Today’s Wild West: where the law still sides with the gunslingers

Ten Sleep Canyon. Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/petechar/7571735442

Under Fire in Ten Sleep Canyon

There is no single template for an American Dream. For my Ecuadorian boyfriend, José, that dream was to go rock climbing in the U.S. I am an American happily living abroad, but I was content to go back to my homeland to show José its natural wonders, and to dispel his stereotypes about gun-slinging racists, rampant consumerism, and all the other bad rap America receives.

That is how, in September 2013, we found ourselves rock climbing and camping in Wyoming’s remote Ten Sleep canyon, some 20 minutes away from the small Western cowboy town by the same name. A month and a half into our climbing trip, Ten Sleep was our favorite destination.

Between night and morning of September 16th, we were sleeping snug in our tent after our best climbing day yet. Our dreams were cut short around one in the morning, when an object crashed loudly onto the top of our tent. My eyes flashed open in time to see the object’s shadow slide to the ground.

Much accustomed to camping, some intuition told us both that this was outside the normal sounds and movements of night-time in nature. We were terrified. Yet we still hoped to justify the occurrence with a rational explanation, so I popped my head outside the tent, shining my headlamp around. I identified the delinquent object as a branch—which probably fell from a tree. I stopped myself from asking why it looked like driftwood, polished by the nearby river.

Tentatively accepting the explanation, we tried to fall back asleep. But only minutes passed before a much heavier projectile crashed into our tent ceiling from a sideways angle, pushing the fabric down nearly to our faces before rebounding. I screamed, so loudly and with so much terror as to rival the alarm caused by the mysterious projectile itself.

My instinct was to get out as quickly as possible, before something—a tree—might fall on us. José’s instinct was to stay quiet, not move, not get out of the tent. But ultimately my instinct insisted more firmly; I threw on my sweater, my shoes, my headlamp, and darted outside. José was left with little option but to follow.

As I sought shelter in the direction of the car a few feet away, José stood in front of the tent, exploring the trees overhead with his headlamp. What was falling from them?

I heard a pop. I turned around and no longer saw José. Instead, I saw some human-sized movement in the bushes just a few yards away, going fast in the direction of the road. José had not disappeared; he had fallen backward into the tent. Just as quickly, he got up again, lifting his shirt. “Something’s hit me!” he said, pointing to a tiny red mark on his chest. As I hurried toward him I noticed something next to our tent that had not been there before—a rock the size of a cantaloupe. Realizing that this rock had been the second projectile, I started to understand that we were under attack.

Yet the pop had been so inobtrusive, and the red mark on his chest was so small. Possessing no knowledge of guns, I figured he had been hit with a BB, and that the wound was superficial. Yet the situation was so frightening that it was nevertheless necessary to get out of there—and fast.

We scrambled to the car and took off on the road to Ten Sleep, adrenaline pushing my foot harder on the gas pedal. But I hit the brakes when we came upon a white pick-up truck driving slowly and swerving slightly. At this hour, there were no other cars on the road, and we would have heard any—seen their headlights—if they had gone by. We understood that this car contained the person who had attacked us, and we did not want to get close enough to give opportunity for a second shot.

As we followed the white truck at a distance, our need to get to town became urgent: José’s wound was internal afterall—not caused by a BB—and he was feeling his body shut down. Consumed by pain and hemmorraghing, he could hardly move or speak. We needed to call 911, but I had left my phone in the tent, and there was no service in the canyon anyway. We needed to get to town, but we were stuck trailing behind the damn person who shot him, who drove much below the speed limit and might start shooting again if we should get too close.

The white truck got to Ten Sleep town, and we did too behind him. He slowed to a painful 15 miles per hour before turning onto one of the town’s four residential roads. We caught a glimpse of his silhouette: a head with a cowboy hat.

Ten Sleep has no medical services and was completely asleep on this Sunday night. We were left to drive the 26 miles to the next town, Worland, in the hope that there we could get help. As my boyfriend’s breath weakened and almost stilled, I drove faster and faster hoping to win a race against death.

Worland had a small medical facility, staffed by a night secretary. Shocked to see a gunshot wound in the chest—apparently an unprecedented situation for the small hospital—she not only called in the doctor, but every nurse that worked there and several that no longer did. The doctor arrived and confirmed that we had made it just in time. José had received a .22 caliber bullet one third of an inch from his heart, and his lung had collapsed.

The doctor quickly took to draining blood from José’s lung—commenting to me that he remembered learning the procedure in medical school. A misplaced adaptor on the drainage tube caused blood to spray around the hospital room, giving a macabre twist to the already terrifying night.

José and I were then transferred by helicopter to a larger facility, St. Vincent’s hospital in Billings, Montana. José received 24-hour care for five days. Making a gracious exception for us, the hospital allowed me stay at his side the entire time. We then went to my family’s house to rest for a few weeks before flying back to Ecuador.

Local Officers Defend the Guilty

The attack at Ten Sleep turned José and me into victims of violent crime, and we soon began to understand what that really meant. Although we were first victims of an attack and a bullet in the chest, we have since fallen prey to Wyoming’s law enforcement system.

We had gone home prepared for the traumas we knew we would need to face. In two days we stopped sleeping with the light on. It took a little longer to stop our hearts from jumping at sudden sounds. By the time José could walk without too much pain, we were able to take peaceful strolls in the night, beneath dark trees and their looming shadows. It was almost immediately that we began to laugh about the whole experience, making light of what had only days before been dire. We were ready to move on, and the quicker the better.

Little did we know that the real trauma was still to come, and it continues to haunt us over a year later. What had once been a situation of fear, pain and violence, soon turned into an unending struggle with the local law enforcement agency, wherein the Sheriff’s office refused — and to this day still refuses — to admit that we were victims of a crime.

