A patch for a special officer of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. A recently-released DCI report into a November 2018 officer-involved shooting in Laramie has raised questions about bias against the deceased and police accountability in Wyoming. (Flickr/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)

The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s report on a fatal November 2018 shooting focused more on the deceased’s mental health history than on the conduct or history of the officer who killed him.

The report, only recently released to the public, was provided to Albany County District Attorney Peggy Trent who presented evidence to a grand jury in a confidential proceeding. The panel chose not to indict Albany County Sheriff’s Department Corporal Derek Colling for death of Robert Ramirez.

Critics say the report seeks to paint the slain Ramirez as dangerous while failing to adequately examine Colling’s history — a record that involves two previous shootings and the beating of a videographer — or to determine whether he acted appropriately when he shot and killed Ramirez after a traffic stop.

Investigators devoted less than a paragraph to a controversial shooting by Colling in Las Vegas that led to an initially successful wrongful death lawsuit that was later overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco. Investigators omitted entirely an allegation of assault against a videographer that led to Colling’s dismissal from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

In contrast, the 73-page report devotes significant space to Ramirez’s struggles with mental illness and his past interactions with law enforcement. Each bystander witness to the Nov. 4 event was asked about the deceased’s mental state. If asked about Colling’s mental state or behavior during the incident, witnesses’ observations were not included in the report. Investigators also focused on Ramirez’s failed attempts to buy a gun at least five months before the fatal run-in with Colling.

Ramirez held only a car key that investigators said could be used as an edged weapon when Colling shot him three times. Colling told investigators he did not see the key in Ramirez’s hand.

Family members and critics of the investigation say DCI sought to portray  Ramirez as a threat to society to justify Colling’s use of deadly force.

The report has sparked further distrust in Laramie, a community already struggling to make sense of the shooting. “The bias presented in the DCI report highlights the need for more transparency and accountability of law enforcement,” the activist group Albany County for Proper Policing, which formed in the wake of Ramirez’s death, wrote in a blog post.

The report led Ramirez’s mother, Debbie Hinkel, to ask why investigators had focused so heavily on her son’s past while brushing over that of the officer who killed him. Investigators sought to make her son look “as dangerous as possible,” she said.

The question of the relevancy of Ramirez’s past is made more pressing, Hinkel said, because Colling told investigators he didn’t recognize her son when he pulled him over for not using his turn signal after observing Ramirez driving below the speed limit. As such, Ramirez’s history could not have had bearing on Colling’s decision making or subsequent actions, and should not have been included in an evaluation of Colling’s use of deadly force.

The two men, both in their late 30s last November, were once classmates in high school and shared time on the school choir and a baseball team.

The traffic stop escalated after Ramirez refused to comply with Colling’s commands and then fled in his vehicle across the road to his apartment. Family members have said Ramirez spoke about being afraid of Colling and cited the officer’s well publicized history in Las Vegas. Family members also previously told WyoFile Ramirez saw his apartment as a safe place.

Colling followed Ramirez into his driveway where a confrontation ensued and ended with Colling shooting Ramirez.

Transparency and impartiality

A grand jury convened by Albany County District Attorney Peggy Trent ruled there was no evidence Colling had committed involuntary manslaughter. The grand jury did not evaluate whether Colling followed proper police procedure, Trent said in a January press conference.

The Ramirez family has not filed a civil lawsuit related to the case, though Wyoming Public Media recently reported lawyers for the family are researching the case.

Albany County elected officials have declined to comment on the matter, claiming doing so would violate an agreement with their liability insurance provider and leave the county exposed in any such civil suit.

The use of a grand jury to determine whether to indict Colling was unusual in Wyoming. The involvement of DCI was not — the agency investigates most officer involved shootings in the state, said a District Attorney from another county.

“I don’t know if it’s statutorily required but it’s very, very commonly done,” said Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun. In his 10 years as a Wyoming prosecutor, he did not recall an officer-involved shooting DCI didn’t investigate. In most cases, he said, county prosecutors will take the DCI report and decide whether to press charges themselves.

DCI investigations provide independence, LeBrun said. Local law enforcement has inherent conflict in investigating the actions of their own members, he said, and federal agencies lack the appropriate jurisdictional authority in most cases. That leaves DCI, Lebrun said.

A 1999 photo captures both a young Robert Ramirez (back right in backwards hat) and Derek Colling (front in striped shirt). Colling, a Sheriff’s Deputy, shot and killed Ramirez following a traffic stop. (Photo provided by Debbie Hinkel)

Hinkel, and earlier Trent, have questioned DCI’s impartiality in the Ramirez shooting, however.

