Cleveland police chase and shooting portrayed as chaotic scene by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (video)
on February 05, 2013 at 10:00 AM, updated February 05, 2013 at 3:47 PM
Attorney General Mike DeWine says system failed everyone in Cleveland police shooting The Ohio Attorney General’s office, after a two-month investigation, concluded that a systematic failure in the Cleveland police department helped lead to the fatal shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams after a 25-minute pursuit. Watch video
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A November car chase ended in a “full blown-out” firefight, with glass and bullets flying, according to Cleveland police officers who described for investigators the chaotic scene at the end of the deadly 25-minute pursuit.
Key stories of deadly chase
But when the smoky haze — caused by rapid fire of nearly 140 bullets in less than 30 seconds — dissipated, it soon became clear that more than a dozen officers had been firing at one another across a middle school parking lot in East Cleveland.
Soon after the shooting stopped, one officer rushed to check the two occupants of the 1979 Chevrolet Malibu that the cadre of Cleveland cruisers had followed into the lot.
Officer Wilfredo Diaz, a former city EMS worker, had fired the first shots at the Malibu after bailing out of his car.
He felt for passenger Malissa Williams’ pulse.
There wasn’t one.
Diaz moved Williams’ leg slightly to look for a gun.
Again, there wasn’t one.
Dead next to Williams in the driver’s seat was Timothy Russell, 43.
No officers were injured.
An investigation released today by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office reveals in detail for the first time the confusion and disorder during the chase and in the parking lot.
“Normally we would make nothing at this point public,” DeWine said during a news conference. “However, there is nothing normal about this case. [Cuyahoga County] Proescutor [Tim] McGinty and I both feel strongly that this information must be made available immediately to the public.”
DeWine’s office posted the entire report, including dozens of documents, on its website. (Read the report to prosecutors in the document viewer below).
The report, prepared by investigators from the state Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office and East Cleveland police, doesn’t give an opinion on whether the officers’ actions were legal.
That decision will be left up to McGinty. Some community members and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio have asked McGinty to request a special prosecutor because, among other reasons, the union that represents the officers involved endorsed him.
McGinty declined that request.
Cleveland officials will use the report as a framework for their administrative review of the chase and shooting, which could lead to internal discipline of the officers involved in the chase or those who were supposed to be supervising them.
City officials have already expanded the timeline for their investigation after learning that more than 115 officers, a third of the force on the road that night, were involved.
To assemble the report, investigators conducted lengthy interviews with dozens of officers.
Despite varying levels of experience, all 13 officers who fired their guns — and many who did not — told investigators they thought deadly force was needed to stop a violent encounter with two suspects who they believed were armed.
“I’ve never been more afraid in my life,” said Officer Michael Brelo, who fired 49 shots that night. “I thought my partner and I were being shot and that we were going to be killed.”
Brelo, according to his account, climbed onto the trunk and then the top of a zone car and reloaded his gun, firing rounds into the Malibu. An Iraq war veteran, Brelo said he saw “the suspects moving and I could not understand why they are still moving, shooting at us. Even through Iraq, I never fired my weapon. I never have been so afraid in my life.”
Many of the officers who heard “shots fired” broadcast over police radio mistakenly assumed the gunfire was coming from the suspects, the report reveals.
Officers recounted for investigators seeing guns, objects that looked like guns or one of the suspects loading guns in the middle school parking lot — which could not have been possible at that point in the incident. No gun was found in the car.
Some also believed that one officer who ducked behind a car that was hit by the Malibu was either run over or shot – heightening their fears.
The report also shows that many of the officers’ worries were based on possibly erroneous information broadcast over police radio to the approximately 60 police vehicles involved in the chase.
During the chase, multiple officers indicated that a gun was being fired, that a tire on the Malibu had blown and, at one point, that a police car had been rammed.
All those things, the report indicates, fed into the officers’ perceptions of danger going into the parking lot.
Officers David Siefer and James Hummel were following the Malibu near Clark and Quigley avenues when they broadcast over police radio that they saw the passenger turn in her seat, get onto her knees and extend both arms toward the rear window as if she was holding a gun. They also thought the passenger was a man.
