A Colorado sheriff’s office has given one of its deputies a medal after he fatally shot a man who mistakenly tried to get into the wrong car while picking his brother up from a local middle school.
Charles McWhorter earned the Pueblo county sheriff’s office’s purple heart award for purportedly enduring injuries to his nose, forefinger, back, knee and neck as he shot Richard Ward three times at close range and killed him on 22 February 2022. McWhorter received the purple heart medal during a sheriff’s office award ceremony on 17 February, four days before Ward’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against him and his agency.
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office confirmed to the local Pueblo Chieftain newspaper that McWhorter’s purple heart honored his actions on the day he shot the 32-year-old Ward to death. The spokesperson then reportedly told the Chieftain that the sheriff, David Lucero, would not discuss the decision to honor McWhorter because of the pending litigation.
Meanwhile, in statements obtained by the Washington Post, Ward’s mother and the attorney representing his family expressed outrage at the slain man’s treatment by the Pueblo sheriff’s office.
“This was nothing short of state-sanctioned murder of a citizen who should not have been arrested, let alone killed in broad daylight,” the Ward family’s attorney, Darold Killmer, said in a statement.
A statement attributed to Ward’s mother, Kristy Ward Stamp, added: “My heart is broken. I have no words to explain this to Richard’s little brother. Our family has been ripped apart.”
On the day he was killed, Ward accompanied his mother and her boyfriend to pick up his younger brother from a local middle school. Ward took a walk as they waited and – after getting back – opened the door of another car that looked like his mother’s.
Ward had realized his mistake, had apologized to the driver and had gone back to his mother’s car when deputies including McWhorter showed up to investigate a call about a suspicious person in the area.
McWhorter approached Ward, who – while being questioned – said he was uncomfortable around law enforcement officers because he claimed some had used excessive force against him, according to deputy body camera footage that Killmer’s office released.
Ward also explained what happened when he opened the wrong car’s door, and he emptied his pockets when McWhorter asked him for his identification. He also said he might have a pocketknife on him, though it turned out he didn’t have any weapons at all.
Then, he took out a prescription anti-anxiety pill and put it in his mouth and the tone of the encounter changed palpably.
McWhorter asked Ward, “What did you just stick in your mouth?” Then, without letting Ward answer, McWhorter wrestled Ward out of the car and threw him on the ground.
“It was a pill!” Ward said. After a struggle of a few seconds that drew in another deputy, three muffled gunshots erupted, according to the video. McWhorter had shot Ward in the chest at point-blank range, the wrongful death lawsuit filed against the deputy asserts.
“Is my son shot?” Stamp yelled from the car, the video shows. “He doesn’t have a weapon!”
Ward was pronounced dead at the scene. McWhorter later claimed that he feared Ward was trying to reach for his gun. And local prosecutors ultimately deemed McWhorter’s killing of Ward as justified.
It was not clear Saturday how long it might take the Ward family’s lawsuit to be resolved. The suit demands damages, alleging that Ward was wrongfully subjected to excessive force, among other contentions.
McWhorter’s purple heart was at least the second time his agency had honored him for shooting a man.
In 2018, he received the office’s medal of valor award – the highest decoration of bravery available to US public safety officers – after he shot a robbery suspect 10 times the previous year. The suspect had allegedly pointed a gun at McWhorter and another deputy, who shot the accused robber twice, was also given a medal of valor.
The Chieftain reported that the sheriff’s office’s website is no longer listing McWhorter as a recipient of the award after the agency spokesperson said the deputy had been receiving “targeted threats”. The spokesperson didn’t elaborate, according to the Chieftain.