The Denver Police Department, already beset by accusations that its officers manhandled a suspected car thief who crashed into the car of a rookie cop, is reeling under a new round of allegations. And this time, police officers are the ones pointing the finger at their colleagues.
Internal scuttlebutt has it that Denver officer Brian Gordon--the son of one of the department's highest-ranking officers--stabbed officer Ron Thomas, one of Mayor Wellington Webb's bodyguards, during a February 1 fight outside a local nightclub. Officers say an elaborate attempt to conceal the facts followed the fracas. And Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas--a former Denver cop--says he thinks a police report about the assault may have been faked, or "cooked."
But the alleged victim, Officer Ron Thomas (no relation to the councilman), tells Westword he doesn't even know whether his wound was caused by a stabbing, let alone by whom. And Officer Thomas says that in any case, it definitely wasn't Gordon who injured him.
Nevertheless, the cop grapevine is abuzz with expressed fears that the "attack" will be swept under the rug because officers Thomas and Gordon are part of the department's "inner circle" of up-and-coming black officers. In fact, an internal-affairs probe of the fight appeared stalled until late last week when police chief Dave Michaud, calling the rumor of one officer stabbing another a "serious allegation," vowed to speed up investigation of the incident.
What the cops are calling "Pierregate" occurred in the early morning hours of February 1, just outside Pierre's Supper Club in Denver's Five Points neighborhood. The trouble started about 1 a.m., when several people were bounced from the club following a drink-throwing catfight.
"They escorted us outside," says Darla Herndon, whose younger sister Alice had been in the middle of the melee. "We left, but we came back about twenty minutes later to see if we could find our coats and keys." Herndon says that as she waited outside for the bouncers to locate her belongings, she began talking with friends and blowing off steam, saying how she'd like to hurt the woman who fought with her sister earlier that night.
Unfortunately for Herndon, her remarks were overheard by Philip Kirk Whisenton, one of the woman's relatives. That set off another round of fighting.
"All of a sudden," Herndon says, "a lot of other people started coming out [of the club]. The next thing I know, someone's grabbing for Alice and someone's hitting me, and Kirk grabbed a gun and then he went after Alice." When Herndon tried to stop him, she says, Whisenton put the gun to her head and told her to "stay out of it."
Within moments, more people started spilling out of the club's doors, Herndon says. Among them were a handful of off-duty Denver police officers who'd been socializing at Pierre's. "One officer, Brian Gordon, is my friend," Herndon says, "and he comes out and he says, 'You don't have to deal with this.'
"Then some other gentlemen came out, and a lot of different fights started breaking out everywhere. I saw people reaching in their backs to pull out guns, and I yelled to Alice that everybody was pulling out guns." Herndon ran to her car and drove to the District 2 police station, where she filed a felony menacing report against Whisenton.
It was after that point that matters got sticky, eventually requiring the involvement of the department's internal affairs bureau.
Ron Thomas, a soft-spoken, nattily dressed officer who serves as one of the mayor's bodyguards, is a regular at Pierre's. He says he went to the club about 11 p.m. that Friday after putting in a full day of work, a couple of hours of off-duty work at a high-school basketball game and a study session on his own for an upcoming sergeant's exam.
Officer Thomas hooked up with several co-workers at the bar, including officers Michael Lemmons, Allen Hancock, Mike Hall and Gordon, whose mother is Denver police division chief Armedia Gordon.
When the club's lights went on at about 1:40 a.m., signaling closing time, Ron Thomas says, he stepped outside to reconnect with his pals. "There was a fairly large crowd out there," he says. "They weren't brawling, but they were pushing and shouting. Apparently, a fight was about to break out. I saw two other officers [Hall and Hancock] walking towards them and I assumed they were dispersing the crowd, trying to get them to get into their cars and go.
"I caught up with them, and I was moving toward the crowd when this guy comes out of the crowd and pushes Mike Hall to the ground. The guy keeps coming forward, so I grab him by the shoulders and swing him around. The momentum carried us onto the ground. We rolled around for quite some time. I could hear and sense other people around me. I heard my jacket rip." He also says he felt a stinging sensation on his knees and left side.
"I started thinking to myself, 'I'm in a $400 suit wrestling some guy who nothing will happen to because [Hall] was not wearing a uniform and he hadn't identified himself as a cop.'"
