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Three Bullets to the back: The striking silence around a police killing in small-town Colorado

This is a 3-part story about a police killing in rural Kiowa County and the reluctance of a pro-law community to hold law enforcement accountable.
Credit: Gifford Family

KIOWA COUNTY, Colo — Part One

This is the first in a three-part series about an April 2020 police killing on the Eastern Plains that has been shrouded in silence at a time of national and statewide uproar over excessive force.

Nearly a year has passed since the local undersheriff and a rookie deputy gunned down handyman Zach Gifford in this Eastern Plains county where trust in law enforcement is a given. 

What started as a traffic stop on April 9, 2020 ended with 39-year-old Gifford, the unarmed passenger, dying in a nearby field, handcuffs on his wrists, three bullet holes in his back. 

This story is powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 9NEWS joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public.

Kiowa County Sheriff Casey Sheridan has said virtually nothing about his murder in the 11 months since.

The sheriff did fire the deputy, Quinten Stump – not for shooting Gifford, but for drunkenly shooting up a traffic sign with his duty weapon several months later. In January, after a state investigation, District Attorney Josh Vogel charged Stump with two counts of attempted second-degree murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon, making Stump one of few officers prosecuted for an on-duty killing in Colorado. 

Credit: Powers County Sheriff's Office

For reasons Vogel has refused to explain, he declined to press charges against Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn, who, like Stump, fired at Gifford twice – after the deputy yelled “Let him go!” She handcuffed Gifford with her pink, personally engraved handcuffs as he lay dying. 

The sheriff will not say whether Weisenhorn is still on the job. Her name was taken off his office’s website this week and the undersheriff’s position is listed as vacant. Weisenhorn and Stump declined repeated interview requests.

“We back the Blue” is a familiar refrain in this conservative, law-and-order county. Even Gifford’s parents, Carla and Larry Gifford speak uncritically of the sheriff. They say they have been praying for him since April.

But too much time has passed and too many questions linger.

“They need to face this thing. We need to see some manner of accountability,” says Larry Gifford, a former member of the Eads School Board and the town of Eads Board of Trustees.

“We just want to know how a traffic stop in such a rural area could end in killing Zach,” adds Carla. “It’s hurtful. These are people we’ve known for forty years, my goodness, and they didn’t even acknowledge our calls.” 

The Colorado News Collaborative partnered with former Kiowa County Independent Editor Priscilla Waggoner to tell the story of what happened that April afternoon and in its aftermath. We filed 11 freedom of information requests, combed through dozens of sheriff’s department records, investigation reports and court documents, and spoke with at least 68 people over 11 months.

Among our findings: Sheriff Sheridan appointed Weisenhorn as his undersheriff without fully checking her background, and hired Stump and kept him on duty despite red flags about his conduct. Months after the official investigation was completed, Sheridan has not discussed Gifford’s killing or announced any policy changes as a result, and the county commission says it knows “very little” about it.

But it is not officials’ silence that is most striking. 

The people of Kiowa County have been equally circumspect about Gifford’s murder, even though many say privately they are troubled by it, the DA’s charging decisions, and what they say they perceive as their elected leaders’ indifference. In a time when George Floyd’s and Elijah McClain’s killings triggered uproar in cities statewide and nationally, the silence around Zach Gifford’s death speaks volumes about the complex dynamics of a small community and its reluctance to hold its own accountable.

Home on the Range

Larry and Carla Gifford moved to Kiowa County from Kansas in 1979 – he to teach physical education and coach middle school sports and she to teach special ed, both in Eads. Zach was born a year later, the second of three sons who grew up with free run of the then-600-something-person farm town. 

He was the wiggliest of the brothers, thriving less in classrooms or on sports fields than he did fixing things and working with his hands. He was the kid locals would ask to prune a tree or rescue a kitten, and who’d show up to mend fences or pull weeds for the town’s widows and elderly, slipping away before they noticed or tried paying him.

Credit: Gifford Family

Those gestures embodied what locals cherish about Kiowa County, where residents share a deep commitment to helping each other survive on this stretch of southeastern Colorado near the Kansas border. That commitment to one another is what made the first inhabitants collectively move the town of Eads – literally, move every single house and business three different times – to make sure that once the Missouri-Pacific finally laid down tracks, they would be right alongside them. Sixty years later, it’s what led people in town to build a swimming pool so they could teach every child to swim after a young girl drowned in a nearby lake in 1953 and a beloved postmaster lost his life trying to save her. It’s what last year prompted a group of growers to rush out with their tractors and shovels to put out a wildland fire that was threatening the herds.

Severe drought has made ranching and farming too risky for some longtime families. Over the course of Zach Gifford's life, the county's population dropped by a quarter to just under 1,500. People died. People moved on. 

Gifford stayed. He stood out by remaining single, with no kids. He also stood out for his long hair and pierced tongue and ears. He favored white sleeveless undershirts paired with a fedora, a look that gave him more than a passing resemblance to the once-popular musician Kid Rock.

He worked the odd jobs of a handyman – carpentry, tree-trimming, landscaping – at rates clients say were below the quality of his work. “He was always excited to just … do projects. Whatever it was. He was one of those guys who never had a full-time job, but he was always working … and more times than not it was to help out other people,” says musician and friend, Jamie Crockett.

“He would drop everything and help you in a minute,” adds neighbor Shoni McKnight, whose fall on a loose step one night prompted Gifford to build her a new staircase by the next evening.

Gifford had his demons, as family and friends refer to the drinking problem and methamphetamine addiction that led to years of heartache as well as several traffic offenses, two misdemeanor theft convictions in 2001 and 2005, and a felony conviction for drug possession in 2003.

“I know he struggled. We saw him struggle with his addictions,” says Laura Negley, a rancher who hired Gifford to occasionally work her land.

He had lost his driver's license for a traffic offense years ago, and when eligible to reinstate it opted not to because driving would give him all-too-easy access to buying meth. So he would walk or bike where he needed to go, or sometimes make his leisurely way in this county of wide expanses on a lawnmower, waving to drivers whizzing past on the roads.

Credit: Gifford Family

“Zach had a relationship with everyone,” says his friend Joanna Beck.

Gifford’s family says he felt grounded, even needed in Kiowa County – so much so that he stayed after his brothers moved away and parents followed in 2018 to live near their grandkids in Colorado Springs. He told them he felt safe here, far from the temptations of busier places, and away from the prospect of trouble. 

In Part Two: A traffic stop turns fatal. In Part Three: The blanket of silence that followed Zach Gifford’s killing

This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a coalition of more than 100 news outlets.

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