RIVERTON — Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen has asked State Rep. Andrea Clifford, D-Ethete, to be a jury member at an upcoming coroner's inquest.
The inquest will address a Sept. 21 officer-involved shooting that led to the death of 58-year-old Anderson Antelope in front of Walmart in Riverton. The Northern Arapaho Tribe announced that day that Antelope was an enrolled member of the tribe.
The incident occurred when a Riverton Police Department officer responded to an intoxication call at the front entrance of the store.
Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun released a public statement which said that the officer was attempting to arrest a man, but that the latter "drew an approximately 6-inch knife and stabbed the officer in the center of the chest."
LeBrun wrote that the officer's body armor prevented the knife from penetrating, but that Antelope continued the assault "with knife in hand, and was shot."
Clifford announced Monday that she is considering sitting on the coroner's jury, which will review evidence and pronounce publicly the cause and manner of Antelope's death.
At a Monday meeting of the Wyoming Legislative Subcommittee on Tribal Relations, State Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) stated that he wanted to broach the topic of the officer-involved shooting, saying Antelope was "a man that I've known for many years."
"There's a lot of talk back and forth, both on the (Wind River Indian) Reservation and off," said Larsen, adding that he hoped to add to all the discussion his conviction that Antelope should have been under mental health supervision at the time, but wasn't.
Larsen said Antelope was a gentle person who nevertheless had "addiction issues" and had been committed involuntarily to the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston.
However, due to limited space, Antelope was released from the state hospital, after which he spent time receiving mental health care in Lander, was released, and stayed then at SageWest HealthCare in Riverton.
Antelope's stay in SageWest, Larsen said, was cut short because he hadn't had a current psychological evaluation, so Antelope was released from the hospital.
"There's more history to that (afternoon) in a Walmart parking lot - he just shouldn't have been there," Larsen said. "The system has failed us."
Clifford responded to Larsen's comments, saying that no one had the right to judge whether Antelope should have been at Walmart that day or not.
"He went to go support veterans," she said, noting that Antelope had purchased food from a Veteran's Hall fundraiser just before his death.
Larsen would later clarify that he wasn't judging whether Antelope had the right to be at Walmart, but was saying that Antelope should not have been released from the mental health care that he had been receiving prior to the incident.
"I was saying that the system had failed him, and that's why he shouldn't have been there," Larsen said.
"We are always looking for who can we say is at fault," he said, "but the bigger issue is we have (mental health care) issues in Wyoming, not just Fremont County."
Larsen said it should be the mission of legislators to fix the issue.
Clifford stated that as a representative of the people of the reservation, she was "very upset," at having been "left out of the conversation" about the factors preceding Antelope's death.
"We do have a Northern Arapaho tribal member on that police force," she said, "and I do believe that if he had been the one that had answered that call, Andy would still be alive today."
Clifford announced that the coroner had asked her to serve as a juror for the upcoming inquest, which will occur after the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation finishes its investigation into the incident.
In an interview with The Ranger, Coroner Stratmoen confirmed that he had asked Clifford to act as a jury panelist over the inquest.
As per inquest procedure, the coroner may select autonomously three community members to act as jurors. He will then present evidence to the jury, which will determine the cause and manner of death.
Stratmoen said he is considering Clifford for the position because "she's well known in the community," and because of her special interest in the case.
"In any case that involves a Native American I like to have Native American individuals on the jury," said Stratmoen, clarifying that "maybe two out of three" jurors could be Native American in this case. "The classic jury of your peers, as it were."
When asked if there is any burden to represent the officer who shot Antelope in terms of jury characteristics, Stratmoen said that because the inquest has no prosecutorial power unless Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun chooses to use the outcome of the inquest to file charges, there is no onus on the coroner to represent the officer's peers through the inquest jury.
More than anything, Stratmoen said, the mission of the inquest is to "give public transparency to this sort of situation. So, we don't represent the interests of either party - we simply present the facts. And then, if you have objective jurors, they will come to their conclusions."
Stratmoen said his experience with Clifford, which dates back to her service as a Fremont County Commissioner, has led him to believe she is objective.