Zero to Life
Freeze this image in your mind.
It's the afternoon of November 12, 1997. Lisl Auman, 21 years old, is standing in front of a boxy condominium, part of a sprawling complex on Monaco Parkway in southeast Denver. Behind her is the hulking form of Matthaeus Jaehnig, struggling frantically with the lock on the condominium door. In front of Lisl are first two, then three police officers. She has her hands up. She is taking one, two hesitant steps forward.
In seconds she will be on the ground, hands behind her for the handcuffs, an officer's knee in her back, his voice in her ear, yelling, calling her a bitch. She will be bundled into a police car and driven a short way off in the condo parking lot.
Jaehnig, meanwhile, will have veered from the door, around a set of stairs--coming within a few feet of the officers--and into an alcove. The alcove is roughly fifteen feet long and blind. There is no exit from it other than the stairs he has just passed or the locked doorway to a second condo.
Unaware of this, the two cops who first grabbed Auman run around the building in opposite directions, hoping to cut Jaehnig off.
Officer Bruce VanderJagt arrives with his partner, Sergeant Dean Jones. VanderJagt is a courageous and much-admired eleven-year veteran of the Denver Police Department. He has twice received a Distinguished Service Cross--once for disarming a gunman terrorizing the employees of Porter Memorial Hospital, once for running into a burning building to help save the occupants. While Jones maneuvers for a cautious look into the alcove, VanderJagt peers around the corner. There's a fusillade of shots. More quickly than the mind can grasp, a bullet rips away the right side of VanderJagt's head. For long seconds he remains standing. Then he falls.
By now, dozens of police officers are on the scene. Bullets are flying in every direction: twenty or thirty of them from Jaehnig's SKS semi-automatic assault rifle; hundreds from police guns. Wood splinters into dust. Glass flies. Nine more bullets hit Officer VanderJagt's prone body; some 200 penetrate the walls of the condo, many boring their way through and out the other side of the building. On the floor, Lisl's brown-and-white dog, Gene--named for a recently deceased grandfather--cowers in terror.
An officer approaches the car where Auman is sitting. "You're going down for murder," he tells her, according to her later testimony. "You're gonna go down."
Three hours later, Matthaeus Jaehnig, too, is dead, of a single bullet that entered under his chin and ricocheted around his skull. Having run out of bullets, he had inched forward to steal Bruce VanderJagt's revolver and then shot himself.
Lisl Auman is being questioned by DPD sergeant Jon Priest. Chief Deputy District Attorney Lamar Sims of the Denver District Attorney's Office is present; the interview is videotaped. Face hidden by her hands, slumped forward on the table, Auman sobs violently.
She's asked if her testimony has been coerced. Well, she says, the cop at the scene did threaten her...
Does she feel coerced at the moment?
"No," she responds.
Is she talking to them because of what the cop said to her?
The interview proceeds. She is inert, passive, a stubborn hulk of a girl droning on endlessly, tonelessly. Her basic story is that she went up to Buffalo Creek with Matthaeus Jaehnig and another carload of his friends because she was breaking up with her boyfriend and wanted to retrieve her belongings from the lodge where both of them lived.
What actually happened at the lodge is unclear. But as she and Jaehnig--whom she inexplicably calls Sardine--drove away, police began following and Jaehnig accelerated, weaving around cars, sometimes crossing the median, reaching speeds of up to 120 miles an hour. When they came to the city limits, Denver police took up the chase, finally cornering Auman and Jaehnig at the Monaco Place apartments.
Lisl is evasive, vague about the names of her companions. She says that Jaehnig's red Trans Am was green. She spouts nonsense about a mystery man named Dave who responds to her page whenever she needs help; she implies that Dave and Sardine belong to some menacing and shadowy group whose purpose she cannot define. The more she's pressed about this group, the fuzzier her answers become: "These people don't let a lot known about them, and I probably wouldn't want to know a lot about them," she says. "I've seen movies like Reservoir Dogs. Kind of like that."
She is doubtless describing Jaehnig and his friends, known Denver skinheads. One of these friends, Dion Gerze, will testify at Lisl's trial wearing a "Support Your Local Sons of Silence" baseball cap.
During the course of the interview, two things become clear: Lisl is afraid to identify Jaehnig and his friends (unaware at this point that Jaehnig is dead, she describes herself as "a walking dead person"), and she's desperately anxious to appease the police. "I could beat myself in the head trying to come up with something that would satisfy you," she says at one point.
Still, her performance is infuriating. Periodically she bites at a fingernail or pulls at a strand of hair. "I'm going bald," she jokes mirthlessly. "Lisl," says Priest, "do you really understand how important this is? This is murder. We need to know every bit of the truth." Lisl nods and promptly returns to her fabricated story.
