KIOWA COUNTY – Nearly a year has passed since a traffic stop ended with Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn and Deputy Quinten Stump shooting Zach Gifford, the unarmed passenger, in a nearby field, three bullets in his back.
In the 11 months since the 39-year-old handyman’s death in Brandon on April 9, 2020, a state criminal investigation has concluded, and District Attorney Josh Vogel has charged Stump with two counts of attempted second-degree murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon. It is one of the rare prosecutions of an officer for an on-duty killing in Colorado.
Vogel declined, for reasons he has refused to explain, to bring charges against Weisenhorn. The undersheriff, like the deputy, fired twice at Gifford – after Stump yelled “Let him go!” She handcuffed Gifford with her pink, personally engraved handcuffs as he lay dying.
Silence lingers around the case, and Sheriff Casey Sheridan has said almost nothing publicly.
The sheriff did fire Stump – not for shooting Gifford, but for drunkenly shooting up a traffic sign with his duty weapon several months later. Stump was arrested for Gifford’s shooting in January and is free on $100,000 bond. In the meantime, Sheridan has refused to say if he has kept Weisenhorn on the payroll – and on patrol. Until last week the Sheriff’s Office website had Weisenhorn listed as undersheriff.
“We back the Blue” is a familiar refrain in this conservative, law-and-order county where trust in law enforcement is a given. Even Gifford’s parents, Carla and Larry Gifford, whose calls they say Sheridan has not returned, speak uncritically of the sheriff. They say they have been praying for him since April.
But too much time has passed and too many questions linger.
“They need to face this thing. We need to see some manner of accountability,” says Larry Gifford, a former member of the Eads School Board and the town of Eads Board of Trustees.
“We just want to know how a traffic stop in such a rural area could end in killing Zach,” adds Carla. “It’s hurtful. These are people we’ve known for 40 years, my goodness, and they didn’t even acknowledge our calls.”
The Colorado News Collaborative partnered with former Kiowa County Independent Editor Priscilla Waggoner to tell the story of what happened that April afternoon and its aftermath. We filed 11 freedom of information requests, combed through dozens of sheriff’s department records, investigation reports and court documents, and spoke with at least 68 people over 11 months.
Among our findings: Sheridan hired Stump and kept him on duty despite red flags about his conduct, and he hired Weisenhorn before he completed a full background check. Months after the official investigation was completed, the sheriff, the county commissioners, and the district attorney have continued refusing requests to discuss Gifford’s killing, or whether any policies have changed as a result.
At a time when police killings have prompted uproar and soul-searching nationally – and policy reform statewide – the people of Kiowa County have stayed silent for reasons that lay bare the complex dynamics of a small community they would prefer to keep thinking of as uncomplicated.
Home on the range
Larry and Carla Gifford moved to Kiowa County from Kansas in 1979 – he to teach physical education and coach middle school sports and she to teach special ed, both in Eads. Zach was born a year later, the second of three sons who grew up with free run of the then-600-something-person town.
He was the wiggliest of the brothers, thriving less in classrooms or on sports fields than he did fixing things and working with his hands. He relished being the kid locals would ask to prune a tree or rescue a kitten. He would mend fences and pull weeds for the town’s widows and elderly, slipping away before they noticed or tried paying him.
Those gestures embodied what locals cherish about Kiowa County, where residents share a deep commitment to helping each other survive on this stretch of southeastern Colorado plains.
That commitment to one another is what made the first inhabitants collectively move the town of Eads – literally, move every single house and business three different times – to make sure that once the Missouri-Pacific finally laid down tracks, they would be right alongside them. Sixty years later, it’s what led people in town to build a swimming pool so they could teach every child to swim after a young girl drowned in a nearby lake in 1953 and a beloved postmaster died trying to save her. It’s what last year made a group of growers together rush out with their tractors and shovels to put out a wildland fire that was threatening the herds.
Severe drought has made ranching and farming too risky for some longtime families. Over the course of Zach Gifford’s life, the county’s population dropped by a quarter to just under 1,500. People died. People moved on.
Gifford stayed. He stood out because he remained single, with no kids. He also stood out for his long hair and pierced tongue and ears. He favored white sleeveless undershirts paired with a black fedora – a look that gave him more than a passing resemblance to the once-popular musician Kid Rock.
