A Walmart customer holding a BB/pellet rifle and one 911 call set off a chain of events that led to two Beavercreek police gunshots, the deaths of two customers and hundreds of unanswered questions.
A special grand jury will convene in Greene County Monday morning to consider a complex web of evidence and determine whether Beavercreek police officers Sean William and Sgt. David Darkow or anyone else should face charges in the Aug. 5 fatal shooting of Walmart customer John Crawford III.
At Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s suggestion, the Greene County Common Pleas Court appointed Mark Piepmeier as the special prosecutor. Piepmeier is a Hamilton County assistant prosecutor known for prosecuting police-involved shootings and high-profile cases, such as the Lucasville prison riot in 1993.
The Beavercreek Walmart case has generated some international attention and drawn comparison to the police-involved killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. He was killed five days after Crawford III in Ferguson, Mo., and Brown’s death sparked violent public outrage, though the public demonstrations here have been peaceful.
Much of the attention here has focused on DeWine’s decision not to release surveillance video that shows how Crawford, 22, of Fairfield, was killed by police. A few minutes of the video was shown by DeWine to Crawford’s father, John Crawford Jr., while his mother, Tressa Sherrod, declined to watch it.
The Montgomery County Coroner’s office has listed the younger Crawford’s death as a homicide, or death caused by another person. The coroner’s office said Crawford III died of a gunshot wound to the torso. His family said Crawford III also was shot in his left arm.
There also have been questions raised about the witness, Ronald Ritchie, who made the only 911 call that prompted police to enter the store looking for a black man waving a rifle at customers, including children.
The grand jury process
Piepmeier and assistant prosecutor Stacey DeGraffenreid will begin the process at 9 a.m. Monday in the Greene County courthouse in Xenia. They “intend to present all available evidence to the special grand jury,” and that the proceedings will take “several days,” according to a release from Piepmeier’s office. Piepmeier will not comment until the proceedings have ended.
DeWine said among the evidence the special grand jury may review includes more than 26,000 images from the 203 surveillance cameras inside Walmart, eyewitness accounts from more than 80 interviews and a reconstruction of the shooting incident. The grand jury also could hear testimony from potential defendants, but it is unlike a criminal trial, because witnesses are not cross-examined and defense attorneys are not present.
“The grand jury is historically a secret proceeding,” DeWine said. “People are not going to see the witnesses. They’re not going to see the deliberation of the grand jury. That’s what Ohio law is.”
Greene County Common Pleas Court Judge Stephen A. Wolaver said he will help Piepmeier and DeGraffenreid select nine grand jurors and two alternates out of the 60 summons sent out. A court official said that as of Friday, 38 potential grand jurors had returned their summons.
The grand jury pool members will receive randomly-selected numbers to determine the order they will be considered. Since the grand jury is limited to one case, Wolaver thought the selection process would be short compared to a regular grand jury.
After the grand jury is seated, Wolaver said even he is prohibited from viewing the proceedings. He said that if there is an indictment, he believes a visiting judge would be assigned to hear the case to avoid any conflict of interest.
DeWine didn’t ask for a prosecutor from his office to handle the case, in part, because of his ties to Greene County, including him and his top aide each serving as the top prosecutor. DeWine’s daughter, Alice, also is an assistant prosecutor in the office.
The Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, which is under the attorney general’s office, is conducting the investigation. But DeWine said Piepmeier will call the shots.
The Crawford family, their attorney, Michael Wright, and other religious and civil rights groups have asked DeWine to turn over the case to the U.S. Department of Justice and investigate it as a violation of Crawford III’s civil rights. But DeWine has declined the request and has said Piepmeier “is fair. He is impartial. He calls it like he sees it. And he will have total independence in this case.”
Wright said he met with Piepmeier last Monday to review some of the evidence he will present to the grand jury.
“We are confident, if Mr. Piepmeier does his job, we should have an indictment against Officer Sean Williams, who unlawfully shot and killed John H. Crawford III,” Wright said. “The Crawford family deserves justice in this case. We informed Mr. Piepmeier that we expect him to prosecute this case in the same manner he would if he was seeking an indictment against a person who shot a police officer.”
At the end of the grand jury, the jurors will either issue an indictment that they found probable cause that a crime was committed or a “no true bill” if they do not find probable cause. If someone is indicted, that person would enter a plea to the charges and a case would be filed with the court.
On Friday, both Beavercreek police and city law director Stephen McHugh declined to comment about the case.
911 call disputed
Crawford Jr., and Wright, said the surveillance video DeWine showed them on Aug. 19, is at odds with the 911 call from Ritchie that the younger Crawford posed a threat to other Walmart shoppers.
Police said Crawford III was shot twice and killed by police as he talked on his cellphone while resting his left arm on the end of a Crosman MK-177 BB/Pellet Rifle as the barrel touched the floor. His family said Crawford III had just picked up the BB gun from a shelf and was neither aware police were inside the store nor that he was their target.
“Based on the clear evidence from the store surveillance video, which shows that Mr. Crawford’s back was turned to Officer Williams at the time of the shooting, the Crawford family rightfully expects an indictment in this case,” Wright said. “Anything less than an indictment would be a tremendous disappointment.”
The elder Crawford said Ritchie’s 911 call did not match the video he saw.
A day after the shooting, Ritchie told the newspaper he followed Crawford III through the store, telling dispatchers that a man was “waving” a rifle at customers and appeared to be loading ammunition into the weapon. That exchange led to the dispatcher to warn responding officers that Crawford III was trying to put “bullets” into the weapon.
