In the early morning of Nov. 15, four Great Bend men allegedly forced their way into a Great Bend home. One of the quartet was shot by the home’s resident and eventually died of his wounds.
Those suspected of barging into Sterling Mills’ home at 1801 Eighth St. are Alejo Villegas, age 20, Juventino Villegas, age 22, Aron Villegas, age 23, and Adam Suppes. Based on piece-meal public law enforcement reports and unofficial sources, Mills allegedly shot Aron Villegas after which the four fled to 2903 Lakin from where a 911 call about the gunshot wound was made.
But, what really happened on that fateful morning?
Is there more to the story?
Where there gangs involved?
Was it racially motivated?
These are all good questions that need answering. And, the answers need to be made public.
Unfortunately, information about the incident has been challenging to retrieve due to an unwillingness on the part of the County Attorney’s Office to release details. Getting the information is taking formal requests of the court and freedom of information requests of county and city governments.
Starting to dig
Many of the details could be found in the probable cause affidavits and search warrants involved in the case. These documents are public record and available to the media, as well as anyone else, and the Great Bend Tribune sought to get copies of them.
The Tribune also sought information from the Great Bend Police Department, which is the lead investigating agency, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which is assisting.
The Tribune was told all information had to come from the Barton County Attorney’s Office. County Attorney Doug Matthews had effectively ordered law enforcement not to talk to the media and said he would make any and all releases.
Messages were left for the county attorney. They all went unreturned.
The Tribune then put in a request through the 20th Judicial District Clerk of the District Court office. The paper sought copies of the probable cause affidavits and warrants for the two residences and the three arrests.
Under a new statute approved the Kansas Legislature in the 2014 session, probable cause affidavits are now public. An affidavit of probable cause is a sworn statement, typically made by a police officer, that outlines the factual justification for why a judge should consent to an arrest or search warrant or why an arrest made during a crime-in-progress was based on solid evidence that the person in custody is the person who is likely to have committed the crime.
The Tribune wanted these affidavits as well as the warrants themselves.
The law gives all interested parties five days to respond with any concerns or opposition to the release of the specified request. They are entitled to certain redactions or to have the documents sealed as allowed by the law, but have to provide sound reasons for their requests.
The Tribune’s request remains under advisement by the court and the results are pending.
In the meantime, there had been growing frustration in the community regarding the case. The Tribune continued to contact the police department and KBI looking for answers, but were continually referred back to the county attorney.
In an effort to verify its suspicions, the Tribune filed a freedom of information request with the Barton County Clerk’s Office, the Great Bend Police Department and the KBI. These requests sought copies of all written correspondence, via letter or any electronic means, made by or received from the Barton County Attorney’s Office or Matthews from Nov. 15 through Dec. 3 relating to the case.
This yielded interesting results.
The Tribune received copies of a series of emails between Matthews and Great Bend Police Chief Cliff Couch. Couch strongly expressed the need to get information out about the shooting.
One Nov. 18 email from Couch reads: “I know there are probably rules, guidelines, etc at play here that I don’t understand, but I think its pretty essential that we let the public know that the deceased was shot while breaking into Mr. Mills’ house. We’re getting intelligence that some of the Villegas’ family is tapping into gang connections for revenge, and some of the family has already made statements to our detectives indicating they believe we aren’t arresting Mills because he is white and the Villegas are Hispanic.”
Couch went on to say: “Several of the guys that were with Villegas also made statements on the day of the shooting that they were going to get revenge. If we arrests/charge the guys that were with Villegas, this is going to get out of control pretty fast and I think unanswered questions would create questions (in the mind of the Villegas and the Hispanic community) about whether justice is being done, which will make additional violence more likely.”
If, he said, it was released that Aron Villegas was shot while breaking into the Mills house, it would explain why the Villegas were arrested and help ease tensions.
However, Matthews was steadfast in his objection to the release of the information. His email in response to Couch that same day read: “No, we can’t go further than we have so far. The rules allow us to state that an investigation is underway and that leads are being pursued.
“However, anything more than that and we risk losing a case because of jury contamination.
“Once charges are filed further details can be released, but for the moment we cannot commit on the details of the case.”
He went on to say: “Whether information is released by my office or yours, the rules remain the same and even if it’s GBPD that releases a statement versus BCA, our office will be held to account for the information in said statement, so we still have a case or cases dismissed due to the lack of an opportunity for a fair trail. So, we can’t say more than what I have in the proposed statement.”
But, later on the 18th, Couch replied: “If we could tell them a little more once the charges are filed, that might ameliorate the situation a little bit. I suspect that’s when we’ll really see things heating up, so it would probably help things if we could accompany the announcement of charges with an explanation that these guys were in Mills house when he shot Villegas.”
However, later on that day, Matthews issued his news release. It identified the name of the victim, but not much more.
It read: “The Great Bend Police Department and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation are in the midst of an extensive investigation and have conducted several interviews. When completed, the results of the investigation will be presented to the Barton County Attorney and a charging decision will be made.
“However, since an investigation is in progress, the Barton County Attorney’s Office cannot comment further on the status of the case.
“And, the public is urged against making comments on public media websites about the case while the matter is being investigated.”
It wasn’t until Dec. 2 that Matthews released a statement that included the names and charges against those involved. It followed the first appearance of two of the suspects.
Incidentally, the Tribune just happened to hear through unofficial sources these court appearances were taking place and covered them. When the Tribune reporter was in the courtroom, he was asked how he heard about the hearing. It was after the story had been written late that afternoon that the release was received.
Alejo Villegas, Adam Eugene Suppes, and Juventino Villegas, all of Great Bend face charges of murder, aggravated burglary, aggravated battery, and criminal damage to property. Additionally, a separate charge of possession of cocaine was filed against Suppes.
According to information garnered by Tribune reporters, at around 10 a.m. Nov. 15, law enforcement officers responded to a call regarding the shooting of Aron Villegas at 2903 Lakin. Although medical treatment was initiated and the man was transferred to Great Bend Regional Hospital, he died as a result of his injuries.
The incident allegedly started earlier that morning when the subjects forced their way into the Mills house at 1801 Eighth St. It was during this incident that Aron Villegas was shot, the Tribune’s information noted.