An Arvada police officer shot and killed a pregnant woman after mistaking her for a shoplifting suspect two years ago in an altercation the woman’s family now says never should have happened.
Destinee Thompson’s surviving family members filed a wrongful death and excessive force lawsuit against five Arvada police officers on Tuesday, two years after the 27-year-old mother of three was killed as she drove away from officers on Aug. 17, 2021.
“She was murdered, as far as I am concerned,” her father, Francis Thompson, said in an interview Tuesday, crying at times as he remembered his daughter, a boisterous, thoughtful woman who once bicycled around with a whole mini fridge strapped to her back in order to gift it to her stepmother, Carmela Delgado.
“It was mistaken identity,” Delgado said. “They just made the assumption because of the way she looked, and where she was…I feel very much like that officer had in his mind, ‘She’s less than me, and therefore, this is justified.’”
On the day of the shooting, Arvada police were called to the Target store on Kipling Street, where an employee told officers that he’d recognized a known shoplifter in the store and confronted the woman, but that she’d threatened him with a knife and left with a cartful of unpaid merchandise. The employee told officers the woman was white or Hispanic, was wearing a black tank top and had a large tattoo on her chest.
A witness to the altercation at Target followed the woman to the nearby American Motel. On the phone with 911, the man told dispatchers that the woman had taken off her black tank top and was wearing white tank top instead, according to a 2022 letter in which First Judicial District Attorney Alexis King cleared the officers of any wrongdoing in Thompson’s killing.
The witness followed the shoplifter to the third floor of the motel and then watched her knock on the door to Room 303. When no one answered, the woman moved on to another nearby elevator. The witness ran down the stairs to the lobby and met police.
The man told officers the woman was upstairs but likely coming down in the elevator. Six police officers from both Wheat Ridge and Arvada split up to watch the two elevators. As they did so, Thompson, who was staying in the motel and did not shoplift from Target, came down the stairs and into the lobby, according to the lawsuit.
She wore a white tank top and black pants. She did not have a chest tattoo.
One officer ordered Thompson to stop. She did so, and then told police that she wasn’t the person they were looking for. She told officers the suspect was staying in Room 303 and was coming down the elevator. She clarified that she was staying in Room 417, refused to give ID to the officer, and then left the motel.
“This woman had done nothing wrong, and you have every right to tell the police, ‘I don’t want to speak to you,’” said attorney Siddhartha Rathod, whose firm Rathod Mohamedbhai is representing Destinee Thompson’s family in the lawsuit.
After she left the motel, Thompson, who had two open warrants for her arrest in other matters, ran across the parking lot toward her van, according to the district attorney’s letter. But after she left, three officers decided to detain her, “just to rule her out,” even though they realized she did not have a chest tattoo like the shoplifting suspect, according to the lawsuit.
“They had no legal basis to do so,” the complaint reads.
Two plainclothes officers in the motel parking lot drove an unmarked truck toward Thompson. One got out and tried to stop her before she got into her van; the other parked the truck behind the van. Thompson got inside her van and locked the doors.
One officer noticed she seemed frantic, and kept repeating, “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me,” according to the district attorney’s letter.
Five officers surrounded Thompson’s van and shouted at her to get out of the van. One officer used a baton to smash the passenger side window. Thompson backed up the van — grazing the bumper of the truck officers had parked behind her — then pulled forward away from the officers, over the curb and into the street.
As she drove away, Arvada police Officer Anthony Benallo fired five shots, paused, fired two more, and then one final shot. Only the last shot struck Thompson, killing both her and her unborn son. Her van was about 25 yards away from the officers when Benallo fired the fatal shot, according to the lawsuit.
The officer told investigators he fired because he believed Thompson had struck and run over one of the plainclothed officers. That officer, however, was standing right in front of Benallo. The plainclothed officer had not been struck, dragged or injured.
“Officer Benallo’s singular focus on the threat posed by the minivan resulted in his failure to perceive the plain clothed officer, alive and well, until the minivan was eastbound on the frontage road,” King wrote in the letter clearing Benallo of any wrongdoing. She found that Benallo misperceived the space between Thompson’s van and another vehicle, and that mistake led him to reasonably believe a fellow officer had been struck and that his or others lives were in danger.
Rathod argued that the officers’ actions — surrounding the vehicle and breaking the window — were excessive for the pursuit of a shoplifting suspect, and even more so for an uninvolved bystander.
“They have her license plate, they have all the information they need to arrest the ‘shoplifter,’ but instead they engage in this crazy, murderous conduct,” he said, adding that Destinee Thompson was panicked and terrified.
An autopsy later showed Destinee Thompson had both fentanyl and methamphetamine in her system at the time, according to the district attorney’s letter.
The 27-year-old struggled with substance abuse on and off for years, her father said, going through periods of sobriety — particularly when she was pregnant — and periods of drug use. She moved around frequently and made ends meet by cleaning houses, but she at times struggled to find transportation, to navigate the legal system and to find the mental health care she needed, Delgado said.
She was generous and dramatic, and when she read books to her younger siblings, she’d make up special voices for each character, Francis Thompson said.
“She didn’t have much at times, but whatever she had, she would give it to you,” he said. “She was just like that.”
He and Delgado hope the lawsuit will force the Arvada Police Department to make reforms, and they want to see the involved officers face criminal charges for Destinee Thompson’s death. They said no one from the police department ever offered them condolences for their daughter’s death.
“All the Arvada police officers that were there, I want their badges,” Francis Thompson said. “For me, I’ll never be happy. It’s not going to bring her back.”
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