Denver cops: Media deal means we can't wait to report major busts even if there are loose ends
Update: Last week, we told you about the homicide arrest of Aaron Little -- and then, a day or so later, Little's release when an autopsy suggested the victim may have died from natural causes. (See our previous coverage below.) In our post, we wondered if the Denver Police Department had jumped the gun in ballyhooing the bust. A DPD spokesman denies that even as he concedes there were some loose ends. However, he says waiting to reveal the arrest wasn't an option, because of a deal with the area press.
"We have a long time agreement with the local media to release information about all major incidents, including homicides," says Lieutenant Matt Murray, the DPD's chief of staff -- and the longer the department waits, the unhappier journalists are likely to grow.
"We live in an era of transparency, where people are devouring more information than ever before," he notes. "And when we don't release information right away, we get beat up about it."
The result in this case was Little being featured in all manner of reports prior to the completion of an autopsy whose results were inconclusive -- meaning there appears to be no way to prove he committed a crime. But Murray defends the arrest based on the information contained in a probable cause statement on view below.
At 10:40 a.m., according to the document, officers were dispatched to 1555 Humboldt Street -- the Mental Health Center of Denver -- to investigate a report of an unconscious male who hadn't moved after being assaulted. The man, later identified as Ronald Stancil, age 61, was pronounced dead moments later.
Shortly thereafter, DPD reps interviewed Neva Marshall, who said that sometime after midnight on the 26th, she and Stancil, both homeless, had gone to sleep underneath the awning at the building, whose street appears to have been misidentified on second reference in the report. The location is seen in a Google image here:
Marshall told officers that during the night, Little, 25, had approached them and tried to take their blankets, and when Stancil resisted, the younger man had punched him several times with his fist. As a result, Stancil is said to have hit his head against the building and fallen to the ground.
Afterward, Stancil said his head hurt and he wanted to go to sleep -- and he did. However, the next morning, he was unresponsive.
Shortly thereafter, the PC statement goes on, Little was found and identified by Marshall, at which point he was taken into custody. During a subsequent interrogation, he denied he'd gotten into a fight with Stancil, even though he had bloody injuries on his hands. He explained away these wounds by claiming alternately that he'd gotten them after being struck by a machete or cutting himself on a fence, and maintained that Marshall had hit Stancil, not him.
At that point, Little was advised of his rights -- and based on the information obtained at the scene, Murray feels his arrest was totally justified. "Probable cause is what's required under the law to make an arrest, and there was definitely probable cause," he says. "And when you have a suspect who's not easily locatable later, and also a suspect in a homicide, you don't just walk away from that. You have to make an arrest out of a concern for public safety."
Lieutenant Matt Murray in a 2013 image.
Still, the autopsy wasn't complete -- and Murray says waiting until the results were final wasn't an option, because of the aforementioned media agreement. So the DPD blasted out a press release about Little's arrest, which was widely reported.
But then, something unexpected happened. "The coroner's office couldn't tell us with any degree of medical certainty that this was a homicide," Murray points out. "They couldn't tie the assault to the death and said it could be natural causes. So with a medical expert who couldn't say one way or another what caused this person's death, we had to release him."
This sequence of events wasn't unfair to Little, Murray believes, because "once the threshold reaches the level of probable cause required by the law, certain rights people have diminish. The expectation of privacy after you've been arrested for murder isn't the same, and we had probable cause. A judge signed the statement, and we put him in jail, which was the appropriate thing to do in the interest of public safety. But when we found out he may not have been responsible, we cleared him and let him out of jail."
To Murray, this action shows the DPD tried to do what was best for everyone -- keeping the media informed in a timely manner, but also "conducting a thorough investigation that immediately cleared him. That's protecting his rights, too."
Here's the probable cause statement, followed by our previous coverage.
Continue for our previous coverage of Aaron Little's arrest and release.
Update, 5:18 a.m. February 28:Yesterday, when reporting about the bust of Aaron Little for second-degree homicide (see our previous coverage below), we noted the relative dearth of details about the incident, which took place on the 1500 block of Humboldt Street.
Now, we've got more information, and it's sure to raise more questions about the arrest. That's because Little has now been set free, with the Denver Police Department suggesting that the victim in the case may not have been a homicide victim after all.
As we noted, police responded to the scene at around 10:36 a.m. on Wednesday, where they found a dead man -- and shortly thereafter, Little was taken into custody.
In our previous item, we pointed out that the cause of death hadn't been shared, but "circumstances presumably argue against natural causes."
Check that. Late yesterday afternoon, the DPD issued a press release revealing that "after further investigation," Little had been released without charges.
"The exact cause of victim's death is pending the results of the Medical Examiners Report," the message continues. "At this time, it appears the victim died of natural causes."
Did authorities act prematurely in arresting Little -- a fact that was heavily publicized? No doubt that possibility will be at the center of any subsequent review. Here's our previous coverage.
Original post, 5:39 a.m. February 27: Sometimes after homicides, we're flooded with information about the circumstances of the case.
Other times, we're told little -- and that's literally the case in a death that occurred yesterday morning, since the person in police custody for the incident is named Aaron Little.
What happened? Here's what we know so far, in words and images.
At 10:36 a.m. yesterday, according to the Denver Police Department, officers received a call about a man down outside 1555 Humboldt Street, an area captured in the following Google Maps image:
The man in question was already dead when the cops arrived. And while the cause of death has not been shared at this point (the Denver coroner's office will make that revelation once the victim's family is contacted), circumstances presumably argue against natural causes.
That's because the death is being investigated as a homicide. And Little, age 25, was arrested for investigation of homicide in the second degree.
Here's a look at a photo from Little's Facebook page:
The most recent activity on the public part of the page took place on Monday, February 24, when Little changed his profile photo to this:
Our condolences to the victim's friends, family and loved ones. Here's a larger look at Little's mug shot.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
More from our Mile High Murder archive: "Ryan Thompson ID'd as murder victim at Aurora's Smoky Hill Liquor, teen in custody (41)."
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