A Durango man accused of breaking into another man’s house in the middle of the night and attempting to fatally shoot him may have been carrying out an act of vigilantism directed toward a registered sex offender, according to the victim and an arrest affidavit.
Several details of the Aug. 9 shooting remain unknown or have not yet been made public by law enforcement.
For example, it is unknown if the suspect, Troy Allen Brown, 34, and the victim, Thomas Jeffrey Mitchell, 52, knew each other. It is also unknown how Brown identified Mitchell as a sex offender.
What is known is that Mitchell was listed as a sex offender on a registry maintained by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. The registry is publicly available to search online. It lists Mitchell’s address, apartment number, physical description and includes a mug shot of Mitchell. It says he has an out-of-state conviction in 2006 for child molestation and convictions in 2011 for sexual exploitation of a child involving videos.
Sixth Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne said it is unknown if Brown used the CBI’s sex offender registry to target Mitchell, “but that’s certainly something that we’re looking at.”
If Brown did use the registry, it raises questions about the registry’s goals and the potential dangers of publicly identifying sex offenders, who are among the most socially stigmatized class of criminals.
Based on the arrest affidavit, police have good reason to believe Brown targeted Mitchell because he is a sex offender.
After being shot, Mitchell told law enforcement the shooter made references to him being a “predator,” according to the affidavit.
Nineteen hours after the shooting, Brown showed up on someone’s property with cuts on his arms. He told the property owner something to the effect of “he injured himself because a predator was going to harm his child,” according to the affidavit.
In an interview with The Durango Herald, Mitchell called the shooter a “vigilante.”
Police have declined to say whether Brown knew Mitchell or whether there is any evidence to suggest Mitchell was going to harm Brown’s child. Police may not yet know those details; the case remained under investigation last week, and Brown refused to speak with law enforcement upon his arrest.
Brown’s girlfriend told police neither she nor Brown had any ties to the Red Cliff Apartments, where the shooting occurred, according to the affidavit.
According to the CBI’s website, the sex offender registry seeks to improve public safety, deter similar crimes and to serve as a tool for law enforcement.
It also warns against directing actions toward sex offenders, including threats, harassment, vandalism of property and physical assault.
Such actions can “result in your arrest and prosecution,” the CBI warns.
Champagne said the sex offender registry is intended to be a tool that gives residents information about where sex offenders reside. It is not intended to be a form of punishment and is certainly not intended to be used to target and harass sex offenders, he said.
Not every sex offender appears on the CBI’s sex offender registry, Champagne said. Some lower-level offenders and even more vulnerable offenders may appear only on a registry maintained by the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office. Higher-level adult offenders typically appear on the CBI registry, which is accessible by the public.
Sex offenders have received community scorn as a result of being on the sex offender registry, Champagne said, but typically they are able to work through it, be successful and make a life for themselves.
“Many sex offenders are very, very successful,” Champagne said. “They hold jobs, they get apartments, they have good, fulfilling lives – even though they are on the registry. But there are times that they do get denied jobs, they do get denied apartments, they do get negative consequences – and this is potentially one of them.”
He has never worked a case in which someone was accused of using the sex offender registry to commit a crime directed toward a sex offender.
“I have never seen or heard of that,” he said.
No law specifically criminalizes targeting sex offenders. Rather, such actions would be prosecuted under existing harassment and assault laws, Champagne said.
One goal of the sex offender registry program is to show residents that offenders are being monitored, Champagne said.
“It's the highest level of supervision that we have in the probation department under the law,” he said.
Another goal is to keep sex offenders engaged in the community and reporting for treatment programs, as required.
Champagne said the recidivism rate among sex offenders on supervision is significantly lower than other criminal offenders, partially because of intensive monitoring and treatment programs they undergo.
A 2022 Colorado Probation Recidivism Study found that sex offenders on intensive probation have the lowest pre-release recidivism rate among other groups tracked.
“As a group, individuals who have committed sexual offenses tend to have lower recidivism rates than probationers sentenced for other types of offenses,” the report says.
If sex offenders are ostracized to the point they no longer register and no longer report for treatment, that increases the chances of recidivism, Champagne said.
“When we make them a pariah, we drive them underground, they're less likely to comply with probation, they're less likely to comply with their treatment and rehabilitation, and it makes them more likely to commit future crimes,” he said.