Leo Lech owns a property parcel at 4219 South Alton Street in Greenwood Village, a sleepy suburban enclave tucked between Denver's bustling Tech Center and the scenic reservoir of Cherry Creek State Park. His quarter-acre plot rests near the end of a quaint cul-de-sac that fits every idyllic American stereotype: two-car garages, well-manicured lawns, the stars and stripes waving in front of each home.
While most houses on this block were built in the 1970s, Lech's is brand new: It received a certificate of occupancy in August after two years of construction.
It isn't the first building to have occupied the lot.
Over the course of June 3 and 4, 2015, a devastating police raid systematically destroyed Lech's old home. The cops were responding to a crime that Lech had nothing to do with: A suspected shoplifter had barricaded himself inside the house after a chase, sparking a 19-hour standoff with a multi-jurisdictional SWAT team. Unleashing a display of force commonly reserved for the battlefield, the tactical team bombarded the building with high-caliber rifles, chemical agents, flash-bang grenades, remote-controlled robots, armored vehicles, and breaching rams—all to extract a petty thief with a handgun.
When it was over, Lech's house was completely unlivable. The City of Greenwood Village condemned it, forcing Lech to topple the wrecked structure. Making matters worse, the municipality refused to pay fair market value for the destruction.
Now Lech is suing for compensation. The outcome of his case may bring clarity to the property rights of Americans living in the shadow of police militarization.
The story starts in a Walmart parking lot. At 1:22 p.m. on June 3, Aurora police officer John Reiter was dispatched to the store after a security camera caught a man stealing a shirt and two belts. The official police affidavit described the thief as "a white male approximately in his thirties, 6'5″ with a muscular build, short blond hair, clean shaven and lots of tattoos on his arms and shoulders"; he was wearing blue jean shorts and a red backpack. His name was Robert Jonathan Seacat.
Seacat ran to his gold-colored 1999 Lexus. As he was fleeing the scene, he nearly assaulted Reiter with the vehicle. The car was later discovered abandoned at a light rail station less than a mile away. Police found drugs, brass knuckles, and some cash inside the trunk.
In the ensuing pursuit, Seacat—now on foot—crossed a pedestrian bridge, a fence, one of Denver's busiest highways, another fence, and Village Greens Park, which backs up directly to the 4200 block of South Alton Street. The suspect broke into Lech's property by entering through the back door, tripping one alarm. While inside, he attempted to open the garage door, tripping a second alarm. At 1:54, the City of Greenwood Village Police received a report that the alarms had gone off.
The house was rented at the time to John Lech (Leo's son), Anna Mumzhiyan (John's girlfriend), and Anna's 9-year-old son. At the time of the incident, the boy was alone in the home while Anna was out running errands. The Greenwood Village cops called Anna, who informed the police that her son was inside. The frightened boy quickly managed to escape unharmed and was reunited with his mother by 2:17.
The child reported that Seacat was armed, telling police that he clearly saw a gun in Seacat's right hand when the intruder walked upstairs. A witness at the train station had also reported seeing Seacat conceal a "black compact semi-automatic pistol into the front of his pants." And at 2:23, while Officer William Woods was parking two police vehicles in the driveway to block Seacat from using any of the cars in the garage to get away, Woods reported hearing "a single gunshot" exiting the garage, forcing him to retreat to safety. In his report, Woods claimed that he could see a single bullet hole in the partially opened garage door.
Woods wasn't the only officer who claimed to have been shot at. After entering the home, others reported a "volley of 4–5 shots" originating from upstairs where Seacat was located. Police say the shots were directed toward them downstairs, but the on-scene criminalist "could not locate any bulletholes that would have originated from the kitchen area down into the basement where the SWAT team members reported to have heard and seen what they thought were gunshots being fired towards them."
The full extent of Seacat's firepower is uncertain. The train station eyewitness claimed Seacat had a .380, though the witness' knowledge of firearms is undetermined. When they finally arrested him, police found a Glock 19 in a holster Seacat was wearing. The cops also located a Glock 17, a shotgun, and an open case of 9 mm bullets. How much ammunition was missing—if any—was not reported.
It's unlikely that these other two firearms belonged to Seacat, since John Lech reported keeping a pistol "of unknown caliber" and a 20-gauge shotgun in his home. The weapons found by police were awkwardly inventoried into evidence without much context, leaving readers with the impression that Seacat was prepared for an active shooter scenario that never materialized. But according to Lech, no ammo was missing from the box and the other firearms were still in their protective casing, suggesting Seacat never touched them during the standoff.
Though accounts of Seacat's weaponry differ, court documents provide a startling summary of the police arsenal: 50 SWAT officers bombarded Lech's property with 40 mm rounds, tear gas, flashbang grenades, two armored Bearcats, and breaching rams. A total of "68 cold chemical munitions and four hot gas munitions" were detonated inside the Greenwood Village home.
Remote-controlled robots were also used during the raid. The first robot was deployed to track Seacat's whereabouts inside the house and attempt to deliver a phone to Seacat so that he could directly communicate with police. However, the robot could not maneuver through the debris inside the home, and eventually got stuck.
