Killed for Walking a Dog

Killed for Walking a Dog

Photographs by Benjamin Rasmussen

There is no particular reason people should care about the shooting of Isabella Thallas, which is why, as far as I can tell, not many people did. She was the only casualty, and there was no mystery as to who killed her, and in a country in which more than 40,000 people are shot to death every year—well, who has the time to stop and mourn for just one of them?

But there was something about this killing, on the side of a Denver street on a sunny June morning in 2020, that captured my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to Bella Thallas. Maybe it was her age—about that of my own daughters—or maybe it was the specific circumstances of her murder, which were both mundane and completely insane.

For two years I tracked down what news I could find in the Denver press and looked in vain for the national coverage that I assumed would follow but never did. Eventually, I wrote to Bella’s family—her mother, father, sister, boyfriend—and talked to them about who Bella was and what happened on the day she died. There isn’t and never will be any satisfactory explanation for what happened to her, but I came as close as I could to understanding what was lost when it did.

“We were essentially raised by teenagers,” Bella’s sister, Lucia, says, and it’s true. Joshua Thallas and Ana Hernandez were high-school sweethearts who married right after graduation, when he was 19 and she was 18. Isabella Joy Thallas arrived soon after—a preemie, weighing less than six pounds—followed two years later by her sister, Lucia, and that birth was just as quickly followed by a divorce that was both inevitable and urgently necessary. Josh, by his own admission, had no idea at that age how to be a husband and father, and struggled to manage a dark and violent streak, at home and in the world. Ana was combative and determined in her own way. After 10 years, they married again, when Josh felt he had gotten his act together, and then divorced again for good five years later, when Ana apparently decided he had not (although Ana kept using the last name Thallas).

Bella and Cia, as they liked to be called, grew up in that cauldron of rage and love, often forced to be the mature, careful ones while their parents bickered or worse. Cia recognizes in herself the suspicious reserve of somebody who grew up in chaos, but Bella was different. “She trusted everyone the moment she met them,” Cia says.

Bella’s guilelessness could occasionally irritate Cia—“Haven’t you heard about that person’s reputation?” Cia would demand. Once, in high school, Bella acted as the designated driver for a bunch of friends heading to a concert, paid a helpful attendant to park in a Wendy’s parking lot, and came back to discover that the car had been towed. “But I paid him to park there!” she said. “Yeah,” replied Cia, “you paid a completely random person.”

A photograph of sisters Cia and Isabella
A photograph of Cia and Isabella (Benjamin Rasmussen / The Atlantic)

Bella was good at school but a procrastinator—her father wondered at how she would wait until the last minute to do her assignments, then ace them in a late flurry of activity. But her abiding interest was in fashion. She was always urging her sister to dress with more flair, and eventually Cia would give in and raid Bella’s closet for some piece or another. Rather than gloating, Bella would simply say: “You look amazing!”

She was beautiful, with a gymnast’s petite physique, honey-colored skin (Greek on her father’s side, Hispanic and Sephardic Jewish on her mother’s), and flowing black hair. She did some work for young Denver photographers and designers, sometimes modeling, sometimes coming up with makeup designs or customized looks. Though she would have liked to study fashion, she was taking accounting classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver because her mother wanted her to get a degree in something practical.

If Bella Thallas treated anyone with disdain or cruelty, it left no trace. Instead, I was told of the lengths to which she would go to help and befriend others. For someone raised as Bella was, it can’t always have been easy to be so kind.

She had boyfriends during her high-school years, but none of those relationships seemed very serious. Given that her parents made marriage look like World Wars I and II, perhaps it’s not surprising that Bella didn’t see love and sex as things to be trusted—at least until she met Darian Simon.

Darian, six years older than her, was a photographer and co-founder of Be a Good Person, a clothing company. He had also grown up in a broken home, and he, too, had treated relationships as something to play at, another thing to do with his time. He and Bella became close after they met through friends, but without considering becoming a real couple. (At least, they didn’t consider it openly—Cia remembers Bella telling her that Darian was the man she was going to marry, so they could have “adorable curly-haired children.”)

