Westword's Takes on Ten of 2015's Biggest Colorado Stories

The stories that helped define 2015 ranged widely.

Police shootings, like the one that killed Jessie Hernandez, seen above. Immigration rights. High rent prices. Sensational murder cases. The booming marijuana business.

Below, see excerpts from our coverage of ten major events.

They feature links, photos and new introductions (they're in italics) intended to help put the specific incidents, and the year in Colorado news as a whole, in perspective.

January 27, 2015

The Denver District Attorney's Office ultimately chose not to prosecute any police officers in the death of Jessie Hernandez, who was killed in an incident that spurred protests and raised questions about the use of police force. But in the wake of Hernandez's death, the Denver Police Department announced that it would begin using body cameras for most (though not all) officers and reversed a policy that allowed cops to shoot into moving vehicles.

Yesterday, Denver police officers shot and killed the driver of a car that had been reported stolen. Afterward, friends identified the driver as Jessie Hernandez, sixteen, and at a vigil last night, they decried what they see as another example of law enforcement taking a life unnecessarily. A second demonstration is planned for this morning, with protesters expected to demand that prosecutors charge the officers involved. 

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The incident took place around 6:30 a.m. on Monday, January 26, at 2521 Newport Street in Park Hill. Police are said to have been called about a "suspicious" vehicle — one driven by Hernandez and containing several other young people. As the cops moved in, one of the officers was reportedly struck in the leg by the car — after which the bullets flew.

For the rest of the story, click here.

February 24, 2015

The unresolved nature of the immigration issue in these United States was symbolized in Denver by the story of Arturo Armando Hernandez Garcia, who spent months in a local church to avoid deportation. In July, Garcia left the church after receiving a letter from immigration officials confirming that his case hadn't been designated as a priority.

Arturo Armando Hernandez Garcia balances on an orange workman’s ladder in the front hallway of the cavernous First Unitarian Society of Denver church. The fit 42-year-old wears work boots, jeans and a T-shirt that says “Chinos Construction” on it, a souvenir from a friend’s business. He dips a paintbrush into a cup of cream-colored paint and carefully applies it to the top edge of the wall, a task he’s eagerly taken on in the hopes of breaking the monotony of his days.

But that’s not an easy thing to do. Arturo has been living inside the church for the past four months in order to avoid being deported to Mexico. The basement room where he’s staying used to be a dusty, unfinished storage space where the 144-year-old church kept its archives; now it’s painted a cheerful sunshine yellow and is filled with a donated bed, a futon, a small wooden table and an exercise bike. The walls are decorated with drawings done by his nine-year-old daughter, Andrea, including one of the family — Arturo; his wife, Ana; and Andrea and her fifteen-year-old sister, Mariana — rendered in brightly colored stick figures.

Several members of First Unitarian, which sits at the corner of 14th Avenue and Lafayette Street in Capitol Hill, renovated the room last year during a six-month deliberation period in which the entire 270-family congregation discussed whether First Unitarian should join a small but growing group of churches across the country that provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who are wanted by federal authorities.

Sanctuary is a tradition that dates back to the Old Testament, when criminals could seek shelter in churches to escape punishment. Today, no law says that absconders are safe within the walls of a church. But the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has a policy stating that agents are to avoid arresting immigrants at “sensitive locations” such as churches and schools. Twenty-four churches in a dozen different cities are part of the movement. Eight churches, including First Unitarian, have provided sanctuary to a total of ten undocumented immigrants in the past year, says the Reverend Noel Andersen, a grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, a humanitarian organization that acts as a sort of clearinghouse for the sanctuary churches. First Unitarian is the only church offering sanctuary in Colorado, and Arturo is the only immigrant here living in it.

To read the rest of the story, click here.

March 18, 2015

The prosecution of Harold Henthorn, who was accused of pushing his wife, Dr. Toni Henthorn, off a cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park in order to collect insurance money, was the most sensational Colorado murder case in recent memory, in part because Henthorn's first wife, Lynn, also died under mysterious but supposedly accidental circumstances. Earlier this month, when Henthorn was sentenced for killing Toni (he has not been charged in Lynn's death at this writing), he repeated claims that he is innocent of any wrongdoing.

