A Fort Collins man accused of sending texts threatening a “master plan” to eventually commit two school campus shootings is likely the first case of Colorado’s new “red flag” law being used in Larimer County.
In texts to his adoptive father in January and March last year, David Gatton, a 31-year-old military veteran, threatened to commit mass shootings, investigators say.
He was arrested in March 2019 for retaliating against a witness or victim, a Class 3 felony, and inciting destruction of life or property, a Class 6 felony.
In the texts — which Gatton admitted to sending — he said he was struggling to find work and that if his adoptive parents didn’t stop asking him to pay back money he owed them, he would enact his plan to “kill a lot of people.”
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When his father asked why, Gatton said it would help him relieve stress and “make me laugh.”
In another text, Gatton said he planned to be “a serial campus shooter” by shooting at two campuses. His texts did not name any specific schools as part of his plan, according to arrest documents.
Gatton’s adoptive father, who lives in another state, contacted the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office about the texts. Deputies conducted a welfare check at Gatton’s residence on March 16. As a result, he was transported to UCHealth’s Poudre Valley Hospital for a 72-hour mental health hold, but hospital staff said he posed too high of a risk to stay at the hospital, so he was booked into the Larimer County Jail on the two criminal charges.
Throughout that process, Gatton made verbal statements threatening violence against his parents for reporting him, deputy Geoff Preece said.
Gatton’s criminal case has been largely on hold while a separate mental health case moves through court. Though such cases are handled in Colorado courts, they are not open to the public.
In December, after months of waiting to see if the mental health case could be resolved first, the criminal case moved forward because Gatton’s treatment options were too limited while he faced an open criminal case.
On Jan. 7, the day before an evidence hearing in Gatton’s criminal case, Larimer County Sheriff’s Office Detective Stephen Pastecki filed the county’s first red flag law case against Gatton, citing Gatton’s “recent … credible threat of violence” in court documents.
The red flag petition against Gatton came two days before Susan Holmes filed a red flag petition against Colorado State University Police Cpl. Phillip Morris — one of the officers involved in the fatal shooting of her 19-year-old son Jeremy Holmes. A judge is scheduled to hear that case Thursday.
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Red flag law invoked by Larimer County Sheriff’s Office
The extreme risk protection order invoked against Gatton, more commonly known as the red flag law, was the firsone filed in the county known to the Larimer County District Attorney’s Office, First Assistant District Attorney Mitch Murray said.
The red flag law allows law enforcement, a family member or household resident to petition to have a person’s firearms removed if a they are deemed by a judge to be a threat to themselves or others. The law has been invoked a handful of times statewide since it took effect Jan. 1, according to multiple news reports.
Larimer County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson David Moore said this is the first red flag case the sheriff’s office has filed, and spokespeople from Loveland and Fort Collins police departments confirmed they have not filed any protection orders under the red flag law. The Larimer County Justice Center clerk’s office was not able to identify the number of extreme risk protection orders filed in the county.
Initial documents filed by Pastecki for the temporary protection order were approved by Judge Stephen Jouard on Jan. 8, just before Gatton appeared for the evidence hearing in his criminal case. They argue Gatton’s statements allegedly threatening violence and attempting to get a gun if released from jail are grounds for the protection order.
Although Gatton has remained in custody at the Larimer County Jail since he was arrested in March, statements Gatton made in letters to his adoptive parents and to a former cellmate indicated he may be a danger to himself or others if he were to be released, Murray said while arguing against reducing Gatton’s bond in the criminal case.
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“He’s just a bomb waiting to go off,” Murray said.
If Jouard approves a permanent order, Gatton would not be allowed to possess a firearm for up to 364 days after his Jan. 21 court hearing, which will address both the permanent protection order and his criminal case.
Texts, letters and statements detail alleged threats
During the Jan. 8 evidence hearing, investigators reviewed text messages, letters and statements Gatton allegedly made to deputies and another inmate about a plan to commit mass homicide.
During deputies’ first contact with Gatton, Preece said he was cooperative and gave them permission to search his residence. Aside from a knife partially tucked behind a dresser, nothing of significance was found in Gatton’s home, Preece said.
As Preece and other deputies questioned Gatton about his texts, Preece said Gatton laughed at times he felt were inappropriate, which made him concerned for Gatton’s mental state and safety.
“When asked about these statements, a normal person wouldn’t laugh about it,” Preece said.
Gatton also allegedly threatened his adoptive parents, saying “I would kill my parents for this if I could,” while waiting in a secure room at PVH, Preece testified.
Gatton’s attorney, Katharine Hay, argued there was no “specific intent” in Gatton’s messages.
“He didn’t actually make any threats in my presence,” Preece testified in response to questions from Hay. “He did not make any specific threats.”
But Murray said his statements were specific enough to warrant the charges.
Pastecki testified about letters Gatton sent from jail to his adoptive parents, including one that was intercepted by jail staff due to its content.
The content of the letters ranged from Gatton asking about his family and their pet cat to making additional threats of general violence and violence against his parents, Pastecki said.
“Mr. Gatton was at a low point in his life,” Pastecki said of his interview with Gatton shortly after his arrest. “I equate it to what I’d call ‘rock bottom.'”
Investigators say threats Gatton made while in jail weren’t limited to the letters — in July 2019, Pastecki said police spoke with one of Gatton’s previous cellmates who said Gatton had made comments to him about “a possible impending attack.”
“(Gatton’s cellmate) was concerned for his family because he thought Mr. Gatton was going to carry out a mass attack,” Pastecki said.
The cellmate told deputies Gatton talked about a plan to kill people when he was released from custody. He also told deputies he saw Gatton making a list he believed included things Gatton would need to acquire when he got out of jail to carry out the plan.
Pastecki said police never searched Gatton’s cell for the list in order to maintain their informant — Gatton’s cellmate — but they never received any additional information from him.
A request to reduce Gatton’s bond so he could attend mental health treatment was denied by Jouard, who said he was concerned for the community’s and Gatton’s safety after hearing the evidence presented Jan. 8.
Being in custody has been a barrier for getting the court-ordered mental health treatment ordered in Gatton’s mental health case, which has also been overseen by Jouard.
Gatton was previously banned from a Michigan VA hospital after threatening to commit a shooting in 2017, Pastecki said. Hay argued Gatton made the threat because he was frustrated after not being able to get the mental treatment he was seeking. Gatton didn’t follow through with the threat, which Hay argued means Gatton had no intent to follow through in the 2019 case.
Gatton is banned from the Fort Collins VA hospital because they do not have law enforcement on-site for security, Pastecki said. Gatton can still receive care from the Wyoming or Denver VAs because they have law enforcement on site.
Gatton is scheduled to appear in court for both the criminal case and extreme risk protection order on Jan. 21.
He remains in custody at the jail on a $100,000 cash bond.
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Why we chose not to use David Gatton’s jail booking photo
In many crime stories, the Coloradoan runs a jail booking photo of suspects. We are not publishing David Gatton’s photo with this story because investigators say Gatton made statements indicating he sought notoriety for his “master plan” and referenced being seen in the news after carrying out a mass murder.
All suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty in court. Arrests and charges are merely accusations by law enforcement until, and unless, a suspect is convicted of a crime.
Sady Swanson covers crime, courts, public safety and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support our work and local journalism with a digital subscription at Coloradoan.com/subscribe.
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