When he arrived in court for sentencing, Alex Woods Jr. had a firm grip on his public image--innocent, though proven guilty. Dressed in a well-cut black suit, blond, handsome and only 24 years old, he stood calmly as Denver District Judge Doris Burd gave him "generally the sentence that is given to first-time offenders." To wit: one year's probation, 36 weeks of domestic-violence counseling, around $200 in court costs and an admonition to obey the law in all respects.
Woods told the judge he would accept the sentence with good will, although--and he touched on this in an understated way--he still considered himself not guilty. But perhaps, his lawyer Louis Bruno suggested, the court-ordered counseling would prove helpful in some career-related way.
Then Woods said he was sincerely ready to put this unpleasant time behind him, after one last apology for "any injury that may have occurred to her, or to her family, or to my family."
As for the "her," Mary Taylor, the 27-year-old woman Woods was convicted of beating, "I'm very happy I'm no longer associated with that person," he said. "At all."
That person was not present to accept Woods's apology, having decided the June 29, 1995, sentencing would be too traumatic. Certainly, it would have been uncomfortable--a handful of Woods's friends, family members and co-workers showed up to watch, but with the exception of attorney James Moss, Taylor's friend, family and co-workers stayed away. For the past six months Taylor had been the case's official victim--and yet, at times, she came off as far less sympathetic than the wholesome-looking, well-spoken perpetrator.
In early January, before coming clean to a Denver Police Department detective, Taylor had lied about her treatment from Woods, attributing her numerous bruises and cuts to falls from her horse and/or car accidents. During the May trial, attorney Bruno emphasized those lies, as well as the fact that Taylor has worked much of her adult life as a bartender in such "gentlemen's clubs" as the Diamond Cabaret and Shotgun Willie's.
"Mary had not told the truth," recalls Denver deputy district attorney Sheila Rappaport, who successfully prosecuted the case. "Mary lied and covered for Alex, and Alex is very personable, nice-looking. It was a hard case to win."
What made it even harder was the fact that Woods is a Denver police officer.
By all accounts, Alex Woods Jr. had always wanted to be a Denver cop. (Neither Woods nor his attorney returned repeated calls from Westword.) His father is a longtime Denver police officer; Alex Woods Sr. is currently a detective in the DPD's sex-crimes unit, as well as vice president of the Police Protective Association. Alex Jr.'s stepmother, Ann Montoya Woods, is a detective in the DPD's polygraph department. Law enforcement is a Woods family tradition.
"He was always gung ho. He thought he was bulletproof," Mary Taylor says of her former lover's early days on the job.
Although some fellow officers remember Woods creating an infectious atmosphere of macho swagger and teamwork, others had reservations. Beth McCann, Denver's Manager of Safety at the time, initially denied Woods's application to the police academy. "It was a maturity thing, not a violence thing," she says, explaining that as a cadet, Woods was accused of impersonating an officer during a brawl at Mile High Stadium. (The charges were never proved.) "And there was rudeness," McCann recalls. "A few instances of that."
Following department protocol, McCann allowed Woods into the academy with the understanding that his rudeness and his short temper needed to be controlled--"which is not unusual," she says.
Alex Woods Jr. was still in the academy on the night of February 5, 1992, when he celebrated his birthday at the Diamond Cabaret. Mary Taylor was tending bar. It was love at first sight, says Michelle Newman, another Diamond Cabaret bartender on duty that night.
"He seemed genuinely enthralled with Mary, didn't leave her side," Newman says. "I went away for a week after that, and when I got back they were inseparable."
Taylor was three years older than Woods, though she often struck her friends and family as young for her age. A Colorado native, she had grown up with five brothers and one sister, riding horses and loving the outdoors. At five feet and one hundred pounds, with long blond hair and a bubbly personality, she was popular with men--although things hadn't always worked out well.
"Anyone I'd known her to date, they made one wrong move and they were history," Newman says. An early marriage to Cory Smith of Aurora ended after nine months, when Taylor accused Smith of kicking her in the crotch during a bar fight.
