Man arrested for shooting at strangers in Aurora was found incompetent to stand trial for similar 2018 crimes

Deputy Shooting Video
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FILE. Crime scene tape blocks a road on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. A Colorado man is charged with firing bullets randomly at strangers. He was found incompetent to stand trial for a similar case years ago.

Austin Benson finds himself in a familiar position – charged with firing bullets randomly at strangers.

Benson was arrested last week after Aurora Police said he fired from his car at three people he didn’t know, putting one in the hospital with life-threatening injuries.

It’s not the first time for Benson, 34, who was found incompetent to stand trial after a similar spree in 2018 in Douglas County. But the case has raised new concerns about Colorado’s troubled system for restoring defendants to mental competency, and about how Benson managed to acquire weapons despite his medical and behavior history.

“District attorneys from across the state have been raising the alarm about the state’s broken competency system for years,” reads a statement to CPR News from the 18th judicial district attorney John Kellner. “The law requires that a judge dismiss a case – it’s not optional – if a defendant is found incompetent and not restorable within the reasonably foreseeable future. After that, there’s little to no safety net to deal with potentially dangerous mentally ill people.”

Benson faced similar charges in 2018

According to arrest records, Benson’s troubles with the law began six years ago. He was arrested on July 2, 2018, on charges of attempted murder. Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies alleged that Benson carjacked someone in El Paso County, and was shooting other vehicles as he drove into Douglas County.

Benson was seen with a pistol and possibly an AR-15 rifle. He shot and hit several cars, but no people were injured. Benson was finally subdued when a retired Alabama police officer at a campsite shot Benson multiple times, in the face and arm. Benson survived and posted bond three weeks later, and was released from jail to await trial.

According to court documents, Benson’s defense raised the issue of his competency to stand trial a year later on July 19, 2019. 

Before that evaluation could be completed, on Dec. 5, 2019, Benson was arrested for assault, harassment, and violation of his bond for a separate incident. Benson was allegedly in the ICU at Parker Adventist Hospital when he spit on a hospital security guard and punched a nurse. Security was able to subdue Benson, but he “verbally threatened to kill them and their families,” according to the arrest affidavit.

While in police custody, Benson said he “wished he had his Nerf gun,” and when an officer asked what he meant, Benson said he wished he could point it at the officers so they would shoot him.

Benson was again able to post bond and was released from jail on Dec. 11, 2019, according to court records.

A long road to determine competency

Three months later, in March 2020, the court received a report from the Colorado Department of Human Services — Dr. Emily Stebner found Benson competent to proceed on the 2018 charges. 

That assessment didn’t last. Less than six months later the defense asked again for the court to determine competency. 

This new evaluation was completed by doctors at the Denver Forensic Institute for Research, Service, and Training, at the University of Denver (Denver FIRST). They found him incompetent to proceed in their December 2020 report. 

“They further opined that the Defendant has a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and was suffering from seizures, with a belief that the stress associated with the legal proceedings may be contributing to the seizures. An addendum to this evaluation contained the further mixed opinion that there was not substantial probability of restoration within the foreseeable future and he may be restorable within the statutory timeframe,” according to a court filing from the 18th judicial district prosecuting attorney Corrie Caler.

In a follow-up report in Aug. 2021, Denver FIRST doctors said Benson’s condition had deteriorated, and he remained incompetent to proceed. Starting in Oct. 2021, and lasting through Mar. 2022, Benson was in “outpatient restoration education” but was still not competent to proceed to trial, according to court records.

His attorneys asked for the charges against Benson to be dropped in April 2022, following a CDHS physician’s evaluation that found Benson incompetent. But an addendum to the report said a nurse reported “the Defendant presented with logical, linear, and goal-directed thinking. The nurse also reported that the Defendant indicated that his legal issues were a source of anxiety and that he anticipated they would soon come to an end.”

In this follow-up report, doctors “expressed concern that the Defendant had underrepresented his abilities during his prior interview,” according to a court filing.

At the end of 2022, officials with the Colorado Mental Health Hospital in Pueblo, run by CDHS, submitted a letter “informing the court that due to the Defendant’s frequent seizures during sessions, it was determined it was clinically unethical to continue outpatient restoration services.”

A spokesperson for CDHS said they could not comment on an individual case or patient.

An independent neuropsychological evaluator, “informed the court on August 16, 2023, that she was unable to complete the evaluation because the Defendant was too medically compromised and impaired.”

“In this case, the state’s Office of Behavioral Health found the defendant was incompetent to stand trial and not restorable during two separate out-patient evaluations,” said Kellner in a statement to CPR News. “They also determined the defendant did not meet criteria for civil commitment. Nonetheless, we did not agree to the dismissal and instead asked the Court to send the defendant to CMHHIP (Colorado Mental Health Hospital in Pueblo) for an in-patient evaluation.”

Despite crime, competency ruling, DA chose not to pursue 'Red Flag' order

The State of Colorado has long struggled to manage competency evaluations and restoration for criminal defendants. The state was sued in 2011 and entered into a consent decree in 2019 that requires timely restoration treatment, or fines will be assessed. Colorado pays the maximum $12 million fine a year for violating the timelines, that money must be directed to reduce the backlogs.

The court ordered the charges dismissed in the 2018 shooting and 2019 assault cases on Oct. 26, 2023.

When police arrested Benson last week for attempted murder in Aurora, for shooting three people, he was found with multiple firearms.

DA Kellner’s office said it didn’t pursue an Extreme Risk Protection Order, the so-called “red flag” law, to remove guns from his possession for a number of reasons, pointing to a social worker’s report in 2023 that said Benson had “established medical care including a neurologist and psychiatrist and is adherent to prescribed medications with the support of his family … has stable housing, income, and adequate support at home.”

“Based on the totality of the circumstances, we believe we would have not been able to meet the standard of proof required,” according to a spokesman for the office.

Benson is currently being held on a $2 million bond at the Arapahoe County jail on charges of first-degree attempted murder. His next court hearing is set for Friday.