The Denver District Attorney's Office has announced that Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour, a pair of sixteen-year-olds arrested last week in the arson deaths of five people in August 2020, will be charged as adults, but a third, fifteen-year-old suspect is set for prosecution in the juvenile system.
These decisions demonstrate how DAs try to balance public demands for justice in heinous cases involving underage individuals against the recognition that those accused of committing the crimes are technically still children. Similar dynamics came into play in the cases of at least fifteen other teens charged as adults for murders that took place in Colorado dating back to the early 1990s.
Sometimes, perpetrators of homicide are seen as simply too young to justify trial as an adult. Back in March 2011, for instance, Burlington prosecutor Robert Watson toyed with the idea of charging a twelve-year-old as an adult for the slayings of his parents, Charles and Marilyn Long, and the wounding of a younger brother and sister. At the time, it appeared that the child might become the youngest person in Colorado history to face adult murder charges.
Watson ultimately chose not to make this move. Following an August 2011 plea deal, the then-thirteen-year-old was sentenced to seven years in the juvenile corrections system rather than a possible life sentence in adult prison.
In our coverage of the Longs, we listed cases involving nine other juveniles who were convicted of adult offenses in Colorado during the 1990s, as originally compiled by the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News; the youngest was fourteen at the time the original crime was committed:
November 4, 1992 — Thomas ''T.J.'' White, 15, and Marcus Fernandez, 16, killed state Trooper Lyle Wohlers. White is sentenced to consecutive 16-year terms for accessory to murder. Fernandez is sentenced to life without parole.
October 31, 1993 — Paul English, 14, shot and killed Carl Banks Jr., 18, in Park Hill, as he was shepherding a group of trick-or-treaters. He was sentenced to 48 years in prison.
February 25, 1995 — Raymond James Gone, 16, shot and killed Denver police officer Shawn Leinen. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
September 28, 1996 — Jennifer Tombs, 16, shot and killed her baby sitter Latanya Lavallais, 23. She was sentenced to life in prison.
November 15, 1996 — Antonio Scott Farrell, 17, and Kevin Blankenship, 16, kidnapped Barbara Castor, 76, from a Brighton parking lot, tied her up and left her near abandoned dam near Strasburg. She died of exposure. They were sentenced to life sentences plus 56 years.
September 7, 1998 — Alexander Pogosyan, 17, and friend Michael Martinez, 18, killed four teenagers and a mother in a Labor Day rampage. Martinez was later slain. Pogosyan was sentenced to five consecutive life terms without parole.
Westword's coverage of teens charged as adults shows the difficulty of winning a conviction for actions that don't involve homicide. A case in point involves Merhawi Ocbamichael, who was seventeen in 2012 when the Denver District Attorney's Office announced that it had filed adult counts against him in relation to a series of aggravated robberies. In the end, however, there was a change in strategy, and Ocbamichael was processed through Colorado's Youth Offender System (YOS) program.
A different kind of compromise was seen in the cases of Sienna Johnson and Brooke Higgins, who were hit with adult charges for allegedly conceiving of a Columbine-style murder plot at Mountain Vista High School when they were sixteen. Johnson and Higgins initially fought the adult designation, but they eventually pleaded guilty to counts that straddled the juvenile and adult systems. They were sentenced to stints in Youth Corrections followed by supervised adult parole.
Here's more about six additional cases that we've covered, all involving murder or attempted murder. The youngest of those convicted as an adult was fifteen when the crime took place — and one woman spent decades behind bars despite not taking an active part in a killing.
Tara Perry was sentenced to 66 years in prison for attempted murder, robbery, assault and other crimes related to crimes spearheaded by her older, suicidal boyfriend when she was sixteen. As Alan Prendergast reported in a 2012 feature article titled "The Girl Who Fell to Earth," her sentence was later reduced to forty years — but it was "still the longest of any juvenile in the state who didn't actually kill or maim anyone." The following year, 2013, Perry was paroled for her actions in Colorado, after which she served an additional three-year sentence in Wyoming for a Cheyenne home invasion that was part of the rampage.
In March 2011, the town of Hugo, in Lincoln County, was shaken by the murders of Charles and Laura Clagett, an elderly couple who'd lived in the area for years. Soon, their great grandson — later ID'd as Greg Smith, a few weeks shy of seventeen — was arrested and charged as an adult. Among other things, Smith took photos of his victims after killing them. Smith was convicted as an adult in January 2013.
Austin Sigg was seventeen at the time of his arrest for the murder of ten-year-old Jessica Ridgeway, whose torso was found in a black trash bag; Sigg was said to have had an interest in mortuary science. He was sentenced to life in prison in November 2013.
Miguel Angel Ita was just fifteen when he was charged with a multiple stabbing in Lakewood that killed Jose Barrera-Mendoza, 22. But even though the case began in juvenile court, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office filed for it to be moved into the adult system — and it was. Ita was convicted as an adult in 2015.
Lonnie White was seventeen when he was arrested with one other juvenile and an adult, Marquise Lewis, for the murder of thirteen-year-old Reysean Abram, who was shot to death while riding his bike. He was initially processed as a juvenile, but the Denver District Attorney's Office eventually decided to charge him as an adult, and he was later convicted. The other suspect was fifteen at the time of the crime, and his case stayed in juvenile court.
Matthew Trujillo was seventeen when he was arrested in the fatal stabbing of eighteen-year-old Anthony Benavidez at a trailer park in Thornton. At first, the police department there didn't release Trujillo's identity because of his age, but that changed when he was tried and convicted as an adult.
In June 2017, Adams County District Attorney Dave Young stated that he would level adult charges against the fifteen-year-old arrested for the murder of Thornton's Kiaya Campbell, ten, but it took him a while to do so. The formal announcement didn't take place until January 2018, when the suspect was identified as Aidan Zellmer. By the time Zellmer pleaded guilty to the crime, in March 2019, he was seventeen years old. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
We don't yet know specifics about the evidence against Bui, Seymour and their alleged juvenile co-conspirator; the arrest affidavits in the case are still sealed. But the consequences of their act were undeniably tragic. The fire killed Djibril Diol, 29, Adja Diol, 23, and their daughter, Khadija, a toddler, as well as Hassan Diol, 25, and Hawa Beye, her infant daughter. Three other members of the family survived by jumping from the second floor of the house before the blaze could reach them.
One more thing: The law-enforcement sources reportedly believe the motive for the fire was a drug deal gone wrong, but the suspects are believed to have targeted the wrong house.
The Denver DA's office has revealed that both Bui and Seymour are facing sixty felony counts, including first-degree murder, attempted murder, first- and fourth-degree arson and a slew of so-called "sentencing enhancers."
The juvenile suspect is looking at 47 counts — but if convicted, the punishment will be far different.
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