The first of a three-day “reverse transfer hearing” for accused murderer Damitre Burch began Monday in 6th Judicial District Court in Durango.
Burch, 18, is charged with first-degree murder for allegedly killing 21-year-old Jadah Willmett while she worked at Speedway in Bayfield on Aug. 2, 2021. Burch was 17 years old at the time. The primary purpose of a reverse transfer hearing is to determine whether he will be tried in adult or juvenile court.
Reverse transfer hearings are “very rare” said one lawyer involved in the case, who believes the last one held in La Plata County occurred in 2012.
Other parts of the transfer hearing fulfill components of a preliminary hearing, in which prosecutors must show probable cause that a crime was committed and the defendant charged is connected to those crimes.
Four law enforcement officers involved with the case, a prison mental health administrator and Burch’s high school special education teacher testified Monday before Chief District Judge Jeffrey Wilson about what happened the night Willmett died, the educational programs available in prison, the level of violence involved in the stabbing death and Burch’s learning disabilities.
Wilson made clear from the onset that rules of admitting evidence would be relaxed during the hearing, a point that would be hammered home as the judge allowed repeated evidence to be entered into the record despite the consistent thrum of objections from the defense.
Burch, a Southern Ute Tribal member, showed no emotion during the daylong proceeding as he sat shackled in an orange jumpsuit at the defense table. Family members of the victim and the accused filled seats on opposite sides of the courtroom isle.
While video footage from law enforcement body cameras and their vehicles were viewed in court, the judge did not allow footage captured from inside Speedway that showed the attack and murder. However, Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent John Zamora would later testify to what he had seen on the footage taken inside the gas station along with descriptions of the wounds to Willmett.
Body camera footage showed officers detaining and arresting Burch after he walked out the front doors of the Speedway, located at 650 South Buck Highway, just after the 1:30 a.m. attack. Burch, who was wearing all black clothing, gloves, boots and a ski mask with a blue bandanna over the ski mask, is told to lay facedown on the ground where he is then handcuffed and a black butterfly knife with blood on it is taken from his pocket. There was also blood on Burch’s clothing and boots.
While some officers watched over Burch, others went inside Speedway to secure the store and attempt lifesaving measures on Willmett, who had no pulse and died at the scene. Four officers from the Bayfield Marshal’s Office, the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado State Patrol who were doing narcotics work in the area at the time responded to the panic alarm from Speedway. The first trooper to arrive was parked nearby and arrived within seconds. The others arrived a minute later.
Bayfield Deputy Rashann Mitchell, who was the first person to testify, said that when they received the panic alarm, which has a specific tone to indicate a violent offense, that “it was an, ‘Oh no, what is going on’ moment.” Then dispatch said a female lay on the ground motionless and it became an “Oh crap moment.”
While Burch is detained, he tells Mitchell that he heard a back door close and begins to weave the tale of a 6 foot 5 inch, thin Black man with a white Mustang and a white bandanna over his face, who he later named as Brian Ponzo, as being the actual assailant and that he used Burch as a decoy. Burch tells Mitchell that the man went over a nearby fence into a dark wooded area. Mitchell testified that he was nervous he might be shot at from the cover of darkness by the man who Burch described. Later, investigations determined there never was any such man.
Mitchell testified that Burch’s “demeanor the entire time was very calm.” Burch makes the statement that it is his first time in handcuffs. He tells officers he lives with his father but without his phone he doesn’t know his father’s phone number or that of any of his family members. When he is later taken to be placed in the back of a patrol car Burch says, “Something tells me that I’m not going to school.”
District Attorney Christian Champagne asked Mitchell how Burch’s comments struck him.
“Disturbing, considering a homicide had just occurred,” Mitchell said. Burch seemed to be playing as though he was not a suspect as he tried to divert attention away from himself, Mitchell added.
Body camera footage reveals Burch saying “I feel like a young child again,” when an officer kneels down to remove Burch’s boots and places each of them in a separate paper bag.
Mitchell became emotional on the stand when asked if he knew Willmett from his time working graveyard shifts in the area. He said the two visited regularly and that both had graduated from Durango High School. Champagne asked Mitchell to describe her personality.
“Outgoing, kind, genuine and very caring,” Mitchell said. Champagne then asked how it affected Mitchell personally.
He responded that he does his job with a lot more passion now.
“It took me awhile to go back into Speedway,” Mitchell said. “It took a lot to get over what happened and to talk about it openly.” He added that it had a big impact on the community with people being “scared and worried about something like this happening again.”
Burch’s defense lawyers cross examined Mitchell with a focus on when exactly Burch was read his Miranda rights and whether officers knew that Burch was a juvenile. Mitchell responds that they had yet to learn Burch was a juvenile but that Burch had said he lived with his father.
La Plata County Sheriff’s Deputy Cody Bosick testified next, followed by Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Bradley Spargur. Video footage of the arrest and Burch were shown during both men’s testimony.
