Was shooting on reservation murder by police or suicide?

Was shooting on reservation murder by police or suicide?

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TURKEY TRACK ROAD, Uintah County — Utah Highway Patrol trooper Dave Swenson had his gun trained on the disabled Suzuki sedan when the teenage driver and his passenger climbed out.

Uriah Kurip had missed a turn in the road and crashed, ending a chase that spanned more than 40 miles, involved a collision with Swenson's patrol car and reached speeds of 125 mph.

Kurip's passenger, Todd Rory Murray, had a $20,000 warrant out for his arrest and had drugs in his system, though the trooper didn't know it at the time.

"At this point, they look at each other, they look at me, they look at each other and then the passenger (runs) southbound, the driver (runs) northbound," Swenson would recall in a deposition given more than five years later.

The trooper chased Kurip and quickly had him in handcuffs. Off-duty Vernal police detective Vance Norton had arrived by then, and Swenson asked him to go look for Murray.

Minutes later shots were fired and Murray was lying on the ground, blood flowing freely from a through-and-through gunshot wound to his head.

Norton told investigators the Murray shot at him, he returned fire, then the 21-year-old shot himself. The state Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death a suicide.

Case closed.

Todd Rory Murray's grave in the Randlett Cemetery on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Murray, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe, died from a gunshot to the head following an April 2007 high-speed chase that ended on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation. The Utah Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death a suicide. Attorneys for his family claim he was murdered by a Vernal police officer.
Todd Rory Murray's grave in the Randlett Cemetery on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Murray, a member of the Ute Indian Tribe, died from a gunshot to the head following an April 2007 high-speed chase that ended on the Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation. The Utah Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death a suicide. Attorneys for his family claim he was murdered by a Vernal police officer. (Photo: Geoff Liesik)

Unless you're a member of Murray's family, who claims there is a far more sinister explanation for how the Ute tribal member died.

"(The police) were hunting themselves an Indian," attorney Sandra Denton told U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell during a hearing in May. "They had to take matters into their own hands, their guns into their own hands, and go find him. And when they find him, they kill him."

Denton's claim that Murray was murdered by police — who then conspired to cover it up — is just one of the ever-evolving allegations made against a dozen officers and their respective agencies in the four years since Murray's family first filed their wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit in federal court.

It's a small-town tale with big-case consequences, generating thousands of pages of depositions, expert witness reports and other court filings as attorneys on both sides try to prove how Murray died on April 1, 2007; who is responsible for his death; and what should be done about the federal government's destruction of a key piece of evidence.

The answers will undoubtedly affect the professional and personal lives of the officers named in the lawsuit. They could also cost Utah taxpayers millions of dollars in damages and attorneys' fees.

But they are unlikely to do anything to reverse the long-standing distrust some Native Americans feel toward law enforcement officers in the Uintah Basin, a distrust that, if anything, has grown stronger in the years since Murray's death.

The shooting


Ouray, population 20, is a place where the dogs — many of them strays — easily outnumber the people.

Kurip and Murray were a blur as they passed through the tiny reservation community 27 miles southwest of Vernal traveling at 110 mph. Nine miles farther south, where Turkey Track Road splits off from Seep Ridge Road, their frantic flight from police ended.

Murray ran southwest from the crashed Suzuki, cutting across a landscape dotted with oil wells and prickly pear. He went up a small rise, then around a hill into a natural amphitheater of rock, where he was seen by two of the three officers pursuing him.

"I don't know at what point he actually saw me because he kept running. … I mean, he was actually coming toward me," Norton said in a deposition.

"I was coming down (the opposite hill) and started giving him commands. 'Police. Get on the ground,'" said Norton, who was off-duty and not in uniform that day.

"I said it several times."

Uintah County sheriff's deputy Anthoney Byron saw Murray, too. He was walking along, swinging his arms around, the deputy said. Byron also briefly spotted Norton on top of the hill.

Neither officer could clearly see a gun in Murray's hands, but Norton heard gunshots coming from Murray's position. Byron reported hearing "a crackling noise," said he saw Murray standing alone and watched as he dropped straight to the ground.

And I think I told him — once or twice screamed, you know — put the gun down. And then he pulled the trigger and he just went straight down.

–Detective Vance Norton

Norton said Murray fired two shots from a handgun at him, so he fired two rounds from his .40-caliber Glock pistol. The detective, who was 113 yards away from Murray and firing downhill, said his bullets hit dirt and rock at the man's feet.

"It was kind of a 'create some noise' while he found a rock to hide behind because this kid was shooting at him," was how then-Vernal Police Chief Gary Jensen described Norton's actions less than 24 hours later.

Norton retreated toward cover, but said he looked over his shoulder and saw Murray put a gun to his own head.

"And I think I told him — once or twice screamed, you know — put the gun down," Norton said in a deposition. "And then he pulled the trigger and he just went straight down."

Norton was still standing at the spot he'd fired from — a football field's length away — when Byron and Utah Highway Patrol trooper Craig Young reached Murray less than 10 minutes later. Byron handcuffed the downed man, who was still alive, then rolled him onto his right side and stood back.

