Teen Anger

The Greeley sniper's shot was on target last September 24, hitting teenager Joe Gallegos just below his Adam's apple. Blood gushed from his back where the bullet left his body. The day had been bloody enough: Gallegos had killed three people 400 miles away, including one who had tried to lead him to Jesus. Three hostages huddled inside a University of Northern Colorado dorm room while a SWAT team tried to kick in, and then shoot, the door. They were worried that Gallegos still had some fight left in him.

Joe Gallegos always had some fight in him. A hometown district attorney months before had called Gallegos "predatory." His girlfriend, who decided she'd had enough of his intense possessiveness, had ended their summer romance a couple of weeks before. "He was so angry so much of the time," Heidi Hocker says now.

But the juvenile-justice system had ignored clear indications of trouble before that bloody day, had billed him a "model citizen" and had released him from custody.

Some of the people still in the system say this tragedy could never have been predicted, that everybody was doing his job, that in the end society can blame only Joe Gallegos for the tragedy. The pastor who was paid to take care of him blamed rap music. His ex-girlfriend blamed drugs. The director of the Division of Youth Corrections says that a recent internal audit finds no blame and that he has nothing to hide, but he adds that he can't release the audit on the advice of the attorney general. A few justice-system insiders, however, say that those working close to Gallegos ignored warning signs and failed to communicate important facts about him. They say much of the bureaucratic talk now about the case is just a whitewash. "There was some spin put on this after it happened," says a source who worked on the Gallegos case but asked not to be named because of the small-town nature of the system.

It's too bad there wasn't more talk about Gallegos while he was still locked up. Cortez police chief Roy Lane says that if anybody had asked him whether Gallegos should be released from a juvenile lockup, he would have opposed it. But nobody asked him, even though he knew Gallegos longer than anybody else in the criminal-justice system. Lane first met ten-year-old Joseph in a police-sponsored softball league. Lane was his coach. "He was a good kid back in those days," Lane says. It was a short period.

By the time Joseph Gallegos was thirteen, Roy Lane started hearing reports that the boy had been caught drinking in a school parking lot. Lane says reports about Gallegos increased in frequency and intensity. The first crimes were against property; he was caught in or suspected of various acts of vandalism and shoplifting. Police records show that before long, his victims switched from property to people. The principal of Montezuma-Cortez High School expelled the sophomore because he had set a friend's jeans on fire. That gave Gallegos more time to drink, and some who knew him think that's when he started learning about drugs. He boasted that he could make crystal methamphetamine, or "crank." While friends he made later on claimed Gallegos learned to make crank while he was an inmate in a juvenile lockup, Lane says there's a good chance he learned it right in Cortez. "Most of the boys that go up there know about it to begin with," Lane says. "Their skills might get refined a bit." Others who knew him say they heard that Gallegos's eyes lit up when he talked about people he had beaten up. (Gallegos's family could not be reached for comment.)

Gallegos grew to an athletic six-foot-one as his crimes escalated in violence. In one instance, according to court records, he stole a truck from a friend and crashed it. Another time he stole a backhoe from a construction site and crashed that, too. Another time he went to the home of a local teenager after midnight and knocked on his window. When the boy's face appeared in the window, a friend of Gallegos's threw a brick through the glass. Gallegos then climbed in through the broken window and tackled the boy, pinning him to the ground. Crouching over the boy, Gallegos slashed his face with a broken beer bottle. That victim left the state, and charges were never filed.

Gallegos got probation for some of the other violations. At least three times when he was on probation, he was given a sentence of "concurrent probation," which essentially meant that he faced no penalty for the new crimes. "They obviously gave him a few opportunities," says Frank Minkner, western regional director for the state Division of Youth Corrections.

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Scott C. Yates