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February 20, 2019 News » Cover Story

A young man found himself at the intersection of a host of societal woes. Then he was murdered. 

Deadly Web

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"You fucking shot me."

Those were the dying words of Sheldon King, 33, who bled out on a kitchen floor in a nondescript brick home in central Colorado Springs.

It was late morning, around 11, on Sunday, September 16, 2018.

Five minutes earlier, King had pulled up to 1611 Howard Ave., where he rented a room for $600 a month from Frank Dillard, who also lived on-site. King was carrying a fast food sack and drink. As he walked in, he might have been thinking about moving. That was on the minds of all five people renting rooms there, who, like King, couldn't afford to get a place of their own. But the renters had nevertheless each felt an increasing urgency to leave soon — Dillard was losing it.

After a business venture failed, the 64-year-old hippie type had stepped up his drug use and, after shoulder surgery in July, he began taking opioids. When friends took a mentally and emotionally unstable Dillard to a doctor for his depression, he came home with more drugs.

Oh, and Dillard had a gun — illegal, as it turned out.

When Dillard later shot King, over a rent dispute, it didn't make banner headlines locally. On closer inspection, however, the crime does seem to lie at the crossroads of many societal challenges that do command broad attention here — the lack of affordable housing, inadequate treatment for mental illness, the opioid crisis, and both racial and class tensions.

Of course, it isn't an easy story to unravel. King's life wasn't entirely stable, most of his friends are shy around both police and media, and the man who shot him isn't around to explain the intricacies of the murder in his own words.

Within minutes of killing King, Dillard shot himself in the head.

By all accounts, King was a good person. His friends and family tell the Indy he had a happy childhood and grew into a man who enjoyed helping others.

Born in Kansas City, King was the eldest boy of six children. After high school, he joined the Army and went to college and later lived in North Carolina, Texas and Kansas before coming to Colorado Springs in 2017. Here, he landed a job with Front Range Technologies installing fiber optic cables.

King ended up living at 1611 Howard after seeing a room for rent on Craigslist around September 2017. There he made friends with Tiffany Blue who roomed there with her husband. They'd landed at Dillard's place after a rent hike — median rent for a 2-bedroom apartment exceeds $1,100 a month here — drove them from their house. They were among plenty of others — a neighbor once observed nine residents coming and going from the 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom house with a basement.

King, Blue and Dillard lived on the ground floor, and three others shared the basement.

One couple had been living in their car with two dogs when they learned about the rental from Dillard at Palmer Park's dog park. They moved in five days before the shooting.

The arrangement — a lessee subletting rooms to numerous, unrelated others — violates zoning codes, which dictate not more than five unrelated people can share a roof in that single-family neighborhood.

In September 2018, there were six (Blue's husband had since moved out) — too many, but no one complained, so the city was unaware.

Even the property manager, Michael Ringler of Denver, whose mom owns the property, says he had no idea Dillard was subletting.

"The guy didn't give me any reason to be suspicious of him," Ringler says, noting he'd periodically drive by the property, but no red flags jumped out. Dillard paid the first two years' rent in advance, about $30,000, and afterward always paid monthly rent weeks ahead, Ringler says.

In a market with a shortage of 24,000 affordable housing units, Dillard hasn't been the only one flouting the law to sublet rooms.

"I know quite a few people who rent rooms from people," Blue says. "Look on Craigs-list, Facebook Marketplace. They're everywhere. I've rented apartments and houses by myself, and in the last few years it's getting harder and harder to come up with the money. If you make minimum wage and make tip wage, over half your check is rent every time."

Like the couple living in the basement, some room renters are undoubtedly one step from being homeless.

"Renting a room is a symptom of the high cost of housing," Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, tells the Indy, "and people who are poor are living on the edge and some become homeless."

Dillard, too, faced financial challenges. He went from being "a relaxed older hippie-type guy who smoked a joint and played with his dog," as Blue describes him, to an embittered and depressed drug addict.

