JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — A man accused of killing an Arvada police officer in 2022 amid a violent family disturbance has been found guilty on all counts by a jury in Jefferson County.
Sonny Thomas Almanza III was standing trial in connection with the deadly shooting of Arvada Officer Dillon Vakoff, 27, and non-fatal shooting of a woman in the early hours of Sept. 11, 2022.
The jury reached a verdict on Thursday, 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.
Sentencing was set for Dec. 14 at 2:30 p.m.
As the verdict was read, there were tears on both sides of the courtroom.
About 30 minutes after the verdict, First Judicial District Attorney's Office Alexis King and Arvada Police Chief Ed Brady held a brief press conference outside the courtroom.
King thanked the jurors for their service and for sifting through "incredibly difficult facts."
"Because of modern technology, they were really privy to the horrendous details of his death," she said. "Along with the jury, we want to thank their family — Dillon's family — for being with us throughout the incredibly long process. The judicial system is not designed for those who are grieving and have lost such an amazing family member."
Chief Brady described Dillon as much more than a uniform and badge.
"He was a person," he said. "He was a son and grandson and nephew, a cousin, a boyfriend and a wonderful coworker and friend. And he will be missed sorely. This verdict today doesn't bring him back. But it will help the family start to heal and move past this criminal justice stage... And I will also say that this verdict today, I think, also sends a clear message that evil acts like the one committed against Dillon will not be tolerated in our community."
The police chief said the past couple of years have been difficult for the department, which also lost Officer Gordon Beasley in June 2021.
"There's still a lot of healing to do for the department," Chief Brady said.
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.
Opening statements begin in case of Arvada officer killed in 2022
Almanza took the stand in his own trial on Wednesday. He said he had recently separated from his ex-girlfriend, and they had two young daughters together, who were 3 and 1 at the time. He said on the evening of Sept. 10 into the early morning of Sept. 11, 2022, they had had a dispute about the children.
The prosecution had previously argued that Almanza had picked up his two children from their grandmother's house after he learned their mother — his ex-girlfriend — had left them in the care of juveniles. In the early hours of Sept. 11, he then headed home to his apartment, which was along the 6700 block of W. 51st Avenue. On the way, Almanza's sister, who was also in the car, called police.
Prosecutors said once Almanza got to his apartment complex, he saw his ex-girlfriend and her family were there and ready to fight.
At this point, Arvada Officer Vakoff and Officer D. Garibay were at the scene and trying to gain control and understanding of the issue. Almanza claimed in his testimony that he did not see any police there.
In his testimony, 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 heard screaming from the parking lot, so he grabbed his AR-15, went back outside and tried to "defuse" the situation by shooting into the air, he said in court.
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. While he repeatedly said he was aiming toward the ground or her feet, he shot her in the leg.
Prosecutors said after this gunshot, Vakoff yelled "Get your hands up!" but Almanza denied hearing the command.
Vakoff, seeing Almanza was armed, shot him. Almanza said he did not know Vakoff was an officer and thought he was being shot at by a member of his ex-girlfriend's family. So he opened fire in Vakoff's direction.
Prosecutors questioned Almanza on the total number of shots that he fired — eight — before asking him if he remembers shooting at Vakoff. Almanza responded that he shot at Vakoff 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 you realized it was a police officer, you know after watching this video, you pulled the trigger seven more times, didn’t you?” Schroeder asked, to which Almanza replied "Yes."
Vakoff was ultimately transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced deceased. Almanza was arrested at the scene.
The two children remained in the car during the altercation and were not injured.
The defense dug into the argument that Almanza did not know he was shooting at Vakoff that day, and that he was acting in self-defense, as he believed he was being shot by a member of his ex-girlfriend's family.
Both sides rested on Wednesday afternoon and jury deliberations began. Almanza was found guilty on all counts Thursday afternoon.
Almanza's family said they did not believe the trial was fair after the verdict was read.
“Everyone loses. [Almanza's] losing. They lost. It's sad. All in all, but [Almanza] doesn't deserve what he's getting. He didn't mean to hurt that cop. He didn't mean to take his life. He was in fear for his own life. To me, it's self-defense," said Shantell Swan, one of Almanza's cousins. “When he went to jail that day, he was found guilty already... He didn't have a chance from the start. He was guilty from the start.”
In a statement, Arvada City Council called Officer Vakoff "one of our city's finest." Their full statement is below:
"Today we want to focus on Dillon. Dillon Vakoff was one of our City’s finest. He grew up in this community, went to high school here and, after honorably serving his country, returned to his Arvada to protect and serve his community. We mourn Dillon and want to keep his family, his loved ones and his Arvada Police Department family first in our thoughts and our hearts.
Thank you to the members of the jury who faithfully discharged their civic duty. Your verdict delivered justice for Dillon. No legal action will bring Dillon back, but today's guilty verdict provides some measure of peace that this senseless act will not go unpunished.
To the members of our Police family, thank you for your continued dedication to protect and serve our community. We are grateful for your service and your sacrifice.
And finally, to Dillon’s family and friends, thank you for sharing Dillon with us. He was a phenomenal young man who contributed immeasurably to the organization and the community. We will hold his memory near to our hearts for the rest of our lives.
Dillon's legacy endures as a beacon of dedication and service, honored by today's verdict that speaks to justice prevailing. Let us uphold his memory by fostering unity and resilience within our community, standing together in gratitude for those dedicated professionals who protect and serve daily with unwavering commitment."