By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Near dusk one September evening in 2007, a boy cruises on a stolen, red, gas-powered minibike down an alley in Southeast's Highland Dwellings public housing complex. A gold Chevrolet Tahoe passes with two men inside, both off-duty D.C. police officers, both armed. The driver is determined to recover his bike. He slams the SUV into reverse and races backward in pursuit.
There is an exchange of gunfire. When it is over, a 14-year-old lies dying in the fading autumn light, a bullet hole in the back of his head.
The shooting of DeOnté Rawlings was one of the most controversial and emotional the city had seen in decades, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier publicly promised a thorough and open investigation. Their unusual stance, which included paying for the boy's funeral, brought political heat from the police union and the force.
But Fenty and Lanier were practically silent when the fatal shooting was declared justifiable last year by federal prosecutors and police officials who said the boy fired first at the officers.
Instead of being open, officials declined to release the details supporting their conclusions, saying their hands were tied by federal grand jury secrecy rules that ordinarily do not apply to local police shooting cases. The FBI and grand jury had been brought in to ensure an impartial investigation.
The lack of transparency left a host of unanswered questions throughout the city: If Rawlings fired, where was his gun? Why did the minibike vanish from the scene, then reappear days later? What evidence tied the boy to the shooting?
The Washington Post examined the Rawlings case, obtaining and analyzing previously undisclosed internal police reports, statements by officers at the scene and depositions from witnesses. Together, the documents present a much more ambiguous picture, revealing a chain of police missteps and oversights that invite questions about what happened that evening.
The officers involved in the shooting didn't identify themselves as police officers, didn't attend to the wounded suspect and fled the scene. All were violations of department policy.
By not securing the scene and the evidence, the off-duty officers made it impossible to conclusively determine whether Rawlings had fired a weapon. No gun was found even though uniformed police arrived within three minutes, and only seven seconds after the off-duty officers had left.
After the shooting, more mistakes occurred. One of the officers took a key piece of evidence with him -- driving off in the sport-utility vehicle, which a police investigator says was hit by a bullet. The officer who shot DeOnté, James Haskel, left the scene on foot, flagging down a nearby police cruiser. That officer drove Haskel to his mother's house and failed to question him or take notes about what happened.
Haskel also was allowed to make unmonitored phone calls, including at least one to the officer who accompanied him during the shooting, and was not questioned for two hours and 33 minutes.
Authorities tested Rawlings's clothing for lead residue and found none, police records show. No gunshot residue, soot or powder was found on his fingers or hands, according to the autopsy report.
Police cited an acoustic sensor system known as ShotSpotter, which detects and locates gunshots, as evidence that there were two shooters. But the system could not determine who fired or from what positions, raising the possibility that someone other than Rawlings might have fired at the officers. "The complexity of the audio makes it impossible to be certain exactly what happened based on audio evidence alone," the ShotSpotter report says.
The minibike turned up two days later, 16 miles away at the Upper Marlboro home of a longtime friend of Haskel's. The friend said that it was recovered in the neighborhood the day after the shooting and that he took it home at Haskel's insistence. Rawlings's fingerprints and DNA were not found on the bike.
There is also no forensic evidence tying Rawlings to the shooting. Police initially had said Rawlings used a .45-caliber handgun, based on shell casings they found near his body. But they had to retract that when the casings turned out to be too old to have come from the shooting.
A month after the shooting, a new narrative emerged: An 18-year-old named Clifton Coleman who was at the scene said Rawlings fired a .38-caliber revolver, which would leave no shell casings. Coleman had kept silent until he was arrested for shooting his girlfriend in the face in an unrelated incident.
The only known evidence supporting the .38 theory is paint discovered on a deformed lead bullet found at the scene. FBI technicians say that the bullet is from a .38 and that the paint matches Haskel's SUV. An indentation was found on the SUV's driver-side door, which investigators say is a bullet strike, but the FBI has declined to release its report analyzing the paint.
Gregory L. Lattimer, attorney for the Rawlings family, says the evidence points to a different theory: Someone other than Rawlings was on the minibike, and someone else fired at the SUV, prompting Haskel to fire eight bullets in 5.5 seconds, hitting the unarmed boy almost dead-center in the back of the head. That would explain why no gun and no minibike were found at the scene, Lattimer said.
D.C. police records show Rawlings had no arrest record.
Lattimer said he has never seen the city handle a police shooting with such secrecy. "The city has gone on record assuring the Rawlings family that they would be open and aboveboard," he said. "They've been anything but."
On behalf of the family, Lattimer has filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the two officers in U.S. District Court.
Lanier, the federal prosecutors and the FBI declined to discuss details of the case, citing the lawsuit and grand jury secrecy rules. "I can't discuss that case at all," Lanier said. "Eighty percent of what can be discussed is protected by grand jury secrecy."
Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. attorney, said: "Our focus was whether a crime was committed and was there evidence to support a crime. There was very little question that someone fired at the officers that night. So when they fired back, we determined they were justified in returning fire."
Haskel declined to comment. Anthony Clay, the officer who accompanied Haskel, said: "I can't really talk about that stuff. We still have issues going on civilly."
When the U.S. attorney's office and D.C. police decided not to charge the officers last year, officials cited only witness statements and the same 13 words to justify their findings: "physical and forensic evidence, autopsy results, ShotSpotter data, and firearms and paint analysis."
Here, for the first time, is a public accounting and step-by-step analysis of the known evidence used to clear the officers.Witness Statements
Just before sunset Sept. 17, 2007, in the Walter E. Washington Estates in Southeast, Anthony Clay overheard neighbors outside his townhouse saying someone had stolen a minibike from the garage of his friend and neighbor James Haskel. Clay and Haskel were in their 40s and were 20-year veterans of the police force.
Clay was outside when Haskel arrived at home in his 1999 Tahoe. Haskel drove off to look for the bike, armed with his Glock 17 service weapon. Clay went along, taking his police-issued radio, his badge and his department-approved off-duty Glock 27 handgun. He put the gun in his sock.
The two men took the SUV into an alley two blocks away between Yuma and Atlantic streets.
Halfway down the alley, heading in their direction, they spotted a boy on a minibike. "That's the bike there," Clay, in his deposition, recalled Haskel saying.
The minibike and SUV passed each other, and Haskel backed up to follow the boy, yelling out the window for him to drop the bike. Haskel and Clay later said they did not identify themselves as police officers.
"He dropped it. . . . He got off and said 'What? What?' " Haskel said in his deposition.
Clay said: "He turns toward the vehicle and reaches in his right pocket, pulls out an object and holds it behind his leg." The object was "dark metal," Clay said, although he "couldn't really see what exactly it was."
"I think he has a gun," he said he told Haskel.
Haskel said in his recorded statement to police: "I thought he's trying to scare us and then out comes the gun. . . . And I'm like, oh, my God, he has [inaudible] because he's standing there with the gun there and I'm like, okay, I get my gun out [inaudible] the gun out the window, he fires. I bang off two rounds. He runs off."
Haskel said he was in the SUV's driver seat when the boy shot at him from about nine feet away. The shooting started at 7:36 p.m., according to the data from the ShotSpotter sensors.
Although Clay was on the scene, he was unable to provide clear-cut eyewitness testimony about the shooting. Clay told police that he got out of the SUV and crouched behind it. By the time he pulled out his gun, the youngster "was out of my sight," he said. Clay said he did not get a good look at the shooter's face but saw the "muzzle flash" of the boy's weapon.
Haskel ran after him. Haskel said the boy, who was 5-foot-2 and 102 pounds, shot back at him over his shoulder. If Rawlings were the shooter, firing in such a manner would have brought the gun close to Rawlings's white shirt, but investigators later found no powder, residue or soot on his clothing or hands.
Haskel said he fired six more shots as Rawlings ran and fired back. One bullet struck the boy, and he fell to the pavement. His body was about 100 feet from the scene of the initial shooting, in a passageway between buildings known as "the cut," records show. The autopsy would later show the boy was hit almost dead-center in the back of the head.
Neighbors called 911.
"Somebody got shot in the head," an elderly male caller shouted to the dispatcher. "Please hurry, please hurry. I'm looking out the window . . . they're on the ground."
"This little boy was just shot in the head, man," said a teenage caller. "Hurry up, man. We need something, man."
Haskel said he saw "at least three people at the body" bending over the fallen boy. "One of them said to me that you shot him in the head," Haskel said in his deposition.
He said he wasn't sure at the time whether it was he or Clay who had shot the boy.
Clay, who was still back at the truck, said in his deposition that he did not know that anyone had been shot.
Haskel said he told Clay to call for help. Clay said he went into the truck and retrieved his radio from the seat. But he called on the wrong channel, so Haskel took the radio from him and called into the 7th Police District channel. It was 7:37 p.m., less than a minute after the shooting. "10-33, 10-33," Haskel said, giving the call sign to indicate an officer needed assistance. "700 block of, um, Atlantic Street, suspect down, suspect down, officer-involved shooting."
Even though Haskel had taken the radio from Clay to report a "suspect down," Clay insisted that he still did not know that the boy had been hit. "All I thought we had was shots fired . . . that was it," he said.
Haskel later said that he did not go to the boy to determine his condition.
"I didn't make a visual and verbal check," Haskel said in his deposition. "I didn't even approach him."
