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A Low Blow

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

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.

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.

Grizzell, who'd gone to a relative's house, called one of the officers later that evening. She was told to report to the jail in Golden. "They said, 'You need to turn yourself in. If you don't, we'll go to your work and arrest you on Monday,'" she recalls. "I couldn't believe it. I work at a bank. I didn't want them to come arrest me there."

She showed up at the jail at three in the morning and was handcuffed and booked. Grizzell concedes that she was "being mouthy" during the booking process and resisted orders to sit down. Police reports indicate that she called one officer a coward, another a "fat fuck." Although officers claim she kicked one of them in the calf, Grizzell maintains that she was the one who was kicked. Her court file includes photos of the bruises she received that night on her arm, wrist and thigh.

"I wouldn't sit down," she says. "They grabbed my arm and sat me down. I can see why they did that. But there were four or five officers who took me to another room and threw me on the floor. One of them kicked me. I just laid on the floor and cried."

Grizzell filed a complaint with the sheriff's office over her treatment at the jail; Tallman says an internal-affairs investigation exonerated the officers involved. But Grizzell says they'll never be exonerated in her eyes: The ordeal has damaged her ability to cooperate with the sheriff's office in the investigation of her daughter's murder.

"We don't have a relationship right now at all," she says. "I can't trust them. When I walk into that building, I just shake."

Deputy Lucas reported that he felt no pain from the alleged punch to the solar plexus; consequently, Grizzell faced two misdemeanor counts rather than a more serious assault charge. For months, Jeffco District Attorney Dave Thomas's office declined to dismiss the case. "Because you're going through a traumatic event, that doesn't give you immunity in other situations," says Pam Russell, spokeswoman for the DA's office.

Prosecutors filed a motion to exclude Grizzell's comment to Lucas about not solving her daughter's murder -- as well as any reference to Columbine, the Subway killings, or "the alleged incompetence or lack of diligence of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office" -- as prejudicial.

Last month, faced with the prospect of an embarrassingly public trial, both sides finally reached a resolution. If Grizzell sees her grief counselor regularly for the next six months and is involved in no other altercations with police, the case will be dismissed. "I think the justice system worked in this instance," says Grizzell's attorney, Peter Albani, who declined to comment further on the case.

Russell says the outcome is in the best interest of all concerned. "Everyone knows that Kelly has had a lot of troubles through this process," she says. "At this stage, we're certainly willing to dismiss it if she gets the help that we believe she needs."

Grizzell believes Jefferson County needs help, too -- both in learning how to deal with victims' families and in cracking her daughter's case. The investigation into the Subway killings is still active, Tallman says, adding that her department tries "to breathe new life into the case by talking about it." But Grizzell thinks the case has been shelved.

"They say they'll look at it as leads come in, but they don't have any leads," she says. "I wish they did, but they don't."