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Albany County seeks to block public access to police killing settlement

Payments made to settle a wrongful death suit remain confidential despite a Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that settlements with government entities are public records.

Protesters hold signs in front of Albany County Courthouse on Nov. 4, 2019, to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting of Robbie Ramirez by Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling. Ramirez was the third person Colling shot and killed. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

A wrongful death settlement resulting from a controversial law-enforcement killing should remain secret, lawyers for Albany County argued today in newly filed court documents. That’s despite a recent Wyoming Supreme Court ruling that suggests such agreements with government entities are public records. 

Albany County made clear it does not want to produce public documents detailing payments made to Debra Hinkel, whose son Robbie Ramirez was killed by Derek Colling, a then-Albany County sheriff’s deputy with a checkered law-enforcement career. Ramirez, a 39-year-old Laramie resident, was unarmed and living with mental illness.  

“The information contained in the settlement agreement and information in this matter is highly confidential and sensitive,” John Bowers, a lawyer for the county, said in a sworn statement accompanying the documents. “I am concerned that if public access to the information is not limited to this court and the appropriate officer of the court, it would adversely affect the parties [in the case] and future governmental operations.”

Hinkel’s lawsuit against the county was settled in May 2022, but Albany County lawyers have denied multiple requests for the documents, despite the involvement of a governmental entity. 

Albany County denied WyoFile’s initial Aug. 22, 2022 public records request for the settlement agreements because the documents were “privileged or confidential by law,” then-County Clerk Jackie Gonzales wrote in an email on Oct. 2, 2022. 

The parties involved in the suit entered into a confidentiality agreement, but nowhere in the Wyoming Public Records Act, the law governing the release of state and local documents, does it say that settlement agreements are privileged and confidential as a matter of law. WyoFile brought that to the county’s attention at the time, but the records were still not made available. 

Ten months later, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled in Gates v. Memorial Hospital that confidentiality agreements do not limit public access to settlement agreements with government entities. In light of the new finding, WyoFile resubmitted its request to Albany County on Aug. 22. 

Albany County responded through Bowers on Sept. 1 that further clarification from the court and the parties involved was needed before the records could be released. 

“We are currently in [a] difficult situation because of the wording of the settlement agreement,” Bowers, who represented Albany County in the lawsuit, wrote in a letter to WyoFile. “We need the Court to direct us on how to address the request to prevent additional claims being made against the County.”

Bowers filed a motion in the U.S. District Court, where Hinkel’s case was originally heard, asking for a hearing to “set forth the obligations of Albany County, specifically in relation to the confidential settlement agreement and its duties pursuant to the Public Records Act and the recent public records request.”

In the motion, Bowers noted that releasing the settlement could make Albany County vulnerable to additional litigation from the other parties named in the suit — Hinkel, Colling and former Albany County Sheriff David O’Malley — who agreed to confidentiality.

On Sept. 7, U.S. Senior District Judge for the District of Wyoming Nancy Freudenthal denied the motion, explaining that Bowers had “not provided any law, rule or authority which would permit the filing of such a motion in a closed case.” 

In other words, the judge would not provide the clarity Albany County was seeking. 

Following Freudenthal’s decision, WyoFile contacted Bowers via email on Sept. 7 and Sept. 11 to ask if and when the records would be released. It received a reply today with notice of the new filing, asking a state court to intervene to block WyoFile’s access to the requested settlement agreements. 

In his motion filed in the 2nd District Court in Laramie, Bowers argued that “public disclosure of the information in the court record would do substantial injury to governmental operations serving the public.” He specifically cited Rule 6(t) of the Wyoming Rules Governing Access to Court Records, which restricts public access to medical records, as grounds to limit WyoFile’s access to the records.  

Bowers did respond to a request for comment by press time.

A troubled past

Before joining the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, Colling was involved in two shootings and a beating in uniform during his time with the Las Vegas Police Department. 

In 2006, he was one of five police officers who fired 29 rounds at a domestic-violence suspect. Officials ruled the shooting was justified.

Colling also shot and killed a teenager with bipolar disorder who was brandishing a knife outside his mother’s apartment. That shooting in 2009 was ruled justified as well. 

Then in 2011 he beat and arrested a bystander who attempted to film police officers from his own property. Video of that incident went viral, and led to Colling’s firing. 

In 2012, O’Malley hired him in Albany County, first as a corrections officer then as a patrolling sheriff’s deputy.

Hinkel’s lawyers characterized O’Malley’s decision to hire Colling as being “unduly influenced by his friendship with Defendant Colling’s father.” Richard Colling is a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer and longtime Laramie resident. 

O’Malley defended his decision, telling WyoFile in the weeks after the shooting that he regretted what happened to Ramirez but did not regret hiring Colling, who resigned from the department in 2021. 

In suing, one thing Hinkel wanted to understand was how Derek Colling could have been hired by the Albany County Sheriff’s Office after his termination from the Las Vegas Police Department, according to a press release from her legal team announcing the settlement.

“Ms. Hinkel believes that she accomplished what she set out to achieve which was to find out what happened and why,” according to the statement. 

Over a year later, the details of how the case was resolved — including the amount of public funds involved — remain out of public view. WyoFile sought to remedy that blindspot with the records request Albany County has yet to fulfill. 

“We’re not interested in withholding any information that is legal to dispense to people,” Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar told WyoFile, without further information about next steps.

‘Gates is clear’

There’s nothing stopping Albany County from sharing the records now, said attorney John Cotton, who argued Gates v. Memorial Hospital on behalf of Jessica Gates. Her requests for medical malpractice claims were denied by the publicly funded medical facility until the Wyoming Supreme Court made it clear that was a violation of the Wyoming Public Records Act. 

A memorial for Robbie Ramirez, a Laramie resident who was shot and killed by Albany County Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Colling on Nov. 4, 2018. (Tennessee Watson)

“My read on the Gates case is that governmental entities can no longer hide behind the facade of these so-called confidentiality agreements in their settlement documents,” Cotton said prior to the county’s most recent filing. 

Access to settlement agreements, which reveal names and dollar amounts, “are critical for the public to understand what these entities are doing with public funds,” Cotton said. 

With the Hinkel case, the lawsuit could only reach so deep into public coffers, because Albany County’s legal costs and settlement fees are covered by the Local Government Liability Pool — insurance for government entities in Wyoming. 

The county paid $62,771.00 for a policy in 2021-2022 and $65,413.00 to cover 2022-23, according to records provided by Albany County. 

When the liability pool makes a monetary payment on a claim, the county must pay a deductible much like a co-pay for a visit to the doctor’s office. 

Records show Albany County paid a $5,000 deductible for the settlement regarding Hinkel v. Albany County in August 2022. 

Colling and O’Malley — in their law enforcement capacity — are covered separately by the State Self-Insurance Program, which may have also contributed to the total settlement amount. Albany County could owe an additional deductible for payments on claims made against Colling and O’Malley. 

“Regardless of whether it’s from an insurance company or anybody, the agreement is still an agreement entered into by a governmental entity,” Cotton said, and therefore public record. 

While Hinkel has yet to comment on her desire to release the details of the settlement, the press release issued by her lawyers last year said that she spent over $100,000 on investigators, depositions and experts over the course of a two-year legal process. 

According to the Wyoming Public Records Act — which provides 30 days to fulfill a request — Albany County has until Sept. 21 to produce the settlement records.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.