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, although she was until this week listed as undersheriff on the office’s website. She 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.
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.
“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.
Seven people work for the Kiowa County Sheriff’s Department – two civilians and five officers who patrol this 1,786 square-mile southeastern plains county. Sheriff Casey Sheridan, known here simply as Casey, was elected in 2014 and 2018, both times without a challenger. Deputy Quinten Stump joined the department April 2019, a year before he and Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn shot 39-year-old handyman Zach Gifford to death during am April 9, 2020 traffic stop.
Sheridan hired the rookie deputy despite some red flags in his record. A one-time youth rodeo star who wrote on a job application that he wanted to follow his grandfather’s footsteps as a cop, Stump had held two previous deputy jobs. He landed the first, in Norwood, Colorado, straight out of the academy in 2018. He lasted three months.
“Let’s just say he had made some mistakes and it didn’t seem to get any better. He wasn’t a good fit. He didn’t take direction very well,” says town administrator Patti Grafmyer.
The Kit Carson County Sheriff’s Department hired him a month later. He lasted only four months there. The department declined to say why his time there was so short.
Stump has not returned several phone calls seeking comment. Nor has Sheriff Sheridan.
Earning $33,571 a year, Stump spent much of his time in Kiowa County monitoring traffic along busy U.S. Route 287. Months into the job, he was writing dozens of tickets a day, according to data obtained through a freedom of information request. During one eight-hour shift in December 2019, Stump issued 48 tickets.
“He patrolled the shit out of the roads,” says Tyler Pevler, a former deputy who worked with Stump and, by comparison, says he issued 87 traffic tickets in a year. “I just never trusted the guy, but he wrote a lot of tickets and made the sheriff’s office look good.”
As in most cities and towns, traffic ticket revenue helps fund local government.
Stump’s aggressive policing went beyond prolific ticketing. In December 2019, court records show he ticketed Christian Forney of Greeley for speeding and driving with a suspended license. Forney says Stump handcuffed him, placed him in the back of his patrol car, and returned to Forney’s car to speak with his fiancée. Forney banged his head against the back of the front seat, cursing out of frustration with himself. Stump, he says, ran back, grabbed him from the squad car, threw him into a ditch, wrestled him down and kneed him until other officers arrived.
“I never did anything to him. I never pushed him. I never put my hand on him. It was excessive, to say the least,” says Forney, adding that Stump drove up to 119 miles an hour on the way to the jail.
Forney’s lawyer, Mark Davis, told the DA’s office about Stump’s behavior after Gifford’s shooting. The prosecutor eventually dropped the charges.
General contractor Josh Brown says Stump stopped him because his pickup resembled one driven by a poacher for whom deputies were searching. “First thing, he walks up, grabs his gun and orders me out of the vehicle,” he says. “He was a little aggressive. Actually a lot. … That’s not how it’s done around here.”
Pevler says Stump was part of the reason he quit the sheriff’s office in January 2020. He had complained about his colleague’s crudeness, including “overtures toward women when he would pull them over, talk to or text them, see them.” He says he saw Stump use armed force several times, but ended the interview when asked if that use seemed excessive:
“I don’t really feel comfortable saying anything about that now because I may want another job in law enforcement.”
Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn, 46, comes from a family of cops, including a brother who was an officer with the Prowers County Sheriff’s Department. She had worked several law enforcement jobs – the longest was 12 years as a deputy and investigator in Prowers and the most recent was six months as a detective with the Leadville Police Department.
Sheridan, records show, hired Weisenhorn in late January 2020, the same day she authorized him and his staff to conduct a mandatory background check and a week before the department notarized that authorization. She was on the job, then, before Sheridan could have fully vetted her.
“Y’all killed my friend”
Brandon is a small cluster of buildings some refer to as a ghost town in eastern Kiowa County near the Kansas border. The former railroad stop lost its post office in 1963, and all that remains are a handful of homes, two grain elevators on both sides of State Highway 96 and the railroad tracks that run parallel to it. Brandon sits a few miles southeast of where soldiers with the Colorado U.S. Volunteer Cavalry killed at least 230 Arapahoe and Cheyenne people in the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, and about 20 miles east of Eads.
