Caught on Tape

The TV news show 48 Hours portrayed former Denver cop Michael Newell as a hero two weeks ago for his efforts to protect women from the obsessed and often dangerous men who stalk them. Specifically, the CBS crew concentrated on the story of Newell's "rescue" of an Aurora woman named Laura from her ex-husband, an ex-felon who allegedly broke her arm.

But 48 hours after the story aired, Newell says, he was being painted as a villain by Aurora and Arapahoe County officials, who felt stung by the show's intimation that they were slow in responding to the woman's plight. An Aurora newspaper, quoting an outraged mayor and police chief, even labeled Newell a vigilante.

Now Newell says he's the victim of "political retribution" after being hauled into court and threatened with jail if he didn't cooperate by turning over evidence in the case. All they had to do to get his cooperation, he says, "was ask."

Mike Knight, a spokesman for the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office, says that "in no way, shape or form" were representatives of that office trying to get back at Newell.

"I saw the show," Knight says, "and I have no complaints with it. If anything, it was an indictment of the system as a whole."

Knight concedes that there are concerns about what happened to a purported audiotaped confession--and why Newell, as a former cop, didn't get it into the hands of the Aurora police--and about the refusal by 48 Hours staffers to reveal during the taping of the episode the whereabouts of the ex-husband.

Newell formed Stalking Rescue, a nonprofit organization, about a year ago ("Loved to Death," April 3, 1997). He drives a car with EQLIZER license plates, a reference to a 1980s television show in which the hero bends the rules to see justice done. 48 Hours made a point of identifying Newell with the fictional character.

Along with classes in self-defense, the main focus of Newell's group is to teach victims of stalking how to make a case against their assailants that essentially forces the system to act. This can include tape-recording threats and keeping a diary of contacts that violate restraining orders. Newell assists his clients by "stalking the stalker."

Last fall Newell was contacted by 48 Hours, which had learned of his work through advocates here. He says it was pure coincidence that Laura was referred to him by her therapist the day before the television crew arrived in Denver to tape his work.

Laura's ex-husband, Christopher Garcia, an ex-felon with convictions for burglary, assault and drunken driving, was allegedly stalking and threatening her.

Laura told Newell that her ex had shoved her head through a wall, tried to break her back so that no one else would want to be with her, punched her in the stomach repeatedly and once knocked her out with a blow to the head. Then, on November 7, he allegedly shattered her arm. The Aurora police had taken a report from Laura in which previous assaults were noted, but they had not found Garcia.

Four days after the assault that broke her arm, Laura met with Newell. Garcia still had not been arrested. A police department spokesman would later tell a 48 Hours interviewer that the cops were waiting for a judge to sign the arrest warrant.

"I was afraid he would kill me or hurt the kids," Laura said on camera.
Newell moved Laura and her two children to a safehouse and began stalking the muscular Garcia to construction sites where he worked and to motels on East Colfax Avenue where he was thought to be living. On November 15 Newell located Garcia and called the Aurora police for backup so that he could safely serve a restraining order against Garcia. He says he was told that no help would be coming.

So Newell followed Garcia to a gas station, where he served him with the restraining order. Garcia pulled a screwdriver from his coat and began to walk after Newell until he noticed the television cameras across the street.

Noting that it had been a week since the attack on Laura, Newell told the television cameras that the process was "frustrating...There's an obvious bad guy over there...with a warrant pending...waiting for the signature of a judge...Now it's up to the authorities to hold up their end of the bargain."

But ten days after the attack, Laura was still waiting to hear that the police had arrested Garcia so that she could move back home. "I can't go outside," she said. "I'd be scared he'd be right behind me."

"What's taking the Aurora Police Department so long?" 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty asked the police spokesman on the tenth day.  

The response was that the police were too busy. The department spokesman asked what good it would do to "rush out...haphazard...and lose the case?" However, he admitted that the Aurora police had waited a week before even applying for the arrest warrant. The spokesman told Moriarty that there were complications, such as knowing where to find Garcia.

"No problem for the Equalizer," Moriarty said. She noted that it took Newell five hours to find Garcia at a Colfax motel, "where he's been all along."

On the eleventh day, Moriarty was in District Attorney James Peters's office. She told him how easily her crew had videotaped Garcia, including at a motel and even at a grocery store, by using a hidden camera.

"That sounds like information we'd love to have," Peters replied.
Off-camera, Arapahoe County DA spokesman Knight says, Peters asked Moriarty where Garcia was staying, but she refused to divulge the information. "They told Jim Peters they couldn't reveal their source, who I think was Newell," says Knight.

Just as the television crew was preparing to leave the district attorney's office, Peters came rushing up--on camera--with the news that a warrant had been issued.

"And," Moriarty said, in "what may be just another coincidence," the Aurora police were sent out later that day to arrest Garcia. Of course, she noted, Newell had to tell them where to find him.

The show ended happily, with Laura moving back into her home and hugging Newell. After that, his wheels squealing and the cameras focused on his EQLIZR license plates, Newell drove off into the sunset as Moriarty intoned, "The system might have worked without Michael Newell...but it might not have worked well enough or fast enough for Laura."

Newell says that he figured Garcia would have it in for him but that he didn't expect he would become Public Enemy No. 1. He even said on the show that he wasn't putting the police down, just that "sometimes the system works and sometimes it doesn't."

