Trouble has followed Armando Valdez Gonzalez since the day he was jailed for a crime that didn’t occur.
In early June, Westminster police linked Valdez Gonzalez to an aggravated robbery, saying he dragged a woman in her 70s with his pickup after stealing a bag of cash from her garage sale. Police arrested Valdez Gonzalez the next day and announced his name in a news release. But two days later, following an investigation by detectives, the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office announced that Valdez Gonzalez committed no crime — in fact, no cash had been taken — and said it wouldn’t pursue charges.
Now, Valdez Gonzalez, 50, has seen his reputation tarnished online and become mired in $11,000 in debt from his arrest. And he witnessed a suicide attempt while he was held at the Adams County jail.
“There was a jump to judgment without all the facts,” Terry O’Malley, Valdez Gonzalez’s attorney, said. “There was no immediate need to arrest him and blast his name across the country. But somehow, somebody didn’t do their job well.”
The events that transpired that day, and in the days after — as described in a 67-page Westminster police report that the Westminster Window obtained through an open records request — highlight the potential consequences that come with police broadcasting an arrest made before the facts of the case have been gathered.
Valdez Gonzalez makes extra money by buying garage sale items and reselling them for a profit. He was making rounds in Westminster the morning of June 5. At one sale, a witness said he pulled money from a zippered bank bag to pay for a butcher block. His next sale was one in northwest Westminster, hosted by a couple, described by police as being in their mid-70s.
Because police redacted the couples’ name from reports, the Window is not naming them.
When he arrived at their garage sale, Valdez Gonzalez began speaking with the woman about items for sale. Then, according to the police report, she told a detective, “I noticed he had my purse. I said that’s my bag. He replied, ‘No.’ I told him he stole. He kept insisting and wouldn’t answer me.”
Valdez Gonzalez began to walk toward his truck, while the couple and a neighbor followed him. The woman grabbed Valdez Gonzalez’s arm and scratched him. Valdez Gonzalez got in his truck and the woman put her hand in the window to try to grab the bag. Valdez Gonzalez drove away, briefly dragging the woman, who was thrown to the ground, where she hit her head and was knocked unconscious, according to police records.
The woman was taken to the hospital and treated for four days.
Officers interviewed the woman and four witnesses who were at the scene, none of whom said they saw Valdez Gonzalez steal a bag from the couple. They saw Valdez Gonzalez with a bag and heard the woman yell at him, “you stole my money,” according to the police report.
Valdez Gonzalez called his wife, Elisabeth Calderon, from the truck, telling her that he had driven away because he feared for his safety, “they were trying to kill me, they were attacking me.” Calderon urged him to call the police.
According to a transcript of the phone call between Valdez Gonzalez and dispatch at 9:27 a.m., Valdez Gonzalez reported that a woman had been aggressive toward him and that he wanted to go back with a police officer. The dispatcher continued to ask Valdez Gonzalez for a precise address. He didn’t have one, so dispatch told him that the department couldn’t send an officer.
Later that night, the first press release went out describing the incident almost exactly as the couple reported it to police, according to a comparison of the press release and police reports.
After two unsuccessful attempts to report the incident over the phone, and after seeing a photo of his truck on the news, Valdez Gonzalez called Westminster police again on the morning of June 6 and laid out the events from his perspective, saying the woman was trying to steal his bag and that several people attacked him.
Officers told Valdez Gonzalez they were willing to take a report from him, but they needed him to come into the station to document his injuries. When Valdez Gonzalez arrived, police arrested him on suspicion of aggravated robbery, first-degree assault, theft from an at-risk person, all felonies.
The department then identified Valdez Gonzalez in a news release, leading to nearly instant media coverage. The release included his photo.
During Valdez Gonzalez’s overnight stay at the Adams County jail, his cellmate tried to hang himself, O’Malley said. The Window submitted a request with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office for an incident report, which the sheriff’s office denied citing a statute that protects “reports of the mistreatment or self-neglect of an at-risk adult.”
In the three days after he was arrested, detectives collected evidence. First, an officer visited Calderon, who had the bank bag involved in the confrontation at the garage sale. Police collected the bag as evidence. Detective Matthew Neihart would later show a photo of Valdez Gonzalez’s bag to the wife in the hospital. The woman told Neihart that “(she) believed (her) bag was a little bit bigger and did not positively identify it as (hers).”
Neihart presented the investigation to the district attorney’s office. While he was doing that, the couple called Neihart to say that they arrived home from the hospital and found their bag their living room.
On June 9, the district attorney’s office informed Neihart that it would not charge Valdez Gonzalez. That same day, Neihart met with Calderon. Valdez Gonzalez didn’t want to meet with police because he was “shaken up” from witnessing the suicide attempt in jail, Neihart recorded Calderon telling him. He was, “not so good,” Calderon said. Neihart also told Calderon that he “didn’t believe Armando was in the wrong how he drove away from the scene.”
Valdez Gonzalez is still paying a toll. He owes $11,000, including the $4,000 bond he posted to get out of jail and almost $5,000 to O’Malley and $2,000 to another lawyer.
O’Malley argues the couple is at fault and should compensate him in full. O’Malley said he will ask the couple to pay the bills. If they don’t Valdez Gonzalez may sue.
O’Malley is less sure about whether Westminster police are responsible for the damages. “He was arrested, and they had probable cause,” O’Malley said.
Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, who the Window briefed on the incident, agreed. “The police do have an obligation to take into account facts that point towards exoneration, as well as facts that point towards inculpation,” he said.
Both attorneys noted that Valdez Gonzalez tried to report the incident and resolve the trouble minutes after it happened. And, Silverstein said, “It doesn’t make any sense to me that the dispatcher needs to know a particular address before they send an officer out to deal with the person who fled the scene out of fear and is calling the police for help.”
Westminster police spokeswoman Cheri Spottke told the Window, “In effort to determine jurisdiction, our dispatchers are trained to request an address where the incident occurred … The call was terminated by Mr. Valdez Gonzalez before further information could be obtained.”
Also, O’Malley argued, Valdez Gonzalez could have been saved some trouble if the department didn’t issue a press release that included his name. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why do cops and DA offices issue press releases?’ It’s to toot their own horn,” he said. “Why don’t you wait to release a press release until somebody is convicted, then splatter their name all over the internet?”
In response to criticism about the press releases, Spottke said, “After probable cause was established and an arrest was made, we responded to continued media inquiries by releasing Mr. Valdez Gonzalez’s photograph and the charges against him. This was done as required by Colorado law and included a statement that read, ‘It should be noted, Mr. Valdez Gonzalez is innocent until proven guilty.’”