He worked the odd jobs of a handyman – carpentry, tree-trimming, landscaping – at rates clients say were below the quality of his work. “He was always excited to just … do projects. Whatever it was. He was one of those guys who never had a full-time job, but he was always working … and more times than not it was to help out other people,” says musician and friend, Jamie Crockett.
Gifford had his demons, as friends and family refer to the drinking problem and methamphetamine habit that led to years of heartache as well as several traffic offenses, two misdemeanor theft convictions in 2001 and 2005, and a felony conviction for drug possession in 2003.
“I know he struggled. We saw him struggle with his addictions,” says Laura Negley, a rancher who hired Gifford to occasionally work her land.
Gifford had lost his driver’s license for a traffic offense years ago, and when he was eligible to reinstate it, opted not to because driving gave him all-too-easy access to buying meth. So he would walk or bike where he needed to go, or sometimes make his leisurely way in this county of wide expanses on a lawnmower, waving to drivers whizzing past on the roads.
“Zach had a relationship with everyone,” says his friend Joanna Beck.
“He would drop everything and help you in a minute,” adds neighbor Shoni McKnight, whose fall on a loose step one night prompted Gifford to build her a new staircase by the next evening.
Gifford’s family says he felt grounded, even needed here – so much so that he stayed after his brothers moved away and parents followed in 2018 to live near their grandkids in Colorado Springs. He told them he had a powerful dream that deeply connected him to his faith around that time, and that he felt safe here, far from the temptations of busier places, and away from the prospect of trouble.
Seven people work for the Kiowa County Sheriff’s Department – two civilians and five officers, including the sheriff, who patrol the 1,786 square-mile county. Sheridan, often referred to simply as Casey, was elected in 2014 and 2018, both times without a challenger.
He hired Stump In April 2019 for a salary of $33,571 a year, though the rookie deputy’s record raised some red flags. A one-time youth rodeo star who wrote on a job application that he wanted to follow his grandfather’s footsteps as a cop, Stump had held two previous deputy jobs. He landed the first, in Norwood, straight out of the academy in 2018. He lasted three months.
“Let’s just say he had made some mistakes and it didn’t seem to get any better. He wasn’t a good fit. He didn’t take direction very well,” town administrator Patti Grafmyer says.
The Kit Carson County Sheriff’s Department hired him a month later. He lasted four months there. The department declined to say why his time there was so short. Stump has not returned several phone calls seeking comment.
He spent much of his time in Kiowa County monitoring traffic along busy U.S. 287. Months into the job he was writing dozens of tickets a day, according to data obtained through a freedom of information request. During one eight-hour shift in December 2019, Stump issued 48 tickets.
“He patrolled the shit out of the roads,” says Tyler Pevler, a former deputy who worked with Stump and, by comparison, says he issued 87 traffic tickets in a year. “I just never trusted the guy, but he wrote a lot of tickets and made the sheriff’s office look good.”
As in most cities and towns, traffic ticket revenue helps fund local government.
Stump’s aggressive policing went beyond prolific ticketing. In December 2019, court records show he ticketed Christian Forney of Greeley for speeding and driving with a suspended license. Forney says Stump handcuffed him, placed him in the back of his patrol car, and returned to Forney’s car to speak with his fiancée. Forney banged his head against the back of the front seat, cursing out of frustration with himself. Stump, he says, ran back, grabbed him from the squad car, threw him into a ditch, wrestled him down and kneed him until other officers arrived.
“I never did anything to him. I never pushed him. I never put my hand on him. It was excessive, to say the least,” says Forney, adding that Stump drove up to 119 miles an hour on the way to the jail.
Forney’s lawyer, Mark Davis, told the DA’s office about Stump’s behavior after the Gifford shooting. The prosecutor eventually dropped the charges, Davis says.
General contractor Josh Brown says Stump stopped him because his pickup resembled one driven by a poacher for whom deputies were searching. “First thing, he walks up, grabs his gun and orders me out of the vehicle,” Brown says. “He was a little aggressive. Actually a lot. … That’s not how it’s done around here.”
