Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part collaboration between The Colorado Independent and The Rio Blanco Herald Times. We posted the first part, linked here, on Thursday, Nov. 7 and advise reading it before part 2. We will post the story in its entirety on Saturday, Nov. 9.
Most everyone in Rangely heard within a day or two there had been a police chase and some guy had been killed.
Chris Wills knew more details than most because an investigator had come to question her about her tenant Daniel Pierce and because Pierce’s van had been towed to Wild Willie’s Storage, Wills’ business.
She went to the townhome Pierce rented from her and found on the kitchen counter a calendar with two notes jotted in marker. “The Ends” reads the note on Dec. 5. The one on Dec. 9 reads “Over Forever!”
Pierce died on the 10th.
“My husband and I were sitting there like ‘Oh my God, this was suicide by cop.’ We figured then that it was orchestrated,” she says.
Pierce’s killing was Rangely’s first police-related homicide since 1981, when one of its officers killed a sniper at the town’s post office. Yet town officials stayed mum, not even mentioning it during a town council meeting the next day. They put Lt. Roy Kinney and Chief Vincent Wilczek – two-thirds of the police force at that time – on extended administrative leave pending criminal and internal affairs investigations.
District Attorney Jeff Cheney, in a report about his criminal probe in March, wrote he considered “potential violations of police policies and best practices as a factor,” but ultimately cleared Kinney and Wilczek of criminal wrongdoing. Given that Pierce had used the stolen truck as a weapon, the DA found, they could not be faulted for defending themselves and each other.
Rangely’s new town manager, Lisa Piering, and Mayor Andy Shaffer made no public statements about the shooting, both citing confidentiality around personnel matters. Piering refused to release Kinney’s personnel file to the officers in the Craig Police Department who were conducting the internal affairs inquiry. According to the report, she told investigators that Town Attorney Dan Wilson “did not feel comfortable” turning over the file.
Piering ignored the Herald Times’ questions, even months later, about what had happened with Wilczek and Kinney and who was running the police department.
She told The Independent in August she did not know and had not asked if police had sought mental health intervention for Pierce. She said Rangely officers “have training, obviously, on all sorts of human behavioral issues.” But that was an overstatement. In a career spanning nearly 30 years, Kinney’s mental health training amounted to a one-day workshop four years earlier.
Piering said Rangely’s town council had no policy discussions after Pierce’s killing because nobody had called for one and there was “no need.” She defended the officers, saying they had followed a set of police policies the town had newly adopted.
But she was wrong. Chief Wilczek had been working on revising Rangely’s police policies since at least 2010. Former Town Manager Peter Brixius says in his last year in that job — he left in August 2018 — there was an “extensive push” to get new policies in place. Wilczek didn’t get it done. On the night Pierce was killed, officers were still operating under a set of policies and procedures adopted 18 years earlier, copied from those of the Grand Junction Police Department.
New policies still have not been adopted 11 months later and are scheduled to be considered later this month by the town council.
Piering, by the time of that August interview, had received the internal affairs report, which clearly showed officers broke several police department policies when they chased and killed Pierce.
She and Wilson refused to release that report, which predated by four months a new state law requiring police internal affairs records be open to the public. The old statute governing those records required government agencies to do a balancing test weighing public transparency interests against law enforcement officers’ desire for privacy.
“Allowing the public unfettered access to the report you request would seriously impair the privacy interests of those involved…,” concludes a letter they had signed by Ti Hamblin, the new police chief who has refused to discuss anything related to Pierce’s killing.
The Independent’s First Amendment lawyer Steve Zansberg pointed out in a letter to town officials that Hamblin had a conflict of interest in determining privacy interests because he was directly involved in the Pierce pursuit.
Piering eventually agreed to release the internal affairs report, but with all the conclusions redacted. Those are the important parts – the ones the public needs to determine whether police went rogue the night they killed Pierce.
Releasing the unredacted report, Piering wrote in an affidavit, “would have a hugely chilling effect on my ability to supervise my employees and to fairly exercise my discretion in making employment related decisions and consider future changes to policy.” She, the council and town employees “would be inundated with criticism, opinions, and adamant recommendations of what I should do, and what the Council should do, relative to each of the decisions I and my staff have made since the incident occurred,” she continued.