“This is the organization that is supposed to be policing the police and they completely blew my faith in the system,” Hinkel said.

Hinkel trusted law enforcement to bring more scrutiny to her son’s death, which she believes would have been avoided had Colling made efforts to deescalate the situation. The process failed her, she said.

“I really believed that [DCI] would do a good job and that they would be fair. It really just puts it in black and white that police officers investigating police officers is not the way it should be done,” she said.

It’s unclear to what extent the DCI report played a role in grand jury proceedings, which are confidential. Asked this week, Trent said she couldn’t comment.

In a grand jury proceeding, the prosecutor decides what evidence and witnesses are used to present the facts of the case. During a Jan. 14 press conference, Trent said she knew both sides of the case and argued she had no legal conflict in the Colling case.

During the press conference, Trent said she did not present either Colling’s checkered law enforcement record or Ramirez’s history with Laramie law enforcement as evidence to the jury. The state of Ramirez’s mental health was discussed in the grand jury, Trent said.

In the same press conference, Trent questioned DCI’s investigation. “I believe that DCI and how this was investigated and how this matter was handled needs to be reviewed,” she said.

Colling continues to enforce the law in Albany County. He is now an investigator with the sheriff’s department, according to news reports.

DCI released its report to several media outlets on May 21, after weeks of legal wrangling.

WyoFile issued a public records request for the report on April 22. On April 26, DCI Deputy Director Forrest Williams told WyoFile on the phone that agency director Steve Woodson would ultimately review the request, but that he, Williams, saw no reason the report wouldn’t be released as the case was closed.

But on April 29, Woodson denied WyoFile’s request via mail. He included with the message a broad section of Wyoming public records but no explanation of what specific justification for confidentiality was being invoked to block the report’s release. WyoFile asked for an explanation in response but received none.

On May 15, WyoFile filed a letter of petition with the Laramie County District Court. The clerk’s office replied after consulting with the Laramie County District Attorney, saying the letter of petition was inadequate and that WyoFile would have to file suit to receive judicial consideration.

On May 19 the Laramie Boomerang published an editorial calling on DCI to release the report. Two days later Woodson provided WyoFile, the Laramie Boomerang and Wyoming Public Media with the report.

Reached by phone, Woodson said he was in a meeting and did not have time to answer questions. He subsequently did not reply to emailed questions from WyoFile about why he decided to release the report, it’s contents or DCI’s general approach to investigating officer-involved shootings.

Investigators’ focus

In December, Ramirez’s family and friends described to WyoFile a man battling schizophrenia who struggled to maintain normalcy and safety. Ramirez was for long periods of time successful, but there were other periods of greater struggle.

He taught children to play the guitar and was obsessive about repairs to his pickup truck. In the last years of his life, members of a community group dedicated to rebuilding a local skatepark remembered him as a valuable volunteer willing to dedicate significant time to skatepark construction. He was a frequent presence at the park and taught local youth to skate.  

Investigators focused considerable time on Ramirez’s mental illness.  

Neighbors and passersby who witnessed the shooting were asked by investigators to offer their opinion on Ramirez’s mental health, though some of the interviewees knew him only in passing. The owner of a store near Ramirez’s apartment complex, where he was killed, described Ramirez as not “all there” but knew little else of his mental state and had never seen him be violent. A neighbor told investigators he knew Ramirez as someone “on medication” and “a little off” who “kept odd hours” — but also had never seen him violent.

Hinkel questioned the relevance of these inclusions to the ultimate question she believed investigators should have been trying to answer: Did Colling break laws or violate police procedures in shooting Ramirez?

“You’re really doing a hell of a job making Robbie look as bad and dangerous as possible,” she said of DCI investigators.

The report refers to 98 previous interactions between Ramirez and law enforcement but fails to reveal the nature of the vast majority of them. Ten were violent or related to his documented schizophrenia, investigators found. The most recent violent incident was from 2010, nearly nine years before his run in with Colling. The report documents an assault on a family member in 2004, which family members remember as the low point of Ramirez’s struggle with illness.

It documents a struggle with police officers during the same incident. The report says Ramirez was subdued by police in order to get him to the hospital. Hinkel contests that characterization — Ramirez went to the hospital with family members not police, but struggled with officers at the hospital when they held him down to give him a shot, she said.

