By Randy Tucker and Katie Roenigk
Via Wyoming News Exchange
RIVERTON — The federal officers involved in the Jan. 10 shooting death of Nicholas Garcia of Riverton "responded within the bounds of their training and followed their duty to protect the public," a coroner's inquest jury has determined.
Garcia died after a shootout with federal agents Matt Harris and Steve McFarland on Monroe Avenue near South Second Street.
Neither officer was injured in the incident.
The officers' agency -- the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms -- "refused to participate" in Friday's inquest, Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen said Tuesday.
"They cited matters of privilege and federal regulations under the Department of Justice and asserted the sovereign immunity of the United States government in denying compliance with the subpoenas," Stratmoen said, calling their response "disappointing."
"My personal opinion is that any time an agency applies lethal force on a citizen, they should be accountable in a public proceeding like an inquest," Stratmoen said. "It's a matter of accountability that I find disturbing."
He pointed out that "every other local law enforcement agency cooperated 100 percent" with the inquest and supported the process.
"(They) believe in that accountability," he said. "But when you go up the food chain, as it were, sometimes I think agencies forget who they really work for."
He added that "the implication doesn't sound very good" and said he personally doesn't agree with some of the ATF's reasoning behind its refusal to cooperate. But Stratmoen said it's "not for me to say" whether the agency's decision was appropriate.
"I'm not a lawyer, nor am I a judge," he said. "Those sorts of legal questions are resolved in another venue."
He cited those legal questions in explaining why he chose not to hold the ATF officers in contempt as a result of their refusal to participate in the inquest.
"Those sorts of disputes between state law and federal regulations are not something we deal with at this level," Stratmoen said. "Somebody has to have a grievance to get it started."
He could initiate a grievance, but Stratmoen said he isn't planning to pursue the issue.
The ATF also could bring the case to court, objecting to Stratmoen's refusal to withdraw his subpoenas at the agency's request.
It "would have been nice" to hear from the ATF agents, Stratmoen concluded, but he believes his jury "did a marvelous job" without the officers' testimony.
"I thought it went well," Stratmoen said. "The jury had some very good questions and did their due diligence, and I have no complaints about the process."
During the inquest, chief deputy coroner Erin Ivie said Garcia was struck by seven hots - all from behind: He suffered a wound to the head, two to the chest, three to the lower back, and one to the calf.
In previous reports, Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun said the ATF was planning a search of Garcia's residence and decided to follow him when he left his property in a pickup truck. Garcia realized he was being followed and attempted to return to his residence,
LeBrun said, and the ATF agents activated their lights and siren to stop him. Garcia stopped his vehicle, got out and began firing a black 9 millimeter firearm toward the agents, who returned fire, LeBrun said. Garcia then moved to the front of his truck, where he was mortally wounded by the agents' return fire, according to LeBrun.
Ivie said there was no evidence of range of fire because no clothing was present when she examined the body, and she could not determine entrance and exit wounds.
A pathology report by James Wilkerson, who conducted Garcia's autopsy, noted a glancing wound to the head that fractured Garcia's skull but didn't penetrate, another glancing wound to the shoulder, and four shots to the back.
Two shots entered in the upper back and exited through the chest, damaging the heart, liver and other internal organs, and two more shots entered the lower back, with one lodging against the pelvic bone. A final shot hit the right calf, and a bullet fragment was recovered there.
Wilkerson determined the four shots to the upper and lower back caused Garcia's death. He said all of the bullets involved were "large caliber."
Representatives of the Riverton Police Department, the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, the Fremont County Coroner's Office and SageWest Health Care offered evidence and testimony during the inquiry which also featured statements from one witness.
RPD Sgt. Scott Komrs said Garcia was the subject of a Jan. 10 briefing, during which officers were informed by anonymous sources that Garcia was telling people in the community that he wanted to have a shootout with the police.
"We were concerned about the individual," Komrs said. "On Dec. 8we received an anonymous call stating that Garcia was in possession of a weapon and looking to confront police officers."
Garcia was a convicted sex offender and a convicted felon and as such was not allowed to own a firearm. But ATF investigations indicated Garcia had ordered ammunition online for delivery to his home at 622 S. Fourth St. W.
Harris and McFarland were in Riverton to investigate the delivery of ammunition, and the RPD was to support the agents in a search of Garcia's residence. But after the briefing, Komrs said, radio traffic from the ATF indicated agents were involved in a shooting in Riverton.
As he approached South Second Street East, Komrs said he could hear gunshots. He removed the lock on his AR-15 and approached the scene, where he saw Garcia lying on the ground with McFarland and Harris standing near him.
A handgun was close to Garcia on the ground.
An ambulance was dispatched to the scene, and RPD officers began attempting to resuscitate Garcia, who made no statements at the scene.
The only testifying witness to the altercation was Carl Osborne, a service technician who was working in the area.
"I had a call on FirstStreet, and I saw a truck slam on its brakes," Osborne said. "I heard sirens and saw someone get out and walk toward a car behind him, firing three or four shots."
Osborne did not stay to see more.
"My reaction was to get out of there," he said.