Through the Cracks: A stranger, a police shooting, and a small town’s silence

A rural Colorado cop knew Daniel Pierce was in a mental health crisis, but didn’t seek care before killing him. Town leaders tried to kill the story.

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. 

The stranger

Daniel Pierce did not have an easy childhood. His mother, Rose Nuttbrock, was 16 when she had him. His father, never around, died of a heroin overdose. His younger brother, David, was murdered by a schoolmate when he was 14 and Pierce 18.

Daniel Pierce's mother, Rose Nuttbrock, holds a photo of her two sons – both lost to homicides. Daniel younger brother David was 14 when accidentally shot by a schoolmate, who then intentionally killed him so he wouldn't tell. Daniel, then 18, didn't attend David's funeral because he felt guilty for not taking his little brother off-roading, as David asked, the weekend before his death. (Photo by Kurt Miller)
Daniel Pierce’s mother, Rose Nuttbrock, holds a photo of her two sons – both lost to homicides. Daniel’s younger brother David was 14 when accidentally shot by a schoolmate, who then intentionally killed him so he wouldn’t tell. Daniel, then 18, didn’t attend David’s funeral because he felt guilty for not taking his little brother off-roading, as David asked, the weekend before his death. (Photo by Kurt Miller)

Pierce’s family says he went through Army basic training in the 1980s but did not go on to serve because he married and had kids. Their account of his short-lived military record contradicts what he told people in Rangely, where he flashed the “Combat Engineer” tattoo on his arm and talked about serving in the special forces during Operation Desert Storm. He actually had been working at a farm store in Northern California at that time. 

He and his first wife had two girls, the eldest of whom, Heather, died from sepsis at age five. In 1990, he severely injured his back in a car accident. Pain kept him from working after an unsuccessful surgery. His first marriage ended, as did his contact with his younger, surviving daughter – yet another in his long string of losses.

Pierce started dating a former coworker whom he eventually married. Debra Pierce says he had reconstructive surgery on his lower back in the late 1990s and relied on a port to infuse him with a steady cocktail of drugs to ease his constant pain. He stayed home, living on Social Security disability, and spent his time fixing things around the house and helping raise her daughter, Kayla.

“Red pushed her a little hard, but he was a good dad, a good guy,” Debra says of the husband she nicknamed for his hair color. “There was a time when I loved him.”

***

Daniel Pierce is pictured here with his wife, Debra and her daughter, Kayla, whom he helped raise, between them. (Photo courtesy of Debra Pierce)
Daniel Pierce is pictured here with his wife, Debra and her daughter, Kayla, whom he helped raise, between them. (Photo courtesy of Debra Pierce)

Pierce’s back pain worsened, leading a doctor in 2012 to prescribe a painkiller called Prialt. The drug comes with an FDA warning: “Severe psychiatric symptoms and neurological impairment may occur during treatment.” 

He started hearing voices after about six weeks on the medication. There were people living under their house, he told Debra. He was sure they had installed cameras in their shower. 

“He pretty much destroyed the house drilling holes in the walls trying to find them,” she says.

The doctor did not pull him off the painkiller until a few months later, she recalls, and he warned her then that her husband’s delusions might not go away. “This is who he is now,” she remembers the doctor saying.

The voices grew louder and Pierce’s paranoia more fierce until he agreed later that year to be hospitalized near their home in Missouri. He spent three weeks in the psychiatric ward, where doctors diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. The pills they had given him helped quiet the voices. When he would not take them, doctors injected the medication. But Pierce eventually stopped showing up for the monthly shots until delusions, along with constant threats lurking in all corners, became his new normal in his early 50s. 

“There was a time when I loved him.” – Debra Pierce, widow of Daniel Pierce

Debra realized over time he had been lying to her about his military experience. She started wondering what else he was lying about and which of his tales stemmed from mental illness and which from deception. She would move out during his bad spells and Pierce would threaten her as he sensed her slipping away. She came home one day to find that he had shot and killed two of her cats. If it would have been legal to hunt humans, he told her, that would be his sport. 

Pierce would say things like, “You’re still my wife, and if I can’t have you, nobody will,” and Debra came to suspect that if she ever left him, “nobody would find my body.” Police would show up for welfare checks because he had reported she had been taken hostage. Their 21-year relationship came down to two terrifying options: “He would either kill me or he would kill somebody else and then (everybody) would look at me and ask, why didn’t you get him help?”

Debra Pierce discusses her late husband, Daniel Pierce, before heading to work in Sedalia, Mo., on November 4, 2019. (Photo by Julie Denesha)
Debra Pierce discusses her late husband, Daniel Pierce, before heading to work in Sedalia, Mo., on November 4, 2019. (Photo by Julie Denesha)

And so she cut off all contact in 2016 and hid from the man to whom she remained legally married. Without treatment, she says, the voices in his head drowned out her own, and no amount of her patience or love could silence them. 

