Gage Lorentz was pulled over for speeding on a dirt road in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Minutes later he lay on the ground, dead from a point-blank shot to the heart. How did a trivial traffic stop lead to his death?
Alone at his home in Montrose, Colorado, on a June afternoon in 2020, Travis Lorentz sat down to watch the nearly 40-minute video of his son’s death. Travis knew the video was going to break his heart. But he also hoped it would help answer some crucial questions.
“I have to know that I have found everything that I can find and that I have seen everything that I can see,” Travis said. “Because it’s not gonna matter to anybody more than it does to us.”
Three months earlier, a National Park Service ranger named Robert John Mitchell had killed 25-year-old Gage Lorentz while he was driving through Carlsbad Caverns National Park, in southeastern New Mexico. Gage was unarmed, and the authorities had provided no clear answers to his family’s questions about how he ended up dead during a traffic stop. Instead, Travis was relying on Mitchell’s Axon body camera, which had been attached to his chest.
The video opened in silence, the result of a camera setting that preserved the footage from 30 seconds prior to when Mitchell actively started to record, but without sound. In the upper right corner of the screen was a time stamp: 5:07 P.M., March 21, 2020.
Gage was already in the frame, standing in a gravel turnaround near a picnic area, about ten feet in front of the ranger. He was wearing a light camo jacket; his brown hair, short on the sides and floppy on top, blew in the wind. In the background were two pickup trucks, one white and one silver. Travis thought his son looked upset, which would make sense, since Ranger Mitchell would later tell investigators that he had detained Gage for speeding down a dirt road leading to the turnaround, knocking over a park sign in the process.
When the sound finally came on, Mitchell was asking Gage to move toward a nearby log fence, which he did. Mitchell then told him to spread his feet, which were out of the frame. As Gage complied, he looked at the ranger and gave a little shake, bopping his head to Pitbull and Kesha’s “Timber,” which blasted from the white truck’s speakers. When Mitchell didn’t respond, Gage followed up by saying, “Come on, that was pretty good timing!”
Mitchell, 53, would later tell investigators that Gage “wasn’t behaving like most people would behave when they’re dealing with the police,” and that from the start of the encounter, he had suspected Gage was “using something.” But the medical examiner found no drugs or alcohol in his system. To Travis, it just looked like his son was trying to defuse the situation by making light of it.
Mitchell told Gage to turn around. Gage shook his head, and the ranger started backing up while drawing his Taser. In response, Gage told him, defiantly, to “get real with it, other one.” It was an odd response, and Mitchell would later point to it as justification for the shooting, saying that Gage had “a fixation” on his gun. But a different interpretation of the moment might be that Gage had simply mounted an ill-advised challenge to Mitchell’s authority.
Either way, Gage stayed put, standing by the fence and shaking his head. Suddenly, without any kind of warning, Mitchell raised his arms and fired the Taser. At the same moment, the video cut out. When it resumed, the time stamp showed that 25 seconds had passed. It’s not clear why there is missing footage; the manufacturer blamed equipment failure, but Gage’s family is seeking access to the camera’s metadata for analysis by their own experts.
Gage was no longer in the frame when the video returned. The first few seconds showed Mitchell on the ground, clutching his Sig Sauer .45 with both hands, and Gage’s hand right next to the gun. Then Gage’s hand disappeared from the frame, and within moments the deafeningly loud sound of a gunshot overwhelmed the camera’s microphone. When viewed in slow motion, the video showed Gage’s shadow next to Mitchell, followed by Mitchell pivoting and firing a shot into Gage’s thigh. The next frames showed Mitchell grabbing Gage by the jacket and firing a second shot into his chest from point-blank range, possibly while Mitchell had him pinned to the ground.
That was as far as Travis made it.
“It took me several weeks to get as far as I did,” he said. “And it destroyed my chances of sleep for months and months and months.”
Travis isn’t finished looking for answers. Last fall, both a New Mexico district attorney and a U.S. attorney declined to pursue any criminal charges in the case. In December, Travis and Kimberly Beck, Gage’s mother, filed a civil suit in federal court against Mitchell and the National Park Service. The suit alleges that Mitchell’s actions violated Gage’s constitutional rights, including his Fourth Amendment right to be protected against the use of excessive force. It points out that when Mitchell decided to use a Taser, he had pulled Gage over for a misdemeanor traffic violation and that Gage had only passively resisted the ranger’s commands. Gage’s parents are seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages. (The case is ongoing; no trial date has been set.)