The end result, Piering wrote, would be “that our governance of the Town of Rangely would be severely negatively impacted.”
“It’s going to rekindle this whole thing that has went on.” – Rangely Mayor Andy Shaffer
Experts on government transparency point out that Colorado has an open records law precisely so the public can evaluate officials and hold them accountable.
“Law enforcement officers, in particular, require scrutiny because they wield so much power,” says Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Secrecy fosters mistrust, but transparency helps to build trust between a police department and a community.”
Under the new state law, Roberts notes, only limited redactions would have been allowed.
When Piering agreed to an interview with the Herald Times in September, she invited Mayor Shaffer to the meeting. Publishing this article, they said, would re-traumatize the officers involved, “dredge things up” and “stir up a can of worms for this community.”
“It’s going to rekindle this whole thing that has went on… It’s not a favorable position for anybody,” Shaffer warned the newspaper. “From me to you in small town America, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s where it’s going and it’s not going to be nice for anybody.”
The story, they said, is over.
An unredacted copy of the internal affairs report obtained in our reporting concluded that Wilczek should have cleared with Kinney his decision to fire at the truck’s tires. The chief admitted several times his lack of familiarity with his own department’s policies on pursuits, use of force, and deadly force.
The report found that Kinney broke department policy by taking tactical control of the pursuit outside of the town limits without formal approval from Max Becker, the sheriff’s deputy who first spotted Pierce driving the stolen truck. Ramming the truck and shooting Pierce without confirming he was holding a weapon, investigators determined, were unjustified uses of deadly force.
Investigators did not find Hamblin at fault for ramming the truck because he was following Kinney’s directions. They seem to have ignored that the officer now in charge of Rangely’s police department admitted he would have asked to ram the truck if the lieutenant had not made the order.
The report cited Kinney’s 2016 warning shots incident at least three times – saying at one point it was symptomatic of a lack of leadership in the Rangely PD. It said the lieutenant broke department policy by taking unreasonable risks in pursuing Pierce so aggressively.
Kinney, in response, says he “started calling the shots because Becker wasn’t doing it” – a point Becker does not dispute. Kinney points to a part of the video in which he asked Becker if he could pass Pierce on the highway, and “Max gave me an affirmative.” “I was backing Max up, and I believe I was helping him to bring this to an end safely. Helping does not mean showing up and being a blind and deaf dunce.”
He most objects to the report downplaying the threat he says Pierce posed. He asserts that Pierce tried to sideswipe his patrol car during the pursuit rather than merely “swerved,” as the report phrases it. It is unclear from the dashboard video which account is more accurate.
Kinney did not help his case by arguing semantics, insisting the truck was “pushed” rather than “rammed” off the road. He was defensive and snarky at points. Asked why he did not follow Becker’s lead in letting Pierce continue driving toward Mesa County, he told his reviewer, “Why? Because we didn’t.”
“I honestly believe that they were trying to get us torn down so the sheriff could take over.” – former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney
The investigation found that Kinney had taken half of a 300 mg Hydrocodone pill early the morning of the incident, more than 14 hours before he killed Pierce.
He had been on the prescription for chronic back pain since the 1990s and had disclosed it on his job application and to Wilczek and the town manager. He also had a signed medical waiver to keep taking it. Still, the inquiry deemed his use of the drug to have violated Rangely’s code of conduct.
“It did not affect me while on duty,” he says. “But if I violated their code, OK, they got me, … especially if they’re looking for excuses.”
Kinney believes Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola stirred criticism about the police department and intentionally influenced the inquiry against him and Wilczek by telling internal affairs investigators about the September 2016 warning shots incident.
“I honestly believe that they were trying to get us torn down so the sheriff could take over.”
He acknowledges that theory “may sound paranoid,” but says, “Having been hit with back to back to back to back complaints … we have every reason to be.”
More personally, Kinney feels burned by the former friend whose own officer-involved shooting he defended 14 years earlier. The brotherhood he had with Mazzola, he says, has been betrayed.
“That’s a sad damn thing.”
