Through the Cracks: A stranger, a police shooting, and a rural town’s silence (Part I)

Still shot from the dashboard camera on former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney's patrol car as he chased Daniel Pierce through the desert. The December 10, 2018 pursuit ended when Kinney fatally shot Pierce.
Still shot from the dashboard camera on former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney's patrol car as he chased Daniel Pierce through the desert. The December 10, 2018 pursuit ended when Kinney fatally shot Pierce.

RANGELY – No one seems to know why Daniel Pierce settled in this northwestern Colorado town last year after his wife in Missouri and mother in California kicked him out of their houses. But in the four months he lived here, he came to think of it as heaven.

Not just because he relished the hours he’d spend bumming cigarettes in front of the Kum & Go and watching pickups haul ATVs west toward the Utah desert. But because Pierce, who had paranoid schizophrenia, became convinced he was God and Rangely the place where people long dead or lost from his life would reappear at his whim. 

That’s what he told the police officer who checked in on him twice last December after he scared some kids outside a school and alarmed workers at the local bank.

Lt. Roy Kinney had been keeping his eye on Pierce, just as he did the rest of this 2,300-person community with its boom-and-bust economy, don’t-tread-on-me politics and town motto declaring itself “Way outside of ordinary!” 

“Do you know who I am? I’m the Creator, Roy,” Pierce, 58, told him. “I’m God. I am Jesus fucking Christ.” 

He tried to prove his point by inviting the lieutenant to “shoot me, I’ll come back to life, shoot me.” If his estranged wife did not return to him that evening, he threatened, “Everybody in this town will disappear.”

Daniel Pierce arrived in Rangely in August, 2018 after struggling for years with untreated paranoid schizophrenia. (Photo courtesy of Debra Pierce)
Daniel Pierce arrived in Rangely in August, 2018 after struggling for years with untreated paranoid schizophrenia. (Photo courtesy of Debra Pierce)

Kinney was rattled by those threats, but decided Pierce was not a danger to himself or others.

That conclusion would prove fatal two days later when Pierce drew all three of Rangely’s officers – the town’s whole police force – and a sheriff’s deputy into a lengthy car chase. In the adrenaline blur of its final 20 seconds, Kinney shot Pierce in the head.

Pierce’s Dec. 10, 2018 killing marked Rangely’s first officer-involved homicide in nearly four decades. Everybody in town heard about it. Yet, in the aftermath, there has been silence. 

In that silence, town officials refused to turn over key documents to internal affairs investigators. In that silence, a longstanding rivalry between the police department and the larger sheriff’s office and a soured relationship between two friends raised questions about how the case and the investigation were handled. And in that silence, the police chief and Kinney were forced from their jobs. 

Town officials released no information about the shooting, and later urged The Rio Blanco Herald Times not to report the story. The newspaper partnered with The Colorado Independent to investigate what happened. Our outlets combed through hundreds of pages of public documents, reviewed hours of video and audio recordings, and interviewed more than 50 people, including Pierce’s family members, Kinney and other law enforcement officers, mental health providers, legal experts, and state, county and local government officials. 

The death of Daniel Pierce was, in many people’s minds, further evidence of recklessness in a small town police force town residents had come to distrust. We found his killing may have been legally justified, but it was not unavoidable. It underscored the extent to which many in law enforcement are ill-equipped to handle mental health crises and the degree to which the kind of intervention Pierce needed is lacking in rural Colorado. 

There was a shooting and there was its aftermath. This is the story of both. 

Read more of “Through the Cracks” on the Rio Blanco Herald Times.

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