“Mr. Ritchie has made a terrible, terrible mistake. A terrible mistake,” Crawford Jr. said previously. “What the motive is or was for it, I have no idea.”
Ritchie has not returned messages to comment about the case.
In asking for the video to be released, Wright previously said: “We want the part that shows that he was shot and killed without any type of instruction, without even knowing that the officers were in the aisle where he was.”
Crawford Jr. said he was in Ohio the day of the shooting and had stopped by to see his son, who wasn’t at his Fairfield home. LeeCee Johnson, the mother of his son’s two young children, was there talking on her cellphone to Crawford III, as he walked around Walmart. He said she began screaming when she heard shots and put the call on speaker, allowing his father to hear the chaos erupt inside the store.
“You could hear he was gasping for air, essentially, virtually taking his last breath,” Crawford Jr. said. “He was trying to get air, and you could hear in the background, ‘Sir, put your hands up! We need you to put your hands up, sir!’”
‘Officers acted appropriately’
A few hours after the shooting as the investigation was unfolding, Beavercreek police Chief Dennis Evers said he called DeWine to ask BCI to take over the case.
The next day, Evers held a press conference to defend Darkow and Williams. He said Crawford III was shot because he ignored the officers’ command to drop the rifle, which later was confirmed to be an unloaded BB/pellet rifle.
“The quick response of officers was instrumental in containing this situation and minimizing the risk of customers,” the police chief said without taking questions. “Preliminary indications are that the officers acted appropriately under the circumstances.”
But the younger Crawford’s parents said the surveillance video they were shown showed that their son had no time to understand the officers’ commands and drop the item. Another Walmart customer, Angela Williams, 37, of Fairborn, also died after she suffered a cardiac arrest while attempting the flee the store.
Darkow returned to duty 15 days after the shooting. Williams remains on administrative leave. Authorities have not confirmed which officer killed Crawford III.
In the weeks since the shooting, there have public rallies in support both of the Crawford family and Beavercreek police, and calls for the Department of Justice to take over the investigation. But the grand jury on Monday will focus their attention on the evidence that has not been released to the public, including the surveillance video, eyewitness accounts and police reports.
Crawford’s family has indicated they are disappointed the proceedings will start without DeWine releasing the surveillance video and more detailed police incident report narratives.
‘Anticipation of litigation’
BCI and Beavercreek city officials have not released the video and other reports, citing it as “investigatory work product,” allowing this evidence to remain private under Ohio public records laws. The Ohio Supreme Court has held such an exception is an indication that a crime likely been committed.
“It’s just kind of understood under that exclusion that almost any evidence – whether it’s grand jury proceedings or evidence going to a grand jury or even if it’s a prosecution that goes forward without a grand jury — that there’s no affirmative duty on the part of the prosecution to release all this evidence to the public,” said att0rney Thomas Hagel, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law.
The state Supreme Court has written that “specific investigatory work product” is any information from attorneys or law enforcement “in anticipation of litigation.” The court also has written that to be “considered work product … a record must have been assembled in connection with an actual pending or highly probable criminal prosecution.”
DeWine told the newspaper that the day he learned specifics about the shooting was his worst day as Ohio Attorney General. “I think we all knew, frankly, this matter needed to be looked at by a grand jury,” he said.
The Aug. 6 Beavercreek police incident report following the shooting lists homicide, inducing panic and aggravated menacing as the offenses that may have been committed. The reporting officer listed is Detective Daniel Krall. The one-line narrative provided states, “Dispatched to Walmart for a disturbance/weapons complaint.”
Hagel said Beavercreek police officers and, in theory, Ritchie could be considered for charges. DeWine said he is not aware if Ritchie would face any legal scrutiny. “I can’t envision what that would be for, but again, this grand jury will hear all the evidence,” DeWine said.
Since the shooting, there have been strong feelings on all sides. DeWine and Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer met with local black religious leaders to call for calm. There have been calls from the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus and student groups asking for the surveillance video to be released.
There have been multiple protests and rallies for Crawford’s family and in support of Beavercreek police. Walmart has not changed its stance about the selling and storing airgun rifles.
Crawford III’s parents and their attorney have asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office to take over the investigation and determine if there were any civil rights violations. “We do believe there was a violation of his civil rights and that does have to do with race,” Wright said.
An online petition has generated more than 71,000 signatures at change.org calling for the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. The office of Carter M. Stewart, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, said they are monitoring the case.
“With such a huge amount of distrust within ethnic communities with police in so many areas – not every area – but so many that there’s automatically assumption that race is involved and therefore the police and state are trying to hide the facts or whatever,” Hagel said. “And God knows, in the history of our country, there’s been enough of those cases. (But) it’s almost a knee-jerk now.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, a national civil rights leader and MSNBC-TV host, spoke to a Central State University audience Thursday night and called for the release of the video. Sharpton said he doesn’t know if police acted appropriately or not, but that their assertion that Crawford III was pointing the gun has “poisoned” the minds of the public.
The Ohio Student Association has planned a 2:30 p.m. Monday rally after a march from Beavercreek’s Walmart to the courthouse. The group plans demonstrations and workshops outside the courthouse Monday afternoon and meetings each day until the grand jury returns a verdict.
“In this community, regardless of what the outcome is, there’s going to be groups that are outraged,” said Hagel, who urged people to let the legal system play out. “That’s why the prosecutor has a vested interest in playing this straight, either way this goes.”