Zachary Oliver, Controversial Youth Facility and Beating With a Bag of Rocks

According to prosecutors, Zachary Oliver chalked up 243 violations at the Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center (LMYSC), a detention facility for juvenile offenders, before escaping in August of 2014 — a crime abetted by his brutal beating of an elderly guard with a pillowcase filled with rocks.

In the wake of Oliver's arrest, and the decision to try him as an adult even though he was then just seventeen, investigative reports pointed to what were characterized as serious problems at LMYSC — not just cell doors that could be opened with some minor MacGyvering, but also offenders who were repeatedly terrorizing staffers.

Oliver won't be spending any more time at Lookout Mountain; he was just sentenced to more than two decades in adult prison after pleading guilty to multiple charges, including assault. But the episode cast a shadow over Lookout Mountain, which has generated more than its share of complaints and controversy over the years.

Back in 2010, our Melanie Asmar shared a U.S. Justice Department report about sexual abuse in juvenile facilities, and the stats from Lookout Mountain were the worst in Colorado. 

"At Lookout Mountain, 12 percent of youth reported being sexually assaulted," Asmar wrote. "Additionally, 11 percent reported staff sexual misconduct and 4 percent reported being assaulted by another youth." These figures were higher than the national average, she pointed out.

More revelations were spurred by Oliver's escape. 

According to arrest documents obtained by 9News, Oliver managed to open his cell door on August 31, and sources say he did so using a technique that required only two simple aids: tissue and a playing card.

This methodology appears to have been an open secret at Lookout Mountain. The station points out that another escape took place there less than 24 hours after Oliver took his leave, and critics maintained that if one inmate knew how to sneak away, the rest of them did, too.

Once out of his cell, Oliver allegedly disabled guard Doug Williams, 65, by hitting him in the head with a pillowcase prosecutors with the 1st Judicial District DA's office say contained "fist-size rocks." They add that Oliver struck Williams eight times, with blows continuing even after he was down, and also kicked and stomped him in the head nine times.

How on earth did Oliver manage to gather enough rocks inside the facility to create such a fearsome weapon? That's a good question, particularly in light of the damage he did with them. Testimony at Oliver's sentencing nearly a year later revealed that Williams suffered a subdural hematoma, a skull fracture, a broken nose and assorted abrasions in the assault, resulting in permanent brain damage and compromised short-term memory. His wife had to speak on his behalf in court.

After the attack, the DA's office goes on, Oliver is said to have taken Williams's keys and let three other juveniles out of their rooms. The quartet then took a number of items, including a baseball bat and tools they used to cut through the fence surrounding the facility.

Their freedom didn't last long. They were found in the Wheat Ridge/Lakewood area about seven hours later.

The following November, 9News learned about the role the playing card and tissue played in the escape, as well as the vulnerability of new doors installed as part of an "upgrade" made at a cost to taxpayers of $1.4 million. Officials mostly dodged the boondoggle implications but made it clear they were evaluating the situation as part of regular efforts to improve the facility.

Then, in December, published a piece headlined "Repeat offenders target juvenile hall staff." Oliver was mentioned, of course, as were a number of his previous problems while at the facility. Here's an excerpt:
Criminal justice records show he was investigated in January 2012 at Mount View after staff said he was caught with possessing two pills of anti-anxiety drug Lorazepam. A month later he was arrested on suspicion of hitting another inmate is the face that Oliver claimed spit on him, a misdemeanor. And in October of that year, police again were called when staff said Oliver slapped a fellow inmate at Mount View after taunting him with a gay slur, also a misdemeanor, records show.
Even more troubling were assertions that Oliver's attack on Williams wasn't an isolated incident. "found a group of inmates who 'liked' to attack staff and had opportunities to repeatedly do so, leaving guards scared, considering new careers and saying the state doesn’t give them the resources to handle violent inmates," the piece maintains. 

At least one source argued that some of the juveniles placed in Lookout Mountain actually belonged in Youth Offender Services, described as "a Colorado Department of Corrections program for youthful offenders convicted as adults."

Of course, the lack of such convictions would make YOS placement problematic — but not in Oliver's case.

After entering guilty pleas to first-degree assault, aggravated robbery, aiding escape and escape, he's been sentenced to 24 years in DOC custody.

One of the other escapees, Antoin Griego, was also tried as an adult. He pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, escape, aiding escape and possession of contraband, offenses that earned him six years in YOS. The two remaining escapees are being prosecuted as juveniles, with one teen's case already adjudicated and the second still pending.

Meanwhile, there have been no recent escapes from Lookout Mountain, nor have additional scandals surfaced in recent months. Let's hope things stay that way, for the sake of staffers, inmates and the community at large.

Look below to see a larger version of Oliver's booking photo, followed by a CBS4 piece broadcast last September, shortly after Oliver made his first court appearance.

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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