RIVERTON — Resistance from the county’s top prosecutor and, possibly, law enforcement entities to the public inquest into the Sept. 21 shooting death of Anderson Antelope by a Riverton Police Department officer stems in part from the vulnerability of eyewitnesses, Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun said Thursday.
Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen announced Thursday that he is suspending the public inquest into the fatality.
An American Indian man who witnessed the struggle and the shooting culminating in Antelope’s death in front of Walmart in Riverton asked the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation to uphold his anonymity, due to the “racial issues” associated with the shooting.
LeBrun shared with The Ranger a portion of the DCI-recorded interview with the eyewitness, in which the man stated, “I do have a concern. Due to the publicity of this, you know, the whole racial issue that people are claiming, I don’t want to be named.
“I live on the (Wind River Indian) Reservation. I got kids in school. I’ve got young kids, and I don’t want, you know, anybody coming to my house, or people saying, ‘Hey, you’re the one that told the cops this.’ So, I hope that my name doesn’t ever go public.” Speaking over the recording, LeBrun clarified that the witness is “a well-known tribal member.”
DCI agent Ryan Wangberg conducted the interview with the witness at about 10:25 a.m. Sept. 22 – less than one day after Antelope’s death.
Wangberg noted in the recording that the witness wished to remain anonymous, then asked him to recount the incident “from beginning to end.”
“It is really unfortunate for all people – all involved,” the witness said. “We had just come out of Walmart. We saw the veterans selling (food) over there. I actually went to go see what they were selling. They had some tables there. We went to look at their menu.”
Walking toward tables that had been arranged for a Veteran’s Hall fundraising cookout, the witness said he saw a man sitting at the end of one of the tables, facing north.
“About that time is when the officer had walked up to the man sitting there, and I was talking to my (family). And (the officer) walked up and he told that man, he said, ‘Hey, you got to go’ – and kind of tapped him on the shoulder,” the witness said.
The witness said he told his family he was going to give the veterans a donation.
“So I walked up to the man that was selling the food and I gave them a donation, and I said, ‘Thank you for your service,’” he said.
Then he said he and his family walked toward their car.
“We were parked right next to the handicap area,” he said. “I heard the gentleman (later identified as Antelope) say something like, ‘Hey I’m (expletive) trying to eat,’ – and I kind of looked back, and the guy swung at the officer, kind of like to push him off or elbow him or something. … And then at that time we were over by my car. And the officer had the man by the wrist.”
Antelope was still seated at that time, the witness said.
“I could smell alcohol,” he said. “I don’t know if he was intoxicated or not.”
Antelope’s blood-alcohol content was later determined to be .284 percent, more than three times the legal limit in Wyoming for operating a motor vehicle, although there is not a numeric minimum for public intoxication.
“I saw (the officer): He had his arm, and I thought, ‘Oh no, I hope nobody gets hurt,’ basically,” the witness continued. “The officer had his arm and he was telling him, ‘You need to get up,’ or, ‘You need to go.’ And the gentleman had a coat, it looked like, on the chair next to him. And he kind of reached like he was going to grab his coat, and he reached down into the bottom of his coat, and then he just turned around and he stabbed the officer in the chest with a knife.”
Due to the rifle plate in his armored vest, the officer was unharmed.
The officer stepped “back, and then I saw him pull his gun – and the guy had a knife – and (the officer) was like, ‘Drop the weapon! Drop the weapon!’ – Boom!”
When the witness used the word “boom,” he did so as if to emulate a single gunshot.
Wangberg slowed the narrative with a few questions.
“You heard him say (‘drop the weapon’) twice?” Wangberg asked.
“Twice,” the witness responded.
“Pretty loud?” Wangberg asked.
“Yeah, I heard it, (and) I was standing behind my vehicle watching” roughly 10 to 20 yards away, the witness said. “The man was sitting at an angle a little bit, and he was eating, and that’s where he kind of elbowed – tried to elbow – the officer. And then it looked like they both kind of relaxed, and the man grabbed his coat … hanging over that chair. And then he reached down like this and I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ And he reached down (then) stabbed the officer right in the middle of the chest. He stabbed him, and then he looked back like that.”
He estimated the knife’s blade was 5-6 inches long.
Two days after the shooting, Stratmoen pronounced his intent to hold a public inquest into the incident, to introduce investigative materials to the public and to give “as complete a presentation of evidence and event as possible to arrive at a cause and manner of death” in the Antelope fatality.
On Thursday, however, the coroner wrote that he is suspending the inquest, due to “obstruction” in the form of “public statements and unofficial indications from other agencies.”
“The inquest on this death is suspended and on hold indefinitely,” he wrote. “The death will be certified as ‘undetermined’ at this time since we are obstructed from completing the process and close the case.”
The coroner received notification Wednesday that the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office would send him the DCI investigative elements. However, he wrote that the DCI investigation would not provide enough information to present a full inquest, especially since the involvement of the Riverton Police Department in the proceeding was denied to the coroner in a Nov. 1 letter from Riverton city attorney Rick Sollars.
LeBrun has opposed the inquest openly from Stratmoen’s first announcement of it, saying that Wyoming statute only invests coroner’s inquests with the right to determine “the cause and manner of death.” Those elements, LeBrun stated, are “homicide by gunshot wound” and are “obvious” in this case. He cautioned the public about a proceeding devoted to the “obvious” but capable of divulging much more.
On Thursday, he qualified this concern, saying, “One of the things that the coroner does not understand is that when witnesses are identified in the community, it can sometimes be very difficult for them.”
“In this particular case,” he continued, “we have a witness who is a tribal member – a well-known tribal member – who wishes to remain anonymous. And he asked me to do that.”