New Details, Victims Emerge in Deadly Colorado Rock-Throwing Cases | Westword

New Details Emerge in Deadly Rock-Throwing Case, Including Claims of Police "Deception"

Attorneys for Zachary Kwak, Nicholas "Mitch" Karol-Chik and Joseph Koenig have filed court motions revealing new information related to their murder cases.
Nicholas "Mitch" Karol-Chik, Zachary Kwak and Joseph Koenig allegedly hurled landscaping rocks at motorists during a deadly crime spree last April.
Nicholas "Mitch" Karol-Chik, Zachary Kwak and Joseph Koenig allegedly hurled landscaping rocks at motorists during a deadly crime spree last April. Jefferson County Sheriff's Office
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The young men accused of going on a rock-throwing spree in Jefferson County last year that left a twenty-year-old motorist dead are scheduled to go on trial in June, but details are already emerging about what allegedly went down and how the three plan to fight their respective charges.

Zachary Kwak, Nicholas "Mitch" Karol-Chik and Joseph Koenig, all nineteen, appeared in court on Monday, April 1, for their arraignments — and possibly one of their last scheduled court hearings together. The three had each successfully requested to have separate trials earlier this year, arguing that it would be too chaotic and confusing for jurors (and a risk to the accused) if they were tried as co-defendants. This is because the separate defense teams all plan to attack the credibility of the other defendants in court.

Kwak, Karol-Chik and Koenig entered pleas of not guilty on April 1. They sat just feet from each other, but never looked at each other, much less talked to one another.

Last year, the lead detective on the rock-throwing case, Dan Manka, testified during the trio's bond hearing, detailing how the teenagers had been riding around in Karol-Chik's truck on April 19, 2023, throwing landscaping rocks at people's cars.

One of their victims, Alexa Bartell, was killed by the teens after they tossed a four-to-six-inch rock through her windshield, he said. Kwak, Koenig and Karol-Chik, who were eighteen at the time, were said to be traveling at a speed of 80 miles per hour when they threw the rock, according to Manka.

All three face charges of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, second-degree assault and attempted second-degree assault. Karol-Chik and Koenig have also been charged with attempted first-degree murder and attempted second-degree assault for a separate incident in which they allegedly threw a statue head at a moving car on April 1, 2023, in Arvada.

Koenig is charged with four additional counts of attempted murder and second-degree assault in connection with two rock-throwing incidents that happened on February 25, 2023. Those charges, filed in March, surfaced for the first time in court on April 1 and are unrelated to the April 19 spree.

"Each of the co-defendants will attempt to defend against the charges by pointing the finger at the other co-defendants," Karol-Chik's lawyer, Holly Hummerson, said in her client's motion for severance. "This is especially present for Mr. Koenig and Mr. Kwak, who are accused of throwing the rock that killed the victim. These antagonistic defenses will require each co-defendant to put on evidence that the other people were involved, and require each co-defendant to attack the credibility of each other's defense presented."

Kwak has maintained that it was Koenig, who refused to speak with police after the rock-throwing spree, who threw the stone that killed Bartell. Karol-Chik told police that Kwak threw it; he said Koenig was driving and that all three men hurled rocks at cars.

“I want to make it very clear that I did not kill that girl," Kwak allegedly told investigators during his interrogation. "I did not throw that rock. I don’t know what they told you. I don’t know what you think happened. I did not throw that rock."
click to enlarge The smashed windshield of Alexa Bartell's car in Jefferson County, Colorado.
Alexa Bartell's smashed windshield after she was allegedly targeted by Kwak, Karol-Chik and Koenig on April 19, 2023.
Jefferson County Sheriff's Office

Latest Court Developments

Motions filed by the defendants were addressed in court Monday, including one regarding the use of co-conspirator statements at trial. Specifically, all three are seeking a process by which prosecutors must identify co-conspirator statements before they are presented in court.

Koenig's defense attorney confessed that there's no authority requiring the prosecution to provide statements in advance of trial, but said that there are several reasons why doing so would benefit all parties in terms of judicial efficiency, particularly if the defendants are in a situation in which the prosecution is seeking to introduce a statement as a co-conspirator hearsay statement.

"Particularly, if we're in a situation in which the prosecution is seeking to introduce a statement as a co-conspirator hearsay statement, the court has to make certain findings," Martin Stuart, Koenig's lawyer, pointed out. "One of them is the reliability of the statement. Another is that there is an actual conspiracy related to the statement. And if the prosecution has not submitted these statements to the courts in advance, we could be having bench conference after bench conference making these determinations."

