Darrell Havens: State yanks parole for paralyzed thief after cops complain

A 22-year-old convicted car thief, left a quadraplegic by police gunfire and now costing the state prison system $200,000 a year for his care, was recently granted an unusual "special medical needs" parole -- only to see it revoked after law enforcement officials learned of the arrangement and complained that he hadn't been punished enough.

Darrell Havens can wiggle a few fingers on one hand, speak and hold a pen. But he needs aid getting in and out of his electric wheelchair, showering, and even strapping on the adaptive spoon that allows him to eat. Someone has to turn his body three times a night and dispense the medications that help control his spasms and fight infections. Serving a twenty-year sentence, he's clearly not in a position to commit violent felonies these days. But the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office and Arvada police say he tried to run over a cop and shouldn't get an early release, regardless of what it costs to keep him in prison.

"Is he a risk to public safety? I don't think so," says Dave Michaud, the chairman of the Colorado Parole Board. "But this is an unusual case."

"I am not a violent person in any way or was I ever," Havens recently wrote to Westword from the Fort Lyon Correctional Facility. "But certain people of authority have to make others look bad just to make the bad actions which they committed look right."

At nineteen, Havens already had a string of theft and burglary cases pending -- enough to attract the attention of an Arvada-based task force, which used an informant to lure Havens into an undercover sting operation. When Havens showed up at a strip mall parking lot with a hot vehicle one day in early 2007, police sealed off the exits. Havens tried to flee. Police rammed his truck and opened fire nine times.

Detectives claim Havens tried to assault one of their officers with his vehicle. Havens insists he wasn't trying to hit anybody; one bullet had struck him in the chest and damaged his spinal cord, leaving him unable to move or put the vehicle in park. Facing a possible attempted homicide charge, he ended up pleading guilty to assault and motor vehicle theft and got twenty years.

Family members say the Colorado Department of Corrections is ill-equipped to meet his medical needs. Since he's been at Fort Lyon, his bed has caught fire, he's suffered heatstroke in the shower and missed meals because of breakdowns of his special wheelchair. "I'm not sure if they're not qualified to take care of him or they just don't want to," says Chrystal Havens, Darrell's sister. "But he's not getting any rehabilitation or therapy, and he can't even feed himself."

Last fall, alarmed by the mounting costs of treatment, DOC officials -- not Havens -- petitioned the parole board for an early release. The full board approved a plan in November that would have paroled Havens to a friend's house, where he would receive nursing care and constant supervision. His father, Gerald, lined up a special bed and doctors and other requirements.

"He did do wrong against society, but this boy can't commit another crime," Gerald Havens says. "If they want to place him on parole for the next twenty years, I don't have a problem with that. But he's not got getting any help in prison."

In February, only two days before his scheduled release, Havens learned his parole had been canceled "due to additional information." Nobody would tell him what the information was, but Michaud acknowledges that the parole board received "some significant criticism" from the Jeffco DA and the Arvada PD for planning to let Havens out so early in his sentence.

"There was also some suggestion that after he was shot, he was still involved in criminal behavior," Michaud adds.

The ongoing criminal behavior? A "little bit of marijuana" was found in Havens' wheelchair when he was at a nursing home prior to taking his guilty plea, Michaud explains. That added provocation, coupled with the objections from law enforcement, prompted the parole board to reverse its earlier decision.

As it stands now, Havens isn't eligible for parole until 2018. "I know they want him to do his time," his father says. "I understand that. But what they did was raise our hopes and then shoot 'em down again."

Michaud, a former Denver police chief, retires from the parole board at the end of the month. He suggests that the DOC might be able to come back to the board in six months or a year and try again. By that point, he suspects, law enforcement officials "might well soften their view" about Darrell Havens -- or maybe the parole board will have recovered from its own lack of a functioning spine.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast