Attorneys for the mother of a Laramie man slain by an Albany County Sheriff’s deputy opened a new front in their legal battle this week, asking a judge to release records from a grand jury investigation of the shooting.
The lawyers suggest in the newest filing that Albany County officials, worried about a future lawsuit, presented biased experts to the grand jury that cleared deputy Derek Colling for the killing of Robbie Ramirez. Colling shot and killed Ramirez during a November 2018 confrontation.
Ramirez’s mother, Debra Hinkel, seeks as much as $20 million in damages for what she alleges was the wrongful death of her son and a miscarriage of justice. The newest motion was filed Feb. 19 in Albany County District Court and paired with a series of new filings in the federal court where Hinkel brought her lawsuit.
Albany County officials have pointed to the grand jury proceedings as evidence the shooting was justified. Hinkel’s lawyers now suggest the grand jury was engineered to protect the county government from liability. The county attorney selected biased witnesses to make a case for clearing Colling, the lawyers wrote, and jury members as well as the public therefore deserve a chance to review the secret proceedings.
“The defendants in the federal action are defending that case under assumed regularity of the grand jury proceedings,” lawyers wrote in the county court filing, “when it appears in all likelihood the use of the grand jury was anything but regular.”
The Spence Law Firm, out of Jackson, is representing Hinkel.
With the new filings, the lawyers continue their argument that county officials covered for Colling after the shooting in order to avoid accountability for hiring the controversial deputy. Albany county has denied those charges.
Investigation integrity questioned
Colling had previously shot and killed a 15-year-old boy while working as a police officer in Las Vegas, a shooting that led to a lengthy lawsuit. He was later fired from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for an alleged assault of a videographer trying to film police work.
Former Sheriff Dave O’Malley hired Colling — a Laramie native whose father is a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper — when other law enforcement agencies wouldn’t, Hinkel’s lawyers have alleged. They accused O’Malley of being “unduly influenced by his friendship with Defendant Colling’s father” in the original legal complaint. Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder chose not to hire Colling, he told WyoFile last summer.
In the months after Ramirez’s death, Albany County prosecutor Peggy Trent convened a grand jury to establish whether there was probable cause to charge Colling with a crime. Trent presented evidence to jurors for three days, after which the grand jury decided there was not probable cause, Trent said at a press conference in January 2019.
At that conference, Trent described the grand jury deliberation as a more thorough process than is typical of most Wyoming officer-involved shooting investigations.
While Wyoming lacks clear statutory procedures for how such incidents are investigated, Wyoming’s statewide law enforcement agency, the Division of Criminal Investigation, has investigated in all apparent recent cases. The county attorney in the relevant county receives DCI’s report and then decides whether the shooting was justified or not.
In Laramie, the group Albany County for Proper Policing, which sprung up in the wake of Ramirez’s death, called on Trent to recuse herself from the case. Trent did not.
Prosecutors have broad control over a grand jury. They pick the evidence and set the arguments, all in secret. There was no opposing attorney making a case against Trent.
Trent knew both Colling and Ramirez and their families, she said at the press conference. But with a grand jury, “I thought we could do it better” than other counties had done with police shootings, she said. Trent argued the grand jury created a more thorough and independent review of the evidence in the shooting.
“I secured two experts to come into our community in order to provide insight as to national standards and how it should be done in the use of deadly force,” she said at the press conference.
“It was more raw, more direct towards those witnesses than you would ever have in a courtroom with a jury present with a judge,” Trent said.
A shield for justice?
In the new filings, Hinkel’s attorneys allege the grand jury was a shield for justice, not a step toward it. Trent selected witnesses and presented evidence in a manner aimed at clearing Colling, aware that the county government she works for would likely end up in civil court, they allege.
Trent called two expert witnesses during the grand jury, according to both her press conference and the latest filings from the Spence lawyers. One was Dave Dubay, a Casper-based consultant who previously worked for the company that manufactured the taser and body camera Colling used. The other was Connecticut-based attorney Eric Daigle.
Daigle “exclusively defends law enforcement officers in civil rights litigation,” the new filing alleges, implying he is not suitable as an impartial witness in the grand jury. Hinkel’s lawyers aren’t the first to accuse Daigle — whose website describes him as a law enforcement consultant and former police officer, still certified in Connecticut — of bias.
Officials in Aurora, Colorado hired Daigle in June 2020 to investigate the high-profile death of Elijah McClain while the young Black man was in police custody. Daigle’s contract was cancelled after one day when a city councilmen raised concerns that the attorney was dedicated to defending police officers and their employers from civil liabilities.
At the press conference, Trent said the grand jury’s purpose was to establish whether criminal charges should be filed. But the “county now admits – contrary to the statements of Attorney Trent – that these experts were also hired in anticipation of the forthcoming civil litigation,” the lawyers wrote.
Their statement appears to refer to the county’s attorney’s resistance to subpoenas issued for the materials Daigle and Dubay used to prepare their testimony. The county’s attorney, John Bowers of the Bowers Law Firm in Rawlins, argues such materials, as well as communications between the expert witnesses and county officials, are protected under attorney-client privilege.
“This admission may establish a preordained decision by the County to defend and condone Colling’s actions in the criminal investigation which it oversaw to affect the civil litigation,” Hinkel’s lawyers wrote.
Bowers, the county’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment left with his office.
“All of the material in both expert witness’s files was prepared for the Grand Jury and certainly it was not unexpected that civil litigation might result from the matter,” Bowers wrote in a Feb. 5 filing where he argued against releasing Daigle and Dubay’s investigative materials and communications with the county. “The impressions and opinions by the attorneys involved in the Grand Jury proceeding would be the same in the current civil litigation.”
Shooting still reverberates in small town
Colling and Ramirez were once high school classmates in Laramie. While Colling went on to a checkered career in law enforcement, Ramirez battled mental illness, alternating paranoid episodes with periods of stability, skateboarding and making music.
On the fatal day, Colling pulled Ramirez over after observing Ramirez drive slowly and fail to use his turn signal. A brief vehicle chase ended in front of Ramirez’s apartment, where the two men struggled before Colling shot Ramirez three times — once in the chest and twice in the back.
O’Malley has defended Colling’s use of force, and his hiring of the deputy. Ramirez’s mother has said the officer did “zero” to deescalate a situation that could have ended without tragedy.
In Jan. 2019, the Laramie Boomerang reported O’Malley — now retired — was “currently working” with Daigle on a review of his department’s use-of-force policies. That review never occurred, according to emails included in the latest filings from The Spence Law Firm.
“It is my understanding and belief from my clients that Sheriff O’Malley never followed through with having Mr. Daigle perform the review after the grand jury proceeding,” Bowers wrote in a Feb. 4 email to Hinkel’s lawyers.