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Officer Dillon Vakoff case: Defendant takes the stand in trial for alleged killing of Arvada police officer

Arvada Police Officer Dillon Michael Vakoff
Posted at 5:22 PM, Dec 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-09 10:01:04-05

The man accused of fatally shooting an Arvada police officer in September 2022 took the stand in his own trial Wednesday. It was filled with a continual back and forth between the prosecution's objections to the line of questioning by the defense and the defendant's testimony.

At one point, the prosecution said, "Can I ask the audience not comment on my objections?"

To which the judge responded, "I have not heard anything from the folks sitting in the gallery, although I'm further away. I'm just gonna remind folks in the courtroom we are conducting a trial here. To the extent that any comments become disruptive from anybody in the gallery, the court will address those separately. But the court asks folks to please respect the process."

Sonny Thomas Almanza III is accused of shooting and killing Arvada Officer Dillon Vakoff, 27, on Sept. 11, 2022.

Almanza pleaded not guilty in late May to the charges against him, which include first-degree murder of a peace officer with extreme indifference, first-degree murder after deliberation, first-degree murder with extreme indifference, attempted first-degree murder after deliberation, and attempted first-degree murder with extreme indifference, among others.

However during trial Wednesday, Almanza's defense attorney asked the defendant, "When anyone asks you about what happened, do you admit you're the shooter?" To which he responded, "Yes. I never not once said I wasn't."

vakoff memorial.png

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During Almanza's testimony Wednesday, he discussed quite a bit of what was in his arrest affidavit. But much of the new information he shared was stricken from the court record.

A main point of debate between the defense and prosecution was Almanza's interview with two detectives after the shooting. The prosecution objected several times to questions about his topics of discussion with the detectives, but the judge overruled since Almanza and his attorney did not dive into the substance of that conversation.

Almanza was asked and answered multiple questions about the history and habits of his ex-girlfriend and her family. The prosecution objected, and the judge sustained, asking the court to disregard the statements made by Almanza.

The judge did overrule an objection to Almanza's defense attorney asking if Almanza could recall a gun in his ex-girlfriend's brother-in-law's car. His answer, however, was again removed from the court record.

The judge asked the jury not to try and guess what a possible response was.

The defense ran into the same problem with Almanza's answer to when he had seen his ex-girlfriend's sister with a gun.

When the defense proceeded with her direct examination of Almanza, the judge said, "You're asking a question based upon an answer to a question that the court just sustained an objection to. So the question is basically prefaced on an answer the court has disallowed."

The defense asked to approach the bench several times to offer a counter argument to the judge's decisions.

Arvada Police Officer Dillon Michael Vakoff

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Officers Vakoff and D. Garibay described the scene of the shooting on the night of Sept. 11, 2022 as a large, chaotic family disturbance, according to then-Arvada Police Chief Link Strate.

Almanza had recently separated from the children's mother and they had a child custody dispute over that night over their two young daughters, who were 3 and 1 at the time, Almanza testified.

On Sept. 11, 2022, Almanza, his sister and her boyfriend, arrived at Almanza's apartment complex with his daughters. When they did, Almanza's ex-girlfriend was already at the apartment's parking lot, along with several of her family members.

The ex-girlfriend's family ran toward the car, "loud and screaming," Defense attorney Nancy Holton with the Colorado State Public Defender's Office said.

Almanza said he got out of the car and went into his apartment to open the door, so he could get his daughters inside safely without getting stuck at the door.

But he could hear screaming in the parking lot from inside his apartment. Almanza came back outside with a gun and said he was trying to "defuse" the situation by shooting into the air. He wanted everyone to leave.

Almanza testified he saw his ex-girlfriend's sister coming toward him, and he was trying to scare her off by shooting in her direction.

During opening statements last Wednesday, Prosecutor Tracy Lynn Schroeder said spent rifle casings were found in the area that matched the AR-15 that Almanza had been wielding.

Vakoff was in uniform doing his job to protect and serve, Schroeder concluded, and asked the jury to find Almanza guilty of his murder and the attempted murder of the ex-girlfriend's sister.

The court then went on a mid-day break.

Following the break, Schroeder then questioned Almanza on whether he was allowed to possess a firearm since he was a convicted felon, to which the defendant said he could not.

Schroeder then asked Almanza if he was "angry" after running into his ex-girlfriend and another woman in downtown Denver, realizing someone else he was not aware of was taking care of his children.

Almanza said he wasn't necessarily angry, but "more so worried" about his children, which prompted him to drive back from Denver to Northglenn.

After several lines of questioning, Schroeder then moved on to the 911 call made from inside Almanza's vehicle while he and his sister were on the way to his ex- girlfriend's apartment in Northglenn after they had picked up his children as he had received what he claimed was threats against him.

"So... it was your idea to call 911 and you know that (your sister) called 911 even if you weren’t listening in, right? And yet, you were surprised that there were officers at the scene?" Schroeder asked, to which Almanza said he was surprised.

Schroeder then walked through the moments after Almanza arrived at the apartment in a red vehicle, in which his sister and his children were in, before he got out to go pickup an AR-15 as he feared he was going to get beat up after picking up his children.

Almanza testified that he went up to his ex-girlfriend's apartment and picked up an AR-15 that he put together before getting out of the apartment to fire a shot in the air that he claimed was done to stop an altercation that was happening outside.

After firing that first shot, Almanza said he could see his ex-girlfriend's sister come toward him but didn't see a weapon in her hand, which is when he said he fired another shot at the ground to "scare her away, not to shoot her," but the round ended up hitting her leg.

Schroeder then questioned Almanza on the total number of shots that were fired, totaling eight, before asking him if he remembers shooting at Officer Vakoff, whom he claims he did so because he was "shot first and then I returned fire."

“If you believe your first shot is the shot that dropped the officer to the ground — or the person you were shooting at — and then your realized it was a police officer, you know after watching this video, you pulled the trigger 7 more times, didn’t you?” Schroeder asked, to which Almanza replied "Yes."

Later, Almanza argued that the only reason he went to get his weapon and the only reason he fired his gun was because he was "mainly scared and worried."

"(I was) scared what was going to happen, scared for myself. Worried about the people I was with. Worried about my children," he told the court Wednesday.

He also claimed he shot at Vakoff thinking he was shooting at a member of his ex-girlfriend's family.

Almanza was excused from the bench and the court then addressed reducing some of the most egregious charges — criminally negligent homicide — to lesser charges, like reckless manslaughter.

In closing arguments, prosecutors argued Almanza showed up to a fist fight with an AR-15, which he used up to 10 times, hitting Officer Vakoff in the process, killing him. The defense argued that Almanza did not know he was shooting at Officer Vakoff that day, and that he was acting on self-defense as he believed he was being shot by a member of his ex-girlfriend's family.

Court was dismissed after jury instructions and deliberations were expected to begin Thursday morning.

Officer Dillon Vakoff case: Defendant takes the stand

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