The aftermath of recent shootings in Colorado Springs
by Nathan Davis
Standing on her porch, facing up the block, Naomi Bettis drew her glasses from her face and wagged them at the opening of an alley a few houses over. “I seen the kid come out the corner of the alley there,” she said, beginning to draw an imaginary line careening out of the alley and down the street. “He coasted right down there.” The path continued past the white, boarded-up townhouse across her street. “And then…” Her sentence trailed off. She was pointing at an arrangement of five or six flowers set on the curb across from her house. Slowly, and without another word, she brought her arm back to her side.
She didn’t need to finish the sentence. She had spent the better part of the last hour explaining what happened next: On the morning of October 31, Noah Harpham, a tenant in an upstairs apartment of the townhouse, had been pacing around the street. As 35-year-old Iraq vet Andrew Alan Myers, who Naomi refers to as “the kid,” pedaled his bike out of the alley and onto N. Prospect Street, Harpham lifted his head, raised his rifle and fired three rounds into the unsuspecting cyclist.
Myers and Harpham were not acquaintances. This was likely the first time either had laid eyes on the other. Taken by surprise, Myers only had enough time to cry, “Don’t shoot me! Don’t shoot me!” before he was on the ground, bike still between his legs. He was dead within seconds.
Naomi watched from a window at the front of her house, drawing the blinds only far enough to get a good glimpse. “It was boom, boom, boom,” she said, miming a rifle with her hands. “I heard three shots and I seen the smoke. That’s when I got on 911 and said ‘the man I just called you about that had the gun just shot somebody!’”
The man I just called you about.
That morning, Naomi was woken early with news from her family: her foster mom, who had been in a hospice for weeks, had just passed away. A grandmother herself, Naomi meant to get out of the house early and meet her family to make funeral preparations. Reeling from the announcement, she was in and out of her house all morning, “just looking outside to see how the weather was looking. Just to see how to get dressed.”
The first time she walked out, she noticed Harpham across the street. “He was walking around with a gun and a couple cans of kerosene or something.” The gun was an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the same model used by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School and James Holmes at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora.
“For some reason I kinda felt a little bit uncomfortable. I looked at him and he looked at me and I’m kinda wondering, ‘What’s he doing?’” She headed back inside. Before too long, she ventured out again, hoping to warm up her Jeep. Now Harpham was at the corner at the top of the block where Prospect intersects Platte, still pacing. Naomi’s slight discomfort was replaced by anxiety. She called 911.
This call took place at 8:45 a.m. After giving her location to the operator, Naomi explained the situation, saying, “There’s a guy walking around with like two cans of gasoline or something, two small cans and a rifle. It’s black and it had a strap around it. He’s walking up to doors and stuff, and then I seen that he walked into the [white] building and the glass at the business [in the lower level of that building] is broke. So he’s in there and I’m just keeping an eye on him…I’m scared to death.”
The operator had Naomi describe the building and the broken window, and then asked her about the man’s appearance. He was white, tall (maybe six feet), with a skinny build and dark hair coming out from underneath a black ball cap. Naomi guessed, correctly, that he was in his mid-30s.
While she described the man to the operator, Naomi saw Harpham exit the house and quickly re-enter. “He really shouldn’t be holding that gun,” she said, exasperated.
“Well, it is an open carry state, so he can have a weapon with him or walking around with it,” the operator responded. “But of course having those gas cans does seem pretty suspicious so we’re going to keep the call going for that.”
From there the operator asked Naomi, “Are you or anyone else in immediate danger?”
“From what you can see, does anyone need medical attention?”
This exchange was particularly important, because it determined the rating the operator gave to this “call for service.” In Colorado Springs, calls for service are rated from Priority 1 to Priority 6. Priority 1 calls represent “an imminent, life-threatening situation that requires an immediate response by police, fire, or medical personnel,” while Priority 6 calls require no attention from anyone aside from the dispatcher on the line. At the time Naomi called, Harpham was the only one on the street. While she may have felt unsafe, no one was in immediate danger and no one needed medical attention. The highest rating Naomi’s call could have received was Priority 2: “situations that will be classified as critical, and will include in-progress calls with potentially dangerous circumstances, but no apparent life-threat.” By 8:46 a.m., a minute into the call, the call recieved this rating.
