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June 25, 2013

A year later, divide remains over police shooting

JOHNSTOWN — A year ago early this morning, three Johnstown police officers, attempting to stop a fleeing vehicle, shot and killed Johnstown resident Elip Cheatham.

While those closest to the victim say little has changed in a struggle between members of the black community and police, others think the episode has raised awareness that will bring positive changes in the future.

“We work with the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and on our end, we try to open the lines of communication,” Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan said Monday. “We try to foster a relationship where complaints can be heard.”

Relations between city police and the public, in particular members of the black community, heated up last summer following the June 25 shooting of Cheatham, who died at Memorial Medical Center hours after three officers fired shots into a vehicle that they said had refused to stop at their command.

Cheatham, 27, died of multiple gunshot wounds, with the cause of death listed as a bullet to the chest.

The investigation of the shooting was turned over to state police, who found that three city police officers fired their weapons into the vehicle driven by Cheatham.

They fired when Cheatham came upon another vehicle stopped by city police near the Greater Johnstown Middle School. Police said Cheatham ignored their orders to stop and accelerated his vehicle in the direction of the police and emergency vehicles.

The officers who fired their weapons were placed on administrative leave until the investigation was completed. Their names have not been released to the public.

City police Chief Greg Foust, citing a pending civil lawsuit, said Monday that position has not changed.

“I can’t comment on anything, based on the possibility of legal litigation,” Faust said.

But he added: “I don’t think race was ever an issue. It was officers acting in the line of duty.”

The names were not released following the shooting because of concern over the safety of the officers involved, a concern that remains to this day, Callihan said.

“When you have serious threats, they don’t come with an expiration date,” she said. “The potential danger is still there.”

The city has received a notice of intent to file a civil suit by Cheatham’s family, information that went to the city. Officials notified the district attorney’s office of possible legal action, Callihan said.

Valerie Jenkins of Moxham, an aunt of Cheatham’s, said the family hit roadblocks when it attempted to find an attorney in the region to represent them in a suit against the city.

Jenkins said the family continues to search for answers and thinks release of the officers’ names would help with closure.

There are many questions that may never be answered, she said.

Jenkins said Cheatham was yelling out the window that he had to get his cousin to the hospital, when he was shot.

“They could have shot the tires out. There is always something else they could do,” she said. “The police, they need to protect and serve.”

Callihan said the police evaluated the situation and reacted as they saw fit.

“They were facing deadly force. Their lives were threatened and they used deadly force to stop the target,” she said. “It’s a last resort.”

Efforts by The Tribune- Democrat to gain access to a police roster and the starting employment dates of all members of the force were partially denied by Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records.

In October, the Office of Open Records ruled the city must provide the names of all officers, but not the starting dates.

The cousin Cheatham was taking to the hospital was Cardell “CJ” Clinton, 21, a

Johnstown man shot by ShyTyquon Lawton, 28, who police say was exacting revenge against Clinton for his role in extorting money from his friends, a Kernville couple.

Earlier, Clinton, Hayward Gaines, 25, of Johnstown, and Cheatham had threatened the couple, demanding $600 – a debt owned Cheatham’s cousin Cirilito Cheatham, who was in Cambria County Prison at the time.

The Cheatham shooting, one local black leaders hope was a watershed case in race relations with things only getting better.

Alan Cashaw, president of the NAACP Johnstown Unit, said things were pretty bad for a while, but that the sides are working toward improved understanding between the black and white communities.

But it will take time, he said.

“It starts with the kids; there are a couple programs in the Greater Johnstown High School,” he said.

He said that while tolerance is the key, the Johnstown community cannot tolerate those breaking the law.

“The community screams to the chief, who is trying to reduce crime and violence ...,” Cashaw said. “If you have a bad guy doing drugs, the neighborhood shouldn’t embrace him. He should be run out or put in jail.”

Court action in late May and early June resolved the status of Clinton, Gaines and Lawton.

“All of the residual cases that came about because of the sequence of events have been taken care of,” Callihan said.

Earlier this month Clinton was sentenced to six to 23 months in Cambria County Prison following a guilty plea to a theft by extortion charge. He was released because he was given credit for time served.

However, he was arrested last week by the Cambria County Drug Task Force on charges of dealing heroin.

In May, Lawton and Gaines pleaded guilty to charges for the roles they played in the series of events and each were handed sentences of three to eight years.

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