Robbie Ramirez stands in the bottom of a construction project that would become a sunken concrete bowl for skaters to do tricks in. Skaters in Laramie knew Ramirez as a dedicated volunteer who helped retrofit a park and taught children to skate. (Josh Kaffer)

Without an itemized list of 98 interactions the number could be misleading, Hinkel argued, as many incidents were minor or even unrelated to Ramirez directly.

WyoFile sought to chronical Ramirez’s interactions with law enforcement during previous reporting. The attempt was hampered by Wyoming privacy laws which make an individual’s complete police record unavailable to the public. However, searches of newspaper crime logs turned up a number of cases where Ramirez interacted with law enforcement regarding his runaway dog.

Ramirez worked for years at The Ranger, a combination motel, bar and liquor store once owned by Hinkel. The nature of the business meant law enforcement was sometimes called there. Ramirez’s interaction with law enforcement as an employee of the establishment, but not a source of the calls, was included in reports and thus the list DCI investigators compiled, Hinkel said.

No gun

Investigators don’t explain in the report why they included Ramirez’s attempts to purchase a gun from Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply months before his fatal run-in with Colling. The report says investigators “received information” Ramirez had tried to buy a gun. They then visited Murdoch’s twice to interview three employees who largely said the same thing — Ramirez had repeatedly tried to buy a gun, saying he needed it for protection. Employees refused to sell him the gun after he answered yes to the question of “Have you ever been adjudicated as a mental defective OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” on a federal government form.

Ramirez returned to the store several times over a period of 45 days and employees continued to refuse to sell him the gun. Ramirez was never aggressive, the employees told investigators.

The episode is included in the report’s conclusions as “pertinent facts regarding this investigation.”

“Why is that relevant?” Hinkel asked. Investigators wanted to paint her son as a potential threat, she said. “They were just so busy trying to make a case for Derek having justification to kill him,” she said.

Ultimately, Hinkel wants to know why, in an investigation into an officer’s use of deadly force, equal scrutiny wasn’t applied to the officer.

“Where are they investigating the shooter or questioning his mental stability?” she asked.

No independent assessment of use of force

In an interview four days after Ramirez’s death, Colling told investigators he engaged Ramirez because he was afraid of what could happen if Ramirez was allowed to get away.

“Colling believed the driver was fleeing to prepare for something and thought it might be to engage him,” the report reads. “Colling did not want the driver to be able to get away or to destroy evidence or become armed either in the house or in the vehicle.

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Video from Colling’s dash cam shows the two men yelling at each other in front of Ramirez’s apartment but there is no audio. Colling told investigators he used his taser out of concern Ramirez might draw a weapon from his pickup truck, but it did not work. From there, video shows Colling backing up as Ramirez swings his arms wildly.

Colling told investigators he doesn’t recall Ramirez ever landing a blow.

The report describes Colling’s thought process, as conveyed to investigators, in the moments before shooting Ramirez. The entire confrontation from the moment both men exit their vehicles to Ramirez striking the ground lasts less than half a minute, according to the dash cam video.

“Colling realized after all the other attempt [sic] to gain compliance had no effect that he was in serious danger,” the report reads. “Colling also realized how much larger the driver was than him and Colling became tired and weak. Colling, seeing no other option, fired his gun while in very close contact with the driver.”

The report does not include an assessment of whether Colling violated proper police procedure at any point in the encounter — from the traffic stop, through the pursuit and exiting his vehicle with both taser and handgun and ultimately using both.

The report concludes that “the statement provided by Colling is supported by both the body camera and dash camera video review.” Colling’s body camera goes dark during the scuffle between the two men and the dash camera does not capture the entire scuffle. Officials have previously said the body camera came unplugged. The DCI report doesn’t offer an assessment of whether that is so.

CORRECTION: The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation released its report to journalists on May 21, not May 20 as originally reported in error. The report’s release came two days after an editorial was printed in the Laramie Boomerang on the subject. —Ed.

Andrew Graham

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com, follow him @AndrewGraham88

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7 Comments

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  1. The idea of the DCI investigating cases of the use of deadly force by police officers has always struck me as akin to letting the foxes investigate the mysterious deaths at the chicken house. Just out of historical curiosity, has the DCI ever found against the police officer in such a case?

