Demon in the Dark: The Perplexing Unsolved Murder of David Denogean

Stephen LemonsNovember 1, 2023
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Illustration by Eric Cox
Illustration by Eric Cox

Teacher and track coach David Denogean was apparently beloved by all – a fact that makes his slaying last year in North-Central Phoenix among the city’s most perplexing unsolved crimes.

Jordan Barajas remembers the evening vividly and always will. 

Around 6 p.m. on Black Friday, November 25, 2022, her 30-year-old boyfriend, David Denogean, decided to take their dog Evie on a quick walk before heading over to a local game store for a night of playing Magic: The Gathering.

He was a bit of a nerd that way. Video games, manga, anime – the Camelback High School teacher and track coach loved them all. He was a 6-foot-4, 280-pound kid, the way Barajas describes him.

Because of his size and might – and because their neighborhood, located near 12th Street and Bethany Home Road in North-Central Phoenix, was generally quiet and peaceful – Barajas didn’t give his jaunt a second thought.

“Our block is from here to Maryland [Avenue],” she says, sitting in a chair just outside the ground-level apartment she shared with Denogean.

“It’s a 20-minute walk, total. I was laying on the couch, and I was like, ‘OK, bye.’ It was super normal for him to go do that walk. He just didn’t come back.”

Brajas with his dog, Evie on Super Bowl Sunday, 2021; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean
Brajas with his dog, Evie on Super Bowl Sunday, 2021; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean

Denogean did not return because he was brutally murdered not long after he left home.

A short, blurry video released in February 2023 by the Phoenix Police Department (PPD) through Silent Witness – a local nonprofit that partners with the PPD, allows the public to leave anonymous tips and offers rewards for information leading to an arrest – documents the last few seconds of Denogean’s life.

In the footage, Denogean walks north on 12th Street with Evie, a white Lab mix, by his side. As they walk past the crowded parking lot of Feeney’s Restaurant & Bar, a shadowy figure runs quickly past them, turns and aims a handgun at Denogean’s chest. That’s when the clip stops.

According to the police, the shooting happened at approximately 6:12 p.m., after which, the shooter – a white or Hispanic male – fled south on 12th Street.

One month before making the video public, Silent Witness released a pixelated image of the shooter, who looks like he may have a mustache and dark hair. But it’s difficult to make out much more.

Denogean’s family says he was shot multiple times in the chest and legs. He was later transported by the Phoenix Fire Department to HonorHealth John C. Lincoln Medical Center, where he succumbed to his injuries.

The murder is mystifying and highly unusual, even in a city that’s averaged 180 murders per year over the past five years. For one, Denogean apparently was not robbed, eliminating one of the most common motives in violent acts against strangers.

According to his family, homicide detectives also told them there was no physical altercation just before the shooting, eliminating another common motive: anger, impulse or wounded pride.

He was executed in a public place, with witnesses and security cameras watching, which is odd. If it were a hit, presumably the suspect would not want to be seen. Denogean also had no criminal record or known criminal affiliations. Debts, money problems? Nothing public. He was not previously married, and there’s no evidence of a romantic entanglement that would lead to homicide. Barajas and his family say she and the victim had a solid relationship, edging toward marriage. He had a permanent substitute position at Camelback High School that would become a full-time job as a teacher in January, according to his family and Barajas.

Finally, none of the victim’s friends and family members interviewed for this story – around a dozen in all – say they knew of any vendetta or grudge against him.

One possible lead, surely explored by the Phoenix PD in an investigation it has kept fully under wraps, is Denogean’s work as a bouncer. Up until a few months before his death, he worked security for The Rebel Lounge music venue in Phoenix. But by all accounts, people at the club and at Camelback High adored him, referring to him as a “gentle giant.” Barajas says she knows of no one who wanted to do him harm.

This November marks the one-year anniversary of Denogean’s slaying. The A&E series The First 48 has popularized the idea that the chances of solving a homicide are halved if there’s no lead within 24 hours of a crime. A 2018 analysis by The Washington Post debunked that factoid, but found, “For cases that remained unsolved after one year, [only] 5 percent ultimately led to an arrest.”

Donna Rossi, Phoenix PD’s director of communications, says the investigation is “active and ongoing,” but that same Washington Post analysis reports that for the PPD, homicide cases unsolved after a year are normally sent to the department’s cold case unit. Rossi claims that is incorrect, and that a case only becomes cold when detectives reach an “impasse,” which she says hasn’t happened here.