The protocol for dispatching personnel to the scene of a Priority 2 call is to send police as soon as possible, as long as all Priority 1 calls have been dealt with. At the time Naomi called, there were no officers available in her police district, the Gold Hill Patrol Division. Per a Colorado Springs Police Department (CSPD) press release on the incident, they were all handling other calls. One officer became available at 8:47 a.m., but was dispatched to a disturbance at a senior center. The call for service from this facility had also been rated Priority 2, but according to the press release, involved a potential threat to human life. At that time, Naomi’s call was considered only a threat to property.
After six minutes on the line, Naomi informed the operator that she had to leave in order to meet with her family. The operator told her she was not required to stay at the scene and was free to go, but told her to call back immediately if she witnessed any important developments.
Five minutes later, Naomi was back on the phone. Sobbing into the receiver, she said, “I just called a few minutes ago and the guy came back out and he fired a gun at somebody and now he’s dead.” Harpham had just shot Myers. She tearfully continued that Harpham was now walking up the block, north on Prospect, and turning the corner west onto Platte. He had set a fire in the basement of the townhouse and retrieved two more weapons, a 9mm pisol and a .357 revolver.
“Calm down. Stay with me.” the operator responded.
Quickly, the operator input the location of the fired shots and the ranking: Priority 1. The quiet clicking of the operator’s computer keys was punctated by Naomi’s whimpers as she repeated, “Oh my God.”
After describing Myers for the operator, Naomi exclaimed, “Oh! I think he’s still shooting. I heard more shots fired from that gun.”
Those shots had been directed at Christina Baccus-Gallela, 34, and Jennifer Vasquez, 42—two women who lived at the Alano House sober home. They were standing on the porch; Baccus-Gallela was waiting to be picked up by her sister to spend a day with their mom. Both died moments after being shot. Harpham continued his march down Platte.
According to Colorado’s open carry laws, Harpham had not done anything illegal until the moment he pointed his rifle at Myers and fired.
A CSPD training bulletin circulated March 6, 2011 instructed officers that, “The mere act of holding a gun in a non-threatening manner is not automatically to be considered suspicious behavior. Therefore, if we get a call from a citizen about a person who has a firearm in plain sight and they are not acting in a suspicious manner, they have not brandished it, discharged it or violated any of the previous conditions, CSPD will not respond.” The “previous conditions” are that the person carrying the firearm is not occupying a building or place in which federal law prohibits firearms, a school or college zone, a public building that prohibits weapons and has a posting to that effect, or a private business or residence that prohibits weapons. The only reason Naomi’s call for service was given a ranking as high as Priority 2 was due to the broken window, the gas cans and Bettis’s description mentioning that Harpham “looked like he was looking for someone or somebody.” In terms of the CSPD training bulletin, the Priority 2 ranking was cautious.
Nothing had failed procedurally from the moment Naomi first called 911 onwards. The operator had collected all the necessary information. Naomi had relayed what she saw faithfully, with composure and detail. The call for service had been appropriately ranked. Officers were dispatched according to protocol.
On a systems level, everything had operated as the law prescribed. On the street, three people were dead on the ground, each lying in a pool of their own blood.
* * *
That morning, guitar instructor Ross Trottier had been walking to his office on Platte to pick up a few checks and take his dog for an early morning walk. He lives close to the Colorado College campus and, at the time, his office was not far from the intersection of Platte and Wahsatch. He took a different route than usual, opting to walk through Monument Valley Park rather than straight up Platte.
A few minutes before nine, Ross and his dog were walking out of his office and onto Platte. They would take the regular route back home, he decided. By the time he and his dog had gotten to the intersection of Platte and Wahsatch, they were right behind Harpham.
