JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — One week after he was convicted in the 2022 death of Arvada Officer Dillon Vakoff, Sonny Thomas Almanza III was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Almanza stood trial in connection with the deadly shooting of Vakoff, 27, and non-fatal shooting of a woman in the early hours of Sept. 11, 2022.
The jury reached a verdict one day after prosecutors and the defense presented their closing arguments. They found Almanza guilty on all counts, which included first-degree murder of a peace officer with extreme indifference, first-degree murder after deliberation, first-degree murder with extreme indifference, attempted murder, second-degree assault, possessing a weapon as a felon, possessing a large-capacity magazine during a crime and trespassing.
Defendant accused of killing Arvada Officer Dillon Vakoff found guilty
The court heard statements from Vakoff and Almanza's loved ones during Thursday's hearing.
Arvada Police Chief Ed Brady said Vakoff was in the prime of his life. He was going to join the department's SWAT Team and had plans to become a school resource officer.
"The defendant's choices have consequences," said Brady.
Officer Joe Galvez read a speech on behalf of Vakoff's stepfather, Dan.
"I chose to be Dillon's dad," Dan wrote. "I knew he was special and would accomplish great things."
Dan wrote of the fury he feels now that his son is gone.
"You had a choice. You chose to steal my son from me," Dan wrote. "I am mad and angry, but I choose not to pull out a gun."
"You will live on... I will never have my boy," Dan continued.
The prosecutor then read a message on behalf of Vakoff's mother, Lisa.
Lisa explained that she has lost both of her children and is now "truly alone in this." She spoke of the hard work she put in as a single mother to provide a life for her children. Now, without Dillon, she said, "My life has been stolen."
"He sacrificed his life to save your family from you," Lisa wrote. "You chose to annihilate my family."
The last person to speak on behalf of Vakoff was his girlfriend, fellow Arvada Officer Megan Esslinger.
"You stole my best friend from me so I refuse to say your name," Esslinger began.
The two lived together and had plans to get married and start a family. Those plans are now gone, she said.
"I see him everywhere in the house we were making a home," Esslinger said.
Esslinger recalled the night Vakoff died. She said the two did their handshake and shared "I love yous" before Vakoff headed to his assigned sector. That was the last time she saw her boyfriend alive.
"A part of me died that day and I will never get that part back," she said.
While she did not address Almanza directly, Esslinger shared her intentions for him.
"I hope the stories I have shared of Dillon haunt you as you sit in a cell," she said.
Officer Dillon Vakoff case: Defendant takes the stand in trial of slain officer
Almanza's loved ones then took the podium, asking the judge for mercy with his sentencing.
"My brother is a good man. He is a good father. He is a good son," said Matthew Medlock, Almanza's brother. "I understand there's losses on both sides."
"No matter what they say, we know who you are," Medlock continued, choking back tears.
Medlock asked if he could hug Almanza, but the judge denied the request due to security precautions.
Almanza's grandmother began her testimony by expressing condolences to Vakoff's loved ones.
"This was such a crazy, crazy night," she said.
The grandmother then went on to describe her grandson as a dedicated family member and loving father.
"I'd like for the court to please, please give justice to his pain," the grandmother said. "I know that he is so, so sad that the officer was killed this night."
"Please forgive. Let Sonny be a part of his children's lives one day," the grandmother continued.
Almanza's cousin, Shantell Swan, was the last to speak on his behalf.
"Our family is not heartless people. We do care," she said. "We also aren't going to get our person back."
"Sonny is not a monster... this is a horrible accident," Swan continued. "No one wins out of this."
Before receiving his sentence, Almanza addressed the court and expressed remorse.
"I just want everyone here to know that they may think I'm a monster... but I just pray for everyone here every day, every night," he said. "This is the end of it... I just want everyone to heal."
Judge Russell Klein described the case as "a tragedy in almost every sense of the word."
"Words are good at saying who did what... but are never able to restore a lost life," Klein said when addressing Vakoff's loved ones.
He also addressed the loss on Almanza's side, saying, "There are two young children who will now grow up without their father."
Klein sentenced Almanza to life in prison without parole for the death of Vakoff. Almanza was also sentenced to 18 years for the non-fatal shooting and 1.5 years in prison each for possessing a large-capacity magazine during a crime and trespassing.
Before the hearing concluded, Almanza's attorney said they were preparing to file an appeal.