To retrieve the robot, an officer attempted to throw a flashbang grenade upstairs toward Seacat to create a diversion. However, the grenade bounced back downstairs toward the team of officers, forcing them to scatter and retreat. The official report states that the grenade "failed to land in its desired location." Eventually, a second robot was used to retrieve the first one.
The explosive devices were part of a broad strategy dubbed "calculated destruction" by the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA). The police intended to isolate Seacat by systematically detonating explosives in one room at a time, ultimately pushing him into a corner of the building where police could pinpoint his whereabouts.
After hours of wildly destructive failed attempts to corral the shoplifter, the final decision to extract Seacat was made the following morning at 8:21. The call authorized a team of SWAT officers to enter the home and apprehend the suspect, who was barricaded in an upstairs bathroom. Roughly 30 minutes later, Seacat was disarmed and in custody.
Seacat was in rough shape when police found him. He was rushed off to a nearby hospital for treatment. No official medical diagnosis has been given, but the affidavit makes certain to state that the man's depleted physical condition was "not from what had happened by officers' hands." Because of the amounts of controlled substances found in Seacat's backpack, police suspect extensive drug use was to blame. According to a review of the incident by the NTOA, a container of methamphetamine that Seacat had allegedly swallowed was "leaking into his system." The report continues, "One can only speculate as to the effect this had on Seacat's ability to think rationally, and to what degree the drug minimized the effects of any chemical munitions, which were later introduced."
Police speculation about the suspect's medical condition and drug use—which do not include any official diagnosis by a medical professional anywhere in the available documentation—cannot be confirmed at this time. Facing a total of 32 charges (including 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder), Seacat remains in custody in an Arapahoe County jail, awaiting a final verdict from a criminal trial that began in late September.
Though rich in description of Seacat and his long criminal history, the affidavit is scant in its description of the property damage. Even when the subject comes up, the exact details are glossed over. Halfway through the document, we learn in passing "that the residence had significant damage to all of the upper floor walls, basement back yard doors and front door."
50 SWAT officers bombarded Lech's property with 40 mm rounds, tear gas, flashbang grenades, two armored Bearcats, and breaching rams, plus two remote-controlled robots. A total of "68 cold chemical munitions and four hot gas munitions" were detonated.
In fact, a more accurate description of the damage can be gleaned from the orders of Dustin Varney, the commanding officer during the raid. During the standoff, Varney authorized the team to "take as much of the building as needed, without making the roof fall." Varney's self-fulfilling prophecy materialized almost exactly as he commanded. Almost every window and external door was a wide gaping hole after the raid. Pieces of household items—furniture, appliances, clothing—blended into the piles of building debris in the front and back yards. The young boy's bedroom, still sporting childhood artwork on the walls, was fully exposed to the elements after a grenade detonated inside of it, leaving a 10-foot hole in the external wall. The backyard fence was partially toppled by a Bearcat used to breach the back door.
"If you go online and look at the Osama bin Laden compound, I would say that this may look even a little worse," Lech says. Lech, who arrived on the scene during the tail end of the raid well after the bulk of the damage occurred, described what he saw as "an abomination."
When the crime scene was cleared and the tenants were allowed to return, Lech found hypodermic needles on two separate occasions, most likely the remnants of Seacat's drug stash. These discoveries suggests that the investigation and cleanup were incomplete at best and haphazard at worst.
Despite including some examples of questionable conduct, internal assessments assert that the police's actions were justified and characterize their blitzkrieg tactics as transpiring in a textbook fashion. The NTOA report states, "During the course of this event, the combined law enforcement personnel under the command of GVPD acted in a professional manner, and in substantial accordance with best practice and standards."
Thanks to large, ragged holes caused by munition blasts, piles of debris, and compromised structural integrity, the house was condemned by the local municipality immediately after the raid. The inspector spent only a few minutes examining the property before calling it a "complete loss." But the City of Greenwood Village offered Lech a measly $5,000 in compensation for his out-of-pocket insurance deductible and temporary living assistance for his displaced family. Of course, this didn't come close to covering his expenses; Lech took out a $390,000 loan to cover the costs for rebuilding alone. So in August 2016, he filed a lawsuit.
Lech's civil suit—spearheaded by his legal team of David K. Williams and Rachel B. Maxam—argues that the police action was excessive. The "calculated destruction" strategy led directly to the wanton and willful devastation of Lech's property. Therefore, the suit says, Lech is owed compensation for the damages.
Any damage, even if minimal, should place a financial burden upon the government, Williams and Maxam argue. The denial of financial restitution by the City of Greenwood Village directly violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment: "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." This particular clause is usually invoked in eminent domain cases, when the government seizes someone's land, for example, in order to widen a highway. But the clause has additional importance in an age of militarized police forces capable of destroying private homes and businesses.
Hence Lech v. Greenwood Village. Lech and his legal team say they want "to punish the individual officers, deter future misconduct,…demonstrate that such wanton and willful abuse of authority is unacceptable, and quash the precedent set by the Defendants that government and government employees can engage in such egregious conduct that violates the rights of citizens without consequences." In addition to the Takings Clause, they cite the 14th Amendment (specifically, the clause regarding the deprivation of property without due process) and the Colorado Constitution (which also states that "private property shall not be taken or damaged, for public or private use, without just compensation"). The suit is currently awaiting a summary judgment by a federal judge at the U.S. District Court in Denver.