But the truth is, the odds are against justice for David Denogean.

Barajas says Denogean was “well liked” at the school and hadn’t worked at The Rebel Lounge in the immediate months before the shooting. Everyone liked him there as well, she says. She’s unaware of anyone who might have a grudge against him.

She says the “why” is not her obsession.

“It’s mainly just that he is gone,” she explains. “I think that it would drive me insane if I thought about the why, because I don’t know if we’ll ever get the why.”

Barajas says she and Denogean had been together for about three years. She moved in with him and Evie just four months before he was killed.

Halloween 2019; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean
Halloween 2019; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean
celebrating college graduation with his family, December 2016; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean
celebrating college graduation with his family, December 2016; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean

On the night of the murder, Barajas knew something was wrong when Evie appeared just outside a gate that entered into a tiny yard in front of their apartment. Evie had slipped out of her harness and run home.

Sirens wailed in the distance. Barajas tried calling Denogean’s cell phone, but he didn’t answer. She walked down the street, toward the chaos outside Feeney’s, and approached the police and rescue vehicles.

An officer told her there had been a shooting. Denogean had not taken his wallet, so police had not yet identified him. She showed the police photos of Denogean on her phone. Officers told her to wait so she could talk to the homicide detectives, but police would not confirm the victim was her boyfriend.

She called Denogean’s younger brother, Daniel, a Phoenix firefighter, and told him that Denogean might have been involved in a shooting.

Inside Feeney’s, owner Maria Tobras was in the back, working. Her friendly neighborhood restaurant, which has served prime rib and grilled liver in the same spot since 1965, was packed, and she didn’t hear the gunshots, she says, recalling the fateful evening.

The parking lot was full of cars. Some customers were on the patio, enjoying the mild November weather.

After the shooting, the police cordoned off the area in front of the restaurant, not allowing anyone to leave. “Customers had to wait a couple of hours. Some of them called Uber and came back the next day to pick up their cars,” Tobras says.

Tobras says she works every night the restaurant is open, and Denogean never patronized the place. The incident had “nothing to do” with her business. Though the shooting happened on the sidewalk in front of Feeney’s, the video itself came from a nearby building, which the police have declined to identify.

the victim as a boy with his brother, Daniel, and sister, Denise, at St. Mary’s Catholic High School, circa 1998; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean
the victim as a boy with his brother, Daniel, and sister, Denise, at St. Mary’s Catholic High School, circa 1998; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean
Barajas with David and his niece, Daniella, on Thanksgiving 2022; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean
Barajas with David and his niece, Daniella, on Thanksgiving 2022; Photos Courtesy Judy and Frank Denogean

Some news outlets incorrectly reported that the murder happened in her parking lot. This angers Tobras, but she sympathizes with the family and has allowed people to hold vigils for Denogean near the entrance to her parking lot.

Indeed, Barajas says she and Denogean had never been inside the restaurant. PHOENIX spoke with one person who says they were on Feeney’s patio at the time of the shooting. The deadly incident was over in seconds, they say, adding that the shots sounded like a cap gun.

This anonymous source claims to have seen the shooter, but couldn’t make out his face. Some on the patio had cell phones and were recording. The witness says staff hustled patrons inside, locked the door and called 911. Police detectives interviewed everyone present.

PHOENIX is not identifying this individual for their safety.

At the scene of the murder, Barajas heard someone say that the victim had been taken to John C. Lincoln. She called Daniel, who had learned the same through his contacts in the Phoenix
Fire Department.

Barajas and Denogean’s family – his parents, Frank and Judy, and his two younger siblings, Daniel and Denise – rendezvoused at the hospital, but neither the police nor the staff would confirm if the victim was Denogean.

It wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. that police confirmed the victim was their son and that he didn’t make it. “We later found out that he died at 6:49 p.m. So, we were waiting in panic for about four hours. His parents were just praying and praying, and I was in a state of shock,” Barajas says.

The police kept Denogean’s phone. Barajas gave them the passkey to gain entry to it.

Denogean was a gamer and dabbled in day trading. He had “a lot of tech,” including two monitors, a work laptop, a personal laptop, two tablets and a laptop at his parents’ home in Chandler.

“They didn’t ask for any of that,” Barajas says. “They just have his cell phone.”

