5 deputies shot, one fatally, by Colorado gunman

Hours after attack, numerous questions remained
Law enforcement at the site of a deadly shooting at the Copper Canyon Apartments in Highlands Ranch, Colo., on Dec. 31, 2017.
Law enforcement at the site of a deadly shooting at the Copper Canyon Apartments in Highlands Ranch, Colo., on Dec. 31, 2017.

It began as a predawn call for the police to a disturbance at an apartment complex in a Denver suburb on Sunday. It ended, officials said, in a fusillade of more than 100 rounds fired by a barricaded gunman who shot five law enforcement officers, killing one of them. The gunman was killed by officers.

Killed in the attack was Zackari Parrish, a 29-year-old deputy who had worked for the Douglas County sheriff’s office for seven months, Sheriff Tony Spurlock said at an afternoon news conference. He described Parrish as a “smiley kid” who was eager to serve. He is survived by a wife and two young children.

Describing his meeting with the deputy’s widow, the sheriff said, “When I sat with his wife and held her hand, I could see in her eyes that her life was over.”

Two civilians, who the sheriff said were apparently in a neighboring apartment, were also shot. Their injuries were not life-threatening.

A motorcade of law enforcement vehicles escorted a hearse carrying the slain deputy from the Littleton Adventist Hospital in Littleton, Colorado.

Hours after the attack, numerous questions remained, including the gunman’s motive, the type of weapon he used, what exactly happened leading up to the attack and where the officers were positioned in relation to the suspect.

Authorities on Sunday night identified the gunman as Matthew Riehl, 37.

Much remains unclear about Riehl’s life and his actions leading up to the shooting, but he did have an interest in guns. In June, he took an introductory course in carbine rifles run by a Colorado company called Kenaz Tactical Group, according to Robert Butler, the company’s owner and lead instructor.

“He was in our class,” Butler said in a phone interview. “I’m kind of sick right now. Oh my God. We don’t train people to do this.”

Butler said Riehl seemed like “just the ordinary student,” and did not seem unstable or violent.

The course Riehl took is geared toward self-defense, Butler said. It covered the basics of rifle safety and taught students how to shoot and how to align their aim. Students were required to provide their own firearms.

The gunfire shattered a quiet New Year’s Eve morning at the Copper Canyon Apartments, which describes itself on its website as having some of the “friendliest apartments” in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, which is about 15 miles south of Denver.

Police were first called to the apartment where the shooting occurred around 3 a.m. Sunday regarding a “verbal disturbance,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Sunday night on Facebook that shifted some of the time elements discussed in the sheriff’s news conference.

Two men were in the apartment, and one said Riehl was “acting bizarre and might be having a mental breakdown,” the statement said. Deputies left at 3:44 a.m. as no crime had occurred.

Deputies were called back to the apartment by a neighbor at 5:14 a.m. about a disturbance, the sheriff said at the news conference. One of the men in the apartment, described by the sheriff as a roommate, had left before officers arrived, returned and gave officers a key and permission to enter but left before the shooting, the statement said.

As outlined by the sheriff, what happened next was murky. The officers were talking to Riehl for about 30 minutes and at some point he barricaded himself in a bedroom.

At 5:56 a.m., four officers were hit by rounds fired from the bedroom. Three deputies were able to get to safety but Parrish was unable to retreat. The three wounded deputies could not immediately rescue him because of the amount of gunfire and their injuries, the statement said.

Parrish was shot multiple times. The other officers, who were hit in areas uncovered by their protective vests, were in stable condition, the sheriff said.

Officers with a SWAT team entered the apartment about 7:30 a.m., and shots were exchanged between Riehl and officers, resulting in his death, the statement said. An officer from the Castle Rock Police Department was also shot and wounded at that time.

The sheriff said Riehl was known to authorities and had no criminal record but would not elaborate.

Spurlock described what happened as “almost an ambush-type of attack” and said the gunman fired “very, very quickly” with a rifle, though it was unclear what type.

“He knew we were there, and he knew we were coming,” the sheriff said.

He predicted a prolonged investigation that would draw on footage from body cameras worn by the officers.

Family members of one of the wounded deputies, Jeff Pelle, rushed from their homes in Northern Colorado to the hospital after getting word he had been shot.

Pelle was in visible pain when his family saw him in the intensive care unit after he emerged from surgery, his sister, Shanna Jessen, said in a phone interview.

Jessen said that he had been shot under the armpit and the bullet had traveled down his torso to his hip. She said he was doing “remarkably well” after surgery.

He comes from a law enforcement family. Pelle’s father, Joe, is the longtime sheriff of Boulder County, Colorado. Jessen said her brother had been in law enforcement for about seven years, and had been looking forward to celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary Tuesday.

A resident of the apartment complex, Steven Silknitter, rushed home from his weekend job as a truck driver when he heard about the shooting. He said he was trying to make his way past a police cordon when he heard what sounded like a fierce exchange of gunfire.

“Fifteen to 20 gunshots,” he said. “Return fire and then more fire.”

Silknitter, 50, described the apartment complex as a mix of families, couples and older residents and said neither he nor his fiancée, Vira Cover, had ever felt unsafe there or knew of any reports of violence.

“Highlands Ranch is one of the safest places in the Denver area,” said Cover, 50. “I cannot believe this happened in our backyard.”

“Where do we go from here?” Silknitter added. “Where do you go without having to worry about being shot?”

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