No matter how winding and cold the trail, Randy Hansen pursued justice for Aaroné Thompson.
If the end of the Hansens' marriage hadn't come during the Thompson case, it would have fractured during the next, or the one after that. Hansen would tell you the couple had been a bad match from the start, and that the end of their marriage was no different than any other failed marriage in America. There was both fact and wishful fiction in that explanation. Divorce is always about something, and in police marriages it's almost always about something to do with the job. The divorce rate for cops is 60 to 70 percent higher than the national average. Not that being a statistic mattered to Hansen. That didn't make the end any easier. Carrie would have to declare bankruptcy. Hansen, who would learn that he made, as he would drolly put it, "too much money" as a police officer to declare bankruptcy himself, would have to pay child support and settle up the debt from their hair salon. And someone would have to move out.
Four months into the grand jury proceedings, Hansen moved into a one-bedroom unit in an Aurora apartment complex. He furnished it with a cheap kitchen table and a futon for the living room. It wasn't like he needed nice stuff; with the grand jury taking up his days and nights, he hardly spent any time at the apartment anyway. Instead of driving home to Arvada to slip silently into a warm bed after a long day of work, Hansen could make all the noise he wanted. He lived alone, sleeping in sheets that were always cold.
October 2006 to May 2007
It had been nearly a year since Hansen pulled the Thompson children out of their home and placed them in foster care. For 11 months, they were nearly silent when it came to what happened inside 16551 E. Kepner Place. In the middle of the grand jury hearings, however, the floodgates opened. Perhaps it was Lowe's death. Maybe it was the natural progression of mental healing. It could've been some unknown trigger that released the deluge. What mattered was the kids were talking, and they were all saying the same thing: They had been brutally physically abused.
The kids called the abuse getting a "whoopin." And they said that both Thompson and Lowe handed whoopins out with near equal force, ferocity, and frequency. Lowe, they said, took a kind of pleasure in punishing, while Thompson just did whatever Lowe told him to do. Either way, whoopins were everyday occurrences in the home, brought down swiftly for eating a bite of Lowe's breakfast cereal, for a bad grade at school, for not doing their chores, for not being ready on time, for a dirty room, for spilling food, for thumb-sucking, or for wetting the bed.
These punishments were not the average swat to the behind—the kind of reprimand strict grandmothers might've handed out for back-talking. For minor offenses, Thompson or Lowe would whack the children's hands with a leather belt until welts appeared. Sometimes the kids had to stand on the fireplace hearth, hold a telephone book, and face the wall for hours at a time. When a younger child made a mess in his pants, Thompson's punishment of choice was to place the excrement in the toilet and hold the child upside down by the ankles over the pot while screaming, "Poop goes here!"
For more serious infractions, the kids received beatings in the basement. Lowe and Thompson would make the children strip naked, tie them to a pole with a scarf, and cane them with whatever instrument struck their fancy: a baseball bat, a broomstick, a metal pole, a belt, an extension cord. The parents would often take turns, tag-teaming the beatings so that when one got tired the other would take over. When the abuse drew blood, which the kids said it often did, Lowe and Thompson would make the kids clean up their own blood with bleach. After every beating, the kids had to take a hot bath to stem the swelling.
None of the children was immune to the wrath—not even four-year-old Aaroné. According to the kids, when Aaroné wet herself or the bed, which was often, Thompson would whoop her on the bottom with a belt. He would then put Aaroné in the coat closet—her "punishment place"—often for the whole day, sometimes overnight. Her older sister remembered Aaroné spending hours in the dark closet and said she would lock fingers with Aaroné when the little girl would stick her tiny fingers out from underneath the closet door.
The information from the children brought clarity to the investigation that Hansen—and the sitting grand jury—had been searching for: This was not a murder case. This was a case of rampant child abuse. A case where one little girl was beaten to death, and in which seven others were barely surviving a living hell.
Every line in the 50-page indictment handed down by the grand jury on May 16, 2007, read like something out of a horror novel. But of the 60 counts laid out in graphic detail, count number one—child abuse resulting in death—was the most serious. The charge carried a maximum sentence of 48 years in prison. With the indictment in hand, Hansen could've legally arrested Aaron Thompson. But he didn't. Instead, he sent patrol officers to make the arrest—an arrest he had worked more than a year and a half to make happen. Hansen thought it'd be easier that way; that Thompson would put up less of a fight or talk more freely if he weren't there. Hansen simply didn't need the spotlight, didn't need the instant gratification—what he wanted, needed, was for a criminal jury to convict Aaroné's father.
Opening Statements, August 7, 2009
Hansen's face looked taut. Like the old football player he was, he rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck attempting to shake off the stress. Aaron Thompson wasn't the only one on trial in the courtroom that day. Hansen knew his police work, his investigation, the last four years of his life—it was all on trial too. He wasn't allowed to speak during opening arguments; that was Chief Deputy District Attorney Bob Chappell's job. Hansen would only be able to watch as the counselor stitched together his case. After four years of work, he was no longer in control.
Aaron Thompson wasn't in control either. Not in control of his children. Not in control of his freedom. He'd been in jail awaiting trial for more than two years. In court he sat quietly at the far end of the defense table in a blue, collared shirt. He was noticeably thinner than when he was arrested in May 2007. He murmured a quick good morning to his attorneys. Beyond that, he didn't speak or move. He stared blankly ahead, his eyes vacant.
It had been more than two years since police handcuffed Thompson on the side of the road in Aurora, and nearly four years since Hansen first arrived at East Kepner Place. Finally, the now 45-year-old detective found himself sitting at the prosecution desk. The previous two years had been an epic roller coaster of hearings, motions, delays by the prosecution, delays by the defense, resignations by attorneys, trial preparation, and a change in judges. Dressed in a dark-blue suit, Hansen took his seat as the case's advisory witness in the Arapahoe County Justice Center.
At the behest of Judge Valeria Spencer, the gray-haired Chappell rolled out his opening argument. With a click of a remote, he called up on two white screens a picture of Aaroné Thompson. It was not the overused, blurry photograph that by now everyone knew. This was a baby photo—and the image had its desired effect: In an instant, the concept of innocence lost hung thickly in the air. Chappell let the photograph sear into the jurors' brains before he painted a ghastly picture of the neglect and abuse that befell not only this baby but seven others as well. Thompson and Lowe, he told the jury, built a house of horrors in their Aurora neighborhood—one that ended for them on November 14, 2005, but that would haunt their children forever.
For 22 days the prosecution laid out its case. Without a body, a cause of death, or much forensic evidence, the trial came down to the testimony of nearly 100 witnesses and 24 hours of taped video and audio recordings. The jurors listened as each police officer, detective, crime scene investigator, and forensic interviewer explained his or her role in the case and what the evidence they had found suggested. It was long, exhausting, tedious testimony. Tabitha Graves and Eric Williams Sr., two crucial witnesses for the prosecution's case, took the stand and relayed their stories. The jury also listened to phone recordings of Shely Lowe, her language often vulgar and inarticulate as she talked to Tabitha Graves. The prosecution called detective Hansen to testify on a half-dozen occasions.
The most compelling—and heart-wrenching—testimony came from the children. Almost four years had gone by, but the Thompson children had not forgotten. Sitting less than 15 feet away from Big A, they described their stories of abuse. Scarred kneecaps. The soles of their feet beaten with a baseball bat. Whacks on the arms and hands for any little misdeed. For Hansen, this was the most difficult part of the trial. He knew that Aaroné had suffered what was most likely a painful death—a vicious beating that he believed left her with fatal internal injuries. But listening to the kids again, he realized that her death may have been something of a blessing. For if she had lived, she and her seven siblings would have endured abuse for their entire childhoods. Without her death, Hansen could not have come to their rescue.
The children testified to the last time they saw their little sister. Their recollections were slightly different, and none of them could give a date, but two of them described a similar incident: Aaroné had wet herself again, and Big A was whoopin her for it. One of her brothers heard the little girl's screams emanating from the basement through the air vents into his bedroom. When Aaroné suddenly stopped screaming, he heard Big A say, "Shit." Another sibling, a stepsister, said the last time she saw Aaroné was in the upstairs bathroom. Aaroné's sister had been using the bathroom when Big A told her to go to her room. She watched as Thompson, who was furious that Aaroné had wet herself again, carried Aaroné into the bathroom and shut the door. She remembered that Aaroné was not at breakfast the next morning. Aaroné's oldest step-sibling, 18 years old when he took the stand, also testified to noticing strange incidents during that time: a missing shovel, a foul odor in the basement, Lowe praying and joining a church, and the eighth mattress disappearing.
After weeks of agonizing testimony, the prosecution rested its case. It was now the defense attorneys' opportunity to refute what they could. Hansen was not surprised by their strategy—he'd known what it would be after the moment Shely Lowe died three years earlier. The defense asserted that Lowe, not Thompson, was the abusive monster, and that she killed Aaroné. They submitted that Aaron Thompson's only two criminal missteps were helping Lowe cover up the crime and lying to police about the girl's disappearance. The defense called fewer than 10 people to the stand and focused mainly on discrediting the prosecution's witnesses. Thompson declined to take the stand, and the defense rested after only one day of presentation. On September 15, 2009, the case—and the last four years of detective Hansen's life—went to the jury.