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Photograph by Theo Stroomer

Small-Town Injustice: The Aftermath of a Police Officer’s Murder Conviction in Rocky Ford

When a Rocky Ford police officer was convicted of murder after shooting a young man in 2014, residents of the Eastern Plains town might have believed that the criminal justice system had worked to protect the community. So why does the Rocky Ford Police Department seem more powerful—and less accountable—than ever?

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Part 1

On the night everything changed, Jack Jacquez grabbed his skateboard, left his friend’s house, and headed toward home. It was around 2 a.m. on October 12, 2014, in the two-stoplight town of Rocky Ford, a small Eastern Plains community wreathed by thousands of acres of open fields. Stars shone overhead, and the sharp odor of manure permeated the self-proclaimed “Sweet Melon Capital of the World” as Jack rode through the glow of porch lights. He wound his way along the asphalt roads, zipping past low-slung homes toward Main Street, where tired buildings mark the edge of the city’s downtown. Beyond the aging brick structures, the inky fall night stretched as far as he could see.

Like many of Rocky Ford’s 3,900 residents, Jack, 27, had spent much of his life in town. He lived in the house his grandparents purchased in the 1960s, a clapboard one-story at the corner of Swink Avenue and Third Street with a large yard and a row of hedges that ran along one side of the property. His mother was raised in the house, and, later, Jack and his three older siblings. Most everyone in town knew the Jacquez (pronounced “hock-iss”) family, especially Jack. He was friendly and laid-back, forever the spoiled baby to a single mother and his doting sisters.

Jack Vacquez. Photo courtesy of Facebook

At one time, Jack had been a youth trainee at the town’s police department and considered a career in law enforcement. A series of run-ins with the law, including a short jail sentence for marijuana possession, obliterated that plan. He’d worked odd jobs since then but over time began feeling trapped in the only place he’d known—an outsider in his straight-laced farming town. Like many young residents in fading rural communities throughout America, Jack was trying to navigate his way through the economic and social confines of small-town life. Ultimately, he would need to decide if his future was here.

He cruised past the Tank N Tummy gas station in the middle of town and turned onto Swink. Swink and Elm avenues are the primary arteries that pass through Rocky Ford, both part of Highway 50, which runs next to the Arkansas River and all the way to the Kansas border. Jack’s home was a few blocks west, where he lived with his mother and pregnant girlfriend. The night’s cool air rushed over his face as the empty pavement passed under his wheels.

Rocky Ford Officer James Ashby was watching. Sitting next to him on patrol was Kyle Moore, a civilian who was on a ride-along and was the brother of another Rocky Ford cop. Jack was on his skateboard in one of the highway’s lanes, a safety violation. Ashby pulled up to Jack near the intersection of Third and Swink and said he wanted to talk.

From that moment, nearly everything that happened that night has become a matter of dispute—recorded in Colorado Bureau of Investigation reports, litigated in an Otero County courtroom, and debated on the streets of Rocky Ford. According to Ashby, Jack shouted “Fuck you,” stepped off his board, and walked away. (Moore later told investigators that Ashby did not turn on his police lights, and that Jack didn’t swear and instead told Ashby that he had arrived at his home.) Jack, Ashby claimed, then moved erratically across the sidewalk and past the hedges of the old house.

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Ashby parked his vehicle at an angle to the curb, partially blocking the highway’s westbound lane. He got out of the car and left Moore behind. With his handgun holstered on his hip, he trailed Jack in a slow-speed foot pursuit. Ashby moved past the hedges, across the house’s backyard, and up the wooden stairs to the old rear porch where Jack was fumbling with a bag. “Show me your hands!” Ashby yelled multiple times.

Viola Jacquez awoke when she heard Jack calling her name. She knew her son was out with friends and figured he’d forgotten his key. C’mon, Jack, she thought as she pulled herself from bed and stepped into the family room. Gauzy light filtered through the windows, illuminating her collection of Coca-Cola tins arranged in a china cabinet. Viola peered across the room toward her small kitchen. Through glass in the door, she could see shadows moving outside. “Mom!” she heard her son yell. “Mom! Open the door!”

