DENVER (AP) — A Colorado police officer who put a handcuffed woman into a parked police vehicle that was hit by a freight train has been found guilty of reckless endangerment and assault but was tried on a third count during a trial Acquitted of manslaughter Friday.
Jordan Steinke was the first of two officers to face trial over the Sept. 16, 2022 accident that left Yareni Rios-Gonzalez behind seriously injured.
“There is no reasonable doubt that placing a handcuffed person in the back seat of a squad car parked on train tracks poses a significant and unjustified risk of being injured by the train,” Justice Timothy Kerns said.
However, the evidence didn’t convince Kerns that Steinke “knowingly intended to harm Ms. Rios-Gonzalez,” adding that Stenke had shown “shock and remorse.”
Steinke stated that she did not know that the squad car of another police officer she was helping was parked on the tracks, although these can be seen in her body camera footage along with two level crossing signs. Steinke said she was focused on the threat that could pose from Rios-Gonzalez and her pickup truck, not the ground.
Steinke said she put Rios-Gonzalez in the other officer’s vehicle because it was the closest place to temporarily hold her. She said she didn’t know the train was coming until just before impact.
The judge noted that Steinke observed the tracks but “did not assess the risk.”
There was no jury in Steinke’s trial, which began Monday. Instead, Kerns listened to the evidence and announced the verdict. Mallory Revel, Steinke’s attorney, did not immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment.
Steinke, who was working for the Fort Lupton Police Department at the time of the crash, was charged with attempted manslaughter, a felony; and reckless endangerment and third-degree assault, both misdemeanors.
The other officer, Pablo Vazquez, who worked for the nearby Platteville Police Department, faces criminal charges for reckless endangerment and traffic violations. He has not yet submitted a plea. His attorney, Reid Elkus, did not immediately respond to a telephone request for comment.
Vazquez stopped Rios-Gonzalez on a country road that intersects US Highway 85 after she was accused of pointing a gun at another driver. About a dozen times a day, trains run on tracks along the freeway, prosecutors said, and the sound of their horns was common in the area north of Denver.
It is Rios-Gonzalez, who suffered a traumatic brain injury complaint about her treatment. She later did not contest the misdemeanor threat, said one of her attorneys, Chris Ponce, who was in court to hear the trial. Rios-Gonzalez neither testified nor was she present.
Steinke said she temporarily put Rios-Gonzalez in the other police car because it was the closest place to protect her, a practice common during high-risk traffic stops, defense expert witness Steve Ijames said. He also testified that in dangerous situations, officers can overly focus on certain threats and overlook things that later turn out to be important.
Steinke, who at times was traveling at about 100 miles per hour (161 km/h) to support Vazquez, said she was surprised to see him in his vehicle when she arrived, rather than pointing a gun at Rios-Gonzalez ‘ Directing trucks. She said she quickly parked her squad car behind his and got out because it was the quickest way “to get a gun in a fight.”
Steinke also said she didn’t notice the tracks or the ground as she crouched to arrest a kneeling Rios-Gonzalez along the tracks after the suspect had to get out of her pickup truck.
At the urging of Assistant District Attorney Christopher Jewkes, Steinke replied, “I’m sure I saw the tracks, sir, but I didn’t see them.” She said she was focused on the suspect and the potential threat he posed , and was “pretty sure” the traffic stop would end in gunfire.
“I never thought in a million years that a train would run through my scene,” Steinke said.
The Weld County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a telephone request for comment.
This story has been updated to correct that the officer was acquitted of criminally attempted manslaughter, not manslaughter.
Bedayn is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.