The investigation, carried out by the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office, began in the Worland hospital. As the doctor struggled to save José’s life, two deputies struggled to understand why a person might shoot another person in their county (perhaps they were unaware that Wyoming consistently ranks among the highest gun deaths per capita out of the 50 states). The deputies asked me to report what happened, exactly as I remembered it. While I told the story without omitting any details—believing this might be helpful to the investigation—the deputies took scarce notes, jotting down several words on their pads. They swabbed our hands for gunpowder, to remove any suspicion that we had simply been playing with guns in the night.

Later, in the Billings hospital, the Sherrif’s Office sent two emissaries to interrogate José about the details of the incident. One of the emissaries was Deputy Carlton, seemingly a gentle man; the other was a loud-mouthed young blonde officer who was sent over as translator for José, who does not speak English. I quickly understood a critical fact about the blonde officer: he was more eager to convince us of his own interpretation of the story than to understand the details of what had actually happened.

The blonde officer asked, “Don’t you think it was probably a hunting accident?” That was when the nightmare started.

It soon became clear that it was not only the blonde officer who wanted to convince us that it was a hunting accident. The other deputies we spoke to, as well as County Sheriff Steve Rackness, also insisted. They gave us hypothetical stories as to how it could have happened, stories like: Well, normally people don’t hunt at one in the morning, and they normally don’t hunt with a .22, but some people like to go shooting raccoons in the night.

The officers’ belief that this was a hunting accident meant that they refused to write that the incident was a “crime” on the case report. This soon proved important, as José’s hospital bills soared to over $50,000. As a foreigner on a tourist visa, José was automatically excluded from most medical aid programs. However, he was a shoe-in to qualify for the Wyoming Crime Victim’s Compensation Fund—the only requisite was that the Sheriff’s report state that he was the “victim of a crime.”

Talking to the officers, I emphasized the evidence against their hunting-accident theory: Our tent was in a designated campsite just a few feet away from our car, next to a road—is that a spot to go hunting? I screamed very loudly following the second projectile, and we both used bright headlamps—do raccoons scream? Do deer use headlamps? Why would someone throw a branch, and then a rock onto a tall tent while out hunting?

The officers suggested that the hunter was far away and had not heard or seen us. The supposed hunter perhaps thought our tent was a bush that they could lure prey out of. Yet I reminded them that the rock was too heavy to throw from further than a few feet, that tents light up like globes when a single headlamp is turned on inside them, and that I had seen movement in the bushes no more than 7 yards away immediately following the gunshot. And while the officers themselves suggested that the gun had been so quiet because there must have been a silencer involved, they had no answer when I asked if it is common practice for hunters to use silencers.

Meanwhile, the officers in charge of the investigation set out on a tragedy of errors. They searched for bullet shells and footprints far away on the other side of a river, although we drew them a clear picture of where the shot came from just a few yards away—from a different direction than their search area. They refused to look for white pick up trucks on the residential street that we saw the assailant turn on, claiming that finding a white pick up truck in a town of 260 residents and four roads was like searching for a needle in a haystack. And even though the truck drove in front of the town gas station’s surveillance cameras, they refused to look at the recordings.

As the days passed and the officers kept insisting on their alternate-story, it dawned on me: even if it were somehow a hunting accident, it is still a crime to shoot someone and run away. I called up the Sheriff, knowing that now he would definitely do justice to the situation and rectify the report to state that we had in fact been victims of a crime. We may never know who shot José, but at least we would have some funds to pay the hospital bills.

In light of my revelation, the Sheriff’s tactic changed. He said that, until he received results from the Wyoming State Crime Lab regarding the gunpowder swabs that they had taken from our hands, he could not remove the possibility that either I had shot José or that José had shot himself.

This was preposterous. Our stories matched to the smallest detail, removing any reason to believe we had contrived it to protect ourselves. The officers had even told us that a nearby camper who awoke suddenly in the night had seen lights in the trees coming from our direction. Other climbers confirmed that we had not been arguing, nor playing with guns, nor behaving strangely. Neither of us have ever possessed a gun. There was absolutely no evidence to suggest that we might have done it ourselves. And yet, the local law enforcement had such strong faith in the integrity of their county’s population that they insisted this was a more rational explanation.

As a result, we are being treated as guilty until the lab results come back to prove our innocence.

Searching for Justice

I have been following up regularly with the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office. Yet every month the story about the lab results seems to change. It now appears that the lab kits they used were too old to be able to analyze, meaning that the results will never come back, and there is no way to prove our innocence in the eyes of Washakie County.

While St. Vincent’s hospital in Montana forgave José’s debt, the hospital in Worland sent our bill to a collection agency—those infamous agencies with the right to take away people’s homes and anything else they own. As a foreigner, the most dire consequence José will face will be the inability to ever return to the US if he does not pay the debt. For us, this is distressing. It means we cannot go back to my family or my home.

I have never before heard of someone having to go to great lengths to prove that they did not attack themselves. To me it would be more logical for the Sheriff to write the report based on the evidence at hand, and if later evidence arrived to sugggest a different story, they could re-open the case and repeal the Victims Fund assistance.

But for now, we are being punished for a violent crime committed against us.

What Can Be Done

In the United States, we are privileged with the ability to react in the face of injustice. The easiest way to help is to ❤ this story and share it with others. We are also looking for legal and journalistic support to put pressure on the Washakie County Sheriff’s Office to treat the attack as a crime.

If you are someone who might be able to help, you can email the author at anadea.medium (at gmail dot com).

For further reading, check out these articles from Rock & Ice, Big Horn Climbers, or Climbing.com.

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