Riverton city parks employee Roy Clyde allegedly entered the Center of Hope, an alcoholism treatment center, and shot two patients in the head at close range with a .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol on Saturday, July 18. Stallone Trosper was killed. Sonny Goggles was critically injured. The shooter was white. Both victims were Native American.
In the aftermath, perceptions of and reactions to the crime and its victims differed dramatically, with points of view primarily diverging along racial lines. This disparity of community experiences highlighted for many central Wyoming residents a troubling and persistent divide between Fremont County’s native and non-native populations. It also ramped-up latent tensions and inspired fresh fears.
A single common theme has emerged in the aftermath, however, from the anguish, anger and heated words: Something worthwhile must come from the tragedy. The community, residents say, must acknowledge and address the deep-seated problems exposed by the shooting and work together to fix them.
A heavy burden
On the Wind River Indian Reservation, which surrounds Riverton, the week following the shooting was characterized by grief and swelling resentment.
The collective sentiment threatened to overrun George Abeyta. As a public school teacher of 22 years, esteemed community leader, and uncle of Stallone Winter Eagle Trosper, Abeyta was called on to serve as the family’s spokesperson and the de facto voice of the Eastern Shoshone response to the shooting. By Wednesday morning, as circulation of the victims’ identities widened, his phone was ringing continuously.
Both Stallone Trosper and Sonny Goggles were popular in the reservation’s tight-knit community prior to the shooting. Both are enrolled members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and each hails from a prominent family. Goggles is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, where he served in Operation Desert Storm, and is the cousin of Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Dean Goggles. Stallone was a direct descendant of both the Eastern Shoshone’s famed Chief Washakie and the Northern Arapaho’s Chief Friday. He was also the grandson of Chairman Goggles.
Sequestered in the borrowed quiet of an office conference room, Abeyta answered calls from friends and relatives conveying condolences, kind words and remembrances. But callers also voiced frustration and anger. Why, people wondered, were Sonny and Stallone being portrayed as, “You know … homeless drunks,” paraphrased Abeyta.
“People resented that they were being treated like stereotypes, not people. Almost like they’re not even human.”
Incredulity at early reports that the shooter wasn’t racially motivated also peppered calls to Abeyta. “If this guy was hunting the homeless, why didn’t he go to the homeless shelter?” asked Abeyta, echoing what he’d been repeatedly asked. “Nobody buys that for a second. He was hunting Native people. Trying to sweep that under the carpet won’t do anyone any good.”
Amid the converging pressures of planning his nephew’s memorial, meeting media deadlines, and satisfying the increasingly vocal expectations of his community, Abeyta produced a 600 word family statement. The statement pleaded, “Please, let’s not devote any more energy to the cloudy motives of a troubled mind. Let’s instead start doing the hard work of building a better tomorrow, together.”
He released the statement, and it quickly went viral. The statement has since served, more than anything else written or said about the crime, to frame, inform and direct the ongoing discussion, on and off of the reservation. Then, with one difficult obligation met, Abeyta returned his attention to his immediate family and the week’s next hardship — burying Stallone.
A life started and ended on the front page
“Stallone was very humble. He never sought attention,” said James Trosper, another of Stallone’s paternal uncles, explaining the family’s choice of an understated, traditional burial service. He spoke beside his mother, Stallone’s grandmother, Zedora Enos, in the cool afternoon shade of their front yard. “Ironically though, he started his life on the front page,” continued Trosper. “He was the first baby of the New Year  so the papers made a big deal. Now … well, his life ended on the front page, too.”
Their family occupies a collection of homes, nearly a village unto itself, outside of Fort Washakie. They’ve lived there, beside the North Fork of the Little Wind River at the foot of the Wind River Range, since Chief Washakie selected the site for his personal home.
Two nights earlier, Stallone’s body rested in a tepee there. Singers at the wake pounded a heartbeat rhythm from a skin-and-wood drum, then joined wailing voices in traditional songs. Blessings and cleansing rituals were offered. People filed into the tepee to sit, weep and say goodbye.
Speakers at Stallone’s well-attended funeral — both native and non-native — shared similar observations. Boyhood friends described a gentle but powerful spirit that drew people into Stallone’s orbit. Pallbearer and friend Raymond McKing called Stallone the most thoughtful and intelligent person he’d ever known.
Enos produced an enormous photo album the following day to demonstrate the point. Pictured inside were six generations of her family. Meticulously curated, the album began with a sepia-toned photograph of her grandmother, Josie Trehero Washakie, in buckskins, feathers and beadwork. The round, smiling face of a preadolescent Stallone beamed from a page near the middle.
