Feature

The Politics of Killing

Fifteen years after the Chuck E. Cheese massacre in Aurora, the shooter is still on death row. Nathan Dunlap's only hope that his life might be spared is Colorado Governor Bill Ritter.

December 2008

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THE MASSACRE
Fifty-year-old Margaret Kohlberg watched the clock. It was nearly 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night in December 1993, and her crew was antsy. A family birthday party had stayed late at the Aurora Chuck E. Cheese, and the parents were just now bundling up their two kids against the winter cold. Margaret headed back to the office to start tallying the night's receipts. She'd go home in a few minutes, after she got her teenage workers out the door.

Sylvia Crowell started cleaning the salad bar. The 19-year-old was balancing a full-time work schedule and classes at Metro State, but that day she'd gone shopping with her best friend, Carole Richins, before they'd clocked in for the night shift at the pizzeria. Carole had just left, shouting, "I love you!" over the restaurant's cacophony of arcade games and animated toys.

Nearby, Ben Grant, a high school junior, turned on the vacuum, and its whirring helped drown out the noise. He tossed the cord behind him, absentmindedly sucking up pizza crumbs and food left crushed into the carpet by the kids. Colleen O'Connor was helping close that night too, but she was distracted. The 17-year-old had called her mom during a break three hours before and found out her parents were giving her a car.

In the kitchen, Bobby Stephens scrubbed away. He hadn't been scheduled to work that day, but he needed the cash. Just 20, he had a seven-month-old baby boy at home. With the holidays coming up, he had stopped in to ask for extra hours, and they had put him to work. The small crew continued closing, the routine so familiar that they moved with the robotic motions of the mechanized creatures that danced, twirled, and sang around them.

Sylvia didn't even hear the intruder come up behind her. Silently, he raised the .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol to her left ear and squeezed.

Bang.

As she fell, he looked away. He couldn't stomach the sight of gore and blood. He moved quickly to where Ben was vacuuming.

Bang.

The bullet entered near Ben's eye, lodging in his brain as he fell to the ground.

Colleen saw him coming. He was a boy with a gun; he had too-big brown eyes above hollowed cheeks and a mouth that twisted in a half-smile. Kneeling in front of him, she begged for her life, raising her arms, her fists clenched, as he held a gun just 18 inches from her head.

"Don't shoot," she cried. "I won't tell."

"I have to," the shooter said as he pulled the trigger again.

Bang.

Inside the kitchen, Bobby heard the three sharp cracks, but he didn't stop working. He figured it was probably Sylvia or Colleen popping balloons. He didn't have time to think about it much before the kid with the gun barged into the kitchen. Tall but gaunt, like a boy who's not quite yet a man, the intruder was wearing a jacket, gloves with holes cut out at the knuckles, and a baseball cap perched backward on his head. Stunned, Bobby started to say hello. Half-smirking, the shooter raised his arm.

Bang.

The bullet entered Bobby's jaw and sent him sprawling to the floor. It felt like a burn, a cigarette scorching his skin, and then like a baseball bat slamming into his face. He watched as a pair of black high-top shoes headed toward the office. Margaret was still counting the evening receipts. She did what he asked and opened the safe. The last words she heard were "thank you."

Bang.

He shot her in the ear. Then he grabbed her bag, filled it with game tokens, key chains, cards, $1,591 and change.

Bang.

He shot her again, in the other ear, just to make sure.

Six .25-caliber shell casings dotted the floor. The shooting spree couldn't have lasted more than five minutes.

It would only take a few hours after the Chuck E. Cheese massacre for police to track down the shooter: 19-year-old Nathan Jerard Dunlap was at his girlfriend's apartment. The couple was having sex when his pager went off with a message from his mom, who was relaying a message from the cops. The investigators had heard he ate dinner at the restaurant that night and wanted to ask him a few questions. Dunlap agreed to meet. Before returning to his home, an apartment he shared with his mother, the teenager washed his hands with hydrogen peroxide and jumped in the shower, then stashed some of the money under the freezer. Back at his home, the police questioned him, swabbed his hands for gunshot residue, and took his clothes into evidence. About 12 hours after the murders the police returned to Dunlap's home and cuffed and arrested the teen.

A NEW DISTRICT ATTORNEY NAMED BILL RITTER HEARS THE NEWS
When Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter woke up the next morning, reports of the Chuck E. Cheese killings were all over the local and national news. It was beginning to seem as if the year—and the violence—were never going to end. The wave of violence started in January, when a robber murdered a grandmother in her home in Park Hill. In May, a 10-month-old was nearly killed by a stray bullet at the Denver Zoo; in July, two gang members robbed and beat a woman and killed her husband in Capitol Hill. The local media dubbed it the "Summer of Violence" and ran death totals on the front pages. In Colorado, the Christmastime bloodbath at a Chuck E. Cheese was a macabre but fitting end to the year.

The violence in the city was a microcosm of the crime epidemic spreading around the nation. And what made the violence all the more disturbing, aside from the frequency and depravity, was how young the killers were. Often the offenders were trigger-happy gangbangers. Driving the violence, so went the consensus in the law enforcement community, was crack. As the drugs went, so did the gangs, and by the early 1990s, both had a chokehold on America's inner cities. Juvenile murder rates had tripled nationally. John Dilulio, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, even coined a name for this new breed of young criminals: "superpredators." The public wanted justice—or maybe vengeance—with 80 percent of Americans supporting the death penalty. Law enforcement, prosecutors, and especially politicians quickly took up the rallying cry.

Michael Dukakis' 1988 Democratic presidential campaign was derailed when Republicans started running attack ads featuring unnerving images of Willie Horton, an African-American rapist. While Dukakis was governor of Massachusetts, Horton had been granted a weekend furlough from prison, and he raped again. Congressman Newt Gingrich helped the GOP take both the House and the Senate in 1994 with a "Contract with America" that promised increased funding for prison construction, tougher sentencing, and a stronger death-penalty law. In that political climate, even progressive Democrats—at least the most successful ones—were seizing on the political power of the death penalty. In 1992, an Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton received a clemency petition on behalf of Rickey Ray Rector, a mentally retarded man on death row. (After killing a police officer, Rector had shot himself in the head, effectively lobotomizing himself.) Clinton had long been opposed to the death penalty, but now he was running for president of the United States. Clinton denied Rector's petition. It took the executioner an hour to find the right vein.

Like a young Bill Clinton, the young Bill Ritter had what he described as "some very strong reservations" about the death penalty. It was not so much a political view as it was a belief rooted in his religion. Ritter was born into a Catholic family of 12 children, all raised on a five-acre farm in what is now Aurora. The Ritters took their faith seriously, and perhaps none more so than Bill, who spent two years at a Catholic high school seminary in Texas before deciding that he didn't want to become a priest. It was then, in the early 1980s, that a career in law as a Denver deputy district attorney presented itself as a suitable calling. After all, wasn't the pursuit of justice a way of serving a just and merciful God?

Although he was a Democrat, Ritter was pro-life, his church's Catholic doctrine advocating for the sanctity of life for the born and unborn. Ritter opposed abortion, with exceptions—rape, incest, and health of the mother—and had publicly expressed his "personal doubts" about the death penalty. And Ritter's deeply rooted convictions threatened to undermine a tremendous professional opportunity at the beginning of the summer of 1993, when Governor Roy Romer was looking for a district attorney. The current DA, Norm Early, was burned out and wanted to retire; a search committee had recommended that the governor consider Ritter for the post. Considering the political climate, one of the things Romer needed to know was whether Ritter would pursue a death-penalty sentence to the end. Ritter assured the governor he would; that he would subjugate his "personal doubts" to the law of the state and the beliefs of the voters, and Romer appointed him DA.

Ritter didn't have that much to worry about when it came to actually reconciling his faith's doctrine of protecting life with his professional commitment to implementing a death sentence. Colorado hadn't executed anyone in more than 25 years. Out of 77 potential capital punishment cases, only seven men had been sentenced to death across the state, and none, so far, had been executed. More frequently, juries, stymied by one reluctant juror, hadn't been willing to execute. When the two gang members killed that husband in Capitol Hill, only weeks after DA Ritter took office, it seemed like he would face his first test. The court of public opinion wanted a life for a life. Legally, though, there was no way Ritter's office could secure a death sentence in the case. Police weren't sure which gang member had pulled the trigger in Capitol Hill. And because the Chuck E. Cheese murders happened in Aurora, outside the Denver DA's jurisdiction, Ritter wouldn't have to consider the Nathan Dunlap matter either. At least not yet.

