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Albany County sheriff reveals retirement plans as lawsuit hits

An Albany County Sheriff’s Office truck parked outside the Albany County Courthouse on June 30, 2020. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

September 3, 2020 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile

Albany County Sheriff David O’Malley intends to retire on Jan. 2, 2021, according to an Aug. 27 email he sent to the Albany County Commission and other county officials.

His announcement, which has not been made public, came less than a week before the family of a man slain by an Albany County sheriff’s deputy filed a long-awaited lawsuit against the county. Debra Hinkel, the mother of Robbie Ramirez, seeks as much as $20 million in damages, according to a governmental claims notice — a step preceding the lawsuit — delivered to the commission in late June. 

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The complaint, filed this week by the Spence Law Firm of Jackson, accuses Albany County officials including the sheriff, commissioners and the deputy, Derek Colling, of “negligent and willful and wanton” misconduct in Ramirez’s death. The lawyers intend to name more defendants later, they wrote, as court proceedings reveal others to be liable in Ramirez’s death or responsible for an investigative process the complaint describes as biased.

O’Malley distinguished between a retirement and resignation in an email to WyoFile. He described his retirement as a long-considered move in the email to officials. 

O’Malley was elected to his third four-year term in 2018, two days after Colling shot and killed Ramirez

The sheriff and his wife began discussing retirement when his term began, “and decided that if everything aligned just right, I would retire during this term,” O’Malley wrote. “That has happened and as of now, I intend for my last day to be January 2, 2021.” 

O’Malley will write a formal letter of retirement soon, he wrote. 

His planned retirement will conclude a 45-year career in law enforcement. Formerly a Laramie police officer, O’Malley gained national attention for speaking candidly about homophobia and bias in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder. O’Malley became “one of the country’s leading proponents” for national hate crime legislation that followed Shepard’s murder, according to the New York Times. He traveled to Washington D.C. several times and met with President Bill Clinton.

Shooting sparks outcry

Controversy stemming from Ramirez’s death has dogged him and his department. 

Colling fatally shot Ramirez, who battled mental illness, during an altercation that began with a traffic stop. 

A Laramie native, Colling had been involved in another controversial killing while working for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. That death also led to a lawsuit, which was initially successful but dismissed in a federal appeals court. Colling was fired from that department over a separate alleged assault on a videographer filming police action. The videographer captured the incident on film and the city paid a $100,000 settlement to him. 

Albany County should never have hired Colling because of that checkered past, Hinkel’s lawyers wrote. 

“Defendant O’Malley was directly warned that Defendant Colling was a ‘loose cannon’ with an out-of-control temper rendering him unfit to serve in law enforcement,” the lawyers wrote. 

Other law enforcement agencies had rejected Colling’s job applications, the lawyers wrote. Laramie Police Chief Dale Stalder told WyoFile in July he had chosen not to hire Colling. 

“I believe that that was a good decision,” he said. Stalder also lamented that local protesters had associated his department with the Ramirez killing. 

“My police officers didn’t do that,” he said. 

The lawyers accuse O’Malley of being “unduly influenced by his friendship with Defendant Colling’s father,” in the hiring. Richard Colling is a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer and longtime Laramie resident. 

Outraged residents formed an activist group, Albany County for Proper Policing, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting and called for Colling’s firing. The group has since shifted its approach, pushing for Colling to be decertified by the Wyoming Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. Decertification would effectively ban Colling from working in Wyoming law enforcement.

Wyoming POST’s director told WyoFile in June the body was responding to a complaint about Colling. 

County officials have largely stood by the deputy, and bristled at criticisms lobbed by citizens at tense public meetings

O’Malley has defended Colling, telling WyoFile in the weeks after the shooting he did not regret hiring him. “I regret what happened on Nov. 4 with every fiber of my being,” he said then. “I knew Robbie, I know Derek, I know their families. As for hiring Derek I don’t regret that at all.”

After an investigation by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and a grand jury cleared Colling of wrongdoing, O’Malley made Colling an investigator, not a patrolling officer. Community members, and the complaint, accuse O’Malley of promoting him. O’Malley told the Laramie Boomerang newspaper the move was “lateral” and did not come with a salary increase.

