Theodell McGowan had planned to spend Thanksgiving with his family. Instead, the elderly retiree found himself in Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center on a 34-year-old case out of Indiana that he thought had been resolved in the 1980s. And at this writing, he's still there.
In McGowan's corner is lawyer Jason Flores-Williams, a well-known figure to Westword readers. Flores-Williams appeared on our cover in 2016 after he sued Denver over homeless sweeps. Since then, we've chronicled his lawsuit on behalf of the Colorado River and his defense of police shooting victim Keith Roberts, among other cases, as well as publishing an op-ed written by him headlined "The Funny Thing About the Rise of Fascism."
Flores-Williams speaks with his trademark passion about the seventy-year-old McGowan's plight.
"Every so often as an attorney, you get an exhibit-A example of how justice is one thing and the law is the other — and how, sometimes, as in this case, they have nothing to do with one another," he says. "It's really sad and it's depressing and it's hurtful and it's wasteful. I've been trying to do something for this guy, and I feel incredibly frustrated, because it seems like the system is not responding to this absurd miscarriage of justice. It's like something out of Jim Crow."
More than three decades ago, Flores-Williams explains, McGowan was living in Gary, Indiana, when he was arrested in connection with a car theft in which he was a passenger, not the driver. For the crime, he was sentenced to eighteen months in a halfway house.
According to a writ of habeas corpus filed on his behalf last week, McGowan left the halfway house after being told he'd completed his sentence. He subsequently relocated to Colorado, where he turned his life around as a bus driver for RTD and Denver Public Schools. Flores-Williams says that in order to land these gigs, "he went through FBI, four-way background checks. So it was consistently confirmed to him that he had paid his debt to society. If he hadn't, he wouldn't have applied for jobs that required background checks. And he passed them all."
For these reasons, McGowan was completely blindsided when representatives of the Denver Sheriff Department arrived at this home on November 20, the Tuesday before the Thanksgiving holiday, and took him into custody on the car-theft charge in front of his family.
"He was completely discombobulated," Flores-Williams points out. "They told him, 'You don't have any rights in this situation,' then put a piece of paper in front of him and told him to sign it. And he did, without an attorney, not really understanding that it was a waiver of extradition to Indiana."
After McGowan was taken away, Flores-Williams was contacted by his loved ones and rushed to the jail. Upon his arrival there, he discovered that McGowan "didn't even have his dental plate in, so he couldn't eat," he recalls. "At least we were able to get that for him. And then I contacted the Denver DA, and they didn't have a case file on him — so that meant they couldn't hear the writ of habeas corpus we filed. And then I called the DA in Gary, and the case was so old they weren't even aware of it."
As a result, McGowan is in what Flores-Williams characterizes as a "Kafka-esque pit where he has no due process or constitutional rights. He's just sitting in Denver jail awaiting extradition to Indiana."
Because the district attorney in Gary didn't precipitate the action against McGowan, Flores-Williams speculates that the matter rose to the fore because "somebody out of the Indiana Department of Corrections had something come across his desk and made a call to the Denver Sheriff Department. And the Denver Sheriff Department didn't know anything other than that there was a warrant for this guy's arrest."
He stresses that "I'm not pissed at the sheriff department" over what happened, even though he wishes that the staffers who took McGowan away had paused for a few seconds to think about whether "there was a more humane way to handle what's basically a technicality, especially on Thanksgiving week." But more pressing, in his view, is simply resolving the situation as quickly as possible — and he hopes getting the story out will help in that cause.
After Denver7 broadcast a piece about McGowan on November 23, Flores-Williams notes, "the story has gone national. I'm getting tons of calls saying, 'Let this guy go.' And on a cold, analytical level of resources, it's an utter waste. Think about what it's costing to incarcerate him here and what extradition back to Indiana is going to cost. And that ride to Indiana is very difficult. It's not like he's going to be flown back. He's going to be put on a bus with a lot of young guys, and this bus isn't an express. It's a local. It will stop every sixty miles to pick up people, to swing by sheriff's departments. It's a several-day journey. And once he arrives, there's every chance the DA in Indiana is going to look at this and say, 'What are you doing here?' and drop the whole thing."
With that in mind, Flores-Williams hopes that the negative publicity will inspire prosecutors in Gary to put an end to McGowan's ordeal long before he's loaded onto that bus.
"It's time to shine a light on this," he says. "He hasn't even gotten a speeding ticket in thirty years. To deprive this guy of his liberty and ruin his life in this way is completely unjust."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.