Viola Jacquez’s house, where her son, Jack, was murdered. Photograph by Theo Stroomer

Viola hurried into the kitchen and then pulled the door open. Ashby had grabbed the skateboard, which Jack clutched tightly. The struggle lasted a few seconds. Jack ripped the board from Ashby and stumbled forward, toward the living room. Ashby stumbled back, out the door. He pulled his gun from its holster and charged back inside. With Jack moving away from him, Ashby extended his arms and fired.

You may not remember the name Jack Jacquez, but he was one of the hundreds of people killed by American police in 2014 and 2015, when shootings of minority men were making headlines across the country. Jack’s murder came two months after Michael Brown’s in Ferguson, Missouri, and one month before 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s in Cleveland. Brown’s death raised the profile of the Black Lives Matter movement. When the officer involved in Rice’s death was not criminally charged, it brought to light inadequacies in the grand jury process.

Jack’s death in a small town on Colorado’s plains barely registered. Rocky Ford did not burn nightly during riots, like Ferguson. He was not a child, like Rice. As officer-related shootings received more attention around the country, it was as if Jack’s story evaporated before it could be told, as if he’d never existed.

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Mariah Talmich held Jack as he died. Photograph by Theo Stroomer

He was shot in the doorway between his mother’s kitchen and living room. He let out a yelp when the bullet struck his back, before it tore through his heart and one of his lungs. Jack crumpled to the floor, unable to move. Blood began to run from the wound. The police officer sprayed mace into the room then radioed for backup. “Don’t fucking move!” Ashby yelled as he left the house. While Jack was dying, his 21-year-old girlfriend, Mariah Talmich, ran out of her bedroom and lay next to him, cradling his head.

Police and sheriff’s officers from throughout Otero County quickly arrived at the house. Because it was a significant shooting in a small town, the 16th Judicial District Critical Response Team, including the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, immediately took the lead. One of the investigators got a warrant to search the house. Viola and Mariah were taken outside to sit on the curb, barefoot, in their T-shirts and sweatpants. Viola’s face burned in the cold.

From the moment the first call for help went out, it was clear this would not be an ordinary investigation. “I couldn’t face Ms. Jacquez,” Frank Gallegos, Rocky Ford’s police chief at the time, told me this past summer. “I was absolutely devastated.” Being a rural cop isn’t like working a beat in a city, where you take off the badge and the gun and become as anonymous as you want. In a small town, you might arrest your neighbor for a DUI on a Friday night and pass the collection plate to him at church on Sunday morning. In Gallegos’ case, he’d attended high school with Viola and had gotten to know Jack when he was a teenage trainee with the police force. “These are good people,” he said. “I felt like I let Viola down because this was my department, and that was one of my officers. When someone’s killed like this, you don’t have to guess the outcome. You know it’s going to be bad.”

There was a march in town six days after the shooting. Around two hundred people—many of them Latino residents—lined up in Rocky Ford and walked through downtown to the sagging police department headquarters. While mourners carried signs demanding “Justice for Jack,” Ashby claimed self-defense in the killing. He told investigators he thought Jack was breaking into the house that night, that he’d shot because Jack grabbed a bat and was preparing to swing. One month after the shooting, in November 2014, District Attorney James Bullock charged Ashby with second-degree murder. Underscoring the small-town feel of the situation, Bullock’s son-in-law was a Rocky Ford police officer.

By most accounts, Ashby was a troubled man, the recipient of multiple excessive force complaints and internal affairs reports during his short law enforcement career. Earlier in the year, he had left his job at the Walsenburg Police Department—another small-town force about an hour southwest of Rocky Ford—amid a litany of grievances. Ashby had been accused of using profane language while addressing a probation officer and of sexually harassing a female police dispatcher.

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Ashby had been investigated for allegedly handcuffing a woman and slamming her to the pavement around the time he left the Walsenburg department, in early 2014. Although that accusation was later deemed unfounded, his former chief described Ashby as a “challenge to work with” and said the officer was not eligible for rehire, according to a Denver Post report. Others thought Ashby was rude and mean, a bully with a badge. Just four months into his job in Rocky Ford, Ashby already had begun to rack up complaints.

