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Multiple judges repeatedly give Pueblo man probation after pleading guilty to new crimes while on parole

PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) - 13 Investigates is digging into a case that highlights a public safety concern some law enforcement are sounding the alarm on; how violent repeat offenders are getting back on the streets.

On June 12, Pueblo Police arrested 25-year-old Zackary Ortega at Motel 6. He was considered a felon in possession of a weapon in violation of Colorado law. At the motel, police said Ortega refused to exit a room there. Police eventually deployed tactical gas into his room. However, he tried to unsuccessfully escape through the roof.

Pueblo Police spokesperson Sgt. Franklyn Ortega said he was wanted on three felony warrants tied to being on probation and refusing to comply with the conditions of his supervision.

Back in 2016, Ortega pleaded guilty to burglary and was sentenced to four years in the Colorado Youthful Offender System, a juvenile prison designed to be a rehabilitation facility for teens convicted of crimes.

When he was released on parole, Ortega pleaded guilty to two separate felony crimes in Pueblo, possession of a weapon by a previous offender and aggravated robbery, a class-4 felony in Colorado.

In both cases, Pueblo County District Judge Allison Ernst gave Ortega three years probation for those crimes.

Then, while Ortega was on bond and parole, he pleaded guilty to car theft in El Paso County. He was given probation once again by El Paso County District Judge David Shakes

In total, Ortega was on three different probation sentences while probation officers in both counties noted that Ortega's "whereabouts were unknown" in 2022.

For the last two years, district attorneys and police chiefs across the state have spoken to 13 Investigates about what they believe to be ongoing problems with repeat offenders getting probation instead of prison time.

"Colorado's hovered around a 50% recidivism rate out of the Department of Corrections for several years now. That is one of the worst recidivism rates in the entire country," 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said. "That's 50% of the people released from prison end up back in prison within three years. That is a broken system that's putting offenders in our community when they absolutely should not be."

Kellner's sentiments were echoed by former Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen, who now studies why there have been increases in crime in Colorado for the Common Sense Institute. He said he studies how struggles with repeat offenders, who are consistently in and out of the criminal justice system, could be leading to steady increases in crime in Colorado since 2010.

"Colorado used to be a relatively safe state, and we cannot say that anymore," Pazen said. "It's well-documented that this is the worst state in the entire country for auto theft. We are similarly situated with property crime, with total crime."

Pazen told 13 Investigates he believes that decisions made by judicial officers, and changes in legislation by Colorado lawmakers, hurt the community.

"Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against really the law-abiding, good citizens of Colorado. The deck is stacked in the favor of individuals involved in criminal behavior," Pazen said. "Repeat and violent offenders should not be on our streets. There's no consequence for violation of terms of probation and parole and pretrial services."

13 Investigates asked Judge Ernst and Judge Shakes for comment on their handling of Ortega in his various criminal cases. Both judges declined the comment by the time of publication.

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Sean Rice

Sean is reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.


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