Death in the Alley
Officer Cleared, but Doubts Linger on Shooting
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 1998; Page A20
In the nearly four years since D.C. police officer Kristopher Payne shot and killed 18-year-old Antonio Williams at the frozen mouth of a Lincoln Heights alley, two versions of the event have emerged.
Police and District officials call the Feb. 7, 1995, shooting the justified act of a decorated officer who was attacked while attempting to take a handgun from a drug-addled youth.
An attorney for Williams's family calls the teenager's death "an execution."
Police officials spent a year compiling a thick dossier of memos and reports on the shooting, then declared it justified. Today, those sheaves of paperwork only add to the questions about the foot chase that ended in a fusillade of police bullets.
A 47-year-old grounds crew worker told police he was awakened by gunfire, then watched through his bedroom window as, about 100 feet away, Payne stood over Williams's prone body and pumped final shots into his head.
Police officials took steps to reinstate Payne before conducting basic ballistics tests that would measure how far he was from the teenager when he fired. When those tests were finally done five months after the shooting, they showed that one and possibly two shots to Williams's head came from a gun muzzle held 24 to 30 inches away.
The homicide investigator who handled the case said in a May 1997 deposition that he believed the shooting was justified. But, Sgt. George Kucik added, "there are unanswered questions that may never be answered." Kucik said he could not tell whether Payne's version of events was "absolutely accurate."
Payne's supervisor at the time, then-6th District Lt. William E. Corboy, also recommended that the shooting be declared justified. But Corboy said in a deposition, "I don't know that they were able . . . to completely resolve every question about what happened out there that night."
The apparently incomplete investigation into Williams's death and the push to declare it justified are characteristic of several fatal D.C. police shootings examined by The Washington Post.
An aggressive and exemplary recruit, Payne has won several policing awards, including the department's annual "Top Gun" award for seizing the most illegal firearms from the street. But as a stream of commendations flowed into his personnel file, an undercurrent tugged beneath: Citizen complaints began to accumulate.
A jury in May 1993 awarded $5,000 to a 50-year-old suit salesman whom Payne mistook for a drug suspect and shoved against a building. In July 1994, another jury awarded $2,500 to a Northeast man whose knee was injured during an arrest by Payne. That month, a 51-year-old Southeast woman said in a police complaint that Payne drew his gun on her when he came to investigate a dispute between neighbors.
Claude Beheler, a retired deputy chief who supervised Payne in 1992 and 1993, said he received complaints from some of Payne's fellow officers who "characterized him as some kind of overzealous brute." But Beheler and other supervisors saw Payne's aggressiveness as an inner-city virtue. "Yeah, he used force, and sometimes his tactics may have seemed a little overbearing to some people," Beheler said. "But if you're going to be a street officer in this day and age, fighting the crimes that occur in this day and age, you have to have Kris Payne's approach. Anybody that doesn't is less an officer than Kris Payne."
His police-issue Glock semiautomatic handgun has featured a special, extended magazine that holds two extra bullets 19 instead of the usual 17.
His personal Chevrolet Beretta GT coupe bears a vanity plate: "GLOCK19."
Citing the pending lawsuit in Williams's killing, Payne declined to comment. "I'm really traumatized," he said.
A month before he killed Williams, Payne shot and wounded 24-year-old Reginald Johnson on a side street two blocks away. Like Williams, Johnson was shot in the back.
Johnson's shooting on Jan. 9, 1995, also was investigated by Corboy, Payne's supervisor at the time. In the report he completed later that month recommending that the shooting be declared justified, Corboy noted that Payne's account did not square with the physical evidence: Payne said Johnson held a gun in his left hand as he turned and pointed it, but Payne's bullets went from the right side of Johnson's back to the left. "It seems more likely that [the gun] was in [Johnson's] right hand," Corboy wrote.
Johnson's gun had been empty the magazine was found about 150 feet away. Nevertheless, Corboy said, Johnson had a gun and Payne feared for his life.
Johnson was charged with assaulting Payne, then acquitted. Johnson filed a lawsuit over his shooting. Without admitting wrongdoing, the District settled it in May 1997 by paying him $12,500.
Stopping and Searching
Even as he did his part to clear Payne in the Johnson shooting, Corboy was troubled. Acting on a hunch, he began to track Payne during the midnight shift. Corboy testified in a later deposition that he watched Payne and his partner search people without writing the required reports.
A few days later, on the evening of Jan. 18, 1995, a Southeast woman called the 6th District to complain that her 19-year-old son had been stopped and searched by Payne and his partner, a police report shows. Payne pulled the teenager from his car and put a gun to his head, the woman said. Payne kept calling the youth "hero" and struck him on the left cheek, she said. Payne and his partner had no record of the stop.
Corboy said in a deposition that when Payne returned to the station he was not wearing his name tag a troubling infraction because it could prevent citizens from identifying him. Corboy took Payne aside and asked whether he was manhandling citizens. Payne beat on his chest with his fists, then raised his open palm and swore that he was "a man of personal valor," according to Corboy's subsequent testimony. Payne said there was "a war being fought in the streets."
That morning, Corboy wrote a memo telling commanders that Payne and his partner were "routinely acting improperly on these so-called traffic stops. . . . I also believe, based on the number of arrests these officers have made for guns in recent months, that a large number of people have been subjected to this activity."
