PUEBLO COUNTY, Colo. — A mother has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after her son was shot and killed by Pueblo County deputies outside a middle school in February 2022.
The lawsuit states that Richard Ward, who was calm and compliant throughout an interaction with El Paso County Sheriff's Office deputies, died on Feb. 22, 2022 after deputies pulled him out of parked car and shot him three times point blank. One deputy said he thought Ward was reaching for his firearm during a struggle.
Ward's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Tuesday, according to their legal team Killmer, Lane & Newman.
The complaint lists the following defendants:
- Pueblo County
- Pueblo Deputy Charles McWhorter
- Pueblo Deputy Cassandra Gonzales
- Pueblo Deputy Jacob Mahan
- Pueblo Deputy Christine Spencer
- Pueblo Deputy Nicolas Berumen
- Pueblo Deputy Robert Quintana
- Sgt. Josh Ragan
On Feb. 22, 2022, Ward and his mother, Kristy Ward Stamp, along with her boyfriend, were sitting in the woman's SUV at Liberty Point International Middle School in Pueblo West. They were waiting to pick up Ward Stamp's youngest son — also Ward's younger brother — in a line of cars, according to the law firm.
Ward was in the backseat, Ward Stamp was in the passenger seat, and her boyfriend was driving, according to the lawsuit.
Around 3:15 p.m., Deputy McWhorter and Deputy Gonzales were dispatched to the school to investigate a report of a suspicious man in the parking lot. The man was later identified as Ward.
Pueblo County Sheriff David Lucero said later that same day that Ward was possibly inebriated and was banging on the windows of parents' cars in the parking lot. School staff approached him before law enforcement arrived, then locked down the school, the sheriff's office said.
According to the lawsuit, Ward had stepped out of Ward Stamp's car while she took a work call. On his way back to the car, he "accidentally got back into the wrong white SUV, before quickly realizing his mistake, apologizing to the surprised driver, and getting back into his mom’s white SUV," the Killmer, Lane & Newman law firm said.
He then got into his mother's car and explained his mistake to her.
Deputy McWhorter arrived at the scene first and approached Ward Stamp's SUV. Ward opened the rear passenger door, where he was sitting, to speak with the deputy, who asked about "an alleged non-violent, not apparently criminal disturbance," the lawsuit reads.
"Richard remained calm and politely answered Deputy McWhorter’s questions, explaining the innocent mistake he had made. Richard informed Deputy McWhorter that he felt anxious about becoming a victim of excessive force by police," the law firm wrote.
Deputy McWhorter explained that the sheriff's office had received a report that Ward had been attempting to open nearby car doors, according to the lawsuit. Ward told the deputy he had mistakenly gotten into the incorrect car, but said he apologized and left quickly after realizing his error.
Around this time, Deputy Gonzales arrived at the scene and stood behind Deputy McWhorter.
Deputy McWhorter asked for identification and if Ward had any weapons on him. Ward said he didn't think so but might have a pocketknife. Ultimately, he did not have any weapons on him, according to the lawsuit.
"At this point, though he had no legitimate law enforcement purpose to draw or use a firearm, Defendant McWhorter recklessly unlocked his safety holster and pulled his pistol up and out of the holster’s locking mechanism," the lawsuit reads.
As Ward continued to search for his identification, he put a pill in his mouth. The lawsuit said this was likely a medication prescribed to him for his anxiety. An autopsy later found an anxiety pill in his pocket.
"Deputies McWhorter and Gonzales immediately and aggressively seized Richard by the collar and dragged him out of the backseat of the SUV, as Richard frantically tried to explain that he had only taken a pill — an entirely legal, non-threatening action to which the Deputies should not have reacted with any force," according to the law firm.
The lawsuit called this a "profoundly unreasonable first option in response to Mr. Ward taking a pill."
Ward did not resist and told Deputy McWhorter he had taken a pill when asked.
"Defendant McWhorter could have ordered Richard to spit the pill out," the lawsuit reads. "He could have ordered him to step out of the car. He could even have ordered him to present his hands to McWhorter so as to address any concerns McWhorter might have had about that. McWhorter did none of these things."
Deputy McWhorter said he saw Ward put something in his mouth and then watched as he "opens his jacket and reaches inside the jacket, as if he was carrying a weapon," according to a letter outlining the district attorney's decision to not charge the deputies.
This was not visible in either deputies' body cam footage.
Once Ward was out of the car, Ward attempted to take the deputy's weapon, according to Sheriff Lucero.
Ward landed on the ground in a sitting position and did not try to stand up, flee or defend himself. Both deputies then forced his face toward the ground and piled on top of him, according to the lawsuit.
Sheriff Lucero said on the day of the shooting that Ward became "assaultive" and fought with deputies. He head-butted Deputy McWhorter during the confrontation, Lucero said. Deputy Gonzales injured her knee in the incident and Deputy McWhorter had injuries to his face, forefinger, lower back and knee, according to the DA decision letter. Deputy McWhorter had just returned to patrol about a week prior due to a neck injury and in the letter, said he was worried his neck would give out if he was head-butted again.