At the time Denogean was killed, Barajas was working toward her Ph.D. in exercise and nutritional sciences at Arizona State University. She took a leave of absence to deal with the trauma. They’d been together for three years and talked of marriage.

“We just thought we had more time. I was in school, and he was just kind of getting kickstarted with his teaching and coaching career…” she trails off.

Evie plays by her side as she speaks. Barajas says Evie mourned for two months after Denogean died. Barajas still gets “lightheaded” when she goes through Denogean’s possessions.

At times during the interview, she pauses to fight back her emotions. She recently returned to ASU to complete her studies, though Denogean’s death weighs heavily on her.

“My focus has just been on surviving,” she says.

Unlike Barajas, the question of “why” haunts Denogean’s father, Frank, who with his wife Judy are lifelong educators.

Barajas with Evie at the Phoenix apartment they shared with David.; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield
Barajas with Evie at the Phoenix apartment they shared with David.; Photo by Mirelle Inglefield

Frank, aka “Coach D” to his students, has taught and coached Valley students for 40-plus years in basketball and track, working at various schools in Phoenix and Scottsdale. Currently, he teaches health and physical education at Metro Tech High School, where he’s also the boys’ tennis coach. In 2022, he was inducted into the Arizona High School Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame.

Frank and Judy’s Chandler home is filled with mementos of his coaching career – and with remembrances of their eldest son.

Hanging in place of pride in the den are jerseys from Denogean’s days as an offensive lineman, playing football for St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix and later as a scholarship athlete at Phoenix College. Photos of Denogean fill a nearby table, including one of him in cap and gown, waving his sheepskin from Arizona State University, where he transferred after Phoenix College. In 2016, Denogean graduated from ASU with a Bachelor of Arts in education.

Frank was proud that his eldest son was due to become a full-time teacher at Camelback High in January 2023. He was “following in the family tradition.”

“They had a lot of kids come out [and join the track program] because the kids related so well to him,” Frank says. “It was going to be a big year for him.”

Denogean’s parents saw him the day before his death, on Thanksgiving. Normally, Denogean would have come back home the next day to eat leftovers and watch a football game. But Frank says his son wanted to catch a soccer match at noon at the George and Dragon pub in Phoenix. “He caught that game at noon, then went back to his apartment and laid low for about four hours and then decided to walk Evie the dog at about 6… It started to get dusk. That’s why I hate this time,” he says.

The police told him his son was listening to a podcast when he was shot. “It was probably something political because he was really into that,” he says. “I thought, ‘Why David?’ He was just walking his dog, listening to a podcast.”

Frank says his family is “struggling to understand” the killing.

“Those are the kind of things you see on TV that happen to gangsters. If my son had been into drugs and stuff, believe me, I would’ve known it. He was everything but that.”

Frank says the police told him his son was “99.9 percent clean,” with no criminal record. Detectives described the shooting as a random act to him.

Shortly after Denogean’s death, Silent Witness posted a flyer seeking information about the shooting. Frank says that someone posted a response, with a photo of a tattooed Hispanic male seated on a couch holding two guns aloft. Frank later sent PHOENIX a screenshot of the Tweet. The Tweeter gives a name, saying “he… killed that teacher.” PHOENIX could not find the Tweeter or the Tweet on X. Frank says it has since disappeared.

There is someone by that same name in the Arizona Department of Corrections’ inmate database, listed as “inactive.” Released in 2017, he served three years for second-degree burglary. He could fit the vague description given by the PPD. But so could a healthy percentage of the overall population of Phoenix.

Frank says his family sent the screenshot to homicide detectives in December. The detectives said they would look into it, but Frank’s heard nothing since.

When asked by email about the screenshot, police spokesman Sgt. Brian Bower replied, “Detectives are working with the family and will investigate any and all tips/leads that are made available.”

But Denogean’s father tells a different story. He has publicly criticized the PPD for not giving the family updates on the status of the investigation. And he was upset by the way he and his family were treated at the hospital, i.e., not confirming his son’s identity to the family until well after doctors pronounced him dead.

Frank says the homicide sergeant in charge of the case apologized for the blunder, telling the grieving dad that the PPD “dropped the ball.”

Early on, Frank says detectives told his family about the video footage they had, asking if the family wanted to view it. The family declined. Frank says, “I didn’t want to see it. I know Judy didn’t want to see it. You could imagine it.”

