LITTLE ROCK — A wide-open door at the Big Country Chateau led off-duty police officer Donna Lesher to Eugene Ellison.
Lesher was moonlighting, patrolling the crime-ridden apartment complex on foot with a partner, another off-duty female officer. Lesher saw the door on the second floor of a spare, low-slung building. The officers were immediately suspicious. Who would leave their door open on a cold December evening?
The white officers climbed the stairs and saw Ellison, a 67-year-old black man, sitting on his couch inside. In front of him was a coffee table, its glass top broken.
Standing outside the apartment, they asked Ellison whether he was okay. Ellison said he was fine. The officers were not satisfied. Something still seemed odd to them. His shirt was unbuttoned, and he appeared to be shivering. They later said they thought that he might need help or that maybe a crime had been committed and someone else was in the apartment.
When they continued to question him, he grew angry.
“Get the f--- out of my house,” he said.
Lesher’s partner, Detective Tabitha McCrillis, walked into the apartment and confronted him.
What happened next is still in dispute. Ellison ended up dead on the floor of his apartment, two bullet holes in his chest. Donna Lesher said she fired only as a last resort after a furious fight with Ellison.
More than five years later, the tragic death of Eugene Ellison still haunts Little Rock, splitting the city and its 540-officer police department along racial lines. It shows what can happen when police investigate their own in cases of fatal shootings and end up with results that leave little resolved in the minds of the public. Allegations of favoritism, collusion, conflicts of interest and special treatment have hovered over the case from the beginning, according to interviews, court records and previously undisclosed internal affairs files obtained by The Washington Post.
The Little Rock investigators were in an impossible position from the start.
Donna Lesher wasn’t just a Little Rock police officer. She was married to a Little Rock homicide sergeant, who happened to be the boss of the detectives assigned to investigate Lesher’s shooting case. Eugene Ellison wasn’t just some irritable old man living on Social Security and veteran’s benefits in a high-crime area. He was the father of two men who had joined the Little Rock police force, one of them still serving as a ranking officer.
The chief of police at the time, in charge of investigating Donna Lesher to the fullest, had years earlier recommended against hiring her when she was a police cadet, saying she was “a liability to the department because she is an unreliable employee,” according to an internal police memorandum.
Three separate investigations of the 2010 confrontation came to the same conclusion: Lesher was justified in shooting Ellison because she feared for her life.
The investigations failed to stop the questions.
Eugene Ellison’s sons brought a federal civil rights lawsuit asserting that their father had been wrongfully killed. The case was supposed to go to trial Monday. A settlement was announced Friday, hours after this story was posted online. The city and the Big Country Chateau agreed to pay a total of $1.4 million, and the city will issue an apology and erect a memorial bench, said the sons’ attorney, Michael J. Laux.
In 2012, under oath, Donna Lesher gave the following account to Laux:
“Couldn’t you have left in the middle of the fight?”
“We could have,” Lesher said.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because that’s not — I’m not going to just give up.”
Police shootings exploded into the national consciousness on Aug. 9, 2014, when an officer in Ferguson, Mo., confronted 18-year-old Michael Brown after a reported robbery at a convenience store. A fight ensued, a couple of shots were fired, and Officer Darren Wilson pursued Brown and shot him several times. Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours as public outrage built, culminating in days of rioting.
Wilson was eventually cleared after a grand jury investigation, the results of which were presented to the public in an extraordinary release of documents. Still, dissatisfaction persisted, triggering more unrest and further fueling the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today, police shootings go under the instant microscope of cellphone cameras and social media. Every detail is dissected, and the public has demanded greater accountability.
Most police departments conduct their own homicide investigations of officer-involved shootings. Some police experts and elected officials have been calling on departments to turn that task over to outside agencies to ensure objectivity and fairness.
Last summer, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced that his state attorney general would investigate all fatal shootings of unarmed civilians in the state in the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. Garner, 43, died July 17, 2014, after a confrontation with police during which an officer with the New York Police Department placed Garner in a chokehold.
In thousands of fatal shootings since 2005, 68 officers have been charged with crimes, and 12 have been convicted, according to records compiled by The Washington Post and researchers at Bowling Green State University. Frustrated families often file civil lawsuits, with mixed results. A Post database tracked 990 fatal police shootings in 2015, which have so far resulted in 18 officers being charged.
