Clint Peterson Was Killed by Police While Running Away
Melissa Peterson and Debra Gallegos witnessed the death of Peterson's brother Clint at the hands of Duncanville police.
There still are a few reminders left of Clint Peterson on Kelly Court, the quiet, leafy street in Duncanville where he was shot to death.
A neighbor's white pickup that Peterson once repaired is parked in a driveway. Across the street is the home of an elderly couple whose lawn he mowed for extra cash. A small bouquet of flowers sits outside another house in the middle of the block, where the three women who witnessed Peterson's brief, fatal encounter with police all live.
A few houses down, there is a more gruesome trace of Peterson — faint bloodstains on the concrete driveway where he collapsed after being shot.
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Shyanna Gallegos lives at the house with the bouquet out in front. She says she woke up early the morning of October 28 to the sound of Melissa Peterson, one of her housemates, yelling at her brother Clint in the driveway, telling him to go home.
Gallegos' mom, Debra, the third witness, and Clint Peterson had dated on and off. But lately he was no longer welcome at the house. He was depressed and drank often. He stayed with a family friend not far away, who says Peterson planned to go to rehab later that day.
The police reports describe the scene before the shooting as a "major disturbance," but Peterson's sister and girlfriend dispute that account. They say they simply wanted him to leave. He often came over uninvited. And that morning, Peterson, a talented mechanic, had messed with some switches on Gallegos' car, so that the lights wouldn't work until he came back later to fix it. "He made me mad about the car, which now I look at it, it wasn't that big of a deal," Debra Gallegos says.
After the yelling woke her up, Shyanna Gallegos ran downstairs. "I told Melissa, 'Just shut up, go inside, leave Clint alone, I'll go out and talk to him," she says. The younger Gallegos considered Peterson a best friend and says she tried to mediate the fights he'd get into with her housemates. He seemed calm to her. He told her he found a job and promised he'd leave if he could get a cigarette. "The thing I don't understand is why there was even an argument to begin with, because when I came outside to talk to Clint, he had no problem talking to me and telling me what was going on," she says.
She told him to wait a minute and she'd bring him a smoke. Inside the house, her mother was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, telling them about the car. Shyanna Gallegos says she told her mother to give the dispatcher a warning: Peterson might be carrying a fake gun that easily could be mistaken for a real one. Or, at least he had been carrying one a few days prior. The women insist it was just a toy. Still, they feared it could cause trouble if a police officer saw it and thought it was real.
"We weren't sure the state of mind that Clint was in," Shyanna Gallegos says. "We wanted the officers to know that he might have a fake gun on him, that it is fake, for sure," and that "he would be more likely to be suicidal than to hurt anybody."
The three women say that Peterson was already walking away from their house as two Duncanville Police Department officers drove toward him and parked next to the curb. Within a minute, they say, he was dead.
The eyewitnesses say that the police officers, unprovoked, cornered Peterson and shot a Taser gun at him as he backed away with his hands in his pockets. They say that prompted Peterson to turn his back and run, but that he barely made it around a tree before an officer fired two bullets at him from point-blank range. Neighbors heard two gunshots. The three women believe it was the second bullet that struck Peterson, hitting him in the back of the head and killing him.
"If they lunged two steps, they could have tackled him, or used their Taser," says Melissa Peterson. "He didn't pull nothing, they didn't tell him nothing, they didn't tell him to stop, they didn't tell him to put his hands up."
If what the women say is true, it would be an outrageous story and difficult to believe. Yet so far, the police haven't released any information providing any other narrative.
Documents from the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office say Peterson, formally known as Clinton, died of a gunshot wound to the head, a homicide. He was 28 years old. The Duncanville Police Department has declined to release a police report to the family or the public that would explain how the killing occurred, saying they aren't obligated to release information because the case remains under investigation.
Instead, the department has been distributing a vague news release. It says that "shots were fired" after officers responded to a "major disturbance" in the 400 block of Kelly Court. But the official account doesn't say what that disturbance was, who fired the shots, whether or not the suspect was armed with any real or fake weapon or where he was hit.
What few details are in the report seem to at least confirm that Peterson had been running away before he was shot.
"Preliminary reports indicate that shots were fired during a foot chase," says the Duncanville Police Department's statement.
The courts ruled long ago that foot chases aren't a justification to shoot at an unarmed suspect.
In 1974, a Memphis Police Department officer named Elton Hymon shot at an unarmed 15-year-old burglary suspect who was trying to climb over a fence. The bullet struck the teenager in the back of his head, killing him.
At the time, the police department argued that officers were legally justified to shoot the teenager under Tennessee law. A state statute had said that police pursuing a suspect could "use all the necessary means to effect the arrest."
The victim's father didn't agree and brought a lawsuit against the city of Memphis and its police department.
Tennessee v. Gardner made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1985 ruled that an officer can use deadly force on a fleeing suspect only if the officer "has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others." Now, attorneys say, the ruling provides clear guidance that police officers can't shoot unarmed suspects on the run.
