Tearful and apologetic, man gets two years imprisonment for firing gun during standoff

A man about to be sentenced for firing a gun twice during a police standoff broke down crying and had to pause a few times throughout to gather himself when he addressed the court.

On Thursday, Stephen Branstetter, 42, told Grand District Court Judge Mary Hoak that he accepted responsibility for the Dec. 1 police standoff at his Hot Sulphur Springs home and wished he had asked for help when he needed it. He insisted that he discharged his gun by accident when police used flash grenades.

“I asked to speak because I feel horrible about this situation I caused,” Branstetter said. “I never meant to hurt anyone. I’m so sorry to have scared everyone. I myself was so scared … I never aimed my gun and I never barricaded. I was not suicidal — I was scared and in distress.”

In May, Branstetter pleaded guilty to assault and prohibited use of a weapon under a plea agreement that would cap his sentence at two years of prison time. On Thursday, Hoak gave Branstetter the maximum prison time allowed with a mandatory three years of parole.

Branstetter originally faced charges of attempted murder and refusing to leave the premises.

The standoff took place when police tried to serve Branstetter a warrant for for his arrest on a menacing charge after he fought with a neighbor while carrying a gun and a power drill.

In court, defense attorney Chad Oxman argued for a sentence without prison, saying Branstetter was experiencing a mental health episode during the standoff and has since sought help.

Oxman told the judge his client didn’t intend to hurt anyone and argued it could have been an inadvertent discharge caused by the flash bang grenades police used during the standoff.

“What I can tell the court is that on the date of the offense, Mr. Branstetter was scared to death,” Oxman said. “He thought he was going to die that night, but Mr. Branstetter has taken responsibility.”

Additionally, Branstetter’s aunt and his social worker gave statements in his support. Both of them said Branstetter has changed since he began seeking mental health services.

However, Hoak was hesitant to forego prison for probation due to the nature of the incident.

“In this world, you don’t pick up a gun unless you want to kill someone, and you don’t pull the trigger unless you want to kill someone,” Hoak told the court. “I have a very strong concern here that if I put Mr. Branstetter on probation that what I’ve told Grand County and the 14th Judicial District is that it’s OK to shoot at law enforcement.”

Chief Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Dowdell acknowledged the mental health troubles Branstetter has experienced, but said it doesn’t excuse his actions, as she asked for the full two years allowed under the plea agreement.

Dowdell credited the fact that Branstetter is still alive to the professional capabilities of the law enforcement involved in the standoff.

“Everybody faces challenges — perhaps not to the extreme Mr. Branstetter does — but it’s not an excuse to endanger the community,” Dowdell said. “None of us are mind readers, so we don’t know what Mr. Branstetter was thinking when the flash bangs went off, but he had all the tools to shoot it out with law enforcement … That calls for punishment.”

Ultimately, Hoak agreed that prison time was appropriate.

“It is only by luck, chance and grace that you did not kill someone, and it’s only by the skill and grace of law enforcement that you didn’t die,” Hoak told Branstetter. “This could’ve been easily solved if you had come out when they asked you to.”

Branstetter will receive 248 days of time served for the months he was held on a $500,000 bond in the Grand County Jail awaiting sentencing.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.