***

Pierce hid his diagnosis from his mother, who did not learn of it until he moved back to California to live with her in 2017. Nuttbrock was alarmed by how he had changed. 

“He would talk like he was talking to someone, but there was nobody there.”

Once, Pierce called police in California to say someone – one of the voices in his head – killed Debra in Missouri. He needed them to check on her. A SWAT team surrounded her home 1,600 miles away. When they confirmed she was safe, Nuttbrock asked police to put her son on an involuntary mental health hold. He persuaded doctors to release him after one night.

Wherever there was a crack in his mental health care, he found a way to slip through it.

“The sik meds only make me sick I don’t need them. An they change me for the worst,” he wrote Debra from California in a letter blaming their problems on former neighbors whom he believed had connected military radio equipment to his brain, emitting frequencies he could hear 24/7.

“I’m so upset about all this stuff. I’m ready to kill them all. The pain of worrying about you an missing you is getting more than I can handle! And I don’t care anymore about going to jail for killing them,” his letter reads. “I wise thing could be different but someday sone I’ll bring you there bodys to prove it to you.”

Nuttbrock agreed to let him stay under one condition: “I didn’t want to hear any more about those voices.” But they kept speaking to him and he to them until Pierce scared his teenage nephew. When Nuttbrock gave Pierce one last warning, he, at six feet tall, lunged at her. She told him then he needed to move out.

Rose Nuttbrock of Riverside, CA, was alarmed by the changes in her son, Daniel Pierce. Eventually, she grew scared of him and kicked him out of her house out of self-protection. (Photo by Kurt Miller)
Rose Nuttbrock of Riverside, Calif., was alarmed by the changes in her son, Daniel Pierce. Eventually, she grew scared of him and kicked him out of her house out of self-protection. (Photo by Kurt Miller)

“He wasn’t my son” by that point, she says, crying into the phone. “He was a stranger. I didn’t even know him. And I was afraid.”

***

Pierce headed east in the blue Chevy van his mother bought him, stopping in New Mexico and then back in Missouri to find Debra. She recalls the Memorial Day weekend in 2018 when he showed up at the home supply store where she works.

“I said ‘There’s nothing left,’ and he said, ‘You’re still my wife,’ (and) I said, ‘Leave me the fuck alone.’

“He had tears in his eyes and drove off,” she says, teary, too. “That was the last time I seen him.”

Untreated paranoid schizophrenia often breeds alienation for those with the condition. Their delusions, their paranoia can subsume their former selves so that people who were close to them tend to push them away out of self-protection. So it was that nobody in Pierce’s family spoke with him during the six months that followed. 

“The sik meds only make me sick I don’t need them.” – Daniel Pierce in a letter to his wife

Nuttbrock was tracking her son’s whereabouts from the bank statements and blood pressure prescription mailed to her home. She could see that he headed from Missouri to Wyoming, then down to Colorado in August 2018. He had no ties in Rangely that she or her daughter-in-law knew of. 

Pierce wrote her in October 2018 that he had been led here by his “extended family” of Native American relatives – a distant branch of her family tree she doubts he could have tracked down. Maybe out of loneliness, she figures, he was searching for some lost tribe.

Tim Webber, who heads the Western Rio Blanco Metropolitan Recreation and Park District in Rangely, first encountered Pierce at the district-run RV park in town where Pierce was living out of his van. When Pierce told him he was a veteran, Webber loaned him a tent and sleeping bag, stopped charging him rent for his RV park space, and hired him to mow the greens at the local golf course. “He was always on time and he did a good job,” he says. “He was a different fellow, but a nice guy.”

As temperatures dropped last fall, Pierce used the money he earned at the golf course and a job working maintenance at the community college to rent a duplex on South Grand Street. His landlord, Chris Wills, describes him as neatly dressed, well spoken and chatty about what he said was his career in the Army’s elite special forces.

Something about Rangely resonated with Pierce.

Pierce wrote two letters to his mother from Rangely. In this, the first, he mentioned reuniting with dead people and others who had been lost from his life. Among those was his daughter Heather who died decades ago at age 5. (Photo by Kurt Miller)
Pierce wrote two letters to his mother from Rangely. In this, the first, he mentioned reuniting with dead people and others who had been lost from his life. Among those was his daughter Heather who died decades ago at age 5. (Photo by Kurt Miller)

“I love this part of the country it’s where I belong,” he wrote Nuttbrock last October. “I even found my Heather here Mom. She is a butieful girl,” he went on about his young daughter who died decades earlier. “I know this a sounds so crazy, but please beliveae me. So much has happen in my life.”