Later that same evening of November 12, Lisl makes a second tape. Although she still maintains she does not know Jaehnig's name, still describes his car as green, she is clearer and more focused here. In some areas the two tapes are entirely consistent--in her insistence that all she wanted to do was retrieve her own belongings, in her description of the jolting, mind-numbing ride down the mountain. She says over and over again that she was terrified, that she begged Jaehnig to stop, that she tried to get out of the car.
"Sardine said, 'Well, I guess this is what I'm gonna have to do,' and he pulled out the gun and set it on his lap and he popped it, or whatever it is you do to guns. He rolled down a window, he looked back outside, and we're swerving all over the road, and at this point I was afraid for my life, and he asked me if I would take hold of the wheel, and if I didn't...basically, he didn't give me a chance to respond. He just put his head out of the window and proceeded firing. If I hadn't put my hand on the wheel, we would have been off the road and I definitely would have died."
"You're holding on to the steering wheel?"
"I held on to it for about three seconds."
This admission will be the basis for some of the charges filed against Lisl Auman: attempted murder of a peace officer, assault and felony menacing. The jury will acquit her of the first two but find her guilty of felony menacing.
In addition, Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter will charge her with second-degree burglary and--stemming from the burglary--felony murder. The crime of felony murder occurs when someone is killed during the commission of a felony or while the perpetrators are in flight--whether or not that death was intended. All those who committed the felony, as well as any accomplices to it, are equally guilty under this law, even those who were physically absent when the death occurred. The law of felony murder goes back hundreds of years and is based in English common law. The British, however, abandoned it over forty years ago.
It will send Lisl to prison for the rest of her life.
"It's all kind of blurry to me, the order it happened," Lisl continues. "But we ended up hitting a car, like, head-on, and then there was traffic behind us, and at that point I opened the car door and wanted to get out, and he told me, 'What the fuck are you doing? Get back in here,' and all this shit, and he was very angry. I just wanted it to be over. I listened to him because he had this huge gun. I stayed in the car, he shut the door, and he sped off again." Lisl also says that something struck her on the back of the head at the moment of impact.
The Trans Am had smashed into a BMW on East Eastman Avenue. Later in the interview, Lisl says: "I was just, like, praying to myself, praying to God that everything would end soon and everybody would be all right."
Throughout the two interviews, you can see Auman fashioning a noose that Deputy District Attorney Tim Twining will eventually use to hang her. He will say that she voluntarily steered the car so that Jaehnig could shoot at the police. He will say that she is a vengeful woman who enlisted the aid of skinheads to terrorize and rob her ex-boyfriend, Shawn Cheever. In support of this latter theory, he will cite--again and again--the following statement, which occurs on Lisl's second tape: "Shawn lied to me and made me feel like a piece of shit, and basically I wanted to retaliate, I guess." Twining will not stress the clarification that follows: "He lied to me, and I wanted my stuff back."
On that tape, Lisl denies emphatically that she intended Cheever to be burglarized, but there is a moment that suggests she may have been aware the night before the trip that one of her companions, Dion Gerze, had larcenous intentions. She quotes him as saying, "What else does he have?" and, weeping, admits that she mentioned "a couple of speakers."
And she quotes another damning exchange with Gerze: "I said, take it easy on him. He's like, 'Well, I'll do the best I can,' and I think I said something like, just don't kill him, and he said something to the effect of either 'I won't' or 'I can't promise anything,' or something like that."
During both interviews, Lisl often obligingly adopts her interrogator's vocabulary. When Priest suggests she brought the skinheads with her as "muscle," she responds "I guess" and proceeds to employ the word herself later in the conversation. When he asks if Jaehnig, who sat outside in his car while the others were in the lodge at Buffalo Creek, was acting as a "lookout," Lisl responds, "I think so..."
"What do you think he was looking out for?"
She seems confused. "He might have been looking out...I don't even think he knew Shawn was not there, though...Just looking out for whatever."
On November 14, after having met with Deputy District Attorney Twining, Officers Jason Brake and Marc Bennett amend their original reports on the events at 3323 South Monaco two days earlier. Brake's first report said only that Lisl Auman had been ordered to come out and lie on the ground and had then been "removed." In his second report, he now says: "I could see the female standing at the corner of the hallway and as Marc was ordering her out observed her lean to her right, as if to drop something then stand back up with no weapons in her hands. Directly behind the female suspect I observed the male leaning over at a doorway...then turn around and run north in the hallway...At this time I did not observe any weapon in his hands either." Bennett at first said only that Auman had "turned around and put her hands in the air." His November 14 report is considerably more elaborate: "I observed the suspect [Jaehnig]...attempting to gain entry into Apt. A. Both of his hands were visible and he did not have any weapons in his hands. A female was looking into the parking lot and was two-thirds visible with her right shoulder and arm concealed behind a plywood wall. As I began to order her out she leaned slightly to the right before stepping into the doorway with her hands up."
This was the basis of the prosecution's assertion in court--and of numerous statements in the press--that Lisl had passed Matthaeus Jaehnig the rifle he used to kill Bruce VanderJagt.