Inside the Little Rock Police Department, some detectives thought an outside agency should have been summoned to investigate the Lesher shooting.
“I don’t think that we are capable of actually investigating each other because we got too many friendships,” Terrell Vaughn, a black Little Rock homicide detective, told internal affairs investigators examining the Ellison shooting. “I’ve always felt that; that we should never [be] handling our shootings.”
Donna Lesher declined to discuss the shooting.
“I’m not able to talk about the case,” she told The Post. “I don’t want to answer any questions.”
Her husband did not respond to requests for comment.
Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner, who is black, declined through a spokesman to discuss the shooting, citing what was then a pending civil trial.
“We’re not going to talk about the case,” department spokesman Lt. Steven McClanahan said.
Little Rock City Attorney Thomas M. Carpenter, who was defending Lesher and McCrillis in the lawsuit brought by Ellison’s family, also declined to discuss the case beyond providing a limited statement.
“As typical for deadly force situations, there were two investigations — a criminal investigation and an internal affairs investigation,” Carpenter wrote in an email. “Both of these were resolved against taking action against the involved officers.”
The Justice Department also conducted an investigation. Federal prosecutors concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove that Lesher acted “willfully” or “with a bad purpose to disregard the law” — the standard needed to bring criminal charges in a civil rights case.
Last year, Carpenter discussed the case on camera with Little Rock television station KARK 4 News. He noted that the Big Country Chateau was a high-crime area, and he said Lesher and McCrillis were simply doing their jobs that night when they entered Ellison’s apartment.
“Let’s assume for a moment they didn’t do that; they saw the open door and they walked by and there was somebody in there who killed Mr. Ellison. What would people say about the police then?” Carpenter asked. “I think the answer is, when you see something out of the ordinary like that, you hope that the police will check on it. In this particular situation, with all the circumstances that existed, Mr. Ellison got agitated, a fight broke out, you can hear the fight on the tape, and it ended the way it ended.”
Carpenter also said the officers tried to persuade Ellison to surrender, backing up and ordering him to get on the ground. Instead, Carpenter said, Ellison refused and reached for his cane.
“I think the main thing people have to remember is that you want your police officers to be the ones going into difficult situations when everybody else is running out,” he said. “They’ve got to hope they can get it under control without using deadly force, but they’ve got to know they can use deadly force if they can’t get it under control.”
Little Rock sits along the Arkansas River and is the most populous city in the state, with more than 700,000 residents in its metropolitan area. The community is almost equally split between whites and blacks: It is 49 percent white and 42 percent black. The police department is 64 percent white and 31 percent black. Between 1992 and 2014, Little Rock police fatally shot 22 people; 15 of them were black, according to internal police records.
In that period, one white officer was charged with shooting a 15-year-old black male suspected of burglary. The second-degree-murder case resulted in two mistrials, and prosecutors declined to retry the officer.
The Lesher case rests atop this complicated racial equation.
Vaughn is one of several black homicide detectives involved in the Lesher case who in interviews with internal affairs investigators and lawyers questioned how the matter was handled.
“That’s like having to investigate your boss’s wife,” Sgt. Jonathan C. White, another Little Rock homicide detective who is black, said in a sworn statement after the shooting. “It’s just an uncomfortable position all the way around to put everybody in an uncomfortable position. Not only myself. And that’s why I think that — to me that’s the very reason it should have went out of house immediately, so that we wouldn’t have been put in that position.”
Several other detectives on the case — about a dozen worked on it in total — said they were comfortable with how it was conducted.
“Do you believe this department is capable of handling this investigation?” an internal affairs investigator asked Detective Tommy Hudson, who is white.
“Quite well,” Hudson responded.
By the time Donna Lesher spotted the open door to Ellison’s apartment on the night of Dec. 9, 2010, she had been a Little Rock police officer for 16 years.
When a supervisor recommended against hiring Lesher, she was a 19-year-old police cadet, a 1991 graduate of Central High School in Little Rock. She had wanted to be a police officer since kindergarten.