They spent most of 2019 “hanging out,” even though they were dating other people, until one day, as Darian remembers, he finally asked her, or asked himself, What are we doing? We love each other. We bring out the best in each other. Why aren’t we a couple? Once together, Bella and Darian spoke about each other the same way—this was different than it had been with anyone else they had dated, or even known. In each other’s company, they didn’t have to protect themselves, keeping an escape hatch ready for when it went sour, as they had learned love always does. They could finally let their guard down.

At the same time, tensions were rising in the home where Bella and Cia still lived with their mother and their half brother, Jacob. Both sisters felt obligations to their mother—they worshiped with her at a messianic Christian church, kept up a weekly commitment to an extended-family dinner, and tried to live by her rules while under her roof. This could be hard, as Bella tried to stake out some independence while her mother kept a close watch on her. Ana worried that Bella would repeat her own mistake—commit too young and too seriously to the wrong person, before she knew who she was.

In April of 2020, Ana and Bella got into an argument. I was told different versions of what caused it, but the result was a breach. Ana told Bella to move out, and without other options, Bella moved in with Darian, in his new apartment in Denver’s Ballpark District, a residential and retail development, still under construction, near Coors Field. That departure haunts Ana now. If Bella hadn’t left, she would still be alive. Ana told me she sometimes wonders if Bella’s moving out was God’s way of preparing her to say goodbye.

Picture of Ana Thallas, Isabella's mother, at her home in Denver, Colorado.
Ana, Isabella’s mother, at her home in Denver (Benjamin Rasmussen / The Atlantic)

Cia and Bella turned 19 and 21 within days of each other, so on June 7, Ana threw the girls a joint birthday party on a restaurant rooftop. By then the family had come to a semblance of peace. Bella wore a parti-colored knit dress with a pair of her mother’s designer sandals—they were the same size; “solemates,” in Ana’s words—and a fresh pedicure. Bella might have wanted to wear the beautiful Dolce & Gabbana dress her mother had purchased for her, but it was the one thing Ana wouldn’t let Bella take out of the house when she moved; Ana wanted to keep it perfect for High Holy Days at church later that year.

The birthday cake (white with guava filling) that Ana had ordered for the party was too beautiful to touch, so no one did—Bella took it home intact, and the next morning sent her mom a picture of herself eating it for breakfast. Before the party was over, Bella posted to Instagram—for the last time—a photo of herself and two close friends and, referencing the protests over the death of George Floyd, a message to her friends and followers to donate, advocate, and stay safe.

On June 10, Bella and Darian woke up late. They had no pressing obligations, although Bella was going to meet her mother for brunch and to finally get her birthday present from her. Darian had no plans other than playing video games with a friend later on, but he did have a worry: His dog, Rocco, an affectionate 85-pound pit-bull mix, hadn’t pooped in a few days. Rocco didn’t seem distressed, but it was odd, and Darian wanted to give him another chance. To lessen any distractions, he decided to take Rocco out alone. He put on some flip-flops, grabbed Rocco’s leash, and headed for the door.

Bella was feeling a little stir-crazy and wanted to go along. A few weeks earlier, in response to growing cabin fever, she had insisted that they make a “bucket list” of things to do whenever they felt aimless or trapped because of pandemic restrictions. Go to the mountains and hike. Visit a lamp store. Take Rocco to the park.

Darian gave in. They walked out onto the street, Bella holding Rocco’s leash, and headed for a nearby plot of dirt next to some fresh construction that a lot of people in the neighborhood brought their dogs to. Maybe Rocco would be inspired.

When they arrived at the patch of dirt, Darian took a few steps away from Bella to sit in the shade. Bella stood on a low brick retention wall. “Go ahead, Rocco. Go potty, go potty,” Darian said.

Darian remembers hearing a voice from the building next to them: “Hey, are you going to train that dog, or are you going to yell at it?”

Darian looked up. The voice had come from a dark first-floor window, perhaps someone’s apartment or the building office. A lot of thoughts ran through his head—Who is this guy? Why is he so hostile? He considered a bunch of responses, some angrier than others, but decided instead to defuse. He said aloud, to whomever was in the window, “My dog is trained fine. I’ve had him for four years,” and stood up to walk to Bella, intending to get them both away from there. Then he looked back to the window and saw the barrel of a rifle. Darian said to the man he had never seen before, and could hardly see now, “Are you aiming something at me?”

