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Attempted Murder Charge Filed in Punter's Stabbing

A warrant is issued for Cozad, the football backup for Northern Colorado who is suspected in crime.

October 20, 2006|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Mitch Cozad, the Northern Colorado football backup suspected of stabbing starting punter Rafael Mendoza last month, was charged Thursday with attempted first-degree murder by the Weld County, Colo., district attorney.

Cozad was thought to be staying around his hometown of Wheatland, Wyo., but he was not in custody as of late Thursday afternoon, a district attorney spokeswoman said. A warrant had been issued for his arrest.

Dist. Atty. Kenneth Buck declined to comment. Because Mendoza was stabbed in the leg -- his kicking leg -- two Southern California law experts said they found the first-degree murder charge unusual.

Mendoza was attacked in the parking lot of his Greeley, Colo., apartment on the night of Sept. 11. He said he was knocked in the head by an assailant he didn't see, fell to the ground, and "somebody just started stabbing my leg and then he ran off."

For two days, Mendoza and his family thought he had been a victim of a random act. But while he was recuperating at home in Denver, Mendoza's mother, Florence, received a call from the police and was told Cozad was the primary suspect.

"My own teammate," Mendoza said during a recent interview. "I had taken him to dinner a couple of weeks before."

Cozad was arrested but later released into the custody of his mother, Suzanne.

A Weld County district attorney's office source said Suzanne Cozad gave the judge a handwritten note asking to take Mitch home to Wyoming.

"Mitch and I have a very close relationship," she said in the note. "I know I can keep him safe and supervise him in Wheatland."

Joseph A. Gavaldon, Cozad's attorney, did not return several messages seeking comment. A woman who identified herself as Cozad's stepmother answered the phone at the New Mexico home of Cozad's father, Richard, but said neither she nor her husband would comment.

Cozad was raised in Wheatland by his mother, who was described as "obsessed" with Mitch's football career by two relatives who asked not to be identified.

"She would tape every practice and every game," one of the relatives said. "She always seemed to think Mitch was going to be better even when everyone was telling her something else."

Paul Miller, Cozad's former high school coach, told the Greeley Tribune last month that Suzanne Cozad "spent ungodly amounts sending him to kicking and punting camps."

Miller, who now coaches in South Dakota, also told the newspaper Cozad lacked the physical skills to be a "big-time football player."

"The fact that he's even at a Division I-AA football team is a bit of a joke," Miller added.

Cozad had not earned a scholarship to Northern Colorado, and first-year Bears Coach Scott Downing said "it was not a close competition" when Mendoza was named the starting punter.

Mendoza missed only one game after the attack, though his leg is still sore and he walks with a limp.

The episode brought comparisons to the 1994 bludgeoning attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan at the U.S. national championships in Detroit. It was later discovered that fellow skater Tonya Harding, who desperately wanted to win the championships and go to the Winter Olympics a month later as the U.S. title-holder, had conspired with her former husband and three others to commit the attack.

Harding, who was allowed to compete in the Olympics, eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of hindering an investigation. She received three years' probation and never admitted guilt. Jeff Gillooly, the ex-husband, pleaded guilty to racketeering for his role in planning the attack. Shawn Eckardt, Harding's bodyguard, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and spent a year in prison. Shane Stant, the one-time bounty hunter who actually hit Kerrigan, was convicted of conspiring to assault and spent 14 months in prison.

Carol Chase, a law professor at Pepperdine and a former federal prosecutor, said the attempted first-degree murder charge against Cozad seemed "a little bit unusual," given the stab wound to the leg.

"First-degree murder is killing with malice. You intend to kill or cause great bodily injury," Chase said. "With this injury, you might have trouble showing that kind of intent. Possibly they have some other evidence that the accused was intending to kill."

Jean Rosenbluth, a professor of criminal law at USC, said, "While I am speaking with the caveat that I have no idea about the totality of Colorado law, I have to believe there is something more, some evidence showing some kind of premeditation, some note or conversation, because usually a second-degree charge is more likely in the heat of passion."

A spokesman for the Northern Colorado athletic department said no one from the school would comment on Cozad's arrest. Cozad was removed from the football team and left school immediately after his arrest.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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