Then-Capt. Stuart Thomas wrote a memo citing criticism of Lesher’s failure to properly alphabetize police employee records. A two-day job took three days, he wrote, and a review found that “large sections of records had been randomly placed within the files,” which “suggests negligence and dereliction of duty.”
Still, she was retained as a police cadet. Two years later, Lesher joined the force as a sworn officer. During her first five years on the job, she was disciplined for crashing her patrol car and for other infractions, records show. Lesher also did not know how to use a telescoping baton, which officers often call their “stick.” It is an important weapon, providing officers with a use-of-force option short of pulling out their pistols.
While on the job, Lesher met her future husband. James Lesher had joined the department in 1986. Eighteen years later, he was promoted to sergeant and was put in charge of the homicide squad’s day-to-day operations, supervising seven detectives.
James Lesher also held an off-duty job helping to coordinate security at the Big Country Chateau on the outskirts of downtown Little Rock. It was a lucrative assignment for moonlighting officers, paying $30 an hour, and Lesher secured a spot for his wife.
About 8 p.m. on Dec. 9, Donna Lesher, then 37, and her partner, Tabitha McCrillis, 27, spotted the open door to Apartment 213. McCrillis was in full uniform; Lesher was wearing a T-shirt with an image of a police badge on the front and the words “police” in block letters on the back.
The following account comes from the four police officers at the scene, who later gave statements to internal affairs investigators and homicide detectives, and the lawyers who sued Lesher and McCrillis in federal court.
Standing on the open-air walkway outside the second-floor apartment, Lesher and McCrillis identified themselves as police officers. Lesher asked Ellison whether everything was okay.
“What do you think’s wrong?” she recalled him responding. “He told us to leave. I’m like, ‘No.’ ”
McCrillis stepped into the apartment. Ellison got up from the couch. McCrillis pushed Ellison back, and he struck McCrillis with his fist. She hit him with her baton. His glasses flew off his head. Ellison, who had myopic astigmatism, a form of nearsightedness, pulled the baton out of McCrillis’s hand. Lesher entered the apartment and joined the fight.
She later said she feared Ellison would push her out of the apartment and over the railing of the second-floor walkway.
Emergency backup was summoned by radio.
“Send us some units; he’s got my stick,” McCrillis said.
Lesher elbowed Ellison in the groin, bit him on the arm and pepper-sprayed him.
McCrillis left the apartment.
Backup officers Vincent Lucio, who is Hispanic, and Brad Boyce, who is white, ran up the stairs to the apartment but did not enter. Lucio pulled Lesher out of the apartment onto the second-floor walkway, which was 4 feet, 2.5 inches wide. All four officers were now on the walkway outside the apartment.
Microphones worn by the on-duty male officers captured the chaos as all four officers shouted at Ellison, who was still inside his apartment.
“Get on the ground,” Lesher ordered Ellison.
“I ain’t getting on no . . .,” Ellison said.
“You getting on the ground,” Boyce said.
“I’m going to tell you one time to get on the ground,” Lucio said as he ordered his colleagues to “move back, move back.”
“He’s getting his cane,” McCrillis said.
Ellison lifted the cane over his head like a “baseball bat,” Lesher later said.
The officers were all outside the apartment bunched up on the walkway.
Lesher drew her weapon. McCrillis said she already had unholstered hers.
“I’m fixing to shoot him,” Lesher said.
“Donna?” McCrillis said.
“You better put it down,” Lesher said.
She fired the first shot with her .40-caliber Glock handgun less than a second later.
“Put it down,” she said as she fired again, less than a second later.
Ellison fell to the floor.
“F---,” McCrillis said. “Donna?”
“You’re not going to come at us with no weapon,” Lesher said.
“You okay?” McCrillis asked.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Lesher said. “Call my husband, please.”
Minutes after the shooting, as Lesher and McCrillis waited outside the Big Country Chateau, other police officers as well as medical teams descended on the scene. A dashboard camera in one of the patrol cars showed that Lesher and McCrillis remained together at the scene for nearly 15 minutes, although Little Rock department general orders require that any officers involved be separated as soon as the scene is secured after police-involved shootings. The policy is designed to prevent officers from coordinating their stories about what happened.
