Law Enforcement

How a Fatal Police-Shooting Settlement Saved a Small Colorado Town

A screen capture from body-camera footage of Zach Gifford's fatal 2020 encounter with police and a family portrait.
A screen capture from body-camera footage of Zach Gifford's fatal 2020 encounter with police and a family portrait. Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman
The family of 39-year-old Zachary Gifford filed a lawsuit last October over his fatal 2020 shooting by two members of the Kiowa County Sheriff's Office — an incident that shattered Eads, the small Colorado town (population: 672) where he was a much-beloved resident.

Such cases often drag out for years, and the circumstances of Gifford's death were such that a settlement might well have been large enough to bankrupt Kiowa, among the poorest counties in the state, as well as Eads, thereby saddling residents with potentially enormous tax increases, service losses and more.

But Gifford's parents — Carla Gifford, who taught kindergarten and special education in Eads, and Larry Gifford, a popular coach and PE instructor who also served on the town council and school board — didn't want to punish their neighbors for the incalculable loss they'd 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 both speed up the process and prevent a 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 that wouldn't exceed the maximum $10 million amount covered by Kiowa County's insurance policy. After two days of hearings, the panelists recommended a payout of $9.5 million, just under the insurance ceiling, as a way to properly compensate the Giffords for their son's death while giving Eads and Kiowa County a chance to move forward without a crippling financial burden.

Holland thinks the resolution was just for all involved. "If we'd gone before a fully informed jury during a two- or three-week trial, we felt like the damages would have been greater than the insurance policy, and we would have been in no better position than we are now," he says. "There'd still be a capped policy, a poor county and individuals who couldn't afford to pay the kind of judgment that was deserved. So this was a unique and valuable way to resolve a very, very emotional case."
The scene of the shooting. - HOLLAND, HOLLAND EDWARDS & GROSSMAN
The scene of the shooting.
Just as moving for Holland Edwards was the way the people of Eads reacted to the tragedy. The firm collected 29 statements from individuals who celebrated Gifford, with many of the testimonials captured on video. "It was so heartwarming and surprising to see an entire community come together like this one did," she says. "I'm used to parents or girlfriends or siblings being affected by a loss like this one, but we had multiple former teachers, neighbors, people from all walks of life, come forward to say who Zach really was and how bad what happened to him was. That was really impressive to me."

For Holland and Holland Edwards, one image symbolizes Eads's collective affection for Gifford. After the shooting, the marquee on 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 had agreed to help a friend, Bryan Morrell, unload a log splitter off a truck outside Brandon, a place so tiny that it's referred to locally as a ghost town. Neither knew that Kiowa County Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn was nearby, watching a house suspected of drug activity — and Gifford was rumored to have been a drug user. Weisenhorn subsequently initiated a traffic stop of the truck on Main Street, a dirt road just off State Highway 96, on the pretext that Morrell hadn't properly signaled a turn.

Deputy Sheriff Quinten Stump arrived shortly after, even though he was actually under suspension at the time for what the complaint synopsizes as "insubordination"; he also had a history of using force to stop 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. Yet Stump remained on the force, in part because "he was well known to be the top earner for the Sheriff’s Office through fines generated from his extensive issuance of traffic tickets, which also provided substantial revenue that the Board of County Commissioners relied on for County expenses," the suit claims. "Deputy Stump was frequently praised for going 'above and beyond' in his 'dedication to traffic stops.'"

After the truck came to a halt, Gifford and Morrell were patted down for weapons, and nothing suspicious was found; a Leatherman, box cutter and pliers possessed by Gifford were tools of his trade. But Stump continued the search and ultimately found a plastic bag in Gifford's pocket that he thought might contain drugs. At that point, Gifford began to run, but he didn't get far; Stump tackled him and Weisenhorn tased him. But after Weisenhorn pressed her gun to his back and threatened to "fucking shoot," Gifford managed to break free again and ran into a deserted field. Weisenhorn responded by shooting Gifford in the back, and Stump joined in, hitting him a second time.

Gifford kept going, prompting a third shot that apparently missed. But a fourth shot, fired by Stump eighteen seconds after the previous shot, felled Gifford on the spot.
A tribute to Zach Gifford at a theater in Eads. - HOLLAND, HOLLAND EDWARDS & GROSSMAN
A tribute to Zach Gifford at a theater in Eads.
"They dropped him like a wounded game animal, for doing nothing," Holland told Westword last year. "And Zach's suffering wasn't over, because he didn't die instantly. Weisenhorn and Stump ran up to him, and while he was bleeding out, they handcuffed him — and he died about two minutes later," after asking the officers to tell his parents that he loved them.

The lawsuit notes that during this span, Gifford's life was "dominated with pain and suffering including his consciousness of impending death. ... One bullet went through his right thoracic back, perforating the skin, subcutaneous tissues, musculature, posterolateral right rib, right lung, and the anterior right third intercostal musculature before exiting. Another bullet perforated the skin, subcutaneous tissues, and embedded in the muscle of his right lower back. Another bullet entered his left lower back and perforated the skin, subcutaneous tissues, left psoas muscle, mesentery, and the stomach before exiting."

The larger part of a year passed before Stump was indicted on two counts of attempted second-degree murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon for the shooting, and while Weisenhorn was briefly suspended with pay, she remained in the employ of the Kiowa County Sheriff's Office before belatedly being fired in March 2021.

The incident was captured on video from a body-worn camera, but the footage has not yet been released, owing to the ongoing criminal case against Stump. In the meantime, negotiations over compensation for Gifford's death went nowhere, prompting the lawsuit — and while Kiowa County subsequently offered to settle the case, the amount was far below what Holland and Holland Edwards considered appropriate.

That led to the creation of the panel, with each side choosing two members who then considered evidentiary submissions with respect to liability and damage issues. The $9.5 million settlement was accompanied by these non-monetary terms:
1. The current Sheriff of Kiowa County shall implement new use of force policies that conform with Garner, consistent with reasonable policies regularly implemented by law enforcement agencies within the State of Colorado, regarding the constitutional limits on the use of deadly force including use of such force on fleeing suspects on foot or in moving vehicles.

2. New officer and annual training shall be required for all members of the Department on the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force and specifically regarding fleeing suspects consistent with POST certification and licensure requirements for law enforcement officers and using this incident to learn from as part of such ongoing training efforts to prevent recurrence of such tragedies.

3. The County will, in consultation with the family, erect a suitably located prominent memorial commemorating Zach’s life including his name, date of birth, the case event and a meaningful passage or scripture to be selected by the family and approved by the County’s Board of County Commissioners.
In a statement, Larry and Carla Gifford offer thanks to their immediate and extended family, Zach's friends, the residents of Kiowa County and surrounding community, and all of their loved ones for what they characterize as "the incredible support and prayers over the last two years." Most of all, they "thank God for carrying us through this very difficult journey."

The couple also express their appreciation to Kiowa's commissioners and JD Murdock, an attorney for the county, "for reaching this final resolution with them and for stepping up to create a process to end this lawsuit that was as peaceable, civil and respectful of the family's feelings and overwhelming loss as possible."

Holland has gained tremendous respect for Eads. "The town is special and interesting," he says. "It's a place where people love each other, look after each other, care about each other, and have the will 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 put up with it.'"

Westword has reached out to the Kiowa County Board of Commissioners for comment about the settlement. Click to read Estate of Zachary Gifford v. Tracy Weisenhorn, et al.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts