One Officer, SUV Left Scene Of Fatal D.C. Police Shooting
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Federal prosecutors assumed the lead role yesterday in the investigation into a D.C. police shooting that killed a 14-year-old youth, and more questions emerged about the conduct of the two off-duty officers involved, including why one left the scene.
Law enforcement sources also revealed that authorities first learned of the shooting Monday night through technology designed to detect the sound of gunfire -- and not from the officers themselves. A rooftop ShotSpotter sensor directed police patrols to the Southeast Washington street where they found the body of DeOnté Rawlings, who had been shot in the head.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and other officials provided few new details yesterday about the shooting, which took place after the youth allegedly opened fire on the officers. Authorities have said the officers -- identified yesterday as James Haskel and Anthony Clay -- were riding in Haskel's sport-utility vehicle and looking for a minibike stolen from Haskel's home when they found DeOnté astride it.
Haskel, 44, a 22-year member of the force who works in the helicopter unit, was the only officer to shoot, police said. Clay, 43, did not draw his weapon, officials said. Clay is a 19-year member of the force assigned to the training academy, where he produces instructional videos. Both officers were placed on administrative leave, as is common practice in police shootings.
The youth's family and neighborhood residents have expressed doubts about the police version of events. Police have yet to find the gun allegedly used by the youth or the minibike. Yesterday, law enforcement sources voiced concerns about another key piece of evidence: the SUV, which officials have said was struck in the driver's-side door by a gunshot allegedly fired by the teenager.
Clay rode off in the dark-colored 1999 Chevy Tahoe immediately after the shooting, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is continuing. The sources said that Haskel urged Clay to leave with the vehicle and that Haskel feared that if people in the Condon Terrace neighborhood recognized it, he and his family might be at risk. Clay returned about 10 or 15 minutes later, the sources said, without the SUV; the sources were unclear about where the vehicle was left. It is now in the custody of prosecutors.
Police officials have said the events were set in motion when Haskel arrived at his Southeast Washington home Monday evening and discovered that the minibike was missing. He and Clay, both out of uniform, set off to look for it, the officials said. One law enforcement source said police received a call Monday evening, shortly before the shooting, from a neighbor of Haskel's alerting them to the break-in at the officer's home.
The shooting occurred about 7:30 p.m. in the 600 block of Atlantic Street SE. An angry crowd quickly assembled, and Lanier has said the gun allegedly used by the youth probably disappeared in the chaos.
Eight shell casings from Haskel's police-issued 9mm Glock were recovered from the scene, police said. Three shell casings from a .45-caliber handgun were found, and police said that gun might have been fired by DeOnté.
The sources said that the ShotSpotter technology, which relies on a network of noise sensors on buildings, confirmed that two guns were fired in the area at the time of the confrontation. Authorities are hoping that the same technology will indicate which gun was fired first, the sources said.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Lanier held a news conference yesterday to announce that the U.S. attorney's office is conducting an independent investigation, which is standard procedure in police shootings. Lanier then declined to answer questions about the case, saying it was in the hands of the U.S. attorney. Prosecutors said they could not comment because the investigation is underway.
Lanier said police have turned over materials to the prosecutors and are cooperating fully. The chief said police will continue an internal review to determine whether the officers violated procedures. She declined to say what rules might apply or whether she thought any were broken.
Lanier and Fenty promised a full airing once the investigation is complete. They said that they understood the public's need for answers and that they, too, have questions.
"We want to do everything possible to maintain the public trust," Fenty said.
DeOnté's family continued to say yesterday that he did not have a gun. They said they think someone in the crowd fired at the officers.
The family has described DeOnté as a smart and dependable youth who stayed out of trouble. The teen's father, Charles Rawlings, said that DeOnté had been questioned by police many times in the past year about crimes in the area, including a homicide, but that DeOnté had not been charged in any of them.
Yesterday afternoon, family members and friends of DeOnté's gathered around a television to watch Fenty and Lanier promise an investigation into DeOnté's death.
Tears rolled down the faces of DeOnté's brothers and other relatives and friends as they watched the live coverage of the news conference. DeOnté's mother didn't finish watching the official remarks. She ran into the bathroom shrieking.
"That was my baby," Loretta Bethwith Hall screamed from inside the bathroom. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Please, somebody tell me. Oh, God. Somebody tell me why. I need somebody to explain it to me."
Anger, confusion and sorrow filled the split-level house where DeOnté lived with his father, stepmother, brother and sister for the past nine years.
DeOnté was remembered as a boy who loved the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Lakers. He often attended Bible studies with his father at the nearby First Christian Science Church, where his father also worked, family members said. His bedroom, which he shared with his 18-year-old brother, George, was painted basketball orange. A PlayStation 2 and a television were in a corner of the room, which had twin beds.
George Rawlings said DeOnté never owned a minibike and never brought one home. "He had a mountain bike, that's it," he said.
"Where is the gun he was supposed to have? Where is this bike?" George Rawlings asked. "What is taking them so long to find it if he had them?"
Staff writers Carol D. Leonnig, Robert E. Pierre, Jenna Johnson, Nikita Stewart and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.