Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Incident at Elephant Butte Lake

In my last post, we saw what happened when a park ranger underestimated the threat when making a law enforcement contact...he lost his life. This is often in the back of a park ranger's mind when dealing with an uncooperative suspect.

The Incident at Elephant Butte Lake
On Tuesday, August 23, 2005 Clyde Woods was the only ranger on duty at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, the most popular recreation area in New Mexico, located 150 miles south of Albuquerque. At approximately 8:00 p.m. the volunteer camp hosts notified Woods that the camper in site #84 was rude and belligerent when they asked him to pay the required $14 camping fee. They stated that he refused to pay and shoved something at them when they notified him that they would have to call law enforcement. Ranger Woods contacted the rude camper, Bruce Teschner, a 58 year old former jewelry maker, at his campsite. Woods stated that Teschner responded to him with a "lack of respect" and "negative attitude." Woods notified Teschner that he would have to either pay the camping fee or leave the park. Teschner refused to do either, so Woods told him that he was placing him under arrest. Woods placed Teschner prone on the ground, a standard practice when arresting an uncooperative subject without backup. Teschner, wearing only shorts and sandals, resisted and got up from the ground. Teschner began moving away from Woods with his hands near his pockets. Woods continued to give Teschner verbal commands, but Teschner refused to comply. A couple in a campsite nearby describe what happened next:

Butte Victim Was 'Belligerent' (Albuquerque Journal)
The couple said they heard someone twice yell, "Get on your knees!" and also heard someone say, "Get off of me!" before a series of quick gunshots. But they said they did not know who was doing the yelling or if the same person gave both orders.
In an instant, Ranger Woods had shot Teschner twice in the back. Bruce Teschner died at the scene.

Ranger Woods was immediately place on paid administrative leave from his $26,000 a year position while the shooting was investigated. On December 12, 2005, Ranger Woods was arrested and charged with murder in the second degree. Three months later, a judge reduced the charge to involuntary
manslaughter. A week ago Friday, District Attorney Scot Key announced that they would change the charge against Woods to voluntary manslaughter.
Ex-Ranger Gets Reduced Charge In Butte Slaying (Albuquerque Journal)
The involuntary manslaughter charge indicated Woods acted with gross negligence but without malice or the intent to kill. The voluntary manslaughter charge indicates Woods killed Teschner by acting in the heat of passion.
The Commentary
Was this a case of an over-zealous ranger angered by a park visitor's lack of respect and refusal to comply to the rules or was it a case of a young, in-experienced ranger who got into a tense and stressful situation and made the wrong split-second decision.

Michael Morris of MountainMailCountry.com would have you believe that Ranger Woods is a cold blooded killer that would shoot anyone who disagreed with him.
Christmas comes early for killer cop (MountainMailCountry.com)
It is not every day a man can coldly pump 2 shots into the back of an unarmed man and walk away facing fewer consequences than a fellow who wrote 2 bad checks.
Morris continues with an absurd description of the incident in which he belittles Ranger Woods' for even attempting to enforce the law.
Clyde Woods was not your typical cop. In fact, absent the shoddy management of the state parks, Woods would never have had police duties or powers. Clyde Woods was more of a nature guide with a gun. On the night of the murder Woods was called to a state campground for a camper who had not paid the $14 camping fee. Woods, lacking the experience of an actual police officer but possessing a gun and a badge escalated the situation. Knowing that being a soft and somewhat weakly man he would be unable to take control of the situation of such a minor offense Woods tried the bully routine. When the victim was obviously not going to put up with the humiliation tactics employed by Woods the ranger became somewhat enraged. Instead of calling for some backup Woods decided he would simply attack the victim. Seeing no reason for the attack over a camping fee the victim fought back breaking the grasp of the underwhelming Clyde Woods. Woods, acting like he had Clyde Barrow in his sights again escalated the violence yelling for the victim not to walk away. When this failed Woods knew he was unable to subdue the non-payer with his hands. At that time park ranger Clyde Woods drew his weapon and shot his victim in the back twice as the victim walked back to his vehicle.
Morris is obviously unaware of what park rangers do and the kind of situations that they run into. Let's a detailed look at Morris' analysis of the incident.
Clyde Woods was not your typical cop.
Park rangers are not typical cops. They do not sit in a police cruiser 8 hours a day, five days a week thumping the heads of criminals. They work in remote areas without a partner and often without available backup. Ask any regular duty cop to work this kind of shift and not only will they tell you "no", they will say "Hell no!"
In fact, absent the shoddy management of the state parks, Woods would never have had police duties or powers.
I guess Morris' contention is that park rangers should not be law enforcement officers. Apparently he thinks that criminals don't go to parks. Perhaps Morris thinks bad guys can only be found in the ghettos. The fact is there is a lot of crime that occurs in our parks and there is rarely any law enforcement presence without park rangers.
Clyde Woods was more of a nature guide with a gun.
In order to become a New Mexico State Park Ranger you must have a bachelor's degree and successfully graduate from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy. This is the same academy that New Mexico State Police recruits must graduate from, yet the state police do not require any post-secondary degree. Perhaps a more accurate description would be, "Clyde Woods was more of a state police officer with a bachelor's degree."
On the night of the murder Woods was called to a state campground for a camper who had not paid the $14 camping fee. Woods, lacking the experience of an actual police officer but possessing a gun and a badge escalated the situation.
I guess it is acceptable in Morris' point of view for police officers to just look the other way when people violate the law if there is a chance that the suspect could refuse to cooperate and the situation escalate.
Knowing that being a soft and somewhat weakly man he would be unable to take control of the situation of such a minor offense Woods tried the bully routine. When the victim was obviously not going to put up with the humiliation tactics employed by Woods the ranger became somewhat enraged.
I do not know Ranger Woods nor have I ever met Ranger Woods and I speculate that neither has Morris. This statement is Morris' mere speculation with no evidence. I speculate the opposite to be true. Lets take a look at the facts. Woods had been hired as a park ranger in December of 2004. In order to obtain this position, he had to pass a fitness test. Additionally, after he was hired, he was sent to the state law enforcement academy which has a tremendous amount of rigorous fitness and defensive tactics training, so I doubt Woods was "soft and somewhat weakly." How can any rational person consider a police officer that demands a subject comply with the law as bullying or humiliation tactics? Ranger Woods gave Teschner two choices, pay or leave. He did not say, "Since you did not pay within 15 minutes of arriving at your campsite I am going to arrest you." That would be bullying. Park rangers quite often must deal with disrespectful individuals that refuse to comply with their orders because they are not seen as real cops. Could this kind of behavior cause Ranger Woods to become "enraged"? Possibly, but I highly doubt it.
Instead of calling for some backup Woods decided he would simply attack the victim. Seeing no reason for the attack over a camping fee the victim fought back breaking the grasp of the underwhelming Clyde Woods.
Why didn't Ranger Woods call for backup? Well he was the only ranger on duty, that means his backup would have to be provided from an outside agency. The nearest towns are Elephant Butte (population 1,500) and Truth or Consequences (population 7,000). I am fairly certain that Elephant Butte does not have a police force. Truth or Consequences has 14 police officers, but I doubt they are allowed to respond outside of the city limits. That leaves us with the State Police. Often in rural areas, it can take 30 minutes to several hours for state police to respond to an assistance call. While I do not know if this was the case in this incident, I would not be surprised. When a police officer is attempting to subdue a suspect that is resisting arrest, it can not be considered attacking a victim.
Woods, acting like he had Clyde Barrow in his sights again escalated the violence yelling for the victim not to walk away. When this failed Woods knew he was unable to subdue the non-payer with his hands. At that time park ranger Clyde Woods drew his weapon and shot his victim in the back twice as the victim walked back to his vehicle.
The fact is that Woods did not know who Teschner was and whether or not he was dangerous. As far as he knew Teschner could have been as dangerous as Clyde Barrow. When a suspect refuses to cooperate when given a simple order to comply or leave, it throws up all kinds of red flags for a police officer. Why won't this guy just leave? What is he trying to hide? Does he have warrants? Does he have weapons or something illegal he is trying to hide from me?

As it turns out, this was not unusual behavior for Teschner.

'Everybody Was Afraid of Him', Cops Sought Man Killed at Butte (Albuquerque Journal)
Truth or Consequences trailer court owner William Martin said some of his last words to departing tenant Bruce Teschner on Tuesday (August 23, 2005) were that someone was likely to shoot him. "Everybody here was pretty much afraid of him. And I was constantly watching him," said Martin, an owner of the Artesian Bath House and Trailer Court. He said Teschner hadn't paid for his month long stay at the court and pulled out early Tuesday evening after being asked to leave on Monday.

A Sierra County Sheriff's Department report said Teschner was arrested at a Williamsburg RV park on June 6 for disorderly conduct and resisting an officer. "I had to order him to kneel down several times to avoid a physical confrontation," the sheriff's sergeant wrote in his report. "At my (patrol vehicle), Bruce refused to get inside and I had to force him in."

A former girlfriend earlier this month filed a court restraining order against Teschner, claiming he was dangerous and "displayed extremely (erratic) behavior." And the very day he was killed, Truth or Consequences police obtained a misdemeanor arrest warrant for him after he allegedly harassed a teenage girl in hopes of getting her to pose for nude photographs.
We can only speculate what Woods may have been thinking. "I have a gun pointed at this guy and yet he is still going for the vehicle. What is in that vehicle that he wants so bad? A gun?" Unless you have been in this type of situation, it is difficult to understand how you would react. You have a split second to make a decision. Unfortunately in this situation, Woods made the wrong decision.