But the show had made the Arapahoe County court system look ponderously slow, the district attorney befuddled and camera-conscious and the Aurora police incompetent and uncaring.

48 Hours aired on April 2. Two days later Newell was served with a subpoena to show up in Arapahoe County Court on April 10. The district attorney wanted any evidence he had gathered, especially a tape-recording supposedly made by Laura of Garcia confessing, "I broke your arm. I'm sorry."

Newell didn't show. He says he mistook the appearance date for May 10. "I've been served a lot of subpoenas," says Newell, who often testifies as a prosecution witness on behalf of his clients, "but I never had just 48 hours' notice. However, I was wrong. It was my fault."

Historically, he says, if he has evidence, he happily turns it over to the police and prosecution. But if the victim has the evidence, "normally I tell them I shouldn't take it to the police, they should--to preserve the chain of custody."

In the meantime, Aurora mayor Paul Tauer, who hadn't watched the show, was quoted in the Aurora Sentinel as saying the show was "slanted and missed the point," adding, "That kind of thing really irritates me."

Aurora, he said, has "the premier domestic-violence program around. We're doing things way beyond what cities normally do to resolve domestic-violence situations before they get to a real violent stage. For us to take a rap like this--for them to purposely skew a story--there isn't anything we can do about it."

Aurora police chief Mike Stiers acknowledged that eleven days "appears to be a long time...But if you break it down on how the system is designed to work, it worked as it should.

"I understand that to a victim, eleven days seems a long time, but there are legal procedures that have to be followed...Could we have pushed this case through faster? The answer is sure, but then who else's case doesn't get the attention?" Aurora police detectives, Stiers added, have 200 similar cases at any one time.

While the gist of the 48 Hours piece was about how slow the process worked, Garcia's attorney, Christopher Decker, thinks the presence of the CBS show's cameras actually may have unfairly speeded it up. "They confront Peters in his office," says Decker, "then he goes and calls the judge and comes rushing back to say, on camera, that the warrant has been issued. Literally minutes later, Newell tells them where to find my client, and a SWAT team goes and gets him. I think my client got special treatment because of the television cameras."

Decker says he has other problems with the 48 Hours story. Moriarty noted that Laura had once assaulted Garcia. But Decker says the show omitted the fact that Laura was on probation for the assault while the piece was being videotaped. However, with the trial of his client only a month away, his major concern is with the district attorney's office.  

It was particularly disturbing to hear of the audiotape of his client confessing on the TV show, Decker says, because before the show, he asked Deputy District Attorney Carol Chambers what she knew about a tape mentioned in the police report as having come from Michael Newell. "The answer," says Decker, "was 'Nothing.'"

Knight says he's sure that neither Peters nor Chambers knew anything about the tape until after the show aired. "It's an incredibly important piece of evidence," Knight says, "and our concern was that Mr. Newell, as a former police officer, didn't seem to realize how critical it was."

Last Wednesday, Newell showed up in court as ordered. There he said on the record that the Arapahoe County prosecutors never asked him for the evidence he had gathered, or he would have been "happy to surrender it" without all the fuss.

However, he told Judge James Macrum Jr. that he didn't have the audiotape. Carol Chambers, who angrily called Newell "evasive" and rolled her eyes and shook her head just about every time he spoke, insisted that Newell be sworn in. She then asked him if he had the tape or knew who did. "No," was the reply.

Knight concedes that Chambers was "incredibly frustrated," realizing that a confession was now lost.

"I don't know where it is," Newell tells Westword, referring to the tape. "I obviously have no motive to hide it. If I had it, I would have taken it to the police. Laura says she doesn't know where it is, either. It is possible that 48 Hours picked it up, thinking it was one of their tapes. As a matter of fact, I don't have my tape recorder anymore, either."

Decker told Westword that he found himself in an "odd situation," in which he and Chambers were teaming up against Newell. He also served Newell with a subpoena asking for any evidence he might have.

Macrum told Newell to show up with any such evidence the following day "and I'll deal with you then." He threatened Newell with a contempt citation if he didn't show up.

The next day Newell showed up in court and turned over his logs and other written evidence he had gathered during the case. He still didn't have the tape, but everyone seemed somewhat mollified. Garcia has been charged with felony assault and has pleaded not guilty.

Newell says he's had other contacts with Chambers, whom he described as "the most ineffective prosecutor I've ever seen."

The irony in the situation is that natural allies ended up as foes. Newell has supporters among the battered-women's shelters and anti-domestic-violence groups, even though some have concerns about the risks of victims' "stalking the stalker." On the other side, Aurora and Arapahoe County have a good reputation among such groups for the way they respond to domestic-violence incidents, including courts set up to quickly get offenders into the justice system and away from the victims.

Neither the city nor the county, of course, is perfect. "As you and I know," Knight says, "there are umpteen cases like these that fall through the cracks across the country."

Newell says it wasn't his fault that the Aurora police and Arapahoe County district attorney came off in the TV show as they did. "I don't write the script for 48 Hours," says Newell. "It was a coincidence that the day before 48 Hours arrived I got this case and that I was working on it while they followed me around. Pure coincidence.

"This is political retribution for an image they created for themselves on national television. And today, they finally politicized the court."

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