Picture of Benihana in Denver, Colorado
The Benihana in Denver (Benjamin Rasmussen / The Atlantic)

Cia had spent that morning driving her younger brother to a friend’s house, and then she ordered chicken fried rice—her favorite—from Benihana. She was still waiting for her meal in the parking lot when one of Bella’s friends called her. The friend was vague: “Hey, what’s up? You talk to your sister lately? Maybe you should call her?” She tried Bella, got her voicemail, then checked where her sister was on the location-sharing app they both used. Bella, or at least her phone, was safely at home at Darian’s apartment. Then Cia got a message from another friend telling her to get in touch with Darian’s family, along with a link to an article that had just been posted on a local news site—a shooting, one dead, one gravely wounded, in the Ballpark neighborhood. She started trying to reach her mother.

Ana had gone to Target that morning, which happened to be next door to Benihana, to buy a gift bag for Bella’s birthday present—a new pair of designer shoes, so Bella would no longer have to borrow her mother’s. Cia remembers seeing her mother’s car in the parking lot, and calling her. “Mom, something has happened.”

They agreed to meet at Denver Health Medical Center. Cia peeled out of the parking lot without her fried rice. As Ana raced to the hospital in her own car, she got more messages about a shooting, a shooting that involved her daughter and Darian, a shooting that had left one person dead. And then Ana was at the emergency room asking if her daughter was a patient there—“Isabella Thallas. Is there a patient called Isabella Thallas?”—and then she thought to ask for Darian, or maybe she finally allowed herself to ask for Darian, understanding what the answer would mean, and they said that Darian Simon was in surgery. And that’s when she knew.

Ana watched the news on her phone. One station showed drone footage of the crime scene, and there was a blanket on the ground, and sticking out from under the blanket, a foot. Ana could see the pedicure Bella had gotten for her birthday party.

When Cia got to the hospital, she found her mother distraught, crying on a bench with a sympathetic stranger. She realized there was nothing more to learn there, at least nothing good. Cia called her father, told him what she knew, and then took off toward the location of Bella’s phone, still peacefully beeping out its whereabouts.

She arrived at her sister’s neighborhood to find an active crime scene. She took in the roaming police officers and EMTs and officials, who all refused to tell her anything. As she stood there, helpless, she thought about her college courses in criminal science, which she was studying to be a law-enforcement officer, and counted the yellow evidence markers she could see from where she stood: 56 of them. She saw somebody holding Rocco on a leash; he had been found walking down a nearby street. She saw a white tent erected over something lying on the sidewalk. She knew what, or who, or what, was inside.

Picture of Josh Thallas, Isabella's father
Josh Thallas, Isabella’s father (Benjamin Rasmussen / The Atlantic)

Josh Thallas had also raced to the hospital, and had also demanded information on Isabella Thallas and been told nothing; he had also asked about Darian and heard something, and knew what that meant. He left and headed toward Darian and Bella’s apartment and, once there, pushed his way through the police tape—Josh is a big, bearded man and had gotten into enough trouble that he wasn’t particularly afraid of getting into any more—until a cop saw him and understood and said, “Are you the father? I’m so sorry.”

Cia watched this interaction. She knew her father’s temper and worried that he’d end up in handcuffs. Instead, the cop persuaded Josh to get back into his car and wait. Cia took it all in and walked away to a secluded spot where she vomited up the lunch she never got to eat.

The 24 shots rang out so fast, they couldn’t be heard as distinct sounds—just BANGBANGBANGBANG. Darian saw Bella collapse to the ground. He saw dust kicked up around them, could feel bullets and fragments fly by. He turned to run but fell. Once on the ground, he kept trying to move away from the window and the man and the gun, but his leg would not follow the rest of his body, so he reached back to pull it with him. Somehow, he made it about 20 feet, through gaps in two fences, before he finally lost the ability to move. He remembers lying there, dazed, staring at the ground in front of him, feeling like a fighter knocked to the mat in a boxing movie. Damn, that was a horrible dream, he said to himself. Okay, wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

The next 30 minutes or so were not, sadly, a blur. Darian remembers them with all the vividness of trauma. There were people around, but for some reason they weren’t helping him. Then somebody took charge—a neighbor who had completed EMT training just six months before and had been drinking coffee and FaceTiming with his father when the shots were fired. The man tied a construction worker’s belt around Darian’s upper thigh, pulling it tight around his severed femoral artery and saving his life. Darian didn’t know that, though: As far as he was concerned, he was about to die, and it really bothered him. He didn’t have his phone. He couldn’t call anyone to tell them he loved them. He couldn’t see what had happened to Bella.

