| Crime |

Could 14-Year-Old DSST Cole Shooting Suspect Still Be Charged as an Adult?

Investigators outside DSST Cole Middle School following the August 28 shooting.
Investigators outside DSST Cole Middle School following the August 28 shooting.
Denver7 via YouTube
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The Denver District Attorney's Office has announced that the fourteen-year-old suspect in the August 28 shooting of a student outside the DSST Cole Middle School has been charged with felony first-degree assault and a misdemeanor gun-possession count in juvenile court. But with the victim still in critical condition more than a week after the incident, a spokesperson for Denver DA Beth McCann is noncommittal about a possible transfer to adult court should the situation change.

"We're not going to speculate on the fact pattern that might lend itself to a transfer to adult court," says Ken Lane, McCann's communications director.

Still, Lane doesn't state categorically that such a transfer is off the table under any and all circumstances — and according to our research, at least fifteen murder suspects under age eighteen have been charged as adults in Colorado during the past three decades, including one earlier this year.

The most recent example involves fifteen-year-old Aidan Zellmer, who was charged with murder as an adult by 17th Judicial District DA's Office prosecutors this past January in regard to the death of Kiaya Campbell, age ten. But there have been plenty of other similar cases, as witnessed by the following rundown of incidents originally compiled by the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. Named are eight juveniles convicted as adults between 1992 and 1998 in six separate incidents.

A family snapshot of Aidan Zellmer.
A family snapshot of Aidan Zellmer.
File photo

Nov. 4, 1992 — Thomas ''T.J.'' White, 15, and Marcus Fernandez, 16, killed state Trooper Lyle Wohlers. White is sentenced to consecutive 16-year terms for accessory to murder. Fernandez is sentenced to life without parole.

Oct. 31, 1993 — Paul English, 14, shot and killed Carl Banks Jr., 18, in Park Hill, as he was shepherding a group of trick-or-treaters. He was sentenced to 48 years in prison.

Feb. 25, 1995 — Raymond James Gone, 16, shot and killed Denver police officer Shawn Leinen. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Sept. 28, 1996 — Jennifer Tombs, 16, shot and killed her babysitter, Latanya Lavallais, 23. She was sentenced to life in prison.

Nov. 15, 1996 — Antonio Scott Farrell, 17, and Kevin Blankenship, 16, kidnapped Barbara Castor, 76, from a Brighton parking lot, tied her up and left her near an abandoned dam near Strasburg. She died of exposure. They were sentenced to life sentences plus 56 years.

Sept. 7, 1998 — Alexander Pogosyan, 17, and friend Michael Martinez, 18, killed four teenagers and a mother in a Labor Day rampage. Martinez was later slain. Pogosyan was sentenced to five consecutive life terms without parole.

Tara Perry in 2012.
Tara Perry in 2012.
Photo by Mark Manger

The following year, 1999, Tara Perry was sentenced to 66 years in prison for attempted murder, robbery, assault and more related to crimes spearheaded by her older, suicidal boyfriend when she was sixteen. As our Alan Prendergast reported in a 2012 feature article titled "The Girl Who Fell to Earth," her sentence was later reduced to forty years — but it was "still the longest of any juvenile in the state who didn't actually kill or maim anyone." The following year, Perry was paroled for her actions in Colorado — but she still had an additional three-year sentence to serve in Wyoming for a Cheyenne home invasion that was part of the rampage. Wyoming currently lists her as on parole.

This decade, Westword reported about five other cases of juvenile killers convicted as adults:

Greg Smith
Year: 2011
In March 2011, the town of Hugo, in Lincoln County, was shaken by the murders of Charles and Laura Clagett, an elderly couple who'd lived in the area for years. Soon, their great grandson — later ID'd as Greg Smith, a few weeks shy of seventeen — was arrested and charged as an adult. Among other things, Smith took photos of his victims after killing them. Smith was convicted in January 2013. The earliest year he can be paroled is 2050.

Austin Sigg
Year: 2012
The parallels between the Kiaya Campbell tragedy and this one are striking and disturbing. The investigation began as a missing-persons case involving a ten-year-old — in this case, Westminster's Jessica Ridgeway — before turning into a murder inquiry involving a juvenile. Sigg was seventeen at the time of his arrest, and the information that emerged after he was charged as an adult shocked the community. Ridgeway's torso was found in a black trash bag — and Sigg was said to have had an interest in mortuary science. He was sentenced to life in prison in November 2013.

A recent photo of Miguel Ita.
A recent photo of Miguel Ita.
Colorado Department of Corrections

Miguel Ita
Year: 2013
Miguel Angel Ita was just fifteen when he was charged with a multiple stabbing in Lakewood that killed Jose Barrera-Mendoza, 22. But even though the case began in juvenile court, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office filed for it to be moved into the adult system — and it was. Ita was convicted in 2015 and is currently listed as an inmate at the Fremont County Correctional Facility. His estimated parole eligibility date is June 16, 2034.

Lonnie White
Year: 2013
White was seventeen when he was arrested with one other juvenile and an adult, Marquise Lewis, for the murder of thirteen-year-old Reysean Abram, who was shot to death while riding his bike. He was initially processed as a juvenile, but the Denver District Attorney's Office subsequently decided to transfer the case to adult court. The other suspect, Keon Belton, was fifteen at the time of the crime, and his case stayed in juvenile court. Now 22, White is serving his time in the Crowley County Correctional Facility. His next parole hearing is in June 2042 — and, no, that's not a misprint.

Matthew Trujillo
Year: 2014
Trujillo was seventeen when he was arrested in the fatal stabbing of eighteen-year-old Anthony Benavidez at a trailer park in Thornton, the same community where Kiaya Campbell was killed. At first, the Thornton Police Department didn't release Trujillo's identity because of his age. But he was subsequently tried and convicted as an adult. His mandatory release date is February 2049.

Speaking about the DSST Cole case, DA rep Lane points out that accused juveniles under age sixteen must be charged in juvenile court according to Colorado statute. State law also forbids the release of an accused juvenile's name, birth date or photo, and likewise limits the release of additional details. For instance, Lane declines to comment about rumors shared with Westword by inside sources that the August 28 shooting was gang-related.

Nonetheless, Lane notes that Colorado district attorneys have an option after filing charges in juvenile court to "petition to transfer the case to adult district court."

When it comes to the DSST Cole shooting, "that's not even at a decision point right now," he stresses.

But it remains in the realm of possibility.

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