"Cory was not the world's calmest person," recalls Laura Lanphier, part of the group of friends that included Taylor and Newman. "But Alex was nice and polite and interacted with our little circle very well. He could be very charming at first."
"He could be charming," Newman agrees, "but he was also possessive and jealous right from the beginning. They'd both laugh it off. Mary kind of liked it at first. It showed how much Alex loved her, she said."
As Taylor remembers it, Woods's occasional outbursts gradually gave way to an all-consuming jealousy. He grew to dislike her friends, especially the women she sometimes went bar-hopping with. And he no longer approved of the Diamond Cabaret as a workplace--although this did not prevent him from dropping in frequently when he was through with his duties at District 4, where he'd been assigned after graduating from the academy.
"He would follow her around, he would grab her and put her up against the wall," remembers former bartender Jeff Babylon. "What it comes down to is, he thought everyone was doing her, but she was actually very loyal to him."
A few months into her relationship with Woods, Babylon says, Taylor began showing up at work with "bruises here and there." One night, when he and Taylor were talking together after a shift, Woods "threatened me within an inch of my life," Babylon adds. "He told me if I so much as looked at Mary, he'd make my life hell, and that being a cop, he could do it."
Babylon called the Denver police and was told to appear in person to fill out an incident report. He blew it off--and less than 24 hours later, Woods called to apologize. "He said the thought of Mary with another man really fired his rockets," Babylon says. "And it did. I knew it was only a matter of time before he went completely psycho."
Another former Diamond Cabaret bartender, Dan Coffman, recalls similar scenes, with Taylor and Woods "arguing right over the bar about who knows what" and Taylor displaying the occasional "busted lip or black eye. But I really didn't know her that well," he says. "So I minded my own business."
Denver police officer Dan Wyckoff, who worked off-duty at the Diamond Cabaret, went a step further. "She came to me, told me she'd been hurt by a horse, and I told her if it was something else, there were avenues available to her," Wyckoff says. "If she was getting beat up or something. But I didn't know for sure she was. I saw a mark on her shoulder. A bruise, but not a bruise bruise. You know. It was dark, and I didn't make a habit out of checking out the women."
Lanphier and Newman had no such ambivalence. They were sure their friend was involved in a destructive relationship. Taylor and Woods would break up for several months, but then Taylor would go back to him and her friends wouldn't see much of her for a while.
Newman and Taylor were both riding enthusiasts, and they kept horses at the same stable. At one point in the spring of 1993, Newman says, she noticed that Taylor's horse Stocking hadn't been groomed, nor her stall cleaned, in nearly two weeks. And yet, when Taylor showed up at work a few days later with extensive bruises down one side of her body, she told friends her horse had scraped her up against a tree. Newman pressed and finally got a different story: On a drive to Central City, Woods had punched Taylor during an argument.
"It was typical," Taylor says now of the incident. "The violence and then the roses afterward, and Alex is good-looking, God, he's beautiful. But when he snaps, he's a different person altogether." And she wasn't the only person he snapped at between February 1992 and Christmas 1994. There were the occasional jealous incidents at the Diamond Cabaret--once, Taylor says, Woods picked a fight with a whole table of firemen.
"I've worked as a bouncer, so I've seen a lot of pissed-off people," says Danny Eddy, formerly a bartender and bouncer at the country-Western bar Stampede, "but this Alex Woods was the worst I've ever known. He goes off with no reason at all."
Woods and Eddy mixed it up one summer night in 1993, when Woods and Taylor had split up. "Mary and I had been friends for a long time, and I ran into her at the Stampede," Eddy remembers. "Alex and his sergeant were sitting there, too, off-duty, drinking. Mary introduced him to me as her ex-boyfriend, and that was the last we saw of him for an hour or so."
Eddy and Taylor spent that hour catching up at the bar. "We're just friends now, and that's all we've ever been," Eddy continues, "but suddenly this Alex comes over, grabs my wrist in an aikido hold, yanks me off my bar stool, puts me down on the ground and says, `Why don't you just never fucking talk to her again?'"