  2. YES…MENTAL HEALTH IS AN ISSUE GIVEN LITTLE CONCERN SINCE REAGAN, AND NOW TOUTED BY ALL AS REASONS FOR CONCERN FOR POLICE TRAINING AND DE-ESCALATION PROCEDURES. BUT NO ACTION.
    BARELY APPLIES IN THIS CASE SINCE ROBBIE WAS KNOWN BY HIS MUDERER, WAS NOT ARMED ( UNLESS YOU FEAR CAR KEYS) AND WAS TRYING TO JUST GO HOME…A MERE TWO BLOCKS FROM INITAL CONTACT.
    TWO IN THE BACK OUT OF 5 SHOTS CERTAINLY WOULD BE SUSPICIOUS IN ANY INVESTIGATION… EXCEPT OF A COP, MAJORITY OF INVESTIGATION ABOUT A VICTIM AND NOT A PERP/COP WITH MORE THAN UNUSUAL BACKGROUND CAN ONLY BE DETERMINED TO BE BIAS.
    LACK OF RESPONSIBLE ACTION ON MS. TRENTS PART SMACKS OF EXPEDIENCY AND LAZINESS BORDERING ON MISCONDUCT DOES NOT BODE WELL FOR ALBANY COUNTY CITIZENS, OR THEIR TAX DOLLARS AWARDED FUTURE VICTIMS OF MISPLACED LOYALTIES.

  3. I was raped while at college in Laramie by a local “hero”. They even had a confession and pressed me to drop the case. Same old “good” old boys now. The Bunns & Ramirez supported me by 86ing him from the Ranger where I worked for them. His friends came in and harassed me saying that because I worked as a cocktail waitress (putting myself through college) that I was asking for it. He was asked to leave the establishment. These are good people, I babysat Robbie I believe. This is all very sad. I love Wyoming and Laramie but my feeling of not having the police there to help one when you need help stems from my experiences there.

  4. Perhaps someone should look into Mr. Colling being an officer if he becomes tired and weak after an entire confrontation from the moment both men exit their vehicles to Ramirez striking the ground that only lasts less than half a minute.” It is difficult to state justice has been served in this case.

  5. I have had no trust of those in positions of authority since simply trying to walk home in wee hours of morning, hurting no one and doing nothing wrong, end up in jail for D.I.P. charge. I even left my car parked to walk home. This was RS in the late 70’s and the police were all over my brothers and I. Couldn’t step sideways without an issue. We didn’t steal, fight, break things, or deface. We simply drank and tried to get home, safely. Going through the courts weren’t any better. All authority is corrupt and needs to be taken down a few notches. As long as they search for bully type people to be cops we will continually have death and destruction done Legally. Which WY authoritarian said that cops need to be able to beat people because it takes to long for backup to arrive? Implying that a cop is always honest? Bull. I haven’t met an honest cop yet. Allowing them to police themselves is like allowing using addicts to stop addiction in others. A Peace Officer in my town would be preferable to the militarized police force. Not to mention the high rate of alcoholism and domestic abuse among bully police. I want a Peace Officer like Andy Griffith, calm, trustworthy, caring, strong when needed, soft when needed, didn’t need a gun either. I know it was TV but it can be done in reality. Officers that actually protect and serve the community instead of serve their baser instincts.

  6. Welcome to the 21st Century US. It’s only gonna get worse unless people demand real change. People might be wise to put down their “smart” phones, turn off their TVs, and consider what happened in Europe during the 1930s and early 40s, and to a lesser degree, right here at home during the HUAC/McCarthy years.

  7. Whitewash on the Big Blue Wall that law enforcement hides behind.

    One has to seriously question what information was provided the Grand Jury; what was withheld ; what was filtered. It is difficult to call this justice served not knowing any of that…

    This case smacks right up with the infamous shooting of officer Michael Rosa by public safety director Ed Cantrell in corrupt Rock Springs WY back in 1978. Rosa was characterized as a ” good cop in a very bad town ” , while Cantrell’s reputation was one of an old west gunslinger with exceptional fireams skills. Rosa was killed by a bullet pointblank to the middle of his forehead. If Cantrell didn’t have the notoriously proficient Gerry Spence as his trial attorney ( who allowed him to hide out on his backcountry Dubois ranch while awaiting trial ) , the outcome might have been different.

    It appears the outcome of the Collings- Ramirez incident should be revisited on more neutral ground where DCI is held more accountable. We should not serve justice from the shadows. What does it take to unseal grand jury records ?

    p.s. the first time I was called to Jury Duty was the very same state Grand Jury that was going to investigate corruption in the Governor Ed Herschler administration in 1978. The Cantrell case was woven into all that. As it turned out no jury members were impaneled from the northern tier of Wyoming counties , only the I-80 counties. Would’ve been interesting to have sat thru the inquisition. Wyoming’s justice system is still pretty western , near as I can tell…