| Crime |

How a Sexual Predator Escaped Justice — Again

Asia O'Connor was attacked by a coworker who had two prior convictions for sexual assaults on female juveniles.EXPAND
Asia O'Connor was attacked by a coworker who had two prior convictions for sexual assaults on female juveniles.
Anthony Camera
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“Oh, you want me to stop?”

The man whispered it in her ear while he was groping her. Hissed it. It wasn’t really a question. More like an observation, a taunt.

She kept telling him to stop. This was “inappropriate,” she said. The word was too polite for what he was doing, but it was all she could think of at the moment.

“Oh, you want me to stop.”

It was a hectic Friday night at C.B. & Potts in Westminster. Asia O’Connor was sixteen years old and had worked as a hostess at the popular chain eatery for exactly one week. She’d decided to take a quick smoke break and had asked this server, Tim, if she could bum a cigarette. She didn’t know Tim, didn’t even know his last name — Sanchez? Chavez? — but he’d taken the request as an invitation to accompany her outside, to the place in the alley where staffers got their nicotine fixes.

O’Connor had barely lit up when Tim was all over her. He grabbed her butt, backed her against the wall, tried to kiss her. She squirmed, ducked the kiss, refused to look at him. But there was nowhere to go — the wall behind her, in front of her this psycho-creep who was ten years older and twice her weight.

His hands wandered over her, like she belonged to him. He pawed her chest, then slipped a hand under her sweater, under her bra, and started grabbing her breasts. Then the hand moved down, beneath her skirt and underwear. She needed to get away, but it was as if she’d lost control of her body and couldn’t make it do anything. She was frozen in fear —“like a deer in the headlights,” she would later say. She tried to focus on the cigarette she was still holding, the one normal thing in this inappropriate situation.

Then her attacker clamped a hand on her arm and began to drag her toward an enclosure that held the restaurant’s dumpsters, a squalid little place where they could be truly alone, and she knew that no matter how many times she told him to, he wasn’t going to stop.

What happened outside C.B. & Potts that night — January 16, 2015 — left O’Connor deeply traumatized. And what happened after she managed to break away and report the assault only exacerbated the violation she’d experienced, to such an extent that she still lives in fear almost five years later.

It’s an understatement to say that the people in her workplace and the justice system she went to for help let O’Connor down. Her story is about basic failures in institutions and support systems that most of us take for granted. It’s about a restaurant company that hired a dangerous, twice-convicted sex offender, Timothy Aaron Chavez, without even a perfunctory background check, and let him roam among adolescent girls, his preferred victim pool. It’s about co-workers who not only failed to summon police after the attack, allowing Chavez to pursue O’Connor as she tried to get home that night, but who then embarked on a campaign of harassment and shaming, accusing her of encouraging, inventing or exaggerating the assault.

Eighteen months after his attack on O’Connor, Chavez was convicted of four felonies, including kidnapping and sexual assault, and three misdemeanors. O’Connor has nothing but praise for the Westminster police, the Adams County District Attorney’s Office, and the jury in the case; because of their efforts, Chavez was looking at spending the next few decades in prison. But a judge granted Chavez bond prior to sentencing, despite his history of parole and probation violations and bond revocations. He didn’t show for his sentencing hearing and has been at large ever since.

“It was good to have him convicted,” O’Connor says. “But it’s disappointing to know he’s still out there and could do this to someone else.”

Colorado has more than a thousand convicted sex offenders who have failed to register with local authorities and whose current whereabouts are unknown. It’s the job of state and local task forces to try to track down the most violent fugitives, predators like Chavez, and take them off the streets. It’s a daunting challenge, with new names surfacing on the target list just as quickly as others are apprehended. And some, like Chavez, stay missing for a long time.

O’Connor doesn’t want what Chavez did to define her. She’s tired of living in the shadows of what happened on a single night years ago. She’s agreed to talk about the assault and its aftermath in the hope that it will help put her attacker behind bars and help other survivors. And because she has questions of her own about how a serial sex offender eluded justice so easily.

“Being in public is still really scary for me,” she says. “I used to have panic attacks just being in crowds, thinking I’m seeing him. I avoided going out for a long time. I carry pepper spray. I carry a nightstick. I constantly live in fear that I’m going to have to defend myself. It’s overwhelming to feel like I can’t be safe anywhere.”

