Ute family seeks answers after 34-year-old shot
By Cindy Yurth
TOWAOC, Colo., June 9, 2011
(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)
To the tourists who came to this remote southern Colorado town June 3 for the opening of the Bear Dance, everything seemed normal enough.
Against the stunning grey crags of Sleeping Ute Mountain, in a circle ringed by freshly cut junipers, the Ute Mountain Utes were celebrating the beginning of summer as they had for generations.
Men in their best turquoise and women in bright fringed shawls did a simple hopping step in time to the rhythmic rasp of sticks rubbed against notched ax handles, mimicking the sound of a bear waking up from hibernation and scratching on a tree.
The announcer made a few playful jokes at the expense of the tourists and welcomed the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs, which was meeting at the tribe's casino.
But all was not well in Towaoc. A familiar face was missing from the Bear Dance, one that should have graced the next 30 or 40 Bear Dances.
"When he was young, he was always the first one to the circle," sighed Kat Cantsee, the aunt who raised Spencer Posey.
Posey, 34, died May 23 of a gunshot wound to the abdomen fired the previous day. While the tribe's BIA-run police force has yet to formally confirm it, Posey's family believes the shot was fired by a police officer as Posey was attempting to flee from a confrontation.
Neither the police nor the FBI, which is investigating the incident, would discuss the shooting with the Navajo Times. But Posey's uncle, Clyde Casey, said the family is conducting its own investigation, and based on interviews with several people who witnessed events leading up to the shooting, they believe the officer chased the unarmed Posey into a vacant lot and fired at him when he turned around to surrender.
Whatever happened early in the morning of May 22, it was not Posey's first encounter with the law. He had had some misdemeanor charges, most of which he managed to talk his way out of in court with the help of a good defense attorney, said his friend Nick Traweek.
"He was very smart," said Traweek, who helps run the tribe's recreation center and often shot hoops with Posey.
It's a description echoed by just about everyone who knew the single father of four, who eked out a living refereeing basketball and playing casino poker.
"Even if you knew he was wrong, you couldn't win an argument with him," Traweek said.
In the crosshairs?
Posey's brain, and his mouth, may have been his undoing.
"If he didn't like something the tribe was doing, especially the police, he would say something," said his cousin, Clessa Eyetoo. "That's why they were after him all the time."
"He had a lot of strong opinions, and he would share them with anybody and everybody," added Traweek. "That was like his favorite thing, to talk trash."
According to Eyetoo, who works for the tribe's human resources department, Posey had on at least three occasions presented the tribal Council with a written account of being harassed by the police.
Eyetoo said that as far as she knows, nothing ever came of the complaints, other than a tribal council member suggesting Posey move out of town. Tribal Chairman Gary Hayes did not return a phone call last week.
Casey said he had tried to convince some of the six witnesses to the May 22 incident to talk to the press, but they had told him they had been asked by the police and the FBI not to discuss the case outside of the official investigation. He did not share their identities and this reporter was unable to contact them independently.
While the details of their stories differ somewhat, Casey said they all told him they saw Posey running from behind a house into a vacant lot with a police officer in close pursuit between 5 and 5:30 a.m. that Sunday. According to Casey, the witnesses agree Posey was shirtless, and most remember him running with his hands above his head.
A gunshot was heard, and some witnesses say Posey fell down, got up and fell down again several times before lying still.
At some point, Posey must have faced his assailant because the family saw the wound at the hospital and the bullet clearly entered Posey's abdomen from the front.
"I really think he had turned around to give up," Cantsee said. "Like he was saying, 'You got me.'"
Some witnesses said that, early in the chase, Posey had been carrying a small ax or hatchet, but at some point he had abandoned it and he was not carrying it when the officer chased him into the vacant lot.
All his family members agree he was not the type to carry a weapon.
"He would fight," Eyetoo said, "but only with his fists. He was old school."
"He was very physically fit," added Cantsee. "He didn't need a weapon to defend himself."
Posey did occasionally drink to excess, Traweek said. Late on May 21, he was seen playing pool at a local watering hole. But Cantsee said he had stopped by her house earlier with his son, Tyreik, and he did not appear to be tipsy.
At some point after the shooting, Posey was taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, about 11 miles away. According to Cantsee and Casey, the family wasn't notified until after noon. Both the aunt and uncle say they were never officially notified, and had to hear about the shooting through the grapevine.
"My daughter's friend happened to overhear a tribal security guard talking about it, otherwise I don't know how I would have found out," Cantsee said.
What Posey's last words were, the family doesn't yet know. Because of medical privacy laws, they haven't been told, but as of June 3 they were filling out forms to gain access to those records.
"That's what I'd really like to know," Casey commented. "What he himself said about it."
By the time family members got to the hospital, Posey was in and out of consciousness and unable to speak. He died surrounded by family members the evening of May 23.
Posey's family and friends say what they really want from the police is some answers.
"Why, two weeks later, with two police agencies investigating this along with the tribe, is there no report?" Eyetoo asked. "Why didn't the cop use a Taser, or shoot him in the shoulder or the arm or the foot? Why has he not been placed on leave?"
The police would not release the officer's name nor confirm whether or not the he has been placed on leave pending the investigation, but Eyetoo says an officer matching the description one witness gave was in a group of police who dispersed a family gathering shortly after the incident, perhaps mistaking it for a rowdy party that was taking place across the street.
According to Eyetoo, the police used unnecessary force to break up the family gathering, including using pepper spray on two individuals.
"They're always so dramatic," she said. "They'd rather kick your door down than knock."
It's part of a pattern she believes stems from the tribe not having its own police department and depending on the BIA for police protection.
Of the tribe's dozen or so police officers, only two are Ute Mountain Ute, and most are non-Native, Eyetoo said. She added that she was recently unnerved when passing the police shooting range and observing white officers shooting at paper targets depicting dark-skinned criminals.
"I really believe that if we had our own people in there, they would know how to approach us," she said.
At present, the tribe is trying to recruit more Utes as police officers. Ironically, Posey might have been one of them. According to Eyetoo, he was working on a master's degree in criminal justice at the time of his death.