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Former DA investigator raises new questions about murder-suicide investigation in Garfield County

CBI hired lead detective despite what Denver7 Investigates uncovered
Lisa Miller
Megan Alstatt CBI
Posted at 9:55 PM, May 24, 2023

DENVER — The former chief investigator for the 9th Judicial District Attorney's Office says she's concerned after the lead detective in an apparent murder-suicide in Garfield County with, according to the investigator, a pattern of taking shortcuts was hired as a Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) agent.

“I want to support someone trying to advance and better themselves. I am also concerned if [the detective] thinks this handling was fine, I’m concerned that attitude goes into an investigation in another small community,” said Lisa Miller, the former chief investigator for the DA’s office.

Denver7 Investigates spent months looking into the alleged murder-suicide on County Road 243 in New Castle. Darlene Brooks, 80, and her son Tanner Zancanella, 19, were both found dead with gunshot wounds a day apart inside their Garfield County home in April 2022.

Darlene and Tanner

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The day of Darlene’s death, her husband, Bill, called 911 from a grocery store several miles away. Family members explained to Denver7 Investigates that Bill suffers from a traumatic brain injury. However, deputies never gathered a formal statement from him about what happened.

“It's one of many examples of, and I'll say it, a bad investigation,” Miller said.

Tanner was found dead the next day by other family members after deputies missed his body. Darlene’s daughter, Julie Sands, was there when they found Tanner in his bedroom and said the lead investigator, Megan Alstatt, came to a quick conclusion. Sands said Alstatt told family at the scene it was a murder-suicide at the hands of Darlene.

“They came up with this 10 to 15 minutes later, and these thoughts started going through my head like, ‘What kind of proof?’” said Sands.

“She made an assessment early after her arrival on that scene of what had happened. And she wasn't open to other possibilities, clearly,” Miller said. “I think if that scene was handled appropriately, Tanner would have been found that day.”

Darlene and Tanner
Darlene and Tanner

Miller has 30 years of law enforcement experience, and an extensive resume working on hundreds of death investigations. During her time at the DA’s office, it was her job to uncover any shortfalls in cases before prosecutors filed charges.

“Sunlight makes the best disinfectant. I believe law enforcement should be transparent,” Miller said.

Denver7 Investigates shared the case report for the incident on County Road 243 with Miller. Based on what she reviewed, the former chief investigator felt compelled to speak out about the issues Denver7 Investigates uncovered.

“I believe it's necessary for those of us within to speak up and say, 'Hey, this one, you missed this one. This is not right. Let's fix this. Let's do better next time,'” Miller said.

Miller says deputies didn’t properly investigate the deaths of Darlene and Tanner.

“Well, investigation 101 is you lock this down as a crime scene and it's a crime. It's a murder until you know better. And I didn't see it treated like that,” she said.

Miller was familiar with the work of the lead detective on the case, Megan Alstatt.

Megan Alstatt
Megan Alstatt

“I was extremely disappointed, but not terribly surprised,” said Miller. “It would be fair to say that there's been several instances of her taking shortcuts.”

Miller provided an example of those shortcuts, describing a high-profile embezzlement case Alstatt handled in 2018. As reported by the Post Independent, two caretakers of a ranch owned by the Waffle House CEO were accused of stealing more than $1 million.

"When that case came in from Detective Alstatt, it was troubling," Miller said.

Reporting from The Aspen Times details how defense attorneys in the embezzlement case argued Alstatt's findings weren't credible because "she relied only on ranch owners for her investigation and didn't bother to interview witnesses who allegedly received the fraudulent money." The caretakers were found guilty of lesser fraud charges.

Police reports show Alstatt also failed to talk to witnesses in the deaths of Darlene and Tanner. The day Denver7 Investigates sent an email to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office inquiring about the status of the case, Alstatt actively started working on it again.

The lead detective filed six new supplemental reports in 12 days, according to the case files. She conducted witness interviews, spoke with a neighbor of Darlene and Bill, and took an account from the grocery store clerk who helped Bill. She also downloaded and listened to Bill’s initial 911 call for the first time in nine months, according to the case files.

“You don't do interviews like this on a case like this nine months later over the phone,” Miller said.

Denver7 Investigates dug into more cases from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. Those records uncovered the department investigated 41 suicides over the past five years, and each case was handled differently. Some case reports included detailed witness statements, while others weren’t handled like crime scenes.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario doubled down in front of Denver7 cameras in February when asked why his department does not have a policy for death investigations.

“I see no reason to have a death investigation policy in our organization,” Vallario said at the time.

“Lou mentioned that his agency doesn't have a policy. I think they need one,” Miller said. “What happened to this family should show Lou why policy is needed."

Vallario blamed the delay in this case on a massive backlog processing firearms evidence through CBI.

CBI agents

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“That pains me to the extent that while we're waiting, they're waiting,” Vallario said.

CBI confirmed there is roughly a year-long delay to process firearm ballistic evidence. The state agency’s new director, Chris Schaefer, said the backlog is not acceptable. He has promised change and improved turnaround times with new state funding that will allow the agency to hire more scientists and agents.

One of those new agents CBI recently hired is Megan Alstatt. The now-former Garfield County detective will be called in as the expert to help investigate major crimes on the western slope.

“I have mixed feelings on that," Miller said. "I am also concerned because I know from working with CBI, many small rural agencies across this state rely on, are dependent upon CBI agents coming out and helping them.”

CBI defended its decision to hire Alstatt. In a statement to Denver7 Investigates, the agency said Alstatt was hired due to “her extensive law enforcement experience” and “Megan, along with our other candidates applying to join the CBI team, participated in a comprehensive hiring process to ensure the CBI’s high standards of serving the people of Colorado with excellence is maintained.”

Denver7 Investigates reached out directly to Megan Alstatt for comment. She declined to provide a statement or interview.

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