The National Park Service has not commented on the case to Outside, and the agency has not responded to requests for additional information, including Mitchell’s training records or details of any prior complaints that may have been lodged against him. Mitchell did not respond to requests for an interview, and his immediate boss at Carlsbad Caverns—chief law-enforcement ranger Erik Westpfahl—declined to discuss the case. This account of what happened to Gage is drawn from transcripts and audio of interviews with investigators, which were released to Outside by New Mexico’s Fifth Judicial District Attorney, along with body-camera footage from responding officers, evidence logs, autopsy reports, and police case narratives.
At the center of the case is an arm of the federal government that most of us know almost nothing about. The National Park Service employs as many as 1,700 fully armed rangers, who are responsible for everything from writing traffic tickets to investigating murders inside park boundaries. At a glance, law-enforcement rangers are easily mistaken for their better-known unarmed cousins, the interpretation ranger, who wear the same flat-brimmed hats and the same khaki and green uniforms. But law-enforcement rangers also wear body armor and carry guns, Tasers, pepper spray, batons, and handcuffs. Paul Berkowitz, a retired ranger and an expert on the Park Service’s law-enforcement history, says that, despite the equipment, the public doesn’t always recognize the difference.
“Rangers get challenged more than maybe somebody who’s perceived as a ‘real’ law-enforcement officer would,” he says. “The public perception is that rangers are not ‘real’ cops, therefore people don’t have to listen to what they tell them to do or be obedient.”
Up until 1976, all Park Service rangers were technically law-enforcement officers, vested with the power to carry guns and use deadly force. In the early years of the Park Service, they applied those powers liberally. Accounts from the 1920s and ’30s tell of rangers shooting at bootleggers and knocking suspected poachers unconscious.
“What I’ve seen is that some of the very best and brightest law-enforcement people drawn to the Park Service have left out of frustration,” Berkowitz says. “Their talents and capabilities were not acknowledged, either in terms of pay and promotion or in support for what they were trying to do.”
In the years after World War II, though, the ranger image began to change. As national parks became more popular, especially with white, middle- and upper-middle-class tourists, the Park Service found that such visitors were put off by the perception of rangers as heavy-handed lawmen. In response, park superintendents encouraged rangers to present themselves as visitor guides and interpreters, minimizing their law-enforcement role. Popular depictions from the 1950s and ’60s, like the Yogi Bear cartoons set in Jellystone Park, portray rangers as slightly hapless. (In the show, Ranger Smith’s ongoing struggle is trying to catch Yogi as he steals picnic baskets.)
The pendulum began to swing back after the so-called Yosemite riots. In the summer of 1970, a group of several hundred young people gathered in a meadow in Yosemite for an unauthorized Fourth of July party. When they refused to disperse, rangers charged at them on horseback, wielding batons and ax handles, leaving the unarmed partiers bruised and bloodied.
The incident was embarrassing to an agency that had worked hard to cultivate its friendly reputation, and it ultimately spurred Congress to pass a 1976 law that split off law-enforcement rangers from interpretation rangers, making them a specialized branch of the Park Service. The idea was to ensure that law-enforcement rangers were better trained in modern policing and the appropriate use of force, but the outcome was a rift inside the Park Service.
Many people in leadership were skeptical about the need for dedicated law-enforcement rangers and opposed the police-ifying of the workforce. “I firmly believe that in some parks the law enforcement specialty has gotten out of balance with other responsibilities of park rangers,” then Park Service director Gary Everhardt wrote in a memorandum. The result: law-enforcement rangers were often treated as unwelcome interlopers in their own agency.
“What I’ve seen is that some of the very best and brightest law-enforcement people drawn to the Park Service have left out of frustration,” Berkowitz says. “Their talents and capabilities were not acknowledged, either in terms of pay and promotion or in support for what they were trying to do.”
