Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hernandez report details police errors

Francis Hernandez (AP file photo)

Aurora police traffic investigators made several mistakes in the Francis Hernandez case, and the department should overhaul its handling of fatal traffic crashes, according to an internal department investigation. 

An illegal immigrant from Guatemala, Hernandez was convicted last year of causing a 2008 crash that killed three people, including a toddler inside an ice cream shop. 

His week-long trial last year laid bare disputes between the traffic bureau detectives handling the high-profile case. There were also allegations Aurora police mishandled evidence. 

Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates assigned a “tactical review board” of six members of the department to review the investigation. The board — which included two commanders, two lieutenants, a sergeant and an officer — issued its 19-page report last week.

In it, the board said the department made a handful of mistakes, including assigning Detective Johnny Lee, the least-experienced detective in the traffic section, as the lead investigator and failing to provide him enough support.

“Lee, clearly the most inexperienced investigator, made several errors while working this extremely complex case,” the report said. 

The report said the department should handle major traffic crashes similar to the way it handles homicides: with a team of experienced investigators and experts on hand to help the lead detective. 

Other recommendations in the report include stricter rules for handling evidence in fatal crashes, new guidelines for handling officers’ hand written notes, housing all traffic investigators in the same office and purchasing some high-tech evidence gathering equipment. 

A police department spokesman said the department has implement all the recommendations expect moving the investigators to the same office. That change could be complete this fall. 

According to the report, the department’s Internal Affairs section also investigated Lee and his superior, Lt. John Sopranuk, after the review board raised some concerns about their performance. The findings and any possible discipline stemming from the investigation are confidential personnel matters, the report said. 

Among the errors in the case, the report said, was Lee’s initial decision to charge Hernandez only with a hit-and-run charge that carried a $10,000 bail. 

Evidence later showed Hernandez planned to use his girlfriend’s parents’ property to post a relatively small bond and flee the country. 

“Hernandez likely would have bonded out and become a fugitive of justice,” the report said. 

After finding an error in the original affidavit, other detectives later helped write a second arrest affidavit for Hernandez that included the more-serious charges and kept him in jail until his trial, the report said. 

Those affidavits became a central issue at Hernandez’s trial.

Two detectives testified that Lee deleted the original and was deceptive when asked about why he deleted it. 

Lee testified he mistakenly deleted the affidavit but still had the original hard copy and copied it to make a new one, even making sure to repeat typographical errors so it matched the original. 

Police also made a mistake, the report said, when one of the officers who first interviewed Hernandez the night of the crash failed to turn over his hand-written notes from the interview. 

Hernandez is serving a 60-year sentence at the state’s Centennial Correctional Facility in Canon City, according to Colorado Department of Corrections records. He won’t be eligible for parole until 2038 at the earliest. 

Police and prosecutors say Hernandez slammed a Chevrolet Suburban into a pickup truck at East Mississippi Avenue and South Havana Street on Sept. 4, 2008, killing Patricia Guntharp, 49, of Centennial, and her passenger, Deb Serecky, 51, of Aurora. The impact sent both vehicles crashing into electrical boxes and a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop, pulling 3-year-old Marten Kudlis out of the store and into the street. He later died. Hernandez fled the scene, police said, and was arrested later that night at his apartment in southeast Denver.

Jurors deliberated for just a few hours before handing down the unanimous verdict on 19 counts following an eight-day trial in February 2010.

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