But now it was just a neighborhood crime scene, the suburban home where an armed Walmart shoplifting suspect randomly barricaded himself after fleeing the store on a June afternoon in 2015. For 19 hours, the suspect holed up in a bathroom as a SWAT team fired gas munition and 40-millimeter rounds through the windows, drove an armored vehicle through the doors, tossed flash-bang grenades inside and used explosives to blow out the walls.
The suspect was captured alive, but the home was utterly destroyed, eventually condemned by the City of Greenwood Village.
That left Leo Lech’s son, John Lech — who lived there with his girlfriend and her 9-year-old son — without a home. The city refused to compensate the Lech family for their losses but offered $5,000 in temporary rental assistance and for the insurance deductible.
Now, after the Leches sued, a federal appeals court has decided what else the city owes the Lech family for destroying their house more than four years ago: nothing.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit unanimously ruled that the city is not required to compensate the Lech family for their lost home because it was destroyed by police while they were trying to enforce the law, rather than taken by eminent domain.
The Lechs had sued under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause, which guarantees citizens compensation if their property is seized by the government for public use. But the court said that Greenwood Village was acting within its “police power” when it damaged the house, which the court said doesn’t qualify as a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment. The court acknowledged that this may seem “unfair,” but when police have to protect the public, they can’t be “burdened with the condition” that they compensate whomever is damaged by their actions along the way.
“It just goes to show that they can blow up your house, throw you out on the streets and say, ‘See you later. Deal with it,’ ” Leo Lech said in an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday. “What happened to us should never happen in this country, ever.”
Leo Lech said he is considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. Police must be forced to draw the line at some point, he said — preferably before a house is gutted — and be held accountable if innocent bystanders lose everything as a result of the actions of law enforcement.
In a statement to The Post, a spokeswoman for Greenwood Village said the city never refused to help the Lechs, saying the family was “very well insured” and refused the $5,000 assistance for out-of-pocket expenses before insurance kicked in. The spokeswoman, Melissa Gallegos, applauded the 10th Circuit’s ruling.
“The house was being used as a barricade, and the damage done to it was to remove the barricade and get the gunman out without any loss of life," Gallegos said. "That is not a use of another’s property under eminent domain, but a use of another’s property during a police emergency.”
In June 2015, the standoff at Lech’s suburban Denver home captivated and alarmed the public, as their house at the end of the street, one located by a baseball field complex and a park, suddenly turned into a quasi-war zone.
The suspect, Robert Jonathan Seacat, had stolen a shirt and a couple of belts from a Walmart in neighboring Aurora, Colo., and then fled in a Lexus, according to a police affidavit. A police officer pursued him in a high-speed chase until Seacat parked his car near a light rail station, hopped a nearby fence leading to the interstate, and then crossed five lanes of traffic on foot. He climbed the fence on the other side — and then, shortly thereafter, came upon the Lech residence.
A 9-year-old boy, John Lech’s girlfriend’s son, was home alone at the time, waiting for his mom to return from the grocery store, Lech said. He told police he was watching YouTube videos in his room when he heard the alarm trip, according to the affidavit. He emerged to find a man walking up the stairs, holding a gun. “He said, ‘I don’t want to hurt anybody. I just want to get away,' " Lech said. Minutes later, the boy walked out of the house unharmed.
Seacat then began searching the house for car keys. But by the time he got in the car parked in Lech’s garage, police had pulled into the driveway. Seacat fired a shot at them through the garage, the affidavit says.
Thus began the 19-hour standoff.
“They proceed to destroy the house — room by room, by room, by room,” Lech said. “This is one guy with a handgun. This guy was sleeping. This guy was eating. This guy was just hanging out in this house. I mean, they proceeded to blow up the entire house.”
SWAT officers attempted to enter the home on one occasion but retreated after believing they heard Seacat fire several rounds. After other tactics, including tear gas, robots and police negotiations, repeatedly failed, SWAT officers tried again to enter the home at 8:21 the next morning. They found him holed up in a bathroom with a stash of drugs, where he was disarmed and arrested.
When the Lech family was allowed back on the property to retrieve their belongings, they were aghast at what they found.
John Lech, his girlfriend and her son moved in with Leo Lech and his wife, who lived 30 miles away, requiring John to change jobs. The $5,000 offered by the city “was insulting,” Leo Lech said.
His expenses to rebuild the house and replace all its contents cost him nearly $400,000, he said. While insurance did cover structural damage initially, his son did not have renter’s insurance and so insurance did not cover replacement of the home’s contents, and he says he is still in debt today from loans he took out.
“This has ruined our lives,” he said.
Gallegos stressed that any large expenses Lech incurred are because he chose to do more than necessary, and chose to “repour the foundation that wasn’t damaged, and [build] a bigger better house where the old one stood.” Lech insisted starting from scratch was necessary.
Previously, police have defended their actions during the standoff.
“My mission is to get that individual out unharmed and make sure my team and everyone else around including the community goes home unharmed,” Greenwood Village Police Commander Dustin Varney said in 2015, KUSA reported. “Sometimes that means property gets damaged, and I am sorry for that.”
State and federal courts have ruled differently in cases involving innocent homeowners caught in deadly police raids, although the 10th Circuit was more persuaded by courts ruling in police’s favor.
Lech’s lawyers pointed to a 1991 Minnesota case in which the state Supreme Court sided with a woman whose house was damaged by police with tear gas as they sought to apprehend a suspect. In a 1980 Houston case, the Texas Supreme Court sided with a couple whose home was badly damaged as police sought to apprehend three suspects who barricaded themselves inside.
In that case, the Texas court turned up its nose at the principle the 10th Circuit stuck to so closely in its ruling: that unless a government’s action is clearly labeled “eminent domain,” citizens aren’t entitled to compensation if the police destroy their property as a matter of business.
“This court has moved beyond the earlier notion that the government’s duty to pay for taking property rights is excused by labeling the taking as an exercise of police powers,” the Texas court wrote at the time.
Today, the Leches’ Greenwood Village home has been rebuilt. Lech says he is dipping into his 401(k) to afford the legal battle but intends to continue as long as he is able. He says he thinks he has too much bad luck to make it to the Supreme Court but believes that someone else like him will get there.
“This can’t go on in this country,” he said. “There has to be a limit. There has to be accountability.”