A family filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office after deputies shot and killed a man in a middle school pickup line last year.
The deputy, Charles McWhorter, yanked 32-year-old Richard Ward from his mother's car outside Liberty Point International Middle School in Pueblo West on Feb. 22, 2022, and fatally shot him, according to body camera footage released by attorneys representing Ward's family.
Deputies Showed Up After Ward Accidentally Entered Another Vehicle
According to reports, deputies arrived on scene after Ward accidentally entered another vehicle that looked like his mother's SUV.
The bodycam footage shows McWhorter approaching Ward, who is now seated in his mother's vehicle, and asking Ward "what's going on?"
Ward replies saying he's there to pick up his brother. The deputy then appears to touch Ward's arm, to which Ward objects.
"Why are you acting like this?" McWhorter asks.
"I'm a little nervous because I don't like cops," Ward responds. "They've done things to me." In the moments that follow Ward is seen putting something in his mouth while McWhorter speaks to him.
"What did you just put in your mouth?" McWhorter asks before yanking Ward out of the vehicle.
"It's a pill. Let me go!" Ward is heard saying before a struggle ensure on the ground. Seconds later, McWhorter shoots Ward thrice in the chest at point-blank range.
Ward was Unarmed, Shot Without Warning
Neither McWhorter nor another deputy on scene, Cassandra Gonzales, provided medical care to Ward as he lay bleeding on the ground, the footage shows. McWhorter didn't give Ward orders before pulling him from the car and never gave a warning that he was going to use deadly force, the video shows.
Ward died on the ground outside the school while Ward's mother and her boyfriend are heard screaming from inside the SUV, asking for information from the deputies.
The following video is graphic in nature. Viewer discretion is advised:
Chief Deputy Claimed Ward Jumped Out of the Vehicle
Dave Lucero, who was a chief deputy at the time and is now the Pueblo County Sheriff, briefed reporters at the scene that day. Lucero told reporters that day that Ward "jumped out of the vehicle." The video shows Ward being pulled out of the car by a deputy.
An October decision letter from the DA's critical incident team said they found McWhorter and Gonzalez were justified to use force by the defense of self and defense of others provisions of Colorado law. In interviews with investigators, McWhorter said Ward was grabbing his duty belt and he feared Ward would take his gun, according to the letter explaining Chostner's decision.
Lawsuit Alleges 'Reckless Use of Force'
But the encounter never should have escalated to the point of a physical struggle or deadly force, according to the wrongful-death lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court against Pueblo County and five sheriff's officials. McWhorter "recklessly and deliberately initiated a wholly unnecessary and purposeless physical use of force against and struggle with Mr. Ward," the lawsuit states.
"Defendant McWhorter could have ordered Richard to spit the pill out," the lawsuit states. "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."
An internal investigation into whether McWhorter and Gonzales should be disciplined is ongoing, Pueblo County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Gayle Perez said. The sheriff's office made changes in an attempt to improve its de-escalation training in response to the shooting, she said.
McWhorter is a Medal of Valor Recipient
McWhorter was awarded the Medal of Valor by the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office in 2017 after he and Detective Charles Roldan discharged their weapons and stopped an armed bank robbery suspect from "causing harm to the Deputies or the citizens of Pueblo County."