Mazzola says he spoke with internal affairs investigators because they reached out to him with questions. Both he and Becker acknowledge that Kinney “is a better tactician” than Becker. “Roy has a very strong personality. He’s a leader and he’ll take charge,” Mazzola says.
But he draws a line, saying, “There are jurisdictions for a reason.” Kinney taking control of the pursuit from Becker, he says, amounted to Rangely police “not respecting our jurisdiction.”
Michael Benza, senior instructor of law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says a pattern of policy violations and police overzealousness could have created serious legal liability for Rangely. Piering’s refusal to release Kinney’s personnel file to the internal affairs investigators was, in his opinion, a “red flag.”
All of those actions, he says, “add zeros” to a potential lawsuit against the town.
Neither the DA’s nor internal affairs reports addressed the judgment calls Kinney and his department made in response to Pierce’s mental illness or whether different decisions or protocols may have prevented the fatal outcome. And no one in town leadership asked how or why a man police knew was sick ended up with two of its bullets in his head.
Pierce’s life and death were reduced to a closed police matter. Nobody said it was a shame, a tragedy what happened, or that maybe there are cracks in the system.
Rose Nuttbrock wants to believe her son wanted to live.
If he was suicidal, she asks, why were his last letters to her so upbeat and “why would he have just refilled his high blood pressure prescription in November?”
She tells herself he didn’t mean to steal the white pickup truck and must have thought it was his because he used to own one in Missouri that looked like it. She reckons he stopped on the highway and got out of the truck, confused, because he didn’t know why the police were chasing him. About the “Over Forever!” Pierce noted on his calendar, she thinks maybe he was referring to his time in Rangely, where he had hoped to escape from his problems – and not, she says, referring to his life.
“Does Colorado care? Do they even care if an officer, you know, shoots someone, if they kill a man with mental illness?” – Rose Nuttbrock, Daniel Pierce’s mother
But reason weighs on her. Her own experience reminds her of those voices, that sickness in his head. And she realizes her Danny was sick of being sick.
She understands his behavior was causing problems for the police. What she cannot abide is that Kinney knew about his paranoid schizophrenia, yet killed him anyway.
“Why couldn’t they have used tear gas or something? Why did they have to shoot him? If he was holding a gun, (wouldn’t they) have seen it? … That just isn’t right,” she says. “If this had happened in California, newspapers would have been knocking down my door. I mean, why wasn’t I hearing from anybody? Does Colorado care? Do they even care if an officer, you know, shoots someone, if they kill a man with mental illness?”
Rio Blanco County is a dangerous place to have a mental health crisis.
Residents here are nearly twice as likely as the average Coloradan to be uninsured. With about 6,300 residents, the county has far less than half the mental health providers per capita than the state average. Countywide, according to Mental Health Colorado, it has two licensed professional counselors, two clinical social workers and one registered psychotherapist. It has no psychologists and no nurses specializing in mental health.
The county health department long has ranked mental health – and substance abuse issues – as its top concern, but its latest progress report in 2018 found it had made “little traction” on prevention and treatment efforts.
Some 57% of residents here cited “mental health stigma” as the reason they have been unable to obtain mental health services, and 61% reported being uncomfortable discussing personal problems, according to data compiled by Mental Health Colorado. Those percentages eclipse the statewide averages of 22% and 31%, respectively.
Sharma Vaughn, who worked until August as the chief nursing officer at Rangely District Hospital, says this community too often perceives mental health problems as a character flaw rather than an illness. Those attitudes are largely cultural – “the rugged individualistic West,” she says. But she sees them also as reflections of an under-funded rural health care system.
“If we have an emergency and we don’t have the resources, it can be between an hour or two hours before someone gets to us with that specific skill set,” she says. About the Pierce case in particular, “My worry is that I’m not sure what resources we had for him and I’m not sure what resources we have for law enforcement professionals to make sure we have someone in crisis getting the help they need.”
The national model for preparing first responders is a 40-hour crisis intervention training (CIT) that originated in Memphis and teaches officers to recognize acute mental disorders so they can help people access care and treatment. It is designed to promote the safety of both the public and law enforcement.