Well before the Jacquez trial that following summer, the community began to choose sides. In a town where more than half the population is Latino, Jack’s death was seen as a microcosm of the nationwide divide between minorities and the police who patrol their neighborhoods. Many white residents saw the shooting as justified or as an isolated incident from a single bad cop in town. Some members of the police department were stunned that Ashby was charged with a crime. “We were not well-received by a lot of members of law enforcement,” Bullock says. “They were critical, like, ‘This is bullshit. Law enforcement is never going to be the same. We can’t do our job.’”

Ashby testified at the trial and continued to claim self-defense (a bat was found in Viola’s bedroom, but a definitive connection to the shooting was never made). “Every movement by Jack Jacquez was to separate himself from Officer Ashby,” Bullock says now. “He was constantly trying to get away.” Moore—the man who’d been on the ride-along, who was now an officer on the Rocky Ford force—testified during the trial and contradicted much of Ashby’s story leading up to the shooting.

The jurors entered the courtroom on June 23, 2016, one day after the trial’s end, and pronounced Ashby guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

Rocky Ford Police Department officer James Ashby. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

The conviction was monumental. While bigger, more progressive cities wrung their collective hands about the scourge of out-of-control police officers, a rural community had done something about it. Of the thousands of on-duty fatal shootings by police nationwide between 2005 and 2016 (the most recent available data), 78 state and local officers were charged with murder or manslaughter. In those cases, 27 were convicted of a crime through December 2016—14 by jury trial and 13 by guilty plea. Of those 27, only Ashby was convicted of murder.

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After the shooting, the Rocky Ford Police Department ordered body cameras for its officers. Gallegos, the chief, was demoted and then resigned; he was replaced by Michael Bethel, a captain on the force. Nearly three years after the shooting, the town reached a $1.3 million settlement with Jack’s estate.

When I arrived in Rocky Ford early this past summer, few people wanted to talk about the historic nature of what happened in town. This was a place where people wanted to move on, I was told. People didn’t return calls. The mayor avoided me. The interim city manager declined an interview. The police chief wouldn’t talk. In early July, when I asked a councilwoman to describe her town in the years after Jack’s murder, she handed me a pamphlet for the 141st annual Arkansas Valley Fair. “We’re doing great,” she said.

James Ashby’s second bullet that night hit a wooden door frame at the far end of Viola Jacquez’s living room. Every morning for the past four years, on her way to the kitchen, she walks by the spot where her son was shot. It seems to her as if everything is a symbol, a message from her son. Jack’s cat, a tabby named Rocket, sometimes jumps on Viola’s lap when she’s sitting and thinking about her boy. For a brief moment she convinces herself that it’s Jack sending a message. Love you, Mom.

Viola feels the loss of Jack every day. Photograph by Theo Stroomer

Today, Viola works at a nursing home. She is 63 years old—small, but with a fierce demeanor. Since the shooting, she’s mostly removed herself from her hometown. She is angry—about the murder and the fact that her son’s killer received a sentence of only 16 years in prison. She’s tired of the whispers, the hurtful words people still say about her and Jack. She’s heard rumors that people think she wants to destroy Rocky Ford, that all she wanted was settlement money. They do not seem to care that the money was paid by the city’s insurance, not the city itself. The only proof they need is the six-foot wooden fence Viola purchased this year that now rings much of her property. When Viola goes to the market in town, she’s tired of people who approach her, who treat her like a celebrity and say they’re glad she got justice, because none of the past four years feels like justice to her.

Jack was misunderstood, she says. He wore loud outfits—monochromatic track suits with matching sneakers; a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hat and a T-shirt emblazoned with a marijuana leaf—that elicited eye rolls from friends. Jack smoked marijuana before it was legalized in Colorado. It was impossible for him not to stand out in Rocky Ford because it seemed he worked so hard to appear different. He’d spent his life in rural America, but to people in town, he looked citified. Some thought he might be in a gang. “Everything is so small-town here that people get set in their ways and it’s hard to change minds, regardless of how good or kind a person might be,” says Antonio Ulloa, one of Jack’s friends. “Because of how he chose to look, Jack had a lot going against him. People couldn’t get past his image.”

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By the time he was 26, Jack had fathered three children (the youngest died as an infant) with three women, and he had limited contact with his children and their mothers. He’d studied in nearby La Junta to become an automotive mechanic, but he left the program without completing it.

“He wanted to get out, to start someplace fresh,” Viola says, sitting in her family room next to a white tabletop Christmas tree she has yet to take down, even though it’s summer. “He wasn’t a bad boy. He loved his family. When his uncle was dying of cancer, he went to live with him and take care of him until he passed. He loved his friends. When Jack was around, everyone was attracted to him.”

Viola gets up from her chair and walks into the kitchen. She looks at the back door and then the floor, her worst moment contained within a span of 10 feet. There’s the white refrigerator, near where she was standing when the gun went off. The counters are clean. The floor is swept. She will never forget when Ashby fired the first shot. “I couldn’t even scream,” she remembers. “I wonder now: Could I have done something? Could I have stopped it?

She walks out the back door to her small porch. There’s a shed and some patchy grass behind the house. Viola points to the new fence, one of the nicest in Rocky Ford, the one people have been talking about. It’s not ostentatious or a status symbol or a thumb in the town’s eye. There’s a reason for it. “A police officer went past my hedges, through my yard, to my back door, and then murdered my son in front of me,” she says. “This happened where I grew up and raised my kids. How the hell am I going to feel safe again? How could anyone here trust police after that?”

Part II

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The wide streets in Rocky Ford are mostly empty. The old-timey, two-story brick buildings downtown are sparsely occupied. Cargo trains rattle across tracks through the middle of town, the engine’s horn blaring in the sunset. The city’s west end is marked by an enormous American flag and a roadside market that sells melons and vegetables. To the east is another market and a marijuana dispensary. On Main Street, a former furniture store is boarded up, its windows covered with stenciled messages pleading for residents to “Save Rocky Ford.” A new police and fire department building, with its gleaming, modern facade, stands unfinished and is a monument to poor planning and a soft tax base.

Today, Rocky Ford’s police department is led by Michael Bethel, a law enforcement veteran who, according to news reports, previously spent 11 years at the Pueblo Police Department. Bethel—who goes by “Mickey”—lost his job as a Pueblo sergeant in 2006 after felony witness tampering and misdemeanor official misconduct charges were filed against him in a case that would have ended many officers’ careers.

At the time, Bethel was accused of using his position with the department to enlist a man, whom he’d met while on duty, to have sex with his wife, Tammy. According to a Pueblo County application for a search warrant, Bethel was rumored to sometimes find sex partners for his wife, and he would occasionally participate in the encounters with Tammy and other men.

In this case, the intimate moment with the man was captured on videotape. Sometime afterward, the man’s apartment was burglarized and the video was stolen; it eventually ended up in police custody. When Bethel found out about the break-in, he tried to persuade the man not to testify in any official proceedings. Co-workers in the Pueblo department didn’t know about his open marriage, and Bethel worried about how they’d react if they found out.

After charges were filed, a judge threw out the more severe witness tampering charge against Bethel. During the trial for the misdemeanor, Bethel called his lifestyle a “beautiful thing for my wife and I,” according to a Pueblo Chieftain article. “It may not be for everybody, and some people may not agree with it from a moral standpoint, but it works for us.” A jury found Bethel not guilty of the misconduct charge. The City of Pueblo later settled a wrongful termination lawsuit with Bethel for $20,000.

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Around the time of the settlement, Bethel was hired in Rocky Ford, and since he became chief his influence has been felt throughout the community. Both Bethel’s son and wife work for his police department. Tammy Bethel is a dispatcher for the police and fire departments. Justin Bethel is an officer. At the time he joined the Rocky Ford PD—which he did before his father was named chief—Justin had accumulated convictions for prohibited use of a gun while drunk, careless driving, and a DUI.

This past April, Justin was stabbed in the neck and had his police vehicle stolen—with a department-issued AR-15 inside—by a woman who attacked him with a knife during a welfare check. In the woman’s arrest affidavit, Justin says his attacker taunted him after the stabbing, and he worried he would have to kill her. A source with knowledge of the department and its procedures said Justin either was not wearing his mandated body camera or did not turn on the camera while making the welfare check, a violation of police policy. At the time this story went to press, Justin had not returned to work because of his injury. Bethel did not respond to questions about his son.

“Mickey is a great man, very honest and trustworthy,” Gallegos, the former Rocky Ford police chief who hired Bethel, told me. “I could never say a bad thing about Mickey. I think he’s done an excellent job for our city.”