Officer Thomas says he let go of the man, who then ran from the scene. Immediately afterward, says Thomas, he was more concerned about the damage to his jacket and his inability to find his gun (a semi-automatic Walther pistol) than he was about any injuries he might have suffered.
It wasn't until another officer urged him to go to the hospital that he realized he had a five-inch-long slice on the left side of his midsection. Fellow officer Lemmons drove Thomas to Denver Health Medical Center for treatment.
Ron Thomas says he doesn't know how he got cut. Thomas claims he doesn't remember seeing a knife, and he thinks he might have been cut by any of a number of things as he rolled around on the ground with the other man. He strongly denies that he was even fighting with fellow officer Gordon.
Thomas says he was met at the hospital by Sergeant Tony Foster, who decided against filing an assault report since Thomas was unsure if he'd actually been stabbed. (Foster declines comment.)
Because Officer Thomas could not identify the instrument that cut him, he says, doctors worried about infection and decided against stitching him up. He was released from the hospital that night but was forced to return hours later because his wound continued to bleed. According to detectives, an assault report was made at that time at the insistence of police captain Gerry Whitman. Denver officer Paul Goff, who took the report from Thomas, says he "was very cooperative" in providing the information.
That assault report, as well as the report involving Darla and Alice Herndon, was forwarded to detectives, who apparently didn't get the same level of assistance from Officer Thomas and his colleagues.
"We were confused as to what transpired," says Detective Art Conrad, who was assigned to the Herndon case. "We were trying to determine if the weapon that was held against Darla's head was the same weapon that Thomas lost. Apparently it wasn't, but we didn't get much cooperation from the officers when we spoke to them."
Conrad says he was surprised at the officers' reactions, because Thomas "was stabbed good. He was sliced open with a razor or something, and they wouldn't or couldn't ID the person he was confronting, and they were point-blank looking right at him. We were investigating it as them being victims, and when victims don't want to cooperate, you can only go so far." Conrad says he was puzzled by Thomas's behavior: "He was like, 'Leave me alone, and I'll take care of it.'"
Detective Robert Kraft, who was assigned to investigate Thomas's case, says he had nothing much to go on because Thomas and the other officers were unable to pick out a suspect from a photo lineup. The case was then forwarded to the department's internal-affairs bureau, where officers reportedly began looking into possible procedural violations that took place. Ron Thomas, for example, had been carrying a gun that was removed from the off-duty approved-weapon list at least a year ago because of safety concerns. The officers did not call a supervisor to the crime scene; no assault report was taken until the next day; and one of the officers, who was off-duty, had been wearing part of his work uniform (covered by a civilian jacket) while drinking at the bar.
All of these are considered relatively minor violations.
But important questions about the incident remain unanswered. Until last week, Denver police refused to release copies of the offense reports, claiming that the reports--which are considered public documents--were under internal review. Officer Thomas says that to his knowledge, no one pulled out a weapon, but Darla Herndon reported seeing officers reach for their guns. It is still uncertain whether Brian Gordon (who did not return calls for this story) left the scene before or after Thomas was injured. In addition, councilman Thomas says it appears to him that the assault report may have been altered. No supervisor signed off on the report, he says, and it appears to him that certain passages of the narrative had been "whited out."
Prior to Michaud's recent call for a quicker investigation, the incident was apparently considered of little importance inside the department--as of late last week, Ron Thomas had not even been questioned by investigators.
Kirk Whisenton has been charged with felony menacing in connection with Darla Herndon's complaint against him. But the roles played by Denver cops that night are still a mystery. And that--coupled with the silence with which all internal investigations are met--apparently led to the rampant speculation about what really happened that night. Rumors abound that officers Gordon and Thomas, who are longtime friends, were fighting over a woman. (Thomas denies this.) Some believe that the rumor was started by racists within the department or by those who are jealous that Thomas's name is near the top of the list of those officers eligible to be named sergeant.
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Adding to the hype is radio talk-show host Peter Boyles's on-air contention last week that gang members told him one officer had stabbed another outside the supper club.
Thus far, the rumors have spurred one good thing: The department has decided to speed up its investigation of the incident, which was assigned two months ago to the Internal Investigations and Inspection Bureau (known by cops as the Triple IB).
"We've recently taken four lieutenants from other assignments and temporarily assigned them to internal investigations to get this [Thomas] investigation done," Chief Michaud says. "It's important that we bring it to a closure and get it done. It's a serious allegation, and I think it's one that needs priority.