By Thomas Peipert and Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press
The family of a man who was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy outside a Colorado middle school while students were being picked up alleges in a wrongful death lawsuit that deputies unnecessarily escalated a situation that should have been handled nonviolently.
The encounter occurred Feb. 22, 2022, in Pueblo West, an unincorporated community near the city of Pueblo, after a person in the parking lot called authorities to report that a man briefly got inside another vehicle.
One of the attorneys for the family of Richard Ward said in the lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court that Ward, 32, was picking up his younger brother from middle school with his mother and her boyfriend when he stepped out of the car to take a “brief walk.”
Attorneys said that after his walk, he mistook a similar-looking SUV for his mother’s vehicle, opened the door and got inside. Ward apologized to the driver and then returned to his mother’s vehicle, according to the lawsuit.
A few minutes later, Pueblo County sheriff’s deputy Charles McWhorter arrived on a report of a man opening car doors at the school and questioned Ward. At one point during the conversation, Ward took what the lawsuit described as a pill for his anxiety because he gets nervous around police, prompting McWhorter to drag him out of the vehicle.
According to the lawsuit, Ward was shot three times in the chest during the struggle, and McWhorter and another deputy did not administer first aid or other life-saving measures. Ward died at the scene.
“It is really just an outrageous example of how policing these days is aggressive and militarized,” attorney Darold Killmer said.
The lawsuit names Pueblo County, several sheriff’s deputies and a sergeant. Pueblo County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Gail Perez said she could not comment on pending litigation.
Body camera video shows Ward resisting before he is shot and then lying on his back, breathing heavily as his mother and her boyfriend ask, “Did they shoot him?”
The lawsuit claims the deputies could have ordered Ward to spit the pill out and step out of the vehicle, but they “consistently escalated the situation” and wrongly believed more force was warranted.
“They did not so much as place pressure on his wounds, check for a pulse, or even attempt to speak to Mr. Ward. … All the while, passing middle school students observed the gory scene,” the complaint reads.
According to a conversation captured on a body camera, McWhorter told fellow officers that he pulled Ward out of the car after he was “acting real crazy” and then put something in his mouth and reached into his pocket.
McWhorter said that while he and Ward were wrestling on the ground, Ward head-butted him right before he shot him.
Killmer said what should have been a routine encounter between a citizen and law enforcement went from “0 to 100” apparently because McWhorter seemed to be upset that Ward took the pill he found while searching his pockets for his identification, maybe because he thought it was an illegal drug.
Killmer noted that McWorther was awarded a Purple Heart medal last week for injuries he sustained during the encounter, which he believes was an attempt by the county to cover up the deputy’s misconduct. He said the county knew the lawsuit was coming after both sides failed to reach an agreement to avoid one.