John Crawford III didn’t commit a crime Aug. 5 when he was shot and killed while holding a BB/pellet rifle in Beavercreek’s Walmart. Neither did the officer who pulled the trigger, a Greene County special grand jury ruled Wednesday.
The case the special prosecutor called “tragic” and a “perfect storm of circumstances,” will now be reviewed, and an investigation by federal agencies, including the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI, may expand on the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s work.
“We’re going to start with what was presented to the grand jury and start with everything that BCI gathered — whether it was presented to the grand jury or not, and then determine if we need to do more,” said Carter M. Stewart, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. “And if we need to re-interview witnesses or look at other pieces of evidence they did not consider. But that’s something we wouldn’t do until after we reviewed what they looked at.”
Special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier said the grand jury of five men and four woman heard from 18 witnesses and then voted against potential charges of murder, reckless homicide and negligent homicide against Beavercreek police officer Sean Williams — the only one named on the “no bill” report. At least seven “yes” votes were needed for a charge to be approved. Grand jury votes are not made public.
Beavercreek police Chief Dennis Evers said the day after the shooting that Williams and Sgt. David Darkow acted appropriately under the circumstances. Those included a 911 caller saying an armed man was waving a rifle around at people, a description the Crawford family disputes.
“Their split-second decisions in confronting these types of situations are not a crime, unless based on all the circumstances, a jury believes that they were unreasonable in what they perceived that day and the way they reacted to it,” Piepmeier said after showing some of Walmart’s surveillance video at a press conference. “The grand jury listened to all the evidence, voted on it and decided that the police officers were justified in their use of force that day.”
Crawford, 22, of Fairfield, was shot twice and died of a gunshot wound to the torso that Piepmeier said entered Crawford’s body through his left side.
“It is absolutely incomprehensible that Beavercreek police officer Sean Williams was not indicted for the unlawful killing of John H. Crawford lll,” Crawford’s parents and their attorney, Michael Wright, said in a statement. “It makes absolutely no sense that an unarmed 22-year-old man would be killed doing what any American citizen does every day: shopping at a Walmart store.
“The Crawford family is extremely disappointed, disgusted and confused. They are heartbroken that justice was not done in the tragic death of their only son.”
Walmart customer Angela Williams, 37, died of a cardiac arrest while trying to flee the chaos that erupted after the shooting. Her 9-year-old daughter was with her.
‘I share the concern of many’
Wide-ranging reaction to the grand jury’s decision was swift and emotional. Comments came from a variety of sources, including Republican Gov. John Kasich, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Crawford III’s girlfriend, Tasha Thomas.
“I didn’t know whether to jump off of a bridge or hit somebody. It’s not fair,” Thomas said as she cried on a bench outside of the courthouse.
Thomas regrets telling Crawford to answer a call from his children’s mother, she said. “I’m the one who told him to answer the phone call, because she had called consistently over and over and over again,” she said. “I said what if something was wrong with one of the kids or something.”
Kasich altered his schedule to react to the grand jury decision.
“After talking with the Attorney General and watching the video myself, I agree with his decision that a review by the U.S. Department of Justice is appropriate,” he said. “This is a tragedy for the Crawford family, and I share the concern of many in the community that this matter must be handled with the utmost seriousness and respect.”
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine joined those calling for federal oversight of the probe: “BCI has been in frequent contact with the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office throughout its investigation, and will turn over requested investigative files to the Department of Justice.
At a press conference near the steps of the courthouse, Ohio Student Association political director James Hayes said it was chilling to hear 911 caller Ronald Ritchie “lie” to police: “It’s clear that there’s no justice to be found here in Greene County,” he said, later adding: “We are saddened by the decision of the grand jury … but not surprised.”
At a joint press conference of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership, former Trotwood police officer Lorie Coleman was dismayed at the decision.
“It is definitely a tragedy, and the tragedy is that once again, our criminal justice system has failed our community,” said Coleman, also the criminal justice committee chair for the Dayton Unit NAACP. “It appeared to me that the gun was pointed downward. There was no bystanders that were at risk of getting injured. This was not a hostage situation. Neither was this an active shooter-type of situation.
“It appears that Mr. Crawford was ambushed and simply gunned down by these officers.”
A release from Beavercreek city officials read, in part: “The events of (Aug. 5) were tragic and we wish the outcome of that evening had been different. … The grand jury review of the evidence and subsequent no bill decision indicates the officers’ actions were not of a criminal nature and justified under Ohio law.”
Piepmeier said a Walmart employee had told a manager about Crawford holding the rifle and that they planned to approach Crawford because employees were afraid his actions could cause a panic. At one point in the video, Crawford can be seen leaning the BB rifle backwards against his shoulder. In much of the video, though, he points the device’s muzzle down, toward the floor.
Piepmeier said several factors played a role in the incident, including the BB/pellet gun already being out of its box, Crawford walking by while on his cell phone and picking up something that looks like a real weapon, that Ritchie called 911 and was somewhat familiar with weapons and that Beavercreek officers had just had active shooter training less than two weeks earlier. “If any one of those wasn’t present,” Piepmeier said, “none of us would be here today.”
Walmart spokesman Brian Nick said Wednesday the store isn’t changing its policies about the storage or selling of such air rifles.
The shooting is an unfortunate event that touched many people, Piepmeier said.
“All I can say about this case is it’s a tragedy,” he said. “It’s a tragedy for the Crawford family. It’s a tragedy for the family of Angela Williams, who died because of all the stress and commotion from this, and it’s also a tragedy for the police officers, who have to live the rest of their lives knowing that even though they had a justified use of force, they took the life of someone that didn’t need to die.”