WHEATLAND — Donna Persefield feels responsible for her son’s death.
She didn’t kill him. He died after a bullet struck his chest. She didn’t squeeze the trigger. The 62-year-old was in the other room when that happened.
The man who shot him was a Platte County sheriff’s deputy. She saw him open the door to her home, shout something and then shoot her son in the chest. Her son bled to death on her kitchen floor.
She didn’t fire the gun. But she wishes she wouldn’t have called the sheriff’s office. Her son, whom she calls Matty, might still be alive.
David Matthew Cain, the 36-year-old man known to his family by his middle name, died April 1. A month later, the details of his death — as told by official sources — are still obscure. The sheriff’s office has largely declined to talk about the shooting. A local prosecutor responsible for deciding whether to charge the shooter has refused to name him.
Investigators from a state agency responsible for examining the shooting have given a brief outline of the facts. Those outlines, though, have been provided only after review by the deputy’s boss, Sheriff Clyde Harris.
According to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s statement provided on April 15, a deputy arrived at a home outside of Wheatland in response to a call about a family fight. When there, Cain confronted the deputy with an ax.
The deputy told Cain multiple times to drop the ax, according the statement. Instead, Cain “continued to advance towards the Deputy with the ax raised in a threatening manner,” the statement alleges. The deputy then shot Cain. He was pronounced dead at Platte County Memorial Hospital, and the deputy was placed on administrative leave, as is standard procedure after police shootings.
DCI’s Interim Director Forrest “Frosty” Williams said this week that he would recommend Platte County Attorney Doug Weaver release the deputy’s name after the conclusion of the investigation. He said it would be improper, though, to speak about the case while it awaits the county attorney’s review.
“I really think it’s more appropriate that we let that part of the process take place,” Williams said Wednesday.
Weaver by email on Friday morning declined to answer a question regarding the identity of the shooter. The county attorney said he had not yet completed his review of the investigative file or made any charging decision in the case.
Persefield, though she has hasn’t reviewed the investigative file, is cynical about the independence of the work. And, she says, what she saw doesn’t match what officials have publicly said thus far.
On Monday, Persefield sat in an easy chair perhaps a dozen feet from where her son had lain bleeding. Curtains shrouded the windows that otherwise would have admitted sunlight unfettered by clouds. The whirring of an oxygen concentrator competed with her voice, which was occasionally obscured by the barking of her four dogs.
A few feet to her left — and closer to the trailer’s front door — sat Persefield’s 41-year-old daughter, Laura Balbuena. It was from those chairs that Persefield and Balbuena watched a uniformed sheriff’s deputy fire the fatal shots, according to a series of interviews with the two women and Nathan Cain, the deceased man’s 44-year-old brother.
Officials have not yet told Persefield the deputy’s identity, although she says she knows who the man is. Because the Star-Tribune has been unable to complete independent corroboration of the name Persefield provided, the newspaper has decided not to publish it.
The story the family earlier this week told the Star-Tribune was largely internally consistent. Where a portion of that narrative — regarding the initial phone call to law enforcement — came into conflict with DCI’s characterization, Persefield was able to provide additional evidence supporting her account.
Nathan Cain was washing dishes in the early afternoon when his younger brother decided to mess with him. Matt Cain said he was Jesus Christ. He told his older brother that he ought to be worshiping him, the surviving brother said this week.
“I know damn well he’s not,” said Nathan Cain, a Christian. “He was trying to hurt my feelings.”
So Nathan put his brother in a headlock. Matt Cain, the younger — and stronger — brother pinned Nathan to the ground. And, Nathan Cain said, he called for his mom to call the police.
Neither Persefield nor Balbuena saw the wrestling match, which was hidden behind a partial wall and refrigerator that separates the home’s kitchen from its living room.
According to Persefield — and the call log in her cellphone — she called the agency’s non-emergent number at 12:57 p.m. The call lasted 3 minutes and 50 seconds.
During the phone call, Persefield said, she asked for a dispatcher to send a police officer to the trailer. Her sons got in an argument but weren’t throwing punches, Persefield said she told the dispatcher. They didn’t have any weapons. Persefield said she told the dispatcher that it sounded like the men were rolling around on the floor.
Persefield expected a neighbor who works as a sheriff’s deputy would come warn her sons.
“I figured it’d just be Will from down the street,” she said. “(He’d) tell them to shut up.”
Although Nathan Cain said this week that the two men have histories of drug use and addiction, he denied either was using drugs that day.
After Persefield got off the phone but before a deputy had arrived, Matt Cain let his older brother up. Nathan Cain went back to the sink and the unfinished dishes, he said. Matt Cain walked down a hallway to his bedroom, from where he retrieved an ax.