Haskel said he couldn't explain why.
"I just didn't," he said.The Aftermath
At this point, if the two officers had secured the crime scene, the mysteries that remain might have been solved. But that didn't happen.
Haskel told Clay to drive his SUV away, both officers said later.
"I don't know why," Clay said.
Haskel later said that a crowd had begun to form and that he didn't want anyone to identify his vehicle and retaliate against his family. At 7:38 p.m., Haskel called in another 10-33, asking for a police cruiser to pick him up. "I got a hostile crowd out here," he said.
But Clay later said, "At the time I moved [the SUV] . . . I didn't see anyone around."
Clay, who worked at the police academy making training videos, said he knew that it violated policy for him, as a potential witness, to leave the scene. But he left anyway.
"That was a personal decision I made," he said in his deposition.
Clay also said he was unaware of another detail: Haskel said later that a bullet had hit the SUV's driver-side door and left an indentation just under the mirror. Clay said he wouldn't have moved the SUV if he had known, because removing evidence from a crime scene also violates department policy.
At 7:39 p.m., a cruiser driven by Officer Anthony Fucci pulled up on Yuma Street, a short distance from the shooting scene. Haskel went through a grass-and-dirt courtyard and down seven steps, then flagged the officer down and got in the car.
Fucci said in a deposition in February that Haskel didn't tell him that he had just shot someone. He mumbled "something to the effect of, why did he have a gun?" Fucci recalled.
Clay drove the SUV back to Haskel's house, two blocks away. He said he passed police officers headed to the scene but didn't stop to brief them. When he reached Haskel's home in the gated community, he gave the SUV's keys to Haskel's wife, who was standing outside. Clay said he learned from her that Haskel had shot the boy.
"She said something -- something to the nature of 'I think he shot him' or something like that," Clay recalled.
But Haskel's wife said it was Clay who told her about the shooting, according to a deposition she gave this month. And Daniel Egbert, one of the officers rushing to the scene, said an officer had leaned out of the SUV's window, flashed a badge and told them about the shooting.
"He said, 'somebody's down up there,' " Egbert recalled.
Egbert and his partner, Jeremy Bank, reached Rawlings at 7:39 p.m., seven seconds after Fucci had left with Haskel, according to the radio transcripts.
An ambulance arrived at 7:42 p.m., six minutes after the shooting, records show. Rawlings was pronounced dead 2 1/2 hours later at Children's National Medical Center.A Detour
Officer Fucci was instructed to take Haskel to the parking lot of nearby Ballou High. Instead, at Haskel's request, Fucci drove the officer a couple of blocks to an address on Xenia Street, because "it was quiet over there," Fucci said in a deposition. The two-story, red-brick duplex was Haskel's mother's house.
Fucci, a young officer who joined the force in 2004, said later "I didn't know what was going on," but he followed Haskel inside. "I could tell he was -- whatever happened, he was distraught over, and I didn't want him to go into the house and kill himself," Fucci said.
Haskel went into a room with a woman while Fucci "stood at the door and watched them."
"I think he just said [to the woman] 'I was all right,' " Fucci recalled.
The two men returned to Fucci's cruiser and moved it two houses down because Haskel "didn't want anybody to know that he might live there," Fucci said.
Fucci said he gave Haskel the phone number of a lawyer "so he could talk to somebody." Fucci then stepped out of the car to give Haskel some privacy, "Because I didn't want to hear what he was talking about," Fucci said.
While Haskel was with Fucci, he spoke with Clay at least twice by cellphone, records show. Clay later said he called Haskel to find out whether he was okay and Haskel later called him to come to the 7th District station.
When Fucci gave his initial statement that night, he did not mention the trip to Haskel's mother's house.
"I wasn't really thinking about details," Fucci said in his deposition.
Fucci also said he didn't take notes, even though the department requires officers to record significant events. "Just didn't think to write it down," Fucci said.
Haskel did not give a statement to police until 10:09 p.m. The taped interview was over quickly, lasting 13 minutes. It was the third time in his career that Haskel had been involved in a shooting. In the previous shootings, he also had been off duty and was cleared.Key Evidence
One of the lingering mysteries about the case is what exactly happened in the hours after the shooting to the item that started it all: the minibike.
Like the SUV and the gun, the minibike was another key piece of evidence taken from the unsecured scene before uniformed police arrived. Police officials have refrained from publicly saying how they recovered the minibike.
Records obtained by The Post show that the bike wended a circuitous path through several hands before being recovered by investigators.
An hour after the shooting, a detective canvassing the neighborhood saw youths tinkering with a red minibike on a porch on Atlantic Street. At the time, the detective was unaware that a minibike had been connected to the shooting. When he found out, he returned to Atlantic, but the bike was gone.
