Two years later, the family of a young Montrose man who was fatally shot by a New Mexico park ranger gathered downtown, again pushing for awareness and calling for an end to federal qualified immunity.
Charles “Gage” Lorentz died March 21, 2020, at Carlsbad Cavern National Park. He’d been pulled over for speeding and striking a sign.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office says use of force was justified as self-defense, but Lorentz’s family disagrees and is suing the Department of the Interior (National Park Service) and Ranger Robert Mitchell for excessive use of force and negligence, which Mitchell denies. Separately, the state of New Mexico declined to bring criminal charges.
“Gage was everything to us,” mother Kimberly Beck said Saturday, March 19, just before leading a march down Main Street to Demoret Park at the corner of Townsend Avenue. “It’s been almost two years since our boy Gage was stolen from us by a National Park Service ranger who shot and killed him. Two years without our son, brother, best friend. Two years later, the emptiness and heartache remain.”
The family, amid their anger, are persevering for change and awareness, but are tired of excuses and roadblocks, she said. “(It’s been) another year of discovering just how deep the corruption truly runs and how outraged society should be, if only they paid close attention to all the unjust law enforcement killings.”
Beck said the federal government has failed the sorts of basic expectations people have of private companies, which are more often held accountable for what they do. The government hasn’t met that standard with respect to her son’s case, she said, alleging multiple discrepancies, violations, a lack of secure backups, and outdated equipment.
“This is your federal government. And this could have been your child,” Beck said.
Beck and Gage’s father, Travis Lorentz, have sued the United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service and Mitchell, alleging constitutional violations, false imprisonment and negligence.
The family alleges Mitchell had no valid reason to shoot Gage during the 2020 traffic stop and contend the need for force “was created only by Mitchell” who almost immediately shot Gage after a Taser failed, per the suit.
The complaint also raises issues with 26 seconds of missing body camera footage.
KOBTV in New Mexico aired existing footage that showed Mitchell ordering Gage to turn around and the young man shaking his head before shifting from one foot to the other. He is then tasered and the footage cuts off, resuming when the shooting takes place.
The government said in response to the suit that Gage had struggled with Mitchell and struck him, which his family sharply disputes. Gage, their suit says, did not provoke the incident and a traffic stop should not have ended in his death at age 25.
The Lorentz family hopes also to bring an end to the federal doctrine of qualified immunity, which broadly shields government employees like Mitchell from civil action arising from what they do while performing official duties. Overcoming qualified immunity requires a violation of a clearly established constitutional right, which the National Park Service argues was not established in Gage’s case.
The government wants the suit dismissed. Mitchell is set to sit for deposition March 29.
“Ranger Mitchell will be put under oath and have to give a deposition … where he has to answer for the (alleged) murder of Gage Lorentz,” said attorney Shannon Kennedy, who is representing the Lorentz family in their federal suit.
“Thank you, each one of you, for fighting for justice in our community, for fighting in the memory of Gage Lorentz. Without people like you, we would live in a (country) in which people working for the government could take human life and never be held responsible,” she told the assembled marchers Saturday.
Kennedy said in Gage’s case, not only was a life stolen, but there is an attempt to steal the community’s ability to see the truth.
An engaged public that demands accountability is the antidote to governments’ attempts to cover things up, she said.
“When we fight for people that we love … when we fight against officers and institutions that are abusing their power, we are also fighting for those officers who are serving to protect and serve and those officers who want to serve their community. By confronting the corruption in their department, we’re not only freeing our community, we’re freeing our police departments from those who abuse power within them.”
Kennedy earlier said she’s been seeing a shift in attitudes since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, May 25, 2020. Former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of killing Floyd by kneeling on his neck during a police response.
“I think there has been a huge, Gestalt change in America about the way we understand our public servants and how to support them in protecting and serving” while weeding out officers who take the lives of the vulnerable, Kennedy said.
America needs to have and support officers who follow their training, she also said.
“I think the real second wave of civil rights in this country is the result of body-worn cameras. We have evidence. We have cell phones so that the lies are confronted. Before, the lies won. And now we have the evidence to support truth and (prove) abuse of power when it happens,” Kennedy said.
“We will continue to seek change to protect other families and loved ones,” Beck said, a few minutes before marchers gathered up signs and headed down the street.
“We will continue to see positive change in memory of Gage. The reverence and value of human life needs to be restored. Our son was an outstanding young man lost his life much too soon.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.