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Suspect in court, standoff explained

By Randi Pierce

Staff Writer

The suspect in last week’s 26-hour standoff made his first appearance in court last Thursday.

Mark Trail, 59, was in custody and present for a first advisement hearing with County Court Judge Jim Denvir, though official charges have yet to be filed.

Because of that, Trail was advised on the charges included in the arrest warrant issued by District Court Judge Greg Lyman during the incident — charges of felony menacing, a class-five felony, and first-degree assault, a class-three felony.

Charges are set to be filed against Trail on Sept. 19 at 1:30 p.m.

As of Wednesday morning, Trail was being held on a $100,000 cash-only bond that would prohibit him from possessing firearms.

In addition, Denvir instituted a mandatory restraining order to prevent the harassment and intimidation of witnesses and victims, which in this incident were all law enforcement officers.

The standoff

At approximately 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 4, Pagosa Springs Police Officer Tony Kop initiated a traffic stop on Hot Springs Boulevard between Apache Street and the post office following receipt of a tip that a motorist was driving with a revoked license, said Det. Scott Maxwell of the Pagosa Springs Police Department. The tip came from Investigator George Daniels with the local district attorney’s office.

Maxwell indicated that Trail’s license had been revoked due to his status as a habitual traffic offender.

When Kop approached the vehicle, the driver, later identified as Trail, brandished a weapon and began yelling at Kop, who then retreated to his vehicle and called for backup.

A perimeter was immediately set up, blocking off a portion of Hot Springs Boulevard and other area streets.

At about 9 a.m., Officer T.J. Fitzwater initiated negotiations with Trail, whom Maxwell described as apparently emotionally distraught, suicidal and armed with a handgun.

Negotiation attempts continued throughout the day and night. As the incident progressed, barricades along Hot Springs Boulevard were moved to allow for increased business along the road, with the post office allowed to reopen at about 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Late Wednesday morning, officers, after more than a day of fruitless negotiations and with the belief that Trail was intent on harming himself, decided to breach the vehicle and apprehend Trail, Maxwell said.

At approximately 11:10 a.m., bean bag rounds were fired at the vehicle’s windows, a Taser was employed to subdue the suspect, and Trail was removed from the vehicle.

The suspect and two officers received minor injuries from broken glass during the operation.

Maxwell confirmed that Trail did not leave his car during the incident and that no shots were fired until the beanbag rounds were used to break the van’s windows.

At the time of the traffic stop on Tuesday, Trail was on his way to court for a hearing stemming from a May charge of animal cruelty for the alleged shooting of a neighbor’s horse.

Strategy and outcome

Questions remain regarding the standoff, however: Why was such a large area closed? Why did law enforcement not end the situation sooner?

Pagosa Springs Police Chief William Rockensock said there is no set playbook for incidents such as the one that took place last week, but said that negotiations are generally started immediately.

And as long as those negotiations are able to continue peacefully, they will, Rockensock said.

“I stand by everything that we did,” Rockensock said, highlighting the peaceful ending with no more than cuts from broken glass as injuries.

Rockensock said that, as negotiations began and continued, Fitzwater reported that time was on the side of law enforcement, believing that, if the vehicle were assaulted earlier, the suspect may have committed suicide, which Rockensock stated was, “Not an acceptable outcome.”

Rockensock reported that, at several times throughout the negotiations, Trail would respond with, “Not at this time,” when questioned about coming out of the van, and said that the suspect’s stress level rose and fell throughout the night, with Trail shutting down at times and other times waving the gun around and at the negotiators.

Officers were also not able to maintain a visual fix on the suspect due to the way Trail had barricaded himself in his mini-van, with a lawn chair and clothes blocking the windows, and books and jugs of water inside.

When the determination was made the suspect was unlikely to come out peacefully, Rockensock said the decision was made to perform tactical maneuvers.

To help with those maneuvers, Rockensock said negotiations throughout the night (as well as the light provided by a truck from the Pagosa Fire Protection District) worked to fatigue the suspect.

At 5 a.m., pepper spray was introduced into Trail’s van, but the spray had no effect.

At that point, Rockensock took over negotiations with the goal of rebuilding rapport with the suspect prior to another tactical maneuver.

Meanwhile, a van similar to the one the suspect was barricaded in was donated to the PSPD, allowing officers to practice various tactical approaches.

Then, as Rockensock was negotiating with the suspect at 11:10 a.m., he spotted an opportunity and seized it.

Rockensock said he saw the suspect was distracted and did not have the gun in his hand, so the chief broke the van’s window with his collapsible baton.

Trail responded by pointing his .45 pistol at Rockensock, prompting Rockensock to use his Taser on the suspect.

Simultaneously, four bean bag rounds were fired into the van, breaking other windows and allowing officers to extract Trail, secure the gun, and handcuff the suspect.

But don’t think the maneuver was carried out without fear.

Rockensock recalled breaking the window, seeing the gun pointed at his head, and hearing a gun fire, causing him to say out loud that he had been shot before realizing the bean bag rounds had been fired.

There were several other times, he added, that he believed he would be shot or moved out of the way of what he suspected would be gunfire headed his way. And he could have used deadly force — but that was not his goal.

“The Taser saved his (Trail’s) life,” Rockensock said.

In the end, Rockensock said, “The preferred outcome was achieved.”

Noting that one could worthlessly, “Monday morning quarterback” the situation, Rockensock said that there were some safety issues during the incident, but, with no tactical team in the area, his officers worked throughout the night as an ad hoc team.

Additionally, the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado State Patrol assisted in the effort, along with various other officials. The Colorado Mounted Patrol and Pagosa Fire Protection District aided by providing perimeter control and, in the case of the PFPD, providing a truck with adequate light for the nighttime negotiations.

The inconvenience

Rockensock said he understands the closure of Hot Springs Boulevard and businesses along the road were an inconvenience, but noted that anyone whose family member or friend was in the same situation as the suspect would want law enforcement to do everything possible to achieve a peaceful outcome.

Rockensock also referred to people who questioned the cost of the incident to town taxpayers by stating, “If you can put a monetary value … on a human life … I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

As for the schools being put on a lockdown, which was later downgraded to a lockout, Rockensock said he ordered a lockdown initially because the suspect still had the potential to be mobile. The lockdown was later downgraded to a lockout, where unauthorized people are not allowed inside the school buildings.

Once a perimeter had been set up, Rockensock said he called Archuleta School District Superintendent Mark DeVoti on the night of Sept. 4, and informed him that it was up to the schools whether or not they wanted to cancel Wednesday, but that the situation was safe as long as busses were kept away from the area of the incident.

DeVoti said the decision to close the schools Wednesday was made because the situation was not different than the previous day, when a lockout was put in place and CSP troopers escorted children anytime they left a building.

DeVoti said the school, at that point, needed to continue on the same response course, adding that information about changes in security of the perimeter around the incident were not relayed to the schools.

“To bring the kids back into the same situation … there was no reason to have a different decision,” DeVoti said.

That missed day of school, then, essentially counts as the school district’s first snow day, and will count against hours students are required to be in school, DeVoti said.

“I think they did a great job,” DeVoti said of law enforcement’s handling of the situation. “They kept people safe.”

randi@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on September 13, 2012.