According to Frank, Silent Witness never warned his family before releasing the video in February. “I had just come back from the cemetery, watering David’s grave,” he says. His phone started “blowing up,” and he soon learned that the video was being shown on the local news.

When Frank complained to Silent Witness, he was again told the police had “dropped the ball.”

Frank remembers one of the few details that homicide detectives shared. One told him that the shooter “had to be in great shape,” explaining that the PPD knew that when the suspect fled south on 12th Street, he passed Denogean’s dog, who was running home.

He suspects the police know this because they have more video they’re not sharing. PHOENIX emailed Bower about this. He has yet to answer.

Frank is mystified. Because his son had no known enemies, he’s left to wonder if the shooting could have been part of some gang initiation, where his son was selected at random.

“I don’t know if that’s the way [gang members] go about doing it, you know what I mean? I don’t know if they want you to see them [shooting you],” he says.

Similarly, colleagues and acquaintances interviewed by PHOENIX say they were shocked and mystified by Denogean’s murder. Tori Anderson, an English teacher and track coach at Camelback High School, worked closely with Denogean. She says he was “universally loved” and “phenomenal” with the students.

“There wasn’t a single person who had anything bad to say about him,” she says. “He was well-respected by his peers, by the kids. I never saw him have a bad interaction… He didn’t get angry… He was never rude or impolite.”

In his honor, the school named a track meet after him, the David Denogean Throwers Classic, held in March. Denogean specialized in the throwing events of discus, shot put, javelin and hammer.

Students raised a banner at the track in his memory. One of Denogean’s former students, Andrew Acosta, says he thought of Denogean as “an uncle,” because they would kid around and trash each other’s favorite pro football teams. Now a freshman at ASU, Acosta says Denogean “always brought a light to the room.”

The story was similar at The Rebel Lounge. Owner Steve Chilton says Denogean was one of his original employees when he opened the venue – previously named The Mason Jar – in 2015.

Denogean worked security, but the only incident Chilton could recall involving Denogean occurred many years ago, when a drunk woman threw a brick at Denogean, barely missing him. Chilton says the woman was arrested and later had to pay restitution to the bar for damages.

Assistant manager Jennifer Franklin remembers Denogean as a “sweet man,” a big music fan who enjoyed getting to see live shows for free. He also “loved his IPA beers and he really loved to eat.”

Denogean would work the door and patrol outside the 300-person capacity club. He worked closely with another bouncer, Devon Abello, who still works at the club.

Abello is 5-foot-11 with arms like Popeye’s. He says Denogean “towered over me” and could use his size to his advantage in dealing with unruly customers. Normally, they’d give someone a warning and a second chance before throwing them out.

“In the times I worked with David, I don’t ever recall him having to put his hands on anybody,” Abello says, adding that security incidents and violent confrontations are rare at the venue, which typically caters to students, hipsters and young professionals. In all his time working the door, Abello says he’s only had to be physical with patrons
“maybe twice.”

Denogean was “always in a good mood” and would talk about teaching when they hung out at the bar after closing. He says that’s why Denogean’s murder was “so confusing” for everyone at The Rebel Lounge.

“That man never hurt a soul,” Abello says.

Sgt. Bower acknowledges that there were witnesses to the incident, but won’t say how many. Nor will he speculate on whether the suspect knew the victim.

“Details of this case are not being shared because it is still an active investigation,” he wrote in an email.

The PPD’s incident report has not been released to the public. Rossi says homicide detectives working the case believe that doing so could “damage the integrity of the investigation,” making an arrest less unlikely.

Because there are so few details available, PHOENIX consulted two veteran law enforcement officials, former U.S. Marshal for Arizona David Gonzales, and Heston Silbert, former director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, asking them to review the video, photo and what little is public about the crime.

Separately, both men focused on the fact that the shooter ran in front of Denogean, then turned to fire, as if the shooter wanted to be seen by him. Both also observed that the killer assumed a firing position known as an “Isosceles shooting stance,” a widely taught shooting stance for handguns in which the shooter holds the gun with both hands, arms extended, and elbows locked, forming a triangle if seen from above.

To both lawmen, this indicates the murderer likely had firearms training.

“You’re talking about bold moves,” Silbert says. “He could have walked up to him very quietly and executed him from behind. He chose not to. He chose to make a demonstrative move, a purposeful demonstrative move, running past, pivoting, turning, Isosceles stance, the extension of the arms – all those things are bold.”