Pierce’s last letter to her, dated Nov. 15, described the park near his townhome, the friends he was making here, and the way Rangely takes such good care of its children.

“It’s a special life here,” the letter reads. “My health is great here. No more pain or headaches. Thank God.”

Rangely America

Petroglyphs and paint pictographs have graced the sandstone canyons south of Rangely for about 13 centuries. But a town that now has one church for every 230 residents is also known for an often-photographed bluff on its eastern outskirts spray painted with the misspelled message “Jesus is Comming.”

This patch of high desert 25 miles east of the Colorado-Utah border has always been a place through which people pass, whether the native guides who led Spanish missionaries through the area in 1776 or oil and gas workers who migrate with shifts in their industry.

Rangely, with a population of about 2,300, had a three-person police force at the time of Daniel Pierce's killing in December 2018. Two of them, including the chief and lieutenant, lost their jobs over the shooting. (Map by Mark Castillo)
Rangely, with a population of about 2,300, had a three-person police force at the time of Daniel Pierce’s killing in December 2018. Two of them, including the chief and lieutenant, lost their jobs over the shooting. (Map by Mark Castillo)

Rangely hit the map in 1931, when the California Company – now Chevron – spudded an oil well. It incorporated as a town 15 years later. The Chamber of Commerce touts that Rangely has “the largest field in the Rocky Mountain region.” In 1956, the field yielded 49% of Colorado’s total oil production. That percentage since has dropped to single digits.

During boom cycles, the industry afforded Rangely the ability to build schools, a hospital and a tricked-out recreation center. When energy prices drop, reduced tax revenue strains agencies like the fire department and police force, even as the population has stayed relatively static.

The town has worked hard to diversify its economy. It founded Colorado Northwestern Community College more than 50 years ago. It sponsors annual motor sports events like rock-crawling and rally races. And it promotes its Tank Center for Sonic Arts, an abandoned water tank reconfigured as a music venue whose eerie acoustics have drawn international attention. 

Despite those efforts, there is a sense among locals that Rangely is under siege — be it by new state oil and gas regulations, by federal Obamacare guidelines blamed for the hospital’s financial woes, and even by its own county government, which some say favors the town of Meeker on the east side of this two-town county. 

***

Kinney, a 53-year-old Marlboro-smoking, Mountain Dew-drinking former police lieutenant, grew up partly in Rangely, where his granddad worked the oil fields for Chevron. Being a cop, he says, is “all I ever wanted to do.” He enlisted in the Air Force as a law enforcement specialist and worked for the Rio Blanco Sheriff’s Office for 15 years before he went to work as Rangely Police Department’s No. 2 in 2010.

Locals saw him as a throwback – one of those small-town cops who knew your parents and probably your grandparents, and who would take the time to show up in person rather than phone. Smart, some describe him. A bit tightly wound, others say. A guy who’ll talk with you and hear what you’re saying.

Former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney was forced out of his job after fatally shooting Daniel Pierce on Dec. 10, 2018. He may have been the person in town Pierce most trusted.
Former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney was forced out of his job after fatally shooting Daniel Pierce on Dec. 10, 2018. He may have been the person in town Pierce most trusted.

“Like that sheriff on TV. You know, Opie’s dad,” one of his neighbors says. 

“Yeah,” agrees her husband, “but with balls.”

Kinney reported to longtime Rangely Police Chief Vincent Wilczek, known as Vinny, who refused multiple requests to be interviewed for this story. 

Wilczek has a reputation as rough around the edges – short-tempered, long-winded, and sometimes gruff. He had a stroke in 2016. Kinney ran the department in his long absence.

To the extent that a 73-year-old town like Rangely has old, established families, Wilczek’s is one of them. The police department and the town administration are linked through blood and marriage. Wilczek’s cousin, Lisa Piering, became town manager the day after Pierce’s death after years serving as town clerk. And his wife, Karen, serves not only as Rangely’s county court clerk, but also the primary judge in its municipal court, where cases stemming from police citations are heard.

Former Rangely Police Chief Vincent Wilczek before he was forced into retirement last spring after Daniel Pierce's killing. The chief was years overdue updating the town's nearly two-decades-old police policies, and admitted he wasn't familiar with his department's rules on car chases and use of force.
Former Rangely Police Chief Vincent Wilczek before he was forced into retirement last spring after Daniel Pierce’s killing. The chief was years overdue updating the town’s nearly two-decades-old police policies, and admitted he wasn’t familiar with his department’s rules on car chases and use of force.

“I think that’s a conflict of interest,” says Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola.