Within a day or two after Toni Henthorn fell to her death while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, the whispers started in her Highlands Ranch neighborhood. They spread through Cherry Hills Community Church, which she’d attended with her husband, Harold, and their nine-year-old daughter, Hayley, and eventually reached the home of Lora Thomas.

“Lora,” a neighbor told her. “I don’t think it was an accident. I think her husband killed her.” Thomas, then the elected coroner of Douglas County, listened with professional interest.

“That’s not all,” the neighbor said. “The husband’s first wife died. I think he killed her, too. You’ve got to do something.”

Until then, Toni’s death appeared to have been a tragic accident: On September 29, 2012, the fifty-year-old ophthalmologist, who’d been hiking the remote Deer Mountain Trail with Harold, plunged to her death from a fifty-foot cliff while taking photos. The two had been celebrating their twelfth wedding anniversary.

Thomas went to her office in the Douglas County Justice Center in Castle Rock and pulled an old coroner’s file marked “Henthorn.” It concerned the death of 37-year-old Sandra Henthorn of Englewood, who had been crushed by a Jeep Cherokee late on the night of May 6, 1995, while her husband, Harold, was changing its tire. Sandra, who went by her middle name, Lynn, had no pulse when help arrived, and showed symptoms of massive internal bleeding and oxygen deprivation. She was flown via rescue helicopter to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, but was pronounced dead while in surgery.

Two days later, Dr. Ben Galloway performed the autopsy at Andrews Mortuary in Castle Rock and determined the cause of death as “mechanical [positional] asphyxiation secondary to a vehicle slipping off the jack and falling on top of the decedent.” Lynn had been suffocated by a 3,000-pound Jeep.

For the rest of the story, click here.

April 21, 2015

The changes in Denver's marijuana scene since the passage and implementation of Amendment 64, which legalized limited recreational marijuana sales, were symbolized by this year's 4/20 events. While concerts and other entertainment-related happenings drew big crowds and earned headlines across the country, attempts to rev up political passions of the sort that were at the heart of past Civic Center Park rallies proved challenging.

By 3:30 p.m. on April 20 in recent years, Civic Center Park was a zoo. Packed to the gills with people and a heavy, healthy cloud of smoke hanging over everyone.

But at 3:30 p.m. yesterday — April 20, 2015 — the park was empty. The only person I could see smoking a joint in Civic Center was quickly stopped by three Denver cops on bicycles and ticketed for public consumption.

“I don’t understand what is going on,” the guy told the cops, who clearly didn’t believe or care about his feigned ignorance of the law.

So Civic Center wasn’t the place to be. But across Broadway thousands had crammed into Lincoln Park to celebrate the day. It was a much smaller, much less commercial affair than past years. One that harkened back to the early days of the 4/20 rally, when politics was the focus.

But only sort of.

For the rest of the story, click here.

May 6, 2015

When Dynel Lane allegedly cut the unborn child from her womb, Longmont resident Michelle Wilkins was unwillingly thrust into the national spotlight. But in contrast to the lurid nature of the crime itself, Wilkins used her platform with uncommon grace and a spirit of forgiveness despite the unimaginable nature of her loss.

It's been abundantly clear since her first public statements that Michelle Wilkins, whose baby was cut from her womb in a Longmont attack allegedly committed in March by Dynel Lane, is a remarkable person.

This conclusion was reinforced at a hearing for Lane yesterday, when it was revealed that in the midst of the assault against her, Wilkins told Lane, "I love you."

To that, Lane is said to have replied,"If you love me, you'll let me do this" — after which authorities say, she stabbed Wilkins in the neck.

These details add to others divulged in a preliminary brief recently filed in the Lane case.

For the rest of the story, click here.

October 8, 2015

High rent prices in Denver arguably spurred more conversation among Westword readers than any other topic over the course of 2015. But in the face of grim reports about people with good jobs forced to live in their cars because they couldn't afford rent, Joyce Thorn proved that it's possible to be both a nice person and a landlord.

Sitting at the long oak table in the dining room of her house in Cheesman Park, 78-year-old Joyce Thorn takes a drag from her cigarette and talks about growing up in Denver. She remembers that one of the few arguments her parents ever had was over buying a new car. Her mother wanted one, but her father had different plans for their money. “There was a charity drive,” Joyce recalls. “Pop said, ‘They need it more than we need a car,’ and sent off the charity check. I grew up with that kind of concept.”

