On February 22, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman and the Aurora City Council opened their weekly meeting the way most start: standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, approving the minutes from the previous week’s meeting, then sharing any announcements. Unable to find the proclamation honoring Black History Month, Coffman asked the clerk if she would enter it into the record.
A disembodied voice began reading words paying tribute to “those individuals that stood against prejudice and injustice — that would inspire movements, legislation, and advancements set to ensure the rights we share today."
Watching virtually, Lillian House, Joel Northam and Eliza Lucero, leaders of the Denver chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, along with other PSL members, waited for the public comment period; more than sixty people — including House, Northam and Lucero — had signed up to discuss the just-released, council-commissioned independent investigation into the death of Elijah McClain after his encounter with Aurora police officers on August 24, 2019. The 157-page report was scathing, highly critical of Aurora Police Department and Fire Rescue actions, policies and procedures.
While he was not suspected of any crimes, the 23-year-old Black massage therapist had been stopped, detained and arrested in a matter of minutes after a call had been made to 911 of a "suspicious" sighting of a masked man dancing. McClain was subjected to two carotid chokeholds and other pain-compliance techniques while he pleaded for his life, then injected with a dose of ketamine intended for a man twice his size.
As a result of the eighteen-minute encounter, McClain suffered multiple cardiac arrests from which he did not recover.
Justice for Elijah
The Aurora Police Department's Major Crime Unit had conducted an internal investigation into the incident and found that the officers' actions were lawful, falling within the parameters of department policies. In November 2019, Dave Young, then the district attorney for the 17th Judicial District, which covers the site of the encounter, determined that no charges would be filed against the officers involved, and no disciplinary actions were pursued — except for a reprimand that one officer received for verbally threatening the supine McClain with an attack by his police dog.
Although the case was officially put to rest, a small but vocal group, including PSL leaders as well as Terrance Roberts of the Frontline Party for Revolutionary Action, continued to demand justice for Elijah McClain.
In June 2020, energized by the national racial-justice movement, House, Northam and Lucero partnered with other local activists to organize demonstrations that led thousands to the steps of Aurora city government, packing council meetings, shutting down highways, marching through the streets, and at one point allegedly blocking the doors of an Aurora police precinct, always demanding a full, independent investigation into McClain's death and the termination of officers Nathan Woodyard, Jason Rosenblatt and Randy Roedema, as well as the paramedics involved.
On July 20, the Aurora City Council finally commissioned that investigation.
Six weeks later, Northam, House and Lucero were arrested, along with three others, in a coordinated, heavily armored inter-department roundup of protest leaders. They were charged with felonies in two counties — Adams and Arapahoe — related to demonstrations in late June and July.
The charges against Northam, Lucero and House carry the potential for decades of prison time; they include engaging in a riot without a weapon and inciting a riot while giving commands, as well as the attempted kidnapping of eighteen officers inside an Aurora Police precinct. While their cases have been working through the court system, the independent commission concluded its report.
A Scathing Report
The three members of the panel presented that report to Aurora City Council members right before the February 22 meeting. The panel found no legal basis for the actions of officers and paramedics, and offered a comprehensively damning critique of the Major Crime Unit’s investigation. The report from Aurora’s Major Crime Unit “stretched the record in an apparent attempt to exonerate the officers," their report determined.
Roberto Villaseñor, one of the three panel members, is an ex-police chief with 35 years of experience in law enforcement; he was an appointee to Barack Obama's 21st-century police task force. He told councilmembers that Aurora's internal investigation ignored guidance from the Department of Justice to “consider extraordinary measures to ensure that the investigation is as thorough and as independent of conflicts of interests as possible.” Instead, Detective Matthew Ingui of the APD's Major Crime Unit was appointed lead investigator.
Villaseñor referred to an excerpt from one of the interviews conducted during that investigation to prove his point, showing how Ingui appeared to lead Woodyard into using “magic language” that has been "shown by case law to justify the use of force actions” in other situations:
Detective Ingui: Emotionally, how did you feel?
