The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Woman killed by officer in her own home heard noises outside and drew gun, nephew told authorities

Fort Worth Police chief Ed Kraus got emotional during an Oct. 15 news conference while discussing the fallout from the fatal shooting of Atatiana Jefferson. (Video: Reuters)

The nephew of the 28-year-old black woman fatally shot in her home by a white Fort Worth police officer over the weekend said his aunt drew a gun after hearing noises outside her house, according to an arrest warrant affidavit for the officer released Tuesday.

The details in the affidavit add weight to earlier accounts of the shooting from family members and city officials who said Atatiana Jefferson was trying to protect herself and the 8-year-old boy from what she thought was an intruder when she was killed early Saturday. The officer who shot Jefferson, Aaron Dean, resigned and was charged with murder on Monday.

According to the affidavit, Jefferson’s nephew told a forensic interviewer that he and his aunt were playing video games in a back bedroom when Jefferson “heard noises coming from outside” and “took her handgun from her purse.”

The boy told the interviewer that Jefferson “raised her handgun, pointed it toward the window” and “was shot and fell to the ground,” according to the affidavit. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was fatally shot by a Fort Worth police officer Oct. 12 when the officer was responding to reports of an open front door. (Video: AP)

Officers had been dispatched to Jefferson’s house about 2:30 a.m. Saturday in response to a non-emergency call from a neighbor who noticed the doors were open and asked for a welfare check. Jefferson’s mother had recently been hospitalized and the neighbor wanted to make sure she was all right, family members and city officials said.

Fort Worth interim police chief Ed Kraus appeared to defend Jefferson’s actions in a news conference Tuesday, saying it “makes sense that she would have a gun if she felt she was being threatened or if there was someone in the backyard.”

“There is absolutely no excuse for this incident,” he said, “and the person responsible will be held accountable.”

Texas has a “castle doctrine” law that gives people broad latitude to use fatal force to defend themselves in their homes. The controversial law came up in the recent trial of Amber Guyger, a white former police officer in Dallas who fatally shot Botham Jean, her unarmed black neighbor, in his apartment in 2018. Guyger, who killed Jean after mistaking his unit for her own, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison earlier this month.

Body camera footage released by police showed two officers peering into Jefferson’s house through a pair of screen doors, then walking stealthily into the backyard. Dean shined a flashlight into a closed window and, without identifying himself as police, shouted, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” A split-second later, he opened fire, killing Jefferson. There is no indication in the footage that he saw Jefferson holding the gun.

Dean, 34, joined the department in April 2018. He was released from jail Monday on a $200,000 bond. An attorney for Dean could not be reached for comment.

Dean declined to allow officers investigating the shooting to interview him, according to the affidavit. But investigators did interview an officer who responded to the call with him. The officer, identified as C.A. Darch, told investigators Dean was standing between her and the house at the time of the shooting and that she could “only see Jefferson’s face” through the window when Dean opened fire, according to the affidavit.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, police issued a statement saying Dean was searching the outside of the house when he saw someone in the window, and, “perceiving a threat,” fired a single shot. Along with the body camera footage, police released blurry images of a gun they said they found at the residence, but they did not indicate whether Jefferson was holding it or near it.

On Monday, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price told people to disregard the weapon. “The gun is irrelevant,” Price said in a news conference. Jefferson “was in her own home caring for an 8-year-old nephew.”

Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney representing the family, said Jefferson had a license to carry the gun. He cried foul on the department’s decision to release images of the weapon, accusing police of trying to “impute some bad act or blame on the victim.”

Jefferson, a graduate of Xavier University who worked in pharmaceutical equipment sales, was an avid gamer who loved playing with her nephew, Merritt said. On the night she was killed, they had left the doors open to let a breeze through the house. They had lost track of time playing the military video game “Call of Duty” when they heard someone outside, according to Merritt.

“He and his Auntie Tay experienced the fear of somebody prowling in the backyard,” Merritt said, using Jefferson’s nickname. “His Auntie Tay did not allow him to check the window. She checked herself. I ask myself what would have happened if that little boy went to window instead of his auntie."

Jefferson’s nephew will start receiving trauma counseling this week, Merritt said, adding that the boy had spent time consoling his mother after the shooting. “He has found a way to maintain more composure than the Fort Worth Police Department,” he said.

Merritt and the family are calling for an independent probe of the police department and Jefferson’s killing, saying they think her death was part of a pattern of racial bias. City officials said they are preparing to bring in a third-party panel of national experts to review the department’s policies and training practices, along with an independent police monitor.

Kraus, the police chief, acknowledged Tuesday that Jefferson’s killing has shattered trust between law enforcement and the community.

“We must now work even harder to ensure that trust is restored,” Kraus said at Tuesday’s news conference.

His voice quavering, he implored the community to not let Dean’s actions reflect on the rest of the department.

“The officers, they try hard every day to try to make this city better,” Kraus said. “I likened it to a bunch of ants building an anthill, and if somebody comes with a hose and washes it away they just have to start from scratch.”

He then abruptly ended the news conference and left the podium.