by Gerald Trumbule
This is the story of a crackhead who broke into my property on York St. twelve times over a period of two years. On the last occasion I fired one shot at him and thus became entangled with our make-my-day law (MMD).
In 1991 crack and coke were rampant in my neighborhood, one block north of Colfax and York, in Denver, Colorado. It was for sale on the street and just about everywhere else, and it was being sucked up at a rapid rate by the junkies who then needed cash so badly they were burglarizing everything they could break into. The neighbors were unprepared, and many apartments, offices, garages, and back yards were stripped of valuables.
I was living in the basement apartment in my building. My company office was located on the first floor, and the second and third stories were offices rented to other small companies. There was a small parking lot in the back off the alley, but no gate or fence between the alley and the sidewalk level windows of the kitchen in my apartment.
The first break-in, through my basement window, occured when I was not there. My office assistant had called the police to report the broken window. When I arrived, the cop was taking notes, and said he would send a detective to take prints and pictures. This became the two-part procedure. First the cop, then the fingerprint guy. Sometimes followed by a call or visit from a detective.
|Deadbolt held and woodwork gave.|
I won't bore you with a detailed chronology of all of the 12 burglaries. In general, they all happened at night and he always broke in the same window to get in. I'll just summarize some of what I learned over the next two years.
As the break-ins continued, and as I visited with the helpful cops and detectives afterwards, I was told:
to get a gun - I did, a .357 Magnum, as recommended by the gun shop ("he has a gun and you have a gun - yours is bigger - you both fire, you get hurt, he gets killed"),
to get a dog - I did, a 120-lb great dane, very keen on detecting anyone on my lot
to get an alarm system - I did, one that automatically called the police and set off a very loud siren in the first floor front hall
to put bars on my basement windows - which I refused to do. I wanted him behind bars, not me.I learned that all of my filed reports were called "stampers" by the detectives, as in date-stamp them and then file them away. I leaned that none of the fingerprints lifted at the scene were ever examined. "That's only done if we have a suspect".
I was told by one cop that if I shot the thief in my yard I should drag him inside and shoot him again, to satisfy MMD. The law was never discussed in detail.
When one detective saw the nail strips I had put around the woodwork of the three kitchen windows, he said "It looks to me like you are tryin' to catch or hurt this guy. Let me tell you somethin'. If you hurt him, you'll be faced with ten guys just like him who will come here to kill you. If you kill him, his momma will sue you and she will end up ownin' this buildin'." Bewildered, I said "So what am I supposed to do?". "I dunno," he replied. "maybe you should move."
Apparently the thief did hurt himself on this crude set-up. After the next break-in, there were torn fabric remnants and blood on some of the nails. He always used the same window and there were black tennis shoe marks where he would run at the wall and launch himself out the window.
I learned that there were 3 elements to MMD: 1. It has to be a break-in. If the door is unlocked and they come in, you can't shoot them (changed). 2. It has to be your house, not your yard or business. 3. You have to fear for your life. (Note: Changes have been made in this law, see below.)
I wasn't silent during this period. I asked the cops on multiple occasions if they would watch my place during the night. Given the frequency of the break-ins, a week of surveillance should have paid off. "No can do, we'll drive by more often."
I asked the cops if they had a computer system that would show the locations. I thought the burglar was on foot because he never took more than he could carry. I suggested that they could find him at the center of the burglary locations. "Nope - no computer of ours can do that." Recall that this was 1993. I had had a computer that could do that since 1983. Hell, you could have even hand drawn the locations on a map and pretty much figured out where the guy lived.
It turned out that this burglar was actually on a spree, and some nights there would be 5 or 6 break-ins as he harvested the alleys. His MO of high kicks, athletic moves and tennis shoe prints identified him. I learned that an attorney was working late in his office about 3 blocks north of my building when he broke in. He scared the guy off and followed him in his car, cornering him in a parking lot right on my block. The thief beat the crap out of the attorney and then got away.
By the night of the twelfth and final break-in, I had pretty much given up on the police.
And so it was, at 3:00 am that morning, my alarm went off, my dog started loud-alert barking, and I fought to come awake from a deep sleep. I struggled to pull on my pants. I didn't think about it then but it seemed best to wear pants to a shooting. I had thought about this scenario many times before, and in my fantasy I wasn't nude.
I grabbed the loaded gun, opened the bedroom door, kept the dog back and closed the door, and entered the semi-darkened kitchen holding the gun in front of me with both hands, ready to fire.
Previously I had chained the TV and the microwave cords to their outlet boxes, to at least slow the fool down. I had also installed outdoor motion sensitive lights on that side of the building. Now, I was confronted with the backlit microwave sitting in the window, cord stretched to the limit, with a large bushy black ball next to it, filling the rectangular window.