On the day Weisenhorn and Stump shot Gifford, he was in Brandon at the home of his friend, Bryan Morrell, helping out with some home repairs.
The officers’ accounts of what happened that day are laid out in a 57-page Colorado Bureau of Investigation affidavit for Stump’s arrest warrant obtained under the state law that requires criminal justice records be accessible to the public. That affidavit also includes an interview with Morrell – who is the lone eyewitness – as well as reports from walk-throughs of the scene, forensic analyses and detailed, written summaries of both officers’ body camera footage, which has not been made public.
Weisenhorn told investigators she was on a call in Brandon when she decided to drive by a house she had been surveilling. She said tipsters, whose names she said she could not remember, had reported possible “drug activity” at the home. When she arrived, she told investigators, she saw Morrell and Gifford get into a truck. Morrell was driving.
She followed, pulling Morrell over when he failed to use his turn signal.
It was 2:46 p.m. Stump, out on patrol nearby, arrived shortly afterward.
Weisenhorn told investigators she thought the pair was acting suspiciously once she pulled them over, moving about in the front seat as if “they were hiding something.” She said she asked Morrell and Gifford if they had been using drugs because she could see something in their eyes. “Especially yours,” she said to Gifford. She told investigators that he was fidgety and appeared “very high.”
Both men agreed to be searched, with Weisenhorn patting down Morrell and Stump patting down Gifford. Stump told investigators he did not confiscate a box-cutter and pliers “with a knife-like feel” that Gifford was carrying because he “did not see those items as a threat.” He said he then felt and spotted “a small plastic bag with something in it” in the coin pocket of Gifford’s jeans.
“Zach, do not move,” Stump ordered.
The body camera footage described in the affidavit depicts a scene that immediately escalated as Gifford tried to pull away. Stump had not told Weisenhorn that he found a baggie, not a gun, and Weisenhorn later told investigators she feared Gifford might have a weapon. That kind of fear, if found to be legitimate, generally protects officers from being prosecuted for wounding or killing people.
Stump tackled Gifford, both men tumbling to the ground.
The next 48 seconds brought a flurry of grabbing and wrestling – both officers trying to cuff Gifford as he tried to break free, the officers yelling commands, each tasering him at least once, Stump also applying an electric charge directly to Gifford’s upper neck and shoulder, Gifford screaming.
“Stop moving, give me your hands, stop,” Weisenhorn’s body camera, at that point knocked to the ground, captures her saying.
Weisenhorn, cursing, told Gifford she was going to shoot him. The affidavit says body camera footage shows Gifford reaching into his pocket.
“Let him go, let him go,” Stump told Weisenhorn, according to body camera footage referenced in the affidavit. “No, he’s grabbing for something,” Weisenhorn replied.
“I’m going to shoot you. Stop,” Weisenhorn said again as Stump backed away from Gifford, who was on his knees and reaching towards his waistband. On her knees behind Gifford, she had her gun at his back. Stump drew his gun.
Gifford stood and started to run, with Weisenhorn trying unsuccessfully to stop him. Gifford broke away from her. As she stood, the camera on the ground captured Weisenhorn yelling “stop,” firing her gun and moving out of the frame. Stump, out of view, can be heard yelling, “Zach!” followed by a second gunshot, and, two seconds later, a third.
Eighteen seconds later, Weisenhorn – off camera – yelled, “Stop” before a fourth and final shot is heard. Stump, she said, had fired it. Gifford fell to the ground about 24 yards from where the final bullet was fired. Stump radioed that shots had been fired and Weisenhorn called for medical assistance.
Both officers told investigators they could not see Gifford’s hands as he ran and feared he might have a weapon. Stump said he worried, in particular, that Gifford might pose a threat to residents of Brandon who he said would have been home because of the statewide COVID lockdown. Somewhere between six and 11 people live in Brandon, which is considered a ghost town.