They started fighting, but the crowd stopped them. Both men threatened to press charges. Woods's sergeant told Eddy to "calm down, he's just drinking, he's just being an asshole," Eddy says. "I don't usually press charges over a brawl, so I didn't this time. Now I wish I would have."
A few weeks later, after a brief reconciliation, Woods and Taylor had another blowout. Taylor packed her bags and went to a house near Sixth Avenue and Downing Street shared by Lanphier and Newman. After parking her car there, she went out with her friends for a night of bar-hopping. "But Mary was bummed," Lanphier remembers, "worried about Alex, not into partying. She ended up leaving early with some other people, and she didn't spend the night at our house."
Her car did, though, and at eight the next morning Lanphier says she woke to the sight of Alex Woods "six inches from my face, screaming, `Where the fuck is Mary?' He searched the entire house, screaming and yelling and slamming doors hard enough to make a hole with the doorknob."
When Woods left, the two women called 911. "I didn't want to get him in trouble," Newman says, "but I was worried about his safety, and everyone else's, too."
Two squad cars arrived, and officers searched the neighborhood for Woods, then arranged a police escort for Taylor when she came to retrieve her car. Newman and Lanphier told the police officers they wanted to press charges against Woods for whatever would stick; it turned out to be disturbing the peace. But in April 1994, after several court hearings, the women received a letter from Tom Sanchez, DPD division chief of patrol, saying that although their complaint had been "thoroughly investigated," there was "insufficient evidence" to proceed against Woods. A copy of Sanchez's letter would remain in Woods's file, however.
"Mary was furious at us for sticking with it," Newman says. "What happened was, she just went away. More into Alex, less into us."
"We didn't want revenge," Lanphier insists. "We just wanted Alex to get help. There is something inside that man that he can't control."
By the end of summer 1993, Taylor had quit her Diamond Cabaret job at Woods's request and was busy studying for a manicurist's license. But the couple continued fighting until the spring of 1994, when they broke up for nearly six months. Taylor went back to bartending, first at the Diamond Cabaret and later at Shotgun Willie's. In November 1994, her mother died of emphysema. Woods came to the funeral to pay his respects, and the relationship started up again, dysfunctional as ever.
"I sat there and watched this thing play out for years," says Woods's stepmother, Ann Montoya Woods. "The two of them were like oil and water, they were so bad for each other. She would get mad and jealous, she would provoke him until he would do something. I've seen her hit him, make a big scene, run out of the house and not come back for days, throw drinks at him. I'm not saying she deserved to get hit, but on the other hand, she was the kind of person who gets right in your face, she won't stop, she just comes back and back and back at you."
Of the "incidents" in Woods's personnel file, Montoya Woods says, "they are investigated, and Alex always turns out to be the victim, not the one who started it; he's never been disciplined. It's Mary. She never gets enough attention, which is why she works where she works. Obsessive love works both ways, is all I'm saying. She bought him a lot of presents, took him places, made his life comfortable--which is why he stayed with her, or that's what I think."
Indeed, Mary Taylor planned a big Christmas for Alex Woods Jr. in 1994. A wish list he gave her that year consists almost entirely of guns and ammo, with prices attached, as well as a book called The Complete Sniper. On December 14, 1994, Woods and Taylor attended the District 4 Christmas party, after which they and a group of officers and their dates went back to Woods's southwest Denver home to continue the festivities. Sometime after midnight, Taylor says, Woods went upstairs to talk on the phone. Half an hour later, the revelers sent her up to fetch him--they were planning a champagne toast and didn't want to proceed without him, Taylor says. Another theory, posited by police officers speaking off the record, has Taylor wildly jealous of Woods, who was talking to another woman on the phone.
Either way, Woods clearly didn't want to get off the phone--but he did. And after hanging up, Taylor says, he gave her the worst beating of her life.