After investing more than $20,000 in a marijuana business, he was shut out by other partners, prompting him to sue. Days after the lawsuit was filed in September 2016, one of the defendants, Stephanie Durr, sought a protective order. A judge denied it, but Durr accused Dillard of stalking the business, making "offensive gestures," and scattering "hundreds of thousands" of flyers "slandering" the business.

"He has went as far as to have a local tattoo artist permanently tattoo a picture of my nude body on himself," her petition said. The business moved to Denver in September 2017, according to its Facebook page, and the lawsuit was settled in January 2018 on undisclosed terms.

But before Dillard had parted ways with his partners, one of them gave him a .38 caliber handgun, according to statements later made to the Colorado Springs Police Department by Stephanie Balfrey, who met Dillard at a pot club several years ago and served as his caregiver and held power of attorney.

It's unclear whether the source of the gun, which had the serial number scratched off, was ever verified. Police didn't answer most questions regarding the murder/suicide incident, including those relating to the gun.

click to enlarge Sheldon King liked to help others. - COURTESY KING FAMILY
  • Courtesy King Family
  • Sheldon King liked to help others.

Balfrey says Dillard was bitter and slid into depression. Then came the pain pills for his shoulder surgery and the Wellbutrin that a friend says Dillard was given to treat his depression. Side effects for Wellbutrin include chest pain and memory loss.

Blue blames the drugs for Dillard's foggy memory, which led him to accuse King of not paying his rent. Despite others vouching for King, Dillard didn't believe them. King's friends say he'd been feeling money pressure after buying a Dodge Avenger, so he'd started to pay rent to Dillard in advance, so he could manage his car payments.

Balfrey said she told Dillard, "I was standing right there when Sheldon gave you this cash money. Here are his receipts from the bank when he took the money out to give you. This man [Sheldon] does not owe you anything."

The rent dispute led to two police responses to the house. Details are sketchy, because police didn't write reports about either incident. But police call sheets show that on Sept. 2, Dillard called 911 at 9:53 a.m. alleging his "roommate" (King) was "refusing to leave." Police labeled the incident a "verbal disturbance" and noted "caller in danger," assigning the call Priority 2 status, a step below an "imminent life-threatening situation." Dispatchers sent two officers, an American Medical Response ambulance and the Fire Department.

A call sheet also notes the rent money dispute and says Dillard was "on meds and not acting right," and that King "was threatened by RP [reporting party]."

Police "advised both parties of eviction process — civil matter," a call sheet says; Dillard was treated at the scene "for unrelated med issue."

Blue, who was there at the time, says medics tended to Dillard for "an anxiety attack" and his complaint that "his heart hurt."

"Sheldon was a very calm person," Blue tells the Indy. "There was no physical altercation. The cops just talked to both of them. The cops didn't feel anyone was being threatening. Sheldon said all he wanted was to have his 30 days before getting out of there."

Before leaving, officers told Dillard if he wanted to oust King, he'd need to file an eviction notice, which he did on Sept. 5, claiming, "He has me in fear for my life. I must stay locked in my bedroom in my own house."

Blue denies that was true, but Dillard pasted copies of the eviction notice throughout the house, naming King.

On Sept. 14, it was King who called police at 6:39 p.m., saying his landlord had locked him out. Again, the call was labeled Priority 2 — "Safety issues [reported]: Weaps [weapons] in house — Mace or bearspray and guns." Three officers were dispatched.

A call sheet labels Dillard the suspect and King the victim. After cops failed to arrive in an hour, King called again at 7:45 p.m. (His mother, Garnetta King of Olathe, Kansas, tells the Indy his phone shows he called 911 seven times before officers arrived.)

After an officer arrived at 8:22 p.m., with others rolling up a short time later, King told them Dillard had locked him out, which Dillard denied.

"Ultimately a civil matter," the police call sheet says.

Blue was leaving for work at a Westside pizza place when King had gotten home from work to find the door locked. She didn't witness what happened but adds, "I did hear him [King] say, 'Frank is crazy.'"

Although Blue tells the Indy she didn't know Dillard had a gun, others say it was well known he did.