Stuart argued that "reliability" is a very important issue regarding claims from co-conspirators, given how much evidence the prosecution would likely want to introduce based on Kwak's or Karol-Chik's statements to law enforcement, which are "very contradictory," according to Stuart.

"Basically, they're lying to the police either at one point or another point, but they're making contradictory statements," Stuart said. "So the court is going to have to determine the reliability of any one of those statements prior to introduction. So it just seems more efficient for us to have a list — or at least for the prosecution to submit, in camera, the statements, and allow the court to review those ahead of the trial."

The defense teams for Kwak and Karol-Chik sided with Stuart's argument, joining him in a request for a chart or log to monitor statements elicited at trial. In their reasoning, they cited claims from prosecutors of state intentions to elicit "all Mr. Karol-Chik's statements related to the planning, commission and coverup of the rock-throwing incident of April 1 and 19th as co-conspirator statements."

In response, First Judicial District Judge Christopher Zenisek asked if prosecutors were planning to submit statements from one of the two defendants who spoke to police — Kwak and Karol-Chik — in another defendant's trial without that person testifying. Chief Deputy District Attorney Katharine Decker said they were not while she argued against the motion.

"Should a co-defendant testify in a different co-defendant's trial, we certainly would intend to elicit any and all statements that may exist of a co-conspirator," Decker said. "We have two defendants who provided interviews, and these are the statements that all parties are aware of."

The prosecution argued that there was "no legal basis" for a chart or log to be created, and that any statements brought up in court would only be made by the defendants in each of their respective cases, and not by their alleged co-conspirators — unless they testify.

Another major development on Monday saw prosecutors ask Judge Zenisek to let "prior acts evidence" be presented at trial against Karol-Chik and Koenig, so that they could show the mental states involved with all of the charges.

"It's going directly to three particular elements to deal with the mental states," Decker said of the evidence, which revolves around incriminating statements made by Karol-Chik during interviews with police about previous rock-throwing incidents that he and Koenig allegedly committed.

Prosecutors argue that the evidence proves Karol-Chik and Koenig "knowingly and intentionally" committed the crimes they're accused of.
click to enlarge Joseph Koenig in court in Jefferson County, Colorado, for the murder of Alexa Bartell.
Defendant Joseph Koenig faces additional counts of attempted murder and assault in connection to separate rock-throwing incidents unrelated to the April 19 spree.
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

"Defendant Karol-Chik admitted they had engaged in this type of rock-throwing behavior on approximately ten separate nights since February of 2023, so within the two-and-a-half months prior to April 19 of last year," Decker told the judge. "This admission of ten separate nights of rock-throwing incidents is the subject of this [motion], because it establishes the defendant's mental states and the circumstance of universal malice, manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally."

According to Decker, these prior acts prove that argument "not through an inference of bad character," but showing defendants understood their actions and the consequences.

"It would be a different case here if the facts were that the very first rock, or rocks, that these defendants threw was the one that killed Alexa Bartell," Decker said. "That would be a different factual situation. In that factual situation, it may be more believable, because they've never done something like this before, had never seen it and never contemplated the meaning of it — the consequences of it — but that's not the factual situation. The defendants had been doing this and engaging in this type of behavior numerous times on at least ten separate nights, numerous times within those nights. And that demonstrates that they understood what they were doing. And it's because of that, that goes directly to establishing their mental states and the intended circumstances. Not only that they intended to hurt people, which it would prove the mental state of the assault and attempted assault charges, but that they knew their conduct created a grave risk of death by having seen the consequences of their own behavior previously."

In response, Stuart argued that Karol-Chik's statement was too vague to go off as prior bad acts evidence.

"It's important to understand exactly what Karol-Chik's statement was and how it came out," he told Zenisek.

When questioned about how many incidents he and Koening had been involved in, Karol-Chik claimed he was "unsure," according to his interrogation transcript. Police asked if it could be upwards of ten incidents, and Karol-Chik said, "That would be a good assumption, yes." He also stated that most of the incidents involved property damage and parked cars, and that the teens also allegedly threw soda bottles at the ground and a motorcycle fender on one occasion.

