After Joshua Cummings was arrested for the January 31, 2017, execution-style slaying of RTD security officer Scott Von Lanken, his statements about being a soldier for the Islamic state suggested that the killing might have been an act of terrorism. But at trial, the simple, shocking facts of the case, not ISIS, took center stage, and at the conclusion of a brisk three-day trial, Cummings was found guilty of first-degree murder.
As we've reported, Denver police officers were dispatched to the area of 16th and Wynkoop streets at around 11 p.m. on January 31st of last year following a report of a shooting. Upon their arrival, they found Von Lanken, a minister who had been working as a security officer to make ends meet, with a gunshot wound to the head. He was transported to Denver Health Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Further investigation revealed that two women had been speaking to Von Lanken, asking for information about light-rail routes. During the conversation, a Denver police spokesperson said during a press conference the day after the shooting, the women saw a man approach the victim from behind, point a gun to his neck and "heard him say something to the effect of, 'Do as I tell you to,' and then the shot went off." At that point, the victim fell and the suspect fled on foot.
DPD officers soon got information about the direction in which the suspect ran, thanks in part to a video from a nearby business. Armed with these details, they began their search, and within twenty minutes located a man who matched the suspect's description — Cummings — on the 1600 block of 14th Street. He was taken into custody without incident, and a gun was found that police believe may have been involved in the shooting.
By the way, one of the women was quoted in the Cummings probable-cause statement as saying he had a "swollen face and different/weird-looking eyes" — an accurate description, as seen in the booking photo at the top of this post.
Following Cummings's arrest, information aplenty surfaced about his background. The former head of a Texas jiu-jitsuka academy who had recently moved to Colorado, he'd expressed antipathy for police in multiple online posts even as reports surfaced about him allegedly having "Muslim documents" on his person when he was taken into custody and speaking in what sources described as "an Arabic language."
In addition, Cummings granted an interview with CBS4 in which he spoke in detail about the influence of his faith. "I give my bay’ah to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and I am committed to being a soldier for the Islamic state," he said.
Wikipedia defines a bay'ah as an "oath of allegiance to a leader" and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as "the leader of the Sunni militant terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which controls territory in western Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan." The organization is popularly known as ISIS.
The reference to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Cummings's self-proclaimed soldier status for the Islamic state suggested a terrorist act. But in a somewhat contradictory statement, he insisted that he was not acting at the behest of ISIS when he killed Von Lanken.
“The reason why it was not for ISIS is because in 1996 I took a pledge to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and obey officers appointed over me and the president, commander in chief of the United States, the military," maintained Cummings, who was previously a member of the U.S. Army. He noted that "I ratified that in ’97."
Cummings added: "On the night in question, what I did do, I didn’t do that for the Islamic State. I did that purely and solely for the pleasure of Allah."
At trial, Cummings's defense reportedly downplayed his religious beliefs in favor of arguing against premeditation — the position of Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who prosecuted the case with the assistance of her chief deputy, Bonnie Benedetti. And indeed, investigators are said to have found no evidence of ISIS involvement in the crime.
The jury in the case deliberated for just three hours before coming to a guilty verdict. There wasn't much suspense about the punishment Cummings would receive at a sentencing hearing on the afternoon of January 25.
"As expected," notes Denver DA's office spokesman Ken Lane, "the defendant was given the mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole."
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.