Several startling incidents followed the deadly events at Monaco Place apartments. Six days after the murder of Officer VanderJagt, skinhead Nathan Thill allegedly murdered African immigrant Oumar Dia at a downtown bus stop, wounding Jeannie VanVelkinburgh. The next day, a dead pig with the word "VanderJagt" scrawled on its side was tossed in front of the District 3 police substation. On November 20, Officer Greg Vacca, responding to reports of a prowler near a west Denver apartment complex, was shot at in the parking lot, and huge numbers of police went on alert. Some days later, Steven Duprey--a friend of Matthaeus Jaehnig's--was arrested for his role in the Buffalo Creek burglary. The Denver Post reported that shell casings in the area of the west Denver apartments matched his gun and that his fingerprints had been found in one of the apartments.
Speeches, sermons and anti-hate rallies followed. It was a rare Denver official who didn't have something to say about skinheads. President Bill Clinton himself, in town for a fundraising visit, said: "We must not--and I know the city of Denver will not--tolerate acts of violence that are fed by hate against people of another color. And we must not tolerate violence and hatred targeted against police officers, the people who put their lives on the line for us every single day."
In articles with titles like "Scene of a Manhunt" and "Ten Days of Rage," the media fed the growing hysteria. Carl Raschke, a professor at the University of Denver, fanned the apocalyptic furies. "These people [skinheads] see themselves as warriors in a race with their enemies," he said. "They've been talking about real war for a long time."
It seemed Denver had become the locus for an archetypal struggle between good and evil--symbolized by the larger-than-life figures of the heroic policeman and his murderous, skulking skinhead enemies. In the eye of the storm stood the sorrowful figures of Anna VanderJagt and her three-year-old daughter, Hayley.
In this universe of absolutes, there was no place for contradiction, fine distinctions, shades of gray. The voices of reason--those who pointed out that there appeared to be no link between the murder of Dia and that of VanderJagt or who dared suggest that things are not always what they seem at first glance--were treated with hatred and suspicion. And there was no one to absorb all this opprobrium, all this high-minded public rage, but the young girl who happened to be in the killer's car just before the shooting.
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary--her lawyers advised the family not to talk--Lisl Auman was turned into a hate-filled, gun-carrying skinhead, a vicious woman hellbent on revenge against the man who had rejected her.
That was the story, anyway.
From the start, Officer Shana Stone said that Lisl was belligerent and quoted her as saying, "I'm not telling you anything. I plead the Fifth on this entire thing."
But Brake and Bennett were not the only cops whose stories changed in the days after VanderJagt's death. In a videotape made November 12, Officer Michael Gargaro had described Lisl's arrest: "I apprehended the female, handcuffed her and removed her from the immediate area...She didn't say anything until I got her on the ground and handcuffed her and then she said, I don't know what this is all about. I don't know what's going on."
In the car, before the shooting, Gargaro had asked Auman if Jaehnig had any weapons: "She said he has a gun, and I said, what kind of gun--and we already knew he did because he had been firing at the Jefferson County police. I said, is it big, like I have? And she said, no, it's like a rifle. And I asked, does he have any extra ammunition? She said, I don't know. He's wearing a black leather jacket."
On the way to the police station, Gargaro said, Lisl asked him if he knew the fallen officer. He said that he did and that VanderJagt was a good man and had a little daughter. Gargaro said that Lisl had responded, "I don't know anything. I can't help you. I just met him [Jaehnig] today. I'm really sorry for your friend. I didn't mean for anything bad like this to happen."
But here's how Gargaro described the arrest six months later, during a preliminary hearing: "I ordered her at least four times to go to the ground...She just wouldn't do it...She was loud to me. She was almost as though she was shouting to me...And she was aggressive...She began to move as though she wanted to get up...The defendant did not cooperate in any way or answer any of my questions...She had an occasion to look towards the area where the other police officers were...And she really showed no emotion of any kind."
1997 was a restless year for Lisl Auman. By that summer, she was living with several friends in a house in Englewood, drifting from job to job.
Her parents had divorced ten years earlier, and her mother remarried. Although all three parents--her father, Don Auman; Rob Auerbach, her stepfather, and her mother, Colleen--cooperated to provide warm, stable and loving homes for Lisl and her brother, Mason, the divorce hit hard. Through high school, Lisl lived alternately with Don and then with Rob and Colleen.
Lisl was intelligent and artistically inclined, but she had trouble deciding on a career or a direction in life. And after one disastrous teenage experience with a boy who hit her, Lisl had no serious relationships with men. A reborn hippie, a fan of the Grateful Dead, she lived in the moment. She liked to read, hang with her friends, party, walk in the mountains, take photographs and work on stained-glass projects with her mother.
