Shooting Stirs Racial Tension In Fremont County

Jul 31, 2015

A city parks employee allegedly shot two Northern Arapaho Men inside this Volunteers of America Center of Hope in Riverton.
Credit Aaron Schrank

On July 18, a white city parks employee walked into Riverton’s Center of Hope detoxification center with a .40-caliber handgun and shot two Native American men in the head while they slept.

The confessed shooter, 32-year-old Roy Clyde, told police he was targeting transients who he perceived as a nuisance to the city’s public spaces.

The senseless attack has since spurred conversation and contention in Riverton—and on the Wind River Reservation that encircles it—about issues like addiction, homelessness, civic virtue and—above all—race. The shooting—and the social media vitriol and reckless reporting that followed—threatens to further divide a community where racial tensions run high.

Both of the men Clyde allegedly shot were members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe--one of two Indian nations that share Wyoming's only Native American reservation.

James "Sonny" Goggles.
Credit via GiveForward

One of the victims, James “Sonny” Goggles Jr., 50, once fought for this country in Operation Desert Storm. He’s now fighting for his life inside a Casper hospital. A spokesman for his family says Goggles is eating and speaking in full sentences, but has a long road ahead.

The other, Stallone Trosper, was killed in the shooting. Trosper was 29, and family members say he was working to overcome an addiction to alcohol.

“Stallone was kind,” said Trosper’s uncle, George Abeyta. “He was loving. He was witty. He was happy. And he had the respect for his family to take himself to the Center of Hope to detox, get his head on straight and go back to school. That was the plan and that right, that freedom, that privilege—was taken from him.”

The detox center is run by the Volunteers of America. Administrators say there were 8 patients and 2 staff members in the building at the time of the attack.

"I equate it to a school shooting with kids," said Heath Steel, VOA Northern Rockies executive vice president. "I equate it to a shooting in a senior citizens home. This individual came through and shot individuals who were here seeking healthcare services—and were in the process of recovery—recovering their lives."

Steel said the center does not serve a primarily homeless population, but the vast majority of clients are, on the other hand, Native American. Administrators estimate more than 80 percent of those visiting the Riverton center are Native.

After firing on the men, police say the shooter set his weapon on the counter, removed his shirt and walked outside with his hands in the air. Clyde surrendered and confessed to the shooting. According to an arrest affidavit, he told police that he intended his victims to be homeless people—regardless of race. 

“We can only use his own words,” said Riverton Police Chief Mike Broadhead. “But in his words, he was not specifically looking for Native American people. He was looking for people that he described as homeless, transient people. The racial component of this comes up because a significant portion of our overt homeless problem does appear to be Native American. So I think that’s where people are making that connection.”

The victims’ families say neither man was homeless.

They also, along with tribal officials, say the violence was clearly racially motivated—and are pushing for the suspect to be charged with a federal hate crime. 

Clyde told police he’d long had a goal of killing people he called “park rangers”—a pejorative term most say is reserved for homeless Native Americans who loiter in Riverton’s public parks—many of them also suffering from alcoholism. As a parks maintenance man for more than a decade, Clyde knows these men and women. And when he chose to target them, Chief Broadhead says, before Clyde drove to the detox center, he made his first stop at City Park.

“The suspect was a parks maintenance worker who cut the grass and would have to call the police to remove people who were intoxicated in the park and in his way or whatever,” Broadhead said. “And that built over time for him and, from his statement, he went to City Park looking for someone to shoot.”

Riverton's City Park. The alleged shooter worked here doing maintenance.
Credit Aaron Schrank

On that Saturday, City Park was empty. Weeks later, there are about a dozen people dispersed across the lawn—drinking and laughing. Gregory Chavez says the surviving shooting victim, James Goggles, was his longtime friend.

“Yes, he was my drinking brother,” said Chavez. “And no, he’s never hurt a fucking fly. He was so kind and generous. He’d give you the shirt of your [his] back.”
 
Chavez is a self-proclaimed park ranger—and a Native American. So is everyone at the park on this day, until a white woman named Dana Flint walks up from across the street. She’s a local homeless advocate, and also knows James “Sonny” Goggles.

“Sonny was always a breath of fresh air for us here,” said Flint. “Even though he may have been plagued with addiction, he had a place to go to. But these are his friends that would come to the park. And most of the time he’s coming to check on them, encourage, and be a friend—was mostly what he did.”

Flint leads a ‘talking circle’ for City Park’s homeless population every Tuesday morning. She’s part of Chief Broadhead’s “solutions committee” to build bridges between the housing haves and have-nots. She also runs shelter called Eagle’s Hope—named for a man who froze to death in City Park two years ago.
Flint says those called “park rangers”—either by themselves or derisively by others—are entirely Native American.

Clyde’s arrest affidavit notes, “he specifically indicated that if he had encountered white people meeting his criteria he would have killed them as well.”

But his criteria was “park ranger.”  Flint says that doesn’t really add up in her mind.

“When he said ‘park rangers’ and said it wasn’t race specific, that’s crap,” said Flint. “It’s only the native people that use the term park rangers.”

“We had one white guy, right?” she asks of four intoxicated men sprawled out on the grass. “But he passed away. And he did not call himself a ‘park ranger.’”

In her years at the park, Flint has rubbed shoulders with Roy Clyde. She says she can’t believe he could have so much malice for this vulnerable population.

“Never in a million years,” said Flint. “He would help us. He’d pull over tables for us when we had our talking circle. It’s confusing. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The sale of alcohol is technically illegal on the Wind River Reservation, which is why so many Native Americans who are dependent on the drug find themselves in Riverton at places like City Park.