My sleep-addled brain could not interpret the scene. Until, that is, he lifted his afro-adorned head to stare at me. He was lying down on the ground next to my window with his head in the window trying to figure out what was hanging the microwave up when he heard me yell HEY!
Just ten feet apart, we both froze for two beats. In my fantasy I hadn't considered blowing the guy's head off, just wounding him in the shoulder or leg, and now his head was the only target available to me. He was a good-looking young man in his early twenties. I just couldn't pull the trigger.
He jumped up and started to run toward the next window on his way to the alley. Without thinking, I followed with the gun across the wall between the two windows, and shot as his lower leg passed the second window.
I was unprepared for what actually happens when you shoot a .357 in a 15 x 15 ft room with concrete walls. A large ball of flame appeared at the end of the gun with a sound so loud that I instantly became senseless. Within seconds I regained my sight but not my hearing. He ran away.
My dog was freaking in the bedroom. I was standing there with a smoking gun. I thought it best to put the gun away. It then occurred to me that I should go outside to meet the police as they arrived. As I exited the side door, I was surprised to find a cop already there, against the wall one foot away, with a gun pointed at my head.
"OWNER!" I yelled. I put up my hands and the cop lowered the gun. I went back to the kitchen, followed by at least 5 cops.
I was shaking.
I related the story as the cops stood around, their leather creaking as they shifted. They didn't want to hear anything about the previous 11 events. They looked closely at the window and saw that although it had not broken, it had a bullet hole in it about 10 in. up and 4 in. over. The bullet had gone exactly where I had aimed, and burned its way through the glass, then pierced the wooden fence 5 feet behind it, about 3 feet off the ground, and, because of the angle going up from the basement, off into the neighborhood.
This pissed the cops off. Now they were going to have to go out into the neighborhood to see if there was anyone hurt by my bullet. "You can't take matters into your own hands", they said. "You guys were not doing anything", I said. Over my protests, they took my gun away and told me to report to the police station downtown on the following morning.
When I arrived downtown the next morning, I was greeted with "Oh, it's you. You'll be interviewed by Detective X. Please have a seat." I waited nearly 3 hours before the detective arrived, apologizing that he had been in court. We went into a small room with a desk and two chairs. The chair I was directed to had many overlapping stains on the cloth seat.
"Tell me the story, and if I say stop, stop before you say any more." I perceived that he was trying to help me through the process. He didn't want to hear about the first 11 events, just last night's events. When I got to the part of seeing the microwave in the window, he said "Stop!" "And that's where you feared for your life?" "No", I said, and he said "be careful."
"No", I said, "I wasn't about to kill someone over a $100 microwave. It was when he ran toward the second window that I feared for my life." The detective immediately got up, "wait here", he said, and left the room. When he returned 5 minutes later, he said "The DA has signed off, here's your gun." The bullets had been removed and a plastic tie threaded through the magazine. I was free to go, and I hadn't even pissed myself in the chair of doom.
Twice in the next three weeks I spotted the burglar walking in my neighborhood. On one of these occasions he was carrying grocery bags, and I watched him enter an apartment building about 4 blocks from my house. I did nothing.
Then one morning as I scanned the Denver Post, I saw a large picture of my burglar, apparently after his death. He had been shot in the heart by a homeowner at 13th and Ogden at 3:00 in the morning. Police were unable to identify the man
because he had nothing but stolen I.D.s in his apartment. As far as I know, he was never identified, but the wave of break-ins stopped. It had been a one-man crime wave. I am half-deaf in my right ear as a result.
A few years later my .357 magnum was stolen from my apartment in another break-in by a guy the police called the "prolific burglar". That wasn't really a break-in because the thief had a key. But that's a story for another day.
18-1-704.5. Use of deadly physical force against an intruder
(1) The general assembly hereby recognizes that the citizens of Colorado have a right to expect absolute safety within their own homes.
(2) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 18-1-704, any occupant of a dwelling is justified in using any degree of physical force, including deadly physical force, against another person when that other person has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, and when the occupant has a reasonable belief that such other person has committed a crime in the dwelling in addition to the uninvited entry, or is committing or intends to commit a crime against a person or property in addition to the uninvited entry, and when the occupant reasonably believes that such other person might use any physical force, no matter how slight, against any occupant.
(3) Any occupant of a dwelling using physical force, including deadly physical force, in accordance with the provisions of subsection (2) of this section shall be immune from criminal prosecution for the use of such force.
(4) Any occupant of a dwelling using physical force, including deadly physical force, in accordance with the provisions of subsection (2) of this section shall be immune from any civil liability for injuries or death resulting from the use of such force.
HISTORY: Source: L. 85: Entire section added, p. 662, § 1, effective June 6.