Death on a reservation brings allegations of conspiracy and a search for answers

Published: Sunday, July 7 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

TURKEY TRACK ROAD, Uintah County — Utah Highway Patrol trooper Dave Swenson had his gun trained on the disabled Suzuki sedan when the teenage driver and his passenger climbed out.

Uriah Kurip had missed a turn in the road and crashed, ending a chase that spanned more than 40 miles, involved a collision with Swenson's patrol car and reached speeds of 125 mph.

Kurip's passenger, Todd Rory Murray, had a $20,000 warrant out for his arrest and had drugs in his system, though the trooper didn't know it at the time.

"At this point, they look at each other, they look at me, they look at each other and then the passenger (runs) southbound, the driver (runs) northbound," Swenson would recall in a deposition given more than five years later.

The trooper chased Kurip and quickly had him in handcuffs. Off-duty Vernal police detective Vance Norton had arrived by then, and Swenson asked him to go look for Murray.

Minutes later shots were fired and Murray was lying on the ground, blood flowing freely from a through-and-through gunshot wound to his head.

Norton told investigators Murray shot at him, he returned fire, then the 21-year-old shot himself. The state Medical Examiner's Office ruled the death a suicide.

Case closed.

Unless you're a member of Murray's family, who claims there is a far more sinister explanation for how the Ute tribal member died.

"(The police) were hunting themselves an Indian," attorney Sandra Denton told U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell during a hearing in May. "They had to take matters into their own hands, their guns into their own hands, and go find him. And when they find him, they kill him."

Denton's claim that Murray was murdered by police — who then conspired to cover it up — is just one of the ever-evolving allegations made against a dozen officers and their respective agencies in the four years since Murray's family first filed their wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit in federal court.

It's a small-town tale with big-case consequences, generating thousands of pages of depositions, expert witness reports and other court filings as attorneys on both sides try to prove how Murray died on April 1, 2007; who is responsible for his death; and what should be done about the federal government's destruction of a key piece of evidence.

The answers will undoubtedly affect the professional and personal lives of the officers named in the lawsuit. They could also cost Utah taxpayers millions of dollars in damages and attorneys' fees.

But they are unlikely to do anything to reverse the long-standing distrust some Native Americans feel toward law enforcement officers in the Uintah Basin, a distrust that, if anything, has grown stronger in the years since Murray's death.

The shooting

Ouray, population 20, is a place where the dogs — many of them strays — easily outnumber the people.

Kurip and Murray were a blur as they passed through the tiny reservation community 27 miles southwest of Vernal traveling at 110 mph. Nine miles farther south, where Turkey Track Road splits off from Seep Ridge Road, their frantic flight from police ended.

Murray ran southwest from the crashed Suzuki, cutting across a landscape dotted with oil wells and prickly pear. He went up a small rise, then around a hill into a natural amphitheater of rock, where he was seen by two of the three officers pursuing him.

"I don't know at what point he actually saw me because he kept running. … I mean, he was actually coming toward me," Norton said in a deposition.

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