Wilson sentenced to 32 years in armed standoff
Grand County, CO Colorado
HOT SULPHUR SPRINGS – Brian Wilson – sometimes sobbing and rambling, sometimes calmly lucid – expressed bewilderment Wednesday about how a journey that began on Thanksgiving 2008 could have possibly ended where he stood in District Court on Wednesday, Aug. 11, under the weight of a mandatory minimum sentence that would put him behind bars until at least his late-70s.
The father of four, grandfather of seven and one-time model citizen with a policeman son, had traveled to Grand County that November day to kill himself. Instead, he became embroiled in a three-hour armed standoff with police officers that culminated with him shooting four shots from a .45 caliber pistol as officers struggled to disarm him.
In May, a jury convicted Wilson, 53, of Denver, of all 24 charges against him, including five counts of attempted 1st degree murder and five sentence enhancers for committing crimes of violence.
Those charges and sentence enhancers were the first order of business at Wednesday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing.
Wilson’s lead attorney, Harvey Steinberg of Denver, argued that the attempted murder charges do not, under state law, constitute crimes of violence and therefore do not qualify for the sentence enhancers.
“You have to strictly construe these kinds of things,” he told Judge Mary Hoak. “None of them properly charge a crime of violence.”
Moreover, Steinberg argued, the prosecution failed to specifically plead the sentence enhancers.
“Because there’s a failure to charge, you can’t sentence, Judge. … The elemental requirements … aren’t there.”
Hoak conceded that she was confounded by the statute regarding crimes of violence, which does not specifically include murder or attempted murder.
“If not murder, then what is (a crime of violence)?” she asked.
“The jury clearly found that the defendant used a deadly weapon” by convicting him of three counts of felony menacing, she noted. She also said the defense failed to challenge the sentence enhancers earlier and accepted the jury instructions, thereby tacitly condoning them.
She ruled that Wilson committed a crime of violence, “and what that does is send us into mandatory sentencing.”
Later in the hearing, Hoak commented that her “hands are tied” regarding the minimum sentence.
After more legal debate about whether state law requires consecutive sentences for at least two of the crimes of violence, Hoak said, “The court believes that there is a mandatory 32-year sentence here as a starting point.”
Steinberg said Hoak’s finding regarding the crimes of violence was “erroneous,” and he argued that the consecutive-sentence requirement is unconstitutional.
“I’m not going to find the statute unconstitutional,” Hoak told Steinberg. “I think that’s up to a higher court. … As always, I encourage you to proceed further up what I call the food chain.”
Steinberg suggested all involved “cut to the chase” and proceed directly to sentencing.
“Do the people really want a sentence of more than 32 years?” he asked.
Deputy District Attorney Heather Shwayder-Hughes said the people would in fact seek a stiffer sentence.
Dr. Richard Spiegle, who identified himself as a clinical and forensic psychologist from Denver, testified that he conducted an evaluation of Wilson shortly after the standoff.
“I found him to be experiencing major depression and was on the verge of hospitalizing him,” Spiegle said.
“His only intent was to kill himself,” he said. “In my opinion, Mr. Wilson was severely mentally ill at the time. …It’s a tragic situation, no matter how you look at it.”
“He’s not just a brother to me; he’s my best friend,” said Wilson’s younger brother, Paxton, who testified about how Wilson’s wife had called him the day before Thanksgiving 2008 to tell him that Wilson had packed a gun and alcohol into his Jeep and was headed to the mountains to kill himself.
Paxton said he called Wilson on his cell phone while en route from Missouri and talked to him for four hours until the signal failed. He related how he drove through the night more than 800 miles and arrived in Winter Park at sunrise on Thanksgiving, then frantically drove hundreds more miles on dirt roads searching for his brother.
Wilson, dressed in an orange short-sleeved shirt with “Grand County Jail” in large black letters on the back, orange pants, tan sandals, and gray and white socks, shackled at the waist and ankles, had sat calmly while listening attentively to the legal arguments.
But, as his brother began testifying, Wilson put his head in his hands and cried. His wife and other members of his family wiped tears from their eyes as well.
“I just wish the clock could be turned back,” Paxton said, adding that he wished the police had called him during the standoff, which he said he believed he could have ended “in minutes” had he been there.
He related how, since the standoff, Wilson has lost his job of 14 years, his home and almost his marriage. He said he couldn’t understand how his gentle, upstanding brother could be convicted of attempted murder.
“I can only place my faith in you and your wisdom and compassion,” he told Hoak as Wilson sobbed loudly.
Wilson’s mother-in-law, Dr. Marilyn Shroyer, a clinical psychologist, testified that she thought Wilson suffered from chronic depression “and self-medicated with alcohol.”
She said she had caught Wilson in the garage of one of the family’s Denver rental homes on Nov. 9, 2008, trying to kill himself by duct-taping a plastic bag over his head.
Wilson, she said, is gentle and compassionate and “would not hurt anyone.”
“The defendant is alive today for one reason only,” Shwayder-Hughes said, “because the officers decided he was not going to die.”
