Doubts cast on witness's account of black man killed by police in Walmart
Alleged to have threatened customers, John Crawford, 22, was having a phone conversation while holding an unloaded BB gun
When Ronald Ritchie called 911 from the aisles of a Walmart in western Ohio last month to report that a black man was “walking around with a gun in the store”, he said that shoppers were coming under direct threat.
“He’s, like, pointing it at people,” Ritchie told the dispatcher. Later that evening, after John Crawford III had been shot dead by one of the police officers who hurried to the scene in Beavercreek, Ritchie repeated to reporters: “He was pointing at people. Children walking by.”
One month later, Ritchie puts it differently. “At no point did he shoulder the rifle and point it at somebody,” the 24-year-old said, in an interview with the Guardian. He maintained that Crawford was “waving it around”, which attorneys for Crawford’s family deny.
Ritchie told several reporters after the 5 August shooting that he was an “ex-marine”. When confronted with his seven-week service record, however, he confirmed that he had been quickly thrown out of the US marine corps in 2008 after being declared a “fraudulent enlistment”, over what he maintains was simply a mixup over his paperwork.
Crawford, 22, turned out to be holding an unloaded BB air rifle that he had picked up from a store shelf. After Ritchie said Crawford appeared to be “trying to load” the gun, the 911 dispatcher relayed to an officer that it was believed the gunman “just put some bullets inside”.
The Crawfords’ attorneys told the Guardian that they had learned the preliminary findings of an autopsy were that he was shot in the back of his left arm and in his left side, supporting their claim that he was turned away from the police officer who shot him.
They have pleaded with Mike DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general, to release the store’s surveillance footage of the shooting to the public. Having viewed it, they say that it disproves Ritchie’s version of what led to the deaths of both Crawford and a 37-year-old woman who collapsed and died in the ensuing panic.
“It was an execution, no doubt about it,” alleged Crawford’s father, John Crawford II. “It was flat-out murder. And when you see the footage, it will illustrate that.”
DeWine has said that releasing the footage would be “playing with dynamite” and prevent any trial from being fair. He has assigned a special prosecutor from the neighbouring Hamilton County to handle the case. A grand jury will begin hearing evidence on it later this month. A Beavercreek police spokesman said in a statement: “Preliminary indications are that the officers acted appropriately under the circumstances.”
Following the opening of a federal inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Crawfords’ attorneys have also urged the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the Ohio incident, only the second fatal police shooting in Beavercreek’s history. A white officer has been placed on administrative leave following Crawford’s shooting.
The attorneys said that they would also be lodging a complaint with DeWine after Ritchie told the Guardian that he, too, was shown the surveillance footage by officials in the attorney general’s bureau of criminal investigation, who are investigating the shooting.
“That is very improper,” said attorney Michael Wright, who said that Ritchie’s statement on what happened should have been based only on what he remembered seeing.
Ritchie said that he had also become aware of past criminal allegations against Crawford, which were dropped. He declined to say if he had learned this from DeWine’s officials. Asked four times by the Guardian whether they had told the witness about Crawford’s court record, a spokesman for DeWine declined to comment.
‘He was stood so still’
Crawford was a high school graduate who had two young sons. On the evening of 5 August he was at the Walmart in a suburb of Dayton, with his girlfriend, Tasha Thomas. They were to buy ingredients to make S’mores for a family cookout, according to his family’s attorneys.
The couple separated inside the store. Crawford began a conversation on his mobile phone with LeeCee Johnson, the mother of his two sons. Walking in the sporting goods section, he approached a shelf and picked up a MK-177 BB/pellet air rifle, which was already unboxed.
“He never put the phone down,” said his father. “He just kind of picked the rifle up and carried it, was walking around with it.”
From this point, the Crawford team’s description of what is shown in the surveillance footage differs radically from Ritchie’s recollection, which he insisted was also backed up by the recordings from the Walmart cameras.
Crawford’s father and attorneys said that the footage showed the 22-year-old walking from one aisle to the next with the BB rifle at his side and in his left hand, pointed at the floor except for one notable movement.
“I would think that the rifle maybe got heavy to him,” said his father. “He kind of swung it like you carry it on your shoulder, then he immediately put it back down.”
“You can clearly see people walk past him, and they didn’t think anything about it. Everybody was just kind of minding their own business,” his father added. “He wasn’t acting in any type of way that he would have been considered menacing, if you will.”
Ritchie, however, says Crawford was “waving the weapon around”, causing the muzzle to move in the direction of passersby, including him and his wife, April. “And even still, it’s a gun in Walmart, in a public place, inducing panic,” said Ritchie.
The Crawford family’s attorneys contend that Ohio’s “open-carry” law means that he could have been legally holding the rifle in the store even if it had been a full-powered firearm. “We never saw him waving this rifle in front of kids or people,” said his father.
