Steamboat Springs Sgt. 1st Class Richard Lopez died Monday from "severe cranial and cerebral trauma," according to autopsy results. Steamboat Springs police said the suspects in his alleged assault may not face murder charges.
Preliminary results of the autopsy performed Tuesday in Arapahoe County indicate the Army Special Forces soldier took two blows to the face during a fight Friday at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue before falling and hitting the back of his head on the ground, Arapahoe County Coroner Mike Dobersen said. Lopez had no other injuries, and it was the pavement, not his assailants, that dealt the most serious blow, Dobersen said.
The Steamboat Springs Police Department is investigating Lopez's death as a homicide, but that doesn't mean the two unnamed suspects will face murder charges, police Capt. Joel Rae said.
Colorado law is very specific about the elements that make up charges such as murder, criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter, and last week's incident may not meet the criteria, Rae said.
"It is a possibility that when all is said and done, lesser charges could be filed," Rae said Tuesday. "Appropriate charges in the end may be second-degree assault."
Police have declined to identify the two suspects in the ongoing investigation. The men have not been arrested. They are not from the Steamboat area and have returned home and hired lawyers, according to police.
The two suspects argued with Lopez and his friends Timothy and Wesley Mottlau at The Tap House on Lincoln Avenue about their song selections on the jukebox, and the altercation became physical nearby after all five men left the bar, police said.
"It's a complete shame that anybody would die over a disagreement," Rae said. "And then you factor in that he was one of our country's soldiers, and what that individual has gone through over the last several years. To go through all that and come home and die is just a complete shame."
Dobersen said the full autopsy report won't be available for about six weeks, but he provided some details Tuesday about the nature of Lopez's injuries and the circumstances of his death.
"Basically, he died from complications of severe head injuries," Dobersen said. "The injuries weren't immediately fatal, but what they do is develop over time. He also developed a really severe pneumonia, as well.
"It sounds like he was hit in the face, then hit in the jaw, and had an unprotected fall to the back of his head. That was the severe impact."
Lopez's only injuries appeared to be to his head, Dobersen said, adding that he did not find evidence that Lopez had been punched or kicked elsewhere during the assault.
"No broken ribs, no other broken bones, no big bruises or anything like that," he said.
The coroner's account is consistent with what investigators think took place during last week's fight, Rae said.
Lopez, a recipient of the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, was assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at North Carolina's Fort Bragg. His previous tours included Fort Campbell, Ky.; South Korea; Gainesville, Fla.; Iraq; and Afghanistan, according to a news release from the United States Army Special Operations Command News Service.
Lopez's ex-wife told the Rocky Mountain News that Lopez had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He was vacationing in Steamboat Springs with his 16-year-old son Nicholas, of Jacksonville, Fla., and the Mottlaus, said Shannon Boahn, who was married to Lopez for eight years.
Timothy Mottlau is in the Navy, and Wesley Mottlau is in the Army, and they live in Norfolk, Va., and Fayetteville, N.C., respectively. The Mottlaus originally are from Steamboat Springs. They were treated at Yampa Valley Medical Center for minor injuries in the wake of the fight, according to police.
Lopez was found unconscious in the crosswalk at Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue when police arrived at about 12:15 a.m. Friday in response to multiple 911 calls. Lopez was transported to Yampa Valley Medical Center via ambulance and was later airlifted to Denver Health Medical Center, where he died at 4:16 a.m. Monday.
Lopez was born Nov. 17, 1971, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and attended Arroyo Grande High School in Arroyo Grande, Calif., according to the Army. He enlisted in 1993.
Before joining the Special Forces, Lopez served as a platoon sergeant with the 82nd Airborne Division, as an army recruiter and as a scout-sniper. His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star with two oak leaf clusters, the Purple Heart, the Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, the Army Commendation Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and the Army Achievement Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
Survivors include Lopez's son, Nicholas James Lopez; father, Vincent Suarez; sister Mary Ventura; and brother Mark Suarez.
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