Yet something about this young woman inspired profound affection in those who knew her. Most of her friends are now settling down, working or in college, some with small children. When they talk about Lisl, they tend to say similar things. They say that she's gentle, warm and giving. Fun to be around. That she'd let you bum her last cigarette, do anything to make you laugh, sing at the top of her voice in the shower.
"We'd sit on the porch and watch storms," says Robin Bartholomew, a former roommate. "We chased a rainbow once in Lisl's car. We ended up just driving to a high spot and looking down at it."
"The prosecution said this was a vindictive angry woman and she wanted revenge and would go to any length to get it," says longtime friend Alicia Frederick. "It was not Lisl. I almost wanted to laugh. I thought, they're describing themselves."
But things went wrong between the roommates in the Englewood house. There were squabbles about bills, dishes, housekeeping, who'd last bought toilet paper. Lisl, along with a couple of friends, decided to spend some time in the mountains. She had been offered a job working on forest rehabilitation.
Lisl's mother was pleased at the idea. A slender woman with a narrow face, blond hair and a trusting manner, Colleen has spent the past year trying to puzzle out what has happened to her daughter--the steady stream of misinformation in the press, the vilification. Can they do that? she keeps asking. Can they just print whatever they want? Colleen has been a second mom to many of Lisl's friends, who remember summer afternoons in the Auerbachs' backyard, meals at their table.
Colleen explains that when she herself was eighteen and unsure about what she wanted to do in life, she moved to Alaska with a friend. There she worked on fishing boats and lived in a cabin without electricity or running water. It was a defining experience, and she hoped that Lisl's sojourn in the mountains would prove equally beneficial for her.
At first Lisl stayed in a house in Buffalo Creek with Robin and another friend, Steffany Froemel. Steffany introduced her to Shawn Cheever, who was living in an old stone-and-wood lodge that had once been beautiful. Now the building was run-down, the outside littered with broken glass and bits of colored plastic. Lisl got a room there but spent most of her time in Cheever's room with him. There was neither running water nor electricity, and Lisl bought Cheever a heater.
In the beginning, Cheever was affectionate and attentive, but his interest soon cooled. Lisl remained smitten. She made him breakfast. She bought him presents. She had never dated anyone like Cheever before, and she found his tough logger persona romantic. But she was also becoming aware that he was a thief and a liar with an extensive arrest record.
"Shawn Cheever showed me a shoebox full of other people's checkbooks once," Froemel says. "He did petty crime, tons of it. Impersonation. He was always in jail under a different name."
During Lisl Auman's trial, Cheever would admit that he had deliberately exploited her for sex and money.
Looking back, Froemel struggles to describe the atmosphere at the lodge. It was a crazy period, she says: "For some reason, everybody was going through a massive personality change, the whole group of friends. We were doing things that were deteriorating our morals: too much partying, drinking, being very preoccupied with the wrong things." She herself was a "fierce emotional monster" at the time. As for her friend: "In hindsight, she was perfectly chaotic, perfectly out of her mind, perfectly not Lisl."
Although she vacillated for a time, within a month Lisl came to understand the self-destructive nature of her relationship with Cheever. It came home full force when he left for Denver to celebrate his birthday without her, after she'd bought him an expensive snowboard as a gift. She was left alone at the lodge, with half her possessions locked in Cheever's room.
She became desperate to move out. At separate times in the week preceding November 12, both Colleen and Don offered to help, but Lisl was embarrassed at the idea of her parents meeting the rough-edged, gap-toothed Cheever. And she was estranged from her closest friends since leaving the house she'd shared with them. It was then that she thought of Demetria Soriano.
Lisl had known Deme, as everyone calls her, for years. For a time they were very close. Once, before a Grateful Dead performance, they had danced in the parking lot in a lashing rainstorm and seen a man get hit by lightning. As the medics hustled him away, Soriano remembers, he was still waving his ticket and insisting he had to go to the concert.
When Lisl graduated from high school, Colleen had bought both girls tickets to San Francisco and arranged for them to stay with her sister there. Lisl and Soriano visited Haight-Ashbury and Chinatown. They rode the ferry to Alcatraz, played on the beach and leapt into the cold waters of the sea. "It was the first time I ever saw the sun set into the ocean," Soriano recalls.
But there had also been periods of estrangement. One of these had occurred some time before Lisl's move to the mountains. Lisl and Soriano had just begun tentative attempts at rapprochement a week or so before Lisl decided to leave Cheever.
That year, Deme Soriano had been going through a transformation of her own. The man she'd loved for a long time had left her early in the summer, and she was despondent and insecure, partying, drinking, smoking dope. She rented a room in her condo at the Monaco Place apartment complex to a friend from junior high, Dion Gerze; two months after he moved in, she became his girlfriend. "I was still trying to sew my heart back together," she says now.
Michael Jackson, an old friend of both Lisl's and Soriano's, visited Deme during this time. He noted that the apartment had changed. Soriano's tie-dye and tapestries were gone, and in their place were a case full of medieval torture instruments, a Confederate flag, a gun lying on the table.
