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1992: Denver's deadliest cop relates pain of grim title

Published February 1, 2002 at midnight

Raised a Catholic, Denver police Sgt. Bob Silvas felt as if he had committed a mortal sin the first time he killed.

All through catechism lessons, "there was never an exception to 'Thou Shalt Not Kill,' " Silvas said. "I had a real hard time with that."

The first person he shot was a 16-year-old boy.

Silvas couldn't eat. Nightmares haunted his sleep.

It didn't get easier the second time he killed.

Or the third time, or the fourth, or fifth.

No one officially keeps such statistics, but since that first killing in the line of duty in 1979, Silvas has earned the title nobody wants - Denver's deadliest cop.

He's been involved in at least seven shootings. He has killed four people, and another man died in a hail of bullets from Silvas and other officers. He's wounded at least two other people.

He was shot twice. In one case, he was awarded the department's highest honor for not firing back at a man who had already shot him.

This is the first time Silvas has talked to the news media about any of the shootings.

After that first shooting, he said, "I just thought I was losing my mind. I didn't know this was the norm."

That first shooting was the most controversial. Hispanic leaders demanded an inquiry into whether the youth was armed - despite a front-page newspaper photo showing officers taking away the youth's gun.

They cried racism - even though Silvas, like the youth, is Hispanic.

"It's the toughest thing I ever had to deal with," Silvas said.

But every shooting has been hard.

Silvas knows little about the people he has killed. Most officers don't research the lives of their victims.

"It was another human being," he said. "And that's all. You don't really want to know about them. But you think about the fact that you shot someone.

"At holidays sometimes, I think about their families. It's a real personal thing that I don't even tell my wife. I'm thinking these people aren't with their families - that they're missing out of their lives."

He's convinced that every time he shot, there was nothing else he could do.

"Not only in my mind, but in my heart. I knew I did the only thing I could do. I had no choice," he said.

Things don't happen in slow motion in the real police world. They happen quickly. But, Silvas said, your energy is so high you have time to think - you can keep track of how many bullets you've fired, know when to reload.

"You're just totally wired.

"It's hard to describe the feeling you have at that very point where you fire the weapon," he said. "They train you in the academy up until the second of the shot. They never take you into what happens after you shoot someone."

After a shooting, a cop's gun is taken away and he's put in a room by

himself. He waits alone until every other witness has been interviewed, until the shooting scene has been processed. While he waits, he's a crime suspect.

"You're just sitting there by yourself. It can be three or four hours before you're interviewed," Silvas said. "You think about what happened, about what could have been different. You have this empty feeling. You keep playing the situation over and over again."

Your co-workers don't know whether to say something to you about it or to act like nothing's wrong, he said.

"In one way, they want to know all the details. On the other hand, it's kind of a personal thing."

If the person shot lives, investigators get to hear his side of the story. That almost always helps the cop.

"They admit they were wrong or admit to the act that caused them to be shot," said Silvas. "It's a lot easier."

In fact, one of the people Silvas shot, George King, told investigators that the shooting wasn't Silvas' fault. He said Silvas was doing his job and King had no business pulling a gun. He apologized.

One reason Silvas has been involved in so many shootings is that he usually has worked assignments where things are likely to turn deadly: undercover narcotics, patrol in high-crime areas, undercover vice and the now-defunct Special Crime Attack Team.

"Sometimes I ask myself . . . why me?" Silvas said. "On almost all of them, I'm doing something else and something comes up."

Silvas can see his legacy all over town. Until just recently, a bar on West Alameda Avenue still had bullet holes in the wall from a shooting there.

"Forty-first and Sheridan gives me a real eerie feeling every time I go by there," Silvas said. That's where he was shot two years ago.

"That one still looks the same."

And the bullet still is lodged in Silvas' back. Doctors say they can't get to it without doing more damage. He can't sleep on his right side and can feel the lead every time he raises his right arm.

He can still feel the bullets he put in other people, too.

"You think about the pain that their families are going through. You think about the pain your family could have gone through if they had shot you," Silvas said.

"The last one is just as tough as the first one. It eats at you. It takes something away from you, and I don't think you ever get it back."

If an officer says shootings get easier or they don't bother him, "in my opinion, he shouldn't be in law enforcement anymore."

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