By Kara Mason, Sentinel Colorado Staff Writer (AP Storyshare)
In The Blue is a project of the Sentinel Colorado Investigative Reporting Lab. The Lab’s mission is to engage with readers, journalists, decision makers and citizens around impactful accountability reporting that serves all communities of Aurora. The series is an extended look at local police reform and related issues.
AURORA | In August 2018, a woman called the Aurora Police Department to report that one of its officers, a man she’d been romantically involved with years prior, had been stalking and harassing her after using police databases to research her contact information.
The woman, whom the Sentinel is not naming because she appears to be a victim of harassment, reported to the APD internal affairs office that Sgt. David Sandoval had been making repeated unwanted contact, both in text messages and in person, since 2016.
Upon receiving the woman’s report, then-Police Chief Nick Metz requested the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office investigate her claims to determine whether charges were appropriate. A 33-page report by the investigators concluded that Sandoval should be charged with crimes of harassment and domestic violence.
Yet, after reviewing the case chronicling more than 100 text messages and calls from Sandoval to the woman over the course of four months, the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the officer, claiming there was not sufficient evidence.
The Sentinel’s attempts to reach the woman have been unsuccessful.
According to an APD internal affairs investigation completed in March 2019, Sandoval admitted to using a police database to find the woman’s home address, a violation of Colorado law. APD punished Sandoval with a 240-hour unpaid suspension.
Sandoval is still a sergeant with the agency and now leads one of the Direct Action Response Teams, according to department spokesperson Faith Goodrich.
DART is a recently re-activated unit touted by police officials as a high-profile response to increased crime in the region. The nearly 20-officer unit analyzes crime data, creating strategies to intervene or prevent robberies, homicides, thefts and other crimes.
Last year, police told the Sentinel that the new DART officers were selected from a pool of about 40 applicants based in part on their Internal Affairs record regarding the use of force — officers frequently accused of abuses were not considered for the post — making it clear Sandoval’s IA record was reviewed before he was selected.
Despite admitting to internal affairs investigators that he’d used a police database to find information about the woman, Sandoval wasn’t barred from investigating cases related to the same crimes investigators said he should be charged with.
“Any sworn employee here at APD may be tasked with responding to or investigating cases of stalking, harassment, or domestic violence,” Goodrich, an APD public information officer, said.
Sandoval declined an interview with the Sentinel.
In a statement, interim Chief Art Acevedo, who was named by the city to lead the agency in November, only said the department is “laser-focused on the future,” but didn’t address Sandoval’s internal affairs investigation or his current position on the DART unit.
“In the nearly three months I have served as Interim Chief, we have made significant progress on policy changes and enhanced training to meet best practices, limit adverse outcomes and strengthen trust with the community we are proud to serve,” he said. “The vast majority of the men and women of the Aurora Police Department are dedicated public servants and strongly support our ongoing efforts to deliver the highest level of safety and service to the people of Aurora.”
Arapahoe County investigators found that in the four months leading up to the woman’s complaint to Aurora police about Sandoval, he called and texted her nearly 100 times.
Nikki Bales, the Arapahoe Sheriff’s Department investigator assigned to the case, and other detectives used cell phone records and GPS data to corroborate the woman’s claims, including that Sandoval — whom the woman named “Cop D do not answer” in her phone contacts – illegally used a police database to find her.
“Don’t you know what I do for a living?” Sandoval replied when the woman asked him how he found her, according to Bales’ report.
Bales deferred a request to speak with the Sentinel about the case to the sheriff department’s public information officers.
It’s unclear how often the DA’s office declines to prosecute cases that are considered “domestic violence,” which acts as a sentencing enhancement when the parties involved were part of an intimate relationship. A spokesperson for the agency said the DA’s office doesn’t currently track that data.
The woman met Sandoval in 2012 and had “several intimate encounters” with him over the next year, according to Bales’ report. At the time, the woman told police, she considered him her best friend. But in 2015, the woman told Sandoval she no longer wanted contact with him. For several months, Sandoval did not contact her.
Then, in December 2015, the woman was visiting her father in the hospital when Sandoval appeared in the ICU room, uninvited and unannounced.