At Carlsbad Caverns, Westpfahl, Mitchell’s boss, told investigators that leadership of his division had been extremely variable prior to his arrival in mid-2019. “A lot of chiefs have come and gone throughout the last many years,” he said. “And to my understanding protocols and procedures were a little up and down. Some chiefs were very, very hands on. Others never came out of the office.”
Westpfahl described Mitchell to investigators as being “pretty much a verbal-warning type of guy,” saying that Mitchell is “one of my go-to guys as far as doing anything proper and whatnot.”
Prior to joining the Park Service in 2002, Mitchell served in the U.S. Coast Guard and then did a brief stint as a seasonal employee with the Oregon State Police, in its fish and wildlife division. In 2015, he transferred to Carlsbad from Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area, in Washington State.
On the whole, sites managed by the Park Service have a relatively low incidence of crime. At small parks, like Carlsbad, the offenses rangers are called on to deal with tend to skew minor. Westpfahl told investigators that in the six months prior to Gage’s death, the four rangers under his supervision had been confronted with no major crimes and only had “two or three traffic stops that resulted in some sort of ticket.” On the morning of Gage’s death, Mitchell had handcuffed and ticketed a young man found in the underground caverns, which had just closed because of coronavirus restrictions. “He didn’t give me any attitude or anything like that,” Mitchell told his colleagues about the incident. “And I just cited him.”
Numerous studies have found that people’s demeanor when they are detained by law enforcement has a major influence on how officers respond. Officers are more likely to escalate to serious or deadly force in situations where someone is perceived as disrespectful, even if the person is complying with their commands. The Park Service does not routinely release data about use of force by rangers. (A Freedom of Information Act request to review the agency’s data about use of force by rangers nationwide, filed in August by Outside, is still pending.) However, as is true with other law-enforcement agencies, the past decade has seen a number of cases in which rangers have been accused of responding to minor violations with excessive force.
In 2012, a ranger at Northern California’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area tased a man in the back after he provided a false last name in connection with a dog leash violation. The Park Service’s Office of Professional Responsibility cleared the ranger of all wrongdoing, and the agency’s deputy chief of law enforcement defended her actions, testifying that it was appropriate for rangers to tase anyone who did not comply with their orders.
A U.S. district court magistrate judge in San Francisco strongly disagreed, writing in her opinion on a civil suit to the case that that interpretation showed “a startling lack of awareness of the law and its application to use of force scenarios.” She concluded that the ranger had violated the man’s Fourth Amendment rights.
In 2013, while Mitchell was working at Lake Roosevelt, a park ranger there shot and seriously injured an unarmed man on a houseboat while responding to a curfew violation. In a subsequent civil suit, the man alleged that the ranger had opened fire after the houseboat’s owner asked the ranger’s partner to step off the boat. The rangers involved were transferred away from the park. They did not face criminal charges and the civil case was settled out of court.
More recently, in December 2020, a ranger at Petroglyph National Monument, in New Mexico, tased a man who provided a false name when stopped for walking off-trail in the park. Once again, the Park Service concluded that the ranger’s actions were reasonable.
On the morning of Saturday, March 21, Gage woke up before dawn at Pecos Farms, a “man camp” for oil workers on the outskirts of Pecos, Texas, a small town just south of the New Mexico border. Gage had checked into Pecos Farms three weeks earlier for his latest stint in the booming Permian Basin, a huge oil-rich area that covers large parts of west Texas and southeast New Mexico. He worked for a company called Ideal Completion Services, which specializes in bringing fracked oil and gas wells online. The job kept him on the road most of the time, but whenever he got a chance, he made the 12-hour drive back home to western Colorado.
He had grown up between Travis’s home in Montrose and the small town of Fruita, 80 minutes northwest, where his mother, Kimberly, lives. In Montrose he spent a lot of time hunting, fishing, and riding ATVs with his dad. At his mom’s, he and his younger sister, Skylar Kerrigan, played video games for hours. Even though he was six years older than Skylar, the two were close, with Gage often filling the role of mediator between Skylar and their other sister, who was between them in age. “When me and my sister would get in little petty fights, he was the one to sit us all down and resolve them,” Skylar said. “He was the peacekeeper.”
