Poor communications and a Department of Public Safety policy that defers to private air ambulance helicopters delayed dispatch of a helicopter for more than two hours as a man shot by a Forest Service law enforcement officer bled to death.
A man shot in the neck by an officer died in part as a result of a confusing, politically-driven policy that canceled dispatch of a helicopter paramedics pleaded for repeatedly, according to a Roundup investigation.
Courtney James Van Riper II, 66, died on Sept. 19 nearly two hours after officer Douglas Andrew Pederson, 34, shot him in the woods off Highway 87 atop the Mogollon Rim. Pederson shot Van Riper after he sprayed the Forest Service law enforcement officer with a can of bear mace.
The Roundup submitted repeated requests for the police reports and recordings of the conversations between the dispatchers and officers over a period of more than six months to prepare this report. To hear the dispatch recordings, go to payson.com and click on the links attached to this story.
The recordings show that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) dispatchers refused requests for its Ranger helicopter to transport Van Riper, after initially turning down the call based on a policy requiring private air ambulance services to have first right of refusal. The confusion about who to send left a Pine-Strawberry Fire Department ambulance unit standing by the landing site in vain 40 minutes after the first call for the helicopter went out.
The call eventually went out to the privately operated Native Air, but dispatchers from that company ultimately refused to send a helicopter due to reports of lightning in the area — although paramedics on the ground at the accident scene said it was a clear day.
Giving up on the helicopter after Van Riper went into cardiac arrest, the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department rushed Van Riper to Payson Regional Medical Center — where he was pronounced dead some two hours after he was shot in the neck.
Dispatchers talking with officer after he shot camper
Flagstaff dispatchers speaking with responding officers
Flagstaff dispatchers talking with DPS and Native Air dispatchers
Courtney James Van Riper bled to death in the nearly two-hour wait for a medical helicopter.
The case raises urgent questions about DPS’s policy requiring dispatchers to call a private helicopter company before dispatching the state-owned rescue helicopter, even though dispatchers, officers and fire department paramedics all specifically requested dispatch of the DPS helicopter.
DPS officials say their restrictive launch policy went into affect after private sector helicopter companies complained that DPS was taking missions and therefore profits away from them.
“Our crews routinely get in trouble because they want to fly,” said Terry Miyauchi, DPS aviation administrator.
Miyauchi said there are more private sector helicopter companies in Arizona than the rest of the country, with more in the Phoenix area than the state of California.
“The state is saturated with medical helicopters,” he said. “They know the money is here and the access is here.”
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office initially asked for the DPS Ranger helicopter because the case involved a criminal suspect and an officer-involved shooting.
If Ranger had launched when initially called, Van Riper might have made it to the hospital, with the flight time from Flagstaff to Payson around 30 minutes. Instead, he bled out at the helicopter-landing site.
Dispatcher cites ‘politics’
One dispatcher even made reference to the “politics” of the relationship between DPS and the private air ambulances.
Even the officer Van Riper had attacked was upset when he learned a helicopter had been called off, as he had tried to help save Van Riper just moments after Van Riper attacked him.
It took repeated efforts by the Roundup to get the police reports, dispatch logs and complete audio files about this incident, with multiple Freedom of Information requests, with the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Forest Service Washington, D.C. office and local fire departments. The Roundup is still waiting to receive video footage from the lapel camera Pederson wore that day, but went ahead with the story because it may take months more to get the video.
What emerged from all the information is a chaotic tragedy driven by limited communications due to the remoteness of the area, DPS’s refusal to fly because of policy motivated to keep the private sector happy and paramedics’ frustration they could not get anyone to launch a helicopter.
How the tragedy unfolded
The tragedy that ended with Van Riper lying against a stolen vehicle, with bullet holes in the neck and leg unfolded in the forest north of Payson.
Van Riper had been on the run since his release from an Oklahoma prison for stealing a handgun from a gun shop. Van Riper fled Oklahoma City when the patrol board refused to transfer his probation to Arizona. He asked to relocate to Arizona, believing the weather was better for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, say online records.
In Flagstaff, Van Riper stole a silver Toyota Camry and put temporary plates on the vehicle. Detectives later found maps in the car, folded for the northern part of Arkansas, the Four Corners area and southwest Colorado, hinting that Van Riper had long-term plans to stay on the run.
Quiet campsite on a lethal day
He somehow found his way to northern Arizona and camped in the forest off Forest Service Road 616.
In a flat, open grassy area under a canopy of ponderosa pines, Van Riper backed the Camry up to a line of trees. He pitched a tent north of the Camry, put a cooler near the passenger door and stretched a tarp over the hood and driver’s side. A few nearby campers noticed Van Riper’s vehicle and said it looked kind of “trashy.”
