When Jillian Groh checked in to the downtown Westin Hotel one cold night almost seven years ago, everything felt certain. Then things changed forever.
The view from Alan Shafner’s office, a few miles from the accident site, is quintessential Colorado. The Rockies sit in the distance, a bit fuzzy, almost as if they have been painted onto the landscape. Shafner spent his childhood gazing at views like this; he was born and raised in Denver and attended college at the University of Colorado Boulder. He went on to the South Texas College of Law in Houston. After graduation he came back to Colorado and landed a job at the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Jefferson County prosecuting felony cases. Shafner moved to Fogel, Keating, and Wagner in 1983 as an associate and would spend 28 years with the firm, eventually being named partner.
As Shafner researched the Groh case, a few things quickly became clear. The first was that, as far as he could tell, the Westin had not followed its own policies when evicting Jill and her friends. Security guards are supposed to refrain from “entering a guest room without proper authorization,” and according to a Starwood best practices manual, hotel employees should attempt to prevent intoxicated guests from driving. Shafner learned that not more than a few months before the Groh incident, the second Westin security guard involved that night, John Dale, had diffused a situation with an NHL hockey team, the San Jose Sharks, by moving the team to an empty part of the hotel where noise wouldn’t bother other guests. The hotel commended Dale for his action.
If a guest is drunk—and Jill’s friends say they told security they were—hotel staff is supposed to involve the Denver Police in the eviction process, according to court documents, to ensure everyone’s safety.And although there were two police officers at the hotel that night, both would later testify they weren’t asked to help with the Groh group. Furthermore, the manager on duty that night later stated, regarding intoxicated guests, “We take responsibility for cabs even if they are thrown out. We’re willing to pay for the cabs if they want to, you know, if they want to go home.”
Shafner also investigated the employees themselves. In his first month on the job, Robinson—the guard who knocked on the door of room 1715—had been accused of sexual harassment and had argued with co-workers. In fact, just minutes before he encountered Jill and her friends, Robinson had an altercation with VIP guests on the 19th floor. During the argument, one of the VIPs yelled, “You’re fucking scaring off my friend.” When the incidents occured, Robinson was on a 90-day probationary employment period; the Westin didn’t renew his contract after those three months.
The second security guard, Dale, had recommended that the Westin hire Robinson. The two worked out at the same gym in Aurora. Dale would later say in a deposition he had thought Robinson would be good for the job because, “In our conversations, you know, he was soft-spoken.... He had some experience in security, and he was looking for a job.”
Dale had a lengthy resumé with a focus on security and law enforcement. He also had a rap sheet and says that in his 20s he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In 2002, Dale was charged with criminally impersonating a peace officer. He cut a deal and pleaded guilty to official misconduct. Two years after that incident, Dale’s sister filed for a restraining order against him. As evidence to support her request, she described one particular incident: “John and I were disagreeing. He leapt up from where he was sitting and got in my face while telling my father, ‘You’d better call the cops, Dad, ’cause I’m gonna kill her.’ ” An Arapahoe County court judge granted Dale’s sister a civil protection order. Dale says he told the Westin about both the restraining order and the misconduct charge during his interview for a security position.
The manager on duty in the early morning of March 4, 2007, Mario Maradiaga, had multiple assault charges and had also been charged with disturbing the peace. Six months after the Groh incident, Denver Police officer Keith Lewis wrote an affidavit for a warrant for Maradiaga’s arrest: “Mario Maradiaga...and the complainant have been in an intimate relationship for 11 months. On this date, the defendant and the complainant were in an argument that turned physical with the defendant punching the complainant in the leg and pushing her out of the car by her neck.”
Shafner grew more confident as he researched the case. It was difficult to tell, he thought, if the Westin had set out to hire employees skilled in customer service or nightclub bouncers. What’s more, Shafner couldn’t seem to find any record of the Westin training these employees on how to determine if a guest was drunk or how to deal with a guest if he or she was intoxicated. “The lack of any evidence that key Westin personnel were trained on the Westin’s policies and procedures for handling intoxicated guests is especially noteworthy,” Shafner wrote in a court brief, “because the Westin Hotel requires that all training be documented in personnel files.”
About a year after the accident, Shafner sued the Westin on behalf of the Groh family for, among other things, negligence, negligent eviction, and negligent hiring and training. Shafner also sued Sun Chon, the driver involved in the crash, and Angela Reed. (Although they testified on behalf of Reed, the Grohs felt she was no longer remorseful.) Those matters were eventually resolved, and the lawsuit against the Westin was all that remained. “We teach our kids from first grade: Get a place, be safe. That’s the mantra,” Shafner says. “These kids did what they’re supposed to do. They got a hotel room. We’re not saying you can’t evict people. Just do it correctly.”