On Halloween 2020, an unmarked police car pulled up behind a pickup truck stopped in front of a green light at a busy Denver intersection. The Glendale, Colorado, cop inside called in the plate, anticipating the call would go to the Denver Police Department, but got out to see if the driver was OK. Through tinted windows, he made out John Pacheaco Jr. slumped over the steering wheel.
At the time, Pacheaco, 36, had methamphetamine in his system and a warrant out for his arrest for an alleged shooting. But the officer, Bradley Reed, didn’t know any of that. Before he could make contact with Pacheaco, however, dispatch told him the car was stolen.
Reed called for backup and pulled his car close to Pacheaco’s rear bumper. Officers Chandler Phillips and Neal McCormick, also with the Glendale PD, arrived on the scene in seconds, and Phillips drove his car to the front of Pacheaco’s truck to block him in on the busy street.
With guns drawn, the three officers shined their flashlights in the car, banged on the windows, and attempted to open the driver’s side door.
Moments later, Pacheaco—either startled, according to his family, or else defiant, according to police—drove forward, smashing Phillips’ car. Then Pacheaco put the truck in reverse just as McCormick ran behind the vehicle. McCormick moved out of the way before Pacheaco smashed into the cop car behind him; the officer later reported the vehicle “contacted” him, though he said he didn’t sustain injuries or need medical attention.
Nonetheless, the truck gunning in reverse was enough to trigger a fusillade of 19 bullets from McCormick and Phillips, who said they feared for each other’s lives. Reed did not fire. Three bullets struck Pacheaco, and he was pronounced dead 30 minutes later at a hospital.
Both officers who fired that day were cleared of criminal conduct by the Denver District Attorney’s Office in May. But Pacheaco’s family is not content for that to be the last word.
“That is heinous. That is evil,” Jamie Fowler, Pacheaco’s mother, told The Daily Beast, describing the shooting. “That’s like, just opening fire. I mean who does that? On a city street like that for somebody who is unresponsive?”
On Friday, Fowler filed a lawsuit against McCormick and Phillips, a copy of which was obtained by The Daily Beast. It is one of the first suits in the state against specific cops under a brand-new Colorado law lifting qualified immunity for police officers. The law was passed as part of a wide-ranging reform package in the state in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last summer. Other changes include requiring body cameras for all police and making it easier to revoke officers’ licenses if they’re found guilty of excessive force.
Advocates and experts say cases like this one could help move the needle on less-obvious instances of excessive force in America.
Officers Reed, McCormick, and Phillips did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Among other claims, the suit argues McCormick and Phillips were not in danger when they killed Fowler’s son and did not make efforts to use non-violent tactics to get him out of the truck.
“Neither officer was in the vehicle’s path when they began firing their weapons,” the suit claims.
Given the relative speed of the truck going in reverse and the open city street, it argues that the officers had “every opportunity” to step away from Pacheaco’s vehicle if they feared for their lives. Instead, it claims the officers resorted to deadly force from the jump, killing the man about a minute into their initial interaction with him, according to video surveillance of the shooting viewed by The Daily Beast.
“They weren’t in a war,” Fowler, 56, told The Daily Beast. “It was a stolen vehicle.”
In a nearly 500-page investigative file obtained by The Daily Beast, Phillips and McCormick told investigators from the Denver Police Department—who conducted an independent investigation of the shooting—that they shot up Pacheaco’s pickup truck because they believed he might turn the vehicle and mow them down in the street.
A spokesman for the Glendale Police Department said both officers, who have been on the force for three years, are still employed and did not face any discipline for the shooting. “There was an exhaustive investigation led by very competent and experienced investigators,” the spokesman said, adding that the Denver District Attorney’s Office hired two independent use-of-force experts and that the Glendale Police Department hired their own expert, too.
“All of these experts arrived at the same finding,” the spokesman added.
But use-of-force experts who spoke to The Daily Beast said the shooting was far from straightforward and in fact highlighted well-established perils of cops shooting into cars.
Police in America have long argued that a car driving in their direction amounts to a threat to their life. But John Gross, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told The Daily Beast that Pacheaco’s case stood out because the cops’ fear of him turning his truck toward them was “speculative,'' at least judging by his actions on the video.
Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, likewise told The Daily Beast that the reasoning for the officers’ fear didn’t seem to hold weight. “Last time I looked, you had to be in imminent fear for your life or the life of someone else before you take a life,” he said. “Speculatively, the guy might turn towards you, but that is not a justification to use deadly force.”
The Glendale Police Department’s use of force policy says an officer shouldn’t even draw their gun unless there is a reasonable suspicion there is a risk “the situation may escalate to the point where deadly force may be justified.” It also states officers should not shoot if there is a “likelihood of serious injury” to bystanders or if the suspect’s actions only seem harmful to property or themselves.
Firing at a moving car is also “prohibited except under extreme conditions,” such as when an officer believes there is the threat of death to themselves or others.
“That’s the big question,” Alpert told The Daily Beast. “Were these officers in fear for their life?”
The cops certainly said so. But like other experts interviewed, Alpert said the case was hampered by a lack of robust video evidence. Because Glendale Police officers do not wear body cameras, the best evidence investigators had to work with was grainy store surveillance video.
“The existing video is not adequate to tell us what happened or why,” David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, agreed. “Without better video evidence,” he said, “we are left to rely on just one version: the one told by the police.”
