April 25, 2018 News » Cover Story

VRBO rental ended in a brutal assault, plus allegations of racism and home invasion. Why isn't the DA pressing charges? 

Unwelcome guests

click to enlarge Monique Morris and her husband, Devin Turrell, say they were attacked by a Colorado Springs VRBO owner at a home they paid to stay at, in a race-motivated assault. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Monique Morris and her husband, Devin Turrell, say they were attacked by a Colorado Springs VRBO owner at a home they paid to stay at, in a race-motivated assault.

Monique Morris and her husband, Devin Turrell, came to Colorado Springs in early January to explore a business deal and meet with friends. But the Phoenix couple spent most of their two weeks here at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central with Turrell in ICU being treated for a head injury that could affect him for the rest of his life.

The African-American couple, who say they were attacked when they entered an unlocked house they thought was their vacation rental (but was actually the VRBO owner's main home on the same property), blames racism. Morris says the owner of the VRBO, Joseph Korte, 62, called them "stupid n****r" and "fucking n****r" many times. "When he saw that we were black, it was automatically a problem," she says. "It just escalated from there."

But the homeowner and his family say they're the victims, because Morris, 47, and Turrell, 32, essentially invaded their home.

"You get to defend yourself in your own home," says Korte, whose 21-year-old son, Cameron Smart, split open Turrell's head with a blow from a log carving that knocked him unconscious, resulting in a concussion and brain bleed. "Unfortunately, he went to the hospital, but I guess it was better than the morgue."

Korte denies uttering any racial slurs and blames the couple for the outcome, telling the Independent, "They made a huge mistake, and they were too drunk to realize they were in the wrong house."

But those who spent the six hours leading up to the attack with Turrell say he was far from drunk.

It's this kind of contradiction — one of many — that make it impossible for those not present to know exactly what happened at 2 a.m. on Jan. 5 at 904 Manitou Blvd., a more than half-acre property just southeast of the Uintah Gardens shopping center in Colorado Springs. A review of police reports and interviews with those involved do little to sort out the truth. Among inconsistencies in the narrative: whether the couple was given proper verbal directions to the rental property, whether a knife was involved, and at what point Korte and Smart realized the so-called invaders were actually their renters.

All those discrepancies likely played a role in the decision by District Attorney Dan May's office not to file criminal charges either way — against Smart for striking Turrell with the log, or against Morris and Turrell for trespassing. Rather, the DA's office closed the case, ruling Smart acted in self-defense. May could have asked a grand jury to make that call if he was unsure, but chose to allow his office to make it.

But the incident might not be closed. Besides Turrell's lasting injuries, the episode triggered problems for Korte and Smart that already have shut down the vacation rental and could bring a civil lawsuit. It's also stoked a debate over racism. The local chapter of the NAACP called a meeting on April 10 to discuss the incident behind closed doors. While Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP state conference, says reports of racism don't surprise her, the reported attack says something about how the local law enforcement community views black people, she believes.

"You would be hard-pressed to find a white person, beaten brutally by a person of color in El Paso County, where the police and DA decided not to press charges," she says in a statement. "The lack of official response when it comes to non-white lives is egregious, troubling, inhumane."

Initially, Colorado Springs Police spokesperson Lt. Howard Black declined to address Lytle's comment, but he later told the Indy, "We spend a lot of time investigating crimes and making sure we are fair and impartial. We can only move in the direction the evidence takes us."

The short version of what happened boils down to a mistake made during the early morning hours that thrust two visitors and two local residents into a near-deadly confrontation. But exactly why and how the incident shifted from a blunder to a life-threatening circumstance is what's more difficult to discern, even after sifting through 230 pages of the police report and hearing everyone involved give their version of events.

While both parties agree on some facts, they dispute who acted as the aggressor and the motivation for that aggression.

The story begins with the Phoenix couple's desire to expand their marketing business to Colorado Springs. Morris and Turrell flew to Denver and then drove to Colorado Springs to meet with Era McCarthey and Jose Martinez, who run a marketing business in Trinidad and Colorado Springs.

Morris called Korte at 6:40 p.m. to check on the rental, for which she had prepaid more than $700 for five nights. Korte told her he'd left the door unlocked and hung the key behind the door, left a light on and turned on the heat, Morris told police and the Indy. Morris says Korte didn't specify the exact location of the rental but only said the rental was "the one by the garage," the police report says. Morris told the Indy she called Korte a second time, but Korte says he received only one call.