After high school, Gage briefly thought about joining the Marines—he had been in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, a military-funded program for middle and high schoolers, and had gone as far as talking to a recruiter about enlisting after graduation. But his dad talked him out of it.
Instead, Gage worked stints as a logger and a fire protection inspector before heading to the oil fields. He didn’t love the job, especially the long stretches away from family, but it paid decently. “He had big plans,” Travis said. “He wanted to own his own house by the time he was 30, paid for. Have all of his toys paid for.” Toys like the white Ford F-250 Lariat that was his pride and joy. Trucks had always been something Gage and Travis bonded over—Travis is a diesel mechanic—but Gage’s passion for his Lariat made even his dad roll his eyes. “He would literally crawl up and hand-clean the top of it,” Travis said. “If it got a little speck of dirt on it, it’d be, ‘Gotta go wash it, clean it. Gotta go detail.’”
Gage drove the truck back from Texas on his last visit home to the Western Slope, at the end of February 2020. As usual, he had shown up without much warning and without knowing how long it would be before he got called back to work. For almost a year, he’d spent much of his time at home with his girlfriend, Sierra Quintana. In 2018, she found out she was pregnant. Gage wasn’t the baby’s father, but he stepped in, even transferring to an oil rig closer to home for a while so he could be present for the birth. He and Quintana officially started dating not long after that.
Still, their relationship was turbulent, and an occasional source of angst. During Gage’s work trip in March, he and Quintana were on a break, a separation that one of Gage’s coworkers, Brandon McCracken, told investigators was “bugging him pretty bad.” On March 20, McCracken said Gage began acting strangely—the two got into a fight and Gage talked about there being cameras in his room and people watching him. McCracken was alarmed. But the next morning, everything seemed fine; Gage told McCracken he’d figured out what was wrong with him, and the two drove to the work site together in McCracken’s truck. When they got there, around 6 A.M., Gage abruptly asked McCracken for a ride back to the man camp. McCracken refused, so Gage set off on foot.
Over the next several hours, Gage made a number of phone calls—to his mom, his dad, his two best friends, and a boss at Ideal to say that he was quitting his job. All of them have since said Gage seemed OK, if a little bit upset. Kimberly got the impression that something had happened at work that made him decide to quit. But she didn’t see it as a cause for concern; Gage had often mentioned wanting to find work closer to home. “We didn’t talk for a whole long time,” she remembered. “He just wanted to let me know that he was done down there and he was going to come home.” But when Gage got to Pecos Farms, he didn’t immediately pack up and leave.
James Murphy, the camp’s manager, later told investigators that Gage was “not in his right mind.” Murphy declined to be interviewed, but according to his account, Gage had done several things that in retrospect suggested something was very wrong. Most notably, Gage had turned over the keys to his beloved pickup to Murphy, telling him it was a company vehicle. When Murphy learned from Gage’s bosses that he hadn’t been issued a company truck and asked him why he’d turned in the keys, Gage responded nonsensically, saying that he was feeling guilty about it. Murphy returned the keys to Gage and told him that Ideal was sending someone out to talk to him. Gage asked if he could hang out in his room until they arrived. But before anyone from the company showed up, Murphy saw Gage’s truck pull away from the camp. Murphy guessed it was around 2:20 P.M. Central Time.
The most direct route from Pecos to western Colorado goes through the city of Carlsbad, which is roughly an hour and a half north on U.S. 285. Gage would have made it there by 3 P.M. Mountain Time. It was around then that he talked to or texted several people, saying that he could be home late that evening, but that he was pretty tired and might pull over for a nap. No one heard from Gage after that. It’s not clear what he did in the hours between then and just before 5 P.M., when a New Mexico State Police officer spotted him on the highway leading to Carlsbad Caverns, which sits roughly 20 miles southwest of Carlsbad, opposite the direction you’d travel to get to Colorado. The officer told the U.S. Attorney’s Office that he clocked Gage doing 100 miles an hour, but that he hadn’t pulled him over because there was no other traffic.
Although no one heard from Gage that evening, his family didn’t start to worry until the early hours of March 22. At 2:30 A.M., Travis woke up, concerned. He went out to the driveway to check for Gage; sometimes he would pull up and sleep in his truck, so as not to wake anyone. But the driveway was empty.
