KUSA - As seven Park County sheriff’s officers pulled up to a secluded home Feb. 24 to evict Martin Wirth, they were well aware of his volatile history of threats against cops – including boasts that anyone who tried to remove him from the home could expect “a fight at the OK Corral.”
Several of those officers 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.”
Capt. Mark Hancock, who organized the effort to remove Wirth from the home, decided the potential for trouble was great enough that he requested that an ambulance be nearby so that medical aid would be close if someone got hurt.
But despite the threats – which were discussed openly in a briefing about the eviction – and the fear that someone could get hurt, 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, Cpl. Nate Carrigan and Wirth lay dead in the snow, Deputy Koby Martin was suffering from multiple gunshot wounds, and Hancock himself had been grazed in the neck and ear by bullets.
The fallout from that bloody encounter continues to reverberate: Carrigan’s family and Martin – who returned to desk duty this month – have served notice that they intend to sue the Park County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Fred Wegener and members of his command staff.
The details of what unfolded at 36 Iris Drive on a snowy Wednesday morning are spelled out in thousands of pages of documents, diagrams and photographs made public this week in the incident.
The investigation was carried out by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Evictions are a fairly routine part of life at any sheriff’s department.
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But Wirth was no routine target.
In 1994 in Fort Collins, he’d 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 – allegedly telling the man he was in Wirth’s “crosshairs” – and of a tirade against an assistant at a dental clinic in 2010. A neighbor accused Wirth of shooting his 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.
The reports detail numerous instances in which he suggested that he would not be taken out of the home alive.
That volatile background was clearly on the minds of the officers who gathered the morning of Feb. 24 for a briefing in a sheriff’s office conference room to plan the removal of Wirth from the home, according to a detailed examination of the CBI reports.
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.”
During that briefing, Hancock and three of the other officers involved in the operation, Det. David Leffler, Cpl. David “DJ” Hannigan, Deputy Jeremy Lowrance, all were aware of Wirth’s dispute at the insurance agency on Jan. 20, according to the investigative reports.
Leffler, who actually responded to that incident, told the CBI investigators that he believed “this” – the Feb. 24 incident – “originally started a couple weeks ago.”
In that case, according to reports, Wirth had attempted to buy auto insurance but was denied because he didn’t have a valid driver’s license. That’s when he allegedly stormed out and said something along the lines of, “I should just get my gun and shoot the first cop I see.”
Lowrance, Martin and Deputy Travis Threlkel were all aware of the “OK Corral” statement – according to the reports.
Lowrance related a story he’d heard about Wirth’s return to the home after he was originally removed from it following the 2014 eviction.
“A neighbor asked him, you know, ‘what are you doing back, how'd you get your house,’ and he said ‘no, it's my property,’” Lowrance told investigators. “He believed that he had every right to be there and he stated to his neighbor that if anybody came to get him out of his house, it would be the OK Corral.”
Even Carrigan was concerned about the threats Wirth had uttered, Hancock told investigators.
Wegener, the sheriff of Park County since January 1999, attended part of the briefing but planned to go to Denver, where he was scheduled to be at 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.
A CBI investigator asked Wegener if he was aware that Wirth had made threats against police just a few weeks earlier.
“I believe that's what Jeffco was called about, was the – but the threat was – no, not the police,” Wegener said. “I’m sorry. It was – he threatened somebody at a store or something like that. That's what their case was.”
Later, the sheriff 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, according to the reports.
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.
But then the officers decided to kick in the front 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.
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