An audio recording of a 2007 police shooting that turned a nineteen-year-old car thief suspect into a quadriplegic — and set up a long-running battle over his care in the state prison system — appears to contradict official accounts of how the shooting went down. And Darrell Havens says the disturbing cacophony of thumps and screams supports what he's been saying all along: that he had no time or opportunity to resist or flee before an Arvada detective fired nine .45-caliber rounds into his immobilized car from a few feet away, hitting him in the chest, neck and jaw.
Denver police have come under heavy criticism in recent months over four incidents in which officers fired into moving vehicles, including the fatal shooting of seventeen-year-old Jessica Hernandez. But the Havens incident, an undercover-sting-gone-bad involving a metro task force of eighteen officers armed with shotguns, rifles and sidearms, is a reminder that such practices aren't new. The audio recording recently obtained by Westword demonstrates that such confrontations can turn lethal within seconds — and raises basic questions about officers' accounts of the threat posed by Havens, who was unarmed.
"It is clear that in less than fifteen seconds they rammed and shot me," says Havens. "All the people who have tried to say I had time to ram several cars, that I tried to run over one cop and that is when the officer had 'no choice' but to shoot me — they're lying. Their plan was to kill me."
As reported in detail in my 2010 feature "Wheel Man," Havens had a reputation as an elusive and prolific car thief when a team of police investigators from seven different agencies targeted him in a sting operation eight years ago. The plan devised by Arvada detective Bill Johnson was to use an informant to lure Havens and a stolen Audi to a Target parking lot, pin him in with undercover vehicles, and taser him if he resisted arrest. Instead, Johnson ended up firing his Glock nine times; two bullets lodged near Havens's spine, paralyzing him.
Johnson told shoot-team investigators that Havens began ramming the police vehicles in an effort to escape and that he fired to protect himself. Since the Audi was revving its engine and poorly pinned on one side as Johnson approached, he explained, he thought "this son of a bitch is about ready to run my ass over." Interviews with other officers supported Johnson's account, and Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey found that Johnson used "lawful and appropriate force."
Havens, though, has always maintained that the police began ramming his car before he could even attempt to escape. His right arm useless from a previous motorcyle accident, he claims he was already helpless and not in control of the Audi, which was sliding on ice but pinned between a truck and an SUV, when Johnson shot him.
Havens spent months in critical-care facilities. In 2008, facing trial for attempted murder of a police officer, he pleaded guilty to theft charges and attempted assault and received a twenty-year sentence. Two years later, though, he was granted a rare medical parole, an acknowledgment by parole officials that he couldn't receive adequate care in prison and was not considered a public safety risk. But less than 48 hours before his scheduled release, the parole was revoked after strong objections from the Arvada police — he had filed a federal civil lawsuit against Johnson for excessive force — and from District Attorney Storey. His health has continued to deteriorate in prison; he's been prey to frequent infections and reports he is now on oxygen and battling pulmonary respiratory disease.
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Havens says he was heavily medicated when he accepted the plea deal and didn't become learn about much of the discovery materials in his case until recently, in the pursuit of his civil litigation. His lawsuit against Johnson was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger last year, but a critical component of his attorneys' appeal of that decision is the contention that police officials misrepresented the sequence of events leading up to the shooting. Johnson, in particular, has given different versions of events. He told investigators hours after the incident that he was backpedaling when he fired; in a later deposition, he described being bent over the hood of the Audi, which "came at him" three times, before he shot.
Experts hired by Havens's attorneys have pointed out inconsistencies in Johnson's accounts, and the audio recording of the encounter that's now surfaced suggests there simply wasn't time for all the ramming and maneuvering Johnson has described. The recording stems from phone conversations between Havens and the informant, Adam Brewster, that continued into the takedown. In the excerpts below, Brewster can be heard arranging a meeting with Havens behind an Arvada Super Target, where Brewster was supposed to buy the stolen Audi Havens was driving. Approximately a minute into the clip, Brewster can be heard guiding Havens to the spot behind the store where officers were waiting to swoop in and pin his car; at about the 2:10 mark, the commotion starts in earnest, with the line to Havens' cell phone still open.
There are shouts of "Freeze!," followed almost immediately by what appear to be gunshots. Warning: the last twenty seconds before the recording ends are dominated by Havens's howls of agony.