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.
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.
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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 “diffuse” the situation by shooting into the air, he said in court.
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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.
Funeral service for Arvada Officer memorial service for Arvada Officer Dillon Vakoff
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.
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