Colorado Cop Kills a Man Who Accidentally Got Into the Wrong Car
Richard Ward's family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Pueblo County and five sheriff's office officials over a shooting incident that left him dead.
Last year, a man ended up dead at the hands of a Colorado sheriff's deputy in an after-school pickup line. His alleged crime: accidentally getting into the wrong car.
On February 22, 2022, Pueblo County Deputies Charles McWhorter and Cassandra Gonzales were dispatched to Liberty Point International Middle School. According to an October letter from Pueblo County District Attorney J.E. Chostner, a call came in after school let out of "a suspicious male party trying to open car doors." The caller further said the man, 32-year-old Richard Ward, had gotten "aggressive" with one car's occupants and may have been "on something."
When deputies arrived, they approached Ward, sitting in the back of his mother's white Lexus SUV. According to body camera footage released as part of the family's lawsuit against the county and five sheriff's officials, Ward tells deputies that he's nervous because he has anxiety and has had negative encounters with police. As Ward looked for an ID, he placed something in his mouth, at which point McWhorter yanked him out of the car by his jacket and onto the ground. Ward protested, "It was a pill!" as both deputies tried to place him in handcuffs.
McWhorter drew his gun during the scuffle and fired three shots; according to Chostner's letter, Ward was struck in the throat, chest, and collarbone. As Ward rolled over onto his back and his mother screamed, "Is my son shot?!" from the front seat, Gonzales yelled for Ward to "stop moving!" The deputies called for paramedics but did not attempt to render aid, leaving Ward bleeding on the pavement while forcing his mother to stay in the vehicle.
The encounter, from approaching the car to shooting Ward three times, took less than two-and-a-half minutes, all within view of middle school students and their parents. Ward was pronounced dead when paramedics arrived.
In a press conference later that day, Sheriff David Lucero said, "The person jumped out of the vehicle and had immediate contact with our deputies." Even in those early stages, this was verifiably untrue: During the body cam footage moments after the shooting, McWhorter tells a bystander, "He was trying to break into stuff, we made contact, he was stuffing stuff in his mouth and trying to turn on us, so I pulled him out."
The incident for which school officials initially called authorities involved Ward "trying to get into other cars in the parking lot." According to a police interview with his mother, Ward "become antsy" waiting for his little brother. Tommy Brown, Ward's mother's boyfriend and the car's driver, said Ward "was having an off day" and got out of the car to smoke a cigarette. Brown said Ward was on medications for bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and severe anxiety. When he returned to the car, he accidentally went to the wrong vehicle.
In the body camera footage, deputies ask Ward about going to the wrong car, to which he responds, "I straight-up thought that was my car. I thought it was my mom, I was yelling at her… I don't even know that lady" in the other car. When he realized his mistake, "I was like, 'Lady, I'm sorry, I did not mean'" to go to her car.
The incident that prompted McWhorter to get physical was when Ward popped something into his mouth. Ward protested that it was a pill: According to Darold Killmer, the Ward family's attorney, it was likely an anxiety medication. Ward's autopsy report noted that two pills were found in his pockets, and the one that could be identified was determined to be an anxiety medication.
The sheriff's office claims that Ward tried to grab McWhorter's gun during the struggle, an allegation Ward's parents deny. But it's worth challenging whether the deputy needed to initiate physical contact in the first place.
"Defendant McWhorter could have ordered Richard to spit the pill out," according to the family's lawsuit. "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."