It takes more than a break-in and a stabbing to get arrested in Cherry Hills
Barbara Siemann woke to the sound of footsteps in her hallway just after 3:30 a.m. on June 1. Judging by the blurred digital clock on her cell phone, it was far too early for her seventeen-year-old daughter to be getting home from staying the night at a friend's house. Yet who else could be wandering in the hall, turning out the light?
Reluctantly, Siemann dragged herself out of bed to investigate. And there he was, standing in her hallway, staring.
"Who the fuck are you?" she screamed. "Get the fuck out of my house!"
The man was dark, husky and short, swaying and making an eerie moaning sound. Siemann felt sure he was ready to pounce. But he pushed passed her and out the front door. Then, just as quickly, he came back in through a side entrance to her TV room. Never had her spacious Cherry Hills house, with its copious windows and sliding glass doors, seemed so vulnerable.
Frantic, Siemann ran back to her bedroom and lunged for her panic button. Meanwhile, she could hear the man clattering in the kitchen, ransacking her drawers in search of a knife. "Oh, my God," she thought. "He's gonna get a knife and kill me."
Out the sliding doors, past the pool and over to a neighbor's house she ran. She pounded on the door, called 911 and waited for her breath to slow.
At that moment, she had no idea that the man she'd found in her hallway was on his second break-in of the night. Or that less than a mile away in Greenwood Village, he had heaved a stone through the first-floor window of another stranger's house, crawled over the nineteen-year-old boy sleeping beneath the window, grabbed two paring knives out of a kitchen drawer, and tried to smash out another window to escape. Or that he'd then headed to Siemann's place, where he broke a window and wandered, bleeding, through the rooms. At one point, he'd even stood above Siemann's bed, silently dripping blood on her floor.
She knew none of this. Not until the police came over to deliver even stranger news: They had caught the intruder, a nineteen-year-old from Adams County named Rogelio Hernandez-Dominguez. But when they found him, he was lying on the bed in one of her spare rooms, covered in blood, stabbing himself relentlessly in the stomach.
Cherry Hills is not accustomed to such drama. One of Denver's wealthiest suburbs, its residents have fountains in their yards, tennis courts off their driveways and whole neighborhoods walled off from the main road with bricks and ivy. The police department is an understated affair, tucked into Village Hall, right across from Cherry Hills Village elementary school. There are 21 sworn officers on staff, including just one general detective, Jake Campbell, and one lieutenant, Jody Sansing.
Both men were on the scene the morning that Hernandez-Dominguez broke into Siemann's home. And Sansing is quick to defend the decisions they made.
"I don't want the impression that we dropped the ball on this, because we did the best — everything we could," he says.
When the cops found him, Hernandez-Dominguez was stabbing himself with a ten-inch kitchen knife, according to the police report. Even after they aimed their guns and ordered him to drop the weapon, he drove the knife into his abdomen at least two more times. There was, as one officer noted, "a remarkable amount of blood." The cops called an ambulance to take him to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood.
Two days after the break-in, Sansing and Campbell interviewed Hernandez-Dominguez and his family at the hospital. From bed, where he was still groggy from pain medication, the young man explained that he didn't remember much from that night.
What he did recall sounded more like hallucination than reality: He went to work detailing cars, came home to his parents' house in Adams County and then went out drinking at a bar with a friend named "Charlie," according to Campbell's written affidavit. Back at Charlie's place, the two kept drinking — although Hernandez-Dominguez said he'd only had "a couple" beers over four hours.
On his way home, he told police, a car began tailing him with its brights on. He tried to lose it, but the car seemed to chase him. He decided to drive to his boss's south Denver home for help. But when he got there, his pursuers pushed him through a window. Then someone hit him with a bottle, and he took off running.
"He did not know who the people were or see them, and he doesn't know why they were chasing him," Campbell wrote in the affidavit. "He said that he didn't want to hurt anyone or take anything from anyone."
Based on this interview and the chaos of the crime scene, the cops concluded that Hernandez-Dominguez had had some kind of psychotic episode, some sort of break from reality. "We came to the conclusion that he wasn't right mentally," Campbell says.
His parents, in halting English, told the cops that their son didn't have a history of mental illness, didn't use drugs and "rarely" drank alcohol. But his girlfriend, Violeta Vidales, mentioned one other episode that sounded strange. Once, at a party, Hernandez-Dominguez suddenly grew paranoid that someone was going to hurt him. He became so frightened, she said, that they had to leave the party. "She thought it was very odd, it was out of the blue, she didn't see any reason for it," Campbell says.
After that, Campbell and Sansing made some judgment calls. They talked to the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office and discovered that because their suspect hadn't assaulted anyone or stolen anything, he could only be charged with lower-level felonies — criminal trespassing and criminal mischief. And just like that, in the eyes of the law, he went from being a knife-wielding menace to a mere property criminal.
