Law Enforcement

Why Two Ex-Denver Cops Got Over $1 Million for Beating This Man

Michael DeHerrera's post-beating booking photo.
Michael DeHerrera's post-beating booking photo. Denver Police Department
On March 11, 2020, a Westword post asked a simple but shocking question: "Will Denver Cops Collect $1 Million-Plus for Beating Michael DeHerrera?"

We now have the answer: Yes. Ex-Denver police officers Randy Murr and Devin Sparks have been cumulatively paid $1,078,597 to finally squelch more than a decade's worth of litigation over the 2009 pummeling of Michael DeHerrera, which was captured on video. The total take includes back pay of $593,597 for Murr and $420,000 for Sparks, as well as bonuses of $50,000 and $15,000, respectively, for agreeing not to resume working for the Denver Police Department, as a 2019 court ruling said they had a right to do.

Michael DeHerrera isn't commenting on this turn of events. But his father, Anthony DeHerrera, who just marked 33 years as a deputy with the Pueblo Sheriff's Department, has plenty to say about it — although the summary of his feelings is just three words long. "It's pretty sickening," he says.

The journey to this disturbing conclusion started over a trip to the bathroom.

On April 4, 2009, as described in the "Findings of Fact" section of a February 2013 Civil Service Commission order regarding Murr and Sparks, DeHerrera and a companion, Shawn Johnson, caused a stir at 5 Degrees, a now-defunct club in LoDo, when both tried to use the women's restroom. Bouncers subsequently escorted both men outside, where they encountered Murr, who was working security at the venue in an off-duty capacity. Murr asked DeHerrera and Johnson to leave, prompting physical contact of some sort, though witnesses couldn't agree on who did the pushing, shoving and/or striking.

In any event, Johnson was subsequently taken to the ground by one Gabriel Esquibel at Murr's instruction. Meanwhile, DeHerrera phoned his father. But the conversation was interrupted when Sparks, who arrived after the original incident, got physical with DeHerrera in an extreme way. The reason, the document suggests, is that Murr told Sparks that DeHerrera had punched him earlier and needed to go to jail.

Afterward, Sparks insisted that he'd gone after DeHerrera in response to aggressive movement and resistance on the latter's part — actions not on view in video captured on a nearby HALO camera. Likewise, Murr told investigators that he'd seen DeHerrera try to hit Sparks, contradicting the visual evidence.

Here's the clip, courtesy of Complete Colorado:
The attack was major news in Denver for months — and it blew up even bigger in August 2010, when then-Manager of Safety Ron Perea determined that Sparks and Murr should be suspended for three days without pay but not fired for their actions.

This conclusion was so reviled by a significant and vocal percentage of the public that Perea subsequently resigned. In March 2011, new Manager of Safety Charley Garcia fired Murr and Sparks, but they appealed the decision, and a hearing panel sided with them. The rationale: Because the cops had already accepted Perea's punishment (by not appealing the decision during a prescribed period), Garcia's move to can them for the same offense represented the equivalent of double jeopardy.

Michael DeHerrera's September 2011 comments to Westword about these developments ring with irony today. "I knew it would be a long process," he told us, "but everything seemed so clear. The video speaks for itself, so we thought everything was laid out for things to happen smoothly and efficiently."

Hardly. The February 2013 Civil Service Commission report essentially re-fired Sparks but reversed Murr's dismissal. That prompted an appeal by the manager of safety's office, and in December 2013, the commission supported Garcia's right to fire the officers despite their acceptance of the suspension because he had acted "within a reasonable period of time" and his actions were prompted by "new and material evidence."

In response, Murr and Sparks headed to Denver District Court, where the case ground forward over the course of four-plus years. Finally, in November 2017, the court affirmed Garcia's actions. But the officers remained unsatisfied and took the case to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which flipped the script again.