Lt. Glenn King, a black officer who was James Lesher’s boss in the homicide division at the time, heard the frantic radio traffic about a shooting at the Big Country Chateau and called James Lesher. King knew Donna Lesher worked the security detail there.
“You might need to call and check on your wife,” King told his homicide sergeant.
A few minutes later, James Lesher received a call from his wife.
“She told me she was involved in an officer-involved shooting, that she was okay,” James Lesher later said.
King told Lesher to go and see his wife. He said another homicide detective, Sgt. Mike Durham, would handle the investigation.
“We took extra care to keep James out it,” Durham later said in an internal affairs statement. “He never got involved in any, any kind of decision making, any interviews.”
Another dashboard camera recorded James Lesher as he arrived on the scene in his personal vehicle. Six minutes later, he drove away with his wife.
In many police departments, officers involved in shootings are permitted to have what are called “companion officers.” Usually, they are colleagues on the force assigned to console the shooters, contact family members and to try to determine whether the officers need medical or psychological help.
On the night of the shooting, James Lesher served as his wife’s companion officer. He drove her back to the Little Rock police headquarters, and they stayed in his office in the homicide division. They were joined by a department-appointed lawyer.
King said Little Rock general orders do not address whether spouses can serve as companion officers.
“The officer gets to pick his or her companion partner,” King recently told The Post. “And I think that some were disappointed that the sergeant and his wife, you know, that she used him as a companion. I don’t have a problem with it. That’s who she was comfortable with. He had been removed from the investigation. To me that was their business. I had other things to worry about.”
At some point that night, a city prosecutor advised James Lesher against remaining as his wife’s companion officer.
“He wasn’t sure that it would look very good, and of course I agreed,” James Lesher said later in a statement. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ and I went ahead and backed out of the whole situation and they called her another, actually I called her another companion officer to take that place.”
A little more than four hours after the shooting, homicide detectives interviewed Donna Lesher. Interviews in the detective division are frequently live-streamed, allowing other investigators assigned to the case to watch.
As soon as the detectives began to interview Lesher, she broke down. Homicide supervisors turned off the video feed. When the interview resumed, the video feed remained off.
Detectives in charge of the case said they cut the feed because they were concerned that too many people were in the detective division at the time.
“I was told that there was people watching that and that there — you know, you could hear some of the conversations going on and I thought that was inappropriate so I made the decision to turn it off,” Hudson, the homicide detective, told internal affairs.
White, the Little Rock detective, said he believed some homicide detectives were protecting their boss’s wife by cutting the feed of her interview.
“I guess we do things differently, huh?” White would later say, according to internal affairs files.
The day after the shooting, the Little Rock Police Department held a news conference.
Then-spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings recounted that Lesher and McCrillis had been working off-duty at the Big Country Chateau.
“The goal was to see if he needed help,” Hastings said of Ellison. “They never got that chance. He attacked them immediately.”
Hastings also said that Ellison picked up a “heavy wooden walking cane and started advancing on Officer Lesher, swinging it. She told him several times, according to witnesses, to put the cane down. He did not. At that time she fired two rounds, striking him.”
According to the conversations recorded by the microphones, Lesher ordered Ellison to “put it down” less than a second before she fired.
Hastings released other information at the news conference. The police had obtained Ellison’s court and mental-health records.
“Mr. Ellison does have emotional problems, and he had been treated for such in the past,” he said. “We’re not sure why he advanced on our officers and attacked them. We are working with family and other members to try to get a clear answer to why he may have done that.”
Ellison’s family was stunned. The man Lesher shot was the father of former Little Rock Detective Spencer Ellison and current Little Rock Lt. Troy Ellison, a past president of the Black Officers Association.
They said no one in authority at the department had contacted them prior to the news conference.
“Nobody from the police department, the chaplain didn’t call, no supervisor, the chief, nobody called,” Spencer Ellison said in a recent interview. “I felt betrayed. I felt like a second-class citizen. All the years that I have given my life and worked for the police department, I would think if anything, they would do right by their own.”
Troy and Spencer Ellison also were infuriated by the personal information released at the news conference. The brothers said their father, a Vietnam veteran who had served in the Navy, had received a diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1983, more than two decades before the shooting.