“I was kinda daydreaming. It was a Saturday morning, y’know? I didn’t notice that he had two guns, and I hadn’t heard anything up the street because I was in my office. So I just came out in kind of a lull,” said Ross. “And just as I was passing him, I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if,’ — because I’d heard sirens — ‘I wonder if I can get across [the street] by the time the sirens get here.’ So I started hurrying up across.”
Ross was stopped short at the median between the Taco Bell and the Wendy’s. A train of squad cars sped through the intersection. They came to a hard stop just in front of the Wendy’s and the officers jumped out of their cars and drew their guns.
Ross was still oblivious to Harpham. “He just looked like a raggedy guy to myself. I didn’t note anything about him.” Ross thought the cops’ weapons were trained on him at first, so he raised his hands. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Harpham’s gun and put two and two together. Immediately, he dropped to his stomach.
“I hit the ground and the moment I hit the ground, bullets started going right over me.”
Ross was lying face down on the grass median for less than a minute. “It wasn’t like a whipping wind, but you could feel the heat of ‘em…They have like a snap sound as they go past you,” he said, calmly looking out his window and snapping as he spoke. “It was weird.”
After Harpham and the police traded between 10 and 20 shots, the gunfire stopped and Ross lifted himself from the grass. A few yards up, Harpham was dead in the intersection.
* * *
In the aftermath of the incident, Mayor John Suthers issued a statement describing the shooting as “a terrible tragedy.” Later that week, The Colorado Springs Gazette quoted him as saying, “I personally don’t have an appetite for it,” in regards to changing Colorado Springs’ open carry laws.
Since Colorado state law preempts local law, the most the Springs could do would be to ban open carry on city property. The City of Denver has banned open carry outright, but was only able to because Colorado courts have interpreted Article 20, Section 6 of the Colorado Constitution as granting Denver partial home rule—the power to legislate on issues that have also been legislated by the state.
There have been two city council meetings since the shooting. The first was held on Nov. 10. The only space the shooting took up in the agenda was a moment of silence before the Pledge of Allegiance. It was mentioned twice during citizen discussion, once by a group of citizens voicing their concerns about open carry laws in Colorado and once by council member Bill Murray, who expressed a desire to reexamine laws in the Springs relating to open carry. For the second meeting, held on Nov. 24, neither the shooting nor open carry laws were included on the agenda.
Three days after that, Robert Lewis Dear entered the Planned Parenthood facility at 3480 Centennial Boulevard. He was wearing a long trench coat and carrying an assault-style rifle.
He opened fire at 11:38 a.m.
* * *
The Prospectors-Sertoma Gun Show, held at the Colorado Springs Event Center on North Academy Boulevard, opened about an hour later. It ran all weekend, from 1:00 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27 to 4:00 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29.
The tables that lined the linoleum floors hosted a variety of vendors. A shopper could purchase a Glock and homemade jewelry at the same stand. Next to an assortment of Kevlar vests, the Sons of Confederate Veterans were handing out pamphlets on the “Myths of the Confederate Battle Flag.” Inexplicably, a stand towards the back offered an array of essential body oils.
Several couples milled about. An old man with a walker haggled playfully with a young boy over the price of a folding knife. Every few minutes the zap of a taser demonstration interrupted the chatter, which quickly fell back into a series of smiles, nods, pleases and thank yous.
At a table selling assault rifles, a shopper asked the dealer if he could handle a gun tucked away in a display case. Though it wasn’t quite the same make, it bore more than passing resemblance to Harpham’s AR-15. The dealer called to his son, maybe nine years old, who trotted over to the display, removed the gun and handed it to his father, who passed it to the shopper. As he held the rifle, turning it around in his hands and rubbing his fingers over the glossy black stock, he let out a deep exhale. “Wow.”
