Longform

Justice, Boulder Style

Page 3 of 7

And even when Thomas was able to make arrests, all too often the DA's office cut deals for the perpetrators. When he protested a plea, Thomas remembers, prosecutors would ask him why he wanted to "ruin somebody's life."

The job did have some high points. Thomas found himself guarding famed author Salman Rushdie when he came to Boulder for a conference. The Iranian clergy had issued a call for Rushdie's death because of his novel The Satanic Verses, and the writer was living underground. Local police hid Rushdie in a house in the mountains and brought his family in to visit him. "Here he is talking to me, just a blue-collar cop, at one o'clock in the morning," says Thomas. "He was a very genuine, decent man. He said, 'I am a writer of a work of fiction, and because of this, I live in constant fear of assassination.'"

Thomas was involved in two shootings in Boulder. The first took place in 1992, when he got a call that a man was walking down Folsom Street carrying weapons and shouting, "I'm gonna kill all the niggers." Thomas caught up with the man at Folsom and Arapahoe; there were already some officers present, and the street was crowded. "This guy is holding two big butcher knives," says Thomas. "Long hair. He just has these wild eyes. And screaming, 'Get President Bush out here, because somebody's going to die today.'

"It starts moving south on Folsom, and for some reason he fixates on me. There's several officers now, maybe five, but you can't control an armed suspect with butcher knives, and what we were trying to do was just keep a semi-circle round him as he moves down the sidewalk. He keeps feinting and starting toward me with these knives, and at one point he closes the gap too quickly and gets closer than I'm comfortable with him coming -- there's this rule in police work that if a suspect with an edged weapon comes closer than 21 feet, he can close that distance faster than you can get off two rounds -- and I shoot him. The first round enters and exits through the hip/groin area, and not only did he not flinch, but I thought my gun didn't go off. But then I realized I had shot him, and you know what this guy did? He looks at me and says, 'No. No. Not here...'" Thomas points toward his own hip, then his forehead. "'Put one right there.'

"You know in the movies, they show the police shooting somebody and they flip over backward? Here's this guy -- it didn't even look like a bee had stung him, and he'd just taken a through-and-through round with a .45 caliber. So he continues to move south, and there's a sergeant there who's calling for a dog, and there's officers shouting at this guy..."

Thomas stops, shakes his head. "Only in Boulder," he says. "They must have thought it was a movie being filmed. I think anywhere else, once the shooting started, people would have taken cover. But people are coming out of the 7-Eleven with Slurpees, people are walking by married-student housing shouting, 'You fucking pigs. Leave the guy alone.'

"He starts to charge at me again. I fire another through-and-through round. He doubles over, looks right at me and says, 'That one hurt.' I ran up, knocked him to the ground, and this bleeding, slippery, psychotic suspect is still fighting."

Eventually, the man was handcuffed and taken away in an ambulance.

After this incident, a police committee nominated Thomas for a medal of valor. But the nomination was blocked by then-police chief Tom Koby, who said he refused to recognize a police officer for using deadly force against a citizen.

Thomas's second shooting occurred in 1993, when an armed man barricaded himself inside a trailer, having already shot at his wife and daughter. He came outside several times, pointing his gun to his own head and chest. When he pointed the gun at Thomas, Thomas shot him. Immediately afterward, rather than talking to the cops about what had happened, Chief Koby went to the hospital to visit the suspect.

John Ramsey: This man has harmed us deeply. He's failed in his responsibilities as a police officer. He's failed us. He's failed JonBenét. He's failed the community of Boulder.

-- Larry King Live

Thomas worked the Hill for three years before going into undercover narcotics. He was still long-haired and bearded when he was called in on December 28, 1996, to help solve the murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the six-year-old whose body had been discovered in the basement of her family home two days earlier. By the time Thomas entered the case, the crime scene had been almost irretrievably contaminated. Dozens of people had walked through the Ramsey house. Key evidence -- the pad of paper on which a long, rambling ransom note was written, a suitcase in the basement -- had been handled and moved. John Ramsey, who'd found the body, had ripped off the tape covering her mouth and carried her upstairs; in the living room, both parents had hugged the body, which was then covered with a blanket. If the circumstances hadn't been so grave, the extent of the law-enforcement bungling might have seemed comic.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman