The people of Kiowa County woke Wednesday morning to an edition of their local newspaper unlike any other.
The cover story, “Three Bullets to the Back,” is a deep investigative and narrative look at an April 2020 police shooting that rattled the rural community more than any incident in decades, yet about which local elected officials – and residents – have stayed strikingly silent.
The Kiowa County Independent’s then-Editor Priscilla Waggoner reported last spring that sheriff’s officers killed 39-year-old Zach Gifford, a well-known local handyman and lifelong county resident. When the autopsy later showed officers had gunned him down with multiple shots to the back, Waggoner wrote another article – but not without her boss, Independent owner and publisher Betsy Barnett fearing that detail would be too upsetting for readers.
Barnett had started the paper in 2016 to cover economic development, high school sports and feature stories in her farm community. She is the first to admit that investigating how a traffic stop ended in a police homicide, knowing which documents to seek and questions to ask, and running into “no comments” and stonewalling from local officials who happened to be her neighbors and wanted the story to disappear wasn’t what she had bargained for.
There is a tricky tightrope that comes with being a small-town newspaper publisher – a balance between watchdogging a community’s power structure and also being part of it. We would all like to think that news outlets operate outside of non-news-related pressures. But some, all too increasingly, do not. And so, when Waggoner left The Independent last fall to work at a newspaper in Alamosa, Barnett was so understaffed and faced so much push-back that she planned not to pursue a closer, investigative look at Gifford’s killing.
But Waggoner wouldn’t let it drop. She has worked from Alamosa for free during her off-hours, weekends and holidays trying to understand the circumstances around the shooting and the silence in its aftermath. I’ve had the honor of working alongside her since she asked in April for my help coaching her and reporting some aspects of the story on my own. This is a big part of our work at the Colorado News Collaborative: partnering to cover important stories in our state that could not, or, in some cases, would not otherwise be told.
The result is a collaborative investigation that Gifford’s parents, Carla and Larry – who weren’t getting answers about their son’s killing from county officials – see as a step toward transparency and justice. In the era of George Floyd and Elijah McClain, the story is also of broader significance, laying bare a common reluctance among small communities to hold their own law enforcers accountable for killings that could have been avoided.
We posted the story to our website and are sharing it with news outlets statewide to run for free in three parts. But we are most proud that Barnett agreed to run it, also for free, in The Kiowa County Independent, and that she expanded the normal size of this week’s edition to make room for it. We’re thrilled that as of this writing she says the reaction is mostly positive – local residents grateful to finally know how Gifford died, and moved to see put into words the complex reasons for their own uncomfortable silence.
“It had to be said,” one reader wrote to Barnett Wednesday.
“THANK YOU 4 LOVING OUR COMMUNITY & BEING DILIGENT IN WANTING ANSWERS!!!,” wrote another.
It took guts for Barnett to publish this article. It took decency and determination for Waggoner to make sure, even after she had left Kiowa County, that the story of Gifford’s killing came to light. It takes a village to make sure that the expertise and time needed to dig into these important stories is available in an era when most news outlets don’t have the resources to do so on their own.
You are part of that village. With your support for this kind of collaborative reporting, COLab will continue helping our partners fend off news deserts and make sure these most pressing of stories don’t wither and die.
This post was sent as a letter to our email subscribers on Friday, March 12, 2021. Join our email list to learn more about COLab and the work we are doing.