“All he had to do to end this was put that gun down,” she continued, “and he chose not to.”
During the standoff, police officers said they shot Wilson with a non-lethal “beanbag” round from a shotgun, which knocked him to ground. They then rushed to subdue him, they said, at which time he moved his gun into his right hand and began firing “indiscriminately.”
“He pulled that trigger four separate times,” Shwayder-Hughes said. “He fired until that gun was empty.”
Why would he have done that if he had wanted to harm no one but himself? she asked.
She then addressed the prosecution’s request for a sentence of 83 years, including consecutive sentences “for each and every one of the victims.”
Several officers involved in the incident testified. Winter Park-Fraser Police Investigator Brett Schroetlin said, “That’s all it was, was luck” that no one was killed.
“This whole incident … made me doubt whether I wanted to be a police officer anymore,” Winter Park-Fraser Police Sgt. Roy Ybarra said.
“I just want him (Wilson) to know that we were there to help him,” Ybarra said.
“If we had followed proper procedure … Mr. Wilson would have been shot and would be dead,” Winter Park-Fraser Police Chief Glen Trainor said.
He said Wilson demonstrated “no regard for anyone else” during the standoff, instead choosing “to serve his own needs and desires.”
“You cannot imagine the terror us officers experienced that night,” Trainor said, his voice trembling. “In my career, I have never been as scared as I was that night.”
If Wilson really cared, he said, “He would not have subjected them (the officers and their families) to the misery he did.”
Shwayder-Hughes noted how police officers initially had pulled Wilson over on a “welfare check to make sure he was safe … and he pulled a gun on them.”
Wilson, she said, “escalated this situation from the start.”
“To sentence him to the mandatory minimum is outrageous,” she said.
“You can judge a society by how they treat their mentally ill,” Steinberg said, paraphrasing author Franz Kafka.
He said the mentally ill suffer the torments of “the devils and demons that affect your mind and your life. … Is there anyone here who doesn’t believe that he’s suffering from the devils and demons?”
Steinberg noted that the law requires defendants to serve a minimum of 75 percent of the mandatory sentence Wilson was facing.
“Maybe he gets out when he’s 76 years old,” he said.
He said Wilson has never been in trouble before and should not be treated like a hardened criminal by being sentenced to 83 years.
“I personally think it’s outrageous,” he said of the prosecution’s request for an 83-year sentence.
“He didn’t come here with the hope and intent that he was going to find officers and start shooting. That’s what 83 years is about. … I’ve got a guy who came here because he was sick.”
Sheriff’s deputies unshackled Wilson’s hands as he stood at the podium to address the court. He spoke slowly and deliberately in a deep voice. During frequent pauses and drinks of water, his slow breathing was the only sound in the courtroom other than rain drops intermittently splattering against the windows.
“I don’t quite understand those,” he said of the attempted murder charges. Just a year ago, “everybody came to an agreement,” he said, referring to a plea deal in which he would have pleaded guilty to one count of felony menacing and the prosecution would have asked for a sentence of no more than two years in prison.
Hoak rejected the deal, and prosecutors filed amended charges, including the attempted murder charges and sentence enhancers.
“To me that’s really telling,” Wilson said.
“It was my position that that was not an appropriate plea bargain,” Hoak told him. “Frankly,” she said later, “I expected you all to come back with another plea bargain.”
“So I guess I’m amazed at where we were then compared with where we are now,” he added.
“The difference between 32 years … There’s really no difference from 83 years,” he said.
During his half-hour testimony, Wilson was mostly calm, but when he began to talk about apologizing or his sentence, he paused, rubbed the back of his neck, and sometimes cried.
“It goes beyond any words I can even say to apologize to the families (of the officers),” he said. “To every officer who was out there … I can’t even imagine how bad it was.”
Hoak said she has thought about this case often. And what keeps occurring to her, she said, is that “something is missing.”
“Part of what’s missing here,” she told Wilson, is, ‘Thank you for not killing me.'”
“Somebody has to say it, so I will: I am thankful that Mr. Wilson was not killed.”
She said she’s also grateful that no officers were killed, and that it is a almost a “miracle” no one died.
“You run this scenario 50, 100 times, Mr. Wilson, and I’m not sure you live. …They (the officers) gave you a life. They gave you your life.”
She said in arriving at her sentence, she examined the circumstances and arrived at “an appropriate sentence.”
“This system … is not set up to put a number on things,” she said. “My sentence is not a measure of your life, or your worth, or your mental illness.”
To be honest, she said, “I don’t think this is an 83-year sentence,” though she said she understood why the officers feel as they do.
“The court will impose a 32-year sentence here,” she said, emphasizing that the sentencing counts do not apply to specific officers. “They’re all equal.”
She then listed 20 counts and their sentences, all of which are to be served concurrently except the second attempted murder charge, which she applied consecutively.
“I’m OK with that,” Trainor responded after the hearing. “It’s fair.”
Steinberg declined to comment.
– Drew can be reached at (970) 887-3334 ext. 19600 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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