Kiowa County has reached a $9.5 million settlement with the family of Zach Gifford, the unarmed local handyman shot three times in the back by his undersheriff and a rookie deputy in 2020.
The amount exceeds the county’s $7.5 million annual budget, but falls short of the $10 million maximum its insurance policy would cover. If the settlement had exceeded the cap, cash-strapped Eastern Plains County would have had to raise taxes to fund it.
“We knew what the insurance policy was and we didn’t want to bankrupt the county we came from where we raised our children,” says Gifford’s mother, Carla Gifford.
“They took everything from us when they killed Zach and we’d do anything to get it back. But what we asked for, at least in the civil case, we’ll get, and that’s probably as close to the closing we will.
Acting Kiowa County Sheriff Forrest Frazee said Monday he was not aware of a court settlement.
For their part, county commissioners have remained silent on the April 9, 2020 homicide that rocked their peaceful Eastern Plains community, shattered public confidence in local law enforcement and prompted the popular county sheriff to to resign. The three commissioners also did not respond to inquiries about Friday’s settlement agreement, which came after the county repeatedly cited Gifford’s drug use in trying to downplay the value of his life. .
Gifford’s family had moved
Gifford, 39, grew up in Eads, the county seat of 1,500 people where his mother taught kindergarten and special education and his father was a popular coach, physical education teacher, school board and member of the city council.
Gifford – who was single and had no children – remained in the community after his two brothers moved to Front Range and his parents, once retired, eventually followed to live near their grandchildren .
On April 9, 2020, he was traveling as a passenger in a friend’s van when Kiowa County Deputy Sheriff Tracy Weisenhorn initiated a traffic stop, which evidence shows — and family attorneys argued – was a pretext for a drug search. She had been watching the friend’s house a block from Brandon, a ghost town east of the county.
Sheriff’s Deputy Quinten Stump arrived soon after and, while patting Gifford, found a small bag containing a white powdery substance – later determined to be methamphetamine residue, barely enough for a charge of misdemeanor – in his pocket.
Gifford tried to run away, but the two officers tackled him to the ground and tasered him. Gifford managed to break free and began running across an empty field when Weisenhorn shot him in the back despite Stump, who knew Gifford was unarmed, after shouting “Let him go!” After Weisenhorn – Stump’s supervisor – fired that first shot, Stump fired two more which also hit Gifford in the back.
Weisenhorn handcuffed Gifford with his personally etched pink handcuffs as he lay in the dirt bleeding to death.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation found that Gifford did not show a weapon or threaten officers or anyone else at the time of his murder.
“Tell my parents I love them,” Stump told investigators Gifford said.
For reasons that Fifteenth Judicial District Attorney Josh Vogel did not explain, he did not prosecute Weisenhorn, who shot Gifford first. Then-Sheriff Casey Sheridan fired Weisenhorn a year later after local reporter Priscilla Wagoner and the Colorado News Collaborative published an investigation into Gifford’s murder and longstanding issues in the sheriff’s department.
Vogel filed two counts of attempted second-degree murder and one count of assault with a deadly weapon against Stump. A trial is scheduled for August.
Sheridan had hired Stump despite the fact that the recruit had lost jobs with two other law enforcement agencies the previous year. The sheriff ultimately fired Stump several months after Gifford’s murder, not for his part in the homicide or his record of using deadly force against other criminal suspects, but for shooting while intoxicated. a street sign with his county-issued gun.
Sheridan resigned as elected sheriff last spring and was temporarily replaced by Frazee. The acting sheriff told the Colorado News Collaborative on Monday that he “intentionally made sure not to investigate” Gifford’s murder until “legal matters are completed.”
Gifford’s family named Frazee, Sheridan, County Commissioners, Weisenhorn and Stump as defendants in their lawsuit. None of them attended last week’s settlement hearing in which family attorneys John Holland and Anna Holland Edwards argued that Gifford’s methamphetamine use and prior arrests for drugs should not diminish the value of his life.
Gifford’s father, Larry Gifford, said it was difficult to attend the out-of-court hearing in Denver where his son’s worth was discussed. “There were a few times when I needed a seat belt to make sure I didn’t get up and say something.”
Lawyers representing the Giffords and their two surviving sons released videos of testimonials from residents across the county talking about Gifford’s habit of mowing lawns and doing repair work for free for his neighbors and the elderly, and the joy he brought to his work and his relationships. .
“Zach has been exuberant all his life, and anyone who knew him knows that,” says Carla Gifford.
She says justice for her deceased son depends not just on the civil settlement, but also on the outcome of Stump’s trial this summer. She notes that justice will also hinge on whether DA Vogel reconsiders his decision not to criminally indict Weisenhorn along with Stump.
“We still want her to be prosecuted,” adds Larry Gifford.
Because they worked for the county when they killed Gifford, Weisenhorn and Stump were covered by its insurance policy, protecting them from personal liability.
County and Giffords tried, but failed to arbitrate the case. After the family filed their lawsuit in October, all parties agreed to a single resolution procedure whereby each party appointed two attorneys to serve as judges at a contested evidence hearing and determine the final amount of the settlement. .
The panel of four heard arguments from both sides on April 14 and 15 and agreed to a settlement after deliberating later on the 15th.
In addition to the $9.5 million to be paid by the county insurance company, the family was also granted non-monetary terms, including enhanced use of force training for Kiowa County Sheriff’s Officers and the assurance that a memorial will be built in memory of their son. . They are considering a playground next to a new swimming pool in Eads.
The family would like to thank the people of Kiowa County who have supported them since Zach’s murder and their spiritual faith for carrying them through the past few years.
“This incident cannot rule our lives,” says Carla Gifford. “It cannot cause us to harbor things that will make us bitter. We need our lives to function and evolve positively towards our future.
This future will involve a family fishing trip.
“Maybe somewhere on an ocean. Zach would have loved that,” says Larry Gifford.
“Yes,” adds Carla Gifford. “He certainly would.”
This story is brought to you by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, a nonprofit coalition of more than 170 newsrooms across Colorado working together to better serve the public. Learn more at https://colabnews.co