In response to a lawsuit brought by O'Connor, attorneys for C.B. & Potts argued that the company had no legal duty to check the criminal background of prospective employees. A judge agreed.EXPAND
In response to a lawsuit brought by O'Connor, attorneys for C.B. & Potts argued that the company had no legal duty to check the criminal background of prospective employees. A judge agreed.
Anthony Camera

The parent company of C.B. & Potts is the RAM Restaurant Group, a family-owned business that began almost fifty years ago with a single “deluxe tavern” in Lakewood, Washington. RAM now operates more than thirty restaurants in seven states, including six C.B. & Potts locations in Colorado, RAM brewhouses in the Northwest and Midwest, and C.I. Shenanigans in Tacoma.

In its online hiring pitch, the company boasts of its employee stock-ownership plan and its commitment to “providing our friends an environment of Gracious Hospitality. From the moment you are greeted at our front door, you will feel like a special guest dining in our home.”

Timothy Chavez joined the RAM team at the Westminster C.B. & Potts in July 2014. On his job application he stated that he had no misdemeanor convictions but had been charged with one felony, a DUI, in 2009. That youthful mistake was the reason he was wearing an ankle monitor, he explained, and had a curfew as part of his parole conditions that prevented him from working late-night shifts.

Some staffers heard a different story about the ankle monitor from Chavez. He boasted that he’d “shot up a neighborhood,” and that was why the Man had to keep such a close eye on him. He could afford to joke about his outlaw past because nobody, it seems, was remotely curious about what he might have actually done to deserve such intensive supervision.

It’s not surprising that a prospective employer wouldn’t automatically know that Chavez’s story was phony — that Colorado had no felony DUI law in 2009 and that drunk drivers typically get saddled with breathalyzers, not ankle monitors. But a simple Google search of his name would have turned up, within seconds, his mug shot and the fact that he was a convicted sex offender. A quick visit to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s online Sex Offender Registry would have revealed that he was a multiple offender with a history of failing to register. Spending seven bucks on a court records search or a CBI background check would have yielded more details about his prior offenses, which included two sexual assaults on female juveniles.

In 2006, not long after his eighteenth birthday, Chavez was charged with third-degree assault, false imprisonment and unlawful sexual contact after trying to force himself on a seventeen-year-old girl at his high school. According to the victim, he took her into a music practice room, ostensibly to “talk,” and then pushed her against the wall and began groping her. Chavez bit her on the neck, called her a slut, said that he knew she liked it rough, and ignored her demands to be released. The encounter became a desperate physical struggle that ended only after her loud protests prompted Chavez to let her go, out of fear of being discovered.

Chavez pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor in that case and received two years’ probation. His probation was revoked in a matter of weeks, though, after he failed to appear for court-ordered appointments and refused to submit to DNA testing.

In 2009, Chavez sexually assaulted a thirteen-year-old girl who was spending the night at a friend’s house after a middle-school dance. Chavez, who was visiting the other girl’s mother and boyfriend, was a complete stranger to her. He pulled the girl out of her bed in the middle of the night, put her on a couch and proceeded to remove her clothes while she begged him to stop. She later testified that he “tried sticking his private into mine,” eventually penetrated her, and threatened her with “paybacks” if she screamed.

Facing a possible 24-year sentence for child rape, Chavez pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses, second-degree assault and attempted sexual assault of a child. He got eight years but only served about half that time; records indicate that he was back on the street in 2013 before returning to prison for a parole violation, then was released again shortly before he went to work at C.B. & Potts.

At the time Chavez was hired, his employers evidently had no clue what rough beast was slouching into their workplace. In the course of a civil suit brought by Asia O’Connor, the restaurant’s lawyers insisted that management still had no information about Chavez’s criminal history six months later, when O’Connor joined the team.

“I find it hard to believe that no one at that restaurant went online to find out what he did,” says Iva O’Connor, Asia’s mother, who works as a 911 dispatcher in Adams County. “No one? In six months?”

According to documents filed in the civil suit, C.B. & Potts management sought a Work Opportunity Tax Credit for hiring Chavez; such federal credits provide an incentive for employers to hire individuals from certain groups that have difficulties finding jobs, including ex-felons. Yet it was the RAM company’s position that it had no obligation to investigate Chavez’s criminal background or even to ask his parole officer about him.

A standard condition for parole of sex offenders is that they not work around people who represent their likely victims — for example, convicted child molesters aren’t allowed to work in daycare centers. Yet it’s not clear if Chavez’s parole officer ever visited the restaurant or had any conversation with managers there about whether it was a good idea to have someone like Chavez working with adolescent girls.

