On Butting In

  • Susan Greene is a reporter, editor and coach for the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She was editor and executive director of The Colorado Independent before it merged with COLab and a longtime reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. She was selected as a 2020-2021 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, and is the inaugural recipient of the Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grant for Mental Health Investigative Journalism.

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Dear reader,

If I have learned anything about Kiowa County, it’s that the phrase “You’re not from around here” isn’t a compliment. 

I’d been warned last spring by then-Eads-based journalist Priscilla Waggoner that some locals would not appreciate that she had partnered with a reporter from Denver to investigate an especially prickly story in the tight-knit, pro-law-enforcement community: County sheriff’s officers’ fatal shooting of an unarmed local handyman during a routine traffic stop in April 2020. 

Waggoner knew of which she spoke. She was an outsider when she moved to the county eight years prior to live near her brother, the local doctor. As fond as she grew of the community, she knew that not having been born or at least raised there meant, in the eyes of some county residents, that she would never totally belong.

Sure enough, as I dug into details about Zach Gifford’s homicide and the officials directly and indirectly involved, some locals saw fit to remind me that their 1,400-person swath of the far Eastern Plains wasn’t my neck of the woods. “You’re not from around here” was code for “Stop sending us so many public records requests” and “Buzz off and mind your own business.”

This week, COLab reported that Kiowa County Sheriff Casey Sheridan ignored serious red flags about Quinten Stump, the rogue deputy involved in Gifford’s killing, in the months leading up to that traffic stop. On the same day that we published, Sheridan announced that he is resigning as sheriff and leaving law enforcement.

So, it came as no surprise when a call from the 719 area code this morning started with the caller telling me I wasn’t from around there. He sounded hoarse from age and spoke stiffly, formally, without telling me his name, even when I asked for it, nor that of the younger-sounding man who helped him find my number online and was quietly listening in on the call.

“Are you taping this?” the caller wanted to know.

No, I said, assuming he was about to chew me out for my latest article.

He told me he knew Zach Gifford, who sealed cracks in his driveway, installed some insulation in his walls and built the flower boxes and raised beds in which his wife grew her geraniums and tomatoes. He said he “felt sick” about Gifford’s killing and even sicker about the nearly year of silence and inaction that followed.

He was calling to say it took an outsider to “put a mirror in front of us” by reporting on the case and to get locals talking. And he was calling to thank me and the Colorado News Collaborative for “whatever it is you all do there to… make things like (this) happen.” 

I thanked him for saying that and for not bawling this big-city reporter out for butting into his community.

He laughed, and I could hear the younger-sounding man laughing, too. Then the caller cleared his throat a few times, apologizing for doing so and for problems with his voice. The minute or so it took for him to speak again was, in the context of my 30-something years as a reporter, well worth the wait. 

“Keep butting in,” he finally said. “By all means, keep butting in.”

Susan Greene

This post was sent as a letter to our email subscribers on Thurs., May 6, 2021. Join our email list to learn more about COLab and the work we are doing.