Weisenhorn told investigators she found Gifford lying on his stomach, hands at his waistband and “still fighting” when she got to him. She handcuffed him, trying to pat him down, then rolled him on his side. Gifford, shot through a lung, told her he couldn’t breathe, she said.
In her first interview with investigators, she said he asked her to tell his family that he loved them, adding “I have always wanted to die. Just let me die.” She told investigators she assured Gifford that he was not going to die. She started CPR.
Her final exchange with Gifford cannot be corroborated. Weisenhorn at that time was not wearing her body camera, which was still on the ground by the truck, and she had instructed Stump to return to Morrell after she cuffed Gifford.
Weisenhorn also did not repeat her story about Gifford’s alleged dying words in a subsequent interview – this one with her lawyer present. Nor did CBI investigators follow up with her on that point.
Weisenhorn has not responded to several requests for comment.
John Holland, the Gifford family’s lawyer, says, “People who want police to kill them attack the police. Zach was running away from them.”
“It is very troubling that, having shot Zach repeatedly, one of his shooters would try to make it appear that he wanted to die that day. This unfortunately is not an uncommon ploy in unjustified law enforcement killing cases.”
State crime bureau investigators concluded that each officer shot twice, but that only three of their bullets struck Gifford. Only one bullet was recovered, and that was found in his lower back.
The medical examiner’s report finds that the lethal wound came from the bullet piercing Gifford’s lung, but investigators said they could not determine who fired it. The report went on to determine Gifford’s death to be a homicide caused by massive blood loss from multiple gunshot wounds. The autopsy found methamphetamine in Gifford’s blood. Two small baggies with residue from meth were found in the grass near his body.
Weisenhorn’s fallen body camera captured Morrell yelling “Y’all killed my friend,” repeating the words several seconds later as if they were a question.
“He was just trying to get away because they were hurting him,” Morrell says months later, his hand trembling at the Thunderbird Café up the highway.
He says he can’t stop thinking about what happened that afternoon. Gifford did nothing to physically threaten either officer, he says, and drug possession should not warrant a death sentence.
“It’s just hard to talk about. Oh, goddamn. Crying,” Morrell says, tearing up.
“If only I’d used my turn signal.”
After Kiowa County Undersheriff Tracy Weisenhorn and Deputy Quinten Stump shot 39-year-old Zach Gifford to death following a traffic stop, their boss, Sheriff Casey Sheridan, put them on paid administrative leave.
The investigation began. The Prowers County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado Bureau of Investigation worked jointly, with CBI investigators processing the scene and conducting officer interviews.
In May, while the investigation was still underway , Kiowa County residents called the local newspaper to say they’d spotted Weisenhorn wearing her uniform and driving a patrol car, and Stump, dressed in civilian clothes, wearing his badge on his belt and carrying a gun. Locals wondered how seriously Sheridan was taking the Gifford shooting.
In response to an inquiry, the sheriff’s office said the officers were following policy. That policy does not require officers to turn in their badges and guns while on paid administrative leave, unlike policies in many other departments statewide.
In August, two months after the investigation was completed but before the district attorney had decided whether to charge, Weisenhorn joined Sheridan and others on a trip to the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Weisenhorn posted pictures of the trip on her Facebook page.
“Made it home from Sturgis. Had a great time. Best get away, with amazing friends,” she wrote on August 11 while posting 80 photos from the trip, including one of the sheriff.
The trip caused a stir among residents who were still in the dark about the outcome of the investigation. Sheridan has yet to answer questions about vacationing with his undersheriff while the criminality of her role in killing Gifford was still in question. As of this week, he also refuses to say if Weisenhorn remains on his staff.
Sheridan was not much more transparent about Stump‘s employment status. On Sept. 24, according to an official reprimand, the deputy was drunk and riding as a passenger in a car driven by his ex-girlfriend – a county social services case manager – when he fired two rounds at a highway sign with his duty-issued gun. The sheriff asked the state to investigate the incident and fired Stump when that probe was complete two months later. Yet he still refuses to talk about the former deputy, and both Stump and Weisenhorn have declined several requests for interviews.