Karen Wilczek was reappointed as municipal judge by the town council after assuring members she recuses herself “when any potential or perceived conflicts of interest arise.” Town Attorney Dan Wilson backed her up. 

***

The Rio Blanco Sheriff’s Office and the Rangely Police Department cooperate with one another, but the relationship can be strained. The small police force long has grumbled that the larger Sheriff’s Office lures away Rangely’s officers with its slightly higher salaries. 

It hasn’t helped that the police chief had a history of butting heads with the sheriff whose election bid he opposed in 2014. When Mazzola won the seat, he reached out to Wilczek and deputized him and all Rangely police officers in what he calls a gesture of trust and reconciliation.

Their truce was short-lived. 

At first, Wilczek and Mazzola bickered over minor jurisdictional issues – what Kinney called “pissing matches.” Those turned into all-out war in 2016 when Kinney, unable to pursue a robbery suspect on foot because of an injury, yelled at him to stop and fired two warning shots into the air with people and a sheriff’s deputy nearby.  

Mazzola calls Kinney’s warning gunfire “boneheaded” and “reckless,” especially for a veteran officer. He was furious when Wilczek refused to seek an outside investigation, as is required for officer-involved shootings. Wilczek said it was not an officer-involved shooting because nobody was hit and his department’s policies did not prohibit officers from firing warning shots. 

The Ninth Judicial District Attorney’s office and agents from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation sided with the police. But Mazzola had lost trust in Rangely’s police force and its ability to work safely with his deputies. He told the town manager “your town is out of control” and declared all of Rangely’s officers undeputized because, he says, he did not want the legal liability for their missteps. 

“I touted Roy as the best cop in the county. (But) when he went to work for Rangely PD, something changed,” Mazzola says of Kinney.

Kinney took Mazzola’s condemnation as a personal attack from a man he had considered a close friend since Dec. 10, 2004.

Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola has been the most outspoken critic of the Rangely Police Department, calling the former regime reckless two years before Daniel Pierce was killed. (Courtesy of Rio Blanco County Sheriff's Office)
Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola has been the most outspoken critic of the Rangely Police Department, calling the former regime reckless two years before Daniel Pierce was killed. (Courtesy of Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Office)

It was on that date – 14 years to the day before Kinney would kill Pierce – that Mazzola killed a suspect in a reported domestic dispute after a car chase. Kinney, who also responded to that call, remembers Mazzola asking him immediately after, “Did I fuck up? Did I fuck it up?”

“I told him no, because in my eyes he hadn’t, even though in other people’s eyes he may have,” he says.

For many years, the two men would meet for dinner each Dec. 10 to, as Kinney puts it, “celebrate our survival.” But in recent years, they stopped getting together. “I guess our relationship changed,” he says. 

Mazzola agrees that the 2004 shooting “bonded us,” and says, “I’m not sure how things fell apart.”

The demise of their friendship would later cause Kinney to wonder if Mazzola tried to influence the investigation into Pierce’s death to make him look bad. 

***

Criticism of the Rangely PD intensified in 2017 when prominent residents were being pulled over in what they complained were overly aggressive traffic stops. Officers would snare drivers on pretexts such as turning on their blinkers too soon or having muddy license plates or objects dangling from their rear-view mirrors. Locals were angry to learn officers had a running contest to see who could make the most drunk driving arrests.

“We didn’t encourage competition, I’ll tell you that,” says Kinney, who also does not deny such a contest took place. “It’s human nature to be competitive. It has been going on among officers here for a long, long time.”

In January 2018, the town council held a three-hour public hearing about the police department, which Kinney refers to as “the Evisceration.”

The Rangely Police Department has been operating under 19-year-old policies that, despite the town manager's assertions to the contrary, hadn't been updated before Pierce's killing. They still haven't been updated 11 months later, and town council members are scheduled to consider changes later this month.
The Rangely Police Department has been operating under 19-year-old policies that, despite the town manager’s assertions to the contrary, hadn’t been updated before Pierce’s killing. They still haven’t been updated 11 months later, and town council members are scheduled to consider changes later this month.

Residents complained they felt picked on by over-amped cops abusing their power. Jeff Rector, a Rio Blanco County commissioner who had been pulled over twice, said their “heavy-handedness” was out of touch with “Rangely America.” “Everybody’s not a bad guy,” added Paul Fortunato, a former sheriff’s deputy. 

Sheriff Mazzola, in the meantime, became increasingly outspoken against the police force. “We’re public servants,” he says of law enforcement. “We’re not at war with the public.”

The five-person department lost two of its officers in 2018. One of them, Max Becker, left for the sheriff’s office because he felt his views about law enforcement didn’t line up with the police force. He later filed a complaint against the Rangely department alleging it was misrepresenting the length of time recorded for its traffic stops to justify the use of a drug-sniffing dog. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the DA’s office found discrepancies, but did not pursue the issue. 