Korte told police and the Indy he specifically described on the phone how to get to the rental property, which requires driving to the south of the main home's garage, down an alley and turning right. (Korte allowed the Indy to photograph the property, but declined to have his or his family's photo taken.)

"He never said any of that," Morris says. "He just said it was next to the garage."

Korte says the exact directions aren't part of the VRBO listing, so there's nothing in writing to specify the location of the rental; he gives guests verbal directions by phone. Korte says he expected the couple by 7 p.m.; Morris says she never indicated they would check in at that time.

After arriving in Colorado Springs, the couple had dinner with their friends at The Rabbit Hole, and later went to Red Martini downtown before heading to Korte's place about 1:45 a.m.

Martinez, the friend, told police that Turrell had four or five drinks in a six-hour period and that neither he nor Turrell were "plastered" or even "significantly intoxicated," according to the police report. Martinez also said that neither of the women drank alcohol, because they planned to drive.

When Turrell and Morris arrived at the rental property, she says, "We walked up to the house, carrying our stuff in. It was really dark, and a gigantic dog came at me. Devin stepped between me and the dog and he said, 'No. No.' Then some guy with light short hair [Smart] came from the right and said, 'Who the fuck are you? Get out of here.'"

Both say they were surprised, and asserted that they had rented the property and belonged there, and wanted to know who he was.

Korte and Smart told police they heard the dog, a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Simon, bark and then yelp as if he'd been kicked.

Morris tells the Indy that when Turrell said they had a reservation, a naked man, which turned out to be Korte, came down the stairs from the upper story saying, "Get the fuck out."

Morris and Turrell told police and the Indy the father and son then called them "n***er, stupid n***er, fucking n***er" many times.

Korte denied to the Indy and the police that he used racial slurs, but admitted to police he called Morris "a dumb bitch." In that same statement given to police on Feb. 5, Korte said he stood on the stairs leading down to the kitchen area adjacent to the entryway for two minutes yelling for the couple to get out, but he also said later in the same statement that he stood there for just one minute before he returned upstairs to put on some shorts. Morris and Turrell say he never put on clothing, but remained naked.

click to enlarge Turrell says he still can't bear to be in sunlight. - COURTESY MONIQUE MORRIS
  • Courtesy Monique Morris
  • Turrell says he still can't bear to be in sunlight.

After Turrell told Korte that there obviously was a misunderstanding and asked if they could discuss it, he tells the Indy, Korte called him by name and took a swing at him but missed. Turrell swung back, connecting with his face, he says. Morris claims Korte said Devin's name almost immediately after appearing on the stairway, but Korte tells the Indy it took him five minutes to figure out the two were his renters.

According to police reports, Korte contended Turrell became defensive and told him "not to disrespect him and to stop yelling," and Turrell then punched him without provocation.

"I tried to explain to him we had reserved this property from VRBO, and if he would put some clothes on we could fix this, whatever the misunderstanding was," Turrell says. "He continued to approach me with no clothes on. He pushed me. I defended myself and my family. And that's all I remember."

Smart told police he pushed Turrell to the floor and then ran to a back room to retrieve a large decorative log, a carving Korte brought back from a trip to Venezuela. When he returned, he saw Turrell chasing Korte in the kitchen. "Fearing for his father's safety," the police report states, "Mr. Smart struck the male in the back of the head with the wooden object."

Smart also told police that Turrell had warned Korte he was going to "kick his ass," so Smart shoved Turrell and "went to go find something to 'get the guy,'" — the log.

After Turrell fell, Smart told police, Morris grabbed a knife from a knife holder on the kitchen counter and told them to stay away. The knife block was located on the far side of the kitchen counter from the entrance to the home, and the only light turned on at that time was above the kitchen sink.

Smart initially told police Morris "started coming after us" with the knife. But later, he revised that statement. "Mr. Smart stated he did not believe the female intended to hurt him or his family with the knife but was just protecting the injured male," the police report says.

Morris told police she tried to come between Smart and Turrell when she "saw that the young man was going to hit Mr. Turrell a second time" after he was unconscious on the floor.

When the Indy contacted Smart by phone and asked him to recount that night, he said, "I actually really don't know what you're talking about." At a later meeting in person, he revised that to say the family's attorney had advised him not to talk to anyone about the incident.

