The stranger on the porch could have been a criminal, Jeffrey Zeigler would later say, so he grabbed a shotgun and fired toward the fleeing 14-year-old boy.
The calculus has shifted for the retired Michigan firefighter. He is now a felon, sentenced Tuesday to at least four years in prison on two counts — two to 10 years for assault with the intent to commit great bodily harm, and two years for using a firearm in a felony.
Zeigler, 53, will spend those four years in prison before he is eligible for parole. He was found guilty last month.
Brennan Walker, who is black and now 15, testified that the incident began when he missed his bus one April morning and got lost walking to school. He approached Zeigler’s Rochester Hills home to seek help.
Zeigler’s wife screamed at Brennan, and Zeigler, who later said he was on high alert after previous break-ins, was roused out of bed and rushed to the porch with a shotgun. Brennan fled.
"I turned back and I saw him aiming at me,” Brennan testified. “I was running away . . . I was trying to run away faster, and I heard a gunshot.”
Brennan was unhurt. Zeigler maintained throughout his hearing that he slipped and accidentally fired the shotgun, which provoked skepticism among police. Officers reviewed surveillance video of the incident, which showed Zeiger shouldering the weapon, fumbling with the safety and pointing the barrel in the boy’s direction before he fired.
Brennan’s family said they think the encounter was racially motivated.
The case is one in a series of recent high-profile incidents of black Americans being accosted or worse during innocuous moments of daily life, such as waiting for a tow truck, moving into an apartment, sitting at Starbucks — and asking neighbors for help.
“If there was a button I could press for me to pick what color I could be, just so I wouldn’t have to deal with this type of stuff,” Brennan’s mother Lisa Wright told the court Tuesday, “I would have to be your color so I could survive.”
Zeigler apologized to the Walker family during the sentencing Tuesday.
“I know it was wrong, and after spending 35 days in jail you do a lot of soul-searching,” he said. “I have full remorse and regret, and I wish I could change something, but I can’t go back in time.”
His attorney, Robert J. Morad, said during the trial that race was not a factor in the incident. He did not return a request for comment.
Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Potts told Zeigler that she took a few parts of his past into consideration during his sentencing.
He spent more than 20 years as a firefighter in Detroit. But he also faced a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully discharging a firearm in 2004, when he fired a handgun at a motorist on the highway after they’d “flipped off” each other, according to the Detroit News. A jury found Zeigler guilty of a lesser charge.
“Firemen are held in very high esteem for the services they perform,” Potts told Zeigler. She cited the historic blazes in California and the hundreds of people marshaled to battle them. “Your actions weren’t in uniformity with the actions of those brave firefighters.”