The charitable spirit instilled in Joyce as a child is still alive and well. She owns seven rental properties around Denver, and in a city where the rent rises with the sun every morning, Joyce offers a refreshing alternative: community-oriented living at a reasonable price. “I think we’re communal animals,” she says. “There are some people who are very happy alone, and I wish them good luck, but I think it’s not necessarily a healthy life. I wouldn’t find it as much fun.”

Her flagship project is Mayfair Village, a nineteen-unit “intentional living” community in east Denver. Her other properties are a mix of multi-unit homes and small apartment complexes in the Capitol Hill area — and while they may not be communal, they certainly reflect more community spirit than do most other rentals in the area.

For the rest of the story, click here.

October 12, 2015

The record marijuana sales in August suggested that revenue would keep climbing indefinitely. However, sales slipped in both September and October, raising the question of whether summer pot tourism was the key factor behind the record-setting figures.

We've been reporting about the marijuana policies of presidential candidates, some of whom would like to turn back the clock on legal recreational sales in Colorado and a handful of other states.

But there are plenty of reasons to let Colorado's experiment go forward.

Millions of them, in fact.

In March, recreational marijuana sales topped $42 million, with total cannabis sales exceeding $81 million when the medical marijuana figures were added.

At the time, the retail numbers represented a new record.

Now they look modest in comparison with the latest digits.

New Colorado Department of Revenue data shows $59.2 million in recreational sales and $41.4 from medical marijuana sales during August — a sizable bump from those March figures of five months earlier. Add the sums and you get $100.6 million.

For the rest of the story, click here.

October 26, 2015

The debate over homelessness in Denver continues to rage, with activists and officials frequently at odds over how to deal with this problem. The Denver police demolition of a tiny houses project in October brought these disagreements into sharp relief.

On Saturday, October 24, at Sustainability Park, a City of Denver property near the intersection of 25th and Lawrence, a Tiny Houses project being built under the auspices of advocates from Denver Homeless Out Loud, was raided by the Denver Police Department.

Ten activists were arrested and the encampment was dismantled.

Last night, DHOL representatives were back on the scene, reinforcing their commitment to rebuild what has been referred to as Resurrection Village or Little Denver.

For the rest of the story, click here.

November 4, 2015

School board races are seldom marquee items in major metropolitan elections. But this year was an exception. Three members of the Jefferson County School Board were targeted for recall over efforts at reform that critics saw as ideologically driven — and in the end, voters ousted them.

For more than a year, the Jefferson County School Board — and specifically a voting bloc consisting of members Julie Williams, Ken Witt and John Newkirk — have been a lightning rod for controversy

The trio's alleged efforts to turn Jeffco's history curriculum in a more "patriotic" direction, coupled with complaints about teacher compensation and more, inspired student walkouts and a vigorous recall effort that made headlines nationwide. The Washington Post  recently dubbed the recall battle a de facto proxy war, with teachers unions backing the recall and the conservative Koch brothers, aided by Denver's own Independence Institute, supporting the opposition.

Now, it's Williams, Witt and Newkirk who are history — at least when it comes to membership on the next Jeffco board. The recall for each passed easily, with a new cadre of board members winning approval from voters.

For the rest of the story, click here.

November 30, 2015

Does Robert Dear's attack on a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs qualify as domestic terrorism? There's no consensus on that topic. But the attack, which killed three people and injured nine others, shook the state even as it demonstrated that the war over reproductive rights is far from over.

On Friday, November 27, a gunman identified as Robert Dear, 57, killed three people and injured an additional nine others during an attack at a Planned Parenthood branch in Colorado Springs.

In the days since then, we've learned the identities of the three people who died at Dear's hand: Garrett Swasey, a CU-Colorado Springs Police officer, Ke'Arre Stewart, an Iraq war veteran, and Jennifer Markovsky, a transplant from Hawaii and mother of two who was at the clinic to offer moral support to a friend who was shot in the hand amid the mayhem.

Still, most of the attention has been focused on Dear, whose history is being viewed through differing ideological lenses.

Many pro-choice supporters see his violent act as the predictable outcome of vicious rhetoric linked to anti-abortion organizations, while backers of the latter organizations are hyping up clues that suggest he was a pot smoker into kinky sex whose online voter information in Colorado lists him as a female.

For the rest of the story, click here.

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