Taylor told Sergeant Gail Rowe of the DPD's Internal Affairs division that Woods sat her on the toilet, slammed her head into the wall, hit her several times in the face and then ordered her to disrobe and put on a pair of his sweats--"so that I couldn't go back downstairs."
"He lost it, he was not there," Taylor said. "I told him--I go, I was praying, and he goes, `There's no God.' I mean, I was sick, I had to throw up because I kept swallowing blood, and he went with me and stood right next to me."
Woods left the room briefly when a party guest came to his door asking for a blanket. "He had unplugged the phone, and I plugged it back in and called 911," Taylor told Rowe. "And I hung up the phone, and a couple of minutes later the phone rang and it was 911, and they said did anybody call, and he [Alex] said no. But nobody ever came, and then he hit me again and again and again, and the only thing I remember is that when I woke up the next day there was blood all over the pillow and he was really upset, and he told me that I had gone into convulsions and that he had to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and that I had quit breathing and how sorry he was for doing this."
When Taylor finally made it downstairs that morning, the first thing she saw was "all the glasses of champagne, full. Like all those people heard him start in on me and just left."
But Taylor herself did not leave, and she stayed at Woods's house for several days. A few of his friends and fellow officers saw her during that time, and Taylor says they could not have failed to notice her split lip and black eye. Darlene Clarry, whose husband had gone through the police academy with Woods, came over to visit and was horrified by what she saw.
"I knew they argued and he said mean things," Clarry says, "and my advice always was: Get out. But this time, when I saw those injuries, I was pissed off and scared. Mary told me everything, she didn't lie. I wanted her to come over and stay at my house."
Taylor did not accept Clarry's offer. By now, she says, she was deep into what would turn out to be her last period of forgiveness. "I figured he was so mad, and he'd never beat me that bad before; I figured he meant it when he said he'd never do it again," she recalls. To Sergeant Rowe she said: "He kept waiting on me hand and foot. I mean, he went and got me aspirin and he was wonderful. He kept telling me how sorry he was he had done it."
After three days of this, Taylor felt well enough to return to her job at Shotgun Willie's. Tammy Peterson, a fellow bartender, was there.
"Her lip was split open, she had a black eye, and she had some good handprints around her neck--you could see the marks of fingers," Peterson says. "She said, oh, her horse kicked her. I waited till everyone left the locker room, and then I said, `Okay, do you want to tell me the real truth?' See, I'd been in her same shoes before. I knew. And she told me Alex did it."
Peterson, who had never even met Alex, agonized over what to do. "First of all, all her friends knew he was hitting her," she says. "Why didn't a single one of them call the cops? I called one of those battered places, and they said definitely call, tell someone. But my parents said, don't get involved, Alex is a cop, he'll make your life miserable."
Two days after she first saw Taylor's injuries, Peterson called District 4 and asked to talk to someone about a police officer named Alex. "They told me his last name and asked if there was a problem," Peterson recalls. "I said, yeah, I think he's beating the shit out of his girlfriend."
District 4 referred Peterson to Internal Affairs, which was already receiving other calls.
"I know I called," says the wife of a policeman who asked that her name not be used. "I had seen Mary's face and, frankly, I thought if I didn't do something, she would end up dead. I talked to Captain [Donald] Saltzman at Internal Affairs, and he told me he'd already had three calls."
Yet another tip came from a veteran policeman who'd worked off-duty at the Diamond Cabaret when Taylor first began dating Woods. "I didn't know they'd gotten back together," this officer says. "The next thing I hear about is this beating, and I decided to say something to the right people. Because Alex Woods should not be on this job. He should have been in a lot of trouble a long time ago."
Both Saltzman and Rowe say they can't comment on the case. According to city charter, Rowe explains, "we can't break confidentiality. I just can't comment on this case at all."
By December 24, Internal Affairs had placed a call to Mary Taylor, who didn't get the message because she was busy wrapping presents at Alex Woods's house. "He was working that day," she says, "but he came home in the middle of the day, because someone had told him an investigation was going on. He was like, who did you tell, what did you tell them? And I had no idea."