In an interview with investigators in Dec. 2020, McCormick said that once Pacheaco’s truck started to move forward, the situation was “escalating really quickly” and he wanted to be on the driver’s side of the truck for “tactical reasons,” including the fear of being caught in a crossfire.
McCormick admitted that he knew it wasn’t a good idea to try and get to the other side by going around the back of Pacheaco’s truck. “I was thinking I shouldn’t be in between these two cars, but I was trying to make it pretty quick,” he said. But as soon as he started making his move around the truck, it was thrown into reverse. McCormick said the car touched him, a claim Pacheaco’s mother and her attorney dispute.
Nonetheless, McCormick said he wasn’t hurt. “I didn't sustain any injuries,” he told investigators.
As soon as he was around the truck, McCormick said, he started shooting.
“I know he had already hit me. I was scared. I was in fear of, you know, my co-workers’ lives,” he said, adding that he thought Pacheaco was going to put the vehicle back into drive and “go forward” toward himself and the other two officers.
“I don’t know if he knew what he was going to hit or was about to hit, but it looked like he was doing anything to escape,” McCormick said.
In his interview with investigators, Phillips said he feared for McCormick’s safety when the truck went into reverse and he lost sight of his fellow officer. He said he fired into the driver’s side window from a few feet away and stopped when he saw McCormick stumbling out from the back of the truck. He said that once he realized McCormick was OK, he stopped shooting at Pacheaco.
“That’s when my mind said, ‘All right, he’s no longer a threat,’” he told investigators.
In their interviews, McCormick and Phillips admitted that they’d spoken to each other on the phone before their statements to investigators, with McCormick saying they had “vented” but didn’t discuss anything “specific.” Fowler’s lawsuit alleges the officers discussed what story they would tell investigators and made sure their stories lined up.
Pacheaco was unarmed when police finally got inside his truck the night of his shooting. An autopsy report revealed gunshot wounds in his face, neck, torso, and arm. A toxicology report also found methamphetamine in his system.
The investigative file obtained by The Daily Beast that was ultimately sent to the District Attorney’s Office for their decision also included details about his past that painted him as a dangerous criminal.
According to the file, Pacheaco had previous drug, theft, and gun charges. He also had an active warrant out for his arrest after having been identified as a suspect in a shooting in Oct. 2020, a couple weeks before his fatal interaction with Glendale Police.
According to a police report from the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, Pacheaco allegedly fired a single shot at a man and his wife from a distance after a dispute over a car he wanted fixed. According to the police report, the man declined to work on the vehicle because he believed it to be stolen. Later, Pacheaco allegedly fled from a deputy in a car chase.
Fowler painted a different portrait of her son.
She said that after growing up with an abusive father and frequent moves between California, Colorado, and Utah, he became addicted to drugs and went through periods of sobriety and spirals. He’d gotten a degree in theology, but worked as a contractor and at produce stores.
When she’d last spoken to him, in the summer of 2020, she said he’d been attempting to find his way after being released from prison a year earlier, but that he didn’t have a great support network.
“You can’t expect somebody coming out of a prison that has been virtually told what to do, when to go to the bathroom, when to brush their teeth, when to eat, and then you throw them out in society and say, ‘OK, here, have at it, deal with it,’ without any support.” She said that although he had a job and seemed on a good track, he’d still never really dealt with his addictions. “You need some kind of counseling, some kind of treatment, some kind of support system,” she said. “Because where are they going to go eventually when there is any kind of problem?”
Fowler, who lives in Utah, said she was unaware of her son being a suspect in a shooting investigation before his death. She said she also didn’t know anything about the stolen car he was driving at the time of his killing.
But neither fact, she said, changed her opinion on the police response. “He wasn’t armed. He posed no threat to them. Not even with the car,” she said.
Alpert said Pacheaco’s past criminal history doesn’t factor into the police response because they didn’t know who he was when he was in the car. “The officers have to operate on what they know.”
Fowler said she knows her son was not an “angel,” and that she was not going to defend his criminal actions in his past, noting that he’d served time. “I just believe in right and wrong,” she said. “I believe that we all have to be accountable for our actions. And I don’t believe that it’s OK to murder people. That’s not OK. We don’t get to do that.”
In May, when Beth McCann, the Denver district attorney, declined to bring charges against McCormick and Phillips, she argued they were “forced to make split-second judgements” and that they “reasonably believed that fellow officers were in danger of being killed.”
A spokeswoman for the District Attorney declined to comment on this story, pointing instead to McCann’s decision letter.
Fowler said she was heartbroken upon hearing the news. “Quite frankly, what you see on the video and what they say doesn’t match up,” she said. “I didn’t see where they were in danger. I don’t see any justification for their actions, at all.”
Gross, the law professor, said he was similarly struck by the amount of force used by police and how quickly it escalated. Specifically, he noted, McCormick admitted he dangerously moved to the other side of the truck because he feared getting hit in the crossfire—before the truck ever went in reverse.
“You just see how quickly this goes into a sort of tactical, violent response from police,” he said. “They go from trying to wake him up or open the door to the officer suddenly saying, ‘Oh, I got to get on the other side of the car because they might start shooting at any second’.”
Fowler said she was not against the police and understands many of them have reason to be scared on the job. But any fear they say they had was out of proportion to the moment, she argued.
“We live in a very troubling world right now. There’s commotion and they deal with a lot,” she said. “But if you’re that scared that you gotta open up with that kind of firepower on a city street, find another job. Find another line of work, because you don’t belong in that one.”