Passion for guns has a long tradition in the Springs. In 2012, State Senator John Morse of Colorado Springs announced his support of the magazine capacity limit and background check legislation, which had been conceived in the wake of the Aurora shooting and introduced just before the Sandy Hook massacre. Immediately, efforts began to set up a recall election. The election was arranged to take place months later. By a margin of 341 votes, Morse was recalled.
Eileen McCarron, co-founder and president of Colorado Ceasefire, a gun control advocacy group, was among the pioneers of those pieces of legislation. “There’s a culture of firearms [in Colorado],” she says. “It goes way back to the Old West.”
To McCarron, the culture emerges from “this pioneering view that, ‘Oh, I’ll take care of things.’ I think there are a lot of libertarian streaks: ‘I’ll take care of it. It’s up to me to take care of it.’” She says that the clamor surrounding gun rights in Colorado is particularly fervent in the Springs, perhaps because of the military presence and large population of returning veterans.
She points to the rhetoric surrounding John Morse’s recall. “It was like the end of the world had occurred. It was, ‘They’re coming to get your guns. They’re registering your guns so they can get them.’ There’s no registration in this state. There is no licensing in this state. None of that. I’m not sure what we would like that [gun rights advocates] would ever support.”
At this point, compromise seems out of the question for her. Her group is looking to influence the next Colorado state senate elections and to help initiate legislation if the Senate swings left.
Ross Trottier is skeptical of this approach.
Ross abandoned his old office after the shooting. He avoids that area, particularly the Platte/Wahsatch intersections, whenever he can help it. His new office is on N. Nevada, closer to his house. Though he’s still sanguine, he admits that he has acted differently since feeling the heat of bullets across his back.
“I haven’t been going out as much. I just throw the ball for my dog at CC next to the chapel. That’s about the only place I go. I live a block from here. I’ve just been keeping to myself, going to my girlfriend’s house. When I go to the park, even when I go to [Monument Valley Park] sometimes, I’ll just hide behind a tree. I won’t even realize I’m doing it.”
Working through his attitude on gun legislation, he leans back against his office chair and runs his hands through long brown hair. “I’m not a fan of laws in general,” says the self-described anarchist. “You can’t just have a special guy sign a piece of paper and have a problem go away. It doesn’t work that way. I mean, I wish it did, but it doesn’t.”
While he might feel concerned about guns himself, he understands that gun enthusiasts “feel intimidated in the same way.” The gun show crowd bears out this diagnosis.
At the Prospectors-Sertoma Gun Show the phrase “martial law” is inflected with the same severity and immediacy that the phrase “mass shooting” is on CNN. Paranoia courses through each conversation regarding legislation. During a discussion of the subject, a man warned of collusion between politicians and illegal arms dealers, since guns in the hands of criminals makes business for law enforcement.
“I personally see these [shootings] as a symptom to a deep mistrust that has been in our culture for quite a long time,” says Ross. “There is a cultural illness that has to be sorted out before the superficial symptoms of that cultural illness can be fixed.”
Still, he doesn’t have any idea about how to cure that illness, how to alleviate that mistrust.
At her house on N. Prospect, Naomi Bettis is similarly stuck. Her mind is definitely swayed against open and concealed carry and in favor of background checks. On the other hand, she doesn’t support widespread bans. Though she doesn’t own a gun, she worries about people losing the ability to protect themselves against threats like Noah Harpham.
Essentially, her position boils down to support of any measures that might have prevented the killing of Andrew Alan Myers. She can’t get it out of her head. She watched him die. His body had been crumpled on the curb, uncovered, for 11 hours, as the police investigated the crime scene.
As she recounted this, her voice started to give. Finally, she began to cry. “I could have probably went over there and told him I love him before he died.” She took a moment to collect herself and for a few minutes, her attention shifted to the massive flatscreen that centered her living room, which was muted and set on CNN. It was midday on December 1, and news of the San Bernardino shooting was just breaking. “14 dead,” read the banner at the bottom of the screen. Naomi, staring in disbelief, dabbed at her eyes. One after the other, headlines rolled across the screen.