When first light came and there were still no messages, Travis started to wonder if something was seriously wrong. Gage’s friend Tyler Tapey was also concerned; he and Gage usually stayed in constant contact. “I had a weird feeling,” Tapey said. After consulting with Travis, he started to call hospitals and sheriff’s offices in New Mexico and Colorado, in case Gage had been in an accident.
Dispatch logs show that at 10:37 A.M. on March 22, Tapey called the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office, in southern New Mexico. At 11 A.M., the Sheriff’s Office called him back and shared the news that Gage had been killed. It had been 17 hours since Gage died, and no one had reached out to his family. Tapey had to break the news to Gage’s parents.
“That’s how we found out,” Kimberly said. “We didn’t even receive a phone call from any of the authorities. Nobody had the decency to notify us.”
In many national parks, including Carlsbad, there is concurrent jurisdiction, which means that both the state and federal governments have investigative authority. In this case, the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office took the lead. Detective Captain Matthew Hutchinson says that the sheriff’s office treats shootings by an officer “like a homicide.” Even so, he declined to call Ranger Mitchell a suspect or Gage a victim, saying that such language can be “utilized against law enforcement.” However, in the initial case reports, which Captain Hutchinson says were based on preliminary assessments at the scene, Gage is listed as the suspect in two crimes, including battery on a peace officer. Mitchell is listed as the victim.
After Mitchell shot Gage, video footage shows that he backed up, breathing heavily, and shouted, “You’re under arrest.” Only two minutes had passed since the beginning of the recorded interaction. When it became clear that Gage was not getting up, Mitchell opened the door of his patrol car and said, “Shots fired” over the radio, then asked for an ambulance. Off-camera, one of three teenagers who were near the turnaround at the time of the shooting shouted, “Do you want us to stay here?” Mitchell said yes. Three minutes after shooting Gage, Mitchell walked over to where he was lying, clearly unconscious, and repeated, “You’re under arrest.” Mitchell then moved Gage’s limp arms behind his back and handcuffed him. After that Mitchell called Westpfahl, his boss, and said he’d been in a shooting.
It’s protocol at many large police agencies for officers to render first aid to someone who has been shot as soon as the scene is safe. The National Park Service does not appear to have a similar policy, although it’s hard to know, since the public version of its officer-involved shooting manual is heavily redacted. (It is protocol for rangers to render first aid after a Taser has been fired.) Mitchell had been certified as an emergency medical technician as part of his training to be a ranger, but he’d let the certification lapse.
Eight minutes after the shooting, Mitchell took the first aid kit out of his SUV and started rifling through it while muttering under his breath. “Fuck, I never wanted this,” he said. Twelve minutes in, Mitchell managed to get an oxygen mask on Gage, who was still handcuffed and unconscious.
At this point, Mitchell suddenly decided to clear Gage’s truck, which was still blasting music in the background. He stopped attempting first aid and walked toward the vehicle with his gun drawn. Discovering it was empty, he walked back to his patrol car, passing Gage on the ground in front of it, but didn’t immediately resume first aid. Instead he reached into his car, grabbed a coffee cup from the console, and took a swig.
“One of the issues about the National Park Service is that it has a compulsive disdain of reviewing itself.”
Almost 14 minutes had passed since the shooting. Mitchell spent most of the next five minutes pulling things out of his first aid kit, but not really doing anything with them. When officers from the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office finally arrived, 18 minutes after the shooting, Mitchell said to himself, “Oh, thank goodness, they’re here.”
Within a minute of arriving, the sheriff’s deputies had removed Gage’s handcuffs and started CPR. Meanwhile, one of them pulled Mitchell aside and asked what happened. His answer painted Gage in a very unflattering light. Gage had broken the law (“He hit the sign—the passenger side of his truck is all screwed up”); he was behaving erratically (“He was probably drunk—I didn’t really get time to assess it”); he didn’t obey orders (“I told him to turn around because I was going to put him in cuffs. He said no”); and he had allegedly assaulted an officer (“He hit me, somewhere right here on the side of my head”). That last part, Mitchell explained to the deputy, had happened after he tased Gage for refusing to turn around.