Other people gathered. An ambulance arrived. One of the medics stood next to him, and Darian found himself staring at the man’s shoe—he could see how well used it was, how many calls it had been on. He reached out to grab it. The man said, “Don’t touch my boot.” But the boot was real, it was solid, it belonged to someone still alive, so Darian grabbed it again. “I told you don’t touch my boot!” the man yelled. Darian relented, thinking, Okay, I won’t, but man, you’re a fucking dick. He overheard someone say “DOA.” Who was DOA? Was it Bella? Was it him?

Finally, he was put in an ambulance, and a kind EMT started speaking to him about what was happening and gave him the sedative ketamine, commonly used to calm trauma patients for transport. Darian relaxed. They arrived at Denver Health. The woman said, “Are you prepared for the amount of people you’re about to see?”

The ER was crammed with trauma surgeons and nurses, alerted to the imminent arrival of a critically injured gunshot victim. As Darian was wheeled into their urgent choreography of care, he looked back at the ambulance and saw one of the cops who had ridden along. Stoned on ketamine, Darian flashed a peace sign. The cop flashed one back. That’s when Darian Simon knew he was going to live.

Picture of a memorial for Isabella Thallas in Denver, Colorado.
A memorial for Isabella Thallas in Denver (Benjamin Rasmussen / The Atlantic)

Michael Close, the man who is charged with killing Bella and grievously wounding Darian, was 36 on the day of the shooting, with no criminal record and no history of violence. At his bond hearing in November, a Denver police detective presented a portrait of a sad and troubled man who had just shot two strangers and then tried to flee to the mountains in a Mercedes SUV packed with weapons. Close has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.

The detective said that a woman who identified herself as Close’s girlfriend told police at the scene that they had had a fight the night before, that he suffered from depression and substance abuse, and that he had called her after the shooting to tell her how sorry he was. Another person, identified by the detective as a friend of Close, had received a text from Close that day, saying he was angry about an altercation with a couple and a dog that morning, and then later, a voicemail in which Close said, “Dude, I fucked up really fucking bad. There’s no going back from this now.”

The weapon used to shoot Bella and Darian was not, as some early reporting had it, an AR-15 but a relatively rare AK-47 fitted with a large-capacity magazine that’s illegal in Colorado. That rifle was registered to one Daniel Politica, who happened to be the friend who received the texts. Politica owned a company called Tyrant Arms, but didn’t have an active business buying and selling weapons. He didn’t need to: He already had a day job, as a sergeant with the Denver Police Department.

The police did not come forward with that information for seven months, confirming it only after local TV-news reporters discovered the connection. Politica didn’t even report the weapon as stolen until after the shooting. His lawyer told The Atlantic that as soon as he heard that Close had used an AK-47, Politica went looking for the gun, and only then realized that it was missing. A spokesperson for the police department stated that Close, an old friend of Politica’s, had taken the weapon without Politica’s permission or knowledge when visiting his home. Darian and Bella’s family filed a civil lawsuit against Politica, accusing him of negligence.

It has been more than two years since Bella Thallas bled out on a sidewalk, for no reason at all. Darian has been in and out of surgeries to essentially rebuild his leg after the high-velocity rounds liquified the bones. After many delays, included a rejected plea of insanity, Close is now on trial for first-degree murder and attempted murder, as well as for possessing and using an illegal magazine.

Politica has retired from the Denver Police Department. His lawyer maintains that it was voluntary. A spokesman for the department told The Atlantic that it had looked into the matter and determined that “no apparent policy violation occurred.” The civil suit filed against him was settled by his insurance company, which paid out his policy maximum of $500,000, with no admission of responsibility. Josh Thallas says that, during the depositions, Politica never expressed any remorse for allowing Close to take the gun—or, as Politica would have it, steal it. He now has a new job—as a police officer in Colorado Springs.

