Attempted first-degree murder charge filed

Updated: October 20, 2006, 11:34 AM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- Prosecutors filed a charge of attempted first-degree murder against a former University of Northern Colorado backup punter accused of stabbing the starter in his kicking leg in a case that drew comparisons to the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan rivalry.

The charge, filed Thursday, accuses Mitchell Cozad of stabbing Rafael Mendoza on Sept. 11 outside Mendoza's apartment.

Cozad, 21, of Wheatland, Wyo., also faces one count of second-degree assault. Prosecutors said he could face up to 48 years in prison if convicted.

Weld County district attorney's spokeswoman Jennifer Finch said a warrant was issued for Cozad's arrest and bail would be set at $500,000. She said he was not yet in custody and she did not know where he was.

His attorney, Joseph A. Gavaldon, did not immediately return a call Friday. A man who answered Cozad's mobile phone number on Thursday hung up without commenting.

Police Lt. Gary Kessler has said the motive appeared to be competition for the starting job. The attack prompted comparisons to an attack by Olympic skater Harding's hit man on Kerrigan.

The severity of the charge surprised some.

"Based on the facts we've heard, it does sound a little over the top," said Scott Robinson, a Denver defense attorney and legal analyst.

He said prosecutors may be trying to pressure Cozad to identify an accomplice or intimidate him into accepting a plea bargain.

Investigators have said they were looking for an alleged accomplice. Finch said Friday there have been no other arrests in the case.

Finch said that after their investigation, prosecutors felt the attempted murder and assault counts "were the appropriate charges." She did not elaborate.

Mendoza was treated for a 3- to 5-inch deep puncture wound in his right thigh and released. He has returned to the team.

Cozad was suspended from the team and the university.

Mendoza did not immediately return a message and missed practice Thursday because of an illness unrelated to his leg injury, Northern Colorado spokesman Eric Scott said.

The team has a bye week before facing Sacramento State Oct. 28.

"We support the Weld County DA's office in their ongoing investigation," coach Scott Downing said after practice.

Weld County District Attorney Kenneth R. Buck last month delayed filing charges in the case, saying he needed more information.

Mendoza told The Associated Press this month he is struggling with flashbacks from the attack.

"It's been tough, and scary," he said. "It's hard for [my family], it's hard for me, it's hard for them wondering what's going to happen. But I know they [authorities] are doing their job. They're doing everything they possibly can to let justice run its course."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE