Just five hours after Walter Scott was killed by a South Carolina police officer as he was running away unarmed, police in a Chicago suburb killed a 17-year-old named Justus with two shots to the back.
Police have not released any video of the shooting. Meanwhile, questions linger about whether or not Justus Howell, who was black, was armed when he was gunned down.
“We heard pow! pow!” neighbor Bobbie Vaughn told Fusion. “We heard the two shots. Then the officer kind of looked back at me like, ‘damn.’ That’s the expression he had on his face. He took off running, and I took off running behind him.”
Vaughn, 45, said she was being nosy on the afternoon of April 4 when she went outside to see what two white police officers were doing in her front yard in Zion, Illinois. The officers were responding to a 911 call about an argument heard outside. As Vaughn stepped out her door, a short officer was cutting across the lawn and into a nearby alley. Vaughn followed a second, chubby officer as he walked down the street ten steps ahead of her. Then the gunshots rang out.
Vaughn and the officer ran to the corner and saw 17-year-old Justus Howell lying motionless on his stomach.
“I shot him. I shot his ass,” the short officer yelled, according to Vaughn, as he stood next to the boy, as if to tell his partner that Howell was a threat.
On April 6, Lake County coroner Thomas Rudd released autopsy results: “One gunshot wound was on the left back penetrating the spleen, liver and heart,” he wrote. “The other was on the right back penetrating subcutaneous tissues and the right shoulder.” Toxicology results are pending.
But in the absence of video footage of the shooting—Zion police don’t wear body cameras, and “potentially relevant” video has not been released yet, according to the Chicago Tribune—incensed residents have been left to piece together eyewitness accounts.
Many of those accounts contradict the narrative offered by police.
Shortly after the coroner’s report, the Zion police issued a press release about Howell’s shooting. The statement notes that the information was “reluctantly” released amid media reports and that the department has “no desire to defame the deceased and cause further pain to the family of Justus Howell.”
Police say they stopped 18-year-old Tramond Peet for a traffic violation on April 4 and found a handgun magazine in the car. After his arrest, Peet allegedly told officers he had met Howell, who is from nearby Waukegan, in Zion to sell him a gun. Police said Peet told them Howell attempted to steal the gun. When the two boys wrestled for the gun, police said, they fired one bullet into the ground.
Peet allegedly said Howell pointed the gun at him, so he let go. He then heard squad cars. The report says Peet saw “the officers” running after Howell—unlike Vaughn, who said only one officer was chasing Howell—and notes that Howell still had the handgun in his possession. One officer gave Howell “commands,” and then Peet heard gunshots. Then Peet ran away.
Officers said they recovered a handgun at the scene of the incident. Peet is being held in Lake County Jail on two counts of aggravated unlawful use of weapon charges. His bond is $15,000. Peet’s Lake County public defender did not respond to requests for comment.
Vaughn, who is unemployed, said she was home all day with the windows open and heard no gunshots other than the two that killed Howell. The neighbors she has spoken to also only heard two shots. She said she did not see a gun on Howell.
“If he had a pistol and that was the reason he was shooting him, don’t you think when the other officer came he’d a showed it to him?” she said. “When the officer made it there, he didn’t say nothing about a gun. He just said he shot him.”
Vaughn said she did see one of the officers shake Howell’s arm. When the boy didn’t move, the chubby officer who ran to the scene with her gave him CPR. A third officer, tall and with black hair, told her to move away. When she was across the street, the officer stood in front of the body, blocking her sight.
Another witness, who lives across the street from the shooting, is the bedridden wife of Michael Dizzonne. Dizzonne told the Chicago Sun-Times that his wife was looking out the window when she saw the officer shoot Howell twice. He said she did not see a gun on or anywhere near Howell. When contacted by Fusion, Dizzonne declined to comment.
Zion police chief Steve Dumyahn told Fusion in a statement: “This case is being investigated by the Lake County Major Crime Task Force. All relevant evidence has been collected by that entity. The case is still being thoroughly investigated.” Lake County prosecutors said the FBI will “monitor and review” the investigation.
The officer who shot Howell, a 32-year-old nine-year veteran of the Zion Police, is on paid administrative leave.
“This guy’s running away and gets two shots in his back,” Zion civil rights activist Clyde McLemore, who has been in contact with Howell’s family, told Fusion. “The officer is getting paid right now. This is going on all over the country. We tired.”
One week after the shooting, 200 peaceful protesters marched from the block where Howell was killed to the police department. They demanded that the Department of Justice review the Zion Police. Protesters held signs with the slogan “I Can’t Breathe” and “Justice 4 Justus.” Zion Mayor Lane Harrison, who is exiting office soon, said there would be “no cover” put on this shooting and that the “truth” would come out. He was booed.
Howell was a junior at Lakeshore Academy, a school for kids struggling academically and at risk of suspension. His mother told the Chicago Sun-Times he rapped under the name Lil Meachi and wanted to be a surgeon. His 18th birthday would’ve been on June 18.
The Howell family is considering attorneys. The Washington Post reports that out of the thousands of fatal shootings at the hands of police officers since 2005, only 54 cops have been charged. Illinois law states that if an individual is a threat to the surroundings, the officer has the right to kill.