Several police forces in Colorado require officers to have such training. Rangely is not one of them. Officials from small and rural law enforcement agencies say they do not have the money or person-power to spare officers for a whole workweek. Why Rangely does not is unclear because Piering refuses to answer questions about the training, saying she was not the police chief or town manager at the times in question and feels uncomfortable “continuing to guess or speculate.” She attached to an email the still-unadopted new department policy manual.
For Rangely police, mental health training has consisted of an eight-hour class called Mental Health First Aid that has been offered only a handful of times every few years in the community. The course covers the basics such as identifying signs of depression and anxiety in others and in yourself. It does not discuss conditions such as paranoid schizophrenia, and is not specifically for law enforcement. The classes typically are open to the public, attended by everyone from librarians to business owners.
Sarah Valentino of Steamboat Springs taught the course as part of her work with the Northwest Colorado Community Health Partnership. “Whenever I went down there, the classes filled up right away,” she says of Rio Blanco County.
She offered a day-long class in Rangely in March 2018 that was attended by Deputy Becker from the sheriff’s office and Hamblin and Wilczek from Rangely police. Kinney was not there. He had taken the course in 2014 for which he received a Mental Health First Aid certification that expired in 2017.
Kinney says that day-long workshop was the only mental health training he remembers having in his 28 years as a law enforcer in Rio Blanco County. “Come to think of it, yeah, that’s not a lot.”
After the March 2018 training in Rangely, the Partnership planned to offer a follow up course specifically for law enforcement in northwest Colorado. The sponsoring group, Mental Health First Aid Colorado, had funding from Colorado’s Attorney General’s office to pay for it, and rural agencies such as Rangely police were meant to be prioritized. But the training never happened because the money was not fully allocated or spent. Barb Becker, who runs the statewide program – and is not related to Deputy Becker – says, “We got a delayed start in terms of getting the contract signed.”
Next month will mark the year anniversary of Pierce’s killing. Since then, Rangely Police Chief Hamblin has not put his police force through mental health and crisis response training. “I did not have the manpower to ‘need to’ hold any mental health training until now,” he wrote in an email. Now that he has hired three new officers, is advertising for a lieutenant and just requested funding for a sixth officer, he said he is trying to schedule a class “for early next year.”
The class he was referring to was the basic Mental Health First Aid eight-hour workshop.
It is easy, experts warn, to assume that better mental health training for law enforcement could change the outcomes of cases like Pierce’s.
“But I don’t know that’s necessarily true,” Valentino says.
“When you have law enforcement responding to unmet mental health needs, bad things happen,” adds Vincent Atchity, the new president of Mental Health Colorado, the state’s premier advocacy group, who has spent much of his career trying to disentangle people with mental illness from the criminal justice system.
Until recently, Colorado was one of six states that still used jails to house people on involuntary mental health holds known as M-1s. But big city law enforcement agencies were complaining about jail overcrowding and rural departments struggled to meet the 72-hour limit for M-1 holds because of the time it could take to transfer people to and from clinics for mental health evaluations. The legislature in 2016 passed a bill to extend the 72-hour limit, but then-Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed it on grounds that evaluation and treatment for people in crisis should not be delayed. In 2017, lawmakers passed – and Hickenlooper signed – a law requiring that people on involuntary holds be housed in clinical settings such as psychiatric wards rather than in jails.
There is no such ward at Rangely District Hospital. Rio Blanco County has a contract with West Springs Hospital, which is run by Mind Springs Health, the organization Kinney called about Pierce. The hospital is 92 miles south in Grand Junction.
West Springs is the only psychiatric hospital between Denver and Salt Lake City. It had 32 beds on the day Kinney called, and had been at capacity for years, with a list of patients waiting for inpatient care. “The truth is they were always full, every day, and every day we had a wait list,” says Mind Springs’ President and CEO Sharon Raggio.
Her organization addressed the problem by adding 32 more beds, doubling West Springs’ capacity. Those beds became available on Dec. 11, 2018 – the day after Pierce was killed.
Pierce fell through other cracks in mental health care services that also involved Mind Springs.
“What I do know is that Mind Springs encourages officers to not do M-1s. Mind Springs encourages officers to defer to Mind Springs,” Valentino says. “As the professionals, as the people who have the most training around this, they didn’t want people in law enforcement to be making those decisions about M-1s inappropriately.”
