Playing Pokémon Go was supposed to be a way for Jiansheng Chen to connect with his grandchildren.
On Jan. 26, 2017, the 60-year-old left Royal China, the restaurant his family owns in Chesapeake, Va., and headed to the community clubhouse in the suburban River Walk neighborhood. Located about half a mile from his house in the winding subdivision, it was well known to local Pokémon Go players as a “gym” where they could score extra points by competing in virtual battles. According to prosecutors, Chen was sitting by himself outside the building in his blue minivan about 11 p.m. when Johnathan Cromwell, 21, a security guard, pulled up and confronted him about trespassing after hours. Chen put the car in reverse.
Cromwell fired off 10 shots in quick succession, piercing the minivan’s windshield. Five of the bullets hit Chen in the upper arm and chest. He died before he could be taken to a hospital.
In the weeks that followed, Chinese American activists held protests and waved signs that demanded “Justice for Grandpa Chen.” The deadly confrontation prompted several Democratic members of Congress to issue a statement demanding an investigation and questioning “how a game of Pokémon Go turned into a fatal shooting.” Two different narratives emerged: Cromwell’s attorney contended that he had acted in self-defense, fearing that Chen, who had previously been warned about trespassing at the clubhouse, would mow him down with his vehicle. An alternative version, supported by Chen’s family, held that the unarmed Chinese immigrant had presented no threat to anyone and simply might not have understood the security guard’s commands to leave, because he understood few English words besides “sorry” and “bye.”
“I speak a little bit of English,” his brother, Jianguo Chen, told WAVY the day after the shooting. “Him? He speaks nothing! No English.”
In a criminal trial that concluded last week in Virginia Beach, jurors sided with Chen’s relatives, whose narrative was backed by prosecutors and police. On Monday, the jury recommended that Cromwell, now 23, face 30 years in prison, after finding him guilty of second-degree murder and using a firearm to commit that murder. The sentencing will take place June 24.
Chen’s relatives described him as a family man and a hard worker. In a statement provided through their lawyer, they told the Virginian-Pilot that he had grown up in Fujian Province, China, and dropped out of school after sixth grade to work in a mine so he could earn money for his family. About 28 years before his death, he immigrated to the United States “in pursuit of happiness and religious freedom” and worked as a chef in New York before opening his own restaurant, serving Mongolian food in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Meanwhile, he saved money so the rest of his relatives could get green cards to join him in the United States.
To bond with younger members of his family, Chen had learned to play Pokémon Go, his nephew Steven Chen testified during the trial. He quickly became absorbed with the game: A forensic expert said the last activity on Chen’s Pokémon Go app was recorded at 11:06 p.m. on the night of the shooting, minutes before he was killed.
Cromwell’s attorney alleged that Chen repeatedly trespassed at the community association’s clubhouse after hours and had been barred twice in the 18 months leading up to his death, as The Washington Post’s Justin Wm. Moyer previously reported. During the trial, the security guard testified that he had seen the minivan turn down the driveway late at night and had gone out to investigate. When he got out of his car, he recognized the 60-year-old grandfather of three, whom he had banned from the clubhouse 10 days before.
Chen began reversing the van, and acted as though he was going to run him over, Cromwell claimed. He said that he yelled, “Stop the vehicle,” but Chen shook his head no. Thinking about his younger brother, who had been killed in a car accident just months before, he decided to open fire.
“I didn’t want my mother to receive another phone call,” he told the court, according to WTKR.
Although the shooting wasn’t captured on video, a neighbor’s security camera recording confirmed that Cromwell had told Chen to stop and put the car in park before he began shooting. But prosecutors pointed to some inconsistencies in his account: He had told a detective that he yelled at least 10 to 15 times for Chen to stop, but the recording only showed him doing so three times before he started firing. In addition, Chen had his foot on the brake when authorities arrived and found him dead inside the minivan, leading prosecutors to cast doubt on the security guard’s claim that he was at risk of being run over. Additional testimony revealed that Cromwell was supposed to call police when a situation seemed like it might escalate, rather than use deadly force.
In January, Chen’s family filed a separate civil suit against Cromwell, the River Walk Community Association, and Citywide Protection Services, the company that employed Cromwell as a security guard. They allege that Cromwell had a “dangerous, aggressive, erratic, careless and violent” disposition, had been fired by a previous employer for excessive use of force and was known for brandishing his gun when it wasn’t strictly necessary. Cromwell’s attorney, Andrew Sacks, who has also represented Citywide Protection Services in the case, told WTKR that the suit was “without merit,” and noted that Cromwell has consistently maintained that he acted in self-defense.
On the witness stand, Cromwell cried and expressed remorse about Chen’s death, WTKR reported. His mother testified that he had been accepted into a training program for the Virginia State Police before the shooting and wanted to go into the Secret Service.
Meanwhile, in court last month, Chen’s nephew Wenren Chen said that his family’s world had been “completely broken,” according to the Pilot. He added that his relatives have stopped holding large family gatherings because Chen’s elderly parents still don’t know that he died, and the grief might break them.
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