“He’s pointing the gun. He’s pointing the gun out the back window. Heads up. Heads up. Passenger is pointing a gun out the back window. Everybody be careful,” Siefer said.
Siefer later told investigators he didn’t actually see a gun. “Despite not actually seeing a gun, Siefer broadcast on the radio that the passenger has just pointed a gun out the rear window,” the report said.
Siefer also later incorrectly broadcast that the Malibu, while on Interstate 90, had blown a tire, though he wasn’t the only officer who thought they saw that.
Later, Siefer reported that he witnessed the Malibu ram a Ford Crown Victoria police car on an East Cleveland side street. That also appeared to be inaccurate.
The only verified contact the Malibu had with any police car before the parking lot was when Detective Kevin Fairchild’ s unmarked Ford Crown Victoria hit the Malibu’s rear passenger side after a tight right turn onto a side street.
Though investigators never located a gun, they could not rule out the possibility that the suspects had one at some point during the chase before entering the parking lot.
Investigators searched for evidence that a gun was tossed from the car, even using the Sheriff’s Office Dive Team to search some waterways along the chase route.
Forensic evidence also didn’t help determine whether Russell or Williams had fired a weapon during the chase before their vehicle entered the parking lot.
Gunshot residue test kits collected from the hands of Russell and Williams, as well as from the interior of the car, all showed particles that indicated gunshot primer residue in the car.
However, investigators noted that because of the large amount of gunfire close to the vehicle and directed into the vehicle, the result couldn’t help answer the question of whether a gun had been fired from the car.
“In other words, (the tests) reveal nothing or tell us nothing whether or not the suspects did or did not have a gun,” DeWine said.
Evidence collected from the crime scene, the suspects and the car gave investigators other clues about what might have colored officers’ perceptions the night of Nov. 29.
A forensic mechanic’s inspection determined “within a reasonable degree of mechanical certainty” that the Malibu had multiple conditions it would need to backfire and that backfiring had occurred.
Two officers outside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center when the Malibu first sped by, beginning the chase, believed they had heard gunshots coming from the car. In addition, a guard outside the parking lot and a detective on the sixth floor of the Justice Center also believed they heard a shot.
Also in the front of the car was an empty red Coca-Cola can, two lighters and a charred glass pipe with cocaine residue. Autopsy results showed Russell had alcohol and cocaine in his system, and Williams had marijuana and cocaine in her system.
During the chase, several officers noted that one of the car’s occupants was drinking something out of a red can. One officer, Sgt. Patricia Coleman, told investigators she was dumbfounded that the driver of the Malibu was “casually smoking a cigarette” during the pursuit while speeding through intersections and running red lights.
Officer Hummel told investigators that he was displeased with several aspects of the pursuit. He was interviewed about his thoughts after investigators discovered he had sent text messages about the pursuit to a dispatcher.
He told investigators he heard the Malibu backfire several times during the pursuit, leading him to believe it was that sound — and not gunshots — that led to the chase.
Hummel also was upset about unmarked cars remaining in lead positions in the pursuit, which he thought was unsafe. He also believed that some officers participated in the pursuit but did not remain on scene or enter their activity into their duty logs.
The report also confirms the chase technically began several minutes before the Malibu sped past the Justice Center, when officer John Jordan radioed dispatch center with the license plate of the Malibu, stating he was only looking for “info” on the car which was parked at East 22nd Street and Lakeside Avenue, near a men’s homeless shelter.
When interviewed by investigators, Jordan said he later attempted to stop the car on East 18th Street near Superior Avenue because he suspected they were involved in drug activity. Jordan told investigators the passenger was screaming and acting unstable. When Jordan started to get out of his unmarked car the Malibu took off. He said he pursued the car but lost sight of it after several blocks.
“[Jordan] never radioed dispatch regarding the traffic stop or pursuit, didn’t document the incident in his duty log and never came forward with the information,” the report says.
Investigators said they found out through other sources that Jordan later returned to the homeless shelter, demanding to know who was in the car and threatening arrests if he was not told.