"The only time you can possibly do it is, if that person was a danger to others or himself," says Jim Harrington, a human rights attorney who founded the Texas Civil Rights Project. "But simply running away from the officer, you can't do it."
More recently, in December 2011, an Austin Police Department officer named Chris Allen shot 14 rounds at a suspect driving away in a stolen vehicle. The suspect survived and was later arrested. Nonetheless, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo fired Allen. Allen's use of deadly force "was objectively unreasonable and not within department policy," the police chief told the Austin American-Statesman last year.
"If the story is that the individual was running away from police," and unarmed, says Todd Shapiro, a criminal defense attorney who used to be a prosecutor at the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, then "justification for using deadly force would seem to be unavailable in this situation. I would expect that police officer would be charged with murder."
The Dallas County Sheriff's Department is conducting a criminal investigation. With the shooting under review, the sheriff can withhold much of the normally public information that would provide clues into Peterson's death — such as the police report, the 911 tapes or footage from any dash-cams the officers may have had.
In response to an open records request from reporters, the sheriff's office says the case may be presented to a Dallas County grand jury, and if it is, "release of the video, audio and the offense report would allow the officers being investigated to have access to evidence and case analysis before the grand jury meets on this matter."
Sherry Horne, Peterson's mother, has also asked for a report. "I need closure. I need answers and nobody will give me answers," she says.
The Duncanville Police Department is similarly mum on details as it works on a separate investigation into whether either of the officers who responded violated any department policy.
The officers who confronted Peterson were out on paid administrative leave for less than a week before returning to work. They're both back to their normal duties, the Duncanville Police Department says. The officers' names haven't been released to the public.
"I don't see anything wrong with that decision," says Robert Brown, the Duncanville police chief. "The officers have not been charged with any criminal offense. They're simply being investigated as an officer would who's used deadly force."
News of Peterson's death was overshadowed by reports of other officer-involved shootings in North Texas that were more obviously egregious, with video footage quickly made public.
On October 14, Dallas Police Department Officer Cardan Spencer shot and wounded a mentally ill man holding a knife in the middle of a residential street in south Dallas. In an initial police report, Spencer's partner Christopher Watson had claimed that the man raised the knife in an "aggressive manner" shortly before the shooting. But surveillance footage that a neighbor captured shows the man standing with a knife by his side. After the neighbor sent his video to WFAA, the Dallas Police Department fired Spencer and now plans to present a case against him to a grand jury. Spencer's partner who wrote the report, Christopher Watson, was also recently suspended by Dallas Police Chief David Brown for giving "misleading statements" in the report.
And in November, a Garland Police Department Officer who shot and killed a suspect was indicted. It was the first time in 17 years that any Dallas County grand jury indicted an officer who shot a suspect. Garland Officer Patrick Tuter killed 25-year-old Michael Vincent Allen on August 31, 2012, after a lengthy car chase.
At first, the Garland Police Department said that Allen had rammed his truck into Tuter's police car before the officer fired at him.
Yet soon afterward, the department revised its official story and gave the public new details about what happened. The department announced that dash-cam footage revealed it was actually the officer who had crashed his squad car into the suspect's truck before firing as many as 41 rounds. Within a week after the shooting, Tuter was placed on extended leave and the department confiscated his city-owned weapons.
In Peterson's case, the most vivid picture has come from the three witnesses, although their accounts are sometimes inconsistent. The housemates gave statements to the police shortly after and were told they can't get more information until the case is delivered to the District Attorney's Office.
Most other people on the street say they didn't see or hear anything that morning, that they were waking up or not home. A few people heard two gunshots but didn't know where they came from. Another witness, a man who lives next door to the house where Peterson died, said he looked out of his bedroom window after hearing the second gunshot and saw Peterson lying on his stomach in the driveway, with his head gushing blood. A police officer pushed three women away from the body as the women asked why they shot him, the neighbor recalls.
The neighbor can't speak English but gave an interview with his wife translating, on the condition that he not be named. He says he saw no weapons by Peterson's body and "didn't see nothing in his arms."
Peterson moved to Duncanville a year and a half ago, following his sister Melissa. They grew up in Salina, a small town in the middle of Utah where they struggled to find work.
He stayed on and off at the crowded house on Kelly Court and fell in love with Debra Gallegos. He repaired cars and mowed lawns in the neighborhood. He even found a stable job at a home improvement store. But he lost the job, and the relationship fell apart. Debra Gallegos said it was the age difference that bothered her — at 50, she was 22 years older than Peterson.
Shyanna Gallegos says he also caused trouble by trying to bring alcohol over, even though the women didn't want it in the house.
And, according Debbie Scroggins, Gallegos' half-sister who also lived there, Peterson was also a drug addict, making him act strangely but never violently. "I've never seen him hit anybody, he just would steal," Scroggins says. (Scroggins wasn't home when the shooting took place.)
Whatever the reason for the break-up, he didn't take the news well. He stayed with Bobby Smith, an acquaintance who has his own lawn-mowing business. "He was real depressed and stuff," Smith says.