In another corner of the park, a Native American man and woman who don’t want to give me their names tell me they frequent the park—and the detox center—and they’re shaken by what happened.

“Why did he do that to us?” the man said. “Us guys, we ain’t got nothing.”

We need to make a stand and we need to let them know that every life is priceless. Every life is valuable. Everyone deserves a right to live life to the fullest.

“We don’t have much—and what we do have, we treasure it,” echoed his female companion. “We treasure the family, we treasure the people, we treasure our kids, we treasure our elders.”

The pair sit on a park bench and pass a plastic 1-liter Mountain Dew bottle back and forth.

“We’re just barely living, you know,” he said.

She added, “And we just make do with what we got.”

They say they won't go to the detox center anymore. "It was supposed to be a safe place," the man muttered.

VOA administrators say they've helped 33 people go into treatment since they took over the Center of Hope a year and a half ago. They say that's more than double the success rate of the program that preceded theirs.

In the years before VOA came to town, Riverton Police Chief Mike Broadhead says his department averaged, more than 2,000 public intoxication arrests each year. That’s a big number in a town of less than 11,000. Now, that yearly average has been cut in half.

Broadhead says he’s tried to take innovative approaches to handling homelessness in Riverton—and thinks the "problem" has gotten better. That makes this incident even more disturbing, he said. 

“One positive that I think will come out of this is that it has refocused everyone’s attention on the fact that right here in our own community there are people struggling daily to survive,” said Broadhead. “There are homeless people. There are people going without food. There are people with terrible addictions that need help.”

While Roy Clyde told police his problem was with Riverton’s homeless population, some point out that, when it comes to the shooter’s true intentions, his actions may speak louder than his words.

“You have to look at his movements and—was he really looking for homeless people, or was he actually targeting American Indians?” said Richard Brannan, a member of the Northern Arapaho Business Council.

Brannan points out that there’s a homeless shelter right next to the park. Instead, Clyde allegedly drove a mile away to the detox center.

This week, the Northern Arapaho Business Council traveled to Washington, D.C. to urge the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to prosecute the attack as a federal hate crime.

“We traveled hundreds of miles to Washington to voice our concerns of our tribal members and our families,” said Councilman Ronald Oldman. “They listened to our experiences of racism and discussed the shootings with us. We’re thankful that the senior officials in the Justice Departments civil rights office committed to taking a hard look at this senseless incident.”

“Our tribal members are valuable human beings, and that’s what we have to get across,” said Councilman Richard Brannan.

In the wake of the shootings, many Native people throughout Fremont County are on edge.

“To be honest, I’m fearful,” said Brannan. “If I was walking in the park when the individual was out hunting human beings, I’m Indian. He may have shot me.”

He says the shooting is part of a troubling trend of cruelty and contempt towards Native people in Riverton.

Two years ago, a Northern Arapaho man was beaten outside of Riverton bar in what many recognized as a racist attack. That same year, a Northern Arapaho woman who was shot in the face by a driver in a passing car was discharged from the hospital without receiving treatment.

“The Northern Arapaho Tribe has been treated like a second-class citizen historically in Fremont County, in the state of Wyoming and on the Wind River Reservation for forever,” Brannan said.

"There’s a lot of old issues,” says Riverton Mayor Lars Baker. “I mean, I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve seen the photographs of stores in Riverton that, you know, had signs in the windows that said ‘No Indians.’”

City officials did meet with the Northern Arapaho Business Council in the wake of the shooting. Baker--who's been in the job just six months--says there’s a host of issues—old and new—that strain his city’s ties with the tribes. For example, Riverton and the tribes are currently on opposite sides of a lawsuit over whether the city is actually part of Indian country.

Baker says city officials would welcome a federal hate crime prosecution.

“I have confidence that our local prosecutors can run with this case,” said Police Chief Broadhead. “But we certainly have no objection if the Department of Justice feels like a federal prosecution would better serve the interests of justice.”

Baker says the shooting is not a reflection of how most Rivertonians feel. But Roy Clyde was a city employee, an EMT and a volunteer firefighter—a seemingly mainstream member of the community.

“Here’s a guy that was involved in public service in the community, so that makes it strange for us.” Baker said.

Baker says he does see plenty of subtle discrimination and stereotyping in this city, which is 85 percent white.

“And I think a lot of that is due to ignorance,” said Baker. “If we knew more about each other, I think that might change something.”

Stallone Trosper's uncle, George Abeyta, performing with the Eagle Spirit singers and dancers for a mostly white crowd at the Lander Museum of the American West.
Credit Aaron Schrank

Stallone Trosper’s uncle, George Abeyta certainly thinks so. That’s why, just days after his nephew’s funeral, he’s performing with the Eagle Spirit singers and dancers for a mostly white crowd at the Lander Museum of the American West.

“Our number one purpose is to share a very beautiful culture that is alive and living and thriving in full force today,” said Abeyta. “To break down myths and stereotypes—and to share in a good way with our non-Native brothers and sisters. That’s what our performances are all about.”  

The main thing on Abeyta’s mind right now is justice for Stallone. He says this hateful action must be called what it is.     

“So let the truth be told,” said Abeyta. “If it’s a duck, let’s call it a duck. If that’s a hate crime, it was a hate crime. If he was looking for a homeless person, I don’t think he looked for large backpacks and shopping carts. He was not looking for the homeless. He was looking for Native.”

He hopes his nephew’s death forces this community to reflect on the value of all who live here—native, white, prosperous, or struggling.

“We need to make a stand and we need to let them know that every life is priceless,” said Abeyta. “Every life is valuable. Everyone deserves a right to live life to the fullest.”

The man who confessed to taking Stallone’s life is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree attempted murder and could face the death penalty. A preliminary hearing is set for August 5.