In November 2012, we covered the murder of Loretta Barela, allegedly at the hands of her husband, Christopher Perea -- and we also reported about a delayed 911 response that prompted the same sort of criticism as in last month's killing of Kristine Kirk, who was on the phone with an operator when she was shot to death.
Now, Perea has been found guilty -- but what happened to the 911 investigation? Turns out the dispatcher's resignation brought it to a premature halt. But a city spokeswoman says just-instituted 911 policies address some of what may have gone wrong in both slayings even before an announcement of findings in the Kirk matter -- one that's expected within days.
The probable cause statement against Perea, included below, notes that at 2 a.m. on November 18, 2012, Denver police dispatch received a 911 call "on a possible domestic violence at 1535 S. Carlan Court." However, the report adds that "officers did not make contact with anyone at the residence during their response."
Then, at 8:16 a.m., more than six hours later, another 911 call came in, this time from Perea. His statement to the operator is blotted out in the PC statement, but 7News reports that he said he thought he'd killed his wife during a fight that night -- and he had. The operator directed him to begin performing CPR while emergency crews were en route, but it was too late, given that her body was cold and her jaw was stiff.
Perea, who'd racked up a pile of drug and weapons charges over the previous decade, was promptly arrested for killing Barela; the couple had married the previous December, a few months after she reportedly bailed him out of jail. However, the debate over 911 and police response in the case grew hotter for understandable reasons.
9News cited a neighbor who's said to have made the initial 911 call upon seeing Barela at the front door of the residence. She was topless and screaming for help before Perea allegedly dragged her back inside. That would seem to be more than enough to pique officers' interest. But the neighbor maintained that cops didn't show up -- so she called again at 2:45 a.m. to ask if they were planning to stop by. According to the station, officers finally appeared at 3 a.m., but their investigation consisted of shining a flashlight and knocking on a door before they left.
Unsurprisingly, Barela's children -- she had five of them -- were left bereft at the loss of their mom, and the thought that police might have done something to prevent the slaying compounded their pain and frustration, as was clear during a protest at the State Capitol in the days after the murder.
Responding to the report about 911 issues, Denver Police Chief Robert White launched an investigation into the claims of slow response time.
"We are working with communications to determine why there was a delay in the dispatching," he told the station. "And once the officers were dispatched, certainly look at the actions they took to make sure they were appropriate. We have to look at, you know, what kind of call? Was the complaint anonymous? How did the call get dispatched? How was the call made to communications? All those things have to be examined."
Daelene Mix, communication director for the Manager of Safety's Office, confirms today that an investigation was indeed launched -- but it wasn't completed.
Mix says the dispatcher in the incident -- the person who relays information to first responders, as differentiated from the actual call taker -- was put on immediate leave after the incident and an investigation was put in motion.
However, Mix says the dispatcher resigned on December 12, before the discipline process could be completed.
At that point, Mix reveals, the investigation was halted based on the supposition that the error wasn't systemic. "They were far enough down the disciplinary path to see his actions caused this," she says. "It was very obvious the dispatcher held the call unnecessarily. He held the call for six minutes and three seconds before he did anything with it."
Mix is presumably referring to the 2 a.m. call, as opposed to the reported followup.
Had the response been faster, is there a chance Barela might still be alive? "That's a little speculative," Mix replies. "When officers did show up, they had no response at that time -- and we still don't know the exact cause of death."
Because of the conclusion that human error was at fault in the Barela case, no changes in the 911 system were instituted because of what happened. But things went forward differently after the death of Kristine Kirk.
In our earlier coverage, we noted that Kristine called 911 to say her husband, Richard Kirk, was behaving strangely after possibly eating a marijuana edible. He was allegedly hallucinating, talking about the end of the world and declaring his intention to shoot her -- which he did, while she was still on the line with the dispatcher.
The call is said to have gone on for around thirteen minutes. Moreover, a police station is only a short distance away from the Kirks' home on St. Paul Street, near the DU campus; officers were less than a mile away at the time of the fatal shooting. If they'd been dispatched immediately, some observers believe a tragedy might have been averted.
Such issues are expected to be addressed in any decision about the dispatcher's actions in the Kirk matter. But even before a final resolution has been reached, Mix says "we've made some recent policy changes" that went into effect late last week.
"Now, instead of one person having the discretion about when to dispatch emergency personnel to respond to a call, a supervisor within the 911 center is also notified," she reveals. "And instead of just monitoring these calls, the call taker is now physically alerting a dispatch supervisor. And police can now change the situation themselves. They have the discretion to make the call a code 10" -- immediate response with the use of lights and sirens.
The result is what Mix characterizes as "a wide net of discretion, where there is more than one individual determining the appropriate response. And a lot of individuals who are part of that network have years and years of experience and situational awareness as it relates to emergencies."
The policy shifts aren't "a direct result of any one case," Mix allows. Rather, they spring from Manager of Safety Stephanie O'Malley's directive "to review policies that touch all our different agencies so that we can find ways to tighten them up."
Not that Mix suggests the timing of the new policy is entirely coincidental. "When these higher profile incidents happen, they're not lost on us," she says. "We take a deeper dive into what's going on to see what we can do to improve public safety -- and that's the impetus of this large policy review."
An announcement about the Kristine Kirk 911 investigation is expected late this week or early next. In the meantime, a jury found Perea guilty of first-degree felony murder, second-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping in Barela's death. No sentencing date has been set thus far, because he's slated to go on trial again next month for allegedly being a habitual criminal.
Look below to see a full-size version of Perea's mug shot, a 9News report from November 2012, an interactive graphic showing the area near the crime scene (if you have problems seeing the image, click "View Larger Map") and the aforementioned probable cause statement.
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