Back then, he had been arrested and acquitted on assault charges. Since that time, he had been taking medication and had not had problems with police. Ellison had lived at the Big Country Chateau for nearly 13 years.
Some of Little Rock’s black officers were upset that the department had portrayed Ellison as a disturbed man who could not be controlled without the use of deadly force.
“We made this person out to be a monster from jump street, from jump street, without having all the facts,” White, the homicide detective, would later say in an internal affairs statement. “We went from zero to a hundred and fifty in a matter of seconds.”
With questions swirling around the case, then-Police Chief Stuart Thomas, who had recommended against the hiring of Donna Lesher 18 years earlier, asked the Arkansas State Police to conduct an independent investigation of the shooting, out of an “abundance of caution.”
By then, five days had passed. The first 24 hours of a homicide investigation are considered to be critical. The director of the State Police and his criminal investigations commander called Thomas, and they all agreed that too much time had passed.
“An investigation by State Police could be compromised by an investigation that’s already underway by Little Rock Police and we didn’t think we could do a fair investigation since we weren’t there to begin with,” the State Police said in a statement issued at the time.
Thomas told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at the time that he remained confident his department could conduct a credible investigation.
“I hope that people are comfortable that we are trying to do the best we can with a very complicated and very delicate investigation,” Thomas said.
Shortly after the shooting, the Little Rock Police Department opened an internal affairs investigation to determine whether the shooting was justified and whether any department regulations had been broken.
On Dec. 20, 2010, internal affairs Detective Stephanie Berthia questioned James Lesher about the night of the shooting. In a 10-minute interview, she asked him how he found out about the shooting and what he did in the aftermath.
Berthia asked Lesher whether he had played any role in the investigation of his wife. He said he had not.
Nine days later, Berthia interviewed Donna Lesher for 71 minutes.
Lesher said Ellison got off his couch, moved toward McCrillis and began hitting her. McCrillis pulled out her baton. She fell to the ground as Ellison hit her in the head.
Lesher said that she pepper-sprayed Ellison but that this was ineffective.
She said she, too, ended up on the ground fighting with Ellison.
Lesher said she thought Ellison was 6-foot-4 and about 275 pounds, while she was 5-foot-6 and 156, and McCrillis was 5-foot-6 and 120. The medical examiner’s report would later show that Ellison was 6-foot-1, weighing 214 pounds.
At one point, Lesher said, Ellison had his arm around her neck.
Berthia asked Lesher whether she feared for her life.
“Yes, I — I was scared that he was fixing to kill us,” she said.
Lesher said that near the end of the fight, she had separated herself from Ellison and was standing outside the apartment with McCrillis, Lucio and Boyce.
Lesher said Ellison was eight to 10 feet away, approaching quickly with his cane over his head, when she fired. Ellison was still inside the apartment.
Internal affairs detectives also interviewed McCrillis, Lucio and Boyce.
“I was scared that we — you know we were fighting for our life,” McCrillis said.
“At what point do you think you were fighting for your life?” an internal affairs investigator asked.
“When I was on the ground,” McCrillis said.
McCrillis said she got up and left the apartment as Ellison returned to the couch to retrieve his cane.
She said she was standing behind Lesher and could not see whether Ellison was swinging his cane.
Lucio said that before Lesher fired, he told Ellison, “Why don’t you just calm down?” according to his internal affairs statement.
Lucio said Ellison was in a “boxer stance” and responded: “I’m not calming down. I’m fighting everybody.”
Lucio said he heard Lesher tell Ellison to drop his cane before she fired into the apartment. He told investigators that he could not see Ellison because he was behind Lesher.
Boyce, a rookie officer on probation, said that Ellison was repeatedly told to “drop the weapon” and that he saw Ellison swinging his cane a few times.
He said he, too, had unholstered his gun.
Berthia also interviewed White, one of the homicide detectives working on the case. He said he thought the department would not hold Donna Lesher accountable.
“They needed to address some things as far as the investigation was concerned,” White said in a statement to internal affairs.
“And what is that?” Berthia asked.
“We have put ourself in a situation where we might have to charge an officer,” he said.
