Nearly two months after the shooting death of George Sands, the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Thursday released details about the incident and said no criminal charges will be filed against the Southern Ute tribal ranger who shot and killed Sands south of Durango.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the ranger’s actions “were justified under the legal doctrine of self-defense,” according to a news release issued Thursday.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment further Thursday, including releasing the name of the tribal ranger who fired the lethal shots.
“The loss of any life is tragic,” U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said in the release. “And when it comes at the hands of law enforcement, the FBI and my office are committed to thoroughly investigating and reviewing such incidents.
“Here, the evidence demonstrates that the tribal ranger’s actions were clearly justified under the self-defense doctrine,” Dunn added. “We appreciate the public’s patience while we investigated this matter and its understanding that, during the pendency of an investigation, we are limited by both ethical and legal considerations as to what information we can release.”
The shooting death occurred Nov. 24 near Weaselskin Bridge on La Posta Road (County Road 213). It occurred on Southern Ute tribal land, and Sands was identified as an Alaskan Native, giving the federal government jurisdiction to determine whether criminal charges were appropriate.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the tribal ranger approached an SUV parked near Weaselskin Bridge to investigate potential trespassing on tribal land. Sands was in the driver seat of the SUV, and a woman was in the passenger seat.
During the encounter, Sands got out of the SUV, according to the release. He then provided a false name and date of birth. The tribal ranger contacted dispatch and learned the false name given was a known alias used by Sands. Dispatch relayed that Sands had an active felony warrant for his arrest, and Sands ran back to the SUV, according to the release.
The tribal ranger pursued Sands, and Sands unsuccessfully attempted to draw a large knife strapped to the door of the SUV, according to the release. Sands then retrieved a “realistic replica handgun” from the SUV.
“Unlike other replica or toy guns, the replica gun brandished by Mr. Sands did not have an orange end cap or other markings that would make it easily distinguishable from a real firearm,” the release said.
Sands moved the replica gun toward the tribal ranger, and the ranger fired his service weapon six times, killing Sands, the U.S. Attorney’s Office reported.
Based on the evidence, the U.S. Attorney’s Office concluded no criminal charges against the tribal ranger were warranted.
“The tribal ranger’s use of lethal force against Mr. Sands was uniformly consistent with self-defense,” the release said. “Under federal law, a person may resort to self-defense if he or she reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, thus necessitating an in-kind response.”
Sands’ family received little to no information about the shooting death until Thursday morning, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office walked them through its investigative process and how it came to its conclusion not to file criminal charges against the tribal ranger, said Shay Havens-Gee, Sands’ niece.
“It’s a hard one to swallow,” Havens-Gee said. “I can tell you that we as his family do not believe that George would ever pull a gun on anyone let alone law enforcement of any type. ... We are the experts on George, and they don’t know him ... like we do.”
She said the family has retained an attorney to review the case and determine whether a civil lawsuit is warranted.
The FBI performed the criminal investigation, and the findings were reviewed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The evidence included a witness account, photographs, recorded radio communications by law enforcement, an autopsy report, a report from responding paramedics and reports from the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, Southern Ute Police Department, Southern Ute Tribal Rangers and the Colorado State Patrol.
According to an obituary, Sands, 53, of Durango was born in Portland, Oregon, and had been living in the Durango area. He worked a variety of jobs, including construction, auto body and painting.
In a previous interview, his sister, Debbie Powell, said Sands was a father of three girls and one boy.
“George was a good person, not a perfect one, but a good person,” Powell said.
Havens-Gee said her uncle had a lot of injustices directed against him, but he was a kind person and tried to teach forgiveness. If there were family arguments, he would work to defuse the situation.
“I do not want this swept under the rug,” she said. “I’m sure there is going to be backlash with people’s opinions about what happened. We are prepared for that.
“But we don’t want this to get swept under the rug because too many of our Native brothers’ and sisters’ lives get taken by law enforcement, and we don’t hear anything about it, and I think people should know that this is happening. This is happening right in our backyard. This is happening to our people. That could have been anyone of us, and that is a scary thought.”