The family of a Park County sheriff’s deputy killed in a shootout last February – and an officer wounded in the same incident – have filed suit in federal court, accusing their superiors of subjecting them to “entirely preventable” dangers during an effort to evict a man from a mountain home.
Deputy Nate Carrigan died in the Feb. 24 confrontation with a man named Martin Wirth, who was being evicted from a home at 36 Iris Drive, and deputy Kolby Martin suffered serious injuries in the gunfire.
Wirth – who had a volatile history of threats against law officers – was also killed.
Carrigan’s family and Martin filed the suit against the Park County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Fred Wegener, and Capt. Mark Hancock.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, seeks unspecified damages.
PREVIOUS STORY: Family of slain deputy says 'shooting should've never happened'
The suit, a copy of which was obtained by 9Wants to Know, alleged that the deputies were ordered “into action without the necessary skills, training, equipment, or back-up to address the threat these officers were presented with.”
“Deputies Martin and Carrigan were shot by Martin Wirth, an individual known by the defendants to have a history of violent behavior with aggressive and threatening tendencies towards the sheriff deputies of Park County,” Reid Elkus, the attorney representing Carrigan’s parents and Martin, wrote in the suit. “Despite that knowledge, however, the defendants ignored their own training, and national standards, in dealing with overt threats made to law enforcement by Mr. Wirth.”
Wegener told 9NEWS that he has not been served with the suit and has not seen it.
“We’re sorry to see it come to that, and we’ll let the judicial process do its thing,” he said.
Hancock was on vacation, Wegener said, and could not be reached for comment.
The trouble started after seven Park County sheriff’s officers pulled up to a secluded home to evict Wirth, who had boasted that who tried to remove him from the home could expect “a fight at the OK Corral.”
Several of those officers also knew that just weeks earlier Wirth had gotten into a dispute at an insurance office, which included him saying that he was “going to go home and get his gun and shoot the first cop that he saw,” 9Wants to Know reported earlier this year.
Internal reports show that Hancock, who organized the effort to remove Wirth from the home, decided the potential for trouble was serious enough that he called for an ambulance to be standing by in the area.
Those threats were discussed openly in the briefing before officers drove to the home, Hancock and other unidentified officers decided not to use a SWAT team to remove Wirth from the home that had he’d lost ownership of in 2014.
Minutes after those officers arrived at the rustic home situated among aspen and evergreen trees, Carrigan and Wirth lay dead in the snow, Martin was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, and Hancock himself had been grazed in the neck and ear by bullets.
Evictions are a fairly routine part of life at any sheriff’s department, but Wirth was no routine target.
The suit included numerous examples of Wirth’s feelings about law enforcement, including a social media post attributed to him that said, “If there’s a war on cops, where’s the recruitment center?”
In addition, documents previously obtained by 9Wants to Know showed that in 1994 in Fort Collins, Wirth had shot and killed a man after a dispute at a party – but was acquitted of a second-degree murder charge after a jury concluded he’d acted in self-defense.
He was accused of threatening a counselor in 2005, of a tirade against an assistant at a dental clinic in 2010, and of killing a neighbor’s dog in 2013.
And in 2014, Wirth was evicted from the home along Iris Drive after he stopped paying his mortgage. Park County deputies removed from the home, but at some point he returned and began living there again.
All of that was on the minds of officers during the planning for the eviction, according to thousands of pages of reports compiled by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Hancock told investigators that he wanted at least six people with him – four to approach the home from the front, two who could cover the back door, and someone farther away watching through a high-powered scope for signs of trouble.
“Based on the intel that I had, I figured he may be physically combative because that's all I'd had so far,” Hancock told CBI investigators as he recovered from grazing bullet wounds to his left ear and neck. “You know, there's a possibility I thought that he could become barricaded. … When I started and I asked the guys kind of how they felt about it, because there had been talk of making it a SWAT call – but, you know, they didn't really feel that it warranted a SWAT call but I did feel that I needed to have a minimum of six and a guy watching over.”
Wegener, the sheriff of Park County since January 1999, attended part of the briefing but planned to go to Denver for a meeting of the group that oversees the Colorado Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Ultimately, he decided to abort the trip to Denver and go to the scene, arriving shortly before the gunfire erupted.
Wegener later told investigators that he “did not know anything about the threats about the police until hearing that on the news.”
The effort to evict Wirth turned tragic quickly.
Hancock, the commander and a 21-year veteran, decided that Carrigan should actually serve the eviction papers on Wirth “because he knew the guy and had dealt with him and I figured Nate's real kind and can diffuse and I figured he would recognize him and I'd have an advantage.”
Wirth came outside his home at one point and spoke with Carrigan – a conversation that was by all accounts devoid of tension.
At that point, Hancock told investigators, decided to kick in the front door.
“I really regret that I’m a Marine sometimes because I am super aggressive and I don’t like to give people the opportunity to plan, fortify and take us out,” he told investigators, “so I asked a second time, I believe, and I don’t know if I even got permission or not. I can’t remember. But I told Nate to take the door.”
Carrigan booted it three times before it opened, and after he did Hancock, Martin, Threlkel and Lowrance entered the home and quickly came under fire.
A single bullet pierced Carrigan’s arm and then entered his armpit above his ballistic vest, tearing through his chest and mortally wounding him. He stumbled outside and died.
Martin was also shot multiple times and was dragged outside as the officers retreated.
Wirth, in the meantime, fled out the back door and was prone on the ground, with a rifle in his hands that was aimed at other officers when Hancock – who had worked his way around to the back of the home, unleashed a series of shots that ended the man’s life.
In his interview with investigators, Wegener defended the decision not to use a SWAT team to evict Wirth.
“I didn't want to make it seem like we were this overpowering force was going up there on an eviction. No,” he said. “We were going up there but we knew what he was capable of. We knew he was going to run. Yeah, maybe he'd throw his fist up and want to fight. Okay. So I knew it was more advantageous for us to send more than the normal two that you'd normally do on an eviction.”
Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.