The next afternoon, Bobby McNair, a childhood buddy of Haskel's, said he was standing on Xenia Street near Haskel's mother's house when a boy whizzed past on a minibike. McNair said he thought it was Haskel's.
McNair said he notified a female police officer patrolling nearby. The officer did nothing, he said, so a friend of Haskel's who went by the street name Fat Stink chased after the youth, retrieving the bike after getting "aggressive" with him.
McNair later said he did not know Fat Stink's real name or the name of the boy. But it was indeed Haskel's bike, records show.
McNair said he called Haskel, offering to bring the bike to the officer's home nearby, but Haskel said to take it to McNair's home in Upper Marlboro.
A long-distance truck driver, McNair said he put the bike in his garage and left on a two-week run to California. Police picked the bike up from his son.
Police performed extensive forensic testing but found no fingerprint matches to Haskel, Clay, Coleman or Rawlings, records show.Firearms, Paint Analysis
Four ShotSpotter sensors detected the gunfire, and the sound analysis showed that it came from two shooters. Shooter A fired three or possibly four times, including the first shot, and Shooter B fired eight times, including the last four shots, which is consistent with Haskel's firing.
But the ShotSpotter analysis report concluded that the data did not present an unambiguous picture of what happened during the shooting, because of the "near-simultaneous discharge of many shots from two weapons and the presence of many echoes from nearby buildings." The ShotSpotter report noted, "For these reasons, the conclusions . . . should be corroborated with other evidentiary sources such as recovered shell casings."
Seven 9mm casings found on the ground were matched to Haskel's gun.
Because three .45 shell casings were found near where Rawlings lay, the preliminary investigative report said that Rawlings had fired a .45 at police.
"Mr. Rawlings removed a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun from his right pants pocket," the report said.
But the .45 casings turned out to be too old to come from a fresh shooting -- they were "dirty and in the dirt," according to Sgt. Ralph D. Wax, the lead investigator.
Wax later said he had erred. "I assumed because the .45s [shell casings] were near the body that he fired a .45," he said in a deposition.
The story of the .45 took another twist when 18-year-old Clifton Coleman was arrested for shooting his girlfriend Oct. 15, 2007, a month after Rawlings was killed. The girlfriend survived.
Coleman initially lied to police about what happened to her and can be heard on the 911 tape telling her to lie, according to a court document. He pleaded guilty in February to assault with a dangerous weapon and unlawful possession of a firearm; his sentencing is set for Wednesday.
At the time of Coleman's arrest, police searched his house and found two semiautomatics, including a .45-caliber handgun, which turned out to be a match for the three old shell casings found at the Rawlings scene.
That match prompted local media to erroneously report that the gun used by Rawlings had been located.
Facing criminal charges, Coleman told police that Rawlings had shot at the officers.
Coleman said "he saw DeOnté Rawlings, who he knew, riding the minibike," according to Wax. Coleman said he saw Rawlings "with a .38," according to Wax, "and I believe he said [Rawlings] fired it at the officers, and [Coleman] put himself there on the scene."
Lattimer, the attorney for the Rawlings family, said that he had talked to Coleman shortly after the shooting and that Coleman had told him Rawlings was not armed.
Unlike a .45 or 9mm semiautomatic, a .38-caliber revolver retains its shell casings in a chamber rather than ejecting them.
The night of the shooting, police had recovered a deformed lead bullet in the alley 10 feet in front of 633 Yuma St. They initially identified it as coming from a 9mm.
But FBI technicians later identified it as coming from a .38. They said they found automotive paint on the bullet consistent with the paint on the SUV, but the FBI has declined to release its report.
"We wouldn't be releasing that to the public," said Debbie Weierman, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington field office. "It's part of an FBI investigation."The Investigation
The killing of the Ballou Senior High School freshman outraged a community hardened to violence, prompting city and federal officials to promise to "find out exactly what happened, leaving no stone unturned in the process." The city paid $7,477 for the boy's funeral and burial.
To ensure a thorough investigation, the FBI was brought in under the auspices of a federal grand jury. But grand jury secrecy rules require that the identity of witnesses and their testimony remain secret. Citing the grand jury rules, police and prosecutors have declined to release the investigative reports as well.
In May 2008, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor announced that Haskel would not be charged with a crime, concluding that he acted in self-defense after Rawlings fired first. Taylor said the decision was "based on a painstaking analysis of the facts developed during a lengthy and thorough investigation."
Four months later, the D.C. police department's Use of Force Review Board found that the shooting was justified and that Haskel did not violate department policy.
"I stand by the findings of the investigative team and the board," Chief Lanier said. "Now that the matter has been closed, it is my sincere hope that the officers involved in the incident, the community and the department will be able to move forward and mend."