Taylor says Woods took her to an upstairs bedroom and stood by coaching her as she called Internal Affairs and lied, saying that she'd been in a car accident. (He initially suggested the horse story; she reminded him that too many people had already heard it.) Then Woods told her to stick with the story. "He told me I was a bartender at a topless place and no one would believe my word against his," Taylor remembers. "I thought I'd handled it, and then everything started coming back around. Darlene Clarry told me to please do something, have a picture taken or something, so I would have proof."
Meanwhile, Tammy Peterson was telling her much the same thing. "I told her she might want to consider making a tape," Peterson says. "How else could she get proof? What did she have to lose?"
"Nothing," Taylor says now. "But I was terrified."
Not so terrified, though, that she didn't steal a small tape recorder from Woods's home. Her motives were pretty simple, she says: "If he kills me," she remembers thinking, "I want someone to know who did it." Taylor was wired in early January, when she struck up a conversation with Woods. The following are excerpts from that tape:
Alex Woods Jr.: "I'm not going to put up with this fucking bullshit. I'm a pretty nice guy to a lot of people, and I'd do anything for a lot of people, but I'm not going to get walked on by fucking white trash and niggers in my fucking life...I've got a short fucking temper probably because of things that have happened to me in the last fucking three years.
"Because I did it, Mary, okay...It's not like I didn't fucking regret it...but you really fucked up."
Mary Taylor: "I'm not the one who beat the shit out of me. Okay. I was nice, Alex."
Woods: "I didn't hit you because you were nice, Mary. I didn't hit you because you were nice."
Taylor: "Why did you hit me?"
Woods: "I told you, I asked you to please be quiet. There you go. Exactly...You just wouldn't shut up."
Taylor: "I had fucking bruises all over my (inaudible), you choked me, I had a black eye..."
Woods: "I'm telling you, I didn't hit that hard."
Taylor: "Well, you didn't need to hit me at all."
Woods: "All right, and you never needed to break anything or you never did hit anybody, either."
By mid-January, Mary Taylor knew she was going to have to tell the truth to Internal Affairs. She also knew she had to have a lawyer. She'd met Jim Moss on New Year's Eve at--where else?--Shotgun Willie's.
"I didn't think too much about her case till she showed up in my office," Moss says. "Then I heard her story and I called up Captain Saltzman at Internal Affairs and said, `Hey, you got a problem with your department. It leaks.'"
Saltzman and Rowe came to Moss's Lakewood office. Mary Taylor was there, and with a tape recorder running, she began to talk.
"...he doesn't think he did anything wrong," Taylor said toward the end of her second interview with Rowe and Officer Jennifer Stack.
"That's why he needs some help," Rowe replied.
"I know, I need to do it."
"You know," Stack said, "if he doesn't get help now, it could come to the point where he kills you or he kills someone else."
"I know," Taylor replied.
"At least with it coming forward at this point in time, there is still something left to save," Stack continued.
"But everyone will be so mad at me," Taylor said.
Rowe completed the investigation in March, after which a preliminary complaint against Alex Woods Jr. was registered with the Denver District Attorney's office.
"I used the same standard I use in every case," says Chief Deputy District Attorney Diane Balkin, who filed the case against Woods, charging him with third-degree misdemeanor assault. "In other words, could the case be proven beyond a reasonable doubt? We had to factor in that he's a police officer, and that means something to a jury--they perceive the barrier between us and them, and then there's that protective image: You're a child, you get lost, you go to the station and they feed you ice cream. Along with the uniform comes credibility."
The file went to Sheila Rappaport of the DA's Domestic Violence Unit. While Rappaport began building her case, Alex Woods was back on the street in District 4, after a month spent clerking during the Internal Affairs investigation.
"They took his gun away. Big deal," says Taylor. "He owns thirty guns. If he ever wants to kill me, he can."