Few people in Rocky Ford would comment on the record about Bethel. Some said they worried about retaliation from his department or from his family if they spoke. Several residents said their confidence in local police was so low that they planned to call the Otero County Sheriff’s Office if they had an emergency, though they knew they’d likely be referred back to Rocky Ford. Others tracked the police chief through town, making notes of his comings and goings. “The distrust within Rocky Ford is off the charts, and almost all of it is due to the way Mickey is running his department,” one senior law enforcement source in the county told me. Said another law enforcement source: “Rocky Ford’s police department is insular and very difficult to understand.”

I wanted to discuss with Bethel the aftermath of Jack Jacquez’s murder and Bethel’s tenure within his 11-member department. I attempted to contact the police chief multiple times, including a visit to his office, but Bethel ignored my requests. During a City Council meeting this past summer, Bethel sat in front of me and picked at a patch of dry skin on his left forearm. “I’m really hesitant to say anything, because I don’t feel this kind of stuff works out the way I want it,” Bethel said when I asked why he wouldn’t speak with me. He wore a police department hat and a gun on his right hip, and eyeglasses dangled from his neck. “So, yeah,” he said. “I just don’t think I want to talk.”

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His son’s issues in town provided only part of the drama within Bethel’s department over the past year. In June, two women who’d been fired from their jobs as Rocky Ford employees filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging a slew of misdeeds within the city, most of them focused on Bethel and his department. The lawsuit claims the defendants—the former city manager and former acting city manager—fired the plaintiffs in 2016 as retaliation for reporting “potential misconduct, malfeasance, and corruption on the part of the city’s police department and police chief.” The former city manager, in a response to the court in August, denied the accusations against him.

Katherine Benz, Rocky Ford’s former human resources director, and Julie Worley, the former clerk for Rocky Ford’s municipal court, allege that the police department has engaged in ticket-fixing and that fines were paid in cash to police—in violation of city policy—without receipts being printed. The two women also claim Bethel stole fencing that was to be used at the city animal kennel and instead installed it at one of his properties in town. Bethel, the women say in the complaint, asked Bent County Sheriff Dave Encinias (a former Rocky Ford police chief) to investigate the theft accusation, though a resolution to the investigation is not mentioned. Gallegos, now the Bent County undersheriff, said Encinias has not told him if anything came of the theft investigation and that he has not seen a report. Nothing has been made public, and Encinias did not return a call seeking comment.

More than a month after the lawsuit was filed, in late July, the Denver Post reported that Bethel violated state law when his department failed to review previous employment records for Troy Morgan, who originally joined the Rocky Ford force in 2015 and then went to the Fowler Police Department in 2017. As a response to issues stemming from James Ashby’s law enforcement past in Walsenburg, the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill in 2016 requiring hiring jurisdictions to review potential officers’ personnel records. Yet even though Morgan had been fired after just eight months on the job in Fowler, he was rehired to Bethel’s department in Rocky Ford in 2018.

Bethel asked Morgan to resign from the Rocky Ford department before the Post story was printed and told the paper there would be a review to see if other hiring mistakes had been made. “We didn’t have the information about [Morgan] like we should have,” Bethel is quoted as saying. “I brought him on. Ultimately, it’s on my shoulders.”

“From the day Mickey started in this city, he’s been an embarrassment,” says Jimmy Sandoval, who served as Rocky Ford’s mayor in the late 1990s and was among the few current or former town officials who would talk on the record about Bethel. “In a small town like this, all you have is your reputation, and Mickey is ruining ours just by having all these questions about him. I think Mickey is a very smart man, but I think he channels that intelligence in a very negative way.”

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Bethel and his wife own a well-maintained, modern-looking home in town. The house is one of at least eight properties the Bethels own in Rocky Ford, Otero County records show. They own others in nearby Swink and La Junta. Among the Bethels’ Rocky Ford properties is an apartment building that burned in a December 2016 fire and displaced four families. Nearly two years later, it’s still a crumpled and ashen shell, drooping on a lot of semi-dead grass. A thin strip of yellow caution tape surrounds the property. On a hot afternoon this past summer, a stray cat was slinking through the maze of fallen detritus.