“See there how red his face is?” she asked, pointing. “Stallone always looked like that. Because everything he did, he did all out … playing in the river with his brother…. He played racing games with his cousins in the yard here. He was all effort.”
“He wasn’t homeless, and he comes from a good family,” she continued. Five of her seven children graduated college, she explained, three have master’s degrees, and most are engaged in service-focused professions. James served 10 years as a University of Wyoming Trustee, on appointments from two different governors, and still maintains ceremonial responsibilities for his people.
“Doreen [Whiting, Stallone’s mother] just got work in Casper and she went over there a few days before. Liz [Trosper, Stallone’s aunt] was expecting him at her house. He was going to spend some time with me.”
“Homeless …” she added with a dismissive wave of her hand. “We knew he drank. It’s a disease. An awful disease. He had respect for his family, though. … I never saw him like that…. He had too much respect to come here [intoxicated].”
She paused for a moment before adding with a sigh and gentle headshake. “I just don’t understand the hate.”
After waiting to be sure his mother had finished speaking, James picked up her thought. “Why did this happen, and will anyone care? People need to know what kind of person he was. He had qualities that we should all emulate…. He can’t have died for no reason. Something good must come.
“It really is hard, this hatred and misunderstanding that we call racism. It’s hard…. Riverton is in the middle of the reservation. The people who hate us have the whole rest of the world to live in. But this is our home. My [great, great] grandfather negotiated for this place, so that we would have a home forever. We’re not going anywhere. If you want to live with us, and learn from us, and respect our ways, then we welcome you. We open our homes. That is our way. That has always been our way. We are a loving, welcoming people, all native people. But why come here if you hate us?”
A town on edge
Riverton, Wyoming is a high-plains crossroads town of 11,000 people. The city lost its utility as an intersection of trade generations ago and now lives on trickle-down extractives industry money, light industry, retirement savings and an atrophied agriculture sector. It’s lost the steady flow of fresh perspectives that came with being a waypoint, but it kept the frontier grit.
The land under Riverton was once part of the Wind River Indian Reservation. It has, however, been considered, and managed, as an inholding of non-tribal property, an island of Wyoming State domain surrounded by the reservation, for over a century. A much debated, yet little understood December 2013 ruling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes have “state status” regarding the air quality within reservation borders, calling into question the legitimacy of that state-tribes arrangement. The matter is currently under litigation. Regardless of the ultimate legal outcome, the resulting uncertainty and rhetoric has placed unwelcome strain on already tense native/non-native relations in town.
Riverton City Park is, for many residents, the place where those tensions come to life. A broad green space right on the edge of downtown with mature trees, a bandshell, playground and skate park, the park looks in many ways like a modern day Norman Rockwell setting. But City Park is also the preferred loitering spot of the town’s small long-term homeless population known derisively as “park rangers.” It is also a regular destination for drinkers, many of them Native American, while on multi-day benders. Panhandling, intimidating language, public drunkenness and lewd behavior have long been common in the park.
Some whites see the situation as a Native problem, referencing it obliquely as evidence of tribal shortcomings and as justification for racist beliefs. Tribal leaders point out that alcohol is neither sold on the reservation nor welcome in their communities. Riverton is glad to profit from liquor sales, they argue, but unwilling own up to its contribution to substance abuse problems.
Matt Wright, co-founder of the Central Wyoming Skate Association and an engaged park projects volunteer described it this way: “I’ve spent more time in the park than 90 percent of Riverton’s residents, and yeah, I’ve seen some pretty disturbing behavior. We have wonderful facilities here for kids. But there are also things happening that no 8-year-old should ever see. It’s up to the community to find a solution.”
Before the shooting, Mayor John “Lars” Baker, believed the community was making progress toward that solution. “Chief of Police [Mike] Broadhead is right in saying the we can’t arrest our way out this problem.”
He cited the July 2014 replacement of the city’s alcohol crisis center with the Volunteers for America-run Center of Hope as evidence of an effective change.
“That’s what’s so crazy,” he said. “That this individual would [allegedly] attack the Center of Hope where they’re probably the most active group working on the problem he’s complaining about — homelessness, public intoxication.” Baker estimated the Center of Hope served 84 people in its treatment program in its first year — significantly more than the former alcohol crisis center did over several years. “There’s nothing rational about this.”
Mayor Baker was equally blunt when asked how he thought the shooting had affected race relations in his city. “I think there are a lot of Native American people who are very fearful, and who think that they are once again victims of some conspiratorial plot, and that this shooting is a part of that. But I just don’t think that’s true. What you hear when you go out on the reservation is that white guys are hunting down Natives to kill them. Well it’s just not true…. Well, I guess it was true, in this case but….