Mind Springs’ Raggio frames her organization’s stance a bit differently, saying law enforcement officers often feel “uncomfortable” seeking M-1 holds because they are not mental health professionals and “because it’s a big deal to take away someone’s constitutional right to be free.” “Generally speaking, we encourage law enforcement to use what we call an M-0.5, instead,” she says.
M-0.5 holds, made possible by a state law that went into effect six months before Pierce’s death, are an option for first responders, medical and mental health professionals to take someone who does not meet the “imminent danger” criterion of an M-1 hold to an outpatient clinic for walk-in services such as evaluation and treatment. Those initiating them are supposed to coordinate with a so-called “mobile crisis service” – which is required in each county by state law and must arrive within two hours in rural areas – to create a safety plan for the person in crisis. The mini-M-1 hold is a half-measure to address mental health breakdowns as health crises rather than criminal ones and to make sure that people with urgent needs like Pierce get the intervention they need.
Some, mostly well-resourced and urban communities in Colorado have formed co-responder teams that bring together law enforcement, paramedics and mental health clinicians to respond to calls like the ones about Pierce from the school and bank in Rangely. Rio Blanco County’s public health department says its communities can not afford such a team. As with many of its mental health needs, the county relies on Mind Springs to act as its mobile crisis service under a subcontract with the state.
“Let’s all work together to close the cracks and make sure this never happens again.” – Sharon Raggio, president, Mind Springs
Whenever someone asked Mind Springs for mobile response to a home, business, hospital or jail, Raggio says, “We responded.”
“We would have been happy to correspond with Lt. Kinney,” she adds. “He could have put Mr. Pierce on an M-0.5 and taken him over to our office. That was a legal option.”
Kinney says he did not know about the mobile crisis service or an M-0.5 hold until asked about them in an interview for this story.
“I have never heard of either.”
Alice Harvey, a former emergency room nurse who took the job as public health director in Rio Blanco County in summer 2019, says she has noticed confusion about the mobile crisis service and how it’s supposed to work with law enforcement.
“It’s a bit of a mess, honestly, because there’s such need and we’re all scrambling to provide resources.”
Raggio says the Pierce case will prompt her to make sure that Mind Springs’ hotline counselors offer support to first responders who call in seeking M-1 holds but do not ask for other help.
“I think we need to go back and better train people on those types of calls,” she says. “I agree this was a tragedy. It’s just terrible when anything like this happens. Let’s all work together to close the cracks and make sure this never happens again. That’s really what it’s got to be about.”
Ken Davis, a mental health care provider in Moffat County and longtime advocate of better crisis intervention services in northwest Colorado, says he feels sick knowing “We’ve created a kind of perfect storm in which somebody with a persistent severe mental health problem is not getting the treatment, not getting the support, with people in the position of authority not recognizing the problem, and we’re having these kinds of unfortunate outcomes.”
“This is a man’s life. It makes you wonder if the price of a life in a rural area is lower than the price of a life somewhere else. I hate to tell you that the answer is yes.”
Pierce’s death, adds Vaughn, the nurse in Rangely, “Might be a really good example of a time when the community needs to come together to discuss mental illness.”
There has been no such coming together, no public conversation about what Pierce was enduring, and no discussion about whether Rangely police are equipped to prevent deaths like his now and in the future. Residents have been left to surmise what ailed Pierce, what might have saved him, and how their police force responded to his crisis.
Wills, Pierce’s landlord, kicks herself for not offering her tenant spiritual help. “I feel kinda bad because if I had known what was going on with him, maybe I would have called a pastor to check in on him.”
Jillien Wade is a lifelong Rangely resident who works as a postal carrier in town. She never met Pierce, but heard about his killing.
“There were rumors … like that he had Huntington’s disease,” she says.
In the absence of more information about the shooting, she “assume(s) the police department made the best decision in that moment.”
“I want to believe that was the situation.”
Mazzola, after killing the suspect who tried to ambush him in 2004, saw a counselor who urged him to “tell the story to anyone who will listen” and to keep telling it until he didn’t feel the need to anymore.
