Riverton residents are doing something about the high rates of destitution and crime in their town.
Business owners this summer have begun rallying against acts of public drunkenness, indecent exposure, vandalism and violence throughout Riverton. Though such crimes have been common in the city of 11,000 people for years, the locals say perpetrators are getting more brazen. And their crimes are growing more serious.
Karen Johnson, owner of Twice But Nice thrift store in the heart of town, started the online group Step Up Riverton this month.
The group amassed hundreds of followers in its first five days.
“The community is incredibly supportive,” said Johnson. “And they want to see change.”
Group members are planning an Oct. 28 fundraising banquet to get bonuses or stipends for Riverton Police Department officers, whom Johnson and others say are overworked and underpaid.
Johnson hopes the extra funding will attract more officers to alleviate the strain.
The force is down by eight positions from its ideal staffing level of 29, Riverton Police Department Chief Eric Hurtado told Cowboy State Daily.
He said negative attention in the national media has driven down interest in the profession, and there are many private-sector jobs offering more money.
Officers’ pay runs from $44,616 to $57,657 a year — figures multiple officers, speaking on background and offering compilations of help-wanted ads throughout Wyoming, say are well below the state median.
This Is The Life
But Riverton has the most violent crime per capita of any Wyoming town at 2.9 offenses for every 100 people in 2022, according to Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.
The state’s largest city of Cheyenne had a 1.8% violent crime rate for its population in 2022. Gillette sat at 1.9% and Evanston was at 2.1%.
Casper did not report its figures that year, but Rock Springs came closest to Riverton at 2.5%.
Riverton far exceeded other towns for arrests, at 11.1 per 100 people in 2022 and 14.3 per 100 people in 2021.
Cheyenne saw 2.3 arrests per 100 people. Gillette had 6.4 and Rock Springs 2.3. On the other end of the spectrum, Green River, with a population comparable to Riverton’s, had about one arrest per 100 people.
Poor Sumo Wrestler
Much of the violence in the River City happens in groups of repeat offenders who get violent among themselves, Hurtado said.
The town typically shares that thought, and most Riverton residents simply do not drink alcohol with repeat violent offenders.
But that perception is changing.
It started June 17, when two men beat up an older man in a downtown parking lot as the man walked home from a bar at about 1:30 a.m. The two took the man’s car keys, cellphone and cigarettes.
Authorities later discovered the man’s car abandoned and burned.
Then on July 22, Ichiban Steakhouse management discovered that vagrants had attacked, vandalized and toppled the restaurant’s giant red sumo wrestler statue.
The restaurant issued a sad, but not bitter, statement.
“We feel so sorry to see that early this morning there were three guys showed up and battled with our sumo,” reads a Facebook post by the restaurant. The sumo had a backache after the attack, the restaurant owners joked in the statement.
“We turn this case over to our referee,” the post adds, referring to the police department.
Authorities have charged two of the alleged offenders, Brian Dodge and Christopher Monroe.
Ichiban’s owners may have been in a joking mood, but the rest of Riverton was not.
“Can’t have nothing nice in this town,” one local fumed. “We have to be better than this!” posted another.
Many people admired the Ichiban owners’ grace and humor about the attack and urged their fellow Rivertonites to step up to prevent it from happening again.
The Group Chat
In addition to their fundraising efforts, Step Up Riverton members and shop owners now coordinate daily to keep tabs on wanderer, and watch for signs of criminal activity.
Some wanderers just need a change of clothes, said Johnson, adding that she and her husband Brett have given out many clothing and care packages. Their bright and spacious thrift store sits directly across from the Riverton City Park – the town’s top hangout for public day drinkers.
Other wanderers like to fight one another. Some are aggressive toward passersby who won’t give them money; some will shower under a person’s outdoor spigot and then leave it running as they walk away. Some will defecate on the front stoop of a person’s business, said Johnson.
She flipped through security camera stills on her phone, showing people committing various offenses.
Most of the vagrants are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or both.
Johnson lamented that there aren’t more mental health and treatment options for them. But for those who aren’t interested in recovery, she said, longer jail terms than their usual city citations or misdemeanor offenses earn could help them dry out and make clear decisions about entering a therapy program.
