Last month, we told you about one of the more bizarre law-enforcement shootings in recent memory: the death of Ian Santamaria, whose suicide during a traffic stop caused deputies to open fire on him.
New details of the incident are divulged in a decision letter from Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, who has deemed the shooting justified. They include the revelation that Santamaria apparently said "I'm sorry, I need to do this" during a phone call shortly before pulling the trigger. Photos, a video, the decision letter and more below.
Sometime after 11 p.m. on Sunday evening, November 9, according to the decision letter, Arapahoe County Deputy Sheriff Robert Dahlberg took part in what's described as "a routine traffic stop" near Interstate 25 and Arapahoe. He then drove north to assist one of his compatriots, Sheriff Sergeant Steve O'Brian, with an unrelated stop.
That's when a 1992 gray Pontiac Bonneville blitzed past the assembled vehicles at a speed estimated at 65 miles per hour. Dahlberg considered the action of the driver, later identified as Santamaria, as violating the "move over law," which reads in part: "The driver of an approaching or passing vehicle shall proceed with due care and caution and yield the right-of-way by moving into a lane at least one moving lane apart from the stationary authorized emergency vehicle or stationary towing carrier vehicle."
At that point, the report continues, Dahlberg jumped into his cruiser and followed the Pontiac, which eventually came to a halt near the Tamarac exit. As Dahlberg remembers it, he had to hit his air horn and cycle his siren a "couple of times" before Santamaria finally stopped.
After Dahlberg approached the Pontiac, Santamaria is quoted as admitting that his driving privileges had been "suspended," which was not quite right but in the ballpark; they'd been revoked and Santamaria was listed as a habitual traffic offender, Dahlberg discovered after running his info. Santamaria was also "subject to a protection order."
Upon making these discoveries, Dahlberg requested assistance, and Deputy James Mason responded, arriving at about 11:32 p.m. When the law enforcers returned to the Pontiac, they discovered that Santamaria was on the phone. Dahlberg described what happened next to investigators:
When I got back to the driver's side window, the door -- or the window was open, maybe five inches rolled down. The driver was on the phone, and, yeah, he was on the phone. At that point, I told him, you know, "Get off the phone. I'm going to have you step out of the car. You're, you're under arrest." He told me to hang on and continued talking on the phone. He had something -- I didn't know who he was talking to. I heard -- he, he had the phone on speaker in the left hand. I heard like a female voice on the other, you know, on the other line, end of the line. I heard him say something about, you know, "I'm sorry. I'm going to have to do this." Something to that effect. At that point, I was telling him, "Get off the phone! You're under arrest! You're going to come out of this car. Get off the phone. You're under arrest. You're going to come out of this car!"
Continue for more about the Ian Santamaria shooting investigation, including a video and the complete decision letter. While issuing these commands, the report says Dahlberg saw Santamaria "reach down toward the floor near his right leg," prompting the deputy to draw his gun and order him to "show his hands" -- which he did. Dahlberg responded by returning his sidearm to his holster even as Santamaria remained on his call. Another excerpt from the report:
Continuing to talk on the phone. He's saying, telling, talking to whoever he's talking to, saying, you know, "I'm sorry. I need to do this," or, "I'm sorry. I'm going to do this. I hate -- I mean, I hate that I have to do this, but I..." You know, just, I don't exactly, you know, I don't' want to quote, say direct quotes, but stuff along the lines of he's regretting something that he's about to do.
First priority at this point was getting Santamaria out of his car, and while the deputies had his keys, which he's said to have surrendered reluctantly, the key fob failed to unlock the doors. Shortly thereafter, Santamaria reached down near his leg again -- and an instant later, Dahlberg heard a gunshot.
Santamaria had shot himself in the head.
As the blast sounded, the report says Deputy Mason fell backward with blood on his face. Turns out his injuries were as a result of flying glass from the bullet striking a window -- but Dahlberg didn't know that at the time. He opened fire on Santamaria, striking him three times in the back. However, the Denver coroner's office determined that the self-inflicted gunshot was the cause of Santamaria's death. Since it would have been fatal, the decision letter states, "the other wounds were not listed as contributing factors."
In his analysis of the shooting, Morrissey determined that Santamaria's gunshot "would have led any reasonable officer to believe he and his partner were under fire." As such, "Deputy Dahlberg's quick actions to save the life of his partner and, perhaps his own, were objectively reasonable, appropriate, courageous and justified."
That leaves the question of why Santamaria took his own life. In an attempt to discover the answer, investigators traced his final phone call to a person named Vadim Guralnik -- a man, not a woman, as Dahlberg had thought. Guralnik said Santamaria "sounded depressed and told him he was scared of going to jail and did not want to go to jail."
After which he went to the ultimate extreme to prevent that from happening.
Here's a larger look at a previous Santamaria mug shot, followed by a 7News report broadcast shortly after the incident and the complete decision letter.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
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