A confidential informant, meanwhile, lodged a complaint through the sheriff’s office, claiming Kinney and Wilczek were throwing drug-tainted tennis balls into people’s cars to trigger canine drug searches. Both denied the allegation, and no action arose from that complaint, either.

“We’re public servants. We’re not at war with the public.”  – Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola

Distrust stung the police department hardest late last year when it started having trouble getting its cases prosecuted. Jessica King, the deputy DA at the time, says she was “constantly frustrated” by its chronic inability to provide her office with evidence and documentation from its arrests. 

She felt she was “stonewalled right and left,” mainly on drug cases, which she stopped prosecuting. But Mazzola says it was more than drug cases and that “She was totally bucking everything from Rangely.”

By the time Pierce was killed in December, Kinney says King’s refusal to prosecute cases had rendered his department essentially powerless.

Jesus talk

Still on the beat despite public scorn and interdepartmental drama, Kinney first met Pierce at an ATV race in September 2018. He would over the next months see the newcomer walking around town. “He always wanted a cigarette, saying his military check hadn’t come yet. I’d give him one and we’d stand on the street and talk.” Over many Marlboros, Pierce told him stories about his exploits in the special forces. “It was just extraordinary stuff that made me think, ‘No way, this guy’s full of crap,’” says Kinney, an Air Force veteran.

Their exchanges were friendly until Dec. 4 when the school district reported a man who fit Pierce’s description had been lingering around the high school trying to lure students into his blue van. Kinney and Wilczek went to question him outside the Main Street Café, where Pierce told them one of the students was his nephew, Sebastian. 

Pierce seemed lucid during that conversation. But he had never mentioned to Kinney he had family in town. And there was no student named Sebastian involved in the school encounter. The lieutenant tracked down Pierce’s mother by phone in California that day. Nuttbrock told him about her son’s paranoid schizophrenia and her decision to kick him out of her house.

“She opened her heart to me and I really thought we made a connection,” he says. “I told her that everything seemed to be fine with him, that he seemed to be fitting in, other than that weird school thing.” 

***

Four days later, on Dec. 8, employees of the Bank of the San Juans on Main Street reported a man fitting Pierce’s description had come by looking for a red-headed teller he thought might be in danger. They told him no redhead worked there. Still, he said he would return for her Monday and would be “coming with God.”

Kinney headed to Pierce’s place, where body camera video shows Pierce waiting for him on his front porch.

Screenshot from a police body camera video taken as Lt. Roy Kinney approached Roy Pierce's townhome on Dec. 8, 2018.
Screenshot from a police body camera video taken as Lt. Roy Kinney approached Daniel Pierce’s townhome on Dec. 8, 2018.

“Had a call from the bank. You spooked ‘em,” Kinney told him.

“You can put me where you want. Tonight everybody will be gone,” Pierce said. 

He invited the lieutenant into his living room where he kept only a rug, the back seat of a car he used as a sofa, and a radio blaring country music. After some conversation, he proclaimed himself “the Creator.”

“You think you’re the Creator?” Kinney asked. “Is the Creator harmful to people?” 

“No. Hell no. I’m not harmful to anybody, Roy.”

Pierce pointed in the direction of the bank, saying the redhead he was looking for that morning was his wife Debra.

“Your Debra doesn’t live here in Rangely,” Kinney told him.

Pierce, still wearing his wedding ring, said she had visited him the day before and that they were trying to get back together. Kinney asked where she went. 

“I… She… Roy, you can come and go. This is heaven. You can come and go from this place.”

When Kinney told him to stop scaring people, Pierce got in his face. “You want to shoot me? Shoot me, I’ll come back to life, shoot me.”

Kinney radioed for back-up. 

“You don’t need back-up. You want to put me in jail? Put me in jail,” Pierce challenged him. “You’re not going to put me in a hospital, either. You’re not going to fucking sedate me because medicine doesn’t work on me. You’ve got one choice. … Tonight the world ends if I don’t get my wife back.” 

“And if she doesn’t come back, what’s going to happen?” Kinney asked. 

“Like I said, the world will disappear tonight. Everybody in this town will disappear. That’s the way it goes.”

Kinney left after about 20 minutes. As he walked out Pierce’s door, the Rio Blanco County sheriff’s deputy who had responded as back-up commented:

“He is off his rocker. Is that an M-1 hold or what?”

***

Police officers have authority under Colorado law to take people into custody for an involuntary, 72-hour treatment evaluation if they are mentally ill and an imminent danger to themselves or others. The decision to put someone on an “M-1 hold” hinges on factors such as whether their thought process is illogical, they are hearing voices or seeing things that are not there, and they are showing signs of anger and aggression.

