A long-time Hamilton County prosecutor with experience in police-involved shootings will present evidence Sept. 22 to a special Greene County grand jury about the fatal police-involved shooting of a shopper inside Beavercreek’s Walmart.
The appointment came minutes before John Crawford III’s family again called for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to release all the Aug. 5 surveillance video — not just the six-minute portion DeWine showed them last week — and asked that the U.S. Department of Justice take over the investigation and prosecution.
“This is a very serious case,” DeWine said Tuesday as he named Hamilton County chief trial counsel Mark Piepmeier the special prosecutor at a press conference at the Greene County Courthouse. “And it’s very important that we have the best possible person to lead the investigation and to present this matter to the grand jury.”
Piepmeier will oversee the grand jury proceedings to determine whether any crimes were committed when two Beavercreek police officers shot and killed Crawford, 22, of Fairfield. Police said Crawford twice failed to drop a weapon, a characterization the Crawford family attorneys adamantly deny. The item Crawford was carrying was an MK-177 (.177 caliber) Crosman airgun rifle BB/pellet gun that he had minutes earlier picked up from a shelf inside Walmart.
DeWine said the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation has conducted 70 separate interviews, reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents, including schematics of Walmart on Pentagon Boulevard, both Beavercreek police officers’ records, policy manuals and all witness statements. DeWine said more than 260,000 files of videos from Walmart’s 203 surveillance cameras have been used to piece together the movements of Crawford, Beavercreek Sgt. David Darkow, officer Sean Williams and the 911 caller.
“They have reviewed all relevant video by date and time that tracks relevant individuals,” DeWine said, adding that the FBI’s office in Quantico, Va., is helping with technical assistance to overlay the audio from the 911 call and radio traffic to the surveillance videos for a “contextual view.”
DeWine said Piepmeier oversaw the grand jury proceedings of the 1993 Lucasville prison riot and the case against Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach for the shooting of Timothy Thomas that sparked that city’s riots in 2001. DeWine said Piepmeier has prosecuted more than 200 murder cases since 1985 and many officer use of force cases.
“In some cases, the grand jury has indicted the officer,” DeWine said. “And in some cases, it has not. I truly believe Mark Piepmeier has the balanced judgment needed in this case.”
Next step: grand jury
Greene County court officials said a special grand jury summons likely already had been sent to about 60 registered voters. Greene County Prosecutor Stephen Hallers said that how long and when the grand jury meets will be Piepmeier’s call.
“I was asked by the Attorney General to take over this investigation and agreed to do so,” Piepmeier said via email. “I have met with the investigating officers from BCI and been brought up to date with what they have done so far and steps they still need to take before the investigation is complete.”
DeWine again said the surveillance video showed to Crawford’s family would not be released until the case is complete.
“To put the video out on TV and let it be played, I think, is not the right thing to do,” he said. “There’s a fundamental difference between people commenting on what they’ve seen and people seeing it.”
In a press conference of his own in Dayton, Michael Wright, the attorney for the Crawford family, reiterated two demands he made in a Aug. 21 letter to DeWine that Wright shared Monday with the newspaper.
Wright called for the investigation to be referred to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and for the release of all Walmart surveillance video of Crawford, of police officers and of Riverside resident Ronald Ritchie, the only person inside the store to call 911 before shots were fired.
“Right now, the only investigative items that the public has been able to see is the preliminary material gathered by the Beavercreek police department, the exoneration of the (responding) police officers by the (Beavercreek) police chief, the cruiser cam footage of after the shooting and the contents of the 911 call,” Wright said. “This information that has been released has been decidedly one-sided and completely inconsistent with the portions of the video that we were shown.”
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” said Richard Schulte, a partner with Wright. “We want to see the video. We want to see the rest of the video.”
“Frankly, I see stall tactics,” said John Crawford Jr., Crawford’s father, who was with Wright.
Video differs from 911 call
Schulte said Tuesday that LeeCee Johnson — the mother of Crawford’s two children, with whom Crawford was speaking on the phone when police shot him — said that Crawford’s parents heard at least part of her phone call with Crawford after he was shot.
Schulte said Johnson put her conversation with Crawford on her phone’s speaker, allowing Crawford’s parents — Crawford Jr. and Tressa Sherrod — to hear Crawford dying, Schulte said.
Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers, on the day after the shooting, said officers acted appropriately, but he asked the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to investigate. Last week, Stephen McHugh, Beavercreek law director, said Darkow had returned to duty while Williams remained on administrative leave. Police have not said which officer shot Crawford.
Wright on Tuesday was again emphatic that the surveillance video offered a portrait of events starkly different from what Ritchie offered emergency 911 dispatchers.
Ritchie followed Crawford through the Walmart while speaking with dispatchers. He said Crawford was “waving” the gun at passers-by and acting threatening. At one point, Ritchie told dispatchers that Crawford was attempting to “load” the rifle; a dispatcher, in turn, told responding officers that Crawford had put “bullets” into the rifle.
The airgun rifle Crawford carried is suitable for hunting small game, according to the manufacturer. The airgun rifle was already unpacked, and Crawford went to the store to buy a BB gun, Wright said. Earlier, relatives had said Crawford was also planning to buy food for a local cookout he was attending with his friend, Tasha Thomas, who accompanied him in the store.
Wright said the surveillance video he has seen showed that Fairborn resident Angela Williams, 37, at one point was in the same aisle as Crawford, and she appeared “completely unconcerned” about Crawford. Williams, who worked in a Springfield nursing home, suffered an apparent heart attack and died later that evening in the tumult to flee the store after police fired on Crawford.
”He was doing nothing wrong in Walmart,” Wright said. “He was doing what Walmart wanted. He was shopping. He was doing nothing more, nothing less, than just shopping.”
‘I’m still numb’
From Wright’s viewing of the surveillance video, Crawford’s side was presented to officers when he was shot, holding the airgun rifle butt in hand, barrel resting on the floor, Wright said. Crawford was shot in the left arm near his elbow.
“He did not point the BB gun at anyone,” Wright said. “He did not threaten anyone. He did not appear to even look at anyone else in the store.”
From what he saw in the video, Crawford had no opportunity to put the BB gun down, the attorney said.
At 8:26 p.m. Aug. 5, according to the 911 call Beavercreek police released, a voice can be heard shouting a demand, followed immediately by gunfire. Then screams are heard.
Wright insisted the video shows Crawford “made no aggressive movement toward the police.”
He added, “He was shot almost immediately upon their (the police officers’) arrival.”
“I was speechless,” Crawford Jr. said when asked about his reaction to the video. “I’m still in disbelief. I’m still numb.”
Schulte said Crawford Jr. is a former parole officer. “He has trusted law enforcement his whole life,” Schulte said.
DeWine met with 60 local pastors on Monday at a Dayton church, asking for their help in maintaining community peace. Wright echoed those concerns.
“Violence in response to police violence is no solution to the unjust killing of John Crawford, and we share the same thoughts as the pastors had yesterday,” Wright said. “But peaceful demonstration is a cherished First Amendment right and an effective way to shed light on the unjust killing of John Crawford.”