Colo. sheriff defends deputies' actions in standoff that killed LEO

Sheriff Tony Spurlock said the deputies made the right decision during a standoff that killed Deputy Zackari Parrish

By Anna Staver
The Denver Post

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. — The five Douglas County deputies who attempted to take a mentally ill man into custody on New Year’s Eve knew he had threatened law enforcement in the past and had access to rifles, but they made the right decision to enter his apartment rather than try to wait him out, Sheriff Tony Spurlock said.

On Tuesday, Spurlock talked openly about the New Year’s Eve shooting that left Deputy Zackari Parrish dead and four others wounded after two reports on the incident were released this week. The reports from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office provide details about shooter Matthew Riehl’s mental state, his stockpile of firearms and deputies’ decision-making. The DA’s report also clears 11 law enforcement officers of any criminal wrongdoing for killing Riehl.

This undated photo provided by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office shows Sheriff's Deputy Zackari Parrish. (Douglas County Sheriff's Office via AP)
This undated photo provided by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office shows Sheriff's Deputy Zackari Parrish. (Douglas County Sheriff's Office via AP)

Since the shooting at the Copper Canyon Apartments in Highlands Ranch, critics have questioned whether the right decision had been made. Spurlock said he often gets the question when talking to people in the community, and on Monday, Riehl’s parents told Fox31 they wondered why deputies rushed into the apartment to take custody of their son.

But Spurlock defended his deputies’ decision, saying Riehl was a threat to himself and his neighbors because his mental state had declined between the deputies first trip to his apartment at 3 a.m. and their second visit at 5:12 a.m. Riehl threw his belongings off a balcony, another indication of his escalating mental crisis, he said.

“The officers did exactly what they were trained to do and that is they made an assessment of Mr. Riehl. And the fact is that he clearly was having a mental health breakdown,” Spurlock said. “He was, at that point, imminently in danger to himself and putting the community in danger.”

Spurlock also said his deputies followed the laws governing when law enforcement can enter someone’s residence. Riehl was subleasing his room from another man who held the lease. The roommate gave deputies permission to enter that morning, the sheriff said.

The deputies would have been irresponsible to just leave and hope Riehl settled down, Spurlock said.

“We cannot wait for an individual who is having an acute mental health break, who is throwing things off his balcony, who is clearly aggressive toward his roommate to come down so it would be safer for everybody,” Spurlock said. “I am responsible once I get there, and if I leave I’m responsible for what happens after I leave. And I cannot say with good conscious it’s OK to leave and for him to come out of that apartment and go across to another apartment and harm someone because we didn’t do our job.”

Parrish, his sergeant, and three other deputies met for 20 minutes before going inside the apartment. During that time, they obtained permission to enter and established a plan for who would be the first inside, who would carry a ballistic shield, who would be prepared to use which weapons and who would actually go hands-on to take Riehl into custody, Spurlock said.

Parrish took the lead in trying to talk Riehl into opening his bedroom door. When Riehl refused, Parrish kicked the door and Riehl immediately began shooting an AR-15 rifle that fires high-velocity bullets. Parrish’s body armor was not designed to stop those .223-caliber rounds.

Parrish collasped and began moaning that he had been shot.

Deputy Taylor Davis, who was holding the shield next to Parrish, was shot, and she escaped the apartment by jumping through a window. Deputies Michael Doyle and Jeff Pelle retreated from the gunfire but tried to re-enter to rescue Parrish. They were shot as they tried to reach their fellow deputy and had to retreat again.

Riehl then engaged in a standoff with deputies, firing multiple guns at anyone who approached his apartment, before members of a regional SWAT unit were able to get inside and kill him. Castle Rock Police Department Officer Tom O’Donnell was shot as the SWAT team entered the apartment.

Stray bullets from Riehl’s gun injured two people in nearby apartments, the sheriff’s report said.

“It shall be noted that when both (neighbors) Farook Patail and Nathan Lapp were shot, no officers had fired their weapons on scene,” the report said.

Investigators later found 185 shell casings and counted 180 bullet holes in Riehl’s apartment. There were 47 bullet holes in neighboring units, the report said. Riehl fired the majority of those shots.

Riehl wasn’t a stranger to local law enforcment.

He had been tagging the sheriff’s office in online rants about law enforcement for weeks. And the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office had sent a deputy and mental health counselor to visit him in the weeks before the shooting.

The Lone Tree Police Department had an order that two officers had to respond to any call involving Riehl. Lone Tree had asked the sheriff to investigate Riehl for harassing a Lone Tree police officer after he gave Riehl a ticket. Police had also documented that Riehl had guns.

On the morning of the shooting, Riehl spent several hours live streaming a profanity-laced rant about his life, roommate and interactions with law enforcement. Police did not know about those videos until after the shooting.

©2018 The Denver Post

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