Robert Wallace shooting: Make My Day law meets Gran Torino
The Robert Wallace case has all the trademarks of a justice-gone-awry tale. When Wallace, an 81-year-old Wheat Ridge resident, saw two men trying to steal his trailer this past February, he opened fire, hitting one of the men in the head. But the person busted in the shooting's immediate aftermath was Wallace, for attempted murder, while the two suspects in the theft attempt remained free until last week.
Robert Wallace on 9News.
Nonetheless, a Wheat Ridge Police rep believes the department has acted properly, despite the "anger and hatred" this turn of events has stirred.
According to the WRPD account, Wallace saw two men, identified as Alvaro Cardona-DeLoera, 28, and Damacio Torres-Ochoa, 32, attempting to hitch his trailer to their red truck. As they fled the scene, with one of the men running alongside the truck before gaining entry to the vehicle's cab, he fired two shots -- although he didn't immediately mention that to police.
Cardona-DeLoera was subsequently admitted at a local hospital with a gunshot wound to the head. (His mug shot clearly shows the impact the bullet had upon him.) He'd been dropped off by a red truck, which led WRPD officers to connect the two incidents.
Upon further questioning, Wallace admitted that he'd fired shots at the men, leading to his arrest on attempted murder charges. But Cardona-DeLoera and Torres-Ochoa weren't immediately charged with theft, because the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force (MATT) was in the midst of looking into a theft ring that involved trailers, and investigators thought the two men might be involved.
When that didn't prove to be the case, Wheat Ridge authorities charged Cardona-DeLoera and Torres-Ochoa with theft. But Torres-Ochoa was already in hot water with Immigration and Custom Enforcement, whose agents previously busted him on an immigration violation.
This last twist inspired the likes of KHOW's Peter Boyles, a major critic of immigration policy, to pick up the story -- and why not? The contrast between an elderly man defending his property, Gran Torino-style, against the actions of an illegal alien -- and then being prosecuted for his actions -- could hardly be more stark.
Still, WRPD public information officer Lisa Stigall believes that many of the media reports have been "off-base."
Regarding the time gap between Wallace's arrest and that of the two men accused of stealing from him, she says, "attempted murder or any kind of violent crime, regardless of what it is, holds a much higher standard of urgency than theft. And this particular theft was not a violent crime.
"It is unfortunate that people steal from each other, and that these two individuals chose to steal Mr. Wallace's trailer, but what they were doing wasn't a violent crime. And attempted murder -- shooting your weapon, using deadly force against another person -- ranks higher."
That's not to mention the role of the task force, which was "looking into the larger picture" regarding thefts of trailers and other vehicles, she allows. "We had probable cause to present to the DA's office to charge Mr. Wallace right upfront. That's what we're sworn to do, and that's what we did. And as soon as we received word from MATT that they wouldn't be including these two in a much larger investigation, we were able to move forward and take the other two individuals into custody."
Stigall adds that both men had originally shown authorities what appeared to be legal Colorado IDs: "We didn't know ICE was involved in this until they took Mr. Torres-Ochoa into custody. That was a surprise to us. If they'd had questionable immigration status when we booked them, the ICE notification would have begun. But neither of these two were booked through us or through a jail. So we hadn't started any of the immigration processes with ICE."
When determining whether Wallace should be charged with attempted murder, Stigall says, "two laws came into play. The first one involved the use of physical force in defense of property, and it says a person can use 'reasonable and appropriate physical force' on someone who you believe is trying to steal from you. But you can only use deadly force in the circumstances of the 'Make My Day' law. And that specifically states that the occupant of a dwelling is justified in using deadly force when a person has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, and the occupant has reason to suspect that person is going to commit another crime.
"I'm not a lawyer," Stigall acknowledges -- but the DA's office believes "the two laws don't apply in this particular case. Mr. Wallace didn't state to police that he ever felt threatened, and the two individuals were leaving the property."
Wallace has been the recipient of support aplenty due to his status as an octogenarian, but Stigall emphasizes that "the age of a suspect doesn't come into play unless they're under the age of ten. We can't as law enforcement decide that at a certain age, a person doesn't need to be prosecuted for the crimes they commit. It's unfortunate that Mr. Wallace is now affected by his actions, but they're actions he chose to take."
Even so, Stigall implies that even the boys and girls in blue have some sympathy for Wallace's plight.
"Every cop out there takes an oath to uphold the law, regardless of how they personally feel about the law," she says. "That's our job.
"Mr. Wallace has been charged with attempted murder, and we have two thieves in jail -- one of them likely to be permanently damaged by this whole situation that's taken place. So there are really no winners in this case."
Look below to see a lengthy WRPD timeline about the case, as well as a release about the accused trailer thieves' arrest, plus TV coverage from Channel 9: