Inside Randall Wright's Apparent Chokehold Death at Shotgun Willie's

A screen capture from a video showing Randall Wright being tackled by a bartender at Shotgun Willie's on May 2. The pair are in the upper right portion of this image.
A screen capture from a video showing Randall Wright being tackled by a bartender at Shotgun Willie's on May 2. The pair are in the upper right portion of this image. Courtesy of Donald Sisson
On May 2, Randall Wright, a 48-year-old married father of two who worked as an executive for Kroger, the parent company of King Soopers, died after apparently being put into a chokehold by a bartender at Shotgun Willie's show club in Glendale.

Criminal counts haven't been pressed against the bartender by the 18th Judicial District DA's office, to which the case was referred after the completion of an investigation by the Glendale Police Department. "No decision has been made at this time about what, if any, charges are appropriate," notes DA's office spokeswoman Vikki Migoya via email. "There is no deadline for that."

Donald Sisson, an attorney for the firm of Elkus & Sisson, P.C., who represents Wright's family, advocates for charges based on video he's obtained of the incident, a portion of which is on view here; excerpts were previously aired on CBS4. He calls the bartender's behavior "reckless," adding, "He basically got directly on top of Randy for about a minute and thirty seconds. And then Randy died."

Whether or not the bartender is accused of a crime, however, Sisson says Wright's family plans to file a lawsuit against him and Shotgun Wiillie's over the death.

Debbie Matthews, the owner of Shotgun Willie's and the wife of Glendale Mayor Mike Dunafon, has not responded to interview requests from Westword about Wright's death at this writing. We were able to reach an employee with Shotgun Willie's by phone, but when we tried to leave a message for Matthews in regard to the May incident, he said, "We're not supposed to talk about that" and hung up.

According to his obituary, Wright was born in Dayton, Ohio, and earned degrees from Baldwin Wallace University and the University of Cincinnati en route to becoming a certified public accountant. He subsequently landed a job as the mid-central regional director of real estate for Kroger. His tasks there included working on major land acquisitions and upgrades, as noted by the Denver Business Journal in a piece about a multimillion-dollar development in Castle Rock circa 2014.

click to enlarge The late Randall Wright with his family. - FAMILY PHOTO VIA CBS4
The late Randall Wright with his family.
Family photo via CBS4
On the night in question, Wright headed to Shotgun Willie's for what Sisson describes as "a boys' night. There was an Avs game on, and it was him and some of his buddies."

Everything seemed to be fine, Sisson goes on, until "there was a situation with this 27-year-old guy. I don't know his name, but I've heard another group of guys had a problem with him earlier in the night. So this guy's stuffing dollar bills in one of the entertainer's outfits, and he falls back a little bit and bumps a chair. Randy is at the table with three other guys, and they had some kind of verbal exchange. Randy was one of those peacemaker types, and it's my understanding that he came over and tried to be all diplomatic."

The situation broke down shortly thereafter. "On the video, it looks like one of the guys Randy was with kind of pushed the guy, who seemed to be lunging at Randy. Then Randy took a swing at him and fell over a chair."

The combat that ensued "was not a highly skilled fight by any means," Sisson contends. "Then, out of nowhere, this bartender comes from the side, and it looks like he grabs Randy and puts him into a kind of flying headlock and slams him to the ground."

The damage done by what Sisson characterizes as "a pretty violent fall" appears to have been substantial. In an autopsy performed by the Arapahoe County coroner, he acknowledges, "it's a little unclear how many of Randy's ribs were broken, but somewhere between six and sixteen were broken or displaced. And from the witnesses I've talked to, Randy was basically non-responsive at that point. There was no continued resistance or struggle. The DA's office told me one Shotgun Willie's person thought Randy said something, but the people I interviewed didn't hear him say anything and didn't see his lips move. And the bartender stayed on him for a long, long time."

Here's a video showing one angle on the restraint of Wright.

The coroner's report determined that while Wright showed some signs of heart disease, he died of "mechanical/restraint asphyxia. History of possible restraint and possible chokehold." The document adds that "both the use of a chokehold as well as mechanical compression of the chest wall during restraint can lead to asphyxial death."

Chokeholds have long been a controversial restraint technique with a lethal history. They were nixed for New York City police officers in the early 1990s, and while numerous police departments across the country followed suit, such bans weren't universal. The 2014 death of Eric Garner after he was put into a chokehold brought the issue back to the fore (the officer at the center of the case was fired yesterday), and in 2016, Colorado passed a law that strictly limits use of the technique by peace officers statewide.

This dictate doesn't apply to private security, and in March 2016, shortly before the legislation was signed, Sammy Pickel, a patron at Lodo's Bar & Grill in Westminster, died after a bouncer put him into a chokehold. Although the video of what took place was disturbing, 17th Judicial District DA Dave Young declined to press charges because he didn't think he could prove criminality beyond a reasonable doubt. But deaths like Pickel's resonated with members of Denver City Council, who in 2017 unanimously okayed requiring all private security guards, including bouncers, to undergo training as a condition of employment.

Even though this edict doesn't apply to Shotgun Willie's owing to its location in Glendale, not Denver, attorney Sisson has been told the club doesn't allow its security personnel to use chokeholds. However, the employee who took Wright down was a bartender, not a bouncer, and it's not known if he received any training about safe restraint methods. The Glendale municipal code includes a requirement for bartenders to complete an accredited seller-server training program, but the core curriculum outlined in a Department of Revenue document related to Colorado's liquor rules focuses on topics such as alcohol's effects on the human body, detecting visible signs of intoxication and sales to minors rather than how to physically control unruly customers.

In regard to security training for bartenders, "there is nothing required or restricted by our municipal code," confirms Captain Michael Gross, the Glendale Police Department's public-information officer, in an email. While Gross declines to comment on the specifics of the Wright investigation, he divulges, "We would treat this as we would any other private citizen in regards to whether or not their actions were reasonable. Any training requirements would be an individual business decision. We do not regulate how a business operates outside of normal licensing procedures."

Gross adds, "We do regulate security guards, both armed and unarmed, and have handgun qualification requirements for armed security guards. Even so, the course of qualification has to be approved by the PD, but it is up to the business to conduct the qualification and document it."

As the general counsel for the Colorado FOP (Fraternal Order of Police), Sisson says, "I'm very familiar with the dangers of chokeholds, and they're pretty problematic even when you're dealing with people who are highly trained to use them. You have to know what you're doing to use them, but they're dangerous anyway."

With that in mind, he can envision allegations of manslaughter or criminal negligence resulting in homicide arising from Wright's passing, which he says has "been devastating for his wife and kids. He was the breadwinner and very active in his boys' lives. And this didn't have to happen. I mean, how long do you need to stay on top of somebody who's not moving?"
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts