Law Enforcement

Woman Killed by Deputy Was Armed — With a Butane Lighter

A portrait of the late Harmony Wolfgram.
A portrait of the late Harmony Wolfgram. Family photo via Denver7
For the second time in less than two weeks, metro area prosecutors have signed off on an officer-involved shooting in which the officer thought the suspect had a gun — but didn't.

In the first case, 18th Judicial District DA John Kellner's office declined to prosecute a Castle Rock police officer for the December 2020 wounding of James Woodall; the officer reportedly thought Woodall had taken a shot at him. Actually, Woodall was holding a knife and wasn't close enough to anyone to be an immediate threat; the blast came from a less-than-lethal shotgun fired by one of the officer's colleagues.

And now, the 17th Judicial District DA's office has dismissed the January killing of 41-year-old Harmony Wolfgram with a decision letter that does its best to disguise the fact that the item in her hand was not a gun, but a butane lighter.

The document is eighteen pages, but the lighter isn't mentioned until page nine, after repeated efforts by District Attorney Brian Mason to make the mistake seem understandable.

This tactic has been in play since shortly after the Wolfgram shooting. The original Facebook description shared by the Adams County Sheriff's Office said, in part: "During the contact, deputies were alerted that the suspect had a gun. The suspect was fatally shot." It wasn't until February 9 and a Denver7 report that Mason's office made a key admission: "The investigation did not reveal a gun on the scene of the shooting."

The decision letter offers the most detailed account of what went down to date — though it's clearly weighted to support Mason's conclusion that criminal prosecution of Deputy Cliff Brooks, whose bullet killed Wolfgram, was not justified. And there's no video to corroborate or contradict this version, since Adams County Sheriff's Office personnel were not required to wear body cameras when the incident went down.

At 12:18 a.m. on January 26, according to the letter, a patrol deputy with the department spotted a stolen vehicle from Greeley traveling westbound on Interstate 76, near 88th Avenue. The deputy's attempt to initiate a traffic stop failed; shortly thereafter, a high-speed chase began. Three marked patrol vehicles pursued the car on Interstate 270 and Interstate 70 for more than twenty miles before switching off their overhead lights and easing up on the gas.

But the incident didn't end there. The suspect vehicle took the Watkins exit off I-70 and headed into a residential neighborhood, then parked near a "towable RV camper" outside a private residence. Six officers surrounded the vehicle and ordered the occupants to come out. Shortly thereafter, two females emerged — a woman referred to as M.S. and Wolfgram. M.S. is said to have had her hands up and said, "She's got a gun!" and "She's going to kill me!," while Wolfgram "appeared to hold onto the first female with one hand while pressing an object against her lower back with the other hand," the letter contends.

It then adds: "Based upon the circumstances, including the announcements of a gun, each of the six patrol officers believed that the second female was holding the first female hostage with a gun at her back."

click to enlarge A photo from the scene of the shooting shows the location of the butane lighter and the shell casing. - 17TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT DA'S OFFICE
A photo from the scene of the shooting shows the location of the butane lighter and the shell casing.
17th Judicial District DA's office
At that point, the officers repeatedly commanded Wolfgram to "drop the gun or we will shoot!" But Wolfgram "ignored the comments and continued to step away, pulling the first female with her," the letter continues. "Fearing that this hostage victim had little chance of survival if the situation continued, Deputy Brooks fired a single shot aimed at the second female's head, killing her. The female was later identified as Harmony Wolfgram."

The next section of the letter concentrates on interviews with witnesses, and the summaries of those interviews all emphasize that it was reasonable for the deputies to assume the presence of a gun, since M.S. had claimed that to be the case and Wolfgram's actions implied it. But the document also confirms that deputies had a less-than-lethal option: a police dog under the control of Deputy Gilbert Abdulla. Indeed, Abdulla "believed he could release his dog to bite the second female and help facilitate her apprehension without using deadly force," the letter states — but when he "let the line out on the leash," the dog bit M.S., not Wolfgram.

As that was happening, Abdulla "heard a gunshot and saw a gun muzzle flash from the hitch area of the camper" and "saw the second female drop."

Only afterward did one of the other deputies realize that Wolfgram had been holding a butane lighter.

"Given the evidence, the prosecution cannot prove that Deputy Brooks’ actions were not justified in this incident," Mason states. "He did not immediately resort to the use of force. Rather, he, along with the other deputies, gave repeated opportunities to Ms. Wolfgram and M.S. to resolve the situation without violence. Ms. Wolfgram ignored these repeated commands and represented a situation that appeared to officers that she was armed with a gun, thus posing an immediate threat to M.S. Deputy Brooks’ observations, combined with his training and experience, led him to believe that Ms. Wolfgram was armed with a gun and that a lesser degree of force was inadequate to address the threat of death or injury to M.S. Therefore, despite the fact that the completed investigation revealed that Ms. Wolfgram was not, in fact, in possession of a gun, the prosecution cannot disprove that Deputy Brooks’ belief was not objectively reasonable."

He reaches the same determination regarding Abdulla's choice to release the dog, even though the only damage the animal did was to M.S.

Click to read the Harmony Wolfgram shooting decision letter.
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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.
Contact: Michael Roberts