Reporter's Notebook: One Year After The Shootout In Thermopolis

In this installment of Reporter's Notebook, Clair McFarland discusses her visit back to the town of Thermopolis one year after a police sergeant illegally broke into a suspect’s home, got shot through the lung and fired back, killing the suspect.

Clair McFarland

May 04, 20246 min read

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Editor’s Note: Reporter’s Notebook is a Cowboy State Daily series in which reporters give a first-hand account of crafting high-interest stories.

Driving from my hometown of Riverton into nearby Thermopolis still thrills me, as if my mother were carting all her brood off to the hot springs pool on a payday.

But on Friday it was just me in a Honda Accord, plunging into the sheer Wind River Canyon behind a tottering Ford truck. Pop and rock radio stations fell away until only two stations could breach the chasm: one playing a crackly sermon and the other playing Ricky Skaggs.

It’s always a struggle not to gape at the train tracks across the river and to my left, carved into the rock face like a hobo’s nightmare. I knew if I stared too long, I’d vault into the river and spare the town of Thermopolis a day of awkward questioning.

So, I didn’t stare too long.

Rain pattered and fizzled. I held my breath through the tunnels even though I’m not 8 years old. That’s a tradition Wyoming kids (trundling to field trips in school buses) shoulder without being asked or instructed.

Mist spilled over the canyon’s towering walls and gushed into its depths.

Finally, the canyon spat me out, but I kept my radio tuned to the crackly sermon, thinking the Psalm cadence would smack down any fledgling opinions about the day’s story before they could take shape in my head.

Why I Journeyed

One year ago, a Thermopolis police sergeant illegally broke into a suspect’s home, got shot through the lung and fired back, killing the suspect.

These are the facts.

An expert opinion came five months after the incident: a special prosecutor said the sergeant didn’t have legal authority to break into the home, but the prosecutor declined to charge the sergeant with homicide, largely due to a provision of state law protecting policemen on the job.

(Two different self-defense laws, Castle doctrine and “stand your ground,” clashed a little in the opinion as well.)

After the facts, after the authority’s opinion, came public opinion.

A petition, a Facebook group, a citizen group all sprang up. People protested at the town’s lone stoplight and lodged complaints at city council meetings.

Then came the town council’s reaction, which was to release edited body cam footage of the shooting and body cam footage of past, reputed-to-be-controversial incidents. These were released at my request through the Public Records Act.

I have covered all of this. I have known all of this like a sad song on repeat.

Just A Hunch

But what I did not know was how the people of Thermopolis generally feel about the shootout. I had a hunch the town’s sentiments wouldn’t mirror the Facebook comments under each of my stories.

I was right.

I strode into bakeries, coffee shops, a bookstore, a few small retailers.

I interviewed a businessperson who voiced deep concern for the sergeant and his family, and I walked away thinking, “Wow what powerful quotes.”

I knew just what she wanted when she chased me onto the sidewalk. Same thing so many sources want: to spill their rawest thoughts to me as if I didn’t represent however many thousands of readers we’re up to nowadays — then to turn right around and ask me not to publish their names.  

She had a business to run, she said.

I get it. I’ve worked in small-town retail myself. Her name didn’t go into the story. Instead, I tallied her up with a simple checkmark under a column in my journal that read, “People who want the sergeant to stay at the police department.”

The senior center received me beautifully, as if they’d been expecting me; as if they gathered for 11:30 brunch every day just hoping someone would ask them to share a piece of their minds.

People were chatty at the library too.

I did get kicked out of one business, or rather, told not to ask customers about the police sergeant.

Being run off doesn’t bother me. I’ve been chased off crime scenes, told to climb down from fences, screamed at in a court lobby and threatened in emails.

I halfway like it when people insult me in the Facebook comments because that means I get to watch my mom round up all her little mom friends and wage a silly, “actually-my-daughter-is-the-best” campaign.

I kept walking; it kept raining.

The Ratio

I bobbed into the One-Eyed Buffalo and told the hostess (an old friend who used to outrun me in sixth-grade gym class) that I was there to interview locals.

A wry smile lit her face.  

“Most of these aren’t locals,” she almost whispered, adding with a shrug, “It’s a Friday.”

She made a slight backward nod toward the nethermost end of the bar, where one local was hiding out beyond the tourists.

He was good for a quote.

Then she sent me on to a real estate office, where she figured I’d find a strong opinion.

After that I stomped along the sidewalks some more, interviewing people in the rain.  

The post office is a terrible place to ambush people: they’re all in a rush. But the sidewalks of main drags are just about perfect.

After several hours, my sopping journal ledger bore three pages of names, front and back. The ratio was 72% for the sergeant, about 20% against him, and about 8% undecided or unwilling to say.

I can’t add myself to the ledger because I can’t form opinions about this while I’m covering it.

But I can draw this conclusion: Facebook and Twitter comments are no proportionate reflection of how local towns feel about the issues that beset them.

I called my editor to tell him the tally just before rolling back into that no-cell-service canyon.

And as the mist chased me out of town (and I was careful not to speed), I let myself imagine I was rolling home in Mom's van with all my brothers and sisters, soaked and content after a long day of swimming.

Clair McFarland can be reached at

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter