ELBERT COUNTY, Colo. -- The sheriff’s office wrote the report in the days following a murder-suicide in which a prominent couple were found dead in their Elbert County home.
Investigators said Rick Hunt shot his wife Donna Hunt before killing himself. Deputies, police and the SWAT team surrounded the couple’s massive rural home for hours after Donna’s daughter called 911 to report her mother had been shot.
Kiowa police chief Sam Swofford responded to the scene to assist with the call. Meanwhile deputies said Swofford’s wife listened to his police radio from home and shared minute-by-minute details of the standoff in a Facebook chat with several people. The sheriff’s department called Laura Swofford’s posts “reckless” and said they raised “a substantial risk of injury and or death to the responders on scene.”
The district attorney ultimately declined to open an investigation into the social media controversy, but called it “a mistake in judgment.”
“Please hurry up!”
Just after midnight on August 16, 2015 a teenage girl placed a terrifying call to 911. Screaming could be heard as she told a dispatcher her dad was beating her mom and she needed help.
The call ended abruptly and dispatchers made several attempts to call the teenager back without success. About 10 minutes later, she called back and said her mother had been shot and she was hiding from her stepfather.
Sheriff’s deputies and the Kiowa police chief responded to the scene but had trouble finding the home on a sprawling rural property with several buildings.
The sheriff’s reports indicate authorities knew Rick Hunt was an avid hunter who had several firearms and lots of ammunition in the home. Meanwhile, the teenage girl reported hearing only one shot so authorities did not know if Rick Hunt was still alive.
“Their assumption is the husband was still alive and armed. We know that for a fact. So they set up a perimeter and they call for the SWAT team,” said Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap.
Reports indicate it took more than an hour after the daughter called 911 to remove her from the home. The SWAT team did not make entry to assess the condition of the shooting victim for more than five hours due to the potential they may come under fire, ultimately forcing entry into the home using tear gas.
“You're talking about a large piece of property that has a long approach with no cover,” Heap said. “Deputies have to get up next to the house and … knowing that the individual has high powered weapons … that always puts deputies in danger.”
Inside deputies said they found the bodies of Donna and Rick Hunt. A friend told investigators Rick Hunt was “sad & confused, quiet” the day of the incident while discussing the end of his marriage. The report indicates Hunt was jealous because his wife talked to another man at a horse track.
“Possible obstruction of a government operation”
The day after the murder-suicide, the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office said it received information the Kiowa police chief’s wife wrote about the incident as it was unfolding on Facebook.
“We learned the next day that that the call was played out as it was happening on social media,” Sheriff Heap told Denver7 Investigates. “I was upset about it and I was thankful that we came away all right, that everybody with a badge came away without being hurt.”
Screen grabs included in the sheriff’s report indicate they came from a group chat on Facebook that included replies from multiple people.
The chat began with a post saying “If you’re up right now, I can use ALL the prayers in the world right now. Sam just came home, got his .308 & headed back out the door. He’s very shaken up (more than I’ve ever seen him). I can’t go into details, but one person is dead & Sam got shot at while he was carrying another person to safety.”
The post went on to say the Kiowa chief had “gotten to know” the suspect involved in the call and had a relationship with him.
Subsequent posts contained updates like:
- “SWAT is on location now & Sam is taking a shield to go pick up another officer.”
- “I have a feeling that Sam low crawled with that .308 all the way up there.”
- “Perhaps someone else has the .308 & is in sniper position?”
- “The daughter called dispatch to tell them there is a hidden room within the [master] bedroom and that’s where the weapons are kept.”
- “They just called for the electric company to be called to cut off power to the house.”
“I don't think it was malicious. But it was dangerous,” Heap said. “If … someone's barricaded in the house and they're watching that that that definitely puts those officers in danger.”
The sheriff’s office report also pointed out that some of the posts were inaccurate because the suspect never fired at officers.
Kiowa police chief Sam Swafford said he was “hurt” when he learned of his wife’s social media activity and did not fault the sheriff’s office for writing a report about it.
“It's concerning … if she had done something of a criminal nature, I would expect him to do his duty and investigate it. And I would assume if the tables were turned that I would do the same thing as well,” Swafford told Denver7.
Chief Swafford pointed out that his wife’s posts were not public and were only viewable by a select group of friends. He also said authorities carried out their operation on a police radio channel that anyone with a police scanner or a scanner app could hear.
“It's not something I would do. But I don't do the social media. I don't do the Facebook. I don't believe it's something that should've been communicated. Absolutely not,” Swafford said.
Laura Swafford declined to be interviewed by Denver7 Investigates.
District attorney declines to open investigation
The district attorney of the 18th Judicial District, George Brauchler, said the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office informed his office of his concerns but he declined to pursue an investigation to consider criminal charges. “This is a matter of some public concern and the public ought to know about it,” Brauchler said.
“It's clear to me the chief's wife didn't intend to hinder or interfere or obstruct law enforcement,” Brauchler said. “At best this was careless, maybe even reckless, but it … certainly wasn't intentional. Based on the description we had, I just don't think there was a criminal charge that fit.”
Brauchler said he was concerned when he learned about the incident.
“There is information that should be public, there is information that should not be public. Knowing the difference between those two, and the timing of what becomes public, is a big deal in our business and could put people in jeopardy,” the district attorney said.