Look Before You Leap ... to Conclusions

Memo to Denver: With all the national media in town for, and already bored by, the Oklahoma City bombing trial, this is no time to misbehave.

For example, no matter how peeved you might be after some seventeen-year-old punk in a stolen car broadsides your buddy--your cop buddy on only his second day of duty with the Denver Police Department--you must treat that young punk very, very gently.

Otherwise, the story will be all over the country faster than you can say "Rodney King."

And then, after a one-, two- or three-day wonder (depending on what Geraldo does), the country will move on to another story, and the truth will never be untangled.

Here's the start of the string:
On March 26, the day the Heaven's Gate suicides would dominate the news, Gil Webb II allegedly rammed a stolen Mustang into a police car at 19th and Federal. That cruiser contained a veteran officer and rookie Ron DeHerrera, who suffered major injuries. Channel 2 cameraman Ed Cain captured much of the accident's aftermath, and some of his footage ran that night on Channel 2's nine o'clock news.

Most of the juicy parts did not, however. Even so, the next day an unedited copy of the tape appeared at the office of Manager of Safety Butch Montoya, a former news director at Channel 9. According to KWGN officials, the tape was dropped off so that Montoya could look at some allegedly inappropriate police conduct--whether toward Webb, as Channel 2 now says, or toward the station's photographer, who was pushed back from the scene by cops, is not quite clear. (I'm betting on the latter: News operations usually aren't that eager to surrender their work product, much less any potential scoops. See, for example, CNN's refusal to give the Boulder Police Department an unedited version of its January 1, 1997, interview with John and Patsy Ramsey.)

Whatever Channel 2's reason was for sending Montoya the tape, he says he didn't realize what was on the cassette and so didn't look at it for at least a week.

In the meantime, all attention was on DeHerrera's valiant fight for life--a fight he lost six days after the accident.

But even as hundreds of officers gathered for DeHerrera's funeral, the story was taking a new turn. Providing the impetus for the twist was Channel 2 reporter-anchor Tamara Banks who, for some as-yet unknown reason (she's not talking), gave a copy of Channel 2's unedited videotape of the accident's aftermath to the Reverend Gill Ford, a friend of Gil Webb's father and a member of Denver's civilian police review commission. To Ford, it looked like police and paramedics had treated Webb unnecessarily roughly--one officer appeared to even kick him in the head, and Webb was thrown not once but twice onto the gurney. Ford contacted Denver police chief Dave Michaud, who returned the call as he headed to DeHerrera's funeral.

On Saturday, April 5, Michaud went to Ford's home for a private viewing.
The private went very public three days later, when Channel 2 showed previously unaired portions of the tape on its Tuesday, April 8, nine o'clock newscast and raised questions about Webb's treatment--a full two weeks after the crash.

From there, it was off to the races. The Rocky Mountain News grabbed the story in time to run with it in its Wednesday edition. That morning, the comparisons to Rodney King first surfaced on talk radio. Webb's attorney, Anne Sulton, suggested her client's neck had been broken not in the accident, but by the rough handling. His neck had been twisted "like you'd twist a chicken bone," she said. That afternoon, the city held an hour-long press conference, complete with an appearance by Webb's emergency-room doctor (who apparently violated patient-confidentiality rules when she asserted that Webb's neck injury was consistent with a high-impact car crash) and a police technician who recounted how Webb had struggled with paramedics and had to be subdued before he hurt himself worse.

Mayor Wellington Webb (no relation to Gil Webb) urged that the city not "rush to judgment without adequate information."

Or, at the very least, a viewing of the full tape.
But rush it did. If seeing is believing, not seeing makes for true believers.

It wasn't until Thursday night that Channel 2 finally aired the complete tape, moving it into the public domain--if not the public consciousness. By then, opinions had not only formed, they'd overflowed into the national media. Even as Ford was looking at Channel 9's enhanced version of the tape and changing his opinion of at least the alleged kick to Webb's head (if there was a kick at all, he concluded, it was to his lower body), the Rodney King comparisons were going out over CNN. Ford hurried to the studio where Sulton was about to tell all to Geraldo--but the media machine was already working overtime.

Since the Webb story took that turn a week ago, new angles have come to light. For example, there's the question of why, if Channel 2 had reason to question Webb's treatment, it took so long to air the videotape. There's the larger question, illuminated by the just-breaking saga of "Pierregate," of whether the Denver cops are capable of policing themselves. And there's Webb himself, looking considerably less vulnerable when he appeared in court Monday on charges of vehicular homicide; in addition to a neck brace, he was now burdened with reports of a substantial record of alleged car thefts. Sulton is no longer giving interviews, at least locally; Ford is taking a break from his phone. And Banks may be disciplined by her employer for giving away a copy of the station's videotape.

At least four investigations are under way. The cops are conducting an internal review of their behavior at the scene; the Denver Health Authority is conducting an internal review of paramedics' behavior at the scene; Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter--with visions of the ongoing controversy over last year's Jeff Truax shooting dancing in his head--has wisely called for an external review by a special prosecutor; and even the very external FBI has gotten into the act, with an investigation into whether Webb's civil rights were violated. (Presumably, there's no question that DeHerrera's were.)

Somewhere, in all of that, the truth may emerge. But the anatomy of this muddle won't be as black-and-white as the Rodney King case.

Memo to Denver: This is no time to misbehave.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun