‘He should have never been out of jail’

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Coeur d’Alene Press

Cornered by a Kootenai County Sheriff’s deputy Thursday, Steven Denson, the man wanted on suspicion of killing his ex-fiance in a Coeur d’Alene hospital parking lot, was at the end of his rope.

Denson’s white Nissan Pathfinder was pursued by a sheriff’s deputy to the end of North Bruss Road in Hauser. A minute after the deputy positioned his patrol car to prevent Denson’s escape, the sound of a muffled gunshot came from inside the suspect’s vehicle.

The 61-year-old apparently put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, ending his own life similarly to the way he was accused of taking Kelly Pease’s. The 37-year-old nursing student’s body was found in a car Wednesday at Kootenai Health. Pease was a former resident of Lincoln County and familiar to people in both Troy and Libby.

A neighbor of Denson was distraught Friday as he discussed the murder of Pease.

This situation should have never materialized, said David Hopkins, a man who lived on the same Hayden property Denson did.

Hopkins, a former jail employee who is now retired, said he believes Denson should have never been given the chance to post bail after violating a protection order with Pease in early February.

“These sorts of things should have no bond,” Hopkins said. “He should have never been out of jail. When I heard Kelly had been shot, it just floored me. The system needs to do a better job of protecting women in this type of situation.”

On Jan. 23, Denson was accused of violently assaulting Pease, a mother of five. He was charged with felony strangulation as well as domestic battery, petit theft and malicous injury to property for the incident.

Denson was issued a no-contact order before posting the $10,000 bond set by a judge. Prosecutors suggested $50,000, according to court transcripts.

On Feb. 4 Denson violated the no-contact order — a misdemeanor offense — by texting Pease with his landlord’s cellphone. When Hopkins noticed this, he contacted the police, who arrested Denson for the violation. Denson soon posted $2,500 and was released.

That was enough for the landlord to kick Denson off the property, Hopkins said. Denson had a small trailer powered by an extension cord plugged into a nearby house.

Hopkins said he typically avoided Denson, a man he described as troubled, mean-spirited and often mean to the animals on the property.

“He was rough with his horse and neglected it,” Hopkins said. “He once threatened to kill my dog. When his dog was sick, he took it out back and shot it.”

Hopkins plans to draft a letter to Idaho lawmakers to put more stringent penalties on those accused of domestic abuse.

“Law enforcement needs to have teeth when confronting these kinds of charges. I know they’re shaking their heads over this whole thing,” Hopkins said. “The system needs to change. I blame legislation and the courts for this issue.”

Kootenai County Prosecuting Attorney Barry McHugh is also saddened by the tragedy, “It’s disheartening and frustrating. I wish there was a better way to protect victims of domestic violence,” McHugh said. “But it’s a complicated problem, too. There are occasions when the victims want to reconcile and make themselves available for communication and contact (with the accused abuser).”

McHugh said prosecutors and judges look at each case on its own merit and take domestic violence situations very seriously.

But is the bail set too low?

“If we feel someone should be held, we drive up the bail,” McHugh said. “But once someone is out of custody, it’s hard to keep them from violating no-contact orders and re-offending.”

Katie Coker, director of Safe Passage, a nonprofit that provides services to domestic violence victims, has seen what happens when an accused abuser re-offends.

“Domestic violence-related charges and the bonds set for offenders are sometimes lower than we would expect based on the perpetrators’ actions. There are times when offenders may be able to post bail by paying a small percentage of the total bond amount,” Coker said.

“There can be a large degree of disparity between different judges and how high bail is set and that may be due to different levels of understanding of domestic violence related offenses. Sometimes the chances of lethality occurring are underestimated. All that being said, judges have an incredibly difficult job, they don’t always have all the relevant information, and they ultimately have to make tough decisions in the moment. It is always important to evaluate our responses and improve where we can, yet still remember it is the offender who is responsible for these crimes.”

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