Soriano introduced him to Gerze and to Gerze's friend Matthaeus Jaehnig. "I shook Jaehnig's hand," says Jackson, who is black. "There was a swastika tattooed on his arm. They acted perfectly pleasant, but I got out fast."
Soriano, with her dark, tumbling hair and olive skin, defines herself as Indian, Spanish, Irish, English and Filipino. Jaehnig was a friend, she says, one she liked and admired.
The only time Lisl visited, about a week before she decided to leave Cheever, Jaehnig wasn't at the apartment. On that occasion, Gerze and Soriano got into a fight. With Lisl in the next room, Gerze choked Soriano until she blacked out.
But when Lisl called November 11, distraught, Soriano told her to come right over. Lisl did, bringing her dog, Gene, with her. The two young women spent the evening demolishing a bottle of sake and planning their future. They would retrieve Lisl's possessions, get rid of their no-good boyfriends and live together, they decided. "It was just, Lisl, you and me are back together," Soriano remembers, in her slightly hoarse, throaty voice. "We'll have fun with our lives again."
There was some conversation between the two women and Gerze about helping Lisl move and enlisting the aid of Gerze's friends. Who said exactly what is still unclear. Everyone agrees on one thing, however: At no point did Lisl use the word "revenge" or appear angry and vindictive toward Cheever. Gerze--who otherwise shows no particular inclination to protect Lisl--was very clear about this during his police interview, despite intense and persistent questioning.
"Was she mad at him?" asks the interviewer on the videotape.
"No. She was just sad. I don't think she was mad at all."
"I don't think so. I think she just fucking felt like a piece of shit."
"You know we've talked to Lisl...Are you sure that you did not hear anyone talk about punishing Shawn?"
"No. No. Bullshit, no. No punishment. We went there to get her stuff. Her fucking clothes."
"Any conversation before you went or while you were there: I'm gonna get that son of a bitch?"
"I heard nothing out of her mouth like that."
"I'm gonna take this because he doesn't deserve it and I paid for it?"
"I heard I'm gonna take that because I paid for it, because it's mine. But I didn't hear I'm gonna get him, or no shit like that. No...We weren't there like that."
By the next morning, though, Lisl was having serious doubts about the entire enterprise. She was afraid of Gerze and his friends and unsure of their intentions. When she and Soriano went to a Taco Bell to cash a check, she told Soriano she wanted to abandon the idea of getting her belongings, at least for that day. Soriano, however, urged her to go through with it. She pointed out that Lisl had written checks for Cheever's gifts that she might not be able to cover. Besides, she said, Gerze had set things up and it was too late to back out now.
Lisl knew what that meant.
"She knew I was scared of Dion," Soriano says of her then-boyfriend. "I was terrified of him. He had threatened to kill me. He had threatened to kill my whole family.
"If you went against Dion, you might find yourself not there the next day."
The friends Gerze had recruited were Matthaeus Jaehnig, who had a record for assault and drug and weapons possession, and Steven Duprey, whose rap sheet was even longer.
Soriano and Lisl had planned to ride together, but the men insisted that Lisl travel in Jaehnig's red Trans Am with him. ("Tao [Jaehnig]...probably wanted to fuck her," Gerze speculates on the interview video.) Soriano and Duprey rode with Gerze in Soriano's black Chevy Cavalier. Gerze describes his own mood as lighthearted. His intentions were simply to help his girlfriend's friend move, he told the police, and to play in the mountains.
At the lodge, Lisl greeted some people she knew. She and Soriano began retrieving clothes, books and other belongings from her room. Jaehnig stayed outside in his car; at one point, Soriano joined him for a smoke break. Meanwhile, someone--no one has said precisely who--cut the lock on Cheever's door with bolt cutters. Prosecutor Twining attributes this act to Lisl, because Soriano testified that Lisl came down the stairs and handed her the cutters. But it is more likely that this large, cumbersome implement was wielded by one of the men.
Amid the flurry of accusations and counter-accusations that followed the burglary, it was hard to ascertain exactly what was taken from Cheever's room: The disputed items are the snowboard Lisl had bought; two camcorders, one Lisl's, the other broken; a pair of Cheever's speakers, one of which had been outside his door in the hallway; a tripod; an amplifier; and a box of CDs in which Auman's and Cheever's discs were mixed together.
At some point, Lisl did become aware that the men were taking items that were not hers. Soriano believes she was afraid to challenge them. "They were on top of us the whole time," she says. "There was really nothing she could have done."
Steffany Froemel has her own take on what happened. "I guess you could call it a burglary," she says. "Shawn's the one that stole the things. If that makes them his, well, there you go."
The cars outside the lodge were loaded up. Concerned at what he'd seen, one of Cheever's friends took down Jaehnig's license plate number. Someone else called 911. The red Trans Am sped away. Soriano's car left, then returned. Duprey jumped out to help himself to another box of discs.
