A former police chief's analysis of a 2007 police shooting during an auto-theft sting -- one that left an unarmed nineteen-year-old suspect paralyzed for life -- contends that Arvada police detective Bill Johnson's use of deadly force in the incident was "unwarranted, unnecessary and extreme." The report, prepared in support of Darrell Havens's federal lawsuit against Johnson, also characterizes the sting operation as poorly planned and executed and claims that the detective has significantly changed his account of the incident over the course of depositions in the case.
As detailed in my 2010 feature "Wheel Man," the Havens shooting has become both a legal quagmire for law enforcement and a medical conundrum for the state prison system; now serving twenty years on convictions for theft and assault, Havens is a paraplegic in need of constant care.
Havens had a reputation as an elusive and prolific car thief when a team of eighteen police investigators from seven different agencies targeted him in a sting operation almost six 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 .45 nine times, striking Havens with three bullets in the chest, neck and jaw.
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.
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Expert witnesses retained by Havens's attorneys have pored over witness statements and other evidence and confirmed key points of Havens's version. Last year high-profile investigator Ellis Armistead filed an affidavit in the case, contending that physical evidence at the scene contradicted Johnson's account of his actions. The latest salvo comes in a detailed report of the incident prepared by forensic consultant Tommy Burns, a former police chief of Henderson, Nevada.
Continue for more about the new Darrell Havens report, including another photo. Burns maintains that several aspects of the sting operation that Johnson coordinated fall short of accepted law enforcement procedures. He suggests that the informant, now deceased, may well have embellished his description of Havens as some kind of car-theft "kingpin" in order to cut a deal to avoid charges himself, and that the officers had other information about Havens's useless right arm and other factors that should have mandated a less dangerous takedown procedure. Like Armistead, Burns also finds the physical evidence at odds with officers' statements about the way the confrontation went down.
According to Burns, Johnson has claimed in depositions that the Audi struck him and "bent me over the hood of the car" before he fired on Havens. In his interview with the shoot team shortly after the incident, Johnson said the vehicle never touched him and that he "backpedaled" from it before firing.
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"The photos and video from the scene are completely contradictory of the statements Johnson made to investigators on the night he shot Darrell Havens, and contradictory to his deposition testimony," Burns wrote. "Detective Johnson's actions were extreme, reckless, and met no standards for use of deadly force. The actions of the many officers that rammed Havens's vehicle were inappropriate and also extreme."
The report may provide critical leverage in the wheelchair-bound inmate's struggle with authorities over his future care. Family members say he's been prone to numerous infections and suffered from substandard medical attention since he's been incarcerated -- particularly since the closure of the Fort Lyons Correctional Facility, which was supposed to provide a higher level of care for special-needs inmates. Department of Corrections officials estimate that his care is costing taxpayers in excess of $200,000 a year. They supported a bid to grant him an early medical parole, which was approved in 2010 but abruptly canceled after Arvada police chief Don Wick protested the move.
Havens's attorneys maintain that the Colorado Parole Board violated its own procedures in yanking the parole. The Arvada city attorney has since offered to rescind objections to the parole if Havens will drop his lawsuit, but Havens declined the deal, since it didn't include any guarantee that he would receive parole. He is again applying for medical parole and has his own counter-offer, which he described in a recent letter to Westword: "I will drop my lawsuit for my parole."
More from our Follow That Story archive circa October 2011: "Darrell Havens: Expert challenges police version of shooting that left 19-year-old paralyzed."