Morris told the Indy and police that when she was trying to leave, she grabbed her bag and Korte also grabbed the bag, causing the handle to tear. Korte told police he never grabbed the bag. Police later observed the bag's handle was badly torn, the police report says.

She was able to prop up Turrell, who was spilling blood everywhere, and get him to the car, she says.

After the couple drove away from Korte's house, Morris, trying to call for help, accidentally hit redial of Korte's number. By that time, police had arrived — Smart had called 911 — and Smart handed the phone to an officer, who advised Morris to get to a hospital as fast as she could.

It's worth noting that Korte's wife, Gillian Price, was upstairs listening to the scuffle the entire time but did not call 911 for help. She told police she at first thought the couple were burglars but later realized they were the renters. "She thought the subjects must have been drinking as they sounded 'Bent out of shape,'" the police report says.

Unfamiliar with the city, Morris became lost and called Martinez, who asked her to observe a landmark and describe it. Based on that, Martinez determined they were in the Tinseltown area at that point, he says.

"They had a rental car," Martinez says. "She was so shook up she couldn't drive. We were on our way home to Trinidad when she called, so we turned around and met them in Tinseltown. We took them to the hospital and were there all night."

During those hours, Springs police showed up at the hospital. "They asked me to come out of the room," Morris says. "They said, 'Where's the knife? We need to retrieve the knife. They [Korte and Smart] said you pulled a knife on them and you tried to kill them.' They said, 'We're not going to arrest them, because then we'd have to take in Devin, too, for trespassing.' They said, 'We don't want to take in the wrong person, so we're not going to take in anybody. We're going to let the DA sort it out.'"

Morris told the Indy and police she never grabbed a knife or any weapon. She didn't know what the officers were talking about. "The officers told her that they were going to go back and finger print the item and questioned if her fingerprints would be on it, which she stated they would not," the report says.

click to enlarge Turrell's head following the beating with the carving. - COURTESY MONIQUE MORRIS
  • Courtesy Monique Morris
  • Turrell's head following the beating with the carving.

Police searched the couple's car but didn't find a knife. Police also searched Martinez's vehicle for weapons and found none, Martinez says. That search was conducted, he presumes, because Martinez took Morris and Turrell to the hospital that night.

Korte tells the Indy that the family initially thought the intruders might have been homeless drifters who frequently traverse the area.

But by the time Smart called 911 that night, he was aware of who they were: "There's a woman with a knife at our house, stab us," he told the dispatcher. "OK, so these people came to our house. They came inside. They attacked us, they grabbed a knife. They have a knife... They were going to be renting our vacation rental below, but they came to our house and attacked us."

He told the dispatcher that: "The renters have just come; they came to the wrong house. They came into this house, which is the real, which is the house above the other house."

Attempting to clarify, the dispatcher asked if Smart was referring to apartments. "Kind of, kind of, we just explained to them that when you come, you come into the house, you come to the house, or come to the garage, or come to the garage and go to the left of the garage and then go down the alley and then you'll see the house on the right."

He explained further: "They came physically inside the house and then the dog, the dog came rushing down and barking and stuff, because you know there's people at the house at 2 o'clock in the morning. So, I came upstairs, and I was like, 'What the fuck's going on?' My dad came downstairs to see what's going on. Um, and uh, my dad's like, 'Who are you, who are you, who are you?' And the guys are like, the guys like didn't really explain themselves. They were like asking us who we are and they were like, 'We rented this house.' And we were like, 'OK, OK.' We said, 'OK, well you're in the wrong house, get out, you need to get out, you're in the wrong house, you rented the house down there, you need to get out we'll come talk to you when you get out.' And, they wouldn't. So the guy started screaming at us, he's like, 'I rented this house, I rented this house!' ... The woman actually had to like hold him back because he was screaming at me and my dad... He started coming at us, so I hit him with a — I don't know — not like a bat, but like a wooden thing. And he went down, and then the woman grabbed a knife and started coming after us. And so then we got away from her and then they both eventually got out of the house away from us."

Police reports show that Korte repeatedly asked police officers in more than one interview what Turrell's intoxication level was. Police never revealed that detail. Nor do police reports show results of blood alcohol testing. Korte noted to police a paper bag left on the kitchen counter by the couple contained recreational marijuana purchased in Denver.