The lawsuit alleges the county commission, O’Malley and the yet to be named officials “condoned and/or ratified Defendant Colling’s behavior,” by, among other things, “publicly dismissing and mocking individuals who questioned Defendant Colling’s fitness for continued duty.” 

The activism has continued. Laramie saw larger and more sustained marches following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd than the rest of the state. Many of those marchers seized on Ramirez’s death as an example of local police brutality. Protestors chanted for Colling’s firing along with “Black lives matter” and other slogans that have reverberated through the nation’s cities. 

On Tuesday, a group of about 15 protesters marched to the commission’s morning meeting dressed in funeral garb and carrying mock tombstones and coffins. 

Likely unaware of O’Malley’s retirement announcement, they stood outside the windows of the meeting room and chanted for his resignation as well as that of some of the commissioners and Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent.

On Wednesday, ACOPP released a petition calling for Gov. Mark Gordon to remove O’Malley from his post.

The petition cited another federal lawsuit underway against the department. That lawsuit accuses O’Malley’s department of discrimination against an LGBTQ Laramie resident who reported being sexually assaulted, according to reporting by the Casper Star-Tribune and Wyoming Public Media.

Though O’Malley may have been considering retirement since 2018, local and national protests, as well as public scrutiny, clearly rankled him. 

“My time with the Sheriff’s Office has been the highlight of my career, and although I am really going to miss the people, our profession is in turmoil nationwide and I am too old to tolerate the madness,” he wrote in the email announcing his retirement.

In his email to WyoFile, he added harsh words for the local press.

“The irresponsible, biased, and one sided journalists in this community abound,” O’Malley wrote. “At some point, the silent majority is going to demand the historical type of journalism, that people my age came to expect.” 

‘Bias’ and ‘coercion’ in investigation

Hinkel’s complaint spends considerable time on the county’s investigation, describing it as biased and manipulated to clear Colling without consequence. A grand jury convened by Trent chose not to indict Colling. The information Trent presented to the panel remains sealed and unavailable to the public. 

Officials “presented professional witness opinions and/or testimony who were paid to provide unduly biased testimony about the reasonableness of Defendant Colling’s actions,” the lawyers allege. The defendants also “manipulated and/or coerced testimony of non-retained expert witnesses during the grand jury process,” they wrote.

It’s unclear what knowledge Hinkel’s lawyers have of the grand jury proceedings. 

“We look forward to telling Robbie’s story and letting the truth be known about the events of Nov. 4, 2018, but otherwise decline to comment on the details of the case at this time,” Noah Drew, one of the attorneys, said in a statement. 

Trent told the Laramie Boomerang that the evidence she presented “included crime scene photos, video footage from Colling’s body camera and dashboard camera, recordings of radio traffic, toxicology reports, autopsy report photos, an audio interview with Colling and ‘expert reports on the use of force’ from Non-Lethal Defense, Inc., of Casper and Daigle Law Group of Southington, Connecticut.”

The last set of experts, the Daigle Law Group, recently found itself at the center of controversy in Aurora, Colorado. That city hired Eric Daigle to conduct an independent investigation into the police killing of Elijah McClain. McClain’s death and officials’ response has driven unrest there.

Within a month of hiring Daigle, Aurora officials canceled his contract. The decision followed public outcry that the former police officer was biased toward law enforcement, according to the Denver Post

The firm’s website advertises its specialty in defending governments from law enforcement liability claims. “Defending municipalities, police chiefs and individual officers from law enforcement liability claims is, and has been, a significant portion of the experience that Attorney Daigle brings to our clients,” it says. “His years of law enforcement experience, his knowledge and understanding of police and security practices allow us to prepare a defense that will ensure our clients’ rights are protected to the fullest extent of the law.” 

The county didn’t discipline Colling, perform an internal investigation into whether he violated policy or law or convene a shooting review board, the lawyers wrote. 

O’Malley did, however, use the Daigle Law Group to review his department’s use of force policy, he told the Boomerang.

The defendants has not yet filed their response to the lawsuit. The Wyoming Attorney General will represent the two law enforcement officers, Rawlins attorney Tom Thompson will represent the county, Trent told WyoFile. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.