It's been nearly a week since a man was shot and killed by law enforcement outside of a Walmart store in Riverton. Last night, community members held a vigil for the man, who has been identified as 58-year-old Anderson Antelope, a citizen of the Northern Arapaho Tribe.
"My brother didn't deserve to die. His life mattered, too, you know," said Antelope's sister Lavina Antelope at last night's vigil. " He was a Northern Arapaho Sundancer. You know, going in, sacrificing, praying for his tribe, for his family, friends, his children. Now this tragic thing happened to our family."
Wyoming Public Radio's tribal affairs reporter Savannah Maher has been following this story. She spoke with Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck about the shooting and its aftermath.
Bob Beck: What do we know about what happened on Saturday?
Savannah Maher: We know that the shooting happened sometime before 3pm in front of the Walmart in Riverton. Officials say that an officer was trying to arrest Mr. Antelope, and that Mr. Antelope attacked the officer with a knife. Here's what Fremont County Prosecutor Pat Lebrun said his office knows about the shooting based on eyewitness interviews:
"Decedent drew an approximately 6 inch knife and stabbed the officer in the center of his chest. However the officer's body armor stopped the knife from penetrating. The defendant continued the assault with knife in hand and was shot. He died at the scene."
The Walmart stayed open for business despite Antelope's body remaining on the sidewalk covered with a sheet for hours after the shooting, until at least 8pm that night.
BB: You've spoken to some witnesses who have information that's not included in those official reports - what are they telling you?
SM: A local veteran's group was holding a fundraiser barbeque on the sidewalk between Walmart's two entrances. According to witnesses, Antelope bought some food from the fundraiser, and sort of hung around that area for a while. He may have sat down in a place where he was in the way or otherwise inconveniencing shoppers. Witnesses say that when the officer arrived on the scene, he spoke with Antelope for several minutes, apparently asking him to move. Eventually, witnesses say the officer tried to physically move Mr. Antelope. How this situation escalated to one where Antelope pulled a knife and the officer fired a gun - witnesses say the officer shot Antelope in the head - we can't be sure.
BB: How have most people viewed this shooting in the community?
SM: Reactions have really been mixed, and I have to say that it feels like Riverton is divided into camps over this. There are those who say they support the police 100%, and that anyone who pulls a knife on a police officer should expect to be shot - that the officer was doing his job and defending himself. Others point out that Antelope was older - he was 58, he was not mentally or physically healthy - and say that the officer should have been able to de-escalate the situation or use non-deadly force like a taser to subdue him.
BB: You've spoken with some of Antelope's family, and spent some time with members of the Northern Arapaho community - how are they reacting to all of this?
SM: This has really shaken Antelope's family, and many parts of the Northern Arapaho community. Family say Antelope had struggled with alcoholism for years, and that he was physically disabled and walked with a cane as a result. I spoke last night with Antelope's nephew Shilo Twobulls, who was housing Antelope at the time of his death and was also his power of attorney. He told me that Antelope had a lot of health problems, including a traumatic brain injury from several years ago, and that he was prone to bouts of confusion. In this clip, he's telling me about a recent episode Antelope had where he didn't recognize his own nephew:
"You know I had to actually take my time and say 'Hey uncle, it's me Shilo, are you okay?' and he wouldn't respond right away. So I mean for this officer to try to pick him up off the sidewalk, anyone would kind of freak out. Especially if you're confused."
Because of his poor mental and physical health, Antelope's family have some real doubts about whether he could have posed a threat to a police officer.
Another thing that's come up is that for parts of his life, Mr. Antelope was someone that some in Riverton might derogatorily call a "Park Ranger" - that's a word that people use to describe a homeless person who sleeps in the city park. Antelope's family believes that because of that label, some in the community may have viewed him as a nuisance or as disposable, but the family wants the community to know his death is an enormous and very tragic loss for them.
BB: It appears that law enforcement has said very little.
SM: That's right. We don't know who the officer is, what agency he or she works for, or whether he or she is still working after the shooting. We also don't know for sure why the officer was trying to arrest antelope. And meanwhile, rumors are flying throughout the community.
BB: When can we expect law enforcement to release more information?
SM: The Fremont County Coroner's Office is convening a public inquest to determine the manner and cause of Antelope's death - that means that the agencies investigating the case will present evidence to an inquest jury. In a statement Monday, the county coroner said his office's forensic autopsy won't be complete for possibly four to five weeks, and that we shouldn't expect any more information from that office in the meantime. Wyoming's department of Criminal Investigation is taking the lead on investigating the shooting itself. Traditionally, the prosecutor and others will wait for the DCI report before they decide whether or not to charge the officer.
Savannah Maher is a Report for America Corps member, you can learn more about the project at reportforamerica.org.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at email@example.com.