Pubdate: Sun 19 Dec 1999
Source: Denver Rocky Mountain News (CO)
Copyright: 1999 Denver Publishing Co.
Contact:  400 W. Colfax, Denver, CO 80204
Author: Hector Gutierrez, Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer


Antonio Hernandez Tovilla thought he was under siege by robbers when six
heavily armed men burst into his room.

"I was ready to tell them, 'Take my television; take my watch. I got $100
in my wallet. Take that, too. Just please let me live,"' the 22-year-old

The men had to be robbers, Hernandez thought, because he doesn't remember
them shouting "Police!" or "Policia!"

"They had black masks, and you could only see their eyes," he said.

Then he heard what sounded like fireworks coming from his roommate's bedroom.

What happened in the next minutes has led to an FBI investigation, the
appointment of a special prosecutor and changes in how the Denver Police
Department handles no-knock raids.

The fireworks Hernandez heard actually were gunshots that killed Ismael
Mena, 45, father of nine.

Denver police had obtained a warrant to search their house at 3738 High St.
after a confidential informant told officers he bought $20 of crack cocaine

Police didn't find any drugs in the house, and the coroner didn't find any
in Mena's system.

Hernandez on Saturday for the first time described what happened Sept. 29.
He last saw Mena alive about noon. It was unusual to see him up at that
time because Mena usually went to bed when he got home about about 8 a.m.
after working a graveyard shift at the nearby Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

Mena told Hernandez he had been to Denver court that morning. He had been
arrested about two weeks earlier on a concealed-weapon charge.

Mena told Hernandez that police had taken his weapon and all he had left
was the box of ammunition.

"He said, 'What do I need this now for?"' Hernandez recalled.

Hernandez said the two men were in Mena's bedroom when Mena said he was so
tired he just wanted to sleep.

Hernandez left Mena and returned to his bedroom, where he lay on his
mattress on the floor and watched Spanish-language television. Hernandez, a
native of Veracruz, Mexico, said he had a couple of hours of free time
before going to work.

When he first heard a clatter downstairs, he thought it might be the others
who lived in the house. Hernandez shared the house with his sister, her
2-year-old daughter, two couples and one couple's child.

Hernandez, who speaks only Spanish, could hear the intruders talking in
English. He didn't know if they were speaking to him. They ran up the
stairs and saw him in his room. Hernandez said as the men pointed their
rifles at him, he instinctively walked backward, where he dropped on the

The "men in black," as Hernandez called them, tossed him face-first on his
bed and handcuffed his hands behind his back.

A short time later everyone in his room heard gunshots from the direction
of Mena's bedroom.

"I was just praying for myself, praying for my sister," Hernandez said. "I
was so scared."

About 10 minutes later, the armed men escorted him outside. As he was being
led away, Hernandez tried to peek into his roommate's quarters to see what
had happened. He said one of the men in black pushed his head forward down
the tiny hallway.

When Hernandez was led downstairs to the front yard, he finally felt
relieved. He was no longer in any danger, he thought.


"Ah, because the police were outside. I saw the police cars, and I saw the
police with their jackets, and it said 'POLICE' on the back," Hernandez

But then, Hernandez said, he quickly added it up. If the officers were
outside waiting and walking around, they weren't there to rescue him. The
firecrackers he thought he heard inside the two-story dwelling had to be
live rounds.

That meant the men in black also had to be police officers.

Then one of the officers, who finally addressed him in Spanish, read
Hernandez his rights and asked him, "Donde estan las drogas?" (Where are
the drugs?)

"Why are you asking me this?' I don't know anything about any drugs. What's
the reason you're here?" the dumbfounded immigrant asked the officer.

The officer wouldn't have any of it, Hernandez said.

"He kept asking me, 'Where are the drugs?' He kept on insisting," Hernandez

Another officer walked over, and the revolving door continued.

"He also asked me, 'Where are the drugs?"' Hernandez said. "I told him the
same thing. 'I don't know anything about any drugs."'

The officers closed the patrol car door and left Hernandez inside the
cruiser for about 30 minutes. As he sat in the vehicle, Hernandez said he
saw an ambulance pull up.

He realized someone had been hit by the gunfire inside.

"I kept looking to see who they were bringing out to find out," Hernandez

Police then took Hernandez to their headquarters downtown. He said he felt
secure again.

"I was with the police," he smiled. "I figured I was in a safe place."

Hernandez said another detective read him his rights again at headquarters.
Hernandez agreed to be interviewed, and the detective taped their

The detective pressed another question about the activities in the house
and whether any drugs were inside.

"I told him I never saw anyone sell any drugs in the house," Hernandez
said. "We all worked. I never consumed any drugs and wouldn't want to. I
even told him, 'Go ahead and take a blood test from me if you have to
because I've got nothing to fear."'

The detective told Hernandez that officers were searching his house.

"If they find drugs you're going to jail. If they don't you're going home,"
Hernandez recalled the detective telling him.

As the investigator led Hernandez to a holding cell a couple of hours after
the raid, he passed on the news. Mena was dead.

"Oh, my God," Hernandez remembered saying.

Shortly before midnight, after spending about five hours in a jail cell,
Hernandez was taken home by a plainclothes Spanish-speaking officer.

"I guess they didn't find any drugs," he said.

Meanwhile, his sister, Reyna, was told by another resident about the
shooting and that her brother was inside at the time.

"I didn't know who was dead and who was wounded," his pregnant sister said

When Hernandez returned home, he didn't have a key. He walked down the
street to his niece's baby sitter. It was then that his frantic sister
finally found Hernandez.

The next morning the High Street residents went back home and discovered
the aftermath of the police search.

Clothes and mattresses were tossed and turned and left on the floor. Walls
were ripped out. Personal belongings were rummaged through. Blood was
splattered on the walls and floor.

"It was a mess," Hernandez said. "My sister had two pieces of luggage, one
for her clothes and one for my niece's dolls. And they just threw them all
over the place."

All the residents were so scared they told the building's owner they
couldn't continue to live there.

Denver police now acknowledge they had concerns about the warrant soon
after the raid and slaying.

But they maintain their SWAT officers identified themselves as "police" and
''policia'' when they entered the home. They also said Mena had a handgun
in his bedroom and fired more than once at SWAT members -- although his
friends thought he had only one gun and police had already taken it.

Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas was appointed to investigate
the issuance of the warrant and whether the shooting was justified. The FBI
is determining whether Mena's civil rights were violated.

Neighbors have long maintained that police went to the wrong address.

Officers on Dec. 7 raided the house next door. They arrested a 24-year-old
man and a juvenile and confiscated what they said was cocaine.
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