Did Joshua Cummings, who's now been formally advised of a first-degree murder charge naming him in the execution-style slaying of RTD security officer Scott Von Lanken, ask for a beer at the conclusion of his initial court appearance?
I can't be 100 percent sure. I was across the courtroom from him as he was being led out of Denver District Courtroom 5D at the conclusion of the hearing, which took place today, February 3. Moreover, members of the gallery had started moving around and speaking to each other in voices that were less hushed than prior to the proceedings. But it sounded for all the world as if Cummings said to his legal representatives something along the lines of, "Could I get a Corona? I like to have one every day."
If a reasonably close variation on these words actually passed Cummings's lips, they capped a suitably surreal beginning of his journey through the criminal-justice system following a truly heinous crime.
As we've reported, Commander Barb Archer of the Denver Police Department's major-crimes unit said at a Wednesday press conference that officers were dispatched to the area of 16th and Wynkoop streets at around 11 p.m. on January 31 following a report of a shooting. Upon their arrival, they found a man, Von Lanken, with a gunshot wound to the head. He was transported to Denver Health Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Further investigation revealed that two women were speaking to Von Lanken, asking for information about light-rail routes, Archer said. During the conversation, she continued, the women saw a man approach the victim from behind and point a gun to his neck, and "heard him say something to the effect of, 'Do as I tell you to,' and then the shot went off." At that point, the victim fell and the suspect fled on foot.
Thus far, the DPD hasn't added much to this account, at least officially. But law enforcement sources have been leaking up a storm. Reports maintain that Cummings, whose social-media accounts contain posts critical of police and Christianity but praise for the Muslim faith, had jihadist material in his backpack at the time of his capture and spoke to officers in an Arabic-sounding language. The portrait painted of him thus far has raised the prospect that he's a homegrown terrorist in thrall to a dangerously warped vision of Islam.
So it's no surprise that the announcement that he'd be advised of the charge or charges against him at 8:30 a.m. today drew a crowd. Fifteen minutes before the session was slated to get under way, members of the media began to assemble outside the courtroom.
A Denver Sheriff Department deputy unlatched the doors right on time and journalists filed in — but camera operators left their gear behind in deference to a sign on the courtroom door noting that all electronic devices, including cell phones, were forbidden within.
Shortly thereafter, Judge Martin Egelhoff entered, took his seat behind the bench and immediately reiterated the warning banning media equipment, making specific mention of the sign on the door and advising anyone who had not already read it to do so.
Egelhoff then stressed that if any such device was seen by staffers in the courtroom, it would be both taken away and confiscated, as if these concepts were somehow different.
Seconds later, a reporter who shall remain nameless pulled out his phone, opened up Outlook and started browsing. And, no, the gadget wasn't torn from his hands by angry members of the courtroom security staff.
Also present were assorted attorneys of the defense and prosecutorial variety — most notably, Beth McCann, the recently elected Denver District Attorney. They, too, sat in near-silence for the next few minutes as the judge and several clerks waited for the arrival of the prisoner.
Who didn't turn out to be the person most of the folks in attendance were awaiting.
The inmate who entered the courtroom was Keith Lamebull, who, like Cummings, has been arrested for murder, albeit one whose particulars are less unusual, if no less tragic. Lamebull, 38, is accused of killing 22-year-old Benjamin Lorenzo at an apartment building on the 3900 block of Morrison Road on Wednesday, January 25.
This was actually Lamebull's second appearance in court, so he already knew he'd been charged with one count apiece of first-degree murder and possession of a weapon by a previous offender, as well as three more gun-related beefs. The goal this time around was merely to set the date for his preliminary hearing; attorneys settled on February 24.
Lamebull in person was every bit as striking as his booking photo...
...but the press barely took notice of him. After all, he wasn't the main event.
Once Lamebull left, more waiting followed, with Egelhoff eventually growing so restless that he left the courtroom for a time. But finally, around the top of the hour, a side door opened and Cummings stepped inside, surrounded by four deputies, with more to follow. Before long, there were eight law enforcers in the room, several of them enormous — and their hulking size made Cummings seem smaller in comparison.
In person, Cummings, who previously ran a jiu-jitsuka academy in Texas, is tiny — not just short of stature (he looked to be a lot closer to five feet than six), but thin and spindly, too. The biggest part of him was his hair and beard, which were wiry and largely out of control. He wore a red prison jumpsuit with the words "Denver Jail Prisoner" emblazoned on the back, along with orange-rubber Crocs-style sandals. Both his ankles and his wrists were cuffed, and he had a chain wrapped around him. And while the area around his left eye wasn't as puffy as in his recently released mug shot (which spoke to the accuracy of a witness description that said he had a "swollen face and different/weird-looking eyes"), he bore a large, red mark on his forehead.
This combination of visual elements was flat-out bizarre, but Cummings's behavior over the next few minutes was merely quirky. After telling him he'd been charged with one count of first-degree murder, Egelhoff read some boilerplate material about the nuts and bolts of bonds (which Cummings will never get) and asked if he understood. To that, Cummings responded with an enthusiastic "Yassir" in a voice that had a relatively high, almost adolescent tone. And when he was told to sign his name to an iPad being used instead of old-fashioned paper documents, he mumbled in good-natured fashion about not knowing if he could manage this task given all the restraints on him, then twisted and contorted his body in an attempt to get an angle on the damn thing.
Eventually, Cummings's reps and Ryan Brackley, the assistant district attorney who spoke for the city at the hearing (McCann was just an observer), settled on March 3 for the preliminary hearing. That ended things from Egelhoff's perspective, but Cummings didn't depart immediately. Instead, his handlers sat him down at a table for more document signing, during which he bobbed and wiggled in his chair. His demeanor was less Charles Manson than Scooby-Doo pal Shaggy right up through his oddball exit.
Outside the courtroom, McCann was swarmed by the media, including representatives from CNN and USA Today — more proof that the story has gone national. She said she'd come back early from a conference in order to attend and noted that she viewed the case as the most important one to crop up since she took office.
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McCann also expressed condolences to the Von Lanken family and talked about the tragic nature of the crime. But she mostly deflected specific questions about the case by saying she didn't have any more details or couldn't share them because the incident remains under investigation. She also frequently referred inquisitors to the federal authorities; Cummings is said to have been on a terror watch, and representatives of a Denver mosque raised warning signals about him to the Department of Homeland Security late last year.
Perhaps the only new detail she provided was in reference to the mark on Cummings's forehead, which one reporter called a "hematoma." McCann said she knows this splotch wasn't caused by an injury he suffered at the time of his arrest — and added that the swelling around his eye appears to have come from "some kind of infection."
How much the public will get to see of Cummings as his case progresses is unclear; his attorney made reference during the hearing about a request to place strict limits on what's known as "expanded media coverage." But on this day, he seemed less like a vicious terrorist than a garden-variety weirdo.
And a thirsty one, at that.