A Murder in Vail
"Do you know how long I've been trying not to do this?"
One year ago this month, Richard Moreau went on a shooting spree in a Vail bar and killed a man. It was the first homicide in the posh resort town in three decades. What went wrong? Good question.
Some six months later, the pretrial hearings in the criminal case against Richard Moreau are underway. Moreau is charged with first-degree murder and seven other felonies. On this spring morning, Moreau is in an Eagle County courtroom watching himself closely on a large screen, watching himself shoot people and kill a man. He leans to his left and whispers to his court-appointed attorneys. From the gallery, it’s tough to hear what he says, but the letters PTSD are audible.
Moreau has been incarcerated at the Eagle County Justice Center since he killed Kitching and wounded three others at the Sandbar. Fifth Judicial District Attorney, “Kobe DA” Mark Hurlbert, who’s been on the job since December 2002, plans to show Moreau deliberated before he killed Kitching, which in this case is a requirement for a first-degree murder conviction. The bar security tape is part of Hurlbert’s case. Moreau has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Moreau did not respond to a letter I mailed to him at the justice center or to the phone message I left there for him. According to what a former cellmate of Moreau’s told me, Moreau has said he doesn’t know what happened that night; that he was on a new medication that made him black out. Once trial begins—it is slated to start in February—there will likely be debate about whether Moreau meant to kill, whether he was in his right mind, and whether the shooting spree could have been prevented.
The Vail PD has been investigating the Sandbar shooting since that night a year ago this month. The investigation, which acting administration commander Craig Bettis has overseen, turned up a number of troubling incidents never before reported to the police. Like the night Moreau invited his new neighbor, Francisco “Mike” Santos, over for drinks and ended up pulling what Santos described as “a Dirty Harry-looking” revolver and pointing it six inches from Santos’ face. Santos didn’t tell the police. He figured even if the cops confiscated Moreau’s guns, Moreau would still come after him. Bettis says if a few more of those stories would have made it to the department, Moreau would have been arrested.
Bettis says there was no reason for the Vail PD to believe Moreau would open fire in the Sandbar or any other bar in town. It wasn’t like, Bettis says, there was a pattern of arrests in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Bettis says Moreau was a “colorful character” the department was aware of, but being colorful is not a crime. In a pretrial hearing, one of the Vail PD officers, Ryan Millbern, testified that the department indeed was aware of Moreau. He said that Moreau’s name was on a list of locals to watch. Millbern said the PD knew Moreau had weapons, had been caught with weapons, and drank a lot.
Moreau’s dear friend, Garneau, questions whether Moreau “deserves” to spend the rest of his life in prison. In a letter he sent to the editor of the Vail Daily Garneau wrote that Moreau “has never had the kind of treatment that can ease the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. … Rossi slipped through the cracks with the VA because it’s so far to Grand Junction.”
Jim Lindley has little patience for such talk. “He didn’t just fall through the cracks,” Lindley says. “He walked right through them.” Lindley was the victim Moreau fired at before killing Kitching. He is back on his feet after a handful of surgeries, and he believes something could and should have been done to prevent Moreau’s shooting spree. He says the Vail PD “had plenty of opportunities to deal with him. He was an obvious threat and there was nothing done about it. He was coddled.”
As Lindley points out, there were plenty of opportunities for the Vail PD to deal with Moreau. Also—and perhaps more critical—there were plenty of opportunities for the courts to deal with this well-known, repeat offender, beginning with his first arrest back in 1976. Which raises questions about how the Vail-area courts handled Moreau’s many offenses, like those from the ’70s and ’80s. When I requested the complete record of Moreau’s criminal history including sentencing, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert refused to make them available, citing the pending criminal trial and an order from Judge R. Thomas Moorehead.
In response to my request, Hurlbert wrote: “If your statements are accurate, that the public interest in getting such records is in ‘knowing how Colorado’s criminal justice system failed to protect the public from this well-known repeat offender, including how both the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s office and the District Court of Eagle County handled the numerous occasions when Mr. Moreau was involved in the criminal justice system’ (an interest I wholeheartedly believe in) then that public interest will be there in February after the trial is over and after I not only am allowed but required to give much more than you asked for.”
The box of a courtroom in Eagle is brightly lit. Sharp, synthetic light illuminates the pew-style seating in the back, a podium in the middle of the room flanked by desks, and the iconic raised bench up front. Moreau always walks out of the secret-looking door on the right. He’s pleasant to the guard. On this particular day, he wears a sports coat and jeans, and Vail Police officer Ryan Millbern is on the stand recounting that November 7, 2009 night:
Millbern got to Moreau shortly after Lt. Greg Daly cuffed the veteran. Millbern stayed with Moreau in the corner of the bar while the rest of the officers arrived on the scene. Millbern and Moreau weren’t friends, but the two had conversations years ago about their mutual love for animals, ferrets in particular. Millbern was known around the department as the ferret guy. As Millbern guarded the suspect, Moreau was babbling. Officer Millbern tried to quiet him down, but Moreau kept on talking:
“I really fucked up tonight, didn’t I?”
“How many people did I kill?”
“I told the VA this was going to happen.”
“The VA didn’t listen.”
“If they lock me up, I’m going to kill myself.”
“The only thing I care about is my four cats.”