A 37-year old man who sold CDs was shot and killed by a Baton Rouge police officer Tuesday morning outside a convenience store on North Foster Drive after “some type of altercation” with two officers, officials said.
Baton Rouge police did not provide much information about what escalated the incident between the officers and Alton Sterling, the man who was killed, or what prompted an officer to fire his weapon. A witness, however, described police as “aggressive” and said Sterling was armed but was not holding his gun or touching his pockets during the incident. Police later retrieved a gun from the man’s pocket, said the witness, shop owner Abdullah Muflahi.
About 12:35 a.m., Baton Rouge police responded to the Triple S Food Mart at 2112 N. Foster Drive after an anonymous caller indicated that a man in a red shirt who was selling CDs outside the store pointed a gun at someone, telling them to leave the property, Baton Rouge Police Department spokesman Cpl. L’Jean McKneely said.
East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner William “Beau” Clark said the initial results of an autopsy performed Tuesday show Sterling died due to a homicide and suffered multiple — meaning more than two — gunshot wounds to the chest and back.
A 48-second cellphone video captured by a bystander — which circulated at a protest about the shooting later in the day — shows an officer firing at least one round into a man’s chest outside what appears to be the Triple S store, followed by the sound of at least four more shots as the camera veers away.
“Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” an officer is heard yelling in the beginning of the clip.
Two officers are seen wrangling a heavy-set man in a red shirt against a silver sedan before pulling him to the ground on his back.
One officer is seen pulling the man’s left arm down while he pressed down on the man’s chest. The man’s right arm is not visible in the video.
“He’s got a gun! Gun,” an officer says, prompting the lawman closest to the camera to draw an object from his holster.
“You f*****g move, I swear to God,” says an officer, before the second officer, farther from the viewer, is seen pointing a weapon down at the man’s chest.
There’s a flash from that officer’s weapon, accompanied by the sound of shots.
“They shot him?” a man’s harried voice, close to the microphone, says in the video. “Yes!” a weeping woman replies.
McKneely said he could not confirm whether the cellphone video shows the shooting in question, saying he hadn’t seen it until recently.
He asked anyone with video evidence to turn the footage over to the police.
Muflahi, the owner and manager of the Triple S store, said he was there around midnight when he walked outside and saw two officers trying to pin Sterling to a car parked in a handicapped spot. The officers hit Sterling with a Taser, but he didn’t initially get to the ground, he said.
At some point Sterling was tackled to the ground on his back, with one officer pinning down his chest and another pressing on his thigh, Muflahi said.
Muflahi, who said he was 2 feet away from the altercation, said an officer yelled “gun” during the scuffle. An officer then fired four to six shots into Sterling’s chest, he said.
“His hand was nowhere (near) his pocket,” Muflahi said, adding that Sterling wasn’t holding a weapon. After the shooting, an officer reached into Sterling’s pocket and retrieved a handgun, Muflahi said.
“They were really aggressive with him from the start,” Muflahi said about the officers.
Sterling appeared to die quickly, Muflahi said. Just after the killing, the officer who fired the bullets cursed, and both officers seemed like they were “freaking out,” Muflahi said.
The store owner said he heard one of the officers say, “Just leave him.”
East Baton Rouge Emergency Medical Services sent one ambulance to the scene at 12:46 a.m. and encountered a patient who was dead on arrival, agency spokesman Mike Chustz said.
McKneely said he couldn’t comment on the circumstances of the shooting, as the investigation is ongoing.
East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he was at the scene but declined to say whether he thought the shooting was justified.
“It would be premature for me to make a comment one way or the other,” he said.
Sgt. Brian Taylor, the newly installed leader of the Baton Rouge police union, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Police believe only one officer fired shots, McKneely said. He did not know how many shots were fired.
McKneely said both officers who were at the scene are on paid administrative leave, according to department policy.
He said he could not identify the officers Tuesday but would do so “first thing in the morning” on Wednesday.
Officers likely had not been interviewed by investigators, as the agency typically gives its lawmen 24 hours before questioning them after this type of incident, he said.