“She has no idea how David found out about her father, where he was, or that she was visiting him,” investigators wrote.
In early 2016, the woman moved residences. Although she never told Sandoval her new address, he showed up at her new home that fall.
“She was rude to him and told him to leave,” investigators wrote of the interaction. “David said he wanted to be friends again. Since the fall of 2016, David has called and texted numerous times. The communication will stop for months and then start again.”
According to investigators, most of the texts Sandoval sent the woman went unanswered.
On Aug. 15, 2018, she replied to Sandoval.
“Leave me the f*** alone David,” she wrote.
He then called her 22 times over the course of two and a half hours, according to the report.
When she arrived home that evening, Sandoval pulled into the driveway behind her in a patrol car. The woman told investigators she was surprised. She went inside and texted her daughter telling her not to come home because “the cop was there.”
GPS data from that night showed that Sandoval had been to the woman’s home and driven around the housing complex. He left a note on the woman’s car: “Please reach out to me,” it read. “I just want to talk. I will do anything. Please. – David.”
Days later the woman called the internal affairs office at APD to report harassment by Sandoval, according to investigators. Minutes later, Sandoval called her from his work desk phone. Thinking it was somebody associated with internal affairs, she answered, but hung up immediately when she realized it was Sandoval.
He responded with a text: “That was mean,” he wrote. “I will stop… I get the point. You have made it clear that you want nothing to do with me. Take care of yourself.”
Ten days later, however, he began texting her again. Between Aug. 15, 2018, when Sandoval was at the woman’s apartment, and Sept. 9, 2018, he sent her 35 text messages, according to sheriff’s office investigators.
Investigators wrote that “[The woman] said that David calls her nonstop and she feels like he treats her like one of his subjects that he does surveillance on and is afraid he checks her phone or somehow knows everything she is doing. She said she just wants him out of her life.”
When investigators asked the woman whether she had made changes to her life because of Sandoval, she said that she felt like she always had to watch her back. The investigators noted that she did not show up to a meeting where she was supposed to give them a thumb drive containing text messages from Sandoval because “she was too afraid to leave.”
The woman told investigators that Sandoval had never directly threatened her.
The investigation concludes with saying that “David even admits several times throughout the years that he knows she told him to leave her alone but he chooses to keep pushing it. The 22 phone calls David made to [the woman] came within a short period of time with the intent to annoy her enough to hopefully finally answer. When [the woman] finally does respond it is to tell him to leave her alone, to which he does not do for the next 31 days.”
A deputy district attorney, working under then District Attorney George Brauchler, who signed off on a so-called “No File” document claimed there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Sandoval, but didn’t point to why or what was specifically missing to substantiate the recommended charges.
The Sentinel asked representatives of the 18th Judicial District repeatedly why, despite a trove of digital evidence that appears to corroborate the woman’s story, they determined the evidence did not warrant charges.
“Our Office was unable to file charges in this 2018 case because the presented evidence was insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the named suspect committed a crime,” the agency said in a written statement. “When there is no reasonable likelihood of a conviction, we are ethically obligated to decline prosecution.”
One prosecutor working in the domestic violence unit said that, when evaluating cases, the DA’s office examines “evidence, including statements by victims, observations by police, physical injuries or lack thereof, medical reports if there are any and anything else included in the case and determine whether or not we believe we have a reasonable likelihood of meeting that burden.”
Criminal justice reform advocates say the Sandoval case highlights a reluctance of some prosecutors to hold police officers accountable for wrongdoing.
“More than anyone else in the criminal justice system, district attorneys have the most power to push policing reform and accountability forward because they are the gatekeepers,” ACLU Colorado Director of Advocacy Taylor Pendergrass said. “All too often DAs look the other way when they see police harassing, lying and engaging in illegal conduct. They could be an early warning system and they’re one of the few actors that have the power to deter.”
The Sentinel submitted records requests for prosecutors’ notes on the case but were told that such notes are “confidential” because they’re considered attorney work product.
In The Blue series is produced by Sentinel staff journalists Max Levy, Philip Poston, Carina Julig and Kara Mason with investigative journalists in residence Brian Howey and Trey Bundy.