Says Korte, "I believe they made a huge mistake because they were completely bonged [intoxicated], and this is why she did not drive directly to the hospital."

Although Smart initially gave police a brief account, when Detective R. Cruz-Rodgers called him on Jan. 12 for an interview, he stated "he wanted to have an attorney." Cruz-Rodgers told him they needed additional information because of the severity of Turrell's injuries, but that "I did not have probable cause for an arrest."

During a Feb. 5 interview of Korte and Smart conducted by Cruz-Rodgers, with their attorney present, Korte again asked for a toxicology screen on Turrell, but the officer didn't provide it.

Lt. Black says no alcohol test was performed. "We would never do a blood alcohol test. There would be no reason," he says. "Just because somebody said he had been drinking. It's not even relevant. If it was relevant to take someone's blood, we would have to get a court order."

Korte told Cruz-Rodgers that Turrell, who's 6-foot-1 and weighs 210 pounds, was the aggressor, even pushing aside Morris, who's 5-foot-6 at one point to try to get to Korte. When police asked Korte how many of his renters were "people of color," Korte told police he's "rented to 'Mexicans.'" The police report continues, "He stated most of the renters had been white and it's not a big deal. He also stated there have been a few blacks and they have talked to them and most of them come out here to 'smoke dope' and 'that's fine,'" the police report says.

Asked by police if he's a racist, "he stated, 'I might be now.'"

click to enlarge Before the incident, Morris and Turrell mistakenly parked in front of the garage. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Before the incident, Morris and Turrell mistakenly parked in front of the garage.

But race has nothing to do with the Jan. 5 incident, Korte says, noting his rental property has garnered at least three dozen top ratings from renters. He alleged the couple is "trying to get something for nothing," and adds, "It's just a bad thing that happened, and that's one of the reasons I didn't press charges. Why keep beating a dead horse when someone made a huge mistake?"

Korte suffers from pancreatic cancer and although he's 6 feet tall and weighs 170 pounds, he's hardly an imposing figure. His son is about the same height and weight. "When you're attacked by a dog and you see a naked man and another person, isn't it common sense to leave or back out?" Korte asks. "I feel like a victim, but I'm being made to look like a criminal."

Korte's and Smart's attorney, Mike Obernesser, says prosecutors made the right decision not to file charges.

"This is clearly a case of self-defense in the case of Cameron," he says. "My understanding is he [Turrell] was under the influence of something, which I'm sure contributed to the miscommunication at 2 in the morning."

Obernesser, a criminal defense and civil litigation attorney, says it's not unusual for witnesses to give multiple versions of an event.

"If you ask two different people to talk about what happened in an argument or altercation," he says, "I remember it a certain way, and you remember things a certain way."

As for racism playing a role, Obernesser says, "I don't have any reason to believe it. Nothing in my communication with Joe gives me any reason to believe that's an issue."

Thomas English, who's black and owns the Old Colorado City seafood restaurant and grill English Dockside, calls Korte "a great guy, a good friend."

"To me, it's tragic what happened," he tells the Indy. "The situation got out of control. Imagine someone in your house — you're thinking what's going on, you are half awake. Fear's the first thing you feel. I think people always take things racially first. That's the first place they go. But I think it was an unfortunate incident between two people, scary for both of them."

English also says he's never heard Korte utter a racial slur, and he seems to treat everyone the same. "Joe had a birthday party [at his house, this month] I was at," he says. "It wasn't just white people there, but black, a Spanish guy there. We all just sat around chatting. I don't think it was Joe trying to look a certain way."

Colorado Springs attorney Pat Mika, who Morris and Turrell have retained, calls the incident "clearly racially motivated."

"We're disappointed in the decision made by the DA's office," he says. "We are concerned that these individuals, based upon the color of their skin, are not being given the same consideration as somebody who is not of color, who found themselves in a similar situation."

click to enlarge This alleyway leads from Manitou Boulevard, past the main house, to the VRBO. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • This alleyway leads from Manitou Boulevard, past the main house, to the VRBO.

Mika explains discrepancies in the versions of events by saying police, by not arresting someone that night, "gave these individuals an opportunity to not only speak to a lawyer but to get a story together."

"We will be pursuing civil remedies to address what we believe are the egregious wrongs that were done to both of our clients," Mika says, "who will now suffer through the remainder of their lives, not only with the physical injures that Devin experienced, but the emotional trauma. This is a terrible injustice and someone needs to be held accountable."

Mika also notes Morris' report: That while trying to get Turrell into the car, she told Korte she would call the police, and he told her to go ahead, she says, because, "They won't do anything because they know me."

Lt. Black called that statement "outrageous" and "incorrect."

The Indy ran online searches on all four parties in their home states. Court and sheriff's jail records show a DUI charge for Joseph Korte from 1992. He was also charged on March 1, 1999, with two counts of harassment, for which he was arrested and bonded out the same day. The charges were dismissed in September 1999. On April 23, 2003, Korte was charged with misdemeanor assault and harassment for which he was arrested and jailed for one day before bonding out. He was acquitted on June 24, 2003.

Cameron Short has no criminal record in Colorado, nor does Morris in Arizona.

Turrell's only brush with the law in Arizona came in July 2015 when he was charged with driving with a suspended or revoked license, and something related to a "stop required from alley or driveway." The former was dismissed, but he pleaded guilty to the second charge in October 2015 and paid a fine.

VRBO did not respond to the Indy's request for comment, but documents contained in the police report indicate, and Turrell confirms, that the vacation rental business provided housing for Morris while Turrell was hospitalized here. The Korte rental hasn't been listed since the day after the incident when Morris posted a review on the VRBO website that said, "Attacked by owner. This property states private rental but it wasn't. My husband was attacked by the owner for the color of our skin. This is not a safe place to stay." She also mistakenly stated the rental is located in Manitou Springs.

Morris also filed a complaint with the Colorado Division of Civil Rights, stating, "I was denied full and equal enjoyment of a place of public accommodation based on harassment based on my race/color..."

The division's procedure could span months and result in an order to cease and desist a discriminatory act; a public or private apology; posting anti-discrimination notices; and monitoring by the state. It also could end with a "right to sue" finding, entitling the claimant to file a lawsuit.

The couple's friend, McCarthey, says she felt police pre-judged Morris and Turrell when they arrived at the hospital that night and displayed "a terrible bias." She says the officers asked what criminal record they might have and one officer told her that Morris and Turrell "looked intimidating."

"They were looking at them as scary," she says. "They didn't see them as business people. They're labeling them as bad guys. That's what really upset me."

Lt. Black declined to comment on McCarthey's observations.

McCarthey says Morris and Turrell are "good, good people," who help feed the homeless in Phoenix where Turrell hires a barber at his own expense to cut hair for homeless men.

"It was really an ugly, ugly experience," Martinez says of what he observed at the hospital as police questioned his friends. "That race thing still happens. They [police] basically told them if they pressed charges on them [Korte and Smart], they would have to take Devin in for breaking and entering and trespassing. They were scaring them to drop the whole issue."

Turrell's medical bills have soared to $200,000, and the couple doesn't have health insurance. "We can't afford those bills," Morris says, "but we're paying the minimum and we sent the rest of them to our lawyer."

Turrell now suffers from blurry vision and severe headaches, and he's unable to tolerate bright light. His symptoms, he says, relate to a blood clot in his brain, a remnant of the attack. Whether he'll suffer permanent brain damage won't be determined for awhile, doctors have told the couple, Morris says.

"My house is completely dark," Turrell says. "I feel like a vampire. I have to wear hats, because I've got this big bald space on my head. I'm uncomfortable being out of the house, to be honest."

click to enlarge From the alleyway, the VRBO is directly ahead, separated from the main house by a geodesic dome. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • From the alleyway, the VRBO is directly ahead, separated from the main house by a geodesic dome.

Raised in New Orleans, Turrell says he's never experienced racism like he did in Colorado Springs that night. "The only thing I want is justice, because the police didn't seem to care," he says.

On April 4, when Morris learned from a police detective that charges wouldn't be filed, she broke down in tears in a telephone interview with the Indy. "I said, 'This doesn't make any sense — the amount of injuries he has. They're just trying to clean it up because they've gotten a lot of calls from you [the Indy], our attorney and the NAACP. I think it's happening because we're black, and we live in another state, and they think it will go away, and it's not. It's not going away."

While Turrell faces an uncertain future due to his injury, of one thing he is sure: "I'll never be back to Colorado Springs. I have no interest in it. The way I was treated in Colorado Springs was unfair."

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