Shooting suspect fled
Illegal immigrant sought in death of turkey hunter
By Ellen Miller
Rocky Mountian News
Friday, June 17, 2005
GLENWOOD SPRINGS - A ranch hand working in the country illegally is suspected of fatally shooting a Qwest executive May 14 and then fleeing to Mexico, Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said Thursday.
Vallario said he doesn't believe the ranch hand knew he was shooting at Jeff Garrett, who was turkey hunting and heavily camouflaged, but the man apparently realized he had done so and fled the same morning.
The sheriff refused to name the suspect or his hometown in Mexico.
He worked at Bear Wallow Ranch, about five miles northwest of Glenwood Springs. A Colorado Bureau of Investigation analysis confirmed that a rifle from the ranch was the firearm that killed Garrett, the sheriff said.
"One theory, and I'm 90 percent confident, is that Jeff was calling a turkey and (the ranch hand) shot him," Vallario said at a news conference. He added that the ranch hand may have thought, "If I see a turkey, I'll get it for dinner."
He called his scenario a "combination of theories, speculation and evidence," but said the evidence points to "a tragic hunting issue."
Garfield County officials are working with the state attorney general's staff to arrange for local investigators to travel to Mexico to locate the suspect.
Within the past 48 hours, investigators reinterviewed Bear Wallow Ranch managers about who may have been in the area when Garrett was killed.
"We got real interested" when the managers said they sometimes send a .22-caliber Magnum rifle with ranch hands heading out to do brush and fence work in remote areas in case they encounter a mountain lion or bear.
Garrett, 37, of Aurora, was an assistant vice president for Qwest whose duties included lobbying the state legislature. He is survived by his wife, Charlotte, and children, Olivia, 3, and Adam, 1.
Charlotte Garrett, shaken but resolute, appeared at the news conference Thursday to thank the county's search and rescue team and "everyone who helped find Jeff's body and bring him home to us. He was an amazing man and his spirit will be kept alive in our two children."
Vallario said he believes the suspect might face a charge of criminally negligent homicide, a felony carrying a maximum six-year prison sentence. But depending on the suspect's "mental culpability," the charge could be reduced, he said.
A co-worker of the suspect was in the same area but is not believed to have witnessed the shooting. The man is a legal immigrant from Mexico who is "well-grounded in the community for four or five years," Vallario said.
"I don't believe he was involved in the actual act, but I believe his friend told him later as he was leaving" the ranch for Mexico, the sheriff said.
Ranch managers believed the suspect was in the U.S. legally because he produced a green card, but Vallario said an investigation showed the card was forged.
According to a News article in 1989, the ranch was bought by Joe W. Rogers Jr., CEO of the Georgia-based Waffle House restaurant chain, but it could not be confirmed Thursday if Rogers is the present owner. The ranch manager, reached by phone, said he could not comment.
Vallario and Garfield County District Attorney Colleen Truden said the co-worker could be charged as an accessory, but stressed that he is cooperating with investigators.
"I don't want to rush into anything," Vallario said. "My opinion is that it's some type of homicide. First-degree murder is not a consideration."
Because the potential penalty is not life in prison or the death penalty, the case won't place the same burden on authorities as that of Raul Gomez-Garcia, who is suspected of killing a Denver police officer and wounding another and then fleeing to Mexico, the sheriff said.
"We're getting into political and international issues," he said, "and the discussion will be whether they try him in Mexico or we bring him back and try him here."
"But I feel fairly confident we'll be able to move forward on extradition because there's no life (in prison) or death (penalty) in this case," Vallario said.
Had the shooter come forward, "I believe it would have brought it down to negligent homicide," he said.
Vallario also said that since the autopsy is not complete, he couldn't speculate whether Garrett, whose body was found about 7 p.m. on May 14, might have been saved by immediate medical attention.
Garrett died on Bureau of Land Management property northeast of New Castle. The ranch hands were clearing brush and fixing fences on a BLM grazing allotment nearby, Vallario said.
Turkey hunting in the spring is restricted to shotguns, so the rifle used by the suspect was not a legal hunting weapon for that season.