“Okay,” Berthia said.
“That’s something that probably won’t happen,” White said.
Laux, the attorney for Ellison’s sons, criticized the internal affairs investigation as failing to press the Leshers on key points. He said Berthia did not ask the couple what time they left the scene together, what time they arrived at police headquarters or when they were separated. She also did not ask them whether they discussed the case before Donna Lesher’s interview with the homicide detectives for whom James Lesher was supervisor, a transcript of the interview shows.
“We still don’t know where the couple went, what they did, what they discussed or with who they talked,” Laux said.
Berthia declined to comment. “I choose not to talk about it,” she said.
On May 9, 2011, five months after the shooting, the Pulaski County office of the prosecuting attorney announced that it would not file criminal charges. On the basis of the investigation conducted by Little Rock’s homicide division, prosecutors concluded that the shooting was justified.
Ellison “armed himself with a cane and accosted the officers with it in a threatening manner,” prosecutors wrote in their decision. “When he refused to put this weapon down, Officer Lesher, being unable to subdue him in a non-lethal manner, shot him twice.”
Two months after the decision not to file criminal charges, Thomas, the police chief, accepted the findings of his department’s internal affairs division exonerating Lesher and McCrillis. Their only infraction: neglecting to notify the department that they had planned to work off-duty at the Big Country Chateau the night of the shooting.
On Oct. 17, 2011, Spencer Ellison announced that the family was filing a wrongful death lawsuit.
“I want the city of Little Rock and the nation as a whole to know that his death was senseless and that a vital chapter of our lives was taken forever,” he said that day.
Since then, Laux has been taking sworn statements in preparation for the trial.
In one of those statements, Laux asked Donna Lesher whether she could have left Ellison’s apartment without shooting him.
“Certainly in the second before you shot Mr. Ellison you could have — you could have walked away. Correct?”
“Yes,” Lesher said.
Laux also questioned Lucio, one of the backup officers.
“I did not fear him,” Lucio said.
“You did not have a fear of deadly force from Mr. Ellison when you got there, did you?” Laux asked.
“No, I did not.”
Thomas, the police chief at the time, acknowledged that mistakes were made during the investigation. He said in a deposition that the officers should have been separated after the shooting. He also said that James Lesher, “from a professional standpoint,” should have stayed away from the scene and that cutting the video feed of Donna Lesher’s interview “wasn’t the best decision.”
Still, he stood by his officers.
“Was the shooting of Mr. Ellison by Donna Lesher unavoidable in your eyes?” Laux asked Thomas.
“She had no other option but to shoot him?”
“From her perspective and given the situation, I believe that her use of deadly force at that particular time was appropriate,” Thomas said.
Carpenter, the city attorney, tried to persuade a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller declined to do so, ruling that Ellison repeatedly asked Lesher and McCrillis to leave his apartment, that they kept striking him, and that at some point during the altercation, they knocked his glasses off.
“[Lesher] did not announce to Ellison, whose glasses had been knocked off, that she had a gun and was going to shoot if he did not put his cane down,” the judge wrote in his ruling.
Miller dismissed the city’s suggestion that Ellison’s history of mental-health problems may have factored into the shooting.
“This was not known to any of the officers; therefore, his history was not part of the totality of the circumstances that confronted the officers on December 9, 2010, when Ellison was killed,” he wrote. “A reasonable jury could find that Lesher used deadly force against a person who did not pose an immediate threat of serious physical injury or death to them.”
Carpenter appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January, the court declined to hear the case, clearing the way for the civil trial to proceed.
In March, Glenn King met with The Post. The former homicide division lieutenant had retired from the force a week earlier after a 37-year career.
He had hired Spencer and Troy Ellison onto the Little Rock force. He also was James Lesher’s boss the night that Eugene Ellison was killed.
King said he was saddened by what happened to the Ellisons’ father at the hands of a fellow officer.
He said that the investigation was handled properly, but a doubt lingers.
“I will say that I think at some point when somebody tells you that, ‘Hey, I’m okay, leave,’ and if you don’t have a really, really, really good reason for that, maybe you should leave,” he said.
Whitney Shefte, Alice Crites and Steven Rich contributed to this report.