Pevler says Stump was part of the reason he quit the sheriff’s office in January 2020. He had complained about his colleague’s crudeness, including “overtures toward women when he would pull them over, talk to or text them, see them.” He says he saw Stump use armed force several times, but ended the interview when asked if that use seemed excessive:
“I don’t really feel comfortable saying anything about that now because I may want another job in law enforcement,” he said.
Undersheriff Weisenhorn, 46, comes from a family of cops, including a brother who was an officer with the Prowers County Sheriff’s Department. She had worked several law enforcement jobs – the longest was 12 years as a deputy and investigator in Prowers and the most recent was six months as a detective with the Leadville Police Department.
Sheridan, records show, hired Weisenhorn in late January 2020, the same day she authorized him and his staff to conduct a mandatory background check and a week before the department notarized that authorization. She was on the job, then, before Sheridan could have fully vetted her.
“Y’all killed my friend”
On the day Weisenhorn and Stump shot Zach Gifford, he was in nearby Brandon, helping his friend, Bryan Morrell, with some home repairs.
Neither the undersheriff or former deputy agreed to interviews for this story, but their accounts of what happened that day are laid out in a 57-page Colorado Bureau of Investigation affidavit for Stump’s arrest warrant obtained under the state law that requires criminal justice records be accessible to the public. That affidavit also includes an interview with Morrell, who was the lone witness, reports from walk-throughs of the scene, forensic analysis and detailed, written summaries of both officers’ body camera footage, which has not been made public.
Weisenhorn told investigators she was on a call in Brandon when she decided to drive by a house she had been surveilling. She said tipsters, whose names she said she could not remember, had reported possible “drug activity” at the home. When she arrived, she told investigators, she saw Morrell and Gifford get into a truck. Morrell was driving.
She followed, pulling Morrell over when he failed to use his turn signal.
It was 2:46 p.m. Stump, out on patrol nearby, arrived shortly afterward.
Weisenhorn told investigators she thought the pair was acting suspiciously once she pulled them over, moving about in the front seat as if “they were hiding something.” Neither man had I.D., giving her instead their dates of birth. Body camera footage referenced by the report showed Weisenhorn twice getting Gifford’s birthday wrong as she ran it for warrants.
Dispatch informed Weisenhorn that neither of the men had warrants, but the undersheriff told investigators that she wanted Morrell to do a roadside sobriety test and to ask Gifford why he was lying about his birthday.
Weisenhorn told investigators she asked Morrell and Gifford if they had been using drugs because she could see something in their eyes.
“Especially yours,” she said to Gifford. She told investigators Gifford was fidgety and appeared “very high.”
Both men agreed to a pat-down, with Weisenhorn patting down Morrell and Stump patting down Gifford. Stump told investigators Gifford was carrying a box-cutter and pliers “with a knife-like feel” but he did not confiscate them because he “did not see those items as a threat.” He said he then felt and spotted “a small plastic bag with something in it” in the coin pocket of Gifford’s jeans.
“Zach, do not move,” Stump ordered.
The body camera footage described in the affidavit depicts a scene that immediately escalated as Gifford tried to pull away. Weisenhorn later told investigators she feared Gifford might have a weapon and Stump did not say that he found a baggie, not a gun.
Stump tackled Gifford, both men going to the ground.
The next 48 seconds brought a flurry of grabbing and wrestling, Stump telling investigators he was trying to apply a carotid hold to Gifford’s neck, both officers trying to cuff him as he tried to break free, the officers yelling commands, each tasering him at least once, Stump also applying a charge directly to Gifford’s upper neck and shoulder, Gifford screaming.
“Stop moving, give me your hands, stop,” Weisenhorn’s body camera, at that point knocked to the ground, captures her saying.
Weisenhorn, cursing, told Gifford she was going to shoot him. The affidavit says body camera footage shows Gifford reaching into his pocket.
“Let him go, let him go,” Stump told Weisenhorn according to body camera footage referenced in the affidavit. “No, he’s grabbing for something,” Weisenhorn replied.
“I’m going to shoot you. Stop.” Weisenhorn said again as Stump backed away from Gifford, who was on his knees and reaching towards his waistband. Weisenhorn, on her knees behind Gifford, had her gun at his back. Stump drew his gun.
