NewsLocal News


Officer Dillon Vakoff case: Opening statements begin in case of Arvada officer shot, killed in 2022

Arvada Police Officer Dillon Michael Vakoff
Posted at 6:07 PM, Nov 29, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-29 20:07:56-05

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. — Opening statements in the trial of a man accused of killing an Arvada police officer in 2022 began on Wednesday afternoon.

Sonny Thomas Almanza III, 32, is accused of shooting and injuring a woman, and then shooting and killing Arvada Officer Dillon Vakoff, 27, during a family disturbance on Sept. 11, 2022 along the 6700 block of W. 51st Avenue in Arvada. Almanza pleaded not guilty in late May to the charges against him.

The prosecution on Wednesday 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, and once he returned home, he saw his ex-girlfriend and her family ready to fight. He ran to his apartment to grab an AR-15 and ended up shooting the ex-girlfriend's sister, injuring her, and Vakoff, killing him, the prosecution said. The defense said Almanza did not know any police officers were at the scene and when he was shot by Vakoff, he thought he'd been shot by somebody from his ex-girlfriend's family, so he fired back, thinking he needed to defend himself.

The opening statements came after nearly two days of jury questions and selection with Judge Russell Klein presiding.

vakoff memorial.png

Local News

Trial begins Tuesday for man accused of killing Arvada Officer Dillon Vakoff

Stephanie Butzer
12:28 PM, Nov 27, 2023

Prosecutor Tracy Lynn Schroeder was first to speak, and described how Almanza and his girlfriend had broken up and had an informal custody agreement for their two young daughters, who were 3 and 1 at the time.

Separately and unknowingly, both Almanza and his ex-girlfriend decided to go downtown with their loved ones. In the early hours of Sept. 11, 2022, Almanza — along with his sister and her boyfriend — learned his ex-girlfriend had left their two daughters in the care of juveniles when she went downtown earlier that evening with her sister and mother. In the middle of the night, he decided to go get them, Schroeder said. He was angry when he reached the home, grabbed the girls and left to go back to his apartment.

When the ex-girlfriend learned Almanza had taken their daughters, she also became angry and started sending aggressive texts to Almanza, Schroeder said. She contacted several members of her family to meet her at Almanza's apartment complex to get the daughters back.

The ex-girlfriend's messages prompted Almanza's sister to call 911, Schroeder said.

When Officer Vakoff and Officer D. Garibay arrived at the scene, they parked down the street and walked to the apartment's parking lot, where Vakoff first contacted the ex-girlfriend and some of her family.

Shortly after this, Almanza, his sister and his sister's girlfriend drove up to the scene with the two girls in the car. Then, fights broke out, Schroeder said.

At some point, a gunshot rang out and police saw that a woman — the ex-girlfriend's sister — had been shot. That was when Vakoff yelled "Get your hands up!" she said.

Schroeder said Officer Garibay backed up to get a better perspective of the scene, but quickly became worried when Vakoff didn't answer his radio. Garibay went between some of the cars in the parking lot and found Vakoff severely injured on the ground. He had fired off a couple shots, which hit Almanza, who then returned fire and hit Vakoff in the mouth.

Vakoff was ultimately transported to a hospital, where he was pronounced deceased.

At the scene, the family fighting continued, Schroeder said, but Garibay was able to handcuff Almanza while trying to tend to Vakoff.

Multiple other agencies arrived at the scene and several people were handcuffed.

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.

Remembering Officer Dillon Vakoff: Funeral held for fallen Arvada officer

Defense attorney Nancy Holton with the Colorado State Public Defender's Office then stepped up to provide the defense's opening statements.

Holton said on Sept. 10, 2022, Almanza was supposed to have the two girls, but was having car troubles and was unable to pick them up. His ex-girlfriend had planned to go to a baby shower that day with her mother and sister, and brought the two daughters with her.

After some time, the ex-girlfriend took the girls home, but still wanted to party, so she told Almanza she was going to leave their daughters with her mother and sister while she went out, which Almanza said was fine, Holton said.

Around the same time, Almanza was bummed out about his car issues and not having his daughters, Holton said, but his sister convinced him to go downtown for some drinks with her and her boyfriend.

As he was leaving the downtown area in the early hours of Sept. 11, he spotted his ex-girlfriend's sister and mother parking a car. Holton said Almanza was startled to see them there, since he thought they were caring for his daughters. He told them he was going to the mother's house to check on the girls.

Almanza, his sister and his sister's boyfriend then left to go to the ex-girlfriend's mother's home to pick up the girls and bring them to Almanza's apartment, Holton said. They arrived at the home around 1 a.m. and Almanza heard his 1-year-old daughter crying inside. When he entered the home, he saw his 3-year-old daughter asleep and his 1-year-old alone on a bed, Holton said. He said he also saw his ex-girlfriend's 12-year-old brother asleep on a couch and an older brother walking down the hall.

Almanza had "words" with the brothers, Holton said, and then brought the two girls to his car and started to drive back to his apartment.

The two brothers alerted their older sister — Almanza's ex-girlfriend — and she was furious, Holton said. She started texting Almanza saying her family was "going to kick his ass," Holton said. And he believed it, she continued, because there had been previous incidents between Almanza and his ex-girlfriend's family.

As Almanza, his sister and his sister's boyfriend drove to the apartment, the sister called 911 to request help from the Arvada Police Department. By the time the trio and daughters arrived at the scene, the ex-girlfriend was already at the apartment's parking lot, along with several family members. At this point, both Officer Vakoff and Officer Garibay were at the scene.

Holton said even though police were there, the ex-girlfriend's family ran toward the car, "loud and screaming," Holton said. Almanza ran from the car to his apartment and grabbed his rifle. Holton said Almanza did not know police were there and was getting the rifle to protect himself from the family members.

When he went back to the parking lot, he fired one shot in the air. He fired a second shot, which ricocheted and hit the ex-girlfriend's sister, Holton said. Holton argued if Vakoff had yelled "Hands up!" at this point in time, as the prosecution said he did, nobody would have been able to hear it over the yelling.

She told the jury that in body-worn camera footage, they would be able to hear four gunshots, which all came from Vakoff's gun when he fired four shots at Almanza, hitting him. Almanza, not knowing Vakoff was an officer, then shot at him, killing the policeman, Holton said. He thought he was firing at a member of his ex-girlfriend's family, she said.

The minute that happened, he looked down and saw what he had done. He disassembled the gun and surrendered to Garibay, who arrested him, the defense said.

Holton said this is not a first-degree murder case because Almanza did not intentionally kill anybody with malice or with no value for human life. He was defending himself, she explained.

The trial will continue Thursday with witness testimony.

D7 follow up bar 2460x400FINAL.png
The Follow Up
What do you want Denver7 to follow up on? Is there a story, topic or issue you want us to revisit? Let us know with the contact form below.