The ax, said Nathan Cain, was for chopping firewood. Matt Cain had decided he ought to blow off steam by throwing around the double-headed blade.
The front door was already cracked open. The family says it had been awaiting a delivery from Pizza Hut.
Balbuena said she walked to the front door and saw a deputy approaching the porch. She looked to her right, where she saw Matt Cain holding the ax, getting ready to leave.
The door swung open.
It was then, said Nathan Cain, that the family’s four small dogs began barking. Nathan Cain turned to look at the entrance, where he saw the deputy pointing a gun. Persefield, from her living room chair, saw the same thing. The three family members saw the man’s mouth move. Nathan Cain and Persefield, though, couldn’t hear the deputy over the dogs.
Balbuena heard two words: “Drop it.”
All three family members agreed that Matt Cain wouldn’t have had time to react before the deputy fired three times.
“I don’t know what he said,” Persefield said. “All I know is as soon as his mouth stopped moving he started shooting.”
One bullet struck the 36-year-old in the chest. He fell to the ground.
Nathan Cain ran forward. The deputy threw him down, pointing the gun. Persefield stood and the deputy aimed at her, she said. She sat back down.
The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation is unique when compared directly with other law enforcement agencies in the state. It’s under the direct supervision of the attorney general. And — in comparison with other law enforcement officers — DCI agents’ investigations are relatively circumscribed.
State law directs DCI to investigate drug crime, organized crime that crosses into multiple jurisdictions, computer crimes, child porn cases and — as a sort of catchall — suspected criminal activity that the governor directs agents to investigate.
The same law also gives agents the ability — with the AG’s approval — to assist state, county and local agencies with investigations. The agents can also take cases when a local prosecutor requests it.
It is the last of those mechanisms by which DCI took on the investigation of Cain’s death. That’s not particularly unusual: In recent years, DCI has handled investigations of police shootings.
The investigations have drawn legislative attention: Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, said last year that he hoped to introduce a bill to create a uniform mechanism to investigate such shootings. According to a WyoFile report, the legislator thought that ties between the state and local agencies could compromise the independence of such inquiries.
Pelkey, though, did not ultimately introduce legislation on the issue before announcing his retirement, which will become effective at the end of this year. Pelkey said by phone Friday that he didn’t introduce legislation because he didn’t think he’d be able to draft a bill that would satisfy public interest groups, county attorneys and police.
The outgoing representative said, though, that he’s uncomfortable with police investigating other officers. When told that DCI had decided to defer to a sheriff’s request to withhold the shooter’s name, Pelkey said the decision was more than unusual for a person under criminal investigation.
“I would characterize that as b———,” the legislator said. “That is exemplary of where the problem is right now.”
Karlee Provenza, a Laramie community activist whom Pelkey has endorsed to replace him, said the same day that citizen oversight boards could effectively examine police shootings and other allegations of misconduct. Prosecutors who decide whether to charge an officer if criminal activity is suspected should be appointed from an attorney’s office that does not typically work with the agency in question, she said.
Until Wyoming laws that make many police records secret are changed, however, such boards would not be able to operate effectively, said Provenza, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wyoming. She helped establish Albany County for Proper Policing — which pushes for police transparency and accountability — following the 2018 police shooting death of a man there.
“When police get to police themselves it dismantles the perception of justice for the public,” Provenza said. “To me it appears that there’s a lot of work to be done before we’re even dealing with officer-involved shootings”
It is not clear if the agency has ever found any of those shootings unfounded or improper. A Star-Tribune review of such investigations could find no Wyoming law enforcement officer ever prosecuted as the result of such an inquiry. Williams, the DCI leader, said by email on Friday that he had not researched the question but was not aware of any recent investigations of police shootings that resulted in prosecution.
“I believe this speaks to the quality of the people in the law enforcement profession and to the quality of training they receive from the Law Enforcement Academy in addition to specific use of force training that is done within each department,” he said.
Law enforcement on April 1 ordered the family out of the trailer — in order to allow for an investigation — and in the driveway Persefield spotted the abandoned delivery order: a pepperoni pizza, bone-in wings, two 2-liter bottles of soda. The delivery driver had apparently seen the swarming police presence and left the food in the bow of the boat parked out front.
When Nathan Cain did return to the trailer, blood remained on the floor, he said. The sink was still full with water and dirty dishes. He drained it and found a bullet. It must’ve ricocheted, he speculated. Another bullet hole had appeared in the wall.
The official characterization of the shooting is unfair, the surviving brother said. Matt Cain wasn’t going after a cop with an ax: he was holding it in his left hand, which wouldn’t be strong enough to swing it alone, Nathan Cain said.