Tenant Jason Hill, who'd lived there nine months, later told police he was with King on Sept. 14 and that King conveyed to officers he "was in fear for his life" and that "Frank was unstable and unpredictable" due to drug use.

Hill also told police later he heard from other tenants Dillard had a gun and had planned to kill himself two weeks before. After that, he said, he and the others started looking for another place to live. (Hill initially fled the house after the shots, and told police he wasn't there when the shooting happened.)

The police report of the Sept. 16 shooting also says a friend of Hill's claimed Hill had told her that "Sheldon expressed he was concerned for his safety that day [Sept. 14] and they did tell the cops Frank had a gun."

Another tenant, Daniel Beavor, who had moved in five days before the shooting, told King's sister and mother in a phone call they recorded with his permission and shared with the Indy that King made it clear to police he feared Frank, who had a gun and was using drugs.

"The police knew about this and didn't do shit," Beavor told King's family.

In addition, King's co-worker Tony McLaughlin would later tell police that King planned to move out soon, because, "Frank had threatened him with a gun."

Many people in Frank Dillard's orbit saw him as unstable.

Some time prior to the shooting, Dillard was "weirding everybody out" in the neighborhood by "driving around in his blue pickup truck with mannequins," neighbor Kara Kelsch would later tell police. He then scattered "a large number" of mannequins in his front yard "that made everyone uncomfortable." He finally agreed to display only one after complaints from a nearby school, she said.

At an unknown point in time, Dillard installed exterior cameras linked to a series of monitors in his bedroom that allowed him to watch people coming and going.

"Frank decided that everybody in the world was against him and we were all lying to him, and he had it out for Sheldon," Balfrey told police after the shooting. "He has continued to say, 'I will shoot the motherfucker if he doesn't pay me my money.'"

"Frank talked about shooting people all the time," she added, noting he owned a .38 revolver and hollow-point bullets. Because Dillard had a medical marijuana red card, he couldn't legally own a firearm, according to federal law. But the gun was given to him, so there likely was no background check when Dillard acquired it.

click to enlarge The house on Howard Avenue where King was murdered remains vacant. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • The house on Howard Avenue where King was murdered remains vacant.

In the final months of Dillard's life, Balfrey says she watched him devolve into "a severe drug addict," with behaviors she described as manic, bipolar and depressed.

"He had been doing street drugs for a year — anything he could get his hands on," she says, including fentanyl and cocaine.

Though people often don't recognize suicidal signs (see "What can you do," p. 19), Balfrey believed Dillard's threats that he wanted to harm himself or King. Although she failed to take steps to have Dillard placed in custody, she urged Blue and King to seek refuge at her house, if need be.

"I had been telling them for weeks to come stay at my house," Balfrey says. "They kept telling me, 'no, no, no.' They promised me they would get out of there before anything stupid happened."

Before Balfrey left for Florida on Sept. 6 to spend 10 days with a dying friend, she says, "We had a house meeting at my house. I begged them in tears ... 'Please come stay at my house.' Sheldon kept saying to me, 'I'm not going to be run out of my house by this old man.'"

Balfrey would later tell police she believed Dillard planned his suicide to coincide with her return from Florida. Dillard had asked Blue the night of Sept. 15 when Balfrey's plane would land, and Blue told him 5 a.m. on Sept. 16.

On Sept. 16, King drove up to the house at about 10:55 a.m., a neighbor noticed, and went inside.

Five minutes later, as Blue was putting on her makeup, she heard three or four loud and fast gunshots.

"Bam, bam, bam."

Then she heard King say, "You fucking shot me." She closed her bedroom door and frantically dialed 911 just as two more shots rang out.

Beavor dashed up the stairs from the basement when he heard gunshots, the police report said. Seeing Dillard first, bleeding into a trash can in the living room, Beavor asked him what happened. Dillard replied, "I'm sick."

Beavor then saw King lying face down in the kitchen. Blood was everywhere and King was making gurgling sounds, so Beavor told him to hold on and he ran downstairs to get a towel. When he returned moments later, King was dead.

When he asked Frank why he shot King, Dillard said, "What are you talking about?"