Former National Park Ranger Jim Stiles recalled a similar incident that he experienced:

Blood spills over $14 camping fee (High Country News)

I have my own story. One dark evening, when the Arches campground was full, a couple of young men tried to camp illegally in the picnic area. My first encounter with them was civil enough, and I told them they needed to leave. Twenty minutes later, paid campers complained that they had moved into their site. This time I was firmer, and their attitude was icier. A few minutes later, I could see their headlights creeping down the Salt Valley Road in search of an illegal campsite.

My self-righteous indignation has always been a quality I needed to work on, and on this evening it was in full bloom: How dare these jerks defy the order of a ranger! I found their vehicle tracks; it was 11 p.m., I was out of radio contact but determined to cite these violators. I walked into the darkness with my Maglite, my service revolver snapped firmly in its holster. A hundred yards down the dry wash, the illegal campers were already in their sleeping bags.

When I advised them loudly that they had to leave immediately and that I was giving them a federal citation, the two men came unglued, leaping up from their bags, screaming. They called me every unkind name imaginable, in such a hysterical manner that I wondered if I was about to lose control of a situation that was barely 30 seconds old. One was particularly rabid, and moved toward me in a threatening way.

I was scared to death. I took a step backward and placed my thumb on the keeper of my gun holster. The young man stopped, then screamed at me, "You take that gun out and you're a dead man!" We stared at each other for five long seconds.

I reflected on his words, and I decided that he was most likely right: If I took my gun from the holster, I'd be the one shot dead.

"OK," I said, taking a deep breath. "I'm going back to my patrol cruiser. I want both of you out of here in 30 minutes." I backed off slowly, turned and walked back to the road. Had they come running up behind me, I would never have heard them; the sound of my heart pounding in my ears was deafening.

I sat in my patrol car for 20 long minutes, shaken, but happy to have my body intact. Finally, incredibly, here they came, packed up and in their car. One of them had calmed appreciably, and I handed him the citation. He even thanked me. His friend, however, was still out of control, and kept slamming his fists into the ceiling of their vehicle.

Had I been a coward or a wise man? I decided that, for once, I'd been wise. I never again came close to a confrontation like this.

I don'’t know all the facts in the New Mexico shooting, but I would guess that fear and adrenaline and the rapid rush of events were among its causes.

The Lesson
What can park rangers learn from this unfortunate incident?

The only way you know how you will react in these stressful situations is with realistic situational training with your force tools. Practice escalating and de-escalating your force level to that which will gain compliance. Even though you have drawn your sidearm, you can always holster it and draw a baton or OC spray in order to gain compliance from an unarmed, uncooperative suspect.

Another option would be to defuse the situation by simply leaving the scene. Give the suspect a specific amount of time to comply with the law and leave. Once you are gone, he no longer has to prove to you that he is a bad ass (also known as "saving face"). The amount of time you give him should match the response time of your backup. You can then return to the scene with a show of force. I have seen hard core criminals instantly become calm and courteous when three squad cars arrive on scene.

Make sure you train realistically, so that it's the bad guy going to jail, not you.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well the problem with your contention here is that Woods has agreed to admit that he is a felon and a murderer and was not justified in killing this man in exchange for a reduced charge/sentence. Would a man of courage and conviction lie to save his skin? If not and if you feel that Woods is such a man then by his own truthful admission Clyde Woods unlawfully killed another human being. Fairly simple it seems.

Ranger Gord said...

Apparently you have misunderstood the series of events, Woods has not accepted a plea deal. Here is a chronological summary of how the charges against Woods has changed:
1. Ranger Woods is charged with 2nd Degree Murder by the District Attorney.
2. The judge reduces the charge to Involuntary Manslaughter, which means Woods acted with gross negligence.
3. The District Attorney disagreed with the judge’s ruling, so he resubmitted the charge against Woods as Voluntary Manslaughter, which means Woods acted in the heat of passion.

It is not my contention that Woods was justified in shooting Teschner. We are still do not know Woods’ side of the story, but with the information presented by the press, it is my contention that it is more likely that Woods acted with gross negligence. It just seems like a ridiculous argument that Woods shot Teschner because he was mad that Teschner refused to comply with his orders. It seems more likely, that Woods overreacted to the level of threat presented by Teschner due to the high stress of the situation. There may be more to the story that we do not know and probably won’t until the trial.

Anonymous said...

We have always been courteous to the rangers, I feel for them! Sometimes they are the only ones out there maintaing the peace with 100's of people. Shit, the guy was .17 drunk!!!!!! I think he took his own life into his own hands.

Anonymous said...

The ranger could have shot him in the shoulder or legs if he was worth his badge, but the coward shot the unarmed man in the back. He should be sentenced to ten year of wearing a tutu.

Dagny said...

I've worked in the park before and there are all kinds of people. As you say, you never know how you'll react in a given situation. The ranger acted in defense of his life faced with a man who was not willing to comply with orders and who clearly had no respect for authority. I'm glad there are rangers keeping the parks safe for other people to enjoy.

Dagny
www.onnotextiles.com
bamboo and organic clothing

Anonymous said...

I live at Elephant Butte year round and its no surprise that something like this would happen. 99% of the rangers out here are grade A assholes.