Judge Says PD Can't Be Sued If Commander's Bad Tactics Got Officer Killed
Denver, CO – A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of a Park County Sheriff’s corporal who was murdered in the line of duty.
Senior U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger noted that the 2016 killing of Park County Sheriff’s Corporal Nathaniel "Nate" Carrigan was “unquestionably tragic,” but that the risk of being murdered is just part of the job, KDVR reported.
“As terrible and unnecessary as those events were, they are part of the inherent risks that law-enforcement officers agree to take on when they take up their badge,” Krieger said in her ruling. “As such, the Constitution does not provide the Plaintiffs a remedy.”
Cpl. Carrigan, 35, was fatally shot on Feb. 24, 2016, as he and other members of the Park County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) were carrying out the planned eviction of local resident Martin Wirth, KCNC reported.
Wirth, 58, was known to have anti-police and anti-government beliefs, and was considered to be armed and dangerous.
He touted himself as an activist, and had previously threatened to shoot any law enforcement officer who dared to show up on his property.
Former Park County Sheriff’s Sergeant Welles Tonjes said that he met with now-former Park County Sheriff Fred Wegener prior to the eviction to discuss Wirth’s propensity for violence.
“During those meetings, I emphasized that Mr. Wirth was highly volatile and potentially dangerous,” Tonjes told KCNC in 2018. “I also proposed a plan to the Sheriff that if Wirth refused to leave, we would simply advise the courts and request they issue an arrest warrant.”
Sheriff Wegener initially agreed that “there would be no entry” into Wirth’s residence, but later changed that directive after conversing with PCSO Captain Mark Hancock, Tonjes said.
Now-former Park County Undersheriff Monte Gore was unaware of the change in plans, according to the former sergeant.
“Undersheriff Gore told me that deputies were to approach the residence and attempt to get Wirth to come out peacefully,” Tonjes recounted. “If they were unsuccessful, they were to withdraw to the perimeter and call him.”
When the deputies arrived at Wirth’s home to execute the eviction, he spoke with them briefly, then went into his residence as predicted, KCNC reported.
Under Capt. Hancock’s command, the deputies followed Wirth into his home.
Wirth opened fire on them, killing Cpl. Carrigan and wounding Deputy Kolby Martin and Deputy Travis Threlkel, KDVR reported.
Wirth was fatally shot during the altercation.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation later determined that at least 72 rounds were fired during the gunfight, KCNC reported.
Cpl. Carrigan’s family, along with Deputy Martin and Deputy Travis, subsequently sued the county, Sheriff Wegener, and Capt. Hancock.
The lawsuit accused them of creating a deadly situation by not retreating from Wirth’s home, and alleged that the deputies who were tasked with the eviction were not properly trained.
“There wasn’t a damn thing done right,” Cpl. Carrigan’s father said of Capt. Hancock’s decision to follow Wirth. “My grandson is seven years old and he would know not to follow someone back in the house. They should have just waited him out.”
Krieger dismissed the family's lawsuit on March 29, KDVR reported.
“The PCSO had deliberately planned an operation to evict Mr. Wirth in a way that carefully considered the risks to the officers involved [as well as to Mr. Wirth] and devised a conservative approach that would maximize the likelihood of the situation resolving peacefully,” the judge noted.
She agreed that the captain’s decision contributed to the deaths and injuries that occurred inside Wirth’s home.
“Captain Hancock’s self-described ‘super aggressiveness’ on the day of the event inexplicably discarded that careful planning, unnecessarily sending his coworkers into a chaotic and dangerous situation that cost Corporal Carrigan his life and injured Deputies Martin and Threlkel,” Krieger continued.
Despite the judge’s findings, she ultimately concluded that the “terrible and unnecessary” outcome of the incident was simply “part of the inherent risks that law enforcement officers agree to take on,” and ruled in the defendants’ favor.
Reid Elkus, the attorney representing Cpl. Carrigan’s family, said that the judge’s decision was “disappointing,” KCNC reported.
“We knew this was going to be an uphill climb,” said Elkus.
He is currently working to determine whether or not the slain corporal’s family can appeal Krieger’s decision.