The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

June 28, 2012

‘Is that a crime?’: Witness says man shot by police was rushing cousin to hospital

Arlene Johns
ajohns@tribdem.com

— A Johnstown man who survived a deadly shooting early Monday by three Johnstown police officers said that he and his cousin, Elip Cheatham, were trying to get another wounded cousin to a hospital and were not attempting to run down police.

“If it wasn’t for God being on my side I wouldn’t be here,” Hayward Gaines III said. Gaines did not escape the gunfire entirely and received a wound to his right leg.

But it’s the loss of his 27-year-old cousin that has him the most upset.

Police have said that Cheatham was driving a car that appeared to accelerate toward officers who had stopped another car following a shooting minutes earlier outside Edder’s Den, a nearby bar.

The three officers who shot at the approaching car are on paid leave as state police investigate. Still to be determined is whether the use of deadly force was justified, First Assistant District Attorney Heath Long reiterated Thursday.

 Gaines said he and Cheatham were taking the victim of the earlier shooting, Cardell Clinton, to the hospital when they were fired on.

“All he (Cheatham) was trying to do was get his little cousin to the hospital. Is that a crime?” he asked.

Gaines said he was not in the bar that night but was visiting a friend who lived nearby when he realized there was “something going on outside the bar.”

“When I got down there, I saw my cousin, Cardell, laying on the side of  the bar,” Gaines said. “I helped him get up. He said he was shot.

“I was carrying him up the street – yelling out for someone to call the cops ’cause he got shot.

Gaines said he had “no clue” who shot Clinton. “But I knew he was shot. He had a lot of blood running out his shirt.”

He and Cheatham got the wounded man into a car with Gaines in the front passenger’s seat and Clinton in the back.

“We were trying to get our cousin to the hospital ... as quick as possible. That’s all that was on our mind.

“He (Clinton) was yelling: ‘Help. Help. Somebody, please help me.’

“We started driving to where they had another car pulled over,” Gaines said.

“We were trying to get around them (through the shopping center parking lot) when they opened fire.

“They gave no warning. No anything. They could have shot a tire or anything out. They just were trigger happy,” he said.

“It’s crazy that it happened like that for no reason. Nobody was intoxicated. We had no weapons or anything.”

Police said in a report that officers ordered the vehicle to stop with negative results.

‘Not making excuses’

Clinton’s mother, Marion McGriff of Philadelphia, who formerly lived in Johnstown, said that she returned here not knowing whether she would find her son alive. Clinton, who was shot in the pelvis with the slug traveling into his abdomen, had some of his intestines removed during surgery, she said. He remains in Memorial Medical Center’s intensive care unit.

While acknowledging that some family members have been in trouble with the law, McGriff said that she and her family had been harassed since moving to the area many years ago. Area police officers quickly pegged the family, “The Philly bunch.” She alleged they are called names and are told to go back to Philadelphia.

“My family is not perfect,” she admitted. “We all got in trouble.”

But McGriff and other family members believe they have been stigmatized.

“I think they have it in for us because our name is Cheatham,” McGriff’s daughter, Cierra Clinton, said.

“You can’t judge somebody because of their family. And we’ve been judged and we’ve been harassed.

“I feel they killed my cousin because of who we are,” she said.

Not after revenge

Shy-Tyquon Lawton of Johnstown has been charged by police with shooting Clinton outside the bar, but McGriff said she is not interested in revenge.

“I want him to go to jail,” she said. “What these young people need to know is it’s easy to fight. But you shoot somebody, you not only hurt the other family, you hurt your family too ’cause your family is going to lose you, too.”

She also is not interested in revenge for the shooting of her nephew. But she and family members want a thorough investigation.

“If they did this on purpose, I just want them to get what they deserve,” she said.

“I’m not threatening them (the police). I don’t want them to ever think that we’re threatening them, ’cause we’re not.

“But we want them to go to jail like the next man would.

“I’m hoping and I am praying to God that they didn’t do it on purpose. That’s what I’m praying,” McGriff said.

Seeking a turnaround

Cierra Clinton said Cheatham was about to move to Texas, where he had a daughter.

Released from prison just three days before the shooting, he was trying to turn his life around, family members said.

“He’s not the only person with a bad history,” Cierra Clinton said.

Gaines said Cheatham had learned from his mistakes and wanted to be around to show his daughter there was a better way of life.

“He was trying to do the right thing,” he said.

“People do change their lives.”

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