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September 16, 2012

Tracing the bullets: Details of Cheatham shooting revealed

— The shot that fatally wounded 27-year-old Elip Cheatham of Johnstown came from the front of the driver’s side of the car Cheatham was operating, Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan has revealed to The Tribune-Democrat.

Cheatham was shot and killed early on June 25 when three city police officers opened fire at his fast-approaching vehicle, which they perceived as a threat not only to them but also to a handcuffed female suspect who was kneeling on North Sheridan Street after being stopped by police, Callihan said.

In an interview with The Tribune-Democrat, Callihan talked about the events surrounding the shooting and the investigation by the state police in a follow-up to her news conference held late last month.

She again declined to release the names of the three officers because of ongoing concerns about their safety. Threats have been received against the police and others, she has said.

The three officers, who were placed on administrative leave after the shooting, have returned to duty. She ruled out filing any charges against them, saying that their use of deadly force was justified.

Cheatham, who was not carrying a weapon, was black, and the three officers reportedly are white.

The county coroner’s office reported that an autopsy showed Cheatham had not been using drugs or alcohol.

Family members have said that Cheatham was not trying to run down the police, but rather trying to get around the stopped vehicles. They say he was taking his cousin, Cardell “CJ” Clinton – who had been wounded in a shooting minutes earlier near a bar – to the hospital.

The fatal shot

Clinton was lying on the back seat and was not shot again when the police fired. However, Hayward Gaines III, another cousin who was the front-seat passenger, received a graze wound on one leg.

One of the questions raised at an NAACP forum about the fatal shooting was why the car was shot from the sides after the officers already were out of harm’s way.

Callihan said that the officers began firing as they moved out of the direct path of the vehicle to get the driver to stop.

“They saw the threat as the approaching car,” she said.

In police training, officers are taught that deadly force is used to stop the threat, she said. The driver was perceived as the threat, she said.

Two of the shots were to the car’s front, including one that went into the driver’s-side windshield wiper area just below the windshield.

State police experts have determined that the  trajectory of the fatal shot, while through the driver’s side window, came from the front driver’s side, according to the district attorney.

The fatal shot went through the bottom area of the driver’s-side window at a slight downward angle. Experts think that Cheatham was sitting somewhat forward and slightly downward, with the slug entering the heart and then a lung before exiting the body and coming to rest in the console area, Callihan said.

The officers fired 18 shots. Of those shots, 14 struck the car, although only four penetrated and entered the interior, she said.

Response times

The prosecutor, referring to the 911 log, said that EMS personnel were on the scene within minutes, and medical crews quickly assisted Cheatham.

Callihan denied claims that Cheatham was not treated quickly.

“It’s not accurate that he laid untreated for an extended period of time at the scene,” she said.

No evidence surfaced either on 911 transmissions or in the probe that would indicate that any of the officers were aware that Cheatham was the driver.

There also was no evidence that any officer made racial remarks, Callihan said.

In addition, the prosecutor said that the three officers did not know the Oldsmobile had been checked out by police about two hours prior to the earlier shooting in the parking lot of the Edder’s Den bar.

City police responded to a call at 10:32 p.m. June 24 about a suspicious person in a parked car on Harold Avenue near Edith Avenue. A black woman in the back seat said she had received a ride from a friend she identified only as “L.” She said she did not know where the driver had gone. She got out of the car and walked away.

The car, a 1999 Intrigue, was registered to Evangeline Clinton, reportedly a sister of Cardell Clinton.

Other details

The Oldsmobile’s air bag did not deploy even though the vehicle had hit the front of a police cruiser and bounced back before stopping. The car system’s equipment indicated that the vehicle had been involved in what was described as a non-deployment event.

“We think that (happened) when it hit the cruiser,” Callihan said.

An accident reconstruction by state police could not determine the speed at impact, although witnesses, including the bartender who had come out of Edders Den – estimated the speed at 60 mph.

Witnesses said it had slowed but then was accelerating at the officers and another car the police had stopped on Sheridan Street. The female motorist, who was handcuffed and on her knees near her vehicle, later told investigators, “I mean they tried to run the officers over – like they didn’t care.”

The motorist, identified as Latoya Just, also said, “Everyone was yelling for it to stop, stop. But it was coming.”

The Oldsmobile’s front bumper came off, and the car had dents, though some of the damage was believed to have occurred prior to the incident with police.

The police cruiser had minimal damage, and no repairs were necessary.

There was no evidence of braking by Cheatham and no skid marks were found at the scene. When Cheatham was shot, it’s likely his foot came off the gas pedal, police have said.

The Oldsmobile has been retained at an undisclosed location by the district attorney’s office at the request of the city solicitor as evidence for a threatened civil lawsuit by the family.

No recusal

The district attorney again said that she felt she had a responsibility to review the state police’s finding and make the decision on whether the use of force was justified.

“I felt it was my duty to make this call. I felt I was elected by the citizens of Cambria County to make the big decisions,” she said.

The practice around the state by other district attorneys is for the DA to handle such probes, she said.

“Part of our role is to make sure police safeguard people’s constitutional rights, and if they don’t we call them on it. We’re called upon, in the DA’s office, to police the police every day.”

Although she knows the three officers through their work on the force, “I don’t know their personal lives,” Callihan said.

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