The letter states that Deputy Gonzales said in an interview that Ward seemed under the influence and wasn't making sense when he spoke. She said he was fighting with Deputy McWhorter.
After the deputies forced him face-first on the ground, they piled on top of him and about 20 seconds after pulling him from the car, Deputy McWhorter shot Ward in the chest three times, the lawsuit said.
Ward survived "for some time" after the shooting and was writhing on the ground, but neither deputy provided medical aid, according to the lawsuit.
"Instead, they stood and watched him bleed out as middle school students strolled by a few feet away," the law firm said.
When asked why they didn't render aid, the deputies said in the DA decision letter that they "were going to render aid but did not do so because of the occupants that were still in the car" and they would have felt "vulnerable" if they were on the ground aiding Ward.
Around this time, Ward Stamp, in the front passenger seat, became frantic and begged to know if Ward had been shot and killed. The deputies did not answer her but ordered Ward Stamp and her boyfriend to stay in the car. They both complied.
About two minutes after the shooting, additional law enforcement arrived, including Deputy Jacob Mahan, who asked if Ward was breathing. Deputy Gonzales said no, but as of that time, nobody had undertaken any kind of examination to see if he was alive, according to the lawsuit. The district attorney's decision letter read that Deputy Gonzales had noted she believed he was deceased because she couldn't see him breathing.
Three minutes after the shooting, emergency medical personnel arrived and attempted to render aid. Ward was pronounced deceased at the scene.
Deputy Mahan walked to the driver's side of Ward Stamp's car and refused to answer her questions. He ordered her and her boyfriend to keep their hands in the air, despite not having "any reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that either Ms. Ward Stamp nor her boyfriend had committed any crime or represented a threat to the safety or well-being of defendants," the lawsuit reads.
Deputies handcuffed both of them and put them in police vehicles. They were transported to a Pueblo County Sheriff's Office facility, where they were detained and interrogated for about two hours before they were released. Ward Stamp's property, including her SUV, phone and purse, were seized.
The custodial interrogation constituted an arrest of Ward Stamp, according to the lawsuit.
Neither Ward Stamp nor her boyfriend was charged with a crime in connection to the incident.
Ward Stamp was not informed that her son had died until after the interrogation.
The sheriff's office did not return her seized property, including her car, for months after the shooting, according to the lawsuit.
Within the sheriff's office, Deputy McWhorter and Deputy Gonzales — and the other involved deputies — were not disciplined. On Oct. 14, 2022, the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office found that no criminal charges would be filed and the deputies' actions were appropriate.
"Pueblo County fails to adequately train its law enforcement officers in practices necessary to ensure excessive force is avoided, including principles of de-escalation and threat assessment, when the need for such training is obvious to address recurring and foreseeable circumstances that a patrol deputy will likely confront in the course of their duties," the lawsuit reads.
A Pueblo County Coroner's report would later show Ward had several drugs in his system.
The law firm said Ward struggled with addiction issues, but was working on them. Attorneys on the case said the anti-anxiety medications could trigger a positive result for methamphetamine, and they plan on obtaining expert witnesses to analyze the substances found in Ward's system at the time of his death. Regardless, they said the substances found during the autopsy do not equate what happened to Ward.
The report found that he had been shot in the throat, mid-chest and upper/mid clavicle area. Ward had other injuries to his nose, left arm, left wrist, left knee, lower leg, shin and face.
The claims for relief, as outlined in the federal lawsuit, are:
- Fourth Amendment violation - excessive force
- Violation of Colo. Const. Art. II, Section 7 - excessive force
- Battery causing wrongful death
- Fourth Amendment unlawful arrest
- Violation of Colo. Const. Art. II, Section 7 - unlawful arrest
- Fourth Amendment unlawful seizure of property
- Violation of Colo. Const. Art. II, Section 7 unlawful seizure of property
- First Amendment violation - retaliation
- Violation of Colo. Const. Art. II, Section 10 - retaliation
“My heart is broken," Ward Stamp said in a news release. "I have no words to explain this to Richard’s little brother. Our family has been ripped apart.”
She said she will likely amend her pleadings to add a claim for exemplary damages.
"Richard Ward’s death is a profound injustice — an unarmed, cooperative citizen shot and killed in front of his mother by a Pueblo County Sheriff’s deputy," said Darold Killmer, the family's civil rights attorney. "This was nothing short of state-sanctioned murder of a citizen who should not have been even arrested, let alone killed in broad daylight. Pueblo County refuses to hold Richard’s killers accountable, and the County has ignored repeated requests to remedy this tragic and egregious situation. So, we will turn to a jury to obtain the justice that Richard and his family deserves.”