Kiowa County to pay nearly $10 million to family of unarmed man shot by sheriff’s deputies

Sonya Doctorian for CPR News
Approximately 1,400 people live in Kiowa County, Colorado, shown on March 25, 2020.

A sparsely populated county on Colorado’s Eastern Plains has agreed to a $9.5 million settlement agreement for the police shooting death of 39-year-old Zachary Gifford, an unarmed passenger in a car pulled over for a traffic stop in April 2020, lawyers representing his family said Monday.

Gifford died after being shot at four times by two officers, Quentin Stump and Tracy Weisenhorn, as he tried to run away in a field in an abandoned town called Brandon in Kiowa County. Officers suspected he could be high, but otherwise had no other reason to try to arrest him, lawyers said.

There was an empty baggie in his pocket with some residue in it that wouldn’t have even constituted a misdemeanor.

“Police cannot shoot people who are running away from them in the back when they aren’t threatening immediate harm to the public or the police. Police cannot arrest people by shooting them,” said John Holland and Anna Holland Edwards, the lawyers representing the Gifford family who announced the agreement Monday. 

Stump faces attempted second degree murder charges and a weapons violation for the incident. Weisenhorn was not charged but was fired after a joint investigation by COLab and the Kiowa County Independent newspaper did a story about the case. The sheriff at the time, Casey Sheridan, resigned.

The settlement will be paid by Kiowa County’s insurance carrier. The county’s budget is about $7 million a year, attorneys said.

In addition to the money, the county agreed to new use of force policies and training -- particularly about when to use lethal force. The county also agreed to a memorial erected somewhere prominent in Gifford’s name, lawyers said.

Gifford, who was a handyman by trade, was a passenger in the car of Bryan Morrell, who he was helping with some home repairs, according to the COLab investigation. Morrell was pulled over for failing to use a traffic signal. Both men were without identifications and were patted down by officers. Gifford began to run away after the pat down and, after a struggle with both deputies, he was shot multiple times. 

The fourth time he was shot at was 18 seconds after the first three shots were fired, and he was 24 yards away from the officers.

“When the final shot was taken both officers knew Zach had already been wounded by two of their previous shots to his back and would have been easy to catch up with in the large empty field where this happened,” Holland and Edwards said. “This is the worst civil rights case our firm has ever handled.” 

Gifford’s parents are 40-year community members of Eads. Carla Gifford, his mother, was a kindergarten teacher and special education teacher. His father, Larry Gifford, was a coach in Eads and the PE instructor and was on the Town Council and the school board before his retirement.

“Larry and Carla wish to thank their immediate and extended family, Zach’s friends, the residents of Kiowa County, surrounding communities and all of their friends for the incredible support and prayers over the last two years,” a statement said. “Most of all they want to thank God for carrying us through this very difficult journey.”