Elsa Villarreal, the mother of Ricardo Torres, reacts during a candlelit vigil honoring her son, who was killed by police in the small town of Olivia, Minnesota on July 4, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

OLIVIA, MINNESOTA—A solemn candlelit vigil honoring the memory of 32-year-old Ricardo Torres devolved into havoc Wednesday night, as a convoy of pickup trucks disrupted the memorial by revving their engines and brandishing American flags. The incident, seemingly organized through social media, upset mourners gathering at the site where a white officer fatally shot Torres, who was Latino, on the night of July 4.

About 50 family and friends gathered at 9 p.m. in the gravel alley off Lincoln Avenue, Olivia’s main street, where Torres died three days earlier. They erected a head-high wooden cross, lit candles cradled in plastic cups, and left offerings like beer cans and snack foods at a makeshift memorial honoring his memory. Most attendees wore white t-shirts, many with “Torres” written in marker on the back and “#justiceforricky” on the front. 

Mourners pay their respects at a candlelit vigil for Ricardo Torres on July 7, 2021. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Many held signs demanding a thorough investigation of the shooting and demanding body cameras for the five-member police force in the town, which labels itself the “Corn Capital,” and lies about 80 miles west of Minneapolis.. 

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state agency investigating the shooting, identified Olivia police officer Aaron Clouse as the officer who shot Torres in the early hours of July 4. Investigators recovered a shotgun at the scene, investigators said. The Olivia Police Department said the officer was confronted by an armed man in the alley, but has declined to comment further. 

Clouse’s history of run-ins with Torres has raised concerns and suspicions for family and friends. Clouse had arrested Torres at least twice before, and had used a taser on him in 2019, according to court documents. 

Olivia police officers do not wear body cameras, and the state said there is no known video of the shooting. 

The vigil took place three days after Torres was killed, in part to give time for family members to journey north from Texas. They hugged and cried as they gathered to remember Torres. Candles shone through the growing darkness as Natasha Lindner, Torres’s girlfriend and the mother of his child, described his giving nature, his infectious laughter, and his quick wit. He’d had run-ins with law enforcement in his past, but that didn’t define him, she said. 

“This is not the person who he was. He was a good person with a good heart,” Lindner said.

‘Rumor is there is going to be a riot in Olivia’

That atmosphere suddenly changed from somber to anxious around 9:45 p.m., with the roar of pickup trucks revving their engines. 

The blocks surrounding the main street alley became thick with exhaust smoke as about a dozen large pickup trucks rolled up to the vigil. The trucks flew American flags and a couple of Trump banners. The trucks circled the block around the vigil a couple of times, passing about 30 feet from the site. Families fled from the scene as some vigil goers left the alley to confront the trucks circling the block.

A convoy of trucks disrupts the vigil for Ricardo Torres. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Angry words were exchanged between people in the trucks and mourners. Some pelted the trucks with water bottles as they yelled for the instigators to leave. Renville County Sheriff’s deputies and Minnesota State Troopers converged on the scene to divert traffic from the area and separate the groups.

The Renville County Sheriff’s office said it didn’t know if the incident led to any arrests or citations and redirected Sahan Journal to the Olivia Police Department. The Olivia police also said it didn’t know of any.

People at the vigil said they were aware that a group of instigators intended to spark a conflict.  The truck convoy seemingly organized around a Snapchat message that had circulated for more than a day. It rallied people to respond to a rumored “riot”–that is, the peaceful memorial vigil. 

A screenshot of a flyer allegedly circulating on social media prior to the vigil. Credit: Courtesy Nic Hendriks

The post urged people to gather at the local Dairy Queen parking lot to disrupt the vigil. “Rumor is there is going to be a riot in Oliva and idk bout y’all, but that shit ain’t gonna fly in my neck of the woods,” the post read. 

It encouraged people to “fly their flags.” And it closed with a call-out to the country song “Back on a Backroad,” which starts, “I’m a good ol’ boy in a truck,” who needs to “hit the gas… leavin’ black smoke.”

Torres’s girlfriend emphasized that the vigil was meant to be a calm affair. “This is not about starting trouble, this is about mourning a loss,” she said. 

‘I am just disgusted that they think that’s what America is’

The 15 minutes of chaos significantly disrupted the vigil, and left many attendees sad and angry that people would antagonize them in their grief. 

“I am just disgusted that they think that’s what America is, when this is what America is,” said Rebecca Stark, Lindner’s sister. She gestured toward the street, where the pickups aimed to intimidate mourners, and back to the alley, where the vigil was taking place. 

Mary Jane Lara, Torres’s aunt, was sad but not surprised by the hostility. 

“You know what that shows? Ignorance,” she said. 

Lara moved to Olivia from Batesville, Texas, Torres’s hometown, about 15 years ago. In recent years the Latino population in Olivia has grown to 300 people.  Many are Americans from south Texas who came north for farm work. Businesses in the area were happy to have migrant workers come to do the agricultural jobs, she said. But she feels that many locals are hostile to having Latino neighbors. 

“Some of us stayed and bought houses and they didn’t like it. But we are here and we’re going to stay,” Lara said. 

Friends and family decorate a memorial for Ricardo Torres in Olivia, Minnesota. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Remembering Ricky 

Torres worked in the agriculture industry in the summer months, relatives said, and did farm tiling and drainage jobs. At the vigil, the family spoke of his social and easy going demeanor. Being around Torres was always fun, friends and family say. He was an outgoing jokester, capable of striking up a conversation with anyone. 

It was not unusual to go out with Torres and find him at the bar laughing and carrying on with total strangers like they were old friends, sisters Nancy and Esmeralda Garza said. The sisters, related to Torres by marriage, said he had a rich sense of humor. 

“It was like being around a comedian,” Nancy Garza said. 

Torres was constantly whistling, they said—you knew when he was coming. 

Family and friends described him as a giving person who was constantly offering to run errands for others or gather wood for a bonfire.

“Ricky was a free spirit,” Lara said. 

Growing up in Texas, Torres liked to hunt, family said. And he became passionate about fishing when he moved to Minnesota in his early 20s. When the vigil wrapped up around 11 p.m., a couple of fishing rods had been added to his memorial in the alley. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...