Geoff Alpert, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina and an expert on police use of force, says that most police departments, and the courts, consider Tasers to be a serious measure, justifiably deployed only in situations where someone is “aggressively resisting.” Under that standard, simply refusing to turn around is not sufficient justification. Alpert uses the term “lazy cop syndrome” to describe situations in which officers use physical force immediately instead of trying to verbally de-escalate a situation. Mitchell would later tell investigators that he was taught to strike first. “If you have pre-assault indicators, don’t wait around to get assault[ed],” he said. “Take the fight to him. So I deployed the Taser.”
There’s no body-cam footage to corroborate Mitchell’s account of what happened next—it’s the missing 25 seconds. According to Mitchell, the Taser had no effect, and Gage just stood there. Mitchell says he then attempted what’s called a “drive stun,” which involves placing the Taser directly against someone’s body to administer a painful electrical charge. At this, Mitchell said, Gage hit him and “the fight was on.”
After Mitchell finished his account, the sheriff’s deputy who had listened to it murmured his assent before being called away to put up crime scene tape. Not long after, other park rangers started to arrive, and every time Mitchell appeared poised to say anything about what happened, they told him to stop talking. That appears to be in line with Park Service policy, which directs rangers not to discuss an incident beyond what is necessary to secure the scene.
On the whole, it’s arguable that Park Service personnel were more concerned with protecting their colleague than with ensuring an impartial and transparent investigation. Westpfahl later told Park Service investigators that he had spoken with the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office, “trying to make sure that, you know, we weren’t treating [Mitchell] like a suspect, you know, making sure he didn’t go into handcuffs.”
Mitchell was never cuffed; the closest the sheriff’s office came to treating him like a suspect was asking him to turn over his gun as evidence. Within an hour after the shooting, Mitchell had contacted legal counsel, and by the time he was at the hospital—where he was taken for a physical exam and treated for high blood pressure—his colleagues had already reached out to the local police department in the town where Mitchell’s elderly father lives, asking them to visit his house, which they did. When they arrived, Mitchell spoke with his father, telling him there had been an incident that “involved shooting somebody,” but that he was OK.
At the hospital, Mitchell seemed remarkably composed considering what had just happened. He jokingly apologized to a sheriff’s deputy for the paperwork that would be required, and said, “I was actually really pleased with everybody who showed up and all the support that I got. But I’m not going to like the next couple of months.” Later, on the way to the sheriff’s office to have his clothing logged into evidence, he made a curious remark to a deputy. “I had this fantasy that I was going to make it out with something like this not happening,” he said.
Investigators with both the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office and the National Park Service appear to have focused much of their inquiry on Gage’s mental health, rather than Mitchell’s actions. Captain Hutchinson says they were trying to understand how Gage “got into the position [he was] in with this officer.” On the evening of the shooting, an Eddy County Sheriff’s detective interviewed the three teenage witnesses, each for less than 20 minutes. At the scene, a sheriff’s deputy repeated what he had heard from state police—that only one of the boys actually saw what happened—but when interviewed, all three said they had witnessed the incident, or at least parts of it. (None of the boys could be reached for comment.) As is frequently the case with eyewitness testimony, their accounts differed on a number of key points, but all three backed up Mitchell’s assertion that Gage had swung at him after the Taser had no effect.
Other parts of Mitchell’s account, which he gave to investigators three days after the shooting, weren’t supported by the evidence. When logs from the Taser were downloaded, they showed that rather than going in for a “drive stun,” which involves placing the Taser’s probes directly on someone’s body, Mitchell had actually fired a second cartridge from the Taser just seconds after the first. Mitchell also said that he’d been at least five feet away from Gage when he fired the shot that killed him. He claimed to have feared that Gage would attack him again. But the video clearly shows that Mitchell fired from close range, possibly while he had Gage pinned to the ground, on his back.
Investigators don’t appear to have questioned Mitchell about those discrepancies, although they did interview Gage’s ex-girlfriend, his former coworkers, and his friends, asking them about Gage’s behavior leading up to the shooting.