“We want to see them become contributing members of society. That’s the ultimate goal: get them rehabbed, get them where they need to be, get them working in the community — get them the help they need,” said Johnson. “But you can’t help somebody who doesn’t want to be helped, and for those people, that means jail. And they choose that, sometimes, over treatment.”
‘I Like To Drink’
Patrick Arthur, 42, said wandering drunk in Riverton is a hard life, but to some it’s irresistible.
He meanders through the town when he’s not at his home on the Wind River Indian Reservation because Riverton has alcohol, while most of the reservation is dry. And he likes to drink.
Many wanderers have homes, but have either left them to drink in town, or have left them because their families won’t tolerate drinking in the house, Arthur told Cowboy State Daily.
“Their families are like, against alcohol and drug use or whatever, so they tell them, ‘If you want to live that way, go out,’” said Arthur.
Arthur had come to town Tuesday to drink, to check on his parents who were also drinking in City Park, and to escape some tension at home.
He’s lost many friends to alcoholism, and it scares him, he said. But it doesn’t scare him into sobriety.
“I’m not gonna beat around the bush. I like to drink,” said Arthur. His kids are grown. His duty, as he sees it, is complete.
“I grew up working, but nowadays, it’s like, I did everything I had to do,” he said.
Still, it gets tough, especially in the winter. Arthur and others strive even harder to gather money and keep alcohol in their systems during the tough winters.
People die of hypothermia in Riverton’s public spaces almost annually.
Arthur said there are vagrants of all races.
“It’s not just Native Americans out here. There’s always different races that end up out here in our town,” said Arthur.
Karen and Brett Johnson said they’ve noticed that as well. Again, Karen Johnson showed security stills of people rifling through her dumpster, gathering in nooks. The photos depicted people of various races.
One of the vagrants is a former coworker and friend of Brett Johnson’s, he said. Johnson worked prior for Riverton Police Department and the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.
That’s why the Step Up Riverton effort is different from prior movements in which people asked the two nearby tribal governments to provide money or get involved, said Karen Johnson.
The new group’s focus, she said, is on easing the job strain Riverton's police are under, and on community policing.
Riverton Mayor Tim Hancock could not be reached for comment.
The Johnsons said Hancock and the city administrator have been receptive and open. They’re hopeful the city can work toward retaining police officers.
Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun, who prosecutes state-level crimes, said it’s hard to put people away if they’re only violating the city ordinance of public intoxication.
“It’s the kind of charge the city – I suspect – doesn't want to spend a lot of money on,” said LeBrun.
Riverton has a holding area with no kitchen, but it doesn’t have a jail. The city can pay the county jail in Lander a daily fee to incarcerate people jailed for city ordinances.
“So what (people) do is they serve some jail time and then they get out and they get intoxicated again,” said LeBrun.
Watch Out For Felonies
But Hurtado is banking on a new state law to halt that revolving door.
House Bill 112 took effect July 1. It makes a person’s fifth theft a felony, even if past offenses were charged in municipal court.
Shoplifting is a common crime among Riverton wanderers.
“Now watch, and (the law) will have some teeth behind some of these sentencings,” said Hurtado, adding that some vagrants may go to prison and be off the streets, letting officers police more proactively.
Karen Johnson said that might help people get clean long enough to feel empowered and get some treatment. But it won’t solve all the issues. She said people still need to make better decisions for themselves.
LeBrun has not yet prosecuted any offenders under the new law, but he will when he gets a case that fits it, he said.
As for Arthur, he didn’t seem concerned about the shoplifting law. But he said one police officer warned his friend about it after the friend was cited for stealing from the Walmart deli.
Arthur theorized that shop owners are exaggerating their accounts of vagrants’ offenses, and that most vagrants just ask for money or sleep in inconvenient places.
LeBrun declined to comment on whether the vagrants are becoming more brazen, as many business owners say, or if that’s a perception fueled by better awareness and social media.
But if they are growing more brazen, LeBrun said, a good community policing effort will help law enforcement confront it.
“Step Up Riverton is a great idea,” said the prosecutor. “It’s great to see them all working together.”
Hurtado also called it encouraging.
“It’s nice that the community is involved with the police department and the police department is involved with the community,” he said.
He's urging the business owners and managers to keep it up — the surveillance, the communication, the keen observations — and anything else to help the diminished police force crack cases when antics cross the line from annoying, to violent.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.