ROCKY FORD, Colo. (AP) — Many in this small town on Colorado's southeastern plains wave at police driving by and sometimes stop to give officers crime tips. People under arrest are also neighbors an officer could run into later in the grocery store, so Chief Frank Gallegos encourages his eight-person force to treat suspects with respect.
So when a police officer on the job for five months stopped a 27-year-old resident skateboarding along the main drag, followed him to his home and shot him dead last fall, Rocky Ford's residents were shocked and angry.
"It should have never happened in any town," said Valentine Flores, who works at the lone grocery store.
People marched, demanding justice for Jack Jacquez — though police are quick to point out that there were no arrests or property damage like that seen in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death there of Michael Brown.
What happened next also differed from Ferguson and many other communities that have had recent police shootings: Officer James Ashby was charged with second-degree, non-premeditated murder after an investigation led by law enforcement from surrounding communities and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. With no internal affairs unit, let alone any detectives, Rocky Ford police turned to the team of specialists.
Ashby, who lost his job after his arrest, is the first Colorado police officer to face charges for an on-duty shooting in more than 20 years. He entered a plea of not guilty Thursday through his lawyer, Michael Lowe, but did not speak himself during a brief court hearing in nearby La Junta. Jacquez's mother and father, who wore a black armband, watched the proceedings.
After the hearing, Lowe said he planned to have discussions with prosecutors about a possible plea deal. He said he was reluctant to talk about the case because of inaccuracies that have been reported but he declined to say what they were.
James Bullock, a criminal defense attorney who was elected district attorney in 2012, made the decision to prosecute Ashby. Bullock, whose son-in-law is a police officer, said while he understands officers' lives can depend on the split-second decisions they make on duty, they have to be accountable for their actions. He said he hasn't gotten any negative reaction from area police officers for his decision.
The outsourcing of the investigation and initial sealing of court documents upset many. Hometown police couldn't answer questions. But last month, when a judge ruled there was enough evidence for Ashby to stand trial, the investigators' findings became public and confirmed an early claim by Jack Jacquez's mother, Viola, that her son was shot in the back on Oct. 12 as she watched in their kitchen.
Ashby told investigators that Jacquez mouthed off to him when he stopped him skateboarding on U.S. Highway 50. Ashby said he thought Jacquez was trying to burglarize what turned out to be his own home because he walked erratically before heading toward the home's back entrance. Gallegos said break-ins have been on the rise in the town of about 4,000 due to a rise in heroin addiction.
However, the brother of a police officer who was on a ride-along with Ashby that night, Kyle Moore, contradicted Ashby's account. He said Jacquez did not talk back to Ashby and walked straight from the street to a side entrance to his house, where his mother opened the door for him.
Ashby said Jacquez grabbed a baseball bat and was about to swing it at him when he fired. The coroner found that Jacquez was shot in the back, not a position he would be in if he was winding up for a swing.
An autopsy found that the shot passed through Jacquez's spine, instantly paralyzing him. Ashby said Jacquez took another step or two before collapsing as his mother watched, leading Dr. Daniel Lingamfelter of the El Paso County coroner's office to conclude that Jacquez was already moving away from Ashby when he was shot.
The contradictions and forensic evidence led state investigators to conclude there was enough evidence to arrest Ashby. Bullock charged Ashby directly, without the involvement of a grand jury.
Many were upset when Ashby was released on $150,000 bond after a judge reduced it from $1 million to bring it in line with other second-degree murder cases. Bullock opposed the reduction, partly to protect Ashby.
Jacquez, a pot smoker who had some minor run-ins with the law before marijuana was legalized, stood out in Rocky Ford for his coordinated, colorful clothes and skateboarding. A sister, Jackie Jacquez-Lindenmuth, said he was a ladies' man and loved learning about different cultures and astronomy but struggled to find work in a town where he felt he didn't fit in. Both she and Viola Jacquez said Jacquez never recovered from the death of a 2-month-old daughter nearly three years ago.
Viola Jacquez, the only eyewitness, to the shooting, said she is afraid to live in her home.
"I hope I get my justice, that way Jack can rest in peace," she said.
Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda contributed to this report.