Nine days after Lisl's trip to the lodge, a pizza was delivered to a room at a Quality Inn in Wheat Ridge. The bill was only $14 or $15; the delivery man was handed a $25 check with a woman's signature. He left, then returned to point out the discrepancy. It was Shawn Cheever who opened the door. Just give me five dollars, Cheever told the pizza man, according to police reports, and we'll call it even.
The check was forged. When police arrived, they discovered handgun shells in the room, cocaine and four women's purses--all stolen from maids at the Quality Inn. They also found Lisl Auman's checkbook.
Cheever had been frequenting upscale Denver hotels and stealing patrons' IDs to set up bank accounts. He had rented and never returned a chainsaw. Eight months before the Buffalo Creek break-in, he'd been arrested in Aurora for attacking his common-law wife. He had swung a vacuum cleaner at her, almost striking their five-month-old baby.
Two and a half months after the burglary, in January 1998, Cheever informed his Buffalo Creek landlords Red Jessup and Connie Matthews that he had impregnated their thirteen-year-old daughter. Furious, Jessup reported it to police, but no charges were filed against Cheever. In a motion to exclude this information from Lisl's trial (at one point the young girl was expected to testify against her; Cheever, too, would be taking the stand), Twining and DA Bill Ritter explained why:
"Other than the parents [sic] oral report to the unknown Denver Police Detective, there are no other reports concerning this allegation. Moreover, because all that was reported were [the child's] parents allegations, the Denver Police never opened an investigation, much less were charges ever filed." In addition, the motion stated, the thirteen-year-old was unlikely to cooperate in an investigation.
Lisl doesn't even bother to tell [police] it's a dead end there. She knows where he [Jaehnig] is. She knows it is a dead end... At that moment, there is one person--one person only--that can save Bruce VanderJagt's life, and that is Lisl Auman.
--Prosecutor Tim Twining at Auman's trial
"I have provided security for that complex for approximately seven years."
--Officer Michael Gargaro, preliminary hearing
"Officer VanderJagt says that there isn't any other way out of there. He said, do you want to go in or do you want me to go in? Sergeant Jones comes up. Officer VanderJagt apprises him of the same thing. That there's no way out."
--Officer Donald Bowling, on a video made the day of VanderJagt's murder
"If VanderJagt knew...that he [Jaehnig] was armed with the armament he had available, VanderJagt would not have peeked around the corner in the fashion that he did."
--Prosecutor Henry Cooper
"She said he has a gun...We already knew he did because he had been firing at the Jefferson County police."
--Officer Michael Gargaro, on a video made the day of VanderJagt's murder
Lisl Auman went on trial in Denver District Court in July 1998.
Before the trial, the district attorney's office offered Auman a plea bargain. "Lisl would have had to plead guilty to assaulting the officer when she took the wheel," says Angela Kruse, Lisl's defense attorney. "She would have had to plead guilty to knowing that Matthaeus Jaehnig had weapons in his car. These things would have been with her for life when she didn't do them." In exchange for these pleas, Auman would have received a thirty-year prison sentence.
She turned down the deal.
Without the draconian felony murder law, there would not have been much of a case. Her lawyers believe that if Jaehnig had lived, Lisl would have been used as a witness against him and might never have been charged at all.
The felony murder law, however, made it possible to argue that if Lisl knew Gerze and his friends intended to burglarize Cheever's room and then directed them to it, she was an accomplice to the felony and hence guilty of the murder. Still, this theory might have struck a jury as a flimsy structure on which to hang a capital conviction. Postulate that Lisl was a willing participant in all that happened after the burglary, however--that she was filled with anger and the thirst for revenge, that she deliberately steered the car so that Jaehnig could shoot, that she handed him the gun at the condo complex, that she was hostile to the police--and you had a much more compelling argument. Add to all of this some passionate rhetoric, insist it was Lisl's lack of cooperation that doomed Bruce VanderJagt, factor in the intense public feelings swirling round the case, and your chances of conviction skyrocket.
Constructing the necessary narrative requires selective use of the available facts. It means insisting that Lisl knew Jaehnig had a rifle in his car because the weapon was simply too big to conceal--but accepting that she could somehow sneak this same weapon to Jaehnig at the condo complex without the cops who were standing a few feet away from her seeing it. It means believing Lisl when she uses the words "muscle" or "retaliate" in her interviews with police--while refusing to believe her frequent and consistent protestations of fear and revulsion (duress would be a valid defense against the burglary charge).
Cab driver Art Kent witnessed the collision caused by Jaehnig during his wild drive down the mountain. "He passed right next to me going up Eastman," Kent told the newspapers immediately after the incident. "He was definitely scared. He was stressed. I could see it in his eyes. He didn't hesitate at all after he hit her. He just threw it into reverse and burned rubber." In the courtroom, however, Kent said Lisl had had plenty of time to get out of the car if she wanted to.