"The prosecution has to prove that the bad act occurred," Stuart noted. "There's no corroboration. There is no evidence about nine other cars that had been hit. There is no specificity whatsoever about a date, a location...Allegations like this, where there are ten other incidents without any dates or times or locations, prevents Mr. Koenig of presenting evidence of an alibi or obtaining evidence of a GPS location from his cellphone. Because it is so vague, he cannot defend against it."

Stuart argued that the prosecution's motion to include Karol-Chik's statements about prior acts should ultimately backfire on them, because it proves that he and Koenig had no prior experience targeting moving vehicles and motorists specifically.

"If they're throwing rocks or glass bottles at parked cars, that does not show that they knew the consequences of their actions," Stuart said. "And in fact, in those interviews...there's plenty of statements in which Mr. Karol-Chik says 'we never did anything like this before.'"

According to Stuart, Bartell's death "is very different and not similar in nature at all."
click to enlarge Zachary Kwak in court in Jefferson County, Colorado, for the murder of Alexa Bartell.
Defendant Zachary Kwak is facing first-degree murder charges related to the death of motorist Alexa Bartell.
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

New Defense Details Emerge

At a March 27 motions hearing for Kwak, details emerged about how police were able to link him, Karol-Chik and Koenig to their alleged crimes through a person who knew them from school. That individual, Joseph Bopp, had been with them before their April 19 rock-throwing spree, according to investigators.

Bopp was allegedly going to take part, but got cold feet and decided not to. After the news of Bartell's death broke, he talked about the planned spree with one of his co-workers, who then came forward to police on April 25, Manka testified during the hearing.

After speaking with his co-worker, investigators interviewed Bopp, who admitted to knowing Kwak, Karol-Chick and Koenig. Kwak's defense team pointed out in the interrogation transcript how Bopp told cops that Koenig "frequently participates in destructive behavior, like vandalizing property and breaking things."

Bopp's co-worker also told investigators that he knew Koenig and heard things about him cutting exhaust pipes off cars and breaking in windows. Koenig allegedly told Bopp once that he "liked to cause chaos" and that's why he kept doing bad things. According to Manka, Bopp told cops that he didn't really know Kwak.

Authorities tracked down Koenig and Karol-Chik and brought them in for questioning. Karol-Chik claimed that neither one of them had ever done anything destructive like this before and that it was "all Mr. Kwak" — adding that he was the "leader" of the group, according to Manka. They each denied accusations of throwing the rock that killed Bartell in their interrogations and pointed the finger at Kwak.

However, Karol-Chik quickly changed his tune during the interrogation when Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Investigator Cormac McHugh showed a photo of him and Koenig holding up the statue head they allegedly threw in the separate incident in Arvada on April 1, 2023.

"Yes," Manka told Kwak's lawyers during the motions hearing, after they asked if it was "fair to say" that Karol-Chik's answers and information changed after he was "confronted" with the photo.

Questioned on whether he had ever thrown things at cars before, Manka agreed that Karol-Chik now admitted that he had, since the statue head photo was from April 1. Karol-Chik eventually confessed to incidents dating as far back as February 2023, and stated he only knew Kwak for about a week before they went on the April 19 rock-throwing spree.

Describing the Bartell slaying, Karol-Chik told investigators that it was Kwak's idea to turn his truck around and go back for a photo of the aftermath. "[Kwak], in an excited tone, exclaimed that they had to go back and look at it," Manka recalled Karol-Chik telling investigators.

Kwak's defense team claimed that Karol-Chik's interrogation began early on April 26, 2023, with McHugh showing him the statue head photo at around 2:41 a.m., according to the video timestamps. The interrogation lasted until 3:40 a.m., the defense said, which Manka confirmed.

Karol-Chik allegedly shared the information about Kwak and his phone possibly having a photo on it related to the Bartell incident at around 2:48 a.m., according to Manka and the defense. At that point, Kwak had already been taken into custody and his phone was taken.

Authorities made contact with Kwak at his home on West 85th Drive in Arvada and brought him in around 2 a.m., according to Manka. His phone was seized by police at around 2:06 a.m., but it wasn't until 2:34 a.m. that Karol-Chik tipped authorities off about the use and significance of Kwak's phone.
click to enlarge Defendant Nicholas “Mitch” Karol-Chik in court in Jefferson County, Colorado, for the murder of Alexa Bartell.
Defendant Nicholas “Mitch” Karol-Chik (seen above) claims it was Zachary Kwak who threw the rock that killed Alexa Bartell.
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

During his motions hearing, Kwak's lawyers, Leah Maloney and Emily Boehme, asked Judge Zenisek to suppress all statements and evidence obtained by law enforcement from Kwak on April 26, 2023, claiming they were obtained under constitutional violations.

