A former Park County sheriff’s sergeant filed a federal lawsuit Friday, contending that he was improperly pushed out of his job and “scapegoated” for an attempted eviction that erupted into a deadly shootout.
Sheriff’s Cpl. Nate Carrigan and Martin Wirth – the man facing eviction – both died in the incident one year ago Friday and two other officers were wounded.
Welles Tonjes, who resigned after he was demoted five days after the gunbattle, filed the suit against the Park County Board of County Commissioners, the Park County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Fred Wegener and former sheriff’s Capt. Mark Hancock.
The confrontation at 36 Iris Drive that began when deputies attempted to evict Wirth, who had a volatile history of threats against law officers.
Deputy Kolby Martin and Hancock were both injured in the incident.
Messages left Friday afternoon for Wegener and County Commissioners Mike Brazell, Dick Elsner and Mark Dowaliby were not immediately returned. Hancock, who no longer works for the sheriff’s office, also could not be reached.
County Attorney Lee Phillips said that while he expected the suit he had not seen it and could not comment.
Tonjes, who was a Denver police officer for 36 years, joined the Park County Sheriff’s Office in 2009, eventually attaining the rank of senior patrol sergeant.
In February 2016, according to the suit, Tonjes was involved in a meeting to discuss how to serve an eviction notice on Wirth, who boasted that anyone who tried to remove him from the home could expect “a fight at the OK Corral.”
During that meeting, according to the suit, Tonjes stressed that if Wirth refused to leave the home “under no circumstances” should officers attempt to enter the home. But when officers attempted to serve the notice, Wirth retreated into the home, then opened fire after Carrigan kicked in a door.
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. And those threats were discussed openly in the briefing before the the effort to remove Wirth from the home he’d lost ownership of in 2014. Still, Hancock and other unidentified officers decided not to use a SWAT team.
According to the suit, Tonjes and then-Undersheriff Monte Gore visited Hancock two days after the shooting. At the time, they were not aware that he led the planning of the effort to evict Wirth. While discussing the incident, according to the suit, they were critical of the decision to kick in the door and enter the home, and Hancock “became angry, appeared to choke, and came up out of his chair aggressively.”
The suit asserted that Hancock then told Wegener how Tonjes and Gore felt about the incident.
Three days later, Wegener demoted Tonjes to the rank of patrol officer. The suit alleged that Wegener made the move after a complaint that Tonjes had “yelled” at Carrigan and another deputy. Tonjes denied yelling at Carrigan and said that he spoke with the other deputy “in a stern fashion” because that officer had acted improperly.
“By demoting Sgt. Tonjes, defendants Wegener and Hancock hoped to create the false impression that Sgt. Tonjes was responsible for the tragedy at the Wirth property,” the suit alleged.
Tonjes quit. Gore, in the meantime, was suspended and ultimately fired by Wegener.
Wegener, the suit alleged, then intimated in an interview with a news reporter that the decision to demote Tonjes was a result of how the effort to evict Wirth was handled.
It is the second lawsuit to stem from the incident. Earlier, Carrigan’s family and Martin filed a federal lawsuit, accusing their superiors of subjecting them to “entirely preventable” dangers during an effort to evict Wirth. That suit named the Park County Sheriff’s Office, Wegener, and Hancock.
The suit 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.”