Murray received no medical treatment until an ambulance arrived 30 minutes later. He was pronounced dead at Ashley Regional Medical Center.

Norton was placed on administrative leave, common practice in officer-involved shootings. He was back on duty by April 10, after the medical examiner ruled neither of the shots he fired hit Murray.

"This basically goes down as a use of force incident rather than a police shooting," Jensen told the Deseret News at the time.

The scene

The remote area south of Ouray where the shooting took place is well within the boundaries of the 4.5 million-acre Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.

In fact, one of the first claims leveled against law enforcement by Murray's family is that the officers had no authority to pursue their son and Kurip onto the reservation to begin with.

The FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs police have exclusive jurisdiction over incidents involving tribal members on reservation lands.

Kurip is a Native American, but he was not an enrolled tribal member at the time of the chase. His case was investigated by the Utah Highway Patrol and prosecuted in state court.

Murray was an enrolled tribal member, however, which put the task of investigating his death in the hands of federal agents.

But by the time FBI agent Rex Ashdown reached the scene, it had already been disturbed. Officers from a number of police agencies, including the BIA, had converged on the site, and EMTs had scooped Murray up and taken him to the hospital.

The FBI and the FBI lab don't have the resources to take a suicide investigation to the nth degree to prove what we already know.

–Rex Ashdown

Ashdown got a quick briefing from an officer about what happened and set about photographing what remained: the shell casings from the .380-caliber handgun officers found near Murray's body, the gun itself, the shell casings from Norton's gun, the blood and other gore left on the rocks where Murray fell.

The agent also collected all the shell casings and the .380 pistol. The gun still had a partially ejected shell, known as a "stovepipe round," in the breech.

"A 'stovepipe round' is indicative of a self-inflicted gunshot wound," Ashdown testified, noting that the way a gun is held during a suicide attempt can often cause it to malfunction.

The agent never asked for forensic testing of Norton's clothing, Murray's clothing, their hands or either of the guns fired that day because, he said, he didn't believe there needed to be a "DEFCON 1" or "OJ Simpson-level" probe of the incident.

"The FBI and the FBI lab don't have the resources to take a suicide investigation to the nth degree to prove what we already know," said Ashdown, who retired from the bureau in May 2007 and went to work as an investigator for the Utah Attorney General's Office.

"I investigated numerous suicides on the reservation, and none of them ever resulted in a lawsuit," he said on the witness stand. "It was a pretty cut-and-dried situation in my mind."

The gun

Murray never had the .380 handgun police found near his body, according to his family's attorneys.


"That gun was never traced back to Todd Murray," Denton said, speculating in court that the weapon might have been a "throwaway gun" used by police to make Murray's death appear to be a suicide.

Documents filed by Jesse Trentadue, an attorney for detective Norton and the Vernal Police Department, however, show a direct link between the gun and Kurip, the 17-year-old who was behind the wheel of the Suzuki the day Murray died.

Kurip wanted a gun to "shoot prairie dogs and go target shooting." That's what he told his friend, Cody Allen Shirley, according to an FBI report.

Kurip gave Shirley money and Shirley bought him an inexpensive .380-caliber Hi-Point pistol from a Roosevelt sporting goods store. It was the same gun police found next to Murray's body.

Federal court records show Shirley pleaded guilty to making a false statement during the acquisition of a firearm and was sentenced to serve 18 months in federal prison.

With Shirley's case concluded, the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah no longer needed the FBI to hold the .380 in its evidence room. So prosecutors asked a federal judge to sign a forfeiture order, which the judge did. The gun was destroyed by the U.S. Marshals Service in November 2008.

One problem: Murray's parents had notified the state, Uintah County, the city of Vernal and the various police officers that they intended to sue them for their son's death eight months earlier.

The family didn't file its lawsuit until March 2009 though, five months after the gun was gone.

"It never occurred to us they were going to destroy (the gun)," Trentadue said.

The federal government never notified any of the agencies or officers involved in the 2007 shooting that it intended to destroy the weapon, and none of the agencies or officers contacted the FBI to inquire about the weapon's status after they were told they might be sued.

Attorneys for Murray's family have seized on the destruction of the gun as evidence that Murray was murdered by Norton and all of the officers who were at the scene that day, their respective agencies, the FBI and the state Medical Examiner's Office are now involved in a cover-up.

It's a dramatic change from the family's original claim that police didn't have jurisdiction to pursue and attempt to arrest Murray, a change Trentadue blasted as part of "an ever-enlarging net of conspiracies without any evidence to back up those conspiracies."

"To be called, on the record, Indian hunters and murderers is ... accusatory hyperbole and it is just out of place in these proceedings," added assistant Utah attorney general Scott Cheney.

The 'autopsy'

By the time Murray's body lay on chief deputy medical examiner Dr. Edward Leis' table, it had already been poked, prodded and cut open.

Blood had been taken from Murray's body while it was still at the hospital in Vernal and turned over to police, who also took possession of his clothes.

