U.S. Attorney’s Office Announces Findings Of Investigation Concerning Tribal Ranger-Involved Shooting On Southern Ute Indian Reservation
Tribal Ranger’s actions justified as self-defense
DURANGO – After a thorough investigation, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado has concluded that there is no legal basis to pursue federal criminal charges against a Southern Ute Tribal Ranger who fatally shot George Sands on November 24, 2020, on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation because the Tribal Ranger’s actions were justified under the legal doctrine of self-defense. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the decision today, after notifying the family of Mr. Sands.
“The loss of any life is tragic. And when it comes at the hands of law enforcement, the FBI and my office are committed to thoroughly investigating and reviewing such incidents,” said U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn. “Here, the evidence demonstrates that the Tribal Ranger’s actions were clearly justified under the self-defense doctrine. We appreciate the public’s patience while we investigated this matter and its understanding that, during the pendency of an investigation, we are limited by both ethical and legal considerations as to what information we can release.”
In this matter, both the location of the shooting on tribal land and the identity of one of the parties as an Alaskan Native gave the United States exclusive jurisdiction to consider whether federal criminal charges were appropriate. The FBI performed the investigation and the results were reviewed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The evidence included a civilian witness account, photographs, recorded radio communications of law enforcement, an autopsy report, a report from responding paramedics, and reports from the La Plata County Sherriff, the Southern Ute Police Department, the Southern Ute Tribal Rangers, and the Colorado State Patrol.
In summary, the evidence demonstrates that on November 24, 2020, a Tribal Ranger approached a SUV parked near Weaselskin Bridge to investigate potential trespassing on tribal land. Mr. Sands was in the driver seat of the SUV and a female party was in the passenger seat. During the interaction, Mr. Sands got out of the SUV. Mr. Sands orally provided a false name and date of birth. The Tribal Ranger contacted dispatch and learned that the false name was a known alias of Mr. Sands. Dispatch relayed to the Tribal Ranger that Mr. Sands had an active felony warrant for his arrest. Mr. Sands ran back to the SUV, while the Tribal Ranger pursued him. Mr. Sands unsuccessfully attempted to draw a large knife strapped to the door of the SUV. Mr. Sands then retrieved a realistic replica handgun from the SUV (photo below).
Unlike other replica or toy guns, the replica gun brandished by Mr. Sands did not have an orange end cap or other markings that would make it easily distinguishable from a real firearm. As Mr. Sands moved the replica gun towards the Tribal Ranger, the Tribal Ranger fired his service weapon six times, killing Mr. Sands.
Based on the available evidence, the U.S. Attorney’s Office concluded that no criminal charges against the Tribal Ranger are warranted. Specifically, the Tribal Ranger’s use of lethal force against Mr. Sands was uniformly consistent with self-defense. Under federal law, a person may resort to self-defense if he or she reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, thus necessitating an in-kind response.
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