Asia O'Connor and her mother, Iva, have raised questions about how her attacker eluded justice so easily.EXPAND
Asia O'Connor and her mother, Iva, have raised questions about how her attacker eluded justice so easily.
Anthony Camera

Aside from a stint at Chipotle, the hostess position at C.B. & Potts was O’Connor’s first real restaurant job. It came at a time when she was struggling, academically and emotionally, and looking for some stability in her life.

Her parents had separated a few years earlier. Her father had moved to Arizona with her younger brothers, and seeing less of them had been a tough adjustment for her. She had a creative bent — she liked to write poetry, paint and draw, and put together illustrated stories for children. She was good with hair and fashion, changing her appearance at will, and thought she might want to become a nurse and then study graphic design.

But at Mountain Range High School, she felt like “just another sheep in the herd,” she says. After attending a much smaller middle school, she had trouble finding her way on its sprawling, impersonal campus of 2,000 students; her grades cratered, and the teachers seemed too overloaded to give her the help she needed to catch up. So she stepped away from school, not sure when she’d go back, and took the hostess job.

The job was part-time. O’Connor was friends with another hostess, Trinity, who helped get her the job, but she was still learning the names of other employees after her first few shifts. Chavez was flirtatious with some of the female staff, but O’Connor didn’t see what that had to do with her. She’d barely exchanged hellos with the guy before a busy Friday night arrived, the place crowded with customers waiting for tables, and she just had to have a cigarette. She found a pack in the hostess stand that belonged to Chavez and asked him if it would be okay to bum one. When he headed outside with her, she didn’t think anything about it.

“I didn’t think that I would be unsafe or that I would need to be on my guard,” she says now. “It was all really a shock for me.”

The assault escalated quickly. O’Connor felt petrified, turned into stone, like some enchanted heroine in a dream. As he pulled her toward the trash enclosure, she stumbled awkwardly, her high heels slipping on the gravel. He shoved her inside the enclosure and closed the doors. He got behind her, pushed her roughly up against the wall, pulled down her skirt and underwear.

“Oh, you want me to stop.”

He was penetrating her with his fingers. Then she saw his server belt drop to the ground, and she wasn’t sure if he was still using his fingers or his penis. She knew she had to do something. She pulled away from him, yanked up her skirt, reached out to the metal doors and began shaking them as hard as she could. They clanked loudly.

Now it was Chavez telling her to stop, she was making too much noise, someone might find them. She kept on shaking the doors until Chavez unlatched them. She rushed inside.

Her friend Trinity was at the hostess stand. She would later testify that O’Connor was clearly distressed: “She wouldn’t talk to anybody, and she was crying.” Trinity sent her to go see the manager, Chris Barth. A few moments later, Chavez came up to Trinity and asked her O’Connor’s age.

“Sixteen,” Trinity said.

“Oh, fuck,” Chavez said, and walked away.

In the manager’s office, a tearful O’Connor told Barth that Chavez had touched her inappropriately. She didn’t go into details. “I broke down,” she says now. “He was sort of empathetic. But he was basically like, ‘Sit down here, wipe your face, try to regain your composure so no one sees you like this.’ Then he told me, ‘I’m really busy. I need to leave.’”

Barth left. A few minutes passed. When someone knocked at the door, O’Connor thought it was Barth, coming back to check on her. But it was Chavez. He burst into the room, blocking her exit, and got on his knees.

“I will do anything,” he said. “Just don’t tell on me.”

Aghast, O’Connor pushed past him and headed to the front of the restaurant. She told Barth she needed to leave immediately. She says the manager offered her a ride, but she was unwilling to wait any longer, and her house was only a ten-minute walk away. She rushed out.

Chavez followed her. Video surveillance footage introduced at trial shows him chasing her across a parking lot. Once she heard him shouting her name, she decided to head inside a Tokyo Joe’s for safety. She locked herself in a bathroom there and called her boyfriend on her phone, over the din of someone — Chavez, she believed — banging on the door.

O’Connor eventually made it home on her own that night. She gave fragmented, highly emotional accounts of the assault to her mother and her boyfriend. She wasn’t sure herself exactly what Chavez had done, whether she needed a rape kit or an STD test.

“It was a very confusing situation,” Iva O’Connor recalls. “Knowing what I know now, I would have called the police sooner.”

The restaurant manager reported the incident to the Westminster Police Department the next morning. Chavez, who’d been allowed to finish his shift the night before, didn’t show up at work that day. He was soon arrested.

O’Connor was interviewed at length by a Westminster detective. After a few days, she decided to go back to work at the restaurant, hoping to “normalize” things somehow. She lasted only a couple of shifts.