A Uintah County sheriff's deputy also stuck his finger in the bullet wound on the left side of Murray's skull for reasons that still remain unexplained before the body was taken to a mortuary.

At the mortuary, another blood draw was attempted at the request of police. When the initial attempt failed, a mortuary worker cut Murray's throat so blood could be drawn from his carotid artery.

"We have no idea where (that blood) went and there is no chain of custody," Denton said in court.

The medical examiner's office had its own samples of blood, urine and ocular fluid taken after it received Murray's body. State records show they were sent to the state Bureau of Forensic Toxicology to testing. The results, which are challenged by Murray's family, showed Murray had methamphetamine and alcohol in his system.

Despite being asked by the FBI to perform a full autopsy, Leis didn't do one.

"We had taken an X-ray and there was no retained projectile to collect for evidence purposes," Leis said in a deposition. "So, what we do in our office is simply do an external exam, document the features by diagrams and by photographs."

The exam showed Murray died after a single bullet entered his head above his left ear and exited below the top of his skull on the right side. There was soot around the entry wound, which had a star-shaped pattern, indicating it was a contact wound.

Leis described it as an "unsurvivable injury."

But why would Murray, who was right-handed, shoot himself above his left ear? And why wasn't there any "blowback" on his left hand, if that's the hand he held the gun in? And what about running a gunshot residue test?

In sworn statements filed with the court, experts have said using one's nondominant hand to shoot oneself is not reason enough to rule out suicide. As for the question of whether there would be blood or other gore on Murray's hand if he shot himself, Leis said that is something he rarely sees.

Dr. Jonathan Arden, a forensic pathologist hired as an expert by Murray's family, said there should have been "concern for blowback." He also argued that Murray's hands should have been tested for gunshot residue and other trace evidence.

Gunshot residue tests, made popular by TV crime shows and routinely used in 2007, have since fallen out of favor because of the likelihood of inaccurate results, Leis said.

"It's a fairly useless test to perform," he said on the witness stand. "Personally, I'm not aware of a lab that still does that testing."

Based on the physical exam alone, Leis acknowledged under questioning that he couldn't rule out that Murray was the victim of an execution-style shooting.

But a narrative report from Keith Campbell, the Uintah County sheriff's chief deputy at the time and an investigator for the medical examiner's office, provided details that made it clear Murray's death was a suicide, the doctor said.

"If the narrative and the physical findings were in conflict, I would have asked additional questions," Leis said.

Campbell and Norton went to high school together and are longtime friends, attorneys for Murray's family are quick to point out, in an effort to impugn both men's credibility.

Campbell, now the assistant Vernal police chief, was scheduled to testify about his investigation during a June 6 evidentiary hearing, but the judge said she didn't have time to hear his testimony that day.

"He would have testified to the scene being secured, the collection of the evidence and that it was collected properly," Trentadue said. "There was nothing there to taint."

The future

A broken wreath of faded plastic flowers, an empty Bud Light can and a small glass candle holder lay at the base of a bush near the spot where Murray was shot.

The site appears to be forgotten, like the shooting has been by many who call the Uintah Basin home.

But for those tied to the case in one way or another, what happened more than six years ago is seen as a spark that helped reignite the long-smoldering dispute over who has law enforcement jurisdiction in the region.

"This is part of a bigger picture," Trentadue said about the lawsuit.

"It is one skirmish in what is turning out to be, literally, a war over the extent to which the state or counties can exert any kind of law enforcement or governmental authority on the reservation," he said.

In the past two years, Ute leaders have become more vocal in their claims that police and prosecutors in Duchesne and Uintah counties routinely harass tribal members and file charges against them when they have no authority to do so.

As they did in the Murray case, tribal leaders have backed up their claims with action, directing the tribe's general counsel to represent members in a number of lawsuits that have been filed over the past 20 months by or against state and county officials.

The tribe also asked a federal judge in April to put a stop to the "racial profiling" of its members and to reopen a jurisdiction case it originally filed in 1975. In its court filings, Murray's death was cited as an example of what the tribe sees as a complete disregard for its sovereignty by state and local law enforcement agencies.

The judge in the jurisdiction case refused to grant the tribe's request for a temporary injunction at a June 24 hearing. A pretrial hearing is scheduled to take place in April 2014.

As for the Murray case, it was supposed to go to trial in August. That won't happen though, because Judge Campbell has 12 motions before her from the parties involved asking her to dismiss the case for one reason or another.

Campbell, who has described the lack of evidence as "a serious impediment" to trying the case, has also been asked to enter a default judgment on behalf of Murray's family to punish all the defendants for the federal government's destruction of the gun.

If that were to happen, the only question put before a jury would be how much money Murray's family should receive for their son's death.

The judge appears to be leaning away from entering a default judgment though, describing it as "drastic" and "pretty Draconian." She may, however, bar the defendants from telling jurors Murray had a gun, that he fired at Norton and that he committed suicide.

"I definitely conclude that evidence, crucial key evidence, was mishandled," Campbell said.

How she will rule on that conclusion won't be known until later this summer.


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Geoff Liesik


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