was wrong. And I will be punished."

Interviews with Stacy's devastated husband, Ryan Roberts, and other neighbors provided more pieces of the story. The couple had moved to Colorado from Texas the year before. Stacy worked part-time at Bark Busters while attending college. She was a petite woman with a wide smile who loved animals; she'd even rescued and bottle-fed a litter of kittens found in an abandoned car. She and Ryan had run afoul of Espinoza the previous August, when he complained that their vehicles were impinging on "his" parking space in back. The apartment house owner assured the couple that there were no reserved spaces, but Espinoza became so heated in his complaints that Stacy had called the police — who told her they could do nothing about the situation unless Espinoza did something worse than run his mouth.

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