By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"They didn't look at him as a human being," Abellard Louis-Jeune shouted through an amped-up microphone, speaking about her brother, 23-year-old police shooting victim Georgy Louisgene. (Abellard uses the pre-migration spelling of the family name.) On a hot summer morning outside the Jay Street office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes on the six-month anniversary of her brother's death, she called to black cops in uniform, "When you take it off, they'll kill YOU." Hemmed in by police barricades, other members of the family, all wearing black T-shirts bearing the picture of a smiling dreadlocked young man, and the name "Georgy Louisgene Justice Committee." Plastered on signs at the protest were the faces of many other smiling young men: black, Asian, Latin, and their ages16,21,23when they too were killed by police officers.
The protesters angrily addressed Hynes, challenging him time and again to offer them a convincing explanation for Louisgene's death, or a trial of the officers involved. On closing the investigation one month ago, Hynes provided neither.
In the next week, the Louisgene family is filing a multimillion-dollar law suit against the city over the loss of Georgy's life, according to family attorney, Duane Felton. Abellard, who is 26, leads the family's cause and serves as plaintiff in documents obtained by the Voice. She charges that officers committed an "unlawful shooting without probable cause," and conspired to violate Georgy's civil rights "under the color of law."
Steve Yip, of the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, counted at least 46 police killings that occurred within Hynes's jurisdiction in the 1990s that went untried. Additionally, he says, of the four in the past year that he is personally aware of, only one received a jury trialthe incident involving drunken off-duty police officer Joseph Gray running down the four-member Herrara-Pena family.
Hynes's investigation, lasting more than five months, into the January 16 shooting of Louisgene, a Flatbush resident, came to a close on June 28 when his office announced, "There is no credible basis upon which the involved officers could be found to be criminally liable . . . " Louisgene, who had no police record, history of violence, or mental illness, was Haitian, and only two days away from his naturalization exams. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated even before the body was identified that the killing was justified, and apparently months of further investigation dug up nothing more. But there is a lot that might have been found.
On January 16 Louisgene lay dead on the cement walkway of 3501 Foster Avenue in East Flatbush. While blood puddled in the cracks of the sidewalk, leaking from the five bullet wounds that killed him, the two officers who had firedJoe Thompson, 25, an officer for four years, and Sergeant James Muirhead, 30, a seven-year veteranwaited for backup from the 67th Precinct. It arrived in droves. A fleet of police cruisers lined the street with officers, witnesses, and reporters swarming the Vanderveer Estates projects. Over 35 minutes later an ambulance arrived, covered the body, and left. The time of death was 2:39 p.m, but it was early evening before the body was removed.
In the days following the shooting, newspaper stories tried to account for why Louisgene was shot, though his body had yet to be identified. He was cast as a deranged man, who had been acting crazily, wandering the projects with a knife and a stick, an hour and a half after taking flight mid-shift from his stockboy job at a CVS on Kings Highway, over a mile away. He turned up at Vanderveer and, according to the newspapers, assaulted people: He was allegedly "groping" and had "fondled" people, "menaced" a young girl, and tried to kiss several men, women, and children. Sometime during these scattered events, he was also evidently battered by a gang of young men. The papers reported no firsthand accounts of people he had assaulted, only unnamed "witnesses" and police sources.
The Daily News reported that two of the men Louisgene tried to kiss chased him down and beat him. He then burst into a woman's apartment, where he "menaced her 10-year-old daughter," said the Daily News, and then tore off, swiping a kitchen knife and wooden stick with a small hook on the top of it. When he ran out to the courtyard, police were waiting for him, reportedly in response to a 911 call. Stories said Louisgene then headed toward the cops brandishing the weapons, and they fired eight times, five of which hit him. Louisgene was shot in the torso, lower back, buttocks, left arm, and left side. And today this sketchy story still has gaping holes. Prior to leaving his job on January 16, apparently in a panic, he told his co-workers to call 911, fearing that he was in some danger. It is unclear why he was later at Vanderveernone of his close friends or family of seven, who live in a house several miles away to which he still returned every night, know of any connections there. The woman into whose apartment Louisgene allegedly "burst" or "forced himself" (as the dailies wrote) says that she actually let him in.