Officer Woodyard: Uh, it ran my emotions up…
Det. Ingui: Were you scared?
Officer Woodyard: A little bit, yeah.
Det. Ingui: Okay. So, was there fear within you?
Woodyard: Yes, there was.
Det. Ingui: Okay. Um, both for your own safety and—
Officer Woodyard: for my safety and the officers on scene and for the suspect's safety.
In its summary of the encounter with McClain, the Major Crime Unit report said that officers were there “to check on his well-being,” and that they attempted to explain to McClain why they wanted to talk to him and “determine if he needed medical assistance.” But Villaseñor reported that “nothing that we could find in the record supports these assertions.”
The public-comment session on February 22 ran over two and a half hours, as speaker after speaker demanded action from the mayor and the council. “You have this tool now in your hand to move forward. This tool you asked for. What are you going to do with it?” House asked during her turn.
In January, a National Committee for Justice in Denver was created by a collection of lawyers, activists and other community members to support those arrested in connection with the protests calling for justice for Elijah McClain; the committee now has members in 35 cities in 22 states, and has collected signatures from nearly 29,000 people, as well as the support of the National Union of Healthcare Workers and some 150 other labor associations. The committee wants charges filed against the officers and medics involved, and the charges dropped against the protest leaders; it's released a documentary, In Defense of Denver, outlining the case.
"You don’t have to be a radical to think this is outrageous," says Lucero. "You don’t have to be a socialist to think this is outrageous. These are normal people who are signing on, saying that if this case is allowed to stand, if the officers are allowed to walk free, then our constitutional rights are really at risk."
“This report only confirms what the entire community already knew,” Northam says, adding that the real revelation was the extent to which “initial investigators intentionally crafted questions and reports that were designed to exonerate Woodyard, Rodema and Rosenblatt.”
“The corruption that you are seeing in this report, the unity around protecting these officers and getting them off the hook and the participation by the prosecutors in that effort — our case is an extension of that,” House says. "There is no basis for the charges against us. All we have done is fight to make sure that Elijah’s case wasn’t buried.”
The scathing report released by the independent panel shows the importance of their efforts. “The fact that it was commissioned when it was commissioned in response to these protests is evidence that these are cherished rights that must be protected," House continues. "Our right to protest, our right to push for justice in our community, that is what got these reports commissioned.”
Last fall, Governor Jared Polis asked Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to investigate the incident; the AG convened a grand jury in January. There are also federal probes under way. Because of these ongoing investigations, the independent report released February 22 focused on policies and procedures rather than the actions of particular personnel.
“We can talk about adjusting the rules. But these officers broke the rules. If there is no punishment for breaking the rules now, then what does it mean to change the rules if they aren’t held to it even when it ends in someone’s murder?” asks House.
Northam says he recognizes the challenges faced by Aurora officials. “They’re in a strategic bind because they know they messed up. If they acknowledge they messed up, give in to the demands of the people, what else are they going to demand?” he asks. “But as long as they continue on the path they are on, they are only creating the conditions for more people to be in the streets.”
The recording of the February 22 meeting has received over 13,000 views on Denver PSL’s Facebook page. House, Northam and Lucero are speaking regularly to growing audiences around the country during webinars hosted by the National Committee for Justice in Denver as they continue to maintain their innocence and advocate for fundamental shifts in policing.
But on March 1, House had another engagement: She was in Arapahoe County District Court for an arraignment on several charges related to the protests. Her attorney, Amelia Power, requested the arraignment be continued in order to review additional discovery and to give the defense team a chance to meet with the 18th Judicial District's new district attorney, John Kellner, who replaced George Brauchler in January and requested the meeting.
The arraignment was reset for April 5.
Meanwhile, House, Lucero and Northam will all be in Adams County Court on March 9 on the other charges, including attempted kidnapping; they intend to plead not guilty.
This story has been updated to include information on House's March 1 court appearance.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.