After an unsuccessful attempt to speak to fire department Chief Ray Gonzales about the Bethel property, I filed a Colorado Open Records Request in an effort to learn the fire’s origin: “Due to the inherent danger of the damaged structure and the weather conditions at the time, it was not safe to conduct an investigation and was not suspicioned to be arson.” In a follow-up email about why the property’s remnants were standing after nearly two years, Gonzales did not respond. Instead, interim city manager Steve Rabe wrote: “The structure is still considered evidence in ongoing litigation between the property owner and the insurance company.”

Unlike in so many other communities in the United States, justice seemed to be served in Rocky Ford when Ashby was convicted of murder. A rogue cop went to prison. The town was allowed to start over with a new police chief. New rules on police hiring were mandated across Colorado.

In Rocky Ford, however, it’s difficult to see how there will be any real change in the wake of Jack Jacquez’s murder—not as long as the people in power openly fight against that change. News of the federal lawsuit appears to have only been briefly mentioned in the pages of the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the town’s only newspaper, which is owned and edited by Rocky Ford’s first-term mayor, J.R. Thompson. In that story—as part of a roundup of a City Council meeting—the accusations against Bethel were not reported.

In 2014, when James Ashby’s background in Walsenburg was investigated by southern Colorado’s KOAA-TV following Jack’s murder, the Gazette defended the officer, writing, “What has not been mentioned about Ashby’s law enforcement career is that he received the Lifesaving Award from the Walsenburg City Council for his actions on July 4, 2009, when he saved a man’s life.”

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Later, the story’s author, Susan Pieper, testified to the judge in the Ashby trial that a jury member had been drawing during witness testimony. Despite the reporter’s testimony, the woman was not removed. Even after injecting herself into the proceedings, Pieper continued to report stories on the case. (Pieper died earlier this year.)

I wanted to interview the mayor for this piece, so I called City Hall and asked for his government phone number. The woman who answered suggested I call the newspaper and leave a message. I did and never heard back. I emailed the mayor and again didn’t get a response. When I visited the Gazette offices, I was told he had just left. When I finally saw Thompson at a City Council meeting this summer, he listened politely to what I had to say and told me he would consider my interview request at a later time. He did not return a message after that.

When I asked Rabe, Rocky Ford’s interim city manager, if he would answer my questions, he emailed: “[M]y best answer would be that I would not be the appropriate person to speak on behalf of the City of Rocky Ford as I am just an ‘interim,’ meaning I’ve only been here for a short period, I only work a few hours a week and I live almost 2 hours away from here. My job is to keep the lights on and the doors open until a permanent Manager is hired.”

After I filed my public records request with the fire department, Bethel sent the first of several emails to me from his Rocky Ford PD email address. It was, as he put it, “a word of caution” about a source I’d spoken to in town. He mentioned the person’s “criminal past” and called the source a “con artist.” “I will now alert everyone I come into contact with that this is one of the individuals you are using to gather information from concerning our community,” he wrote. “Your credibility sir will be negatively impacted….” (I independently corroborated any information I received from this person.) When I offered the chief a chance to “speak up” in an interview, he responded an hour later: “I have nothing to ‘speak up’ about. My attorney and I are watching with interest to see the final product.”

Three days later, he emailed again, this time saying he was open to talking, but only with his police captain present, and only so the two could “lay out ground rules and interview you to determine if we want to speak with you further.” Bethel then said he might introduce me to “a group of well respected business and civic leaders,” though he added, “they may eat you alive.”

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He emailed again the next day: “So, do you want to get together sometime?” I responded that I would not agree to ground rules. “I would ask my questions, you would have the opportunity to answer them, and then I would write about what was said. That’s it,” I wrote.

A couple of hours later, Bethel tried a more aggressive tack. “The reason I would need to ask some questions of you,” he wrote, “is because I am going to be writing a piece in our local newspaper following your piece and I want to be accurate in what I write to our citizens. I believe we can try to make it work. Yes?”

I declined to be interviewed by Bethel for his story, to which he replied, “Fair enough.” At press time, he had not written me again. A trial date for the federal lawsuit is still pending.

Not far from the police department, Mariah Talmich lives in a gray ranch-style house with three bedrooms and a sweeping yard out back. Jack Jacquez’s girlfriend moved home with her mother after Jack’s murder, five months before giving birth to their daughter, Jayliana.