DUNLAP'S DEFENSE RESTS
In his more than 25 years in office, Arapahoe County District Attorney Robert Gallagher had never won a death-penalty conviction. But two years after the 1993 Chuck E. Cheese murders, the voters who'd elected him to office term after term were still enraged. The slayings had made national news. The former Arkansas governor who'd executed Rector, the mentally disabled con, was now President Bill Clinton, and President Clinton had used the Chuck E. Cheese killings to reinforce his tough-on-crime message. The case had generated so much interest, stoked the fires of the potential jury pool in Aurora, that the court decided Dunlap ought to be tried elsewhere in order to find a jury of objective peers.

The rare change-of-venue order moved the case some 60 miles away to Colorado Springs. Arapahoe County DA Gallagher entrusted the prosecution of the capital case to his heir apparent, Jim Peters. Because Dunlap couldn't afford an attorney, the court appointed Forrest "Boogie" Lewis and Steven Gayle to defend him. Both attorneys had won life-without-parole convictions for clients in death-penalty trials. It appeared they understood that their job was twofold: persuade a jury that there was reasonable doubt of Dunlap's guilt, and, if necessary, do their best to secure the most lenient sentence.

It came as no surprise that Peters presented a remarkably strong case against Dunlap. The evidence was overwhelming. Bobby Stephens had survived the bloodbath—a small scar on his cheek the only visible reminder of that night—and testified that there was no doubt in his mind that Dunlap was the one who had killed his friends and coworkers. Using fancy new slideshow technology, prosecutors flipped gruesome pictures of murdered teenagers before the jury. They put the coroner on the stand; he plunged knitting needle­­-like rods into Styrofoam heads to show how a bullet moved through skulls and brains. The prosecution lined these macabre models on a table in the courtroom. A detective even turned on Ben's vacuum cleaner so jurors could hear its whining.

The prosecution presented to the jury a narrative of Dunlap's biography that cast him perfectly, exclusively, as one of those superpredators. At 15, Nathan had committed several robberies, first using a golf club as a weapon and later guns. He ended up in juvenile court, which offered him the opportunity to turn his life around. Instead, he sold drugs off and on, and hung out with a wannabe gang that robbed places for quick hits of cash. In 1993 alone, he was arrested five times on misdemeanor charges. Until that December night at Chuck E. Cheese. The lead prosecutor Peters and his team pointed out that since Dunlap had been in jail, awaiting trial, he had torn a leg off a metal desk, sharpened it, and began to scrape away at the window ledge in his cell. They took pictures of Dunlap's new jailhouse tattoos: One was "Crazy Horse," the new nickname he'd embraced; the other was a smoking handgun with the phrase "By Any Means Necessary."

The exclamation point on the prosecution's case was Dunlap's own words. Peters informed the jurors that Dunlap had confessed to fellow inmates, to a jail deputy, to friends—many of whom had testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences—and to a trusted mentor. As to the question of motive: Why did Dunlap go on his murderous spree? What reason could there be? The case the prosecution so commendably presented to the jury, in short, went like this: Dunlap entered the Chuck E. Cheese that night, ordered a ham-and-cheese sandwich, played a video game called Hogan's Alley where he shot bad guys; when the game was over, he hid in the bathroom until closing, then emerged and executed four people for real—because he wanted revenge for being fired from his "doughmaster" job at the same restaurant months before. Peters even put Dunlap's mother, Carol, on the stand expecting she would plead the Fifth—which she did—thus leaving the jury with the impression that Dunlap's own mother couldn't muster a word on her son's behalf.

The proceedings were then turned over to Dunlap's defense. Throughout the prosecution's show, Lewis and Gayle, who declined to comment for this story, had offered few objections, and as they now made Dunlap's case offered no rebuttals. Dunlap wanted to testify, but his attorneys advised him against it. In fact, Lewis and Gayle did not call a witness—they did not have a single person testify on their client's behalf—and then they rested. On February 26, 1996, the jury, who had been sequestered in a local hotel, took just three-and-a-half hours to find Dunlap guilty.

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