Greenwood Village hopes to limit the case's scope. Under Colorado tort law, the municipality could potentially be protected by the qualified immunity provided in the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act. Because of this law, public employees are shielded from liability for most tort claims, meaning every officer listed in the Lech lawsuit could possibly escape any adjudication that may assign responsibility for damage to the property.
Beyond that, the city wants the courts to reject the Takings Clause claim, arguing that the language only applies to "those whose property has been taken for public use." (According to the defense, "federal courts have consistently found that property taken pursuant to the police power is not for public use in the context of the Fifth Amendment.") Greenwood Village also alleges that Lech's 14th Amendment rights were not violated because of the unique circumstances of what happened to his home. Citing "exceptions to due process where an emergency exists," the defense is essentially arguing that constitutional rights are situational in times of public threats.
"What amazed me when I first found out about this case is that there is no federal case law dealing with this type of circumstances," says Williams.
Some relevant case law does exist on the state level. In Steele v. City of Houston (1980), some Texas plaintiffs received damages after Houston police destroyed their home in an effort to capture three escaped convicts. In Wegner v. Milwaukee Mutual Insurance Company (1991), the court sided with a Wisconsin homeowner whose house was significantly damaged by tear gas used to apprehend an armed suspect barricaded inside the residence. On the other side of the ledger is Customer Co. v. City of Sacramento (1980), where the court cited California tort law in ruling against property owners stuck with the bill after tear gas damaged their home. None of these cases match the severity of Lech's property damage, and since they all took place in state courts, none is binding for a federal judge.
Right now the most important issue is jurisdiction, which relies on the principle of "ripeness." Is this case at the appropriate stage for a federal judge to decide? More specifically, does the federal judge have everything needed to make a ruling? If the case is not ripe, the decision will move back down to the Colorado courts.
Lech's legal team is confident that the suit will not be kicked back to the state, because it was the state courts that sent it to the federal judge in the first place. The defense disagrees, naturally, claiming that all adjudication options have not been fully exhausted at the state level yet.
Considering the potential payout involved—compensation not just for the house, but for damaged personal belongings, uncollected back rent, housing expenses for the displaced family, legal fees, and so on—the case is likely to be appealed no matter which side wins. That would put it on a direct path to the appellate courts and, potentially, the Supreme Court. If it does reach that point, it could become a landmark decision.
Not an Isolated Incident
A telling moment occurred during a recent deposition for Lech's civil suit. While being questioned by the defense, Lech pointed to former Reason staffer Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop (PublicAffairs), an influential 2013 text that chronicles the escalating pattern of police militarization in the United States.
Andy Nathan, the lead lawyer representing the City of Greenwood Village, then asked, "Is that one of the books, as you understand it, that Mr. McVeigh read before he blew up the Oklahoma City Murrah building?"
Timothy McVeigh would have had trouble reading Rise of the Warrior Cop, considering that he was executed 12 years before it was published. But Nathan continued his efforts to tie Lech to radicals and terrorists, asking Lech if he had read the white nationalist tract The Turner Diaries and inquiring as to what Balko had to say about the famous standoff at Ruby Ridge. The attorney was apparently eager to paint Lech, Balko, and anyone else who might be critical of police as anti-government fanatics.
Unfortunately, Lech's case does not exist in a vacuum. As Balko's work has shown, what took place at 4219 South Alton Street reflects a pervasive problem within the law enforcement community: a mentality that takes a bellicose strategy and technological arsenal once reserved for the battlefield and brings them to bear on domestic crimes. This troubling pattern is accompanied by the government's equally frustrating tendency to try to shirk any culpability when it destroys private property.
According to Rise of the Warrior Cop, approximately 90 percent of cities with populations over 50,000 people utilize SWAT raids in a variety of law enforcement situations—ranging from the issuance of warrants to active shooter scenarios. Though pinning down an exact number of raids is difficult due to a lack of a central data source, criminologists estimate between 50,000 and 80,000 SWAT events occur per year in the United States. Those numbers have only grown since the book's publication.
And this pattern may get even worse. On August 27, the Trump administration announced a reversal of an Obama-era ban on sending certain surplus Pentagon weapons to state and local law enforcement agencies. Handing off weapons designed for war zones to local police puts more property owners at risk of becoming the next Leo Lech.
The final outcome of Lech's case will do one of two things. It could serve as a precedent safeguarding property owners from the destructive forces of an increasingly militarized police force. Or it could further empower law enforcement to recklessly destroy private property and make the owners foot the bill for the damages.
The City of Greenwood Village has already spent substantially more money fighting this suit than it would have cost to simply pay fair market value for the house. But city officials understand what's at stake, and so does the homeowner fighting them.
"They don't want that precedent set," Lech says. "And they will spend whatever is necessary to stop it."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Cops Were Chasing a Shoplifter. They Ended Up Destroying an Innocent Man's Home.".