By Sean Kelly, Marilyn Robinson and Sheba Wheeler, The Denver Post
August 7, 2003
Police say woman wielded candlestick; minister decries slaying of suspect
Just before she was shot to death by an Aurora police officer, Denise Washington hit the officer with a brass candlestick and was raising it over her head, possibly to strike him again, police said.
Washington, shot to death outside her apartment early Tuesday, had threatened her father and police officers before she was shot by officer John J. Austin, according to a search-warrant affidavit filed by police.
The candlestick is 19 inches long, weighs 4 1/2 pounds and has a 6-inch base, police said.
“We had a suspect who assaulted a police officer. I don’t know what else to say,” said police spokeswoman Kathleen Walsh.
An influential group of African-American ministers met with Aurora police Wednesday, questioning the need for deadly force by the officer. After meeting with Police Chief Ricky Bennett and the department’s top officials, members of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance said Washington should still be alive. This does not call for anybody to take someone’s life,” said the Rev. Paul Martin of Macedonia Baptist Church.
Washington, according to her family, was being treated for mental problems. Ministers compared her death to the July 5 fatal shooting of 15-year-old Paul Childs, a mentally disabled youth killed by Denver police as he held a knife in the doorway of his home.
That shooting prompted community outrage and led northeast Denver leaders to question police training. The Rev. Patrick Demmer of the ministerial alliance said the Aurora case is even more troubling because the level of force between a gun and a candlestick is more disproportionate than in the Childs case.
“It’s unpalatable, unreasonable, not logical,” Demmer said. He questioned why a man trained in self-defense did not try to overpower the woman instead of using lethal force.
After a grueling day at the coroner’s office, working out funeral arrangements for his daughter and being interrogated by Aurora police until late into the evening, Russell “Sonny” Washington declined to comment about the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
“I’m not prepared to give another statement right now,” he said, his voice trembling. “I’m too overwhelmed, too stressed out.”
According to the affidavit, this is how the shooting unfolded:
Russell Washington left the apartment he shared with his daughter, went to his cousin’s house and told him that she was acting strange and was off her medications.
Russell Washington and his cousin, Norvelle White, returned to the apartment at 1549 S. Galena Way, where Denise confronted them with the candlestick. White and a female neighbor called police about 1:50 a.m. The affidavit does not detail what was said in those calls.
Officer Austin was dispatched to an unknown call at the address. En route, he was told that a man and a woman were fighting.
When police arrived, Russell Washington told them that his daughter “was going crazy” and had thrown a glass bottle at him. A broken bottle of malt liquor was visible at the bottom of the stairs Tuesday.
As the officers, who were not named, tried to come up the stairs toward the second-floor apartment, Denise Washington pushed a chair down at them.
Austin, an Aurora officer for 19 months, told her to calm down and saw her in the apartment holding what he described as a brass lamp in her right hand. Washington was yelling, and the officer told her to drop the “lamp.”
According to Austin, she ran at him with the “lamp” and took a baseball swing, striking him in the left elbow, a wound which required stitches. The officer said he believed his elbow was broken, and he pushed Denise Washington away and stepped back.
White said late Wednesday that he was holding Russell Washington at the bottom of the staircase while they watched Denise and the police officer fighting.
“She may have cut the officer while they were tussling, but we didn’t see anything,” White said. “At some point, she and the officer pushed away from each other. Then I saw the officer raise the gun.”
Denise Washington raised the “lamp” over her head with both hands, according to the affidavit. Austin, thinking she was going to hit him again, fired multiple times.
He performed CPR on her. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Russell Washington told the ministers that his daughter either suffered from bipolar disorder or was schizophrenic. He said she was not taking her medicine because she was waiting for a refill.
She reportedly was on the prescription medicine Paxil, an anti-depressant typically used to treat anxiety disorders.
The drug is similar to Prozac, said Sondra May, a pharmacist at University Hospital.
Denise Washington was a teacher’s aide for a special needs class at Aurora Central High School from November through May, when she resigned for personal reasons, school officials said.
She passed a criminal background check and an interview, but federal law prohibits the district from asking about a physical or mental disability, said Aurora Public Schools spokeswoman Georgia Duran.
“As long as it doesn’t interfere with work performance, it’s not an issue,” Duran said.
Aurora police said they would continue to investigate the shooting. The results of the investigation will be turned over to Arapahoe County District Attorney Jim Peters for review.
Denver Post staff writer Kieran Nicholson contributed to this report.