Bosick first asked Burch where the gun was, because based on the sheer severity of injuries to Willmett, officers believed she had been shot. Bosick testified that Burch was covered in blood. It was Bosick who retrieved the bloody knife that Burch told him was in his back pocket.
Burch was read his Miranda rights after the scene was secured. Champagne asked Bosick to describe Burch’s demeanor.
“At times he was laughing and joking and seems (like) he wanted to be friends,” Bosick said.
Before Spargur testified, Champagne turned to Willmett’s family and told them they may want to step outside because they would be talking about the murder and showing photos – though the judge limited the photo viewing to law enforcement and defense lawyers. The judge said he would look later. Willmett’s family chose to stay.
Spargur testified that Willmett lay on her side in a puddle of blood when he saw her and that there was so much damage to her face that officers believed it was a gunshot wound.
Video footage from Spargur’s bodycam shows Burch adding to his story that a Black man with a Mustang with New Mexico plates and black rims and black tinted windows attacked Willmett. He adds that he was headed to Farmington and that he overheard it while the man was whispering over the phone to someone. Burch is placed in the back of a patrol car where video inside the vehicles record him repeatedly yelling out to officers that he has more information. That is when he first adds the name Brian Ponzo to his story.
Next to testify was CBI Agent Zamora who talked about what the video footage from inside the Speedway revealed as well as the autopsy results. The footage showed that Burch was the only one inside the Speedway during the homicide.
Burch walked into the Speedway, gathered some things and placed them on the counter, then went after more things, Zamora said. As Willmett began ringing up the items, Burch walked behind the counter and puts his left arm around her neck while his right hand comes around to strike her. The video shows blood on the floor and Willmett going down as the assault continues and she tries to defend herself, Zamora testified.
Zamora said the video skips every other second so he was not able to see everything.
“I observed a handful of her getting stabbed,” Zamora said. “The autopsy revealed a whole different story.”
The autopsy revealed 65 injuries suffered by Willmett, Zamora testified.
“Were they all stab wounds?” Deputy District Attorney Mac Dudley asked.
Zamora said because some were slash wounds across her hand, (he demonstrated how she raised her hand in defense) that he could only say wounds. The cause of death is determined to be multiple stab wounds.
Dudley then asked Zamora how the level of violence compared with the other 10-plus homicides he has investigated during his career.
“All homicides are horrible,” Zamora said. In this one, watching the video of the attack along with everything else “surprised and shocked. Seeing all of this, just how she sustained a lot of damage – a lot.”
The defense objected to the testimony but Judge Wilson allowed it because of “the nature and violence of the offense,” he said. Wilson then asked Dudley where he was going with his line of questioning.
“How extremely violent the stabbing was,” Dudley responded.
Zamora went on to testify the blows were so violent that the tip of the butterfly knife broke off and was embedded in Willmett’s skull.
“Bastard!” yelled out Willmett’s grandmother upon hearing the horror. Her family reached out to quiet her and Wilson admonished those in attendance to remain quiet despite the emotion.
Zamora went on to say the autopsy revealed injuries to Willmett’s hands, arms, head, neck, shoulder and torso as well as a stab wound to the middle of her back.
The entire attack lasted 33 to 35 seconds, according to the time stamp on the surveillance footage, Zamora said. Burch touched the register before turning to stare down at Willmett. He then goes to where the cigarettes are located, grabs a bag and loads up the items (Juul electronic cigarettes) and leaves.
“There was no urgency,” Zamora said. “He just walked out.”
The defense expressed concern that Zamora was testifying based on video footage and reports from the officers who were present. The first officer who responded to the alarm that night, Colorado State Patrol Trooper Robert Howell, could not attend the hearing.
Colorado Department of Corrections Mental Health Program Administrator Sunshyne Harris testified next via WebEx (internet connection to the court). She was asked about what mental health programs were available in prison, social activities and in particular what opportunities required a prisoner to have a GED.
Last to testify was Jessie Sanchez, a special-education teacher for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. She was Burch’s high school special education teacher. She testified for more than an hour-and-a-half and continued to testify Tuesday morning.
Sanchez described Burch as a “funny kid, very polite,” she said. “He loved to draw. He was smart and creative, great personality and family means a lot to him.”
She also revealed that he has a learning disability and was delayed in reading, writing and math. She also felt he should undergo special cognitive testing but it was denied by school officials because the testing is deemed to be for students with intellectual disabilities who cannot dress or feed themselves. His SAT scores were about 500, which is a score people can achieve by just filling out the bubbles, the defense said – and Sanchez agreed.
Burch is also low functioning on a maturity level, she testified. He was comfortable with a group within the special needs class but not with the greater population of students who attended football games and dances and things of that nature.
“He was happy to stay home,” she said. She said his intellectually challenged friends were his safe place – that they were on his level.
An earlier version of this story misidentified the prosecutor who questioned Agent John Zamora on the witness stand. It was Deputy District Attorney Mac Dudley who did the questioning.