The Park Service Has a Ranger Problem
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.”