The first officer to arrive found several mostly empty small baggies with a skull design that appeared to contain remnants of black tar heroin, in the living room where Dillard sat, the police report said. Police also found a glass narcotic smoking pipe with white residue, along with several other pipes and bongs.

After Dillard was rushed to the hospital, police found the surveillance system in his bedroom and 44 bullets in a nightstand.

As officers milled about the property investigating the murder, Kelsch, the neighbor, approached, asking, "Did he [Dillard] finally kill someone or did someone kill him?"

Two days later, Dillard died and his body joined King's at the coroner's office.

Both of King's gunshot wounds were fatal, El Paso County Coroner Leon Kelly says. The first entered his right chest, tore through ribs and his aorta. He would have lived 6 to 10 seconds, Kelly says, which is when he uttered his dying words. The gurgling sound Beavor noted is called "agonal breathing" by medical examiners. It's part of the dying process.

The second shot struck King in the head, killing him instantly.

An autopsy concluded Dillard shot himself in the nose.

Toxicology tests indicate both men had consumed pot in the recent past. The level found in King's blood suggests he probably wasn't high when he was killed, Kelly says. But Dillard's level was elevated, Kelly says, suggesting, "You could make the argument that he was high at the time."

Dillard also had an antidepressant drug on board, as well as Oxycodone, a powerful opioid painkiller. (Kelly says the drug wouldn't have been administered at the hospital to a patient being treated for a severe head injury.) No heroin was detected.

Since that day, all the residents have moved out. Blue left that very day. The house remains vacant and ominously boarded up as of this writing.

King was buried by his family in Kansas City.

No one claimed Dillard's remains at the coroner's office, which told the Indy the public administrator stepped in. Privacy laws protect release of further information from that office.

King's family has found it impossible to make sense of his death. They are left to wonder if racism played a role. Would police react differently to a white person's plea for help, they wonder?

"I feel that when someone tells you, 'There's a gun in the house, the guy's unstable, I fear for my life,' you should check it out," says King's sister, Danielle Monett King. Had officers gone inside the home, they'd perhaps have found drugs, and possibly the gun, she believes.

Police say any claim of racial discrimination in the case is without merit and that calls are "prioritized and dispatched based on available resources."

"I cry every day," King's mother Garnetta, says. "You read the police report and you say, 'They let him down.'"

What can you do?

Beyond sounding a warning, as in the case of Frank Dillard’s friend Stephanie Balfrey, there are steps friends and family members can take if they recognize a person with mental illness poses a danger.

Kara Rowland, communications director at Mental Health Colorado, says friends and loved ones can intervene if a person appears to present an imminent danger to themselves or others.

A friend or family member can call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline, 844/493-8255, for guidance. Additionally, a 72-hour mental health hold can be initiated by a peace officer, medical professional, family therapist or social worker, or a hold can be instigated by a relative or friend who signs an affidavit, affirmed before a judge, saying the person is mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others. (For a full explanation: tinyurl.com/CO-72hr-hold.)

Of course, that assumes there’s a place to house someone. Short-term holds can take place in a regular hospital; thereafter, the state faces a severe shortage of mental health beds. In December, the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo limited admissions to criminals assigned there by the courts, but recently lifted that restriction, according to Colorado Public Radio.

As for firearm possession, Mental Health Colorado is among those supporting “red flag” legislation (Colorado House Bill 1177, known as the “Extreme Risk Protection Orders” bill) that would sanction a formal process to temporarily remove a firearm from a person who poses a grave threat to themselves or others, Rowland says. “There are built-in protections for due process and return of the weapon, but the bottom line is this is a bill that would save lives. According to the Colorado Health Institute, firearms are involved in half of all suicides in the state.”

Red flag bills have failed in the past but might stand a better chance with Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office.

HB1177, introduced. on Feb. 14, enables family or law enforcement to petition a judge to remove weapons from someone who exhibits violent or dangerous behavior. A temporary order would last 14 days, after which family or law enforcement could petition the judge to extend it for 364 days. During this hearing, respondents would be provided free legal counsel, and the respondent could seek to have the order terminated at any time during the 364 days.

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