Crawford arrived at the pet products section in the next aisle, estimated at 60 yards from where he had picked up the item. Then, his family and their attorneys say, at about 8.20pm, he stopped and stood still for about six minutes. “With the rifle pointed down and the cell phone up in his right hand,” said his father, he stayed there facing a shelf, apparently preoccupied by the call.
“He didn’t move,” said his father. “He was stood so still, in fact, we thought the track had actually stopped. I asked the technician ‘what’s going on?’ and he said ‘Well, the reel is still running Mr Crawford, look at the time’.”
Ritchie, on the other hand, stated that at this stage, Crawford was “pointing [the BB rifle] at things, like moving things around the shelf with the gun.”
At about 8.26pm, armed police officers responding to Ritchie’s 911 call five minutes earlier come into view on the footage, according to those who viewed it. Within seconds, Crawford was shot twice and pounced on. He was taken to hospital but died from his wounds. The Crawfords’ attorneys say only Ritchie called 911 before the shooting.
Police and Ritchie say an officer to Crawford’s left twice shouted “put it down”. “Responding officers confronted the suspect inside the store area and the subject was shot after failing to comply with officers’ verbal commands,” a Beavercreek police spokesman said in a statement.
Ritchie says Crawford turned towards the officer after hearing the instruction, and then moved to run to his right, causing the BB rifle’s muzzle to swing in the officer’s direction moments before the officer fired.
“Then he got back up and tried to either go for the rifle or go for one of the officers,” Ritchie said of Crawford. “But the officer had him on the ground before he got to either target.”
Yet the Crawford team dismiss almost all of this. By the time the officer advanced from his left, according to Wright, Crawford was “turned 30 degrees to the right,” standing “almost in a catty-corner position, facing in an opposite direction to the direction they were coming”.
He did not seem to hear the police orders, said Wright. “Based on the video that we saw, it did not even appear that he knew they were there,” he said. “He doesn’t look at the officers, he doesn’t turn his body towards the officers. It’s as if he was just shot on sight by the officers.”
Johnson, the mother of Crawford’s children, who remained on the phone line to him throughout, has told reporters that she heard him say “It’s not real”, adding: “they said ‘get on the ground,’ but he was already on the ground because they had shot him”. Wright said they were trying to reconcile this with the footage.
Crawford’s father and Wright insist that the footage also did not show the 22-year-old trying to flee, nor trying to get back up to reach the weapon, which, they stress, he would have known was an unloaded BB rifle with no potential use. His only movement, they said, was a few steps to the right and to the ground upon being shot.
The Crawfords’ attorneys said they had been informed by Dr Robert Shott, deputy coroner of Montgomery County, that the 22-year-old was “shot in the back of the left arm, above the elbow, and on the left side of his torso, to the left of his belly button”. Shott did not respond to a message requesting comment. Ritchie, however, said the first shot entered Crawford’s arm from the front after he turned to the officer.
Within a few minutes, fellow shopper Angela Williams, a 37-year-old nursing home worker reported to have suffered from a heart condition, was in cardiac arrest after collapsing trying to flee the melee. She died later that evening in hospital.
Crawford’s attorneys said Williams and two of her young children had been in the same aisle as Crawford in the moments before the shooting. “She was completely indifferent as to him being there,” said Wright. “She wasn’t startled, she wasn’t alarmed or anything like that.”
Ritchie said that it was his own heart condition that saw him discharged from the US marines after joining in September 2008. He insisted that he had disclosed the condition when signing up. However, he claimed, “my recruiter never turned that paperwork in, so they considered me a fraudulent enlistment” when officers later discovered the condition.Photograph: Beavercreek police department
Beavercreek police and the attorney general’s office have declined to name the officer who shot Crawford. However, after Sergeant David Darkow and Officer Sean Williams were placed on leave following the incident, Darkow has returned to work but Williams has not.
Williams was the officer behind the only other fatal police shooting in Beavercreek. In 2010, he shot dead Scott Brogli, a retired master sergeant in the US air force. According to Williams and a colleague, Brogli charged at them with a large knife after they went to investigate the 45-year-old’s drunken beating of his wife. A grand jury declined to bring any charges.
Wright, the Crawfords’ attorney, cited this in reiterating a request for the Department of Justice to step in and mount its own investigation.
“This has a lot of civil rights implications,” said Wright of the Ohio shooting. “This was a young black man apparently being shot and killed by a white police officer.” The US attorney for the southern district of the state has said his office is “monitoring” the case.
“Attorney General DeWine has been keeping US attorney Carter Stewart updated as the case and investigation has been proceeding,” said Dan Tierney, a spokesman for DeWine. “We’ve also been updating the FBI.”
John Crawford II said that he would remember his son by the laughter they shared one week before the shooting, while playing pool in a restaurant-bar on the evening of his 22nd birthday. “I hugged him, and I told him ‘happy birthday’, and we finished the night out, and we came home,” he said. “And I can just remember him smiling and having a good time.”
“We’re still in the shock stage of things,” he said. “I’m still relatively numb.” A grand jury in Greene County is scheduled to begin hearing evidence on 22 September.