In court, Kruse described a second attempt by Lisl to escape from Jaehnig's car. Passing a school, the car slowed momentarily; some children saw the passenger door open and a white laundry basket fly out. The attorneys said the basket had been between Lisl's legs, and she was preparing to jump from the car when Jaehnig threatened her again.
But Twining characterized this incident as an attempt to get rid of stolen loot. Fellow prosecutor Henry Cooper hypothesized that Lisl had thrown out the basket to allow Jaehnig easier access to his gun.
Did Lisl pass the gun to Matthaeus Jaehnig at the complex? No one who knows either Auman or Jaehnig finds the idea remotely plausible. Sam Jaehnig says his brother would never have left his car without his weapon once shots had been fired. Lisl's friends speak of her fear and hatred of guns; her mother remembers her long, passionate arguments with a grandfather who hunted.
But it's the physical evidence that's most compelling. A videotape taken the day of the murder reveals deep gouges on the door of Soriano's Monaco Place apartment. The likeliest explanation is that these were made by the butt of Jaehnig's rifle as he hammered furiously at the lock.
Auman's fingerprints were not found on the gun. Twining says no usable fingerprints at all were detected.
Demetria Soriano, Dion Gerze and Steven Duprey had pleaded guilty to the Jefferson County burglary long before Auman came to trial. Although any and all of them could have been charged under the felony murder law, their sentences were relatively light. Only Duprey, who violated parole on the day of the killing, is still in prison. According to Assistant District Attorney Chuck Lepley, the gun found on Duprey at his arrest was indeed the one used to shoot at Officer Greg Vacca. But after seeing Duprey in a lineup, Vacca was positive that he was not the gunman.
When asked about the other defendants' plea bargains, Twining responds that they "were not charged in this jurisdiction, and we had no communications whatsoever with them about anything that they were going to do about that. We were very careful not to be involved at all in their cases."
"The DA was anxious from the get-go," says Jim Dodd, Demetria Soriano's attorney. "[Denver Chief Deputy DA] Lamar Sims contacted me within 24 hours attempting to cut a deal to get her to provide information. They actually talked to her--the prosecution and the police--in advance of my being retained. It was a classic Monica Lewinsky kind of thing. She got told if she didn't help they'd come down on her pretty hard."
Both Gerze and Soriano testified at Auman's trial. But for the most part, their version of events jibed with hers.
Lisl's family and friends found the atmosphere in the courtroom intensely intimidating. Michael Jackson, who spoke as a character witness, was astonished when Judge Nancy Rice made a joke about his name. "Michael Jackson?" he remembers her saying. "I thought we'd already tried him."
"My hands were already sweaty," says Jackson. "The jury laughed. The cops were laughing. I had to bite my tongue and just sit there."
Other friends speak of police glaring at them, blocking the doorway so they could not leave the courtroom until all of the officers had exited.
Some witnesses, standing outside in the corridor, were surprised to hear police officers discussing their experiences on the stand. "I was told you're not supposed to talk to any other witnesses," says one. "But they'd say to each other, 'Well, what did you say? What kind of questions did they ask?'"
Given the devastating impact of her videotaped police interview--which the jurors viewed--it might have helped her case for Lisl herself to testify, particularly since duress was an important factor in her defense. Kruse will not say why she did not put her client on the stand. She may have hesitated to let Lisl testify because of her poor performance on the police videos; she may have felt that the defense was sufficiently compelling without Lisl's testimony.
It wasn't. The jury found Lisl guilty of felony murder. In accordance with the law, they had not been told before they deliberated that a felony murder conviction would mean a mandatory life sentence.
A few days later, Lisl Auman was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison.
That sentence haunts one juror, who found the DA's witnesses and presentation unconvincing. "I'm thinking there is no way anybody is going to convict this girl of felony first-degree murder," says juror Linda Chin. "I almost felt sorry for the district attorneys." But in the jury room, Chin found herself in the minority. The discussion was legalistic, hewing closely to the definition of felony murder and whether Auman's actions fit that definition. Most of the jurors seemed to find the weapon-passing argument less than credible, but they also did not believe that Lisl had tried to escape from Jaehnig's car. Slowly, Chin became convinced it was her duty to hang the jury.
"But the next day--I guess I started thinking, 'Am I going to be the only person here that the whole city of Denver and the police department know wouldn't vote for conviction?'" Chin remembers. "The night before, I was sure I could do it."
The jurors decided to watch Lisl's second videotaped interview with the police again. There she was, her voice flat and gravelly, lying about Jaehnig's name, the color of his car. "I just lost my desire to keep fighting," says Chin, her eyes filling with tears. The jurors took another vote, and this time Chin voted guilty.
"Within thirty minutes, I regretted it," she says. "Even when they were polling the jury, it flashed through my mind: I wonder what would happen if all of a sudden I said, 'No--I've changed my mind.'"
