The family of Zachary Gifford, 39, filed a lawsuit last October over his fatal 2020 shooting at the hands of two members of the Kiowa County Sheriff’s Office, an incident that tore Eads, the small Colorado town ( population: 672) where he was a much-loved resident.
Such cases often drag on for years, and the circumstances of Gifford’s death were such that a settlement may well have been large enough to bankrupt Kiowa, one of the state’s poorest counties, as well as Eads, which would burden residents with potentially huge tax increases. , service losses and more.
But Gifford’s parents, Carla Gifford, who taught kindergarten and special education at Eads, and Larry Gifford, a popular physical education coach and instructor who also served on the city council and school board, didn’t want to punish their neighbors. for the incalculable loss he had suffered. So, with their encouragement, John Holland and Anna Holland Edwards of Denver-based Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, who represent them, came up with a novel way to speed up the process and prevent financial catastrophe.
With the cooperation of local authorities, Holland and Holland Edwards formed a panel of four civil rights attorneys (Andrew Ringel, Darold Killmer, Ed Budge, and Bill Rogers) to hear evidence in the case and determine a settlement amount not to exceed the maximum. $10 million amount covered by Kiowa County insurance policy. After two days of hearings, the panelists recommended a $9.5 million payment, just below the insurance ceiling, as a way to adequately compensate the Giffords for their son’s death while giving Eads and Kiowa County the opportunity to move forward without a crippling financial burden.
Holland believes the resolution was fair to all involved. “If we had gone before a fully informed jury during a two or three week trial, we feel that the damages would have been greater than the insurance policy and we would not have been in a better position than we are now.” he says. “There would still be a limited policy, a poor county, and individuals who couldn’t pay the kind of sentence they deserved. So this was a unique and valuable way to resolve a very, very emotional case.”
Just as moving to Holland Edwards was how the people of Eads reacted to the tragedy. The firm collected 29 statements from people who celebrated Gifford, with many of the testimonies captured on video. “It was very moving and amazing to see a whole community come together like this one did,” she says. “I’m used to parents, girlfriends or siblings being affected by a loss like this, but we had several former teachers, neighbors, people from all walks of life, come forward to say who Zach really was and what bad thing happened to him. he was. That was really impressive to me.”
For Holland and Holland Edwards, an image symbolizes Eads’ collective affection for Gifford. After the shooting, the marquee at the community’s Crow-Luther Cultural Events Center was changed to display a single word: “Zach.”
The lawsuit’s incident timeline begins on April 9, 2020, when Gifford agreed to help a friend, Bryan Morrell, unload a log splitter from a truck outside of Brandon, a place so small that locally It is known as a ghost town. Neither knew that Kiowa County Deputy Sheriff Tracy Weisenhorn was nearby, watching a house suspected of drug activity, and Gifford was rumored to be a drug user. Weisenhorn subsequently initiated a traffic stop for the truck on Main Street, a dirt road just off State Highway 96, on the pretext that Morrell had failed to properly signal a turn.
Deputy Sheriff Quinten Stump arrived shortly after, even though he was suspended at the time for what the complaint describes as “insubordination”; he also had a history of using force to prevent suspects from fleeing. Three examples are included in the lawsuit, including an episode on Christmas Day 2019, when he opened fire on a stolen truck. However, Stump remained on the force, in part because “he was well known for being the top earner for the Sheriff’s Office through the fines generated by his extensive issuance of traffic tickets, which also provided substantial income in which the Board of County Commissioners depended for the county.” expenses,” the suit states. “Deputy Stump was frequently praised for going ‘above and beyond’ in his ‘dedication to traffic stops.'”
After the truck stopped, Gifford and Morrell were frisked for weapons and nothing suspicious was found; a Leatherman, a box cutter, and a pair of pliers owned by Gifford were tools of the trade for him. But Stump continued the search and eventually found a plastic bag in Gifford’s pocket that he thought might contain drugs. At this point, Gifford started to run, but he didn’t get very far; Stump knocked him down and Weisenhorn electrocuted him. But after Weisenhorn pressed his gun against his back and threatened to “shoot,” Gifford broke free again and ran into a deserted field. Weisenhorn responded by shooting Gifford in the back, and Stump joined in and hit him a second time.
Gifford pressed on, prompting a third shot that apparently missed. But a fourth shot, fired by Stump eighteen seconds after the previous shot, dropped Gifford on the spot.
“He was dropped like a wounded game animal, for doing nothing,” Holland said. western word last year. “And Zach’s suffering wasn’t over, because he didn’t die instantly. Weisenhorn and Stump ran over to him, and while he was bleeding to death, they handcuffed him, and he died about two minutes later,” after asking officers to do so. tell his parents that he loved them.
The lawsuit notes that during this time, Gifford’s life was “dominated by pain and suffering, including his awareness of imminent death… A bullet passed through his right thoracic back, piercing the skin, subcutaneous tissues, musculature , the right posterolateral rib, the lung, and the anterior third of the right intercostal musculature before exiting. Another bullet pierced the skin, subcutaneous tissues, and embedded the muscle of the right lower back. Another bullet entered the left lower back and pierced the skin, subcutaneous tissues, left psoas muscle, mesentery, and stomach before exiting.”
It was the better part of a year before Stump was charged with two counts of attempted second-degree murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon for the shooting, and though Weisenhorn was briefly suspended with pay, she remained employed by Kiowa. County Sheriff’s Office before being belatedly fired in March 2021.
The incident was captured on video with a body camera, but the footage has not yet been released due to the ongoing criminal case against Stump. Meanwhile, negotiations over compensation for Gifford’s death went nowhere, prompting the lawsuit, and although Kiowa County subsequently offered to settle the case, the amount was well below what Holland and Holland Edwards considered appropriate.
That led to the creation of the panel, with each party choosing two members who then considered the submissions of evidence regarding issues of liability and damages. The $9.5 million settlement was accompanied by these non-monetary terms:
1. The current Kiowa County Sheriff will implement new Garner compliant use of force policies, consistent with reasonable policies regularly implemented by law enforcement agencies within the State of Colorado, with respect to constitutional limits on the use of deadly force, including the use of such force on suspects fleeing on foot or in moving vehicles.
2. All members of the Department shall receive annual and new officer training on the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force and specifically with respect to fleeing suspects in accordance with POST licensing and certification requirements for officers of the Department. public order and the use of this incident to learn from it. part of such ongoing training efforts to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies.
3. The County, in consultation with the family, will erect a prominent monument in an appropriate location to commemorate Zach’s life, including his name, date of birth, the event in question, and a significant passage or scripture to be selected by the family and approved by the County Board. of the County Commissioners.
In a statement, Larry and Carla Gifford thank their immediate and extended family, Zach’s friends, residents of Kiowa County and the surrounding community, and all their loved ones for what they characterize as “the incredible support and prayers during the last two years.” Above all, “they thank God for taking us through this very difficult journey.”
The couple also express their gratitude to the Kiowa Commissioners and County Attorney JD Murdock “for reaching this final resolution with them and for stepping up to create a process to end this lawsuit that was so peaceful, civil and respectful.” with the rights of the family. feelings and the most overwhelming loss possible.
Holland has earned great respect for Eads. “The city is special and interesting,” he says. “It’s a place where people love each other, care for each other, care about each other and are willing to challenge authority and come forward in a powerful way to say, ‘This shouldn’t happen in our community, and we’re not going to. to put up with it.”
western word has reached out to the Kiowa County Board of Commissioners for comment on the deal. Click to read Estate of Zachary Gifford v. Tracy Weisenhorn, et al.