Even while he stayed with Smith, Peterson would often walk over to the Gallegos' home, uninvited. He would stand on the driveway, begging Debra Gallegos to talk to him. "He would stand outside my mom's window at night and throw some rocks, like a little lovebird would, and be like, 'Hey Debbie, come out and talk to me.' And whether my mom came out and talk to him or not, that was on her," Shyanna Gallegos says. "Everyone had a problem with my mom and Clint being together, that's why nobody wanted Clint around."
On some mornings, Scroggins would find what she assumed were Peterson's cigarette butts littered on the driveway. Another morning, Scroggins noticed nails in her tire, which she also thought could be Peterson's doing. She called the police. An officer came to the house and found no leads. Scroggins says the officer suggested they call back if Peterson reappeared.
Despite all that, Scroggins says she mostly got along with Peterson. "I didn't like some of the stuff he did, but as a person, I liked him." Apparently, Peterson wasn't charged for that incident, or anything else while he lived in Texas. A search of his name and date of birth shows no arrests in the state.
The other women downplay the tire incident and Peterson's alleged substance abuse. "Most of the time, all my brother did was drink," Melissa Peterson says.
Yet they knew the toy gun could cause trouble. Scroggins once saw him carrying it in his waistband. To her it looked real.
"I said, 'You have a gun? Oh my God, you have no business with a gun,'" Scroggins recalled.
Shyanna Gallegos said she could tell by just looking that it was an airsoft gun. "He came up to me acting like some kind of badass, he's like, 'I got this gun, I found it,'" she says. "I'm like, 'That's fake,' and he goes, 'No it ain't.' 'I'm like, Clint that's fake, I'm not an idiot.'" She grabbed it out of his hand, and shook it, hearing plastic toy pellets inside. He told her he found it in a trash bin. Gallegos saw a crack in the side. She tried to pull the trigger but it was jammed.
Suspects who hold guns in front of police — real or fake — are likely to end up getting shot, even if they are fleeing. "If a guy has a gun, they're entitled to shoot him. The courts won't second guess the cop in that kind of dangerous situation," says Harrington, the civil rights attorney.
Yet the witnesses insist he never pointed it at officers. They say they're still not sure if he even had it on him the morning he died.
The police came quickly that morning. Debra Gallegos was still on the phone with 911. Her daughter ran downstairs with Peterson's cigarette but he already walked off and was several houses away. There were two officers, one on a motorcycle and one in a squad car. They parked a few houses down, in front of the address where Peterson would soon die.
The whole confrontation happened quickly. "They weren't prepared, they weren't prepared at all," Debra Gallegos says. It was the one on the motorcycle who got the women's attention. "He came with a hot head," she adds.
Shyanna Gallegos, the one closest to the officers, says the motorcycle officer stumbled off his bike with his hand already on his weapon. She says she heard him ask, "Hey can you talk?" but didn't give Peterson a chance to respond. She began running toward them, telling them, "Don't shoot." Her mom and Melissa Peterson were behind her. Peterson, with his hands in his pockets, backed away.
They heard a Taser fired and then saw a Taser prong tangled in the trees. Peterson dodged it, turned and ran around a tree. The officers quickly closed in, and one of them, just a yard away from Peterson, fired at him. The second bullet caused his body to lunge forward onto the driveway.
Debra Gallegos says she stayed on the phone with 911 the whole time. "I said, 'I thought I told you that it was a fake gun, if he even had one,'" Gallegos says.
Shyanna Gallegos got to the scene first, and a moment later, the two other women ran up. Gallegos says she asked the officer why he shot Peterson, and the officer, still holding his gun, was "freaking out," repeating "I don't know," and then "because he ran."
Told about the witnesses' story, Chief Brown says he can't comment on it until all the official investigations into the shooting are finished. "People are going to have their opinions of what took place, and I respect that. They're giving you their account of what occurred," Brown says. "So what I want to do is take the whole puzzle, and make decisions from the whole puzzle, not just pieces of it."
The only investigative document released to the public so far is the preliminary cause of death sheet, which says that Peterson died of a gunshot wound to the head. Brown says he hasn't seen that, though it was obtained by the Observer. "Where he was shot, how many times he was shot, the part of body, I don't have any of that information," Brown says.
The women begged the officers to check on Peterson. "They didn't even check to see if he was dead or alive. They didn't even touch him," his sister says. Shyanna ran around and tried to grab his hand. They say the officer from the motorcycle tugged on her shirt and pulled her away.
What particularly troubles the witnesses is that dozens more police officers showed up in cars just minutes later. If that whole group had come at once, earlier, maybe they could have caught Peterson at the end of the block alive. "They should have been prepared and not sent one officer on that motorcycle and another one in a patrol car. They should have had more substantial resources than what they brought on," Debra Gallegos says. Within 15 minutes, they say, the ambulance came, but Peterson was clearly dead.
Debra Gallegos maintains that the 911 tape will back up her story from the shooting.
"The 911 tape's going to tell it all," she says.
Standing on the driveway where Peterson died, she turns to look back at her house. "That's a close range," she says. "You're an officer, you're trained, and there's two of you, and you couldn't have tackled the guy?"
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