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The intersection of Colorado 96 and Main Street in Brandon, where Bryan Morrell and Zach Gifford was shot and killed by two Kiowa County Sheriff's Department officers during a traffic stop. (Marc Piscotty, COLab)

An Eastern Plains deputy had twice used deadly force under questionable circumstances in the months before his involvement in the killing of an unarmed man during a routine traffic stop last year, public records show. 

Documents obtained by the Colorado News Collaborative also reveal that the same former Kiowa County sheriff’s deputy, Quinten Stump, had been suspended for insubordination the day before the fatal shooting.

Stump, 29, is currently facing rare criminal charges in connection with the on-duty killing of Zach Gifford, a 39-year-old handyman from Eads near the Kansas border.

Gifford’s parents are considering filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against Kiowa County Sheriff Casey Sheridan, the county commissioners and government — partly for ignoring the deputy’s documented pattern of questionable behavior.

Sheridan did not discipline Stump for resorting to deadly force in the two prior incidents — both involving car chases — though department policy prohibits its use unless officers fear for their lives. Stump did not make that claim in one of the chases, and in the other said he could not definitely say he felt threatened. He told investigators that using deadly force seemed to be his surest way to try stopping both drivers from fleeing. 

Former Kiowa County Deputy Quinten Stump upon his Jan. 12, 2021, booking in Prowers County Jail . (Photo courtesy of Prowers County Sheriff’s Office)

Stump, Sheridan and other county officials have refused to be interviewed for this story.  Sheridan resigned Tuesday afternoon, saying in a Facebook post that he has “chosen to put my family and my health first as I step away from my law enforcement career.” His last day is June 4.

On April 9, 2020, Kiowa County’s then-Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn pulled over the truck in which Gifford was a passenger for the driver’s failure to use a turn signal. Stump patted Gifford down for 30 seconds before reaching into his pocket for a baggy that later tested positive for methamphetamine residue. Gifford bolted.

Both Weisenhorn and Stump fired at him as he ran, striking him three times in the back. He bled to death in a field minutes later.

Body-camera footage and notes from interviews with both officers indicate that, given the length of the pat-down, Stump likely knew Gifford was not carrying a gun, but did not communicate that to Weisenhorn, who fired first. 

That, as 15th District Attorney Josh Vogel explained during Stump’s preliminary hearing last week, partly accounts for why he chose to charge Stump, but not Weisenhorn, in January. It is one of the few times a Colorado district attorney has prosecuted a law enforcement officer for an on-duty killing.

Vogel charged Stump with two counts of attempted second-degree murder rather than second-degree murder because investigators said they could not determine which officer fired the fatal shot. The judge ruled enough evidence exists for Stump to stand trial.

 Sheridan kept both officers on staff for months after the criminal investigation was concluded.

He fired Stump in November 2020 for drunkenly shooting at a traffic sign with his county-issued gun two months before.

Sheridan fired Weisenhorn in March, the same week the Colorado News Collaborative published an investigation detailing Gifford’s shooting, the history of the officers involved, the sheriff’s inaction and local residents’ silence.

On Dec. 6, 2019, four months before the fatal traffic stop, court documents obtained through a public records request show Stump intentionally rammed his patrol car into a car that was being chased by other officers who said they suspected the driver of human trafficking. Stump was at a complete stop at the side of the road and timed his acceleration to hit, and stop, the suspect’s vehicle. 

DA Vogel’s office ultimately dropped the chase-related charge in the case, documents show. 

A few weeks later, on Dec. 25, 2019, court records also show, Stump joined officers pursuing a pickup truck that had been stolen in Kansas. He followed the truck through farmland in Prowers County until the driver got stuck in an irrigation ditch. Stump got out of his car, drew his gun while on foot and fired nine shots at the truck — several from behind. One shot lodged in the back of the driver’s seat, but didn’t hit the driver, Christopher Corbett.

In his use-of-force report that day, Stump wrote that he feared Corbett would run him over: “The suspect had me scared for my life.” 

But he changed his story two days later, when Prowers County Investigator Rafael Rodriguez asked if he thought the driver was going to hit him.

“I was trying to get him to stop… . I mean I thought there for a moment he was going to hit me, but then I noticed that he wasn’t and I already had my weapon drawn. I was wanting to stop the pursuit because it already had started in Kansas and it already went this far. And I didn’t know what else this guy was capable of doing even if he did get away…,” Stump said during the interview, which was videotaped, noting the driver did not look at him.

Rodriguez asked if Stump fired shots at the truck because, as Stump indicated in an earlier account, he was pinned up against a fence near the irrigation ditch.

“I don’t know. I just. I mean I don’t want to lie to you. I mean. I don’t, I don’t know,” Stump told him. “I mean, I wish I could take all that back, you know?”

The Prowers County Sheriff’s Department found Stump did not violate its policies on use of force and officer-involved shootings. Still, court records show, Vogel advised Sheridan to remove Stump from the Corbett case because of his use of force. They also show Vogel’s office dismissed all charges against Corbett shortly after Prowers County released the video. 

Kiowa County Sheriff’s Department’s written policy prohibits officers from “discharging a firearm at a vehicle, whether or not it is moving, with the sole intent of disabling the vehicle,” unless their lives are in danger.

“What this evidence shows is that the county and the sheriff’s department both knew about and allowed the continued unconstitutional use of deadly force in circumstances that did not justify it,” attorney Anna Holland-Edwards, one of the Gifford family lawyers said. “Because of this derelict way of conducting law enforcement in Kiowa County, Zach Gifford is now dead.”

Though the sheriff’s department did not discipline Stump for those uses of deadly force, it did sanction him for lesser misconduct during his two-year stint as a Kiowa County deputy.

On April 8, 2020, just a day before Gifford was killed, Weisenhorn slapped Stump with a one-day suspension for insubordination. 

“You have failed to maintain high morale among your subordinate supervisors. You are unwilling to treat supervisors with respect. You are unwilling to accept help and learn from deputies that have more experience and knowledge of the job. You are disrespectful with insulting and vulgar name calling,” Weisenhorn wrote on Stump’s suspension form. “We need to see an immediate improvement in all these areas of performance or additional disciplinary action can take place. We have faith that you have the capability to improve. 

“…We are a small agency and need to depend on each other and TRUST each other in every day life and life-and-death situations.” 

Stump refused to sign the suspension form. 

The office had also reprimanded Stump for driving through the town of Eads at a high speed during a car chase and crashing his patrol car. He was suspended for two days — with pay.

UPDATED: This story was updated May 5, 2021, at 6:54 a.m. to report the resignation of Kiowa County Sheriff Casey Sheridan.

This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a coalition of more than 130 news outlets.

Colorado News Collaborative Email: Twitter: @greeneindenver