Maloney and Boehme argued that the JCSO "unlawfully seized" Kwak at his home without probable cause, therefore his subsequent statements and phone that was handed over to police must be "suppressed as fruits of an illegal seizure." They claim that Kwak's statements while subjected to JCSO interrogation must be suppressed due to a "valid" Miranda Rights waiver not being obtained and Kwak being too tired to give a confirmation.

Allegations of "duress and deception" were also filed by the defense related to statements made by police during Kwak's arrest and interrogation. Maloney and Boehme pointed to interrogation timestamps, body-camera footage and interview transcripts provided by investigators involving Kwak and his alleged cohorts as evidence to back their motions.

Kawh's attorneys said that there was no probable cause for his arrest, nor the seizure of his phone, because Karol-Chik's interrogation was ongoing and Kwak was taken into custody before the credibility of Karol-Chik's statements regarding Kwak were "tested." Since investigators had "absolutely no information" regarding Kwak's use of a phone related to the charges, the defense argued that it was "illegally seized absent a warrant," which wasn't applied for until April 27, according to police. A warrant for Kwak's arrest had also not yet been applied for.

Prosecutors said law enforcement had probable cause to arrest Kwak because they had information that certain crimes had been committed, including Bartell's murder, and they were able to tie Kwak to them through statements from Bopp identifying him as "Zach" and someone involved in the rock-throwing incidents; at 1:32 a.m., Karol-Chik identified Kwak by full name and where he lived. Kwak allegedly identified himself and walked outside voluntarily when authorities arrived at his house and took him into custody.

The motion to suppress Kwak's statements to police stems from comments by Manka during his interrogation. Specifically, while discussing Kwak's Miranda Rights, Manka said: "Like every job, there's paperwork, there's rules," according to the interview transcript.

"We've got to go over your Miranda waiver with you," Manka said beforetelling Kwak he was "going to go ahead and transition us to the next set of questions and answers going both directions."

Manka explained during the motions hearing that he was only trying to make sure Kwak understood what was going on. "That was my explanation to him about the advisement going forward," Manka said.

The defense argued that Kwak did "not knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily" waive his Miranda Rights. To determine if a Miranda waiver was made "voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently," Boehme and Malony noted during the motions hearing that the objective circumstances surrounding the waiver must be analyzed to determine a person's level of understanding based on the totality of circumstances.

Video captured during Kwak's interrogation shows him holding his head in his hands and leaning over, appearing sleepy, according to his lawyers. Manka testified that Kwak was tired, but coherent. Footage from approximately 3:30 a.m. shows Kwak yawning and sitting in the corner with his eyes closed.

"He was leaning against the wall," Manka told the defense.

The interrogation video shows Kwak moving his head slightly left to right when asked if he both "had any questions and if he understood," according to Manka and the defense team.

"He put his head down, I believe he said, 'no,' and I interpreted that he had no questions," Manka recalled. Kwak's lawyers wound up proving though that this actually never happened, with the interrogation transcript provided by JCSO investigators not showing any verbal answers.

According to the defense, Kwak's decision to waive his Miranda Rights was "clearly" not made with full awareness of the rights being abandoned due to the language used by Manka. Kwak was also "clearly" not responding to Manka's questions about whether he both understood and had questions about the Miranda process, his lawyers argued.

Additionally, the defense said that Kwak being a teenager who had just turned eighteen at the time of his arrest means he was "not a sophisticated suspect" and someone who doesn't have any experience with the criminal justice system.

The defense is asking for Kwak's statements to be suppressed as "involuntary" and suppressed for "any purpose," according to Boehme and Maloney. In their motion to suppress, they cite testimony regarding Kwak's state of tiredness and the time of the interrogation as evidence that no assurances were made that he was in a state of mind to waive his rights or continue with questioning.

During Koenig's hearing on April 1, his defense team also motioned that evidence obtained from his cellphone should be suppressed because Koenig was unlawfully detained and authorities didn't have a warrant when taking his phone.

Judge Zenisek is expected to deliver his ruling on the defense motions by April 15 and on the prosecution's prior acts evidence motion by May 7, when all three defendants are scheduled to appear again for their preliminary hearing. 
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