Many law enforcement experts see the sort of police shooting that nearly killed Chayley Tolin in a Swedish Medical Center parking garage earlier this year as ill-advised and dangerous for everyone in the vicinity, cops and innocent bystanders alike. But neither Tolin's actions nor those of Englewood police officers will be examined at trial.
On October 31, Tolin, the 26-year-old subject of a Westword feature article about the incident, pleaded guilty to second-degree assault on a police officer, a Class 4 felony. She faces a possible eight to eleven years behind bars.
Just shy of 8 a.m. on January 16, according to Tolin's arrest affidavit (accessible below), L. Morales, an off-duty officer with the Pueblo Police Department, was "conducting personal business" in Englewood when she observed what’s described as a "suspicious vehicle" with two occupants — Chayley and her significant other, 37-year-old James Helms — on the sixth floor of the Swedish parking garage. She called her dispatch center and provided the license plate number. Moments later, she learned that the car had been listed as stolen by authorities in Lakewood.
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The Pueblo officer subsequently dialed 911 to inform Englewood police dispatch about the stolen dark-blue 1996 Ford Crown Victoria, and the affidavit confirms that several members of the local department responded. The first, Officer D. Smith, drove up to the car in a marked Englewood Police Department sport utility vehicle, while the others approached on foot. But as Officer Smith stepped out of the SUV, the report states, "the female driver immediately drove out of the parking spot and narrowly missed hitting [his] patrol car as she drove away at a high rate of speed."
Smith radioed that the driver was leaving the scene as the other officers scurried down the parking garage’s stairwell to the fourth floor, where their vehicles were parked. Among the latter group was Officer M. Creaghe, who told the affidavit’s author that he and his fellow officers emerged from the stairwell at about the same time the Crown Victoria came around a corner, "headed down towards them."
The officers reportedly "began giving loud verbal commands for the vehicle to stop," and it nearly came to a halt before "the driver of the stolen car revved the engine and suddenly accelerated at the group of officers." Officer Creaghe contended that Chayley had room to zoom past the cops and out of the garage, but "deliberately turned the vehicle towards the closest officer."
No officers were hit by the car, yet the near-miss prompted "several shots."
Immediately thereafter, Officer Creaghe heard screaming from Chayley; in a previous interview, John Tolin, her father, revealed that "she was shot through the chest. The bullet went through her lung and exited out the back. It missed her heart by three-eights of an inch."
Nonetheless, the document notes, Chayley kept driving, making contact with both a vehicle headed up the ramp from the third floor and another descending it before stopping on the second floor.
After Chayley was transported to Swedish emergency facilities for her gunshot wound, Helms agreed to speak to police about the events. He said that he and Chayley had met each other several years earlier and were "in a relationship." After adding that they were "regular users of heroin and other drugs," Helms told the investigator that Chayley had obtained the Crown Victoria three days earlier, informed him that it was stolen, and volunteered earlier in the day "that if the police tried to stop them, she would not stop," perhaps because she was wanted on a failure-to-appear warrant out of Gilpin County regarding a controlled-substance offense.
The dialogue in Helms’s version is vivid. Once she spotted Officer Smith dismounting from the Englewood police SUV, Chayley said, "Here we go," and peeled out as Helm supposedly expressed profane dismay: "What the fuck?," "No, no, no" and "Fucking stop!" Rather than taking his advice, Chayley "hauled ass," in Helms’s words, causing officers to leap out of the way. Helms characterizes her as "fucking crazy" in the report, though he suggests that rather than trying to run down an officer, she was simply trying to "get away."
Chayley was hospitalized for several days before she was booked into Arapahoe County jail, and then had to return for treatment on multiple occasions. "She got infected — she got MRSA [a bacterial infection] and then she got pneumonia, on top of battling withdrawal from heroin that was making her have seizures," John Tolin said.
Chayley was ultimately hit with an attempted-first-degree-murder charge and fifteen other accusations, eleven of them felonies, under the theory that she'd used the stolen car as a weapon. (As the passenger in the ride, Helms wasn't cited.) But in the meantime, questions were raised about the decision by Englewood cops to open fire in a busy parking garage.
The chance of unintended consequences is a big reason that many police departments across the country, including Denver's, have put rules in place forbidding officers to shoot into a moving car unless the driver or passengers are using deadly force beyond the vehicle itself, such as a gun. Blasting away without such a precursor, they believe, unnecessarily risks the lives of cops, suspects and bystanders, often over car theft, which is viewed as a relatively minor crime.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit, independent policing think tank, told us that "almost no one even goes to jail for stealing a car anymore." He emphasized that keeping guns holstered benefits cops, too: "A big part of this policy is the idea of officers not putting themselves in a position where they can get hurt. If you stand in front of a car, take out your gun and bark orders, you’re risking your life. And over what? A stolen car. An officer shouldn’t endanger his life over a stolen car. And killing someone over a stolen car is just morally reprehensible."
By the way, fair market value for a 1996 Ford Crown Victoria is estimated at $1,570.
As for the Englewood Police Department, the "Shooting at or From Moving Vehicles" section of its policy manual concedes that "shots fired at or from a moving vehicle are rarely effective," but it stops short of banning such acts. The operative line reads: "An officer should only discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupants when the officer reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the threat of the vehicle."
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Even so, the 18th Judicial District DA's Office determined that the shooting was justified in a decision letter issued in July (see below).
By John Tolin's estimate, Chayley could have been jailed for 48 years had she been found guilty of the original charges — and the prospect of such lengthy sentences frequently leads to plea deals like the one she signed. (We've reached out to John regarding his daughter's plea deal.)
Chayley Tolin is scheduled for sentencing on January 3, 2020.
Click to read the Chayley Tolin arrest affidavit and the 18th Judicial District DA's Office decision letter about the shooting.