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Police Pay $50,000 To Man With Severe Autism Who Was Mistaken For Murder Suspect

By Brian Maass

BRIGHTON, Colo. (CBS4) - Brighton police have apologized and paid a man with severe autism $50,000 after mistaking him for a wanted murder suspect.

Police held him at gunpoint, handcuffed and tasered the 25-year-old man.

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CBS4's Brian Maass interviews Josh Sands. (credit: CBS)

CBS4 learned that the actual suspect had been arrested eight hours earlier and was already in jail when Brighton officers "took down" Joshua Sands.

"All bad and made me super, extremely angry, and it made me decide I'm never going back to Brighton again," Sands told CBS4.

Sands' autism makes it difficult for him to work. So most days, he rides buses around the metro area. He often takes a bus to Brighton to the Target store at 2171 Prairie Parkway and stops in for a slice of pizza.

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(credit: CBS)

That's what he did April 4, 2017. But as he sat alone eating pizza, a shopper saw Sands and thought he looked like a wanted murder suspect from Wyoming who was thought to be in the Denver area.

Local news outlets had broadcast pictures of that suspect, Trevor Lee Sanford, 30, on their news broadcasts. Brighton police were called and alerted to the sighting.

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A screenshot of a previous broadcast for the search of a Wyoming murder suspect. (credit: CBS)

But approximately eight hours earlier, Westminster police had located and arrested murder suspect Trevor Lee Sanford. They sent out a news release saying they took Sanford into custody at 1:45 a.m. on April 4 and had taken him to the Adams County jail.

For some reason, Brighton police were either unaware of the arrest or didn't check on the status of Sanford, who was sitting in jail three and a half miles from the Target store.

John Bradley, a spokesperson for the Brighton Police Department told CBS4, "Nobody told us. We didn't know" about the Sanford arrest.

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(credit: CBS)

So, after surveilling Sands from a distance, Brighton police believed Sands was Sanford, and at about 11 a.m.  they made their move.

Sgt. Matthew Domenico wrote in a report that he "positively identified" Sands as being Sanford. But another officer, Anna Stapleton, later wrote that Sands "did not look like the male wanted out of Wyoming for murder."

Seven Brighton police officers approached Sands - at least one with his gun drawn - physically restrained him and took him to the ground.

Police reports indicate Sands struggled. One officer deployed his taser on Sands who had no idea why police had jumped him.

"I was minding my own business eating my meal. They said 'you're under arrest' and restrained me and cuffed me. Pretty painful and scary," Sands said of the experience.

Within a short time, Brighton police realized their mistake.

Immediately after taking down Sands, officers were in touch with their dispatch center.

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(credit: CBS)

Officer Stapleton said, "I heard the wanted party out of Wyoming... was currently in custody."

Another officer, Andre Perdomo, wrote that immediately after the arrest, "I was notified by dispatch that they had just received information… that the wanted individual was apprehended the night prior by Westminster Police."

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Trevor Lee Sanford (credit: CBS)

Brighton Police Chief Paul Southard declined to be interviewed by CBS4. He released a written statement, but did not explain how his officers did not know the true murder suspect had been jailed eight hours earlier or if that information was available to his department.

"This was an unfortunate and regretful incident that evolved very quickly in a crowded store," wrote Southard. "Officers had information that a violent murder suspect was at large , possibly in our area, and it was essential that any potential threat be dealt with immediately. After communication was possible with Mr. Sands, it quickly became evident that he was not the suspect wanted for First Degree Murder in Wyoming."

Southard said officers were compassionate and offered Sands a ride home, which he declined.

Southard also said his department has reviewed what happened and decided "the situation did require a fast and definitive response. Again, we are sorry the situation occurred. We have extended our apologies to the Sands family and have reached a resolution acceptable to them."

Faced with a threatened lawsuit, BPD paid Sands $50,000 in December, but Sands' father is still fuming.

"All they had to do is check with their own office and find they already arrested the man," said Jim Sands. "When you have the murderer already in custody, you shouldn't suspect anyone else of being that murderer."

Sands' attorney, David Lane, was equally critical.

"The suspect was already in their jail from the night before when they tased Josh. So they really screwed up and it cost them $50,000 for this screw up," Lane said. "The mission of my law firm is to teach the police they can't just be cowboys. They were cowboys and didn't check to see what the status of the warrant was. How about you call headquarters and see what the status of a warrant is before you start tasing people?"

After the mistaken arrest, written reports indicate police still considered charging Sands with another criminal offense related to Sands struggling during his arrest.

Sgt. Domenico wrote, "It became apparent he had some developmental delays. It did not appear Sands was able to comprehend. Based off the circumstances, and Sands mental status, it was decided not to charge him with interference for failing to obey the commands given to him."

CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.

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