Josh is bothered by still-unanswered questions: Why did the police delay identifying the weapon and its owner? Why wasn’t Politica charged with improper storage of the weapon, or in any way held criminally liable? (When asked this by The Atlantic, the Denver District Attorney’s Office did not reply.) And given that Darian is mixed-race, and Bella had black hair and olive skin, was there a racial angle to the killer’s sudden rage? Did an angry white man look out his window and see two enemies walking their dog?

Cia had wanted to be a police officer, but now she’d like to go to law school, to become the kind of attorney who can empathize with victims. Ana takes comfort in her faith. She says she pities Close, whom she considers a deeply damaged person. Both wish for the only resolution they can’t have: for Bella to come back.

Darian has struggled terribly since the day he was shot and Bella was killed. First, there was the physical insult, as they call it in trauma medicine, of having his leg shattered by high-velocity ammunition. Then there’s the PTSD and the guilt. He has run over the details of his interaction with Close countless times—but he didn’t do anything to provoke Close, just tried to be polite and walk away, and the guy fired on them anyway. He still hears the whispers, some in his own head, but some from Bella’s friends: Couldn’t he have protected Bella? She fell, and he turned and ran. Was he a coward? It gnaws at him, an ache as deep as the one in his leg.

He eventually sought out combat veterans and confessed his fears. They assured him that, no, there was nothing he could have done differently—it was too late for Bella, and under fire, your reflexes take over. His body wanted to save itself, so his body moved away from the threat, and by doing so, he gave himself a chance to live, and did.

“I don’t want to feel survivor’s guilt,” he told me. “But I don’t know how to get past it, because I am here, surviving.”

There is now a memorial park named for Bella near where she died, complete with a small dog run. And the state of Colorado has enacted the Isabella Joy Thallas Act, requiring all stolen weapons to be reported to police within five days of the theft. Violators will be fined $25. If they fail to report a second stolen gun, they could have to pay up to $500.

A picture of a memorial for Isabella Thallas in Denver, Colorado.
A mural at the memorial for Isabella Thallas in Denver (Benjamin Rasmussen / The Atlantic)

This past Fourth of July, while I was at home near Chicago, in the process of reading news stories about Bella and trying to contact her family, I got up, put my toddler son in his jogging stroller, and went out for a run. It was too early for our town’s parade, but we admired the fire trucks waiting to lead it and all the uniformed and armed police directing traffic as the various bands and floats got themselves in line. It looked like it would be a grand parade, but we had already made plans to attend another town’s festivities. So we were not there in Highland Park when another young man with a rifle sprayed bullets down on people he did not know but who angered him for some reason, killing seven of them, wounding many more, and putting one child in a wheelchair, possibly for life.

Those killings, unlike that of Bella Thallas, made national news, although I assume that pretty soon, they, too, will be supplanted by the next atrocity, or simply be forgotten, except of course by the victim’s families, who can’t forget.

We all now live in a kind of permanent Sarajevo. Whenever we go outside, to work or school, to walk our dogs, to attend our parades, we know without saying and accept without protest that gunshots might ring out and take our lives or the lives of those we love. But we don’t think about it—we don’t scan the rooftops, because there’s no point. The gun could come from anywhere at any time, and so we do what humans do: We pretend that nothing is wrong and go about our day. We do not think of the deaths around us in the same way that we do not think of our own, inevitable deaths, because to think too deeply about them would paralyze us. Even Bella’s family, even her parents move on, because what else is there to do?

Bella should have lived and, if she liked, gone on to marry Darian and have those curly-haired children, and love them and fail them just as she had been loved and failed. But because yet another man had a moment of rage and the lethal means of expressing it, she is gone. And because we can’t bear to confront how suicidal it is to privilege over all else the rights of those damaged young men to use killing machines, we must bury the knowledge of this insanity along with Bella, who was interred in Block 117, Lot 108 of Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery, forever wearing the Dolce & Gabbana dress her mother had been saving for a special occasion.

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