Immediately following the shooting, many Vanderveer residents and witnesses told the papers and the police that the cops had been wrong to fire at him, but only a week later very few of them were even willing to admit they had seen anything. The Voice found that a number of Vanderveer residents who were witnesses have since relocated, and most of those still living there were too fearfulespecially of officers of the 67th Precinctto allow the use of their names.
The Vanderveer community views this fatality as another case of a police shooting targeted at them, another case of white cops perceiving a threat from dark-colored skin or labeling a person as criminal, citing the earlier cases of Abner Louima and Patrick Dorismond. Witnesses who brazenly gave their accounts to the police, the Daily News, and Newsday have now retracted their statements, said one police spokesperson. But one is sticking it out.
"He came to my door begging for help," explained Janet McQuillar, a former Vanderveer resident, whose third-floor apartment Louisgene entered. She recalled that her regular soap, One Life to Live, which airs at 2 p.m., was just starting when he came to her door. Initially thinking from his size and locks that he was one of her son Darnell's friends, she let him in. Scared at first when he flailed into her apartment, battered and bloodied from his attackers, she grabbed an 18-inch wooden stick with a little hook on itshe described it as a grappling hook. Soon she realized he was "in search of refuge," and she offered to call the police. McQuillar said the fact that her nephew had been beaten and murdered in an Albany housing project may be why she had sympathy for Louisgene. When she asked him if he wanted her to call 911, she said, he emphatically agreed and begged her to do so.
"When my son walked into the room with the phone, [Louisgene] ran to him, because he was scared, you know, because the boys outside had just attacked him," McQuillar said. Louisgene, likely mistaking Darnell for one of the attackers, held Darnell down, and Janet began to beat him on the back with the lightweight wooden stick. McQuillar said he didn't even seem to feel it, and was eyeing the front door, terrified of attackers coming in after him. So she opened it.
"Soon as I opened it, he started crying and saying, 'Shut the door! Shut the door!' " she wailed, imitating him. An instant later he grabbed the stick, and a 12-inch serrated kitchen knife that was lying nearby.
"Mind you, he did not take the weapons to hurt anybody. He took [them] to protect himself, because he was scared to go out there." Then, she recalled, he ran down the stairs, saying, as if he "was a tough guy now: 'Me not no botty man.' " (Botty man is a slang term for gay.)
McQuillar said she could barely understand him because his jaw appeared to be broken. She said the attackers were outside waiting for him, adding that she knew the men as "those boys" who hang out above the parking garage below the Foster Avenue courtyard. So far, McQuillar said, she's spoken with a lot of reporters, mostly from Haitian papers, and has received few police inquiries. Sam Rodriguez (not his real name) was a downstairs neighbor of hers at the time and saw the incident through his window, including the gang beating Louisgene and his shooting by police.
"They just hit him, and hit him, and hit him," said Rodriguez, who had never seen Louisgene before, though he recognized the attackers. Anita, his wife (not her real name), said their dog barked and she opened the door and saw Louisgene face-to-face as he headed down from McQuillar's apartment.
"He was coming down the stairshe just stared at me, scared, and went outside." She said he was obviously in a daze from the beating, and he was bleeding at the mouth, head, and ears. He was not a threat to anyone, she insisted, certainly not as much as guns being fired in a courtyard with children all around. Once Louisgene was outside, said Sam, the police fired from 10 to 12 feet away, after telling Louisgene to drop his weapons.
"He was reaching up with the stick, to gesture to the men behind them," he said, explaining that Louisgene's attackers were standing behind the police, who were in the wide entrance to the courtyard. Early reports and police sources claimed the cops were "backed up against the gate."
"He was begging them to help, said something like, 'Those are the guys behind you! Arrest those guys!' to the officers," he said.
The cries from the yard came as soon as his body hit the ground. "Why did you do that! You didn't have to shoot him!" onlookers shouted at the cops, said Jermal Alexander, who reluctantly admitted he was one of those objecting. According to Alexander, Louisgene was warned to drop his weapons, but was busy motioning at his attackers while he was walking toward them. He obviously thought they had come to help him, and, crying, he approached them. When the first shot hit him, he kept motioning wildly, and moved closer again. When the last bullets hit, he was down for good, and the outburst came from witnesses.
