Attorney Matt Buck speaks bluntly about the death of Paul Castaway, a homeless Native American who had bouts with mental illness.
"On July 12, 2015, Denver police officer Michael Traudt killed Paul Castaway," Buck says. "He had the ability to use less-than-lethal force, but instead, he made a different choice. He effectively murdered Paul Castaway in broad daylight when Paul had a knife pointed at his own neck and was at such a distance that he posed no threat whatsoever to the officer or anyone other than himself."
Neither Traudt nor Jerry Lara, another Denver officer named in the suit (along with Chief Robert White and the City and County of Denver), were sanctioned by the police department or Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey's office after the gun-down — non-actions that stoke Buck's passion as well.
"The DPD did an internal investigation, and they determined, as they always do, that this murder was justified," he allows. "Then Mitch Morrissey determined, as he always does, that this murder was warranted. He will end his term having been feckless and allowing the DPD in this case to ruthlessly murder a citizen as opposed to protecting and serving, as they are supposed to do."
Seconding these thoughts is Lynn Eagle Feather, Castaway's mother, who reached out to police in the first place. "I called for help, not a killing," she says.
Despite the stark differences between Morrissey's conclusions and those of Buck, who is teaming with attorney Matthew Odom to represent Eagle Feather, there's basic agreement about the general facts of the case.
On the 12th, as we've reported, Eagle Feather was babysitting her grandchildren at her home in a trailer park at 4545 Morrison Road.
That's when Castaway, whom she believed to be drunk, busted into the residence — she'd previously kicked him out — and poked her in the neck with a knife. Here's a look at the puncture wound, in a photo provided by the DA's office....
After Castaway allegedly broke several household items and split, Eagle Feather headed to the nearby Denver Indian Center and dialed 911.
"He's mentally ill and drunk," Eagle Feather told the operator. She added, "Please hurry!" and "I'm so scared!" — and also suggested that her son had been doing meth and was suicidal.
At 6:22 p.m., Traudt, who had been on the force for just over a year, and another officer, Jerry Lara, arrived at the scene, and amid their investigation, they spotted Castaway.
Here is Traudt's account of what happened next, from the decision letter released by the DA's office:
He started walking. There's a chain link fence between where our vehicle was and where he was. So I pulled my patrol vehicle up, my fully marked patrol vehicle, and then got out of the car in full uniform. I announced myself as a Denver police officer. I said, "Denver police. Stop!" And he looked at me, he made eye contact with me and my partner, and then he kept walking up the chain-link fence. As I started to close distance between me and him, he took off running southbound along the chain-link fence. I then gave chase, I aired it to dispatch that we were running southbound through the trailer park in the 4500 block of Morrison Road.
Before long, Castaway put the knife to his own throat and told Traudt, "Kill me, you fucking pussy," the officer recalled. Traudt said he responded by repeatedly saying, "Drop the knife!"
Instead, Castaway ran, and Traudt gave chase as neighborhood kids scattered — actions caught on the video released by the DA's office.
What followed was a face-off between Paul, who was still holding the knife to his throat, and Traudt, pointing his service weapon at him. Officer Lara said he was in the midst of transitioning to a Taser when Castaway began advancing toward Traudt — at which point Traudt pulled the trigger three times, striking Castaway twice. Castaway died from gunshot wounds to the torso.
Here's an image from shortly after Traudt fired....
...as well as a photo of the officers securing him.
One key matter related to Traudt's decision to fire is what's known in law enforcement circles as the "21-foot rule," which states that deadly force is justified against a knife-wielding individual who's within that distance from an officer or someone else — the theory being that the suspect could cover seven yards of ground before an officer could draw a weapon and defend himself.
None other than Denver police chief White is among those who argues against automatically shooting someone with a knife who's 21 feet or less away. In a February 2016 interview, White told WBUR radio, "What many officers have been taught across the country is to react right away, and what we’re saying is that we want you to reassess the situation, slow down, move yourself from harm’s way, and then make a decision.”
Although Traudt didn't do that, Buck admits that Castaway was closer to him than 21 feet; his estimate is twelve feet. But there are other key factors, Buck stresses. For one, "it wasn't a combat knife. It was a kitchen knife that was no threat to Officer Traudt. It might not have even been a threat to Paul."
In addition, Buck goes on, "This wasn't a situation where either of these officers was in danger. Paul was pointing the knife at himself, not them. But when Paul took a step toward them, Traudt unloaded on him."
Because his requests to see DPD internal-affairs files have been rebuffed to date, Buck has been unable to definitely determine if Traudt has a history of excessive force. "We're anticipating that the DPD, through the city attorney's office, is going to file a motion to dismiss," he acknowledges. "But if we survive that and get into discovery, we should be able to see what kinds of skeletons are in Officer Traudt's closet."
Buck does know, however, that Traudt had training in dealing with mentally ill suspects. As such, the lawsuit argues that he violated its recommendations and that the DPD's supervision of the training was inadequate.
He sees the Castaway shooting as an example of "DPD policy. This isn't a one-time thing. It's happened repeatedly in the history of the city. You have seen this police department, more than any other police department in the state, have citizens end up dead at the end of these kinds of encounters, and more often than not, these citizens are people of color in poor neighborhoods."
At the same time, Buck is under no illusions that the Castaway case could cause major permanent improvements at the Denver Police Department in terms of excessive-force problems, either on its own or in combination with other lawsuits, including the recently filed complaint involving the police-shooting death of Ryan Ronquillo.
"This is solely for Paul and Paul's family," Buck notes. "Denver is so well funded that they can afford to pay out on two or three wrongful-death claims per year — and I'm not sure they'd change their policies if they had to pay out on twenty. The only thing that's going to make police officers change their behavior is accountability at the end of the road, and there's no accountability now. So I think they pay lip service to caring. If they cared, you'd see unarmed officers involved in community policing, but you don't see that. The first time you're going to see a police officer in some of these poorer communities is when that officer is arresting someone."
As for Eagle Feather, she describes Castaway as "a very loving father who left behind a four-year-old son." She adds, "I do want to see police held accountable.... The police had known about my son. They'd arrested him many times at my place. So they knew him — except for the man who shot him that day. And he shot him in the liver, in front of eighteen children."
Look below to see a video from the scene of the Castaway killing (its contents may disturb some readers), followed by the lawsuit.
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.