An excerpt from the April 2019 appeals court's ruling notes that Murr and Sparks "argue that appellee the Civil Service Commission of the City and County of Denver...erroneously interpreted the Charter of the City and County of Denver...to grant the Manager of Safety...implied authority to reopen their disciplinary matter, rescind the discipline previously imposed, and order more severe penalties, all after the order became final and the time for appealing it had expired." Concluded the three-judge panel that considered the matter: "We agree with the officers."

Denver responded with the following statement: "The City is extremely disappointed and shocked by the Court of Appeals ruling, which effectively overrules previous decisions in its favor by the Denver District Court and Denver’s Civil Service Commission. The City can seek rehearing by the entire Court of Appeals or ask the Colorado Supreme Court to review the decision, but at this point the City Attorney’s Office, the Department of Public Safety, and Denver Police Department still need to confer about next steps."

After this huddle, the City of Denver asked that the Court of Appeals as a whole (it consists of 22 judges) reconsider the panel's conclusions. After this request was rejected, the only options left were to accept the panel's decision and settle or reach out to the Colorado Supreme Court, whose denial of the case came down on March 9, 2020.

Theresa Marchetta, spokesperson for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock's office, had this to say about the resolution of the DeHerrera case, which was first reported by the Denver Post: "The city’s position was that this conduct was reprehensible and that these officers did not deserve to keep their jobs. We fought hard to uphold the terminations but unfortunately, for procedural reasons, we didn’t prevail. Nobody is happy about this outcome. While the disciplinary decisions at the heart of this case happened over ten years ago, this outcome reveals a huge, historic problem that we faced at that time, which was that discipline was hard to uphold and could drag out for years. We have made strides since then to improve and streamline the process where we can, but anybody looking at this can see that the appeals process here took way too long."

As for Anthony DeHerrera, he says, "We learned a while back that they were going to get the money. We've been fighting this battle for ten, eleven years and thought we had them fired — and Lord knows we wanted them to have criminal charges, too, but the DA didn't have the guts to do that. It's been a terrible experience."

He's particularly frustrated by the support that Murr and Sparks received from the Denver Police Protective Association, the union for officers in the department. "I'm a union man, and I support unions, but I can't see how unions support bad cops like that and help them get back pay," he says.

The size of the bonanza received by the officers is particularly galling in light of the amount Michael DeHerrera received for his ordeal. He and Johnson split a grand total of $35,000 — a comparative pittance they accepted for a variety of reasons. As Anthony recalls, "Michael just wanted the incident to be over. He was fed up with his picture being all over the news, and he thought the cops were going to be fired and charged."

He adds: "It was never about the money. We just wanted these guys prosecuted and off the streets, and we kept them off the streets for ten years. But now they've gotten a ten-year vacation with pay, all because of a technicality — because Ron Perea didn't do the right thing the first time. If he'd done a thorough investigation, the federal courts wouldn't have been able to rule in their favor. Because of Ron Perea's failure to handle it right, there's nothing we could do."

The case perfectly illustrates the sort of systemic ills that were the focus of calls for law enforcement reform in the wake of George Floyd's 2020 murder. "I would rather it would have happened in today's era, because of all the publicity the social justice movement has gotten," Anthony says. "But with the Denver Police Department's culture and union, I really don't know if anything would have been different. I don't see any changes with the Denver Police Department. I call them the Blue Gang. They're the biggest gang in Denver."

After a pause, he acknowledges, "All Denver cops aren't bad. But you need to stand and not support bad cops. I've received two medals of valor, I've been in shootings, I've been in SWAT for fifteen years. I know this game, and these guys getting away with what they did is insane. I almost quit being a cop when this happened. I didn't have any faith in the justice system, and I still don't at this point. We had clear camera footage of them beating Michael for no reason, using a sap [impact weapon] and hitting him more than forty times, and they had no consequences."

After the negative publicity over the assault, the DPD stopped supplying officers with saps, which Anthony counts as a minor victory. But he stresses that the negative repercussions of the attack aren't over for his son. "He still has headaches, he still has chipped teeth, and everywhere he goes, he's recognized as the boy beaten up by the cops," Anthony says. "It just makes me sick."
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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