Talking about that shooting, the sheriff says, was therapy for him, a path to move forward.
Kinney has not had that option.
“You want people to know so they’re not sitting there thinking, whatever, like we’re just a bunch of yahoos because, frankly, I’m destroyed by that.” – former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney
The town made him sign a confidentiality agreement when Piering, Mayor Shaffer, Town Attorney Wilson, and the agency that insures Rangely police forced his retirement in May. He – along with Chief Wilczek – had to agree under the threat of a civil suit and damages not to “disparage” the town, Piering, or other town officials, especially as it relates to decisions made after Pierce’s death.
“So, basically, I’m under contract not to say anything.”
Not saying anything led Kinney to hole up most of the past year in his home office reviewing body camera and dashboard camera videos. He has memorized the twists and turns of the pursuit and the back and forth of the police radio chatter. He watches the Jesus talk video thinking “I know what’s coming, what if we could turn back and M-1 him,” and he sobs.
Saying nothing prodded Kinney to pour over Rangely police policies, transcripts of internal affairs interviews, Colorado’s M-1 law, and studies about paranoid schizophrenia.
The silence spurred a depression that has, if nothing else, made him realize how clueless he had been about depression.
“It consumes me, this shooting. It’s all I think about,” he says.
Kinney describes his town as a “rumor basin” – a place where if people do not know something about you, they’ll make it up. The longer the silence goes on, he says, the worse it gets.
“You want clarity. You want people to know so they’re not sitting there thinking, whatever, like we’re just a bunch of yahoos because, frankly, I’m destroyed by that,” he says.
He points to the body camera video playing on his screen and adds, “They don’t know Dan Pierce. They don’t know Jesus.”
The silence became unbearable for Kinney by September, the weekend his daughter was getting married and word had spread through Piering that journalists from the Herald Times and The Colorado Independent were onto the Pierce story and might crash the wedding. Through channels, he says, Piering let him know that the angle of this story would be that he got away with murder.
He decided to end his silence, regardless of the risks. He wants to tell the people of his town, “I did everything I could, knowing what I knew then, to protect myself, fellow officers, the community and him.”
“I heard the shots and believed Dan shot at Vince and that’s why I killed him,” he says. “There is nothing to cover up. I know in my heart that his goal was to die that night and I’m just really sad that I was any part of it. All I need is to let people know that I didn’t violate the trust they had in us. We were out of options.”
Kinney replays in his memory his conversation with Pierce’s mom. It haunts him that he had reassured Nuttbrock after she “spilled her guts to me,” then killed her son less than a week later. It makes it harder knowing that he may have been the person in town Pierce most trusted.
“I thought if anybody could talk him down it would be me.”
Kinney’s confidentiality agreement has kept him from reaching out to Nuttbrock since the shooting. It also has kept him from contacting Pierce’s wife, Debra, whose absence in Pierce’s life has, in some ways, become an absence in his.
If the two had spoken, Debra would have questioned what went down that night on that road into Rangely.
“Did he need to use brute force? Maybe he didn’t. I don’t know,” she says of Kinney.
She also would have told him about things that may have made the past 11 months easier. Like Pierce’s plan, if his pain got too bad, to “run out in front of a truck and end it all.” And his infatuation with O.J. Simpson’s 1994 Bronco chase from police, which struck such a chord with him that he would talk about it years later. And her suspicion that some part of her late husband “knew what he was doing and that he was tired of the voices and wanted to end this.”
Had it not been for the silence, Debra would have told Kinney she knows the corners Pierce could put you in: You were damned if you tried to help him, damned if you hurt him, and damned if he hurt somebody else and you were blamed for not having intervened.
She would have told the lieutenant she knew what he saw in Pierce’s eyes that day in his townhouse and two nights later, cornered in the stolen truck. And she would have said what is perhaps hardest to say: That as much as we may feel for people with acute mental illness, there can be something terrorizing that grows from their madness that needs to be stopped, sometimes at any cost.
Had Kinney been able to reach out, Debra would have said “I’m glad Red’s not hearing the voices, wherever he is.”
She also would have told him, “I don’t hold anything against you.”
Read Part 1 here.