DA: Trooper Justified In Shooting Motorist

Thomas Ornelas (Credit: Garfield County Sheriff's Office)

Prosecutors say a state trooper was justified in shooting a motorist who had fired at him and a fellow trooper.

On May 8, the troopers had stopped near Glenwood Springs to assist the motorist, later identified as 40-year-old Thomas Ornelas, when Ornelas suddenly shot at them several times. Eugene Hofacker, 31, was critically injured.

Trooper Shane Gosnell fired back, fatally wounding Ornelas. He was lauded as a hero for his actions; State Patrol said he saved Hofacker's life.

An autopsy later showed that Ornelas had a blood alcohol content of 0.186 percent and cocaine in his system. Almost 5 ounces of what was thought to be cocaine was also found in his car after the shooting, according to law enforcement.

Ornelas was convicted of second-degree murder in 1990.

Hofacker was released from the hospital May 19.

Original Story, May 10, 2014 An attempt to assist a motorist ended tragically after a state trooper was shot by the motorist he tried to help.

State Patrol says a second trooper immediately returned fire, killing the driver.

That trooper, Shane Gosnell, is being praised for his quick actions. The State Patrol says he saved the life of the trooper who was shot.

Trooper Eugene Hofacker, 31, remains in the hospital in critical but stable condition. He suffered a serious loss of blood in the shooting, and had to undergo surgery.

Friday, the Garfield County Sheriff's Office identified the motorist as 40-year-old Thomas Ornales. Ornales reportedly has a lengthy criminal record, including a 1990 second-degree murder conviction. More recently, he had pleaded not guilty in a 2013 drive-by shooting in Mesa County. He was out on bond awaiting trial when he had what would ultimately be a fatal run-in with troopers.

The Garfield County Sheriff's Office said the shooting happened around 9:10 a.m. Thursday at mile marker 129 on I-70. That is near Glenwood Canyon in the eastern part of the county.

Hofacker and Gosnell spotted Ornelas' vehicle and pulled over to see if he needed help. Hofacker was approaching the driver's side of the vehicle when authorities say Ornelas shot him; Gosnell then fired at Ornelas from the passenger's side of the car.

The shooting forced the closure of I-70 in both directions for much of the day.

Officials say troopers are usually alone in their patrol cars, and it was by chance that Hofacker happened to have another trooper with him at the time of the shooting.

"Fortunately there was a second trooper to take care of the suspect so he couldn't do more harm to the trooper already injured," Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario told sister station KCNC.

Another example of serendipitous timing that may have saved Hofacker's life: several troopers were in the immediate area on their way to training, and were able to get to the scene "literally within seconds," Vallario said.

Authorities still have no motive in the shooting, and say the incident serves as a reminder of the dangerous job law enforcement have.

"There is nothing routine about traffic contacts, including motorist assists. Our troopers assist motorists every day as part of our patrolling activities. All traffic contacts pose inherent risk to law enforcement on a daily basis," said Colonel Scott Hernandez, Chief of the Colorado State Patrol.

Hofacker is a six-year veteran assigned to the Vail Troop Office.

The fact that Ornelas was a convicted murderer out on bond has raised questions about whether he should have ever been freed while awaiting trial for another violent crime. Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that risk should be a key factor in deciding whether or not someone is released on bond.