Some residents of Fremont County are calling for the release of more information about a September police shooting that killed 58-year-old Anderson Antelope and the encounter that led up to it.
According to witness and police testimony, Antelope attacked a Riverton Police officer with a knife before he was killed. The officer was unharmed in the attack, due to an armored vest, but shot Antelope after he ignored at least two verbal orders to drop the knife.
In a statement last month, Fremont County Attorney Pat Lebrun wrote that the officer had "no other option" than to shoot Antelope, and that his office would not file any charges in the case.
"Under Wyoming law, the Officer […] had the absolute right to defend his own life, and the lives of the several people within his immediate vicinity, with deadly force. Every action the Officer took was proper and lawful," Lebrun wrote in that November 29 statement.
Antelope's sister Lavina Antelope said she and other members of the family read Lebrun's statement in the newspaper.
"That was really upsetting news that we got. I was crying and crying because there was nothing done for my brother," she said.
From the beginning, Lavina Antelope has had doubts about whether her brother, who was physically disabled as a result of chronic alcoholism, was strong enough to pose a threat to a police officer. Other family members have said that he had recently suffered a brain injury and was prone to bouts of confusion.
Lavina Antelope was counting on the opportunity to review the case evidence, including a report compiled by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, at a public inquest proposed by Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen. But days after Lebrun's statement was released, Stratmoen announced that his office wouldn't convene that inquest due to what he called "obstruction" by the County Attorney and the City of Riverton.
"I wanted to be [at the inquest]. I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to know what really happened," she said. "It should have never happened. There should have been another way to disarm my brother if he did have a knife."
The inquest jury wouldn't have had the power to prosecute the officer, but Stratmoen said it is his office's policy to hold an inquest in all officer-involved deaths as a transparency measure.
In his statement suspending the inquest, Stratmoen said that his investigation of the case had been complicated by factors such as his office not being notified of Antelope's death until 5 hours after the fact. He also revealed that the City of Riverton had denied his request for access to police records.
That caught the attention of Riverton resident Chesie Lee, who had also planned to attend the inquest.
"There's a feeling that there's an attempted cover-up. And it may not be. Others might come to the same conclusion [as the County Attorney]. But the fact that very little information is being made public, it smells like a cover-up," she said.
Lee heads up a group called the Riverton Peace Mission, which is aimed at bridging divides between Native and non-Native residents of the city. She said she wants the public conversation about what happened to Antelope, who was a citizen of the Northern Arapaho tribe, to extend beyond the legality of the officer's actions.
"I might tend to agree, based on what I know, with the County Attorney that the police officer did not commit a crime," Lee said. "But it's worth asking - did [the officer] have a taser? Did he have other options? Was it possible he could have just stepped back? Was the officer, in fact, left with no other choice other than to shoot Andy Antelope in the head?"
But according to law enforcement, the evidence in the case is limited primarily to eye-witness and police accounts. Riverton Police Chief Eric Murphy said that although the knife attack and subsequent shooting took place outside of a Walmart, they were not captured on store surveillance video.
"I wish it was caught on video. I really do. Because a lot of these questions would have been answered by now," Murphy said. "There's nothing that we do as law enforcement that should not be captured on video."
In response to the incident, Murphy said that his department is dipping into funds from the Riverton Police Foundation to purchase body cameras for each of its officers. As for calls for his department to release other information, including the name of the officer involved and any of that officer's potential disciplinary records, Murphy said he's not likely to budge.
"I gotta tell you, I just don't see the point in that," Murphy said, adding that the officer has received threats since the shooting. "The mayor backs me 100 percent. The city administrator backs me 100 percent. That's not going to get released."
Meanwhile, the Riverton Peace Mission, family of Anderson Antelope and other community members are planning a gathering in January that they hope will fuel a continued conversation about racial divides, substance-abuse and mental health issues in Riverton.
"That's what I hope will come out of this meeting," Lee said. "To me, Riverton is just kind of a simmering pot. This issue of racism is just kind of under the surface. But every once in a while, it boils over."
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