Kinney says Pierce was the second person in his life to “scare the hell out of me” — the first being an older cousin named Tommy Carl. 

“Looked a lot and talked a lot” like Pierce, he says.

He describes his cousin while reviewing the body camera video of what he calls Pierce’s “Jesus talk” in his home office. “Tommy Carl was a vicious, violent bastard. I don’t say that about Dan. But that’s what I see in his eyes when he gets angry here.”

“Everybody in this town will disappear. That’s the way it goes.” – Daniel Pierce 

His cousin died about 10 years ago: “Killed himself in Oklahoma, confronted by cops and they wouldn’t shoot him, so he shot himself.”

Kinney says the fact that Pierce rattled him that morning was not reason enough to “take away his freedom.” He had encountered several people during his three decades of policing who asked him to shoot them. “It’s not an uncommon thing,” he says. “And, Jesus, this is the second Jesus I’ve dealt with in my career.” 

He decided Pierce’s threats were not credible because he did not have the power to literally destroy the town.

Kinney called the hotline at Mind Springs Health – the contractor paid to provide mental health services in Rio Blanco County – and described his conversation with Pierce. He laid out his reasoning for why “he wasn’t M-1-able.” He says the counselor agreed.

Mind Springs President and CEO Sharon Raggio confirms the call was made and says it lasted 58 seconds. She says because her organization has no record of Pierce in its system, it was likely a “curbside consult.”

Still, she says, the call was out of the ordinary. 

“Usually when law enforcement calls, it’s for some kind of help. It’s not just ‘Does this person need an M-1 or not?’ but ‘Is this person safe and how can we engage them and get them into treatment?’”

As Raggio tells it, typical protocol would be for Mind Springs to reach out to the subject of the call and “ensure that a safety plan would be made.”

But no such outreach or safety plan was made on Pierce’s behalf. Kinney says he did not discuss those options during his phone call with Mind Springs and that the counselor did not offer them.

“He is off his rocker.” – Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Deputy Dan Nye

The police incident report about Pierce’s visit to the bank and subsequent “Jesus talk” with Kinney was written in July 2019 – seven months after Pierce’s death – by Officer Ti Hamblin, who had been named Rangely’s interim police chief after Kinney’s and Wilczek’s forced retirements. Kinney hadn’t gotten around to writing it before he was put on leave after the shooting.

The report does not mention the lieutenant’s call to Mind Springs or any efforts to seek help for Pierce.

The pursuit

Two days after Kinney had visited Pierce, the lieutenant stopped in the parking lot of Rangely’s Kum & Go and was speaking with Butch McAlister, a former sheriff’s deputy. It was Monday evening, Dec. 10. McAlister had spotted a car broken down outside the convenience store and worried because the methamphetamine user inside was relying on a propane heater to keep warm.

Daniel Pierce enjoyed smoking outside Rangely's Kum & Go convenience store. He had his own van, but stole a truck from the store's parking lot the night of his death. (Photo by Paige Jones)
Daniel Pierce enjoyed smoking outside Rangely’s Kum & Go convenience store. He had his own van, but stole a truck from the store’s parking lot the night of his death. (Photo by Paige Jones)

Pierce showed up, walked between Kinney and McAlister, and said the man who had been causing trouble outside the high school had a woman tied up in the basement. Then, he went to smoke with the cashier.

“I told Butch that if there’s somebody dangerous, it’s that guy,” Kinney says.

The lieutenant headed to his office to fill out paperwork. Shortly after, he heard from dispatch that a white pickup truck had been stolen from the Kum & Go. He assumed the thief was the meth user with the broken-down car until he heard the description of the suspect.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, God, it’s him.’” 

He was alarmed to hear from dispatch that the truck Pierce had stolen had a rifle on the front seat. 

***

Sheriff’s Deputy Max Becker, the former Rangely police officer, spotted the stolen truck on state Hwy. 139 southeast of town. Pierce was driving about 40 miles an hour, well below the speed limit, when Becker radioed that he would follow him and wait for backup from Kinney, who was the only other law enforcement officer on duty and nearby. Becker also asked dispatch to alert law enforcement in neighboring Mesa County, about 50 miles in the direction Pierce was heading. He says he planned to follow Pierce all the way to Mesa County if necessary because he did not want to escalate the situation.

Pierce stopped in the middle of the road and got out of the truck. Becker initiated a “high risk traffic stop,” drawing his gun and telling him to show his hands. “He clearly (saw) who and what I am,” Becker says. Yet, “he seemed surprised.” 

Ignoring Becker’s commands, Pierce got back into the stolen truck and continued driving southbound.