U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer Pederson started his shift on Sept. 19 by contacting campers on the Rim. After lunch, he went down Forest Road 616, but didn’t see many people. He spotted Van Riper’s vehicle much farther off the road than Forest Service travel management rules permit.
Pederson approached the sedan and called out, but no one answered. Finally, he spotted Van Riper sitting in the driver’s seat. As Van Riper got out, Pederson asked for Van Riper’s identification and then for a confirmation of his address. Pederson later told detectives he didn’t plan to issue Van Riper a citation, but wanted to run the plate and license.
Officer notices strange details
Then the officer noticed strange details around the campsite. Burned papers were strewn about on the ground and although Van Riper said he was fishing in the area, Pederson saw no fishing pole. The plate on the vehicle perplexed Pederson too. The Alabama license plate holder contained an Arizona veteran’s handicap plate. The license plate check showed it was for a pickup truck.
As Pederson checked out the vehicle, Van Riper asked twice if he could get back into the vehicle to get his cigarettes. Pederson said “No,” afraid he might grab something besides cigarettes. However, Pederson finally asked Van Riper to shut off the blaring portable DVD player.
As Van Riper leaned in to switch it off, he went from the DVD player to the center console. Pederson watched warily, since Van Riper did not need to get into the center console. Pederson asked him to step away from the vehicle, but Van Riper continued rummaging about. Pederson then yelled at him to drop whatever he was tying to grab.
Van Riper attacks officer
As Pederson put his hand on Van Riper’s back, Van Riper pushed back to get out of the vehicle. Van Riper turned, a black cylinder in his hand. The officer recognized it as a can of pepper spray and stepped back as Van Riper raised the cylinder and sprayed.
A million thoughts raced through Pederson’s head, including the knowledge he would be nearly helpless once Van Riper sprayed him. The officer stumbled backward, closed his eyes and pulled out his gun.
When he opened his eyes, Van Riper was coming toward him, his “worst nightmare,” according to his statements later.
The officer fired repeatedly as he fell backward, aiming for Van Riper’s chest.
Pederson thought Van Riper would kill him if he didn’t land a shot. Pederson said he feared for his life, “absolutely, 100 percent. And for the first time ever, really, in my life.”
Pederson fell back into some bushes. When he got up, he found Van Riper on the ground, bleeding heavily.
The officer called dispatch and told them he was OK, but would need a medic for Van Riper.
Pederson asked Van Riper why he had attacked him. But Van Riper had several bullet wounds in his neck and could not speak. Instead, he motioned toward the car. Pederson asked if he was wanted for a stolen vehicle. Van Riper nodded yes.
Pederson grabbed his first aid kit and tried to stop the bleeding with gauze.
Within minutes of Pederson’s call, Sgt. Larry Thomas told Flagstaff-based dispatchers to request a DPS Ranger helicopter, given the uncertain situation at the campsite and the likely need to fly someone to a hospital.
The Pine-Strawberry Fire Department got the call to respond from Gila County dispatch, since they could not contact the Flagstaff dispatchers directly. They also asked Gila County dispatch to request the Ranger.
Paramedics ask for DPS helicopter
Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris said the paramedics wanted Ranger and its crew of law enforcement officers to help preserve the chain of evidence and transport a criminal suspect. Since Ranger already has officers on board, the request for the Ranger just made sense, he said. Morris even got on his cell and called the DPS dispatch center to let the crew know where to land.
But in the meantime, DPS dispatch asked Flagstaff why they wanted the DPS Ranger, according to audio files. DPS dispatchers asked if the officer was all right. Flagstaff dispatch said the officer was fine, but a suspect had been shot in the neck and was bleeding heavily. Flagstaff dispatch said they needed Ranger to both “get eyes” on the situation and possibly provide a medical evacuation.
A DPS dispatcher is heard asking someone in the background if they can launch. The supervisor tells the dispatcher that DPS cannot go if a private medical helicopter can take the call.
Exasperated, the Flagstaff dispatcher said her sergeant was requesting them to launch.
“For what though?” the DPS dispatcher asked. “Is it a law enforcement mission or medical, because they cannot go for medical if a private helicopter is available.”
The dispatcher radioed Sgt. Thomas and informed him Ranger will not launch for medical only. Thomas, still miles from the scene, said since Pederson was OK and there were no suspects on the loose, Ranger could disregard.
Call now goes to Native Air
The DPS dispatchers then said they should call Native Air in Payson and must defer to the private company since it is “all political, you know.”
Miyauchi told the Roundup DPS always refers calls to the nearest helicopter. To avoid complaints from private helicopter companies, DPS gives them the medical calls.
Irene Hunkler, the communications manager for Flagstaff’s 911 communication center, said dispatchers don’t question police or medics resource requests, but simply pass along information.
Morris said paramedics typically decide whether to call a helicopter based on the patient’s condition. In this call, crews knew they needed a helicopter even before arriving at the scene.
