From the Classroom

Two police officers facing court battles after police stop turns into tragic incident

An inside look at what happened in Colorado six months later.

Photo of a police car about to get hit by a train.

What started as a traffic stop for road rage ended with a Colorado woman being hit by a train while detained in a police car stopped on the train tracks. She was severely injured but survived, and is suing two police departments as individual officers also face legal battles.

Yareni Rios-Gonzalez recently appeared in court on the charges of road rage that started the incident last year. She was sentenced to probation by a judge who pointedly apologized for what she experienced at the hands of police, calling it “reckless, negligent, stupid behavior.”

It all dates back to the night of September 16, 2022 when Rios-Gonzalez was pulled over following a 911 report accusing her of being involved in road rage and pointing a gun at a victim. Officers detained Rios-Gonzalez inside a police car parked on the tracks.

Video captured the horrific moment.

The police officers involved in the incident, Jordan Steinke from the Fort Lupton Police Department (FLPD) and Pablo Vazquez from the Platteville Police Department (PPD), are facing charges from the Weld County District Attorney’s Office for reckless endangerment and careless driving. Those cases are now moving forward in the legal process.

Steinke is charged with one count of attempt to commit manslaughter and one count of reckless endangerment. Vazquez is charged with five counts of reckless endangerment, one count of obstructing highway/other passageways, one count of careless driving and one count of parking in a prohibited place.

The Weld County District Attorney dropped the second-degree felony assault charge against Steinke late February; the DA’s office declined Annenberg Media’s interview request, citing pending litigation.

A few months before the hearing against Rios-Gonzalez, Paul Wilkinson, one of her attorneys, talked about the case in an interview with Annenberg Media. Wilkinson said he disagreed with those charges and believed “the police destroyed evidence.”

He explained that the evidence police destroyed was Rios-Gonzalez’s memory of the event. He stated that the incident caused memory loss, leaving her unable to defend herself because she couldn’t remember certain things that happened that night.

Ultimately, Rios-Gonzalez entered a no-contest plea for her actions in late June and received one-year probation.

The judge ruling the case, Vicente Vigil, used harsh terms against the police officers and took an unusual step of apologizing to Rios-Gonzalez.

“I’m sorry for what happened to you. I think it’s, quite frankly, ridiculous what you were subjected to with respect to that accident and the cause of your injuries.” Vigil said. “It’s clear to me that — that the system failed with respect to you. … [N]o one should … be left in the back of a squad car while they’re in front of a train.”

Vigil also recognized Rios-Gonzalez as a mother.

“I hope that you’re able to move past that,” Vigil added. “I can’t even imagine how difficult it is having to go — live with the results of those injuries while at the same time taking care of a young child.”

One legal expert said it’s important to separate what happened to Rios-Gonzalez from the crime she was accused of committing.

“It goes without saying that law enforcement shouldn’t be leaving anyone handcuffed inside a patrol car on active train tracks,” said UCLA law professor Diane Birnholz. “However, despite how terrible the collision was, neither the officers’ behavior nor her own subsequent injuries negate whatever activity she engaged in before her arrest.”

Her injuries were substantial.

“She is recovering well physically,” Wilkinson said in April. “The hardest thing is the head injury she suffered. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be locked inside a cage and seeing [a train] coming at you and knowing [what will] happen next.”

In January, Rios-Gonzalez filed the lawsuit against the police officers involved and their department to seek compensation for what she said was mishandling behavior during the incident. A third officer, Ryan Thomeczek from FLPD, was also named in the lawsuit for failing to help Rios-Gonzalez escape when the train approached.

Wilkinson told Annenberg Media that both cities had shown interest early on in a settlement outside the court. He did not disclose the total amount they are seeking, but according to his court filing, cumulative damages from the incident have exceeded $5 million.

The current focus is on the settlement amount. Rios-Gonzalez is asking for the maximum insurance payout from both cities. Wilkinson explained that he was doing that to allow the cities to protect themselves. “I could get a verdict in court that is more than the insurance they have,” Wilkinson said. “If that happens, those cities will have to come up with the money themselves.” The case is now proceeding forward and lawyers are gathering evidence for court hearings.

The lawsuit also accused the PPD of hiring Vazquez despite knowing he had a history of a lack of situational awareness. According to the filing, Vazquez’s previous employer, the Federal Heights Police Department (FHPD), saw Vazquez as a significant liability risk.

The investigation document provided by Wilkinson’s law firm accused Vazquez of turning his walkie-talkie off during his duty, leaving the city during his work hours often, and saying he was en route when his automated vehicle locators indicated he would be traveling in a different direction than the call or stationary at another location altogether.

In 2019, Vazquez received a “poor” quality of work from his supervisor in FHPD, the document stated. When addressing his leadership skill set, Vazquez’s supervisors said, “Employees are unable to achieve effective results,” according to the document.

Vazquez left the FHPD on March 14, 2020, and joined the PPD shortly after. He was a police sergeant at the time of the incident, a leadership position in the police department.

FLPD declined Annenberg Media’s interview request, also citing pending litigation. Steinke, Vazquez and PPD did not return Annenberg Media’s calls seeking comments.

The trial day for Steinke is scheduled for July 24. Vazquez’s pre-trial conference is scheduled for September 14.