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The Chuck E. Cheese Massacre of 1987

You think of Chuck E. Cheese, you think of kids and fun. What happened on the night in 1987 is a night to remember? Learn more about the case against Nathan Dunlap.Nathan Jerard Dunlap was born on April 8, 1974. Dunlap was raised by his biological mother and his adoptive father. The couple married one another when Dunlap was only a few months old. 

Dunlap would live life never knowing who biological father is was. Dunlap was born in Chicago, Illinois, but also raised in Michigan, Memphis, Tennessee, and ultimately moved to Colorado when he was 10 in 1984.

Nathan’s mother suffered from various mental health issues. His mother was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

During Nathan’s junior year of high school, he tried to commit suicide at least twice. When Nathan was 14, Nathan’s adoptive father asked for him to be evaluated by a psychologist who worked for the Overland High School. When the testing was complete, it was found out that he had many signs of hypomania. However, there was no formal diagnosis applied to his case and there was no treatment done as well. 

When Nathan was just 15, he was a part of many armed robberies. Nathan would start off using golf clubs, but then he would graduate to using firearms. During this time, Nathan would spend a lot of his youth locked up in his local juvenile detention center. He would also experience erratic episodes, which would ultimately bring him to the psychiatric hospital. 

When he was fully released from all institutions, he would start his drug selling career. Nathan would ultimately be arrested five times in 1993 with misdemeanor offenses. 

In May of 1993, Nathan started a job at a local restaurant. Only a few months later in July, Nathan was fired after he engaged in a disagreement with his supervisor over his scheduled hours.  Many of Nathan’s acquaintances stated that Nathan told them, how angry he was over this unfair firing and that he planned to get even with the restaurant about his unfair termination. 

Summary

Then on December 14, 1993, at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant nestled in Aurora, Colorado there were four employees who were killed in a shootout. A fifth employee was shot, but not killed. 

Who started this shootout? It was Nathan Dunlap, 19, who was a former employee of this establishment. Dunlap was frustrated about being unfairly fired from this establishment just 5 months prior to shooting up the restaurant in revenge. Dunlap would flee the scene of the crime with various items from the restaurant and with some money that he stole. 

Nathan would be found guilty of attempted murder, all four counts of first-degree murder, among other charges. He was given the death sentence on May 17, 1996. The judge originally set his execution date for some time in August of 2013, however, John Hickenlooper, Colorado Governor was able to establish a temporary reprieve that ended up postponing Nathan’s execution date. 

Shooting

Nathan entered the Chuck E. Cheese around 9 pm the night of the crime. When he entered the Chuck E. Cheese, he went to the counter to place an order for a ham and cheese sandwich and went off to play a few arcade games. 

Then Nathan went into the restroom and hid until 9:50 pm. Nathan exited the bathroom around 10:05 pm, which was after closing time. This is when he brought out his .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol and shot 5 of the restaurant’s employees. 

Nathan first shot Sylvia Crowell, at the salad bar, where she was cleaning it up. Crowell, 19 was shot from a close range in her right ear and was ultimately mortally wounded. 

Nathan’s next victim was Ben Grant who was fatally shot in his left eye as he was vacuuming the restaurant. 

Nathan’s third victim was Colleen O’Connor. O’Connor was pleading for her life and fell to her knees. Nathan did not spare her life; he fatally shot her right through the top of her head. 

Nathan’s fourth victim was Bobby Stephens. Out of this whole ordeal, Stephens was the only survivor. Stephens was returning to the establishment after taking a smoke break. He thought the noise coming from the restaurant was from children popping balloons and not gunshots. 

As Stephens was walking back into the restaurant, he was loading utensils into the dishwasher. This is when Dunlap came into the kitchen in the back. Dunlap raised his gun at Stephens and shot him. Dunlap shot at Stephens jaw. 

Stephens fell to the ground and he played dead. 

Then Nathan’s fifth and final victim was Marge Kohlberg. Kohlberg was the oldest out of all of Nathan’s victims. Kohlberg was the store manager at this Chuck E. Cheese. Dunlap made Kohlberg unlock the stores safe. Right after Kohlberg opened the safe for Dunlap, Dunlap then shot her at close range in her ear. 

Dunlap would then start collecting the cash out of the safe. This is when Dunlap would notice that Kohlberg was motiving and shot her again, but at her other ear. 

However, during this whole incident, the manager that fired Dunlap was not working this night in the restaurant. 

Stephens was able to escape the building through its back door and run to the Mill Pond apartment complex that was nearby. 

Stephens would end up pounding on some random door in hopes he would alert someone that he had been shot at the nearby Chuck E. Cheese. 

Ultimately, Stephens would be brought to the Denver General Hospital where he was hospitalized. When he was brought into the hospital, he was labeled as fair condition. 

But when authorities started arriving on the scene at Chuck E. Cheese, they discovered two dead bodies within the establishment’s hallway, along with a third dead body in a room just off the hallway, and the fourth body was found in the manager’s office. 

Sylvia Crowell was still alive when authorities got to the scene. She was sent out to the Denver General Hospital. She was ultimately declared brain dead. Crowell would die from her injuries the very next day in the Aurora Regional Medical Center. 

Nathan would be able to flee the scene of the crime with game tokens and at least $1,500. Nathan would be arrested just twelve hours later at his mother’s apartment. 

Legal Proceedings

As previously stated, Nathan would be found guilty of attempted murder, all four counts of first-degree murder, among other charges. He was given the death sentence on May 17, 1996 and given another 108 years.

During his sentence hearing, when Crowell’s older brother responded to how the murders that were committed that night were motivated by race. This angered Nathan Dunlap greatly to the point that Dunlap was yelling profanities for a minimum of three minutes in the courtroom. 

Then in 2008, Dunlap would file a habeas corpus petition with the court. In this petition, Dunlap would argue that his attorney at trial was highly ineffective and did not present a defense that had to do with his child abuse and mental health issues. 

Then in August of 2010, Dunlap’s appeal would formally be rejected. John L. Kane, Senior United States District Judge would state that Nathan Dunlap had a fair trial, he was represented correctly, and he received an appropriate sentence of death. 

Then came April 16, 2012, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals also denied Nathan’s appeal on his death sentence.  

Nathan’s attorneys would argue to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that Nathan’s trial attorneys were highly negligent during the sentence hearing and they did not provide the backing evidence that Nathan also suffers from various mental illnesses. 

Nathan’s attorneys would also argue that if the jurors had this evidence of Nathan’s mental illness, that they would not have ultimately sentence his client to death. 

Judge William Sylvester on May 1, 2013, would sign Dunlap’s execution date to happen in the middle of August of 2013. 

Just three weeks later May 22, 2013, John Hickenlooper, Colorado Governor, would temporary reprieve Dunlap’s execution date. All this meant for Dunlap was if John Hickenlooper was governor of the state of Colorado Dunlap would not be executed. 

Hickenlooper did state that he decided to not choose the full clemency route since Nathan would need to be segregated from the general population of inmates. 

NAACP and other various groups would contact Hickenlooper asking for him to spare the life of Nathan, stating that the death penalty was used more on Hispanics and African Americans than other races. 

The reprieve would also mean that unless Hickenlooper would place a new Executive Order, that the states of clemency or the execution would ultimately remain on hold. 

Currently, Hickenlooper was running for his third term. But Jared Polis won governor over the state of Colorado on November 6, 2018.

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