Rio Blanco County Sheriff's Deputy Max Becker had resigned from his job as a Rangely Police officer a few months before the car chase that ended with Daniel Pierce's death. Becker didn't agree with how aggressively his former bosses were pursuing him. (Photo by Roxie Fromang)
Rio Blanco County Sheriff’s Deputy Max Becker had resigned from his job as a Rangely Police officer a few months before the car chase that ended with Daniel Pierce’s death. Becker didn’t agree with how aggressively his former bosses were pursuing him. (Photo by Roxie Fromang)

Kinney chimed in about Pierce over the radio: “That party, I know who it is. 10-96 on him” – “10-96” being police code for “mental suspect.” “He was very confrontational the other day,” Kinney warned. “The guy is nuts.”

The lieutenant caught up to Becker and asked if he could safely pass him and Pierce, “get some distance,” and lay out spike strips to disable the truck. Becker did not object, advising that there was a straightaway coming up where Kinney could set the strips safely.

Kinney made the pass, but Pierce then turned the stolen truck around and headed back north on State Highway 139. Kinney caught up immediately behind Pierce, telling him several times by name over a loudspeaker to pull over. 

By this point, Pierce’s driving had become erratic, leading Kinney to speculate over the radio that Pierce could be “messing with that rifle.” Meanwhile, Wilczek had joined the pursuit and deployed spike strips further north. Hamblin, too, had responded. Rangely’s entire police force, plus Becker, was now involved.

Kinney decided to pass Pierce after he failed to respond to the loudspeaker. As he did so, Pierce suddenly crossed the centerline, veering toward Kinney’s patrol car and causing the lieutenant to nearly run off the road to avoid being hit. There would be disagreement later as to whether he was trying to ram Kinney’s car, or just driving erratically. Kinney would say Pierce was trying to kill him.

As Becker tells it, Wilczek escalated the situation by driving “right on [Pierce’s] bumper.” “It was an indicator to me that things were getting a little bit ramped up,” he says.

The pursuit took place in the county sheriff’s jurisdiction until Pierce approached the intersection of state highways 139 and 64, within Rangely’s town limits. The spike strips the officers set up deflated the front tires of the stolen truck, limiting Pierce’s ability to control it. Kinney was concerned that if Pierce turned left at the intersection, no officers would be there to protect the town. He directed Becker to “push him off the road” and guard against any oncoming traffic.

Because ramming a vehicle amounts to use of deadly force, Becker refused. Later, opinions would differ on whether that decision affected the outcome.

Officer Hamblin followed Kinney’s order, using the bumper of his patrol car to push the truck as Pierce accelerated, making it spin off the side of the road near the intersection. The truck accelerated forward again, striking Kinney’s patrol car with enough force to significantly damage the car and injure Kinney’s neck in a way that would eventually require surgery and limit his range of motion. Pierce reversed after the first impact, pushing Hamblin’s car sideways. He pulled forward again, bounced off the front of Becker’s patrol car to hit Kinney’s again. The revving of the truck’s engine drowns out almost all other sound in the video. The squad cars had Pierce cornered. 

Wilczek, by this point, was out of his car standing alongside the stolen truck. Pierce reversed again. The chief shouted to his colleagues that he would fire at its back tires to disable them, then did so with two shots. 

Kinney, still in his patrol car, didn’t hear Wilczek, but he heard the shots and thought Pierce had fired at the chief. He says he could not see whether Pierce was holding a gun, but did see a big smile on his face. He interpreted that grin to mean “I was next.”

It was fast and loud, that moment in the December darkness when Kinney shot through the truck’s front windshield, hitting Pierce twice in the head.

Then time stopped.

“Everything, everything in me seemed to freeze,” Kinney says.

He, Becker and Hamblin secured the car, finding that the rifle in it had been left untouched. Pierce, wearing his Army cap, was slumped in the driver’s seat. “He’s dead,” Kinney said, though Pierce was still breathing. Paramedics arrived to transport Pierce to nearby Rangely District Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after. 

One of those paramedics was Shanna Kinney, the head of Rangely’s emergency services and the lieutenant’s wife. She had been on standby at the hospital, listening to the radio traffic on the police scanner. When she heard Becker defy her husband’s order to push the truck off the road, she says her “heart sank.”

“In my entire career I had never heard or seen that happen before,” she says. “I knew that [Becker] falling to the rear [of the pursuit] was going to leave our three officers to deal with this and I had a feeling that this was going bad.”

“Over Forever!”

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 and because Pierce’s van had been towed to Wild Willie’s Storage, Wills’ business. 

She went to the townhome he 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.