Herbert Greenberg, a retired University of Denver professor who served on the jury, felt that Twining had successfully assembled all of the elements required to prove felony murder. And although he did not believe that Auman had passed the gun to Jaehnig, he found the defense's contention that the police had lied profoundly distasteful.
Two weeks after Lisl Auman's trial ended, Judge Nancy Rice was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court by Governor Roy Romer.
On January 25 of this year, Shawn Cheever was finally charged with sexual assault on a child. The date of the alleged offense was November 1, 1997--eleven days before Lisl Auman went to his room to get her things.
The moment before anyone had died.
She is sitting at a table in the visiting area of the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility, looking as unlike the morose, leaden creature on the police videotape as humanly possible. Her hair is light and flyaway, her face soft, open, vulnerable.
"Sometimes it seems like a dream," she says. "A nightmare. But I'll never wake up." She talks about her undeserved reputation as a skinhead and how frightened she was when she first entered jail and had to convince the black and Mexican inmates the image was false. It's a lot harder, she says, to convince the rest of the world.
She veers between hope and despair, tries to meditate, read (she's currently racing through Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible) and keep her mind steady. She misses her family and friends, long walks in the mountains, her dog. "I'm only 23 years old," she says. "I still want to have children."
Her days in the courtroom were terrifying. She remembers the way the police looked at her. "I would think to myself, they think I'm this horrible person who killed their friend, or brother, or loved one, and they'd sit there and look at me with such hate in their eyes...and that was really hard. I just wish there was something I could do to prove to them that I'm not the person they think I am. I know that wouldn't make any difference, but it would make me feel better.
"Mrs. VanderJagt wouldn't even accept my apology in court. I can understand she's just lost somebody she loves very much and she's grieving. But later she did a press conference, and she said, 'I do not accept Lisl Auman's apology or condolences, because I think she should take responsibility for what happened.'
"I'm not going to take responsibility for something I did not do."
This woman is the catalyst to everything that happened that day," Tim Twining said of Lisl Auman after the verdict. "She is the fuse to the powder keg at Monaco Place."
But Matthaeus Jaehnig's friends are sure he was fleeing police--not because he thought he'd been involved in a burglary, but because his car was stolen and, despite arrests for weapons possession, he was carrying guns. His sister, Jelena, says Jaehnig was withdrawn and angry during the last months of his life. Lyman Jackson says Matthaeus "was completely wiped out. The human being was gone. There were still a few people who could reach him, but a lot of his friends were scared and staying away." When Jaehnig's body was autopsied, it was found to contain enough methamphetamine to kill the average person.
Jaehnig's fury, madness and hatred of police created the explosive power that destroyed Officer VanderJagt. Lisl Auman's misfortune was to have been with him on the day he blew.
Last year, about this time, when police were chasing Matthaeus Jaehnig through the dusky shadows of the southeast Denver condo complex, Lisl Auman was sitting in a squad car telling cops to go to hell.
She wasn't giving them any information about her fresh new friend Jaehnig. It was reported that, amidst her obscenities, she spit in the face of one police officer asking questions...
She might as well have pulled the trigger herself, and the jurors knew it.
--Chuck Green, Denver Post
"Spit on a police officer, tell him to go to hell. Sweet little girl. You assholes at Sherman Way ought to be in prison with her. Have a nice life?
One more thing, scumbags. You may be able to change your phone number to try to hide from decent people, but can you afford to change your address? Later, jackass. We're not like the cops. We don't have our hands tied. Two words for Colleen: Suck it."
--Message left on the Auerbachs' answering machine shortly after the trial.
Lisl Auman's life sentence has had a devastating effect on her family and friends, most of whom have never been in any kind of trouble with the law. "I'm afraid of the police," says Alicia Frederick. "Obviously, they can do whatever they want to." Jaime Sostman, too, is afraid. "What if I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time someday?" she says.
"You don't know how much I feel this is my fault," says Demetria Soriano, crying. "She was my best friend. She didn't know these people. She didn't have a clue what she was in for that day. Once she got in that car with Tao and closed the door, there was nothing she could have done."
Don Auman has set up a Web page for his daughter, www.lisl.com. He spends long hours researching her case, hoping for a reversal on appeal. A hardworking, law-abiding man, he has found his faith in the government and the legal system sorely tested.
After the verdict, Rob Auerbach, Lisl's stepfather, made a comment that he regretted almost immediately and continues to regret. As the police filed past him, he said, "There go the Nazis."
Today Auerbach still weeps when he talks about Lisl's predicament. Colleen remembers being at a picnic last summer and hearing a neighbor talk about a nervous breakdown she'd suffered. "I remember thinking, 'Well, how do you have one of those?'" Colleen says. "I qualify to have one."
She thinks about her daughter constantly. "Her life has been so short," Colleen says. "She hasn't had an opportunity to make major decisions and plan long-range goals. Our kids do things that make us mad sometimes and things we question, but Lisl is anybody's kid. And we are just any family.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.