The family of George Sands say they have been kept in the dark since the 53-year-old Durango man was fatally shot by a Southern Ute Indian tribal ranger more than two weeks ago.
In fact, family members said law enforcement didn’t bother to notify them that Sands had been killed, and have since refused to explain the circumstances of his death.
“They didn’t even contact us to let us know my uncle was shot and killed,” said Shay Havens-Gee, Sands’ niece. “I don’t know how these things work, but you would assume with the loss of someone’s life, they would reach out to family members.”
The shooting occurred around 12:30 p.m. Nov. 24 near the intersection of La Posta Road (County Road 213) and County Road 214, by the Weaselskin Bridge, which crosses the Animas River about 6 miles south of Durango.
Because the incident occurred on Southern Ute Indian Tribe land, the case is being investigated by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the FBI.
In a brief statement released the day of the shooting, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe said: “We can confirm an incident did take place this afternoon involving a tribal ranger. Information is limited at this time due to the pending investigation. The tribe is working with multiple agencies due to the jurisdictional status of this incident.”
Ever since, law enforcement has released no information to the public about the shooting death, including who fired the lethal shots, despite multiple requests for comment to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the FBI.
And it appears the family has also been left with little information.
“(Tuesday) it will be two weeks, and we still haven’t heard anything from them,” Havens-Gee said. “It’s just really inconsiderate toward the family.”
Havens-Gee said her family learned of Sands’ death only because his girlfriend, who was present at the time of the shooting, notified a family friend.
Sands’ girlfriend gave an account of the shooting to the family, though Havens-Gee said Monday she was not prepared to release that information because the family is retaining a lawyer.
What little is known is that Sands was shot and killed by a Southern Ute Indian tribal ranger, a position different than a police officer, within the Natural Resource Enforcement Division and tasked with protecting natural resources.
According to a death certificate that Havens-Gee obtained from Hood Mortuary, Sands’ cause of death was listed as “homicide” from “multiple gunshot wounds to head, neck and chest.”
“It seemed like he (the tribal ranger) was shooting to kill,” Havens-Gee said. “He (Sands) didn’t deserve to die like that. I don’t think anyone deserves to die like that.”
The death certificate does not say how many times Sands was shot. La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith declined to comment, saying any information must be provided by the FBI.
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe did not respond to a request for comment this week. A spokeswoman at the FBI did not answer specific questions related to the shooting and a representative with the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment.
The Durango Herald has filed an open records request with the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act.
Havens-Gee said her family has reached out to law enforcement several times for information. She said agencies say they will call back, but fail to do so.
“To them, it’s just another day,” she said. “To us, it’s our family.”
Havens-Gee and other family members went to the scene of the shooting last week, and were told by a Southern Ute Indian Tribe detective who was at the scene that Sands was acting aggressively and reached for a gun.
“I know for a fact my uncle didn’t have a gun,” she said.
Havens-Gee speculated that Sands could have been shot, in part, because he is Native American.
“Being Native, especially during this Black Lives Matter movement, it’s really hard and it’s really scary because this happened right in our backyard,” she said. “You can’t help but think of that. It’s real life for us as Indigenous people.”
According to his obituary, Sands, 53, was born in Portland, Oregon, and spent time in his mother’s homeland of Atka, Alaska, before moving to Durango. He worked a variety of jobs – construction, auto body and painting.
His sister, Debbie Powell, said in a previous interview Sands was a father of three girls and one boy who will have a “hard process of dealing with his death.”
“George was a good person, not a perfect one, but a good person,” Powell said.
A memorial for Sands will be held Friday, which would have been his 54th birthday, from around 5 to 6 p.m. at Santa Rita Park. Havens-Gee said she started a movement on social media with the hashtag #JusticeForGeorgeSands.