This calendar found in Daniel Pierce's home suggests he planned to end his life the week of his killing and lured Rangely police into a suicide-by-cop. (Photo by Kurt Miller)
This calendar found in Daniel Pierce’s home suggests he planned to end his life the week of his killing and lured Rangely police into a suicide-by-cop. (Photo by Kurt Miller)

***

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 Kinney and Wilczek – two-thirds of the police force at that time – on extended administrative leave pending criminal and internal affairs investigations.

DA 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.

Former Rangely Town Clerk Lisa Piering was the acting town manager the night of Daniel Pierce's killing, and formally accepted the town manager's job the next day. She has made several misrepresentations, withheld key documents, and refused to answer – or seek answers – about the shooting and its aftermath. (Photo by Roxie Fromang)
Former Rangely Town Clerk Lisa Piering was the acting town manager the night of Daniel Pierce’s killing, and formally accepted the town manager’s job the next day. She has made several misrepresentations, withheld key documents, and refused to answer – or seek answers – about the shooting and its aftermath. (Photo by Roxie Fromang)

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.

Rangely Town Manager Lisa Piering at first refused to release the internal affairs report about Daniel Pierce's killing. Then she released it with the conclusions redacted, leaving the public unable to assess if officers violated police policies. (Photo by Niki Turner)
Rangely Town Manager Lisa Piering at first refused to release the internal affairs report about Daniel Pierce’s killing. Then she released it with the conclusions redacted, leaving the public unable to assess if officers violated police policies. (Photo by Niki Turner)

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.

Rangely Mayor Andy Shaffer – who is also the town's fire chief – has defended the lack of transparency around Daniel Pierce's killing, saying nothing good can come of reporting about the incident. (Photo courtesy of the Rangely town web page)
Rangely Mayor Andy Shaffer – who is also the town’s fire chief – has defended the lack of transparency around Daniel Pierce’s killing, saying nothing good can come of reporting about the incident. (Photo courtesy of the Rangely town webpage)

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.

Former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney at his kitchen table, breaking months of silence about the man he killed and job he lost in a December 2018 shooting. (Photo by Susan Greene)
Former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney at his kitchen table, breaking months of silence about the man he killed and job he lost in a December 2018 shooting. (Photo by Susan Greene)

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.

Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola blasts former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney – not for killing Daniel Pierce, but for disrespecting jurisdictional boundaries during the December 2018 pursuit. Kinney supported Mazzola when he shot and killed a suspect exactly 14 years prior. (Photo by Caitlin Walker)
Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola blasts former Rangely Police Lt. Roy Kinney – not for killing Daniel Pierce, but for disrespecting jurisdictional boundaries during the December 2018 pursuit. Kinney supported Mazzola when he shot and killed a suspect exactly 14 years prior. (Photo by Caitlin Walker)

“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.

Judgment calls

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?”

Daniel Pierce's mother, Rose Nuttbrock of Riverside, CA, has considered taking legal action about his killing by Rangely police. "This never should have happened," she says.
Daniel Pierce’s mother, Rose Nuttbrock of Riverside, Calif., has considered taking legal action about his killing by Rangely police. “This never should have happened,” she says.

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.

It has been almost a year since Daniel Pierce's shooting and Rangely's Police Department has yet put its officers through a mental health training. (Photo by Paige Jones)
It has been almost a year since Daniel Pierce’s shooting and Rangely’s Police Department has yet to put its officers through a mental health training. (Photo by Paige Jones)

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.

Daniel Pierce slipped through cracks in police protection and mental health care in California and Missouri before doing so in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of the Pierce family)
Daniel Pierce slipped through cracks in police protection and mental health care in California and Missouri before doing so in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of the Pierce family)

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.

“It makes you wonder if the price of a life in a rural area is lower than the price of a life somewhere else.” – Ken Davis, advocate for mental health care in Rural Colorado 

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.”

Not talking

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.

Former Police Lt. Roy Kinney cries in his home office as he talks about what he would say to Daniel Pierce's wife and mother. (Photo by Susan Greene)
Former Police Lt. Roy Kinney cries in his home office as he talks about what he would say to Daniel Pierce’s wife and mother. (Photo by Susan Greene)

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.

Daniel Pierce's widow Debra tried for years to prod her husband back into treatment. He refused. She empathizes with the police lieutenant who took his life. (Photo by Julie Denesha)
Daniel Pierce’s widow Debra tried for years to prod her husband back into treatment. He refused. She empathizes with the police lieutenant who took his life. (Photo by Julie Denesha)

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.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Heart-breaking story. Brilliant job reporting and showing the devastating ripple effects of one man’s untreated mental illness.. It’s hard to know if the solution is more M-1 holds, more police training, or mental health professionals. But the value of more public awareness, built with deep reporting such as this, is huge.

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