“I think most people in Riverton are just as upset about — I’m talking non-native people here, okay — are just as upset as Native people.”
Baseless or not, the fear is real.
Riverton resident, enrolled Northern Arapaho member and Fremont County Democratic Party Chairman Ron Howard’s efforts to organize a peace march for Saturday August 8 have met with a tepid response. Citing negative comments posted on an online community news site, and saying they fear further violence, many Native Americans have been noncommittal.
“One gentlemen from the reservation,” said Howard, “told me he’d be there, then called back and said he wasn’t coming. He thought there was going to be a drive-by. It won’t happen, of course, but people are definitely scared right now.”
The Riverton Police Department has, according to Howard, committed to attending the march and maintaining public safety.
Jean Harris knows City Park as well as anyone. It’s where she went when she was drinking. And it’s where Sonny Goggles saved her life.
She’d sustained a head injury, she said, following an altercation and a fall in the park. Goggles took her to a safe place, secured medical care for her, and stayed with her until it was clear that she’d recover. “I had a subdural hematoma and was in and out of it for four days,” said Harris. “I would have died without his help, no question.”
Now clean, sober and living in Lander with her young children, Harris still visits the park. As often as she can, she and her children bring backpacks loaded with hygiene items and non-perishable food. Then she quietly sets out a meal and breaks bread with with those who haven’t yet found their own way out.
“When you’re homeless,” she said, “the little things really matter. You’d go to detox and they’d give you a toothbrush and a comb and it’s like treasure. It’s hard to explain, but it can change your whole outlook.”
When Harris heard about the shootings, and the victims, she decided on impulse to invite the rest of the community to her next City Park picnic. Riverton resident Ramsey Armajo created a Facebook page for the event and invited everyone he knew. News of the impromptu, informal gathering spread online and by word of mouth.
An estimated 200 people showed up for the potluck last Saturday, July 25.
Gary Lincoln, and James Arthur Sr. opened the gathering with an honor song for Goggles and Trosper. Rev. Mark Rader of Riverton’s United Methodist Church followed the drumming with a Christian prayer. Then an evenly mixed crowd of native and non-native people ate lunch together on the grass.
Conversations covered fear and anger, but when asked why they’d come most people spoke of unity, and a willful refusal to be divided.
“We have so many more similarities than differences,” said Riverton tattoo artist Kim Houle. “The more divided we are, the more freedoms we lose.”
“I’m afraid,” said Myra Ridgley while holding her granddaughter. “My brother wasn’t homeless, but he drank, and he was in detox a lot. It could have been him killed. But I bring my grandkids to the park every day anyway. It’s important that they be out here. You can’t live scared.”
“The shooter is my best friend’s brother,” confided Ramsey Armajo, who is Native American. “I get why people don’t want to hear that it’s not about race. Some guy yelled at me in the Walmart the other day, ‘go back over the bridge’ whatever that means. But, on the other hand, I know my friend and I know his family and I know they’re not like that. We can’t let this tear us apart.”
Chrissy Nardi and Nicole Antelope agreed it was “pretty cool that it’s a 50-50 crowd” that attended the Saturday picnic. “I think it was a hate crime,” continued Ms. Antelope. “But people are messed up, people hate all kinds of groups. Who’s next? Single moms because we’re different, too?”
“I just hope people wake up,” said Zelma Weed Bell. “People need help, they need love and care.”
The Northern Arapaho tribe is pursuing a federal hate crime indictment. Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Goggles flew to Washington D.C. on Monday, along with co-chair David “Ron” McElroy and councilman Ronald “Ronnie” Oldman, to speak directly with federal officials about the matter.
The Riverton Police Department has turned “every stitch of evidence so far” over to the FBI, to facilitate a hate crime investigation, according to Mayor Baker. “The Justice Department has it all,” he said.
City of Riverton and Tribal Leadership have agreed to convene a committee of stakeholders at an as yet undetermined time, with the intent of easing tensions and finding common ground. Mayor Baker and Northern Arapaho Business Councilman Oldman have volunteered to co-chair.
“Will it make a difference?” asked Mayor Baker. “I don’t know. I’m sure we’ll produce a nice statement, maybe a pretty report. Hopefully the different leadership groups will come out of it communicating better with each other. But if we’ve got a small minority, say 5 percent of the population — I’m talking militant natives and racist whites, okay — who hold deep-seated prejudices, I don’t know how you change that.”