For reasons that are unclear from police and court records, 6th District supervisors did not respond to that memo. They did, however, expedite Corboy's report recommending that Payne's shooting of Reginald Johnson be declared justified. On Feb. 6, 6th District commander Jacqueline D. Simms endorsed Corboy's conclusion and forwarded the recommendation to then-Chief Fred Thomas.
Hours later, in the predawn of Feb. 7, Payne found himself in an alley with his gun drawn, facing Antonio Williams.
A Sleepy Witness
The night was windless and clear. Gray ice slicked the alley that rims the eastern edge of the Lincoln Heights public housing complex. At 4:50 a.m., Phillip Richardson awoke to crunching footsteps and shouts, then the report of a gun.
"Half asleep, half awoke," Richardson would later testify, he peered through his second-floor window and could make out two figures beneath a tilted lamppost. One lay prone. The other, a uniformed police officer, stood over the fallen body with a gun. The officer "looked around," then circled back, Richardson said. "He got in close and fired one shot."
Then the policeman "stepped back a little and looked around, and came back and shot him two more times. I saw that," Richardson said. "I called to my mother, said, 'Mama, police officer just killed this boy out here.' "
For the police, Williams had been a force to be reckoned with. A few months earlier, the 18-year-old fought police when they stopped him carrying a BB gun; two days later, he was picked up again with two other men after police saw one of them drop 19 packets of crack cocaine. "They had [their] little hustling crew. The police was always chasing them," said neighbor Deborah Carethers. "All of them played with guns, being boys, being the boys that they were."
On the night of Feb. 6, Carethers said, Williams and her son Donnell Monts were in her house smoking marijuana laced with PCP, an animal tranquilizer that can cause aggressive behavior. Williams left. About 4 a.m., he knocked on the door saying that Monts, his best friend, owed him money. The boys argued. When she came to break it up, Carethers said, Williams held a silver, six-shot revolver with a two-inch barrel.
Carethers wasn't impressed by the gun and grabbed it from Williams. She opened the revolver and saw that it was unloaded. Williams snatched the weapon back and ran outside. Carethers called the police.
Two officers arrived and Payne swung in to provide backup, according to police reports. He spotted the youth on Division Avenue and pulled close in his squad car. Williams ran. Payne chased him on foot into the alley.
Payne came within reach of Williams, then "backed off and gave him some distance," he said in his statement later that morning. Williams drew his gun as he was running, then turned to his right, with the revolver extended in his right hand, Payne said. Payne opened fire. "He spun around, hit the ground and that was it," Payne's statement said.
Seven bullets hit Williams, leaving a string of wounds in his left side. Two bullets entered the teenager's head, one through the left cheek and the other through the back of his head, just below the top on the left side.
Payne's spent shell casings formed a cluster within a 3 1/2-foot radius around the corpse.
Along with these fragments of physical evidence, homicide investigator Kucik had the contradictory statements from Payne and Richardson, the eyewitness.
Kucik interviewed Richardson several times, seizing on discrepancies in his account. "In one statement he said to me there were seven shots," Kucik said in a deposition. "The other two times he says it's five."
Kucik did not interview Payne, who exercised his right to remain silent after making a brief statement. "There is nothing there to indicate that his statement is wrong," Kucik testified.
On May 22, 1995, Kucik wrote a memorandum signed by homicide branch Capt. William L. Hennessy, saying that "an extensive investigation" of Williams's shooting had been conducted and that the "complete investigative package" would be turned over to the U.S. attorney's office. "An adverse decision by the Grand Jury is not anticipated," it said.
Two weeks later, on June 5, Hennessy recommended that Payne be restored to full duty. It was only then at Corboy's insistence that investigators conducted ballistics tests, depositions show. Payne would remain on leave for several more months.
Prosecutors decided not to present the shooting case to a grand jury, but to handle it administratively a streamlined procedure prosecutors say they use when they feel there is little possibility the officer will be charged. On Nov. 30, 1995, the U.S. attorney's office notified police officials: "We have decided that criminal prosecution is not warranted in this matter."
Renditions of a Shooting
To prepare for the pending lawsuit filed by Williams's family, the District paid a Florida expert $5,000 for two animated reenactments of the shooting. In one, a stick figure representing Williams pirouettes through the air, absorbing seven bullets in his head, torso and legs. In the other, Williams tumbles to the ground in a barrage of gunfire, then rises and charges at Payne with the unloaded gun, absorbing more bullets to his head from close range.
In October 1996, Payne gave a deposition for the lawsuit. His portrayal of the events differs from both his original statement and the two animated re-creations.
Williams never stopped and turned to face him while standing as the animated video shows, Payne testified. "As far as him standing up and getting back on his feet, no," Payne said.
In his initial statement, Payne had indicated that the incident was over when Williams hit the ground. But in the deposition, Payne said he kept shooting as Williams tumbled and rolled. "He was facing me at one point when he was rolling over," Payne said.
Payne's statement said he gave Williams "some distance" before shooting. But in the deposition, Payne said he could not estimate how far he was from Williams.
"I was concerned with trying to stay alive and to protect myself and the other good citizens of the District of Columbia, and I didn't have a tape measure out," he said.
By that time, Payne's statements were of little interest to the department: In the spring of 1996, he was restored to full duty, patrolling the midnight streets of the 6th District.
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