“I just kept getting sick there,” she says. “I felt very bothered and uncomfortable. I did not feel safe. The entire time, not only did the other employees treat me poorly, but the management tried to avoid me.”

Chavez had worked at C.B. & Potts much longer than O’Connor. Some of the others enjoyed his flirting and blamed O’Connor for getting him in trouble. One of his admirers sent her harassing text messages. One night she came home to the apartment where she lived with her mother and found someone had scrawled foul names on the hallway walls; “whore” was written across the apartment door. O’Connor scrubbed it off. The woman who sent the text messages lived in the same apartment complex; a detective called her and told her she’d be charged if there was any more harassment.

“It was a terrible wake-up call to how harsh the world can be and how horrible people can be,” O’Connor says now. “I felt like I had my innocence stolen away. There was so much I didn’t know how to express. I didn’t know how to work through these feelings. I didn’t want to deal with them.”

Two weeks after the assault, she swallowed an overdose of an anti-convulsant drug she’d been prescribed for a nerve disorder. But she was ambivalent about taking her own life. “I kept thinking, ‘Who are you letting win if you go through with this?’” she recalls. “He would have been getting the best of me.”

She told her mother what she’d done and was soon on her way to the hospital in an ambulance. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and began therapy sessions.

O’Connor didn’t go back to C.B. & Potts. She didn’t go to work anywhere, not for months; she was terrified that she might be attacked on the job again. Four months after she left, a Potts manager completed her official separation form. Under “Reason for Separation,” he checked the box for “Health.”

Asked for a more detailed explanation, he wrote: “Took time off work and never returned.”

For some sex-assault survivors, the prosecution of the offender can be nearly as traumatic as the crime itself. The ordeal must be revisited again and again, in excruciating detail, in police interviews and sworn testimony. If the case goes to trial, the survivor will almost certainly have to face the perp in a courtroom — and field questions from defense lawyers that are designed to shift blame, minimize the damage or cast doubt on whether a crime had actually occurred.

Little wonder, then, that many sex-assault cases never go to trial at all — especially if the accuser is a juvenile. Prosecutors offer plea deals because they’re reluctant to put a young victim on the stand, or there’s a lack of physical evidence, or a host of other reasons. Such considerations may well have played a part in the lenient deals Chavez was offered in his 2006 assault case and again in 2009.

After being charged with assaulting O’Connor, Chavez toyed with the idea of yet another plea deal. He sought several delays from the court, switched lawyers over the usual “irreconcilable differences,” dropped in and out of negotiations with the Adams County District Attorney’s Office. But he wasn’t able to get a deal to his liking. The case went to trial in 2016, and O’Connor was the state’s unflappable star witness.

Being in the same room with Chavez and testifying against him was highly stressful, she says. But when it was over, she no longer felt weak and diminished, a person of no consequence, the way she’d been feeling ever since the assault.

“By not taking a plea deal, he basically re-victimized me,” O’Connor says. “I felt like I shouldn’t have to be put in that situation again. But it made me realize that I am a mentally strong person. It made me feel empowered that I could get up there and say exactly what happened in front of a room full of people.”

The jury also heard from the victims of Chavez’s prior assaults, both now in their twenties. The panel was out only a few hours before it returned with a verdict. Chavez was found guilty on all counts: felony sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, kidnapping, false imprisonment and harassment.

But there was a hitch. Chavez had been allowed out of jail pending trial by posting a $20,000 bond. His lawyer now asked that his release be extended another two months, until his sentencing date. The prosecution opposed the bond; Chavez had a history of failures to appear for court hearings as well as probation and parole violations, and the serious nature of his crime met all the criteria for denying bond. But Adams County District Judge Francis Wasserman decided to grant the defense’s request, while increasing the amount of the bond to $100,000.

O’Connor came back to court the day Chavez was supposed to be sentenced. Chavez did not.

“I was sitting outside the courtroom,” O’Connor recalls, “and I remember his defense attorney, frantically on the phone, running back and forth, saying, ‘He’s not answering. He’s not there.’ It was crushing for me. I had already been scared that he wouldn’t appear because they gave him this bond.”

Wasserman issued a bench warrant for Chavez’s arrest and ordered that the bond be forfeited. (Wasserman retired from the bench a few months later.) But the forfeiture notice wasn’t mailed to the bonding company within two weeks as required; because of that bureaucratic snafu, the company was able to successfully petition for the bond to be “exonerated.” In other words, there were no consequences to Chavez’s guarantors for his decision to flee his punishment; the bond company didn’t have to fork over the cash and had no reason to send out bounty hunters looking for him.