When DCI agents talked to him, they asked largely about his history of drug addiction, less about the circumstances of the crime, he told the Star-Tribune. They didn’t seem interested. The agency’s public description of the shooting was more consistent with statements he’d expect from a sheriff’s deputy trying to dodge accountability, Cain said. It didn’t mesh with what he remembered seeing.
“I’m not trying to defend my brother. I’m trying to tell the truth. And that’s what I seen,” Nathan Cain said, standing this week on the same patch of floor where his brother fell. “It’s tattooed in my brain, man. I see it every day. You know, I don’t wanna see that. I wanna see something good about him — but I can’t.”
Other surviving family members are likewise skeptical of the investigation. Tara Raya, ex-wife of the deceased and the mother of his son, said by phone this week that she doesn’t trust that investigators will do their best to find the truth, so she’s contacted a Cheyenne lawyer. He hasn’t yet taken the case and Raya is not certain she’ll hire him either: It depends on what the completed report looks like.
At the time of his death, Cain was more than a year behind on the child support due to Raya. A warrant issued by a Laramie County judge — in connection with the nearly $40,000 Cain owed in the matter — was, according to court records, issued on Jan. 31 and apparently still active on April 1.
That’s one of a set of facts that — Cain speculated — would make accountability an uphill battle. He’s not wealthy, and his relatives aren’t either. His brother died in a trailer in a neighborhood of trailers. Authorities knew that both of the brothers have histories of drug addiction.
Matt Cain didn’t have a criminal history, according to a search of publicly available Wyoming court records. But Nathan Cain does: He was convicted of burglary in 2013. His mother was convicted in a related case of wrongful taking or disposing of property.
Nathan Cain thinks his family would have more community support were they wealthier. Investigators might take them more seriously. Maybe they’d more seriously consider his account of the shooting.
“I think we’ve been treated differently because of our living status. We’re human beings,” Cain said. “(The deputy) didn’t just take my brother’s life that day. He wrecked ours.”
Authorities have released information regarding the shooting only slowly.
On April 2, the Platte County Sheriff’s Office released a four-sentence statement that acknowledged one of its employees had shot a person. The press release stated that DCI would investigate the shooting but was otherwise bereft of detail, including whether the person was injured or dead.
When reached by phone on April 3, Undersheriff Grady Winders declined to say how many people were shot, whether the person or people were injured or killed, what circumstances led to the shooting or whether the deputy was still on the street.
The same day, Weaver — the county attorney — acknowledged that a person had died and that the deputy had been put on leave. He declined to name the deputy or Cain.
Then, on April 15, in response to a series of Star-Tribune requests for details regarding the shooting, DCI issued a brief statement naming Cain. In the emailed statement, Williams — the agency’s interim director — wrote that a deputy arrived at a home outside of Wheatland in response to a 911 call about a family fight. When there, Cain confronted the deputy with an ax, according to the statement.
That’s the statement that said the deputy told Cain multiple times to drop the ax, but that Cain continued to advance in a threatening manner.
Williams said by email that he “ran (the statement) by the Platte County Sheriff and the Platte County Attorney,” though he did not specify the amount of input they had in drafting the language in the release. He said the same day in response to a follow-up email that he withheld the deputy’s name on the basis of a request by the sheriff.
Williams estimated at the time that his agency would submit the results of the investigation to the county attorney within two weeks. His agency, Williams said by email on Wednesday, had done so, save for a medical examiner’s report, which DCI had not yet received.
The county attorney, Weaver, in his Friday morning email said he had received the investigative report but still awaited the medical examiner’s report. Body camera footage of the shooting exists, he said, but did not say if he had reviewed it.
Harris, the sheriff, on Friday was not working, according to a person answering the phone in his office. Winders, the undersheriff, did not respond to a message left the same morning requesting comment for this story.
Persefield’s return to the trailer came four days after the shooting: a Sunday. For the next week, she hardly moved from her chair in the living room. She didn’t eat either. Her joints got stiff.
She’s eating again. And moving around her home. But she hasn’t yet stepped through the front door. It’s fear, she said this week by phone, that keeps her inside. She’s afraid of encountering law enforcement. The sheriff, she thinks, will retaliate against her for talking to the press.
“He is gonna make life miserable for us. But I don’t think he could make it worse,” Persefield said, and then paused for a moment, before adding, “unless he hurts one of us.”
She can’t shake the feeling of guilt she carries following her son’s death. Persefield said that she knows the pain she carries with it will someday soften. It hasn’t yet.
“I feel like I murdered my own son,” she said. “I’m not saying he’s perfect. But he did not deserve to die like that.”
Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter
Get the latest in local public safety news with this weekly email.