DENVER–She knew Nathan Dunlap when they were teenagers. She worked with him at Chuck E. Cheese, saw him socially, and once went to a party at his house. Now she wants him put to death.
“I want you to know the true person that Nathan Dunlap is,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous, in a newly released letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper. “His actions did not just happen to occur on this one horrible night, it was from the monster that he always was.”
Dunlap’s attorneys insist he’s not a monster. In their clemency petition, they contend that Dunlap was abused by his mother and stepfather, had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and was experiencing his first mania episode the night of Dec. 14, 1993, when he gunned down four employees at the Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora.
Cold-blooded sociopath or mentally ill victim of abuse? Dunlap’s life literally hinges on which description the governor believes is more credible.
With Hickenlooper seriously considering whether to commute the Dunlap’s death sentence to life in prison, advocates on both sides are moving to define the Chuck E. Cheese killer. The result is two very different versions of the 38-year-old man who’s been the state’s most notorious Death Row inmate since his conviction in 1996.
The May 6 clemency petition filed by Dunlap’s attorneys offers new details on the inmate’s troubled family life. According to the document, mental illness ran in Dunlap’s family: His mother Carol Dunlap suffered from “severe bipolar disorder,” spent time in a mental hospital, and behaved erratically throughout his childhood.
Dunlap exhibited signs of mental illness as early as 14, including two suicide attempts, but his mother short-circuited efforts to have him treated. Meanwhile, his stepfather Jerry Dunlap was physically abusive, throwing Nathan against walls and punching him, according to the petition.
“I understand that he made choices that caused much pain for many people and what he did is inexcusable, but even when he tried to make good choices and get his life on track his parents threw up obstacles,” said Dunlap case worker Linda Metsger in a March statement. “His mother in particular raised him with lies, deception, distortions of reality and abuse.”
That sympathetic portrait of Dunlap is being countered by those who knew Dunlap when he committed the murders at age 19 and witnessed him after his arrest. Certainly Dunlap showed no remorse initially, infamously telling authorities that shooting his former co-workers was “better than sex.”
His callous behavior continued in prison. A December 2008 article in 5280 magazine recounts how former Arapahoe County prosecutors described that while Dunlap was awaiting trial, “he had torn a leg off a metal desk, sharpened it, and began to scrape away at the window ledge in his cell. They took pictures of Dunlap’s new jailhouse tattoos: One was ‘Crazy Horse,’ the new nickname he’d embraced; the other was a smoking handgun with the phrase ‘By Any Means Necessary.’”
The woman who knew Dunlap as a teenager said she had been scheduled to work at Chuck E. Cheese the night of the massacre, but asked for the day off in order to babysit. She said Dunlap intimidated other employees before he was fired.
“There was always intimidation and fear when he was around. He was a very vindictive person and someone you quickly learned not to cross,” said the woman in her letter, which was released Friday by the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s office.
“He would often cause trouble with co-workers and managers at work and we all learned to stay away as much as we could,” said the letter. “When the new manager arrived he challenged Nathan to either change or leave. The day Nathan was fired he was furious and everyone knew it. Before leaving the building he took the pizza cutter and slashed pizza boxes on his way out, scaring many as he left.”
Before they worked together, she said Dunlap asked her to date him. She agreed to attend a party at his house, but what she saw there scared her.
“At the party I was able to see the people that he associated [with],” she said. “They carried weapons and were very intimidating and Nathan fit right in. I believe that they all played Russian roulette with loaded guns.”
Dunlap’s attorneys say that since he began taking medication for his condition in 2006, he has become “mature, thoughtful, intelligent and caring.” His older sister says he is “not the same person that was put on death row so many years ago,” and has loving relationships with his nieces and nephews.
“[Department of Correction] staff attest that Mr. Dunlap is a cooperative and rule-abiding inmate who poses no danger to others in prison,” says the petition. “Mr. Dunlap has not had a disciplinary write-up since DOC began treating his mental illness with lithium in 2006.”
His former co-worker isn’t buying it. Now working as a nurse, she disputes Dunlap’s bipolar diagnosis.
“He never had highs and lows, his outbursts weren’t occasional and he was never unpredictable,” she said. “He was always a vindictive, evil and mean dark person . . . He is a bad person, he always has been and I believe he always will be.”
She asks the governor to allow the execution to proceed. “I ask you, please do not grant Nathan Dunlap clemency from the consequences he was given for his actions,” she says. “This is a horrible act and something that he is proud of and has no remorse for.”
Dunlap’s execution is scheduled for the week of Aug. 18. He would be the first inmate to be executed in Colorado since 1997.