Adams County District Attorney Dave Young acknowledges that the bond decisions in the Chavez case were deeply frustrating. “You want to be sure people show up for court, but the other part of bond is keeping the public safe,” he says. “Sometimes that gets lost in all this criminal justice reform talk. We don’t know what this guy is doing now or where he’s at.”

An offender like Chavez should have been denied bond on public-safety grounds alone, Young says. “When you pick up your third sex-assault conviction, you’re most likely going to prison for that,” he notes. “So why are we letting someone out on bond if everyone knows it’s going to be a prison sentence?”

Timothy Aaron Chavez is currently ranked number 33 in the Colorado Top 100 Most Wanted Sex Offenders, a list compiled by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Since its debut a few years ago, the list has become one of the most visited pages on the CBI website, which gets about a million hits a year.

The rankings are far from arbitrary. Gretchen Gebhardt, an investigative analyst in CBI’s sex-crimes unit, goes through arrest warrants issued for sex offenders who’ve failed to register and scores each one, based on age, the degree of violence and number of offenses involved, the age of the victim or victims, how long the fugitive has been on the run, and several other quantifiable factors.

The list is updated regularly. Colorado has approximately 20,000 names in its sex-offender registry database, and at any given time, around 1,100 of those have failed to register. The number of fugitives has remained fairly constant in recent years despite the state’s population growth. “It hasn’t really dropped or increased dramatically, although the total number of sex offenders in the state has increased,” Gebhardt notes.

The Top 100 list is one way the CBI tries to focus public attention on the most dangerous fugitives. Certain offenders are also designated as “sexually violent predators,” or SVP, through an assessment done by a court or the state parole board. Chavez meets the criteria for SVP but has never been formally designated as such.

CBI’s sex-crimes unit, which includes two agents and a supervisor, partners with federal marshals and local law enforcement to try to whittle down the list. According to Gebhardt, they arrest at least one fugitive sex offender a week. But more warrants keep coming, and sometimes they’re for the same people who were arrested a few weeks or months ago.

“We arrested a Top 100 sex offender not too long ago,” Gebhardt recalls, “and two weeks later, he’s right back on our list. He made bond and didn’t register, so he’s back on our list.”

Chavez has friends and family in the Westminster area, but he could be living far from home by now. A nationwide extradition warrant has been issued. There were a flurry of media alerts three years ago, shortly after he skipped out, but little activity in his case since — none, at least, detectable by Iva O’Connor, who calls local authorities regularly, hoping for an update.

Gebhardt says it’s crucial for police to get the word out to the community in their fugitive-hunting efforts. “A lot of times, these people have been on the run for a long time and are actively trying to hide,” she says. “The best information — addresses, phone numbers, associates — is going to come from tips from people who actually know the offender.”

A year after Chavez was convicted of assaulting her, Asia O’Connor sued C.B. & Potts for “negligent hiring” and other claims. The lawsuit was withdrawn last year after a series of rulings by U.S. Magistrate Judge Nina Wang that shredded many of the plaintiff’s claims. Wang decided that while Chavez’s criminal history “may have been readily available” to restaurant management, there was no proof that they knew he was a sex offender when they hired him. And while the company may have been “lacking in sensitivity” in dealing with O’Connor’s situation, its behavior didn’t meet the legal standards for outrageous conduct. (The RAM Restaurant Group didn’t respond to a request for comment on the lawsuits and its hiring practices.)

O’Connor doesn’t regret the quixotic effort — even though being deposed by the company’s attorneys was even more grueling than testifying in the criminal trial. “They tried to make me feel like I was so in the wrong for doing this,” she says. “You would think an employer would want to keep their employees safe.”

Chavez is still out there, but O’Connor tries to think about that less than she did in the past. “When something like that happens, the only thing your brain wants to do is repress it,” she says. “It will never be a completely comfortable thing to talk about. The feelings I had when it was happening come back, and I am still really angry about it. But it was hurting me to be that angry, more than it was helping. You can’t spend your life dwelling on it.”

In 2017, she graduated from an alternative high school; it was one of the proudest moments of her life. Now she works two jobs and has plans for college. “As weird as it sounds, having something really bad happen to you makes you want to do better things in life,” she says. “It made me think I could take a step forward. Right after that happened, I decided I was going to go back to high school.

“No matter what happens, you have to fight for your own sense of justice — and not rely on anyone else to bring that justice to you.”

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