Gonzales had similar observations of the shooter.

“The way that guy ran past him, faced him head on, this was very, very personal. He wanted to make a statement, and the reason for that, God only knows… I’m thinking there might be a little bit of history there between them,” Gonzales says.

Gonzales and Silbert can boast long, successful careers in law enforcement, but they both qualified their analyses, noting that they do not have all the facts and don’t know everything about the victim’s personal life. Nor do they know what the homicide detectives know. Their opinions are conjecture, based on their backgrounds and expertise.

Gonzales wondered if anything was said to Denogean beforehand, noting that the victim “kind of froze” after the shooter appeared before him.

“He could have been in shock, or was he thinking, ‘Well, I know this guy’?” Gonzales says.

Gonzales and Silbert have extensive experience with police work involving gangs. Both discounted the possibility of the killing being part of a gang initiation. They each said that if a gang wanted to pick a victim for an initiation, it ordinarily would be a rival gang member. Nor did the shooting look random to them.

As far as a possible motive for killing someone, they cited the big three: money, love and drugs. “You also have the outlier, which is pride,” Silbert observes. “If the victim somehow harmed this person’s pride and they couldn’t get past it, could they go to those depths?”

He adds, “It’s not to say that [PPD] could all of a sudden arrest the suspect and come up with some bizarre motive.”

Barajas says Denogean didn’t have a set schedule for walking Evie, though he seemed to have a regular path. If this was a vendetta, Denogean may have been stalked, hunted.

But why do the killing in front of a busy restaurant with potential witnesses about?

Silbert agrees that the shooter could have chosen a more discreet spot. Maybe the impulse “just took him,” with the killer saying to himself, “I’m doing it now, this is the best place.”

Both Gonzales and Silbert agree that it’s not unusual for a police agency to withhold the incident report of an ongoing investigation. If the Phoenix PD investigators have a clue about the shooter’s identity, they could credibly choose to stay mum. But it’s also possible their reticence is due to the fact they have no leads.

Meanwhile, Phoenix’s murder rate remains high, and the department is suffering from a manpower shortage.

Bower says the City Council budgeted for 3,125 sworn positions, but as of August 1, the PPD had 2,562 sworn officers, a deficit of 563.

Homicides are down 24 percent in Phoenix from this time last year, Rossi says, but according to the PPD’s stats, the overall murder rate has spiked over a five-year period from 137 homicides in 2018 to 223 in 2022, a 63 percent increase.

Rossi insists the shortage of officers has not impacted the Denogean case. Still, the PPD is battling a war of public perception, and Denogean’s high-profile, unsolved killing doesn’t help. Nor does a grieving father demanding answers.

When interim police chief Michael Sullivan introduced a new “crime reduction plan” in June, ABC 15 interviewed Frank and his son Daniel.

Frank complained that the people of Phoenix “don’t feel safe,” using Denogean’s homicide as an example. He also described the department’s lack of communication with the family.

The family’s agony is palpable, and they are not alone in their frustration. In the Washington Post article referenced above, reporters studied 8,000 homicide arrests in 25 major U.S. cities from 2007-2018. After one year, the chance of an unsolved case resulting in arrest drops to 5 percent.

In one-half of the cases, an arrest was made within 10 days of the crime. Only 30 percent were solved within 48 hours. Two-thirds of all arrests happened within a month.

Denogean’s family struggles to keep his murder in the public eye – organizing a Christmas toy drive that they will repeat this year, promoting a 5K run in David’s memory to benefit the Phoenix Rescue Mission, and helping with a memorial concert at The Rebel Lounge.

“Our focus now is to try to increase that Silent Witness reward,” Frank says, his eyes weighed down with pain. Currently, the reward stands at $9,259, largely due to funds raised by the family.

“We’re probably going to have to set up another GoFundMe, which I hate doing. Like they say, money talks. The reality is they’re probably going to be paying a criminal to turn a criminal in,” he says.

He and his family are observant Catholics, he says. They pray every night. “You just wonder if it’s in God’s plan,” he says, his voice cracking, “Why David and why that way? We’re taught to know that Satan roams the Earth. There’s good and evil. Maybe evil got ahold of David that night. Had he not been walking his dog that night, he might still be with us.”

Persons with information about David Denogean’s homicide can submit it to Silent Witness anonymously at or by calling 480-WITNESS.

To see the redacted video of Denogean’s shooting, click here.