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Two Billings police officers cleared by jury of killing Native American man


Two Billings police officers cleared by jury of killing Native American man

Jan 31, 2022 | 11:11 pm ET
By Ashley Nerbovig
Two Billings police officers cleared by jury of killing Native American man
Justin Bickford leaves the stand after testifying Monday in a coroner's inquest. The jury found both Bickford and fellow Billings Police Officer Ryland Nelson justified in shooting Coleman F. Stump on Oct. 12, 2020 in Billings. (Ashley Nerbovig for the Daily Montanan)

After a day-long inquest Monday, a coroner’s jury found two Billings Police officers justified in a 2020 killing of a Chippewa Cree man after police said the man pulled a gun while officers tried to handcuff him.  

Officers Ryland Nelson and Justin Bickford will not face criminal charges for the shooting death of 29-year-old Coleman F. Stump, who died Oct. 12, 2020. The jury’s finding was devastating for Stump’s family. Stump’s sister, Tonya Stump, said she felt the inquest was biased against them from the start.

“Why were there no Natives on that jury,” she said. “None of those were his peers. They were all Caucasian and significantly older than him.”

Four men and three women sat on the jury. Deer Lodge Coroner Jessie Billquist-Jette oversaw the inquest, which was held at the Yellowstone County Courthouse in Billings. Nelson and Bickford testified as well as the other two officers who were at the scene, Taylor Vladic and Jacob Grommes. 

Ed Zink, the chief deputy of criminal litigation for the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office, presented evidence that Stump was shot 11 times. Bickford fired four of those shots, hitting Stump in the head three times and once in the neck. Nelson hit Stump seven times in his left side, Zink said. A toxicology report showed Stump had methamphetamine in his blood system when he died.

Dash cam videos from the officers’ patrol cars do not show the confrontation with Stump.

On the night of the shooting, a woman called 911 and reported suspicious activity in the parking lot of her apartment complex. She said she saw Stump bent over an engine of one car and another car parked next to it with two women inside. She did not think they lived in the complex. She told the dispatcher she believed all three of the people to be Native American. The 911 caller testified at the inquest Monday and said she was also Native American.

Nelson arrived at the scene first, followed by Vladic and Grommes and later Bickford. When officers arrived, Stump was standing outside a car and had its hood up. Someone appeared to have tried to paint the car black, but it still had white paint showing. Other markers led officers to believe the car might be stolen. 

Officers asked Stump for his name and date of birth. When officers tried to run the name, it appeared to be fake. Officers then tried to detain Stump. A struggle broke out as Stump tried to prevent officers from putting him in handcuffs, according to officers.

One of the two women in the car parked next to Stump, Nicole Half, told investigators in a statement she saw one of the officers grab Stump by the arm and throw him to the ground. Then all four officers jumped on him. Half was in the parking lot to help Stump jump his car, but she didn’t have jumper cables. The two women were in the parking lot about 20 minutes before police arrived, according to a statement Half gave to Billings Police Det. Denise Baum. Half did not testify at the inquest and neither did the other woman who was in the car with her. Baum said she wasn’t able to reach either woman and that Half was wanted on several warrants. 

“Probably doesn’t want to have contact with law enforcement,” Zink said. 

However, a woman with the same name and matching Half’s description was arrested on Dec. 12, 2021 and appears to still be in jail in Big Horn County, according to the county jail roster. After the inquest, Zink said he looked prior to the inquest and saw Half still had active warrants, which indicated to him she was not in custody.

The four officers gave similar testimonies about what happened when they tried to handcuff Stump. Grommes took Stump “to the ground” after the officer saw Stump reach toward the center of his body. Stump landed half on his right side, almost in a fetal position, Grommes said. The scuffle started with Grommes, Nelson and Vladic. Bickford later joined and positioned himself so Stump’s left shoulder and face were between the officer’s knees. All four men tried to get Stump’s hands behind his back. Nelson began to say Stump was reaching for something and called for someone to use a stun gun. Grommes tried, however it didn’t appear to have any effect on Stump, which Grommes said wasn’t unusual as stun guns need to make a good connection to work. 

Within seconds, Nelson shouted Stump had a gun, Grommes said. 

“Probably not even a second after that,” Grommes said. “There’s a volley of gunfire.”

Both Nelson and Bickford reported hearing Stump yell either that he would shoot them or kill them. Neither Vladic nor Grommes mentioned this in their testimonies. The 911 caller said she thought she heard Stump shout he would shoot the officers.

After the gunfire ended, officers got off of Stump. Bickford later kicked a gun out of Stump’s right hand, according to officer testimony. 

Nelson and Vladic are still officers with the Billings Police Department. Grommes is living in Washington and is no longer a police officer, though he would like to return to the career if a position opened up near him. Bickford left the police department and took a job with the city’s solid waste division. Bickford was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of killing Stump. 

No forensic evidence was found on the gun police said Stump pulled on them. Zink said no blood was found on any of the guns, including the officers’, and no fingerprints were found on the gun believed to belong to Stump. 

Bickford was the last officer to testify. After he finished, Stump’s sister Tasheena Duran said she felt the jury would see how many questions still needed to be answered about her brother’s death. She was optimistic the jury would decide the officers should face criminal charges.

Stump’s mother, Vina Stump, became more and more vocal throughout the inquest about her frustration with Zink’s questions. After the coroner dismissed the jury for deliberations, Vina Stump told Zink he was acting like a lawyer for the police officers, not an unbiased arbiter of the facts. 

Tonya Stump said she didn’t understand what had happened. Zink kept asking how the shooting affected the officers, she said, but didn’t talk about Stump’s 6-month-old son who would never have any memories of his father. 

“His father was taken from him before he could even sit up on his own,” Tonya Stump said. 

Her brother deserved better, she said. He was a human being and he deserved better.

“We’re not finished,” she said.