Campbell also decided that Hernandez-Dominguez wasn't a flight risk because he wasn't a hardened criminal. "There wasn't any indication to me that he was going to flee," Campbell says. "This particular incident was really unique and uncommon."
"He wasn't out to rob anybody, he wasn't out to hurt anybody.... He had a mental episode," Sansing adds. But the police made this assessment without doing a mental-health evaluation of Hernandez-Dominguez or testing him for drugs or alcohol — even though he'd told them he'd smoked marijuana two nights earlier. The hospital planned to conduct those tests, Campbell says, and he figured he could get the results later if he needed them.
Ultimately, Campbell and Sansing decided not to arrest Hernandez-Dominguez, because they believed that if they did, the Cherry Hills police department would have had to pay his medical bills.
Eight years ago, Loveland police officers arrested Rick Campos, 33, who was accused of hitting his girlfriend. After cuffing him and hauling him into a van, the cops were barreling up I-25 toward the Larimer County jail when Campos got desperate. He wriggled out of his seat belt, head-butted his way out a side window, and hurled himself onto the highway before the cops could pull over.
An ambulance took Campos, still cuffed and badly mangled, to Poudre Valley Hospital. He needed surgery and ran up nearly $27,000 in medical bills.
When the City of Loveland refused to pick up the tab, the hospital sued. The case went all the way to the state court of appeals in 2003, and ended with a judgment in favor of the hospital that would haunt cops for years. Under Colorado law, the appeals judges said, governments have a duty "to provide medical care for detainees in their custody." And that includes footing the bill if they end up in the ER.
"It's just this huge glitch in the system," says Sansing. The problem, he explains, is that the rule applies in all cases — whether a suspect is shot in a stakeout or starts complaining of kidney failure when he's arrested for burglary. It also requires police to post an officer at the hospital to make sure the prisoner doesn't escape.
For big police departments like Denver's, this is no problem. There's a lockdown wing at Denver Health and officers to mind the wounded. But smaller departments like Cherry Hills can't afford such luxuries. And they certainly can't afford to lose a member of their tiny patrol force for days at time.
So arresting officers sometimes have to decide who's worth tens of thousands of dollars for a hospital visit. That's a tough call to make when, as in Hernandez-Dominguez's case, they don't know how serious the injuries are, or if he'll need surgery.
"Is he gonna get out tomorrow? Is he gonna get out in October?" Sansing says. In some cases, "it's a difficult line to draw."
David Brougham, a former district attorney who represented Loveland in the 2003 case, says he still gets calls about it "fairly often." If the cops find a drunk on the lawn who's been badly beaten, should they take him into custody and call an ambulance? What about a teenager injured in the skate park?
"Everybody's walking on eggshells because of this damn decision," Brougham says. "It's established law now, but I think it ought to be revisited."
Lieutenant Randy Corbitt of the Greenwood Village police force knows the issue well. When, for example, his guys pick up a suspect on a misdemeanor traffic warrant who has a communicable disease, most jails won't take him. So they call the agency that issued the warrant, but they don't want to get stuck with the hospital bill, either. So the suspect stays free.
"We certainly wouldn't let anybody that we thought was a danger to society out," Corbitt says. But with someone like Hernandez-Dominguez, he agrees with Sansing.
"We, too, would probably release him to the hospital, because we didn't stab him," Corbitt says. "We just don't have $20,000 budgeted to get the guy sewn up."
Rogelio Hernandez and Fidelia Pozos live a universe away from the sprawling $2 million home where their son stabbed himself. There is no pool or tennis court at their house off Pecos Street — just an ornate cut-glass front door and ruffled curtains on the kitchen windows. Dad fixes cars and has grease-stained fingers; Mom cleans houses and has kind eyes. Both have crosses hugging their necks.
They have two young sons at home: the thirteen-year-old who answers the door and translates the conversation from English to Spanish; and a five-year-old, who stands worriedly beside his dad before being shooed off to watch TV. His parents haven't told him why his brother hasn't come home.
Their son used to live downstairs, in a basement apartment with its own separate entrance. He worked Monday through Friday detailing cars, but didn't have many friends and wasn't much for chatting, his parents say. But at least he came home every night.
"We never had any problems with him. Never, never," Pozos says. "He was a good boy. I don't know what happened that day. Just only God knows."
Police and court records show a more complicated story. When Hernandez-Dominguez was sixteen, an Adams County court issued a permanent restraining order, forcing him to stay away from his girlfriend, Vidales. Since they were both juveniles at the time, however, the records are sealed; Campbell says he wasn't even aware of the case. But if he had seen it, he might have found reason to worry.
A few years later, in November 2007, when Vidales and Hernandez-Dominguez were living together in Federal Heights, police were dispatched to their apartment because a woman had been heard screaming for help. When the cops arrived, Hernandez-Dominguez told them that he and Vidales "were having a verbal disagreement over the dog," according to the police report. He was arrested for violating his restraining order, but the charge was later dismissed. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, and his only punishment was to pay court costs of $26.
For about three months after that, he and Vidales separated. While they were apart, she noticed that Hernandez-Dominguez began acting "different" and had a new set of friends. "She suspected that Hernandez may have been experimenting with drugs during this time period," Campbell wrote in his affidavit, "but does not know him to ever use drugs in her presence."
This past January, Denver police arrested Hernandez-Dominguez for underage possession of alcohol and for driving without a license or insurance. In March, police in Broomfield picked him up for careless driving.
The morning of the break-in, he called home around 2 a.m. to say he needed help, that someone was trying to kill him, his mother says. Vidales told police that Hernandez-Dominguez called her around the same time and said he would be coming home soon. Then his boss called Vidales to say that Hernandez-Dominguez had called him and said he was "in trouble." Supposedly, he was parked outside his boss's house, but when his boss went to look, no one was there. That was the last his parents heard until the next day, when their son was lying in a hospital bed.
Federal and state health privacy rules prevent hospitals from releasing most information about their patients, and sometimes their own privacy policies are even stricter. At Littleton Adventist Hospital, spokeswoman Christine Alexander says they are "very cautious," releasing information only on a "need-to-know basis." St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver will release information to police in certain situations, such as child-abuse cases, or injuries resulting from "criminal acts," says spokeswoman Bev Lilly. But a case like Hernandez-Dominguez's would be a tough call. "If he's not arrested, he's not a criminal; he's just a patient," Lilly says. "It's a fine line."
Swedish spokeswoman Julie Lonborg says the hospital refused to tell Campbell and his colleagues when Hernandez-Dominguez would be discharged "because legally we're not allowed to." Only if the police had taken him into custody would they have been entitled to that information or other medical data, she says. And if that meant paying his medical bills, that's not the hospital's concern.
"There are police here every day," Lonborg says. "Our responsibility is to follow the laws that govern these sorts of things, whether we like them or not."
So the police left Hernandez-Dominguez at the hospital in June without any idea when he would be released — and they never found out whether his injuries were life-threatening, how he was treated or how long he stayed there.
Five days after the break-in, Campbell wrote a probable-cause affidavit asking Arapahoe District Attorney Carol Chambers to issue a warrant charging Hernandez-Dominguez with trespassing and criminal mischief. But her office didn't receive it for another six days, according to spokeswoman Kathleen Walsh, and didn't bring a formal complaint to a judge for two more weeks.
It took an Arapahoe sheriff's deputy until July 15 — a full month and a half after the break-ins — to deliver a criminal summons to the hospital. By that time, Hernandez-Dominguez was gone. While the police blamed the district attorney's office for the delay, Walsh contends that "the case was processed in a timely fashion in regard to property crimes." If the police had arrested Hernandez-Dominguez immediately, the DA would have had only 72 hours to file a case. Instead, they allowed the system to slow down.
After his release, Hernandez-Dominguez, who has since turned twenty, disappeared, along with Vidales. His parents say they haven't heard from him in two months. They think he's left the state, and they're not eager to help anyone find him. His cell phone has been disconnected; Vidales's rings to a full voice-mail box.
Hernandez-Dominguez's parents say they don't know his boss, or his friend Charlie, or even where he works. They won't share pictures of him, and they are tired of cops showing up to search their home. They just hope their son is safe. "I pray for him now," Pozos says. "I worry for him. I think he [does] not want to live."
Barbara Siemann hurried to Arapahoe District Court a few minutes after 9 a.m. on August 28 for Hernandez-Dominguez's case hearing, only to find out it had been canceled. "Something's wrong here," says Siemann, who has grown increasingly frustrated with the way the police handled the case. "I think we should be terribly concerned that there's someone like this wandering around the streets."
The police and victims'-assistance officials tell her that Hernandez-Dominguez isn't free. He'll eventually get picked up for speeding or some other charge and get dragged into court for the break-in. But that's little comfort to a woman who still has bloodstains on her kitchen counter and nightmares about that night.
"I'm still not back to a point where I feel safe in my own home," she says.
Even Campbell admits that the case hasn't worked out as he hoped it would. "At this point in time, where's the justice for the victim?" he says. "There really hasn't been."
So for now, Siemann can only wait. Her insurance helped pay the $80,000 worth of damage to her house — cleaning up blood, refinishing the floors, replacing the windows. At night, she tries not to remember the sound of a stranger thrashing around in her kitchen, violently searching for a knife.
As for Hernandez-Dominguez's medical bills? The hospital won't say how they were paid, and the police have no idea, either.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
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