A Denver police officer will not face criminal charges for shooting and killing a Parker man who reportedly was reaching for another officer’s gun.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey issued a “police shooting decision letter” early last month that commended the officer who fired the shots in July that killed 22-year-old Kevin Ryberg, a Ponderosa High School graduate.
Investigators said shortly after the shooting that Ryberg attacked a police officer while in custody, despite being handcuffed in the rear seat of a moving patrol car. Questions about how he gained access to the officer went unanswered. Morrissey’s findings and an accompanying report shed more light on what led to Ryberg’s death.
A female employee of the Niagara House Motel in Denver attempted to wake Ryberg around 10:44 a.m. July 31 to determine whether he was going to pay for another night or check out. The woman could not wake him, pulled back the bed covers and discovered a black 9mm semi-automatic handgun next to Ryberg. She told the motel owner, who called police.
As a safety precaution, responding officers moved the gun, which contained 12 rounds in the magazine, and roused Ryberg from his sleep. After a brief struggle, they placed him into custody and found a baggie with suspected methamphetamine in his pants pocket, according to the report. Upon learning his identity, the officers discovered that Ryberg had a felony warrant out of Denver for menacing, third-degree assault and false imprisonment. He had allegedly threatened a person with a knife and crowbar during a confrontation in June.
Before he was placed in the rear seat of the police car, officer Tim Luke granted Ryberg’s request to loosen one of his cuffs, a decision that would have a significant impact on what later transpired. Officer Randall Krouse told investigators that he witnessed Luke loosen the cuff on Ryberg’s left wrist, then double-lock it again. He also said he saw Ryberg “fidgeting around” to the extent that the car was moving and walked over to the patrol car to confirm that Ryberg was still in handcuffs.
Krouse then began following Luke’s vehicle to a substation minutes away from the motel. Luke told investigators that the Plexiglas partition separating the front seat from the back seat has a sliding window that can be opened or closed and locked from the front.
“Officer Luke had the window open so as to be able to talk to his prisoner and because he knew Ryberg’s hands were cuffed behind him,” the report said.
Luke said they spoke casually for a few minutes, then Ryberg began asking “unusual” questions about their destination. That was when, he said, “all of a sudden he shoots through the sliding window” head first and grabbed a Taser that was sitting in the center console. The two men wrestled for the Taser while Ryberg reportedly struck Luke in the face repeatedly. Luke said he got the muzzle of the Taser pointed toward Ryberg and deployed it. Luke says the Taser had some effect, “as Ryberg was moaning in pain,” but the officer was also stunned because of his close proximity to the suspect when he was shocked.
That was when Luke says Ryberg began reaching for his police-issued Glock in his holster.
Luke’s statement to investigators recounted: “… this is it. I’ve got to do something! He’s gonna get my gun. He’s getting my gun, (I’m) trying to lock it (demonstrating holding his right arm tight to his side), you know, fight him off, and then I felt that, there was something (indicating) that he’s got my gun. That’s when I said, I believe I said, ‘Randy! Shoot him! Shoot him!’ Cuz’ I think he’s getting my gun. You know, I mean he was getting my gun …”
The car doors were locked and Krouse used his expandable baton to break out the passenger window and driver’s side window. Luke heard Krouse fire two gunshots and said Ryberg stopped fighting. They pulled Ryberg out of the vehicle onto the pavement and trained their weapons on him until backup and paramedics arrived and administered CPR. He later died at the hospital.
An autopsy report from the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner said preliminary toxicology tests indicated that Ryberg had methamphetamine and cocaine in his system.
When reached by phone Oct. 22, Ryberg’s mother, Brenda, said she could not comment on the case because the family has not decided on future actions. It is unclear whether they are considering appealing to the DA or a possible lawsuit, but she disagrees with the decision not to criminally charge the officer.
“They say it’s final. I say it isn’t,” she said.
When asked why he screamed for Krouse to shoot, Luke said, “my life was in danger. That’s why — if I had the gun, I woulda shot.” In a separate incident in 2003, Krouse was standing behind the officer who shot and killed Paul Childs, a developmentally disabled boy who was unarmed.
Four witnesses said they saw Ryberg attacking Luke in the front seat and saw the subsequent shooting. One said they observed that Ryberg’s left hand was free from the cuff, as Luke and Krouse reported. Luke suffered a few scrapes and had glass in his eye from the broken windows, but was otherwise unharmed.
Morrissey said Krouse “displayed courage and good judgment” in his actions, which the DA says possibly saved a life.
“It is worth noting that once free, Ryberg’s first efforts were not to open the passenger door and flee; rather, he first attempted to arm himself with Officer Luke’s taser and then attempted to grab and had his hand on Officer Luke’s gun,” Morrissey said in a letter to Denver police chief Robert White. “It is thanks only to Officer Luke’s resistance and, then, Officer Krouse’s quick response in coming to Officer Luke’s aid, that Ryberg was unable to obtain Officer Luke’s handgun and use it to harm or kill Officer Luke.”
Brenda Ryberg refuted the information in the report.
“I don’t agree with any of it,” she said.
There is still the possibility that Krouse could face administrative or civil penalties, which are determined by Civil Liability Division of the Denver Police Department. It is unknown whether Luke faces any kind of reprimand.