Jay, as she’s called, is now three years old. One day this past May, the little girl popped in and out of rooms in the house while Mariah watched from the couch. Jay strutted across the floor, her tiny face scrunched in a determined look. Mariah laughed. “That’s her grrr face,” she said. “Just like her dad.” On that morning, Jay wore a pink shirt with jean shorts. Her black hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, like her mother’s. Jay jumped into the living room from her bedroom, then disappeared back inside.

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“Love you, Mom,” she called.

“Love you, Jay.”

Since she moved out of the house at Third Street and Swink Avenue four years ago, Mariah has rarely spoken to Viola Jacquez. They were part of the same lawsuit against Rocky Ford (Jack’s children will receive their share of the settlement when they turn 21), but they did not celebrate their victory together. Two of the women Jack loved most have become estranged, the shared trauma so great that even a newborn child couldn’t heal the wounds. “We’re supposed to be this family, but it’s so messed up,” Jack’s older sister, Jackie, says of the relationship between the two. “We’ve been so hurt these last years, but now we’re just hurting ourselves. I don’t even think we know why.”

One of Jack’s siblings, Jackie, who now lives outside of Denver, worries about how his death has split the family. Photograph by Theo Stroomer

Early this past summer, Jackie drove from her apartment in Greenwood Village to visit her mother in Rocky Ford. She used to work as a corrections officer at the private prison in Olney Springs, about 20 miles away, but left after her brother’s murder to take a job with the Department of Homeland Security. She never imagined leaving her town, but as the mother of a 14-year-old son, it didn’t feel right raising a teenage boy in a place that still seemed so hostile.

When she arrived at her mother’s house, the two sat in the family room, near the white Christmas tree. They talked about work, about Jackie’s divorce, and about Jackie’s son, who was still struggling with his uncle’s murder. A few days before he died, Jack pointed out to his nephew all the things that could sidetrack a young man in their town, that could confine his nephew like Jack had often felt. Get an education, Jack encouraged the boy. Stay straight. Avoid trouble.

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“He still really misses Jack,” Jackie told her mother.

“They were so close,” Viola said.

They tried to remember old attorneys’ names, the names of Jack’s friends who were still in town. This continued for an hour or so. Finally, Viola got up, put on a blue jacket, and said she wanted to visit the cemetery.

They piled into Jackie’s Jeep, which was parked out front, and made a left on Elm Avenue. They passed the Tank N Tummy, near where Jack turned onto Swink Avenue that October night nearly four years earlier. Viola stared out the window. They turned right, up 12th Street and past the house Jack had visited. They made more turns until they finally reached County Road 20, a strip of asphalt that ran past Rocky Ford Cemetery. Jackie pulled in and rolled to a stop. The gravestone bench was a few dozen feet away.

There were a couple of small, white angel statues below the gray granite. A prayer candle with an image of the Virgin Mary was on the ground; a cross leaned against the bench, and one hung from a long hook. A photo of Jack—cap on, wide sunglasses wrapped across his face—was printed on the stone.

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“Jack,” Viola said cheerfully, “I’m here.”

Jack’s murder resulted in the conviction of Officer Ashby, but Rocky Ford’s police force is still troubled. Photograph by Theo Stoomer

She’d had conversations with the groundskeeper about the dirt patches surrounding her son’s grave, and Viola often brought a garden hose on her visits. Today, though, the bare spots seemed to be filling in. Healthy clumps of fresh green were popping up everywhere.

“Mom, this is looking nice,” Jackie said.

Viola nodded. A sprinkler whirred, and rivulets of water ran down Jack’s stone. Viola inspected the area around her son’s marker, making sure weeds hadn’t sprouted. She worked quietly for a few minutes, checking a bouquet of fake red and yellow flowers, adjusting one of the crosses, running her hand over the bench. Everything needed to be in order, perfect.

When she was finally satisfied, Viola stepped back to admire her work.

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“You ready, Mom?” Jackie asked.

The sprinkler clicked. Water swept in front of Viola. Suddenly, there was a rush of pressure and the stream sprayed her. She jumped back and let out a shriek.

“Oh, Jack!” she laughed, brushing water from her jeans. She was smiling, joyful.

“You know I’m here. Jack,” Viola said. “You know I will never leave you.”

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