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No jail time for Colorado police officer who locked woman in SUV struck by train

No jail time for Colorado police officer who locked woman in SUV struck by train

The Fort Lupton police officer who locked a handcuffed woman in a police vehicle that was hit by a freight train was sentenced to probation Friday.

Jordan Steinke, 29, was sentenced to 30 months of supervised probation during an hour-long hearing in Weld County District Court. The former officer was convicted in July of reckless endangerment and assault after the Sept. 16, 2022, crash on railroad tracks near U.S. 85 and Weld County Road 38.

That night, Steinke and then-Platteville police Sgt. Pablo Vazquez stopped driver Yareni Rios-Gonzalez after a reported road-rage incident, took her into custody and locked her in a police SUV parked on railroad tracks. The officers then failed to move the SUV as a train barreled down the tracks, horn blaring, and crashed into the SUV.

Rios-Gonzalez survived but suffered serious injuries.

Both officers were criminally charged; Steinke was the first to go to trial. She opted for a bench trial before Weld County District Court Judge Timothy Kerns, who found her guilty on two charges but acquitted her of a third charge, attempted criminally negligent homicide.

On Friday, Kerns said he had planned to sentence Steinke to jail but changed his mind after listening to the prosecution and defense arguments. Both sides asked for probation, with the prosecution seeking 30 months of supervised probation and the defense seeking one year of unsupervised probation.

Kerns said he initially thought a jail sentence would send a message to law enforcement that police officers will be held accountable for misconduct, but after listening to the arguments decided to “check myself.”

“Someone is going to hear this and say, ‘Another officer gets off,’” Kerns said. “That’s not the facts of this case. And the court is framing a sentence that hopefully will ensure we can have some meaningful educational component. If there is a violation, Ms. Steinke, I will harken back to my original gut response as to how to address sentencing. I want to be clear about that.”

Steinke wept during the sentencing and apologized to Rios-Gonzalez in a statement she read in court.

“What happened that night has haunted me for 364 days,” Steinke said. “I remember your cries and your screams. I remember begging you to tell me your name. Praying that you would stay awake. I have never felt so helpless. We couldn’t get you out of the car.”

Steinke said she hoped to give educational talks to new police officers about the danger of railroad tracks and how important it is for officers to be aware of their surroundings. Kerns ordered she complete 100 hours of community service and authorized any “educational component” to count toward those hours.

Steinke was fired after the conviction. The third-degree assault conviction will also trigger revocation proceedings of her Peace Officer Standards and Training certification, her attorney, Mallory Revel, said during Friday’s sentencing hearing.

“Decertification, which we anticipate, means she will never be a police officer ever again,” Revel said.

Chris Ponce, an attorney for Rios-Gonzalez, gave a statement on his client’s behalf during the sentencing hearing. He said Rios-Gonzalez, who suffered a lasting brain injury and physical injuries in the crash, lost all trust in the justice system that night and felt conflicted about what sentence Steinke should serve.

“The conflict that she feels is one where every day she has to feel this pain,” Ponce said. “And she’s had to deal with (doctor) appointments and having her life so radically changed. And feeling upset, very upset about that — angry about that — but on the other hand, feeling for Ms. Steinke, and, I think, truly empathetically feeling sorry for how she has lost her career.”

Ponce added that Rios-Gonzalez, who watched the hearing virtually, did want Steinke to write a letter of apology. Kerns declined to order Steinke to do so.

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“That needs to come from you, from your heart, not because a judge told you to,” Kerns told Steinke.

Several people spoke in support of Steinke during the sentencing hearing. They noted that she suffered nightmares and panic attacks since the crash and has felt guilty and remorseful about the incident.

Steinke told the judge she wanted to “make some good out of this.”

“I am so sorry,” she said in court, addressing Rios-Gonzalez. “As a police officer, I never intended for another human to come to harm under my watch. I feel very much responsible for what happened to you that night, and I accept the court’s decision to hold me accountable.”

Vazquez’s case is still pending and is set for a pre-trial conference in December.