DENVER — The former chief investigator for the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office says she is concerned after the lead detective in an apparent murder-suicide in Garfield County with, according to the investigator, a tendency to cut corners was hired as Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
“I want to support someone who is trying to progress and improve. I also worry if [the detective] think this manipulation was correct, I’m afraid this attitude could lead to an investigation in another small community, ”said Lisa Miller, the former chief investigator for the district attorney’s office.
Denver7 Investigates spent months investigating the alleged murder-suicide on County Road 243 in New Castle. Darlene Brooks, 80, and her son Tanner Zancanella, 19, were both found dead with gunshot wounds a day apart inside their Garfield County home in April 2022.
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The day Darlene died, her husband, Bill, called 911 from a grocery store several miles away. Family members told Denver7 Investigates that Bill suffered from a traumatic brain injury. However, deputies never got an official statement from him about what happened.
“This is one of many examples of, and I will say this, a poor investigation,” Miller said.
Tanner was found dead the next day by other family members after deputies missed his body. Darlene’s daughter, Julie Sands, was there when they found Tanner in her bedroom and said lead investigator Megan Alstatt came to a quick conclusion. Sands said Alstatt told his family at the scene that it was a murder-suicide at the hands of Darlene.
“They came up with this 10 to 15 minutes later, and these thoughts started going through my head like, ‘What kind of evidence?'” Sands said.
“She made an assessment shortly after arriving at that scene of what had happened. And she wasn’t open to other possibilities, clearly,” Miller said. “I think if that scene had been handled appropriately, Tanner would have been found that day.”
Miller has 30 years of law enforcement experience and an extensive resume on hundreds of death investigations. While in the prosecutor’s office, it was his job to uncover any shortcomings in the cases before prosecutors filed charges.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant. I think law enforcement needs to be transparent,” Miller said.
Denver7 Investigates shared the case report of the County Road 243 incident with Miller. Based on what she reviewed, the former chief investigator felt compelled to speak out about the issues Denver7 Investigates uncovered.
“I believe it’s necessary for those of us on the inside to speak up and say, ‘Hey, this one, you missed it. That’s wrong. Let’s settle this. Let’s do better next time,” Miller said.
Miller says deputies failed to properly investigate Darlene and Tanner’s deaths.
“Well, investigation 101 is you lock it down like a crime scene and it’s a crime. It’s murder until you know better. And I haven’t seen it treated like that,” she said.
Miller was familiar with the work of lead detective on the case, Megan Alstatt.
“I was extremely disappointed, but not terribly surprised,” Miller said. “It would be fair to say that there were several instances where she took shortcuts.”
Miller provided an example of such shortcuts, describing a high-profile embezzlement case Alstatt handled in 2018. As the Post Independent reported, two rangers at a ranch owned by the CEO of Waffle House were charged of stealing over a million dollars.
“When this case came from Detective Alstatt, it was disturbing,” Miller said.
The Aspen Times reports detail how defense attorneys in the embezzlement case argued that Alstatt’s findings were not credible because “she only relied on ranchers to its investigation and did not bother to interview the witnesses who allegedly received the fraudulent money”. The guards were convicted of less serious fraud charges.
Police reports show that Alstatt also did not speak to witnesses to Darlene and Tanner’s deaths. The day Denver7 Investigates emailed the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office to inquire about the status of the case, Alstatt actively resumed work on it.
The lead detective filed six additional new reports in 12 days, records show. She conducted witness interviews, spoke with a neighbor of Darlene and Bill, and took testimony from the grocery store clerk who helped Bill. She also downloaded and listened to Bill’s initial 911 call for the first time in nine months, records show.
“You don’t do interviews like this on a case like this nine months later over the phone,” Miller said.
Denver7 Investigations dug into more cases from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office. Those records revealed that the department had investigated 41 suicides over the past five years, and each case was handled differently. Some case reports included detailed witness statements, while others were not treated as crime scenes.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario doubled in front of Denver7 cameras in February when asked why his department didn’t have a death investigation policy.
“I see no reason to have a death investigation policy in our organization,” Vallario said at the time.
“Lou mentioned that his agency doesn’t have a policy. I think they need it,” Miller said. “What happened to this family should show Lou why a policy is needed.”
Vallario blamed the delay in that case on a massive backlog in processing gun evidence through CBI.
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“It hurts me in that while we wait, they wait,” Vallario said.
The CBI confirmed that there was a delay of about a year to process firearm ballistics evidence. The state agency’s new director, Chris Schaefer, said the backlog was not acceptable. He promised changes and improved turnaround times with new state funding that will allow the agency to hire more scientists and agents.
One such new agent that CBI recently hired is Megan Alstatt. The former Garfield County detective will be called in as an expert to help investigate major crimes on the West Slope.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Miller said. “I’m also concerned because I know from working with CBI that many small, rural agencies in this state depend, depend on CBI officers coming in to help them.”
CBI defended its decision to hire Alstatt. In a statement to Denver7 Investigates, the agency said Alstatt was hired because of “her extensive experience in law enforcement” and “Megan, along with our other candidates applying to join the CBI team, participated in a comprehensive hiring process to ensure CBI’s high standards of serving the people of Colorado with excellence is maintained.
Denver7 Investigates has reached out to Megan Alstatt directly for comment. She declined to provide a statement or an interview.
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