Colorado officer who put suspect in car hit by train found guilty of reckless endangerment
DENVER (AP) — A Colorado police officer who put a handcuffed woman in a parked police vehicle that was hit by a freight train was found guilty of reckless endangerment and assault but was acquitted of a third charge of criminal attempt to commit manslaughter during a trial Friday.
Jordan Steinke was the first of two officers to go to trial over the Sept. 16, 2022, crash that left Yareni Rios-Gonzalez seriously injured.
“There’s no reasonable doubt that placing a handcuffed person in the back of a patrol car, parked on railroad tracks, creates a substantial and unjustifiable risk of harm by the train,” said Judge Timothy Kerns.
But the evidence didn’t convince Kerns that Steinke “knowingly intended to harm Ms. Rios-Gonzalez,” and he added that Stienke had shown “shock and remorse.”
Steinke testified that she did not know that the patrol car of another officer she was helping was parked on the tracks even though they can be seen on her body camera footage along with two railroad crossing signs. Steinke said she was focused on the threat that could come from Rios-Gonzalez and her pickup truck, not the ground.
Steinke said she put Rios-Gonzalez in the other officer’s vehicle because it was the nearest spot to temporarily hold her. She said she didn’t know the train was coming until just before it hit.
The judge found that Steinke observed the tracks, but failed to “appreciate the risk.”
There was no jury in Steinke’s trial, which started Monday. Instead, Kerns listened to the evidence and issued the verdict. Mallory Revel, Steinke’s attorney, didn’t immediately respond to requests by phone and email for comment.
Steinke, who was working for the Fort Lupton Police Department at the time of the crash, was charged with criminal attempt to commit manslaughter, a felony; and reckless endangerment and third-degree assault, both misdemeanors.
The other officer, Pablo Vazquez, who worked for the police department in nearby Platteville, is being prosecuted for misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment and traffic offenses. He hasn’t entered a plea yet. His lawyer, Reid Elkus, didn’t immediately respond to a request by phone for comment.
Vazquez pulled over Rios-Gonzalez on a rural road that intersects U.S. Highway 85 after she was accused of pointing a gun at another driver. Trains pass on tracks that parallel the highway about a dozen times a day, prosecutors said, and the sound of their horns is common in the area north of Denver.
Rios-Gonzalez, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, is suing over her treatment. She later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor menacing, said one of her lawyers, Chris Ponce, who was in court to watch the trial. Rios-Gonzalez did not testify or attend herself.
Steinke said she placed Rios-Gonzalez in the other police car temporarily because it was the nearest place to keep her secure, a move that is standard practice for high-risk traffic stops, said defense expert witness Steve Ijames. He also testified that in dangerous situations officers can become hyperfocused on particular threats and overlook things that turn out to be important in hindsight.
Steinke, who drove at around 100 mph (161 kph) at times on her way to backup Vazquez, testified that she was surprised to see him sitting in his vehicle when she arrived, rather than pointing a gun at Rios-Gonzalez’s truck. She said she quickly parked her patrol vehicle behind his and got out because it was the quickest way “to get a gun in the fight.”
Steinke also said she did not notice the tracks or the ground when she squatted down to arrest a kneeling Rios-Gonzalez along the tracks after the suspect was ordered out of her pickup truck.
When pressed by Deputy District Attorney Christopher Jewkes, Steinke replied, “I am sure I saw the tracks sir, but I did not perceive them.” She said she was focused on the suspect and the potential threat she posed and was “fairly certain” that the traffic stop would end in gunfire.
“I never in a million years thought a train was going to come plowing through my scene,” Steinke said.
The Weld County District Attorney’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request by phone for comment.
This story has been updated to correct that the officer was acquitted of the charge of criminal attempt to commit manslaughter, not manslaughter.
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.