Colo: Witness safety problem?
Rocky Mountain News
Vail, CO Colorado
Colorado’s witness protection program began with a killer who thought blood could cover his tracks.
Jailed and worried about a conviction for a 1988 robbery-kidnapping, Roger “Roy” Young sent his brother to kill the only witness. Then, charged with that murder, Young arranged for the death of the prosecution’s star: his own wife.
Young’s witness-killing spree led lawmakers to create the state witness protection program in 1995. But unlike the comprehensive federal protection program, the state’s effort has been under-funded and under-used, with an annual budget of around $50,000 a year and a lack of outreach that came under fire after the 2005 killings of a witness and his fiancee.
“There’s a misunderstanding about what can and can’t be done,” said Ted Tow, executive director of the District Attorneys Council and one of the three members of the witness protection board, along with representatives from the Department of Public Safety and the Attorney General’s Office.
“We’re not a federal witness protection system. We have nowhere near the funding. We don’t have the ability to create new identifications for people.”
Board Executive Director Jeanne Smith said the words “witness protection” create an expectation of a service that doesn’t exist. “Emergency witness assistance” would be a more accurate description of what the state’s program does, she said. That might include relocation to a new apartment or another state, a couple of months’ rent or perhaps a security system if the witness would rather stay put, Tow said.
Murders sparked changes
Javad Marshall-Fields was never even offered that, said his mother, Rhonda Fields. On June 20, 2005 – one week before he was to testify about a friend’s murder – he and fiancee Vivian Wolfe, both 22 and recent college graduates, were ambushed as they sat in their car at an Aurora intersection. One of their killers, Sir Mario Owens, was sentenced to death last month.
“I want to believe witness protection would have made a difference,” Fields said. “He wasn’t even given the opportunity to decide whether it was something he wanted to pursue.”
Changes in 2006, championed by Fields and Vivian Wolfe’s mother, Christine Wolfe, included mandated training for law enforcement about the witness protection program and the creation of a tool to assess the risk to witnesses. The legislature also renamed the program to honor Marshall-Fields and Wolfe.
An online PowerPoint training for Colorado law enforcement will be in place this summer, said Smith, who is also director of the Division of Criminal Justice in the Department of Public Safety. But a way to determine the risks for witnesses has proved problematic. No other state does it, and no one in the state’s criminal justice community has created one.
“Then the question is, do we try and ask for funding to have a professional development of a scientific assessment tool – if such a thing is even possible?” Smith asked. “What we’re focusing on, because it’s within our expertise, is to encourage communication with witnesses on a regular basis.”
Toward that end, the witness protection brochure sent to Colorado law enforcement now includes a list of questions to ask witnesses that could reveal threats or potential danger. Local district attorneys decide whether the situation warrants relocation or other measures and pays for it out of the county’s pocket. Reimbursement is then sought from the state board.
The board has yet to turn down any reasonable requests, Smith said. “We don’t second-guess whether a witness is in danger.”
The chain of events that led to the creation of the witness protection program began on Sept. 12, 1988, when Roger Young held up the Parkside Cafe and kidnapped the manager. Caught, jailed and worried that a habitual offender conviction would mean life in prison, Young sent his brother to kill a witness, a 22-year-old waiter named Frank Magnuson.
Just nine hours before Young’s trial, Joseph Young and accomplice Kevin Fears killed Magnuson and another man, Daniel Smith. They also shot Magnuson’s roommate, Steve Curtis, who played dead and survived.
Now charged with those murders, Roger Young arranged for the death of his wife, Christa Schaeffer, who overheard a phone conversation arranging Magnuson’s killing. But Schaeffer survived five gunshot wounds and testified against her husband – who remains in prison – and the hit man he hired to kill her.
In testimony before the legislature, Curtis said Magnuson wanted to do the right thing despite being terrified by the threats against him. Authorities had reassured Magnuson that crime witnesses were murdered only on television and in the movies.
Rhonda Fields knows better. She said she’ll continue to push for changes in the laws to make it safe for people to do the right thing.
“I’m very fortunate, because the people who committed the act against my son are all in jail. It’s not an unsolved murder,” she said. “It was through several witnesses that we’ve been able to put together a strong case. Without a witness, you just can’t solve crimes.”
By the numbers
40 requests by individuals for witness protection
99 witnesses and family members protected
$81,650spent on requests