Gifford stood and started to run, with Weisenhorn trying unsuccessfully to stop him. Gifford broke away. As she stood, the camera on the ground captured Weisenhorn yelling “stop,” firing her gun and moving out of the frame. Stump, out of view, can be heard yelling, “Zach!” followed by a second gunshot, and, two seconds later, a third.
Eighteen seconds later, Weisenhorn – off camera – yelled, “Stop” before a fourth and final shot is heard. Stump, she said, had fired. Gifford fell to the ground about 24 yards from where the final shot was fired. Stump radioed that shots had been fired and Weisenhorn called for medical assistance.
Both officers told investigators they could not see Gifford’s hands as he ran and that they feared he might have a weapon. Stump said he worried, in particular, that Gifford might pose a threat to residents of Brandon who he said would have been home because of COVID. Somewhere between six and 11 people live in Brandon, which is considered a ghost town.
Weisenhorn told investigators she found Gifford lying on his stomach, hands at his waistband and “still fighting” when she got to him. She handcuffed him, trying to pat him down, then rolled him on his side. Gifford, shot through a lung, told her he couldn’t breathe, she said.
In her first interview with investigators, she said he asked her to tell his family that he loved them, adding “I have always wanted to die. Just let me die.” She told investigators she assured Gifford that he was not going to die. She started CPR.
Her final exchange with Gifford cannot be corroborated. Weisenhorn at that time was not wearing her body camera, which was still on the ground by the truck. She’d instructed Stump to return to Morrell after she cuffed Gifford.
Weisenhorn also did not repeat her story about Gifford’s alleged dying words in a subsequent interview – this one with her lawyer present. Nor did CBI investigators follow up with her on that point.
John Holland, the Gifford family’s lawyer, says, “People who want police to kill them attack the police. Zach was running away from them.”
“It is very troubling that, having shot Zach repeatedly, one of his shooters would try to make it appear that he wanted to die that day. This unfortunately is not an uncommon ploy in unjustified law enforcement killing cases.”
State crime bureau investigators concluded that each officer shot twice, but that only three of their bullets struck Gifford. Only one bullet was recovered, and that was found in Gifford’s lower back.
The medical examiner’s report finds that the lethal wound came from one bullet piercing Gifford’s lung, but investigators said they could not determine who fired it. The report went on to determine Gifford’s death to be a homicide caused by massive blood loss from multiple gunshot wounds. The autopsy found methamphetamine in Gifford’s blood. Two small baggies with residue from meth were found in the grass.
Weisenhorn’s fallen body camera captured Morrell yelling “Y’all killed my friend,” repeating the words several seconds later as if they were a question.
“He was just trying to get away because they were hurting him,” Morrell says six months later, his hand trembling at the Thunderbird Café up the highway.
He says he can’t stop thinking about what happened that afternoon. Gifford did nothing to physically threaten either officer, he says, and drug possession should not warrant a death sentence.
“It’s just hard to talk about. Oh, goddamn. Crying,” Morrell says, tearing up. “If only I’d used my turn signal.”
After the shooting, Sheriff Sheridan asked the Prowers County Sheriff’s Office to investigate along with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which conducted the officer interviews and processed the scene. He also put Weisenhorn and Stump on paid administrative leave.
But in May, town residents who didn’t want to be identified called The Independent saying they had seen Weisenhorn wearing her uniform and driving a patrol car, and Stump, dressed in civilian clothes, wearing his badge on his belt and carrying a gun.
In response to an inquiry, the sheriff’s office said the officers were following policy. That policy does not require officers to turn in their badges and guns while on paid administrative leave, unlike policies in many other departments statewide.
In August, two months after the investigation was completed but before the grand jury had been convened, Weisenhorn joined Sheridan and others on a trip to the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Weisenhorn posted pictures of the trip on her Facebook page.
“Made it home from Sturgis. Had a great time. Best get away, with amazing friends,” she wrote on August 11 along with 80 photos from the trip, including one of of the sheriff.