In the meantime, the Kiowa County Commission has said nothing publicly about Stump or Weisenhorn, nor about Gifford’s killing in general. “They’ve been advised. They don’t feel comfortable,” said county administrator Tina Adamson. Gifford’s death, she added, is “a subject matter we know very little about,” she said on March 5.
By that point, the 57-page affidavit describing what happened had been available upon request for almost two months.
George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and Elijah McClain’s killing in Aurora, both at the hands of police, prompted protests nationally and in cities and towns throughout Colorado. Following uproar about police excessive force, Colorado’s General Assembly passed sweeping police reform legislation that bans officers from using deadly force against those suspected of minor or non-violent offenses and requires officers to intervene if they witness another officer doing so. The legislation also makes police officers who violate people’s civil rights personally responsible in state court.
Those measures passed two months after Gifford’s killing and won’t go into effect until 2023.
Why the Silence?
News of Gifford’s killing hit like a bomb, threatening the identity of a county that prides itself on being small and quiet, without big-city problems. Most community members had no experience, no frame of reference on how to react, if at all.
“A lot of people talk about it – just not very loudly,” says Shoni McKnight, Gifford’s neighbor.
Some of Gifford’s friends considered staging a protest immediately after the shooting, but the pandemic held them off.
“And then the whole thing with George Floyd happened and it was like … everywhere,” says Gifford’s buddy Jamie Crockett. “And we didn’t want to have (our protest) be swept up in all that anger and hatred. And we knew it would be.”
Doris Lessenden was Gifford’s former art teacher and neighbor. She withheld judgement about the shooting until learning about the three shots to his back. “Of course, I am angry,” she says, quick to distinguish that feeling from the Black Lives Matter protests she sees on TV.
“It’s kind of low-class behavior to me.”
“I think that the people in our community are more solid, more unradical, if that’s a word, than to do that. We feel that there will be justice, and God has a plan in this, and we don’t know what that plan is and we will all have to suffer some kind of persecution,” she says.
“I’ve tried not to write or say anything, although I know what’s in my heart and my emotions. I shouldn’t even talk about it.”
Jimmy Brown, the local funeral home director and elected county coroner, often wonders how a traffic stop in tiny Brandon escalated to a homicide. But, he has chosen to hold his tongue. “I gotta be very cautious because I (don’t) want to comingle my personal feelings with my professional duties.”
Gifford’s friend Josh Brown (no relation to Jimmy) attributes his silence to intimidation from Sheridan. “Nobody here will talk about it, afraid … of backlash from the sheriff’s department,” he says of Gifford’s killing. “It’s illegal to have a voice in Kiowa County, to tell you the truth. … They need to be investigated.”
Some locals also express discomfort about speaking out in a small community or pointing the finger at a sheriff who is also a neighbor, the father with a child in school and a nephew who bags groceries at the market, the guy who hunts and rides motorcycles with some of your friends or delights your kids by driving his squad car down Maine Street with the lights on and the siren going, leading the bus carrying the football team to state.
“There’s a mentality to people on the Eastern Plains. We’re the kind of people who want to wait and watch,” says Joe Shields, Eads’ mayor. “If someone makes a mistake or does something wrong, we don’t call them out for what they’ve done.”
There has been one persistent exception in town to this unspoken rule: Jeff Campbell, a prolific writer of letters to the editor who single-handedly has tried to keep Gifford’s death in the public spotlight.
Campbell, 70, is a retired police officer and investigator who is a municipal judge in Eads. He has lived in town for 18 years, which, he knows, still makes him an outsider, yet also more comfortable asking hard questions.
He said he hired Gifford for a repair job years ago and rehired him several times for others around his house and property. “He did what he said he’d do, never deceived me and never hesitated to re-do something he hadn’t done (right). In all the times I encountered him, I never saw a streak that caused me to hesitate because I thought he was sideways or violent,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of theKiowa County Independentabout two weeks after Gifford’s killing.
Quick to note that his interest in the case is personal, unrelated to his municipal judge duties, Campbell has continued writing about it every week since. He drew on his law enforcement experience to explain typical police standards and procedures and tell readers what to expect in terms of transparency and accountability around the investigation and charging decisions.