Every time she passed a Denver police cruiser, she got a sinking feeling. She swapped cars with her father so that she'd feel safer. "Alex's mom wrote me a letter saying she couldn't believe I had done this to her son," Taylor says. "It seemed like nobody doubted what had happened, but everyone was pissed at me for doing anything about it."
They weren't crazy about her attorney, either. "Those first few weeks I'd get a call every couple of days saying something like, `You're being threatened,' `I hear your name at District 4,' `Is it true Mary's paying you by letting you screw her?,' `Watch your back,'" says Moss. "The first couple of weeks, I slept a lot of different places. Anywhere but home."
When he wasn't sleeping, he pursued leads and passed them to Sheila Rappaport. Much of what he found proved useless; witnesses such as Laura Lanphier and Michelle Newman who could testify to Woods's temper were deemed to be too far afield from the facts of the case.
Both Moss and Rappaport were excited when Stacy Graft, Woods's high-school sweetheart, appeared, offering to tell the story of how Woods had beaten and choked her seven years ago.
"Stacy felt guilty for not reporting it back then--that if she had, this might not have happened to Mary or to Alex," Rappaport says. "But the judge ruled it was too attenuated--Alex had been a senior in high school when it happened."
By the time Woods went to trial in May, just a few of Taylor's friends were left to describe her injuries. Clarry testified, although she now says she feels "manipulated" by Taylor. Tammy Peterson found her day in court a humiliating experience.
"Alex's lawyer looked down on us because of where we work," she says. "He tried to make it sound like Mary was nuts and I was out to get this guy. But I was pretty `fuck-you' to him. I know the symptoms. Handprints around your neck is not being kicked by a horse, and it made me wonder: If a cop does this to someone he supposedly loves, how does he treat common people?"
Police who might have shed some light on this subject were silent. Those who'd been at the December 14 party remembered nothing. "That part wasn't so surprising," says Rappaport. "A lot of people had already left, the TV was on, music was on, they may not have heard anything."
Nevertheless, Rappaport began her closing arguments by displaying a large piece of poster board on which were written the words "Conspiracy of Silence." "I wouldn't want to use the word `coverup,'" she says. "More, it was a minimization of what people saw. That bothers me, yes. And there is no doubt in my mind that Alex knew about the internal investigation even before Mary did."
And then there was the fact that the tape of the 911 call made to Woods's house on December 14, during which the operator on duty talked to Woods about whether to send a car out, was found to be unintelligible. "You could not make out either voice," Rappaport says, "even though the tapes of the calls immediately before and after were perfectly clear. It was a sort of gurgling noise. We have never been able to determine what happened."
But Taylor had her tapes, too, and those, Rappaport says, "were very important to winning this case. He basically said he hit her. And his voice--he's a man out of control."
A jury convicted Alex Woods Jr. of misdemeanor third-degree assault on May 12. In the weeks preceding his sentencing, an occasional chat with Woods's parole officer was all the contact Rappaport had with the case. "As far as his prognosis for counseling goes, the linchpin is the commitment to changing," she says. "If Alex wants to change, he will."
"This is a misdemeanor," says Woods's stepmother, Ann Montoya Woods. "You'd think it was a homicide, the way people are blowing it out of proportion. He needs to learn from this. And he has."
Taylor decided against appearing at the June 29 sentencing but sent a statement to the judge. "My main concern is that he receive counseling, including support from his family, friends and peers," she wrote. "I would hate for his abusive behavior to ever allow him to hurt anyone again."
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And Judge Burd did order Woods to undergo 36 weeks of domestic-violence counseling, saying it was imperative that he do so.
"I would go into it with a positive outlook," Woods agreed in accepting the sentence, "and take what I can out of it. Professionally, I can use it. And also in my future relationships."
Whether he'll be able to use it as a Denver police officer has yet to be determined. DPD media-relations officer Tracy Harrison said the department started its own investigation into Woods after sentencing.
"That's procedure," she says. "Meanwhile, he's a cop.