The trip caused a stir among residents who were still in the dark about the outcome of the investigation. Sheridan has yet to answer questions about allowing Weisenhorn to travel with him and friends while the criminality of her role in killing Gifford was still in question.
Sheridan was not much more transparent about Stump‘s employment status. On Sept. 24, according to an official reprimand, the deputy was drunk and riding as a passenger in a car driven by his ex-girlfriend – a county social services case manager – when he fired two rounds at a highway sign with his duty-issued gun. The sheriff asked the state to investigate the incident and fired Stump when that investigation was complete two months later.
In the meantime, the Kiowa County Commission has said nothing publicly about Stump or about Gifford’s killing. “They’ve been advised. They don’t feel comfortable,” said county administrator Tina Adamson. Gifford’s killing, she added, is “a subject matter we know very little about.”
At the time of her comments on Friday, the investigation had been completed and available upon request for almost two months.
Kiowa County Sheriff Casey Sheridan has stayed virtually silent, at least publicly, about Gifford’s killing, and has refused phone calls from the Gifford family seeking answers.
Following national and state uproar about George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and Elijah McClain’s killing in Aurora, Colorado’s General Assembly passed sweeping police reform legislation that bans officers from using deadly force against those suspected of minor or non-violent offenses and requires officers to intervene if they witness another officer doing so. The law also makes police officers who violate people’s civil rights personally responsible in state court.
It was passed two months after Gifford’s killing and most of its provisions won’t go into effect until 2023.
Why the silence?
News of Gifford’s killing hit like a bomb, threatening the identity of a county that prides itself on not having big-city problems. Most community members had no experience, no frame of reference on how to react, if at all.
“A lot of people talk about it – just not very loudly,” says McKnight, Gifford’s neighbor.
Some of Gifford’s friends considered staging a protest immediately after the shooting, but the pandemic held them off.
“And then the whole thing with George Floyd happened and it was like … everywhere,” says Gifford’s friend Crockett. “And we didn’t want to have (our protest) be swept up in all that anger and hatred. And we knew it would be.”
Doris Lessenden was Gifford’s former art teacher and neighbor. She withheld judgement about the shooting until learning about the three shots to his back. “Of course, I am angry,” she says, quick to distinguish that feeling from the Black Lives Matter protests she sees on TV.
“It’s kind of low-class behavior to me.”
“I think that the people in our community are more solid, more unradical, if that’s a word, than to do that. We feel that there will be justice, and God has a plan in this, and we don’t know what that plan is and we will all have to suffer some kind of persecution,” she says.
“I’ve tried not to write or say anything, although I know what’s in my heart and my emotions. I shouldn’t even talk about it.”
Jimmy Brown, the local funeral home director and elected county coroner, often wonders how a traffic stop in tiny Brandon escalated to a homicide. But, he has chosen to hold his tongue. “I gotta be very cautious because I (don’t) want to comingle my personal feelings with my professional duties.”
Gifford’s buddy Josh Brown (no relation to Jimmy) attributes his silence to intimidation from Sheridan. “Nobody here will talk about it, afraid … of backlash from the sheriff’s department,” he says of Gifford’s killing. “It’s illegal to have a voice in Kiowa County, to tell you the truth. … They need to be investigated.”
Some locals also express discomfort about speaking out in a small community or pointing the finger at a sheriff who is also a neighbor, the father with a child in school and a nephew who bags groceries at the market, the guy who hunts and rides motorcycles with some of your friends or delights your kids by driving his squad car down Main Street with the lights on and the siren going, leading the bus carrying the football team to state.
“There’s a mentality to people on the Eastern Plains. We’re the kind of people who want to wait and watch,” says Joe Shields, Eads’ mayor. “If someone makes a mistake or does something wrong, we don’t call them out for what they’ve done.”
There has been one persistent exception in town to this unspoken rule: Jeff Campbell, a prolific writer of letters to the editor who single-handedly has tried to keep Gifford’s death in the public spotlight.
Campbell, 70, is a retired police officer and investigator who is a municipal judge in Eads. He has lived in town for 18 years, which, he knows, still makes him an outsider, yet also more free to ask hard questions.
He said he hired Gifford for a repair job years ago and rehired him several times for others around his house and property.
