DA Clears Cop for Shooting Suicidal Sex Offender Who Grabbed for a Drug Pipe

Organizers of a petition to recall Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey complain that he hasn't charged any Denver police officers for line-of-duty shootings during his decade-plus in office.

Against this backdrop, Morrissey has issued a decision letter clearing another Denver cop, Officer Armando Cruz, in the March 20 shooting of sex offender John Thomas Clark.

According to the document, on view below, Clark was reaching for what turned out to be a drug pipe, not a gun, when Cruz shot him. However, the report also quotes Clark as saying he did so because he wanted Cruz to kill him, establishing it as a suicide-by-cop scenario.

Continue for the details, illustrated with photos from the scene provided by the Denver District Attorney's office.

On March 3, the letter's "Statement of Facts" section notes, Clark was charged in Arapahoe County District Court with numerous felonies, including sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust, sexual assault on a child/pattern of conduct, incest and being a habitual criminal.

Clark had previously agreed to guilty pleas in regard to sexual exploitation of a child and child abuse — but he failed to show up for a sentencing hearing on March 13.

A week later, on the morning of March 20, Clark's wife contacted Denver police. She said Clark was homeless and had been living in his green Jeep Liberty. His chosen parking spot was the lot of a Walmart near I-70 and Quebec, and when she drove to that location and saw the vehicle there, she alerted the authorities.

She also told the dispatcher that Clark was potentially suicidal. A print-out entry filed after her call reads:
Two police units responded to the scene — one driven by Cruz, the other manned by Officer Rich Lavenhagen. The officers were warned by the dispatcher that "this party might try to attempt suicide by cop. Just so you're aware."

The officers soon spotted the Jeep and positioned their vehicle in a way that was designed to prevent him from trying to flee. Then they peered into the vehicle, whose windows were partially obscured, and discovered that Clark was in the driver's seat, asleep.

After Clark was awakened, he initially complied with orders to unlock the Jeep's doors and put his hands on the steering wheel. But when Officer Lavenhagen tried to grab one of his hands, Clark "burie[d] his right hand in his crotch area, belt area," he later told investigators.

The officers first thought about using a Taser on Clark, but he was wearing a heavy jacket that would have made the device ineffective. So instead, Lavenhagen pepper sprayed him. But the spray appeared to have no effect, the report maintains.

Shortly thereafter, Clark allegedly made "a jerk" with his right hand, which was inside his coat, and according to Cruz, "I thought for sure that the way he was acting, he wouldn't take his hand out of his coat, that he had a gun."

Meanwhile, Clark is said to have yelled "Kill me! Kill me!"

"No! No! Show us your hands! Show us your hands!" Cruz recalled responding. But he says Clark kept repeating, "Kill me now. Kill me now."

Around then, Lavenhagen said he saw "down the front of his guy's big, heavy jacket. And I see a silver metal object coming out."

Lavenhagen hit the deck, while Cruz fired his weapon, striking Clark in the arm area. The bullet passed through the arm and broke bones in both of Clark's shoulders.

As for the object, Lavenhagen described it to investigators as "this silver and blue pipe. I dunno if it's a meth pipe or a crack pipe or a marijuana pipe, but it's probably nine, ten inches long."

What were Clark's intentions when he grabbed for the pipe? Dialogue between him and two detectives a week or so after the incident spells them out.
Question: How were you going to get the officers to shoot you?
Answer: Pro'lly exactly the way that I did.
Question: And would you explain your actions to us? So we're clear about what you....
Answer: He told me to put my hands up and I started to put my hands up. [He] told me to unlock the doors. I unlocked the doors and then, I dunno, I think they opned up the one door. And then they wanted me to open up the other door and instead of opening up the other door, I put my hand in my, my jacket.
Question: And what was the reason for putting your hand in your jacket?
Answer: Simulate having a weapon. I knew that's what they'd think.
In a latter part of the interrogation, Clark said he'd told people in the ambulance transporting him to receive medical treatment that the officers weren't "supposed to shoot me in the arm — they was supposed to shoot me in the head. That was that plan."

This intention was only one reason Morrissey exonerated Cruz. Here's his conclusion:
Officers Cruz and Lavenhagen were dispatched to pick-up a wanted party. They were aware that Clark was a convicted felon and that there was a valid warrant for his arrest. They were also advised that Clark was considering “suicide by cop.” However it was unclear whether he was armed. When they arrived on scene, they found Clark in a vehicle with many of the windows covered or obscured. Based upon these facts, the decision by both officers to draw their pistols was reasonable and appropriate. The officers were able to contact Clark and made reasonable efforts to get him out of his car. When he refused to comply and moved his hand in a way which led both officers to believe he was armed (and which he told investigators was designed to lead them to that conclusion), the officers considered different “less lethal” options and then deployed the option they felt would be most efficacious — O.C. spray. It was only after Clark pulled his hand from beneath his jacket, displaying a silver cylindrical object which simulated the barrel of a handgun, that Officer Cruz discharged his handgun. Officer Cruz did so because he believed Clark was about to shoot him. Officer Cruz’s belief that Clark was armed was, based upon the totality of the circumstances, objectively reasonable.13 His response of firing his weapon at Clark was also objectively reasonable, and the physical force used was appropriate. He fired one shot, effectively stopped the threat, and ceased firing. Officer Cruz acted to defend himself and Officer Lavenhagen from what he reasonably believed was an attempt by Clark to use deadly physical force against both officers. His use of force is, therefore, justified....
Look below to see Clark's booking photo, a 7News report broadcast shortly after the original shooting, followed by the decision letter.

John Thomas Clark Decision Letter.pdf

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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