There’s no question that Gage’s actions that day were odd. His family says he had no diagnosed mental illness, but it seems entirely possible that he was struggling with something in the moment. To Travis, though, the whole question is a red herring—a story designed to distract from the facts of the situation as it unfolded on camera. He firmly believes that his son did not initiate anything. “When you have somebody that’s not being aggressive, you don’t answer that with aggression.”
While police agencies across the country have responded in recent years to calls for law-enforcement reform, that conversation does not appear to have generated a lot of self-reflection at the Park Service, according to current and former rangers. David Barland-Liles is a law-enforcement program manager at Effigy Mounds National Monument, in Iowa, who has been with the Park Service for 30 years. During an interview last fall, he told me, “What I hear is the National Park Service thinking that what is happening, that they are somehow immune.”
Perhaps that helps explain a proposal briefly floated by the agency in 2018 that would essentially reduce training requirements for rangers. At a time when many police departments across the country were pledging increased training for officers, the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed that the Park Service was discussing a proposal that would have allowed many rangers to skip basic training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia, which instructs everyone from Border Patrol officers to members of the National Institute of Health.
Like many other jobs in the Park Service, law-enforcement rangers are divided into two groups: seasonal and permanent employees, also known as Type II and Type I commissions, respectively. Both carry guns and have the authority to arrest people and investigate crimes, but seasonals are supposed to be supervised in a number of tasks. While all permanent law-enforcement rangers attend a 16-week academy at FLETC, seasonal employees get their training through a handful of community-college-based programs. Prospective seasonal rangers must pay their own way for these courses, as private citizens, before becoming eligible to apply to the Park Service. (Mitchell was a permanent employee; his training records have not been released.)
PEER and other groups have raised concerns over the years about training standards at the seasonal programs. In one memorable example, the organization cited a report that an instructor had taught students that it was acceptable to use military-style suppression or covering fire in an armed encounter. (It definitely is not.) Under the changes floated in 2018, seasonal employees who became permanent would no longer be required to attend the FLETC; they would have simply transitioned to being Type I rangers, with all their powers and responsibilities.
While this proposal appears to have died, it does seem to reflect a common perception that the Park Service is an outlier among law-enforcement agencies. Greg Jackson, who retired in 2013 after serving as the Park Service’s deputy chief of the division of law enforcement, told me that “there is no history of bad incidents,” adding that, in fact, rangers “tend to under-respond.” He cited several instances of rangers who were killed in the line of duty with their guns still in their holsters. Jackson is correct that there have been such occurrences, although it isn’t clear-cut whether they were cases of rangers under-responding or simply not having enough time to respond.
In Jackson’s opinion, “the Park Service is kind of the police force that a lot of folks would want.” But there’s little publicly available evidence to either support or refute that notion. According to a NPS records custodian, the agency only started collecting nationwide data about ranger use of force in 2013, long after most large police agencies, and it doesn’t regularly release that data. Critics view the lack of transparency about use of force as part of a pattern throughout the agency’s history: claiming there’s no problem because no one has looked for one. “One of the issues about the National Park Service is that it has a compulsive disdain of reviewing itself,” Barland-Liles said, attributing that to a desire within the agency to protect its reputation.
Paul Berkowitz, the retired ranger who’s an expert on the agency’s law-enforcement history, found the Park Service’s seeming lack of interest in its own past use of force so problematic that he has built his own vault of records, drawing on his network of Park Service contacts as well as published media reports. Inside gray metal filing cabinets at his house, he keeps manila folders cataloging hundreds of incidents, dating back to the late 1800s, in which rangers either used potentially deadly force or had it used against them. Berkowitz suspects that his records only capture a fraction of the overall incidents.
“The further you go back in time, the more difficult it is to say how much has been happening,” he said. “The agency is just so diffuse, so many remote locations, so much stuff that never got documented.” Berkowitz, who wrote a book called U.S. Rangers: The Law of the Land, is unabashedly pro-ranger. Still, like Barland-Liles, he characterizes the agency’s culture as one that eschews transparency and is uncomfortable with rigorous self-examination. “A lot of the deficiencies identified in the agency are simply not acted on,” he said.
In the months after Gage’s death, Travis started following other police-shooting cases much more closely, and it was eye-opening for him. “It’s gone crazy all over this country, unarmed people getting killed by law enforcement for this reason or that reason or whatever reason.”