“In four weeks since mid-afternoon April 9, 2020, when Zach Gifford was shot and killed in Brandon I don’t recall any press briefings from Kiowa or Prowers County. What’s happening? The longer we wait, the more questions and doubts arise. The longer we wait, the fouler the smell,” Campbell wrote on May 6.
When no arrests had been made, charges filed, or court dates set in the case by June, he wrote that he was “not alone” and that “scores” of frustrated people had spoken to him about what seemed to be authorities’ inaction. He wrote of the uneasiness in the community, of fear of the police, of the ‘Blue Code’ that protects bad officers.
As with the Army’s 19th Century massacre of Arapahoe and Cheyenne people in nearby Sand Creek, he wrote in another letter, “… ‘good men’ must have taken an active part or looked away.”
“You all need to stand,” he implored his fellow residents in a Feb. 25 letter. “You know how. I pray you all will.”
But no one has.
Publicly criticizing the sheriff or district attorney would be a losing cause in one of Colorado’s most politically conservative communities, rancher Laura Negley says. “You won’t find a more pro-law enforcement county than Kiowa County.”
She also sees the community’s silence – and her own – as a sign of deference to Gifford’s parents.
“Larry and Carla are not agitators. They are peace lovers. Maybe we’re waiting for someone in the family to say ‘We are hurting. They are hurting us horribly.’”
The Giffords are hurting.
Their son was shot to death by law enforcement they trusted in a community they had believed to be safe.
For nine months, they didn’t know some of the most basic things about what happened. Things like that Stump patted their son down before shooting him, and that Weisenhorn handcuffed him after. And so they made calls, maddening ones, begging for information from Kiowa County officials who didn’t call back, let alone send condolences about their son’s death. In the Giffords’ minds, the run-around that some government agencies require, the obfuscation with which some officials handle information went from bureaucracy to cruelty. And so they stopped even trying to ask.
Twelve days into 2021, the couple got word that Stump had been arrested. He is free on $100,000 bond. Carla Gifford tried reading the affidavit accompanying his arrest warrant, but needed to stop, and Larry Gifford waded into it, night after night, absorbing its details. They both say it manages all at once to spell out what happened to their son, yet explain nothing really at all.
Two weeks later came a five-page court document filed by DA Josh Vogel charging Stump with the three felony counts, each carrying a sentencing range of 10 to 32 years. A trial, if there is one, could be months away or longer.
There is no official tally of how many Colorado law enforcement officers have been criminally prosecuted for killing people on duty. But charges are rare enough that an informal survey of officers, lawyers, scholars, civil rights advocates and watchdogs throughout the state came up with five cases statewide since 2000. Most did not result in convictions.
The Giffords and others say they do not understand why the murder charges against Stump are second- rather than first-degree, and why they’re preceded by the word attempt. “Zach is not attempted dead,” the say. He is dead. The charges seem like a slap on the wrist, the couple and many residents interviewed for this story say.
The family wants to know why Weisenhorn isn’t also being charged, especially when she was the one who made the traffic stop, the one who tasered their son first and also fired twice, including the first shot.
“That was our son. I just feel like things were not done properly,” Carla says. “This is a situation where you think you know people, then something happens like this, and you realize you don’t.”
Tired of non-answers from the county, the Giffords hired John Holland, a Denver-based civil rights lawyer in February. In a 12-page letter to county commissioners, Holland wrote that Gifford had been patted down long enough for Stump and Weisenhorn to know he was not carrying a gun. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that law enforcement officers may not use deadly force on a fleeing suspect who is not posing “a threat of serious physical harm” to officers or to others. The county’s failure to discipline Weisenhorn or Stump for the shooting, he added, indicates “that the Sheriff approved of the conduct and the basis for it.”
Holland wrote that the county is liable for Gifford’s death.
He says he hopes to meet with county commissioners soon to pose questions that have gone unanswered too long.
Questions like “Where is the justice for Zach?” Larry says.
And, as Carla puts it, “Where is the outcry?”
This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a coalition of more than 100 news outlets.