While reports of murder and mayhem splash across the headlines with seeming urgency, they just as quickly seem to fade into the background of time leaving the public to wonder: Whatever ever happened with so-and-so or such-and-such, and why no word?
The simple answer is that the cases in question are working their way through the courts.
Just a few of the higher-profile cases that have made headlines in recent months in La Plata County and are working their way through the criminal justice system include a hammer attack on a fisherman, a French rolling pin attack on a roommate and an alleged murder in western La Plata County.
Sources for the updates that follow are based on Durango Police Department arrest affidavits and eyewitness interviews, police body-camera footage, court testimony and Colorado Judicial Branch records.
Harrison Charles Hill, 23, claimed to have been hearing voices in his head for some time that told him to harm or kill someone. On Dec. 29, 2022, he headed those voices, grabbing a claw hammer from the apartment where he lived with his parents and then jumping from its two-story balcony to the snow below.
Tracks indicate he made a beeline for the Animas River where he sneaked up behind fly-fisherman Kenneth Riddle and began raining blows down on Riddle’s head. Riddle, who said he at first thought he had been shot in the head, fought Hill off and managed to survive without severe injury.
Police arrived quickly thanks to a call from a witness. Hill spoke calmly with police as he sat on the bank of the river immediately after the attack.
Hill told police he had gone to the river with the intention of harming or killing someone.
“I just hear these voices all the time, constantly, nonstop,” Hill said.
He told officers he had been in a mental hospital for a week and that doctors had told him the voices were not his fault before sending him home to live with his parents.
“I can’t stand the voices in my head,” Hill continued. “They told me to hurt someone ... would stop if I hurt someone. Whether I go to the bus stop or a store – they tell me to hurt someone.”
Officers asked if he was hearing voices while they were speaking with him.
“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “They never stop.” Then he asked what would happen to him?
Hill was charged with first-degree assault, a class 3 felony. He is being held in the La Plata County Jail. His last court appearance was a preliminary hearing on March 2, where it was determined mental health evaluations were still underway. The charge carries a presumptive prison sentence of 10-32 years. But after the March 2 hearing the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office anticipated a ‘not guilty by reason of insanity plea. They were correct.
Hill appeared in court Friday and entered a plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity.”
He will most likely be committed to the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (or he could go to Grand Junction) where examinations will be made to determine if he is in fact insane.
There is a catch, however. In the state of Colorado, if a person’s psychosis is a function of drug use, then it’s called “settled insanity.” And the law says that’s not insanity for purposes of an insanity defense in Colorado. So, Hill’s defense may run into an issue with that in terms of establishing he’s psychotic from something other than methamphetamine and alcohol abuse.
Michael Phillip Ferraro, 36, of Durango, attacked his roommate with a French rolling pin Jan. 2, over a dispute about television volume combined with simmering and unresolved tensions around household chores.
Ferraro, a baker and pastry chef, turned himself in to police the day after the attack. He was charged with second-degree assault, a class 4 felony, and obstruction of telephone services (for taking the victim’s phone).
Ferraro was released on bail the same day he turned himself in.
Ferraro pleaded guilty to the assault charge as part of a plea agreement reached between his defense and prosecutors at a preliminary hearing March 16. The agreement will have Ferraro serving three years’ probation and attending anger management. The assault charge had carried a possible presumptive 2-6 years in prison followed by probation, or probation and a deferred sentence. If for any reason probation is revoked, Ferraro would face 5-16 years in prison. If he successfully completes probation the case will be dismissed.
He is scheduled for sentencing May 3.
Nicolo Anthony Tonelli, 26, stands accused of killing 27-year-old Jamison McMaster on Nov. 22, 2021, at a mushroom farm on Dream Catcher Lane southwest of Durango. Tonelli is suspected of firing a single shot from a Glock 9 mm handgun that hit McMaster in the chest and killed him.
Tonelli has been held in the La Plata County Jail since the shooting. He is charged with second-degree murder; tampering with deceased remains (he moved the body after the shooting), a class 3 felony; and tampering with physical evidence (prosecutors believe he eliminated surveillance footage), a class 6 felony.
Tonelli pleaded not guilty.
A second-degree murder conviction would mean a presumptive prison term of 16-48 years. Tampering with deceased remains would carry an additional presumptive term of 12 years (if the judge deemed there were aggravating factors that could be increased to 24 years). Tampering with physical evidence, a class 6 felony, carries a presumptive 18 months (up to three years if the judge finds aggravation).
There have been multiple court appearances, resulting in Tonelli’s plea, along with the filing of an avalanche of motions pertaining to evidence.
Tonelli last appeared in court for a pretrial conference April 20. His defense lawyers asked the judge for more time before the next scheduled motions hearing so that they could review reams of “discovery” (hundreds of pages of documents they still need to read through) before the next motions hearing.
The victim’s father appeared via video and asked the judge to stick with the originally scheduled May 8 start for the jury trial.
The judge, after working through scheduling obstacles for the defense and prosecution along with not having a court recorder available, set the next motions hearing for July 21.
The case is set for jury trial to begin Oct. 3.
Denver resident Felicia Maria Munguia, 30, is accused of second-degree arson, a class 5 felony, for burning a rental car in front of the home previously shared by her deceased sister Raeanna ‘Nikki’ Burch-Woodhull and the man accused of killing her, Luis Raul Valenzuela, 34. It is also where a memorial is laid for Burch-Woodhull.
It was revealed during Munguia’s first court appearance Feb. 13 that she and two other women had driven a rental car from Denver to the aforementioned home where they spread gasoline in an effort to burn it down. An accident led to the burning of the rental car instead.
At that court appearance, Munguia insisted on representing herself via video from the La Plata County Jail, where she insisted on her release, citing the unbearable reality that she was in the same jail as the man accused of murdering her sister. She eventually made bail and returned to Denver.
She next appeared in court via video from Denver for a disposition hearing March 28, where she asked that her probation restrictions be relaxed so that she could visit Florida.
Another disposition hearing is set for May 4 where Munguia must decide whether to take a plea offer or plead not guilty and go to jury trial.
If convicted on the arson charge, Munguia could receive 1 to 3 years in prison (six years if the judge determined aggravating circumstances). But it is not a mandatory sentence. She would also be eligible for community corrections at Hilltop House in Durango, community corrections in another part of the state or probation.