Berkowitz points to psychological screening of officers, a practice that is standard at most large police agencies. The Park Service doesn’t administer such exams during its hiring process. “It’s a major gap in how they operate,” Berkowitz said. “And the justification is always: we don’t have the money, and we don’t have the problem. Well, yeah, you do.” He said the agency relied on the same logic to avoid instituting background checks for law-enforcement rangers until the mid-1990s, decades after they became routine at other agencies.
The Park Service is decentralized. Each of the country’s more than 400 park units operates with great independence, under the oversight of park superintendents who typically don’t have a background in law enforcement. Nonetheless, they largely set the law-enforcement agenda for their parks and are ultimately responsible for everyone who works there.
Doug Neighbor has been the superintendent at Carlsbad since 2014. He’s a career Park Service employee, with a degree in wildlife and fisheries science. His house at the park sits less than 200 yards away from the spot where Mitchell shot Gage—close enough that Neighbor told investigators he could hear the music coming from Gage’s truck.
Neighbor did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. However, he told investigators that he was home during the shooting and heard Mitchell’s initial radio call, reporting shots fired and requesting an ambulance. He immediately called Westpfahl, who was off duty that day. Westpfahl, he said, told him to stay in his house until it was clear the scene was secure. Which is what Neighbor did, even after it became obvious that Mitchell was attempting to administer first aid to someone. In fact, according to Neighbor, he never once approached the scene during the entire incident, explaining that the only conversation he had was with Westpfahl, who wanted to move Mitchell to his house, away from the scene. “And I said, ‘No, I do not want that in my house,’” Neighbor recalled.
In August, Dianna Luce, the district attorney for New Mexico’s Fifth Judicial District, which covers a large swath of the state’s southeast corner, declined to file charges against Mitchell based on the investigation by the Eddy County Sheriff’s Office. In a video press conference, Luce said that she’d reviewed the evidence and found Mitchell’s actions to be “objectively reasonable.”
In September, John C. Anderson, then the U.S. attorney for the district of New Mexico, also declined to pursue criminal charges. He cited Mitchell’s authority to arrest Gage for the traffic violation and Gage’s refusal to cooperate as sufficient justification for Mitchell’s subsequent actions. He noted that Gage had attempted to “take control of Rgr. Mitchell’s firearm” while they were fighting, which he based on Mitchell’s testimony and the testimony of one of the teenage witnesses. He concluded that “while Mr. Lorentz’s death is undeniably tragic, the events that led to his death do not give rise to any prosecutable criminal charges.” On September 15, 2020, after six months of administrative duty, Mitchell resumed his job at Carlsbad.
For Gage’s family, the handling of the case has turned them into reluctant activists. Kimberly’s house has a large sign in the yard that says “Justice for Gage Lorentz,” and in the fall of 2020, she and Skylar organized a march in Grand Junction, western Colorado’s largest city, to raise awareness about the case. “I had never done anything like that,” Kimberly said, explaining that she had overcome her initial reluctance because it felt important for the community to know what happened.
On the day of the march, 30 or so people gathered at a park near the city’s main stadium, holding signs. Skylar’s read “My Brother Did Not Deserve to Die.” Before the shooting, Skylar was studying criminal justice, with the ambition of someday being a police detective. But Skylar decided to drop out of the program after watching Gage’s case play out. “I just lost all interest in it,” she said.
In the months after Gage’s death, Travis started following other police-shooting cases much more closely, and it was eye-opening for him. “It’s gone crazy all over this country, unarmed people getting killed by law enforcement for this reason or that reason or whatever reason,” he said. After almost a year, Travis finally made it through the video of his son’s death. It cemented his conviction that whatever the justice system might say, his son did not deserve to die. “We can’t be issuing people firearms and badges and sending them out and telling them, ‘Just shoot anybody you like, if you tell them to two-step and they don’t two-step.’”
But while Travis and Kimberly have started speaking out, questioning the system that resulted in their son’s death, the Park Service has taken a different tack.
On the night of the shooting, more than a dozen hours before Kimberly and Travis learned of Gage’s death, the agency issued a press release about the incident. Since then, the Park Service has said nothing.