"The cops were telling us to be quiet and said that we were 'obstructing the justice,' " said Alexander, who is 26. He was standing with his nephew and several other neighbors, and was later interviewed by the Daily News along with a Robert Rivera, who has since become unreachable. He said that about 10 witnesses were immediately brought down to the 67th Precinct and questioned.
The day after the shooting, Sam Rodriguez and McQuillar went down to the station on their own to tell police what they had seen. "They didn't want to hear it. They didn't even want to write down what we had to say." Now the Rodriguezes have moved and want no connection to the case.
"The shooting was good. The shooting was justified. Muirhead did nothing wrong," said an officer, unguarded, except for withholding his name, in an interview at the 67th Precinct stationhouse. Twenty-nine hours after the shooting, at 7:30 p.m. on January 17, the family was brought to the stationhouse, and the body was finally officially identified.
"We don't know you, but we really regret what happened," read a letter Abellard found on her first visit to the shooting site. The entire family went there after several hours at the precinct, during which no one ever explained exactly what "the Vanderveer" wasthey had no clue. Finally at around 9:30 p.m., they were given the address and drove out to see where Georgy had spent his last moments. That crude epitaph, along with arranged, lighted candles, flowers, and notes, had been left at the spot where his blood still stained the groundabout 12 feet from the always ajar entrance gate where the officers had stood when they fired. She remembered people approaching them that evening. "Everybody was just coming out; they wanted to tell us about it," she says. She wasn't ready to hear it.
The evening of Wednesday, January 22, one week following the shooting, the family and a few friends staged a candlelight vigil at Vanderveer. They went seeking answers that never surfaced.
"Nobody would come out. People would walk by, even just run, like they were afraid of us. And when we went into the buildings and put flyers under the doors, some of them would push it right outright there and thenlike they didn't want to be involved," said Abellard.
Now the Louisgene family, who share a Nostrand Avenue apartment, are moving out of Brooklyn. "I need to be somewhere I don't see him every day on the street," explained Abellard, who said she still expects to bump into him. The man they remember was a man who sang out loud, with his Walkman on the train and at work. "And he was a LOUD singer," laughed Abellard. The radio was always on. Reggae and hip-hop were his passions. He performed in clubs, opening up for big-name artists like Sizzla and Capleton, often rhyming about police brutality and fundamental human rights.
Suzette Palmer, a close friend, said his dreadlocks and vegetarianism were spurred by his interest in the Rastafarian lifestyle. She described him as the "most humble of all of us," though always dressed in a tailored shirt and slacks. She recalled that one week before the shooting, someone suggested he start carrying a weapon. Palmer says Georgy's response was "No, I don't carry weapons. It's not me." She says it is inconceivable that he would act deranged or grope children.
"He would have done it before," she said, implying that she'd have known. He babysat and was a "father figure" to her children, ages two, five, and eight. They adored him, she said. "He'd take my little son out to play basketball, help them do their homework, press their school uniforms, and pick them up from school."
"He tried to live peacefully and quietly and righteous. God, he was always talking about righteousness and how to live righteously," said Abellard with exasperation, while her sister, Cindy, and younger brother Junior chuckled quietly.
Abellard formed the family committee because, aside from the Coalition for Haitian Justice, there are only a handful of community activist groups they could go to for help. The National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR), which is the largest of these, held a town meeting with the police commissioner's officecatalyzed by the Louisgene incidenton police relations with Haitians. The family attended and viewed it as a session chastising Haitians for hating the police, and trying to "sensitize" them toward understanding police actions.
"We asked Commissioner Kelly why they waited for something like this to happen, again after Dorismond, again after Louima, to come in our community and tell us we need to trust the police," said Abellard, "and, [we asked] 'What are you doing about the Georgy Louisgene case?' "
"He just left," she said. "He said he didn't have time for this and left."
To date, with Abner Louima's search for justice continuing in the courts, and Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes's history of not indicting cops involved in misconduct, especially against Haitians, the outlook for Abellard and her family is an uphill battle to say the least. But Suzette Palmer hopes for the best:
"They just want justice. All they want is justice. This is America. You gotta have justice for all."