With Ranger not coming, dispatchers called on Native Air, but put them on standby after hearing the sergeant en route agree to call off the Ranger.
Another request for DPS chopper
When Pine Strawberry Fire learned from Gila County dispatchers that Ranger had been called off, they asked to have Ranger re-launched.
Gila County dispatch called DPS dispatch, but got disconnected.
Native Air meanwhile said it could not come due to lightning in the area, according to their central dispatch center located out of state.
Pine-Strawberry Fire loaded Van Riper up and drove him out to a landing zone off Highway 87, believing Ranger would come as they had requested.
The Blue Ridge Fire Department was also on scene and requested Ranger as well.
“We were reinforcing the fact that we need someone to come,” said Blue Ridge Fire Chief John Banning.
Pine-Strawberry Fire sat at the landing site with Van Riper for more than 10 minutes.
Crews asked dispatchers when Ranger should arrive, worried Van Riper was bleeding out. Gila County dispatch said it could not get through to DPS dispatch.
Van Riper dies
At 3 p.m., an hour after he was shot, Van Riper went into cardiac arrest and P-S Fire paramedics decided they could no longer wait. They drove Van Riper to PRMC where he was pronounced dead around 3:40 p.m., roughly 90 minutes after dispatchers initially called Ranger to fly.
When medics on scene said somebody canceled the helicopter, Pederson insisted he never wanted them to cancel the helicopter, according to Det. Tristan Meyer, who completed the investigation.
Following the shooting, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office conducted a criminal investigation and forwarded the results to the Coconino County Attorney’s Office for review. The Coconino County Attorney’s Office cleared Pederson of any wrongdoing.
Detectives later found a stolen, loaded handgun in the passenger seat of Van Riper’s vehicle. They also found several boxes of ammunition.
Detectives had difficulty finding any of Van Riper’s relatives, but finally contacted his sister. She said she had not spoken to Van Riper in 20 to 30 years after he became estranged from the family due to his many problems with the law. He sent her a letter two years ago, but when she tried to respond, it came back as “undeliverable.”
Van Riper had two sons, but the sister did not know how to get a hold of them.
When asked if she wanted his remains, the woman said no.
DPS Ranger eventually did show up at Van Riper’s camp, but to take aerial shots of the crime scene.
So in the end, no one ever did come for Van Riper’s remains and the medical helicopter never came.
But the DPS policies that produced the tragedy remain.
TIMELINE TO TRAGEDY
U.S. Forest Service Officer Douglas Andrew Pederson stops at a campsite where a gray Toyota sedan is parked in the woods.
Pederson tells Flagstaff dispatch he is fine.
Pederson shoots Courtney James Van Riper after he sprays the officer with mace.
Pederson tells Flagstaff dispatch he is OK, but he needs a medic for Van Riper.
Flagstaff dispatch calls Blue Ridge and Pine-Strawberry fire departments to respond.
Pederson tells Flagstaff dispatch Van Riper is sitting up, but bleeding badly, suggests possible medical air evacuation.
Flagstaff dispatch requests Ranger to launch.
DPS dispatch tells Flagstaff it is sending an officer from Winslow by ground.
P-S Fire requests DPS Ranger launch through the Gila County dispatch center.
Pine Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris tells DPS dispatch where to land chopper.
Flagstaff dispatcher reports DPS is refusing to come because they will not respond to medical-only calls.
While driving to the scene, Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Larry Thomas tells Ranger to disregard the air ambulance request after he learns from dispatchers Ranger will not launch for medical purposes only.
Flagstaff dispatcher puts Native Air on standby after Thomas’ call.
Native Air dispatch reports it has a helicopter in Payson available 19 minutes from the scene.
Gila County dispatcher learns from DPS dispatcher that the DPS Ranger has been canceled.
Pine-Strawberry Fire tells Gila County dispatch to re-launch Ranger. Gila County dispatch calls DPS back but is disconnected.
Native Air dispatch calls Flagstaff dispatch to say it cannot come because of lightning in the area.
Meanwhile, Van Riper has been loaded in the ambulance and taken to the air evacuation site.
Blue Ridge Fire requests DPS launch Ranger.
DPS advised to call Blue Ridge Fire on mutual aid.
Pine-Strawberry Fire arrives at landing site with Van Riper.
Gila County calls DPS and with landing site coordinates.
Pine-Strawberry Fire asks Gila County dispatch when Ranger will arrive.
Gila County dispatch calls Pine Strawberry Fire crew back and says they cannot get through to Ranger — line disconnected. Pine Strawberry Fire says Van Riper is bleeding out — they need an estimated time of arrival.
Van Riper goes into cardiac arrest, Pine Strawberry Fire decides to drive to Payson Regional Medical Center.