FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
When Norma Contreras, 18, went to work June 2 at a Phoenix insurance office, she had no idea she had only a few hours to live. Contreras was alone when Stephen Reeves, 53, entered the office and struck her with a brick. She tried to set off an alarm but was unsuccessful. Reeves beat Contreras and then sliced her throat with a box cutter before taking her wallet and car keys. Hours later, he was arrested in her car, covered in blood.
What makes this tragic incident so notable is Stephen Reeves never should have been able to walk in the door of that insurance office. Reeves had a long criminal history involving multiple convictions for drugs, burglaries and domestic violence, and he had no less than six recent contacts with the criminal justice system before killing Contreras.
The real story, though, starts just a month and a half before Reeves fateful meeting with the young insurance clerk. After Reeves failed to serve a DUI sentence in California, an arrest warrant was issued. But Reeves wasn t in California; he was in Arizona smashing the windows of businesses and grabbing whatever cash he could. He's believed to have committed more than 24 burglaries during April and May before he was arrested in Bullhead City, Ariz. But four days after that arrest, Reeves was released due to a court paperwork error. A separate warrant related to other burglaries had been issued and a hold placed at the jail, so even though the Bullhead City arrest fell through, Reeves should have been kept in jail. Due to human error and miscommunication, however, Reeves was allowed to walk.
That night, officers in Kingman, Ariz., contacted Reeves after responding to a burglary in progress. They thought he might be responsible for other burglaries in their area but didn't have sufficient evidence. When a computer check failed to find any wants (neither the California warrant nor the recently issued burglary warrants showed), Reeves was released on a trespassing citation. It's likely the negative return was due to the California warrant being held within the state and the recently issued burglary warrants being too new to have been entered in the automated system. Regardless, Reeves walked away again.
Less than two weeks later, Reeves came to the attention of Phoenix police when he was seen trying to break into a local college by throwing a potted plant at a window. Details of the incident remain somewhat disputed the college maintains the incident was a crime while the police department says the offense couldn't be proved but the end result was that Reeves was transported to a local detoxification center. Once again, a computer check of Reeves didn't indicate he was wanted. Reeves was subsequently released from the center without charges.
One week after the college incident, Reeves viciously took the life of Contreras. According to the Arizona Republic, Reeves told a reporter, They had four or five chances to [expletive] lock me up. They probably should have.
Who's at Fault?
Who's at fault for Norma's death? We are. That's right, it's our fault. We, the criminal justice system, let her down. This didn't have to happen. Society depends on us to stand in the gap and keep evil away from the front door.
Please don't misunderstand: This is not an indictment of the Arizona system. This story could have occurred anywhere in this country. In fact, most of us have heard of similar events, some even resulting in the death of fellow officers. But this wasn't an officer. Norma Contreras was an 18-year-old woman who never thought she would face evil incarnate within the four walls of an insurance office.
For the past 15 years, I've explained to criminal justice students our system's three C's: cops, courts and corrections. All three must work together or the system breaks down. The responsibilities are interrelated and interdependent. When you examine the events preceding this tragic incident, it's apparent all three components of the system could have done a better job of keeping evil away from Contreras.
I know, I know, you can't tell the judge what to do, and you have no control over jail mistakes, right? Wrong. We are an integral part of this system; we must do our job and encourage the other parts of the system to do theirs. Don't assume the right thing will happen. Follow up. If something isn't right, fix it. You have much more power than you might think. Almost every cop knows a few people who work in the system: district attorneys, judges, correctional officers, jail and court clerks, etc. When something goes sideways, help get it back on track by working with those in your circle.
I'm haunted by the thought of a terrified 18-year-old woman having her throat cut by a monster who gave our criminal justice system every reason to put him away. Please, go the extra mile and dig a little deeper.