The 18th Judicial District Attorney's Office has declined to press criminal charges related to the death at Shotgun Willie's show club in Glendale of Randall Wright, a 48-year-old married father of two who worked as an executive for Kroger, the parent company of King Soopers. As seen in a video on view below, Wright lost his life this spring after apparently being placed in a chokehold by a venue employee following an altercation with another customer.
The office's explanation for the decision is summarized in a letter from Chief Deputy District Attorney Gary S. Dawson to Lieutenant Roy Martin of the Glendale Police Department. It's accessible below in its entirety, but an excerpt maintains, "The evidence at this time is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the potential suspect is guilty of a crime. This is due to significant conflicts in witness statements as to what transpired, the medical evidence and findings/opinions of the Arapahoe coroner that Mr. Wright's underlying heart issues played a role in his death, and in consideration of the available legal defenses, specifically, self-defense of others."
Nonetheless, Wright's loved ones continue to believe that he died as a result of negligence, and Donald Sisson, an attorney for the law firm of Elkus & Sisson, P.C., who represents them, makes it clear a lawsuit over the tragic incident is on the way.
"The Wright family is deeply disappointed, as we believe there was ample evidence to support criminal charges," Sisson writes in a statement provided to Westword. "We are looking forward to obtaining justice in the civil case."
At this writing, Shotgun Willie's lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, has not responded to Westword's requests for comment. However, he told CBS4, "This is a terrible tragedy that someone died. But the club is not responsible. No chokehold was ever applied. We anticipated and expected that the DA's office would come to the same conclusion — that the club was not responsible for this tragedy."
According to his obituary, Wright was born in Dayton, Ohio, and earned degrees from Baldwin Wallace University and the University of Cincinnati en route to becoming a certified public accountant. He subsequently landed a job as the mid-central regional director of real estate for Kroger. His tasks there included working on major land acquisitions and upgrades, as noted by the Denver Business Journal in a piece about a multimillion-dollar development in Castle Rock circa 2014.
On the evening of May 2, Sisson told us for a post published last month, Wright headed to Shotgun Willie's for "a boys' night. There was an Avs game on, and it was him and some of his buddies."
Everything seemed to be fine, Sisson went on, until "there was a situation with this 27-year-old guy. I don't know his name, but I've heard another group of guys had a problem with him earlier in the night. So this guy's stuffing dollar bills in one of the entertainer's outfits, and he falls back a little bit and bumps a chair. Randy is at the table with three other guys, and they had some kind of verbal exchange. Randy was one of those peacemaker types, and it's my understanding that he came over and tried to be all diplomatic."
The situation broke down shortly thereafter. "On the video, it looks like one of the guys Randy was with kind of pushed the guy, who seemed to be lunging at Randy. Then Randy took a swing at him and fell over a chair."
The combat that ensued "was not a highly skilled fight, by any means," Sisson contended. "Then, out of nowhere, this bartender comes from the side, and it looks like he grabs Randy and puts him into a kind of flying headlock and slams him to the ground."
The damage done by what Sisson characterizes as "a pretty violent fall" appears to have been substantial. In an autopsy performed by the Arapahoe County coroner, he acknowledges, "it's a little unclear how many of Randy's ribs were broken, but somewhere between six and sixteen were broken or displaced. And from the witnesses I've talked to, Randy was basically non-responsive at that point. There was no continued resistance or struggle. The DA's office told me one Shotgun Willie's person thought Randy said something, but the people I interviewed didn't hear him say anything and didn't see his lips move. And the bartender stayed on him for a long, long time."
Here's a video showing one angle on the restraint of Wright.
The coroner's report determined that while Wright showed some signs of heart disease, he died of "mechanical/restraint asphyxia. History of possible restraint and possible chokehold." The document adds that "both the use of a chokehold as well as mechanical compression of the chest wall during restraint can lead to asphyxial death."
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Chokeholds have long been a controversial restraint technique with a lethal history. They were nixed for New York City police officers in the early 1990s, and while numerous police departments across the country followed suit, such bans weren't universal. The 2014 death of Eric Garner after he was put into a chokehold brought the issue back to the fore (the officer at the center of the case was fired on August 19), and in 2016, Colorado passed a law that strictly limits use of the technique by peace officers statewide.
Still, prosecutors often balk at trying to prove a chokehold crossed the line into criminality. Witness the case of Sammy Pickel, a patron at Lodo's Bar & Grill in Westminster, who died after a bouncer put him into a chokehold in 2016. Although the video of what took place was disturbing, 17th Judicial District DA Dave Young didn't put forward charges under the same rationale that the office of his colleague George Brauchler, a former candidate for Colorado governor and attorney general, used regarding Wright.
In the letter, Dawson didn't completely close the door on further action. "If your department becomes aware of new evidence or leads that may change the status of this case," he wrote to the Glendale Police's Martin, "please contact my office for re-presentation of the case for consideration." But right now, the next court to hear about Wright's sad passing will most likely be of the civil variety.