A 20-year veteran of the Denver sheriff’s department was fired Tuesday for failing to stop his colleague from racing a prison transport van at speeds of at least 100 mph on Interstate 25 in January.
Deputy Jason Martinez and three prisoners were riding as passengers in the van, which was driven by Deputy James Grimes on Jan. 16.
Colorado State Patrol troopers pulled the van over after a concerned bystander called 911 to report that the van was racing with a red pickup truck. Troopers in the air and on the ground saw the vehicles racing and weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds in a construction zone.
The racing went on for at least 20 minutes, according to a disciplinary letter sent Tuesday from Deputy Director of Safety Mary Dulacki.
In subsequent interviews with investigators, Grimes and Martinez claimed that they thought the red truck was driving suspiciously and posed a threat to their safety, and said Grimes sped up in an attempt to put distance between the truck and the prison van.
Grimes described speeding up as his only realistic option, saying that he suspected the driver of the truck could have been trying to ambush the van, and that slowing down to let the truck pass would have put the deputies’ safety at risk. Martinez said it would be a “bad position” tactically to allow the red truck to move ahead of the van.
Dulacki rejected that explanation.
“If Deputy Martinez and Deputy Grimes truly thought they were in danger, the most logical course of action would have been to create distance by backing off and staying behind the other vehicle,” the letter said, “not trying to speed up and get in front of it, especially when the other vehicle was speeding and changing lanes.”
The deputies never called for help throughout the 22-minute event. Martinez told investigators he didn’t think his phone was getting cell service, but that he didn’t check because he wanted to keep his eyes on the road. He described making split-second decisions and said he was concerned the truck driver would “pull out a gun or do whatever,” according to the letter. Martinez told investigators the incident felt like it happened in five minutes.
An inmate who was riding in the back of the prison van said the deputies were blasting music as they sped through traffic, and described being thrown around in the back of the van. The inmate was not wearing a seatbelt because he had been unable to put it on while he was shackled and handcuffed, according to the letter.
“He said, ‘They were just told to get in the van,’” the letter said.
Martinez was previously stopped in October for speeding while driving a prison transport van, according to the letter, although he denied that the stop happened several times when talking with investigators. In that incident, he was let off with a verbal warning and the stop was never reported to the sheriff department.
Martinez was previously disciplined for sleeping on duty in 2010, playing cards on duty in 2006, fraternization in 2004 and internet access in 2004.
Grimes’ disciplinary case was still pending Monday. He was criminally cited for reckless driving shortly after the racing in January.
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