“He did what he said he’d do, never deceived me and never hesitated to re-do something he hadn’t done (right). In all the times I encountered him, I never saw a streak that caused me to hesitate because I thought he was sideways or violent,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of the Kiowa County Independent about two weeks after Gifford’s killing.
Quick to note that his interest in the case is personal, unrelated to his municipal judge duties, Campbell has continued writing about it every week since. He drew on his law enforcement experience to explain typical police standards and procedures and tell readers what to expect in terms of transparency and accountability around the investigation and charging decisions.
“In four weeks since mid-afternoon April 9, 2020, when Zach Gifford was shot and killed in Brandon I don’t recall any press briefings from Kiowa or Prowers County. What’s happening? The longer we wait, the more questions and doubts arise. The longer we wait, the fouler the smell,” Campbell wrote on May 6.
When no arrests had been made, charges filed, or court dates set in the case by June, he wrote that he was “not alone” and that “scores” of frustrated people had spoken to him about what seemed to be authorities’ inaction. He wrote of the uneasiness in the community, of fear of the police, of the “Blue Code” that protects bad officers.
As with the Army’s 19th Century massacre of Arapahoe and Cheyenne people in nearby Sand Creek, he wrote in another letter, “… ‘good men’ must have taken an active part or looked away.”
“You all need to stand,” he implored his fellow residents in a Feb. 25 letter. “You know how. I pray you all will.”
But publicly criticizing the sheriff or district attorney would be a losing cause in one of Colorado’s most politically conservative communities, rancher Laura Negley, says. “You won’t find a more pro-law enforcement county than Kiowa County.”
She also sees the community’s silence – and her own – as a sign of deference to Gifford’s parents.
“Larry and Carla are not agitators. They are peace lovers. Maybe we’re waiting for someone in the family to say ‘We are hurting. They are hurting us horribly.’”
The Giffords are hurting.
Their son was murdered by law enforcement they trusted in a community they had believed to be safe.
For nine months, they didn’t know some of the most basic things about what happened. Things like that Stump patted their son down before shooting him, and that Weisenhorn handcuffed him after. And things like who Morrell is and how their son knew him. And so they made calls, maddening ones, begging for information from Kiowa County officials who didn’t call back, let alone send condolences about their son’s death. In the Giffords’ minds, the run-around that some government agencies require, the obfuscation with which some officials handle information went from bureaucracy to cruelty. And so they stopped even trying to ask.
Twelve days into 2021, the couple got word that Stump had been arrested. Carla tried reading the affidavit accompanying the arrest warrant, but needed to stop, and Larry waded into it, night after night, absorbing its details.
Two weeks later came a five-page court document filed by DA Vogel charging Stump with the three felony counts, each carrying a sentencing range of 10 to 32 years. A trial, if there is one, could be months away or longer.
There is no official tally of how many Colorado law enforcement officers have been criminally prosecuted for killing people on duty. But charges are rare enough that an informal survey of officers, lawyers, scholars, civil rights advocates and watchdogs throughout the state came up with five cases statewide since 2000.
The Giffords and others say they do not understand why the murder charges are second- rather than first-degree, and why they’re preceded by the word attempt. “Zach is not attempted dead,” they say. He is dead. The charges feel to them like a slap on the wrist.
The family wants to know why Stump is being charged but Weisenhorn isn’t, especially when she was the one who made the traffic stop, the one who tasered their son first and also fired twice, including the first shot.
Tired of non-answers from the county, the Giffords hired Holland, a Denver-based civil rights lawyer in February. In a 12-page letter to county commissioners that month, Holland wrote that Gifford had been patted down long enough for Stump and Weisenhorn to know he was not carrying a gun. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that law enforcement officers may not use deadly force on a fleeing suspect who is not posing “a threat of serious physical harm” to officers or to others. The county’s failure to discipline Weisenhorn or Stump for the shooting, he added, indicates “that the sheriff approved of the conduct and the basis for it.”
Holland wrote that the county is liable for Gifford’s death.
He says he hopes to meet with county commissioners soon to pose questions that have gone unanswered too long.
Questions like “Where is the justice for Zach?” Larry says.
And, as Carla puts it, “Where is the outcry?”