“We give officers normally a day or so to go home and think about it” before being interviewed, McKneely said. He said being part of a shooting is a stressful situation that can produce “tunnel vision” for the officers involved and might not lead to the best information.
Police interviewed a few witnesses who were at the store, he said. Muflahi said he was interviewed by police for most of the night, returning to his store about 8 a.m.
Both officers at the store were wearing body cameras and cars had dash cameras, McKneely said. Muflahi said police also took surveillance footage from his store and seized his entire video system.
McKneely said both body cameras came loose and dangled from the officers’ uniforms during the incident.
Friends and family of Sterling met outside the convenience store on Tuesday night to protest the shooting. At just about 6 p.m., around 40 to 50 people had gathered at the store, some carrying signs and chanting “Black lives matter” and “Hands up, don’t shoot.” The crowd swelled to more than 100 people by 7:30 p.m., with people, some waving homemade signs, gathered at each of the corners of the intersection of North Foster Drive and Fairfields Avenue. Some mourners left notes and mementos on tables outside the convenience store.
Among the protesters were state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, who sponsored the bill to equip Baton Rouge officers with body cameras when she was on the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, and local NAACP leader Michael McClanahan.
Marcelle said she was concerned that the BRPD was conducting the internal investigation, saying that she had called Police Chief Carl Dabadie to express her desire that the agency allow the Louisiana State Police to conduct officer-involved shooting probes.
Several of Sterling’s relatives also attended the protest.
Sandra Sterling, an aunt who said she raised Alton after his mother died, was skeptical her nephew would be carrying a gun. She went to the store after receiving a call about the incident, saying police would not let her near the body. “I was devastated,” she said.
Sharida Sterling, a cousin who said she was raised with Alton and considered him a brother, said it was not in his character to fight the police. “He would have never fought the police, he wouldn’t have pulled a gun, he would have been too scared,” she said.
Sharida Sterling said she remains skeptical about the 911 caller who said her cousin had pointed a gun, as well as the report about the body cameras coming loose. She called on law enforcement to conduct a transparent investigation, saying police should release the store surveillance video.
Muflahi said he knew Sterling and that he had been selling CDs outside his store and in the surrounding area for a few years. Sterling recently had started carrying a gun after a friend was mugged, he said.
Sterling had been living for the past few months at the Living Waters Outreach Ministries, a transitional living center and shelter at 4156 W. Brookstown Drive, two of his fellow residents said.
“Whatever he cooked, he cooked enough for everybody,” said Calvin Wilson, 56, who described the compound as a place for people to “get back on their feet.”
About five people live there full-time, Wilson said.
Wilson and another resident, 60-year-old David Solomon, said Sterling would spread the CDs he sold on a table from time to time in the facility.
“I never saw him coming in here with a weapon, and I never saw him drunk,” Wilson said, adding that Sterling had another job as a cook.
“He wasn’t a bad person,” Solomon said.
Records from the 19th Judicial District Court show that in August 2015 the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office issued a warrant for the arrest of an Alton Sterling who had registered as a convicted sex offender to live at the center at the Brookstown address. Sterling was convicted of one count of carnal knowledge of a juvenile in September 2000, according to the warrant.
While Sterling had registered at the address in July, a probation officer who checked on him in August was told by the center manager that Sterling hadn’t lived there for two weeks.
The District Attorney’s Office filed a failure to register as a sex offender charge against Sterling in April.
Sterling’s court record shows he was accused of several crimes dating back to 1996. He’d pleaded guilty to aggravated battery, simple criminal damage to property and unauthorized entry, as well as domestic abuse battery. His longest sentence appeared to come in 2009, when he was sentenced to five years on possessing marijuana with the intent to distribute and illegally carrying a weapon with a controlled dangerous substance.
But Darian Gardner, 38, who’d come by the store Tuesday afternoon to view a makeshift memorial for Sterling, which included a stuffed panda holding CDs, said his friend “didn’t cause any harm to the community.”
Gardner, who’d purchased CDs from Sterling, said the discs contained everything from music to movies.
“He was nice. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was respectable,” said Gardner, who called his friend’s death “tragic.”