The U.S. Justice Department has quietly closed its investigation into the controversial shooting death of a Brother Martin High School graduate six years ago, declining to pursue civil rights charges against several New Orleans police officers who fired a fusillade of bullets at the armed man in what they said was self-defense.
The decision, apparently reached last year but not previously reported, devastated the family of the slain man, Adolph Grimes III, whose relatives had rejected an earlier New Orleans Police Department inquiry that exonerated all nine officers in the 2009 shooting.
Grimes’ loved ones, still coping with grief, had hoped the involvement of the FBI might shed independent light on why a 22-year-old father with no criminal record would, as police contend, open fire indiscriminately on a team of plainclothes officers just hours after he returned to New Orleans to celebrate New Year’s with his family.
An autopsy found Grimes had been shot 14 times, including several times in the back. The circumstances fueled public criticism and raised questions about whether the police responded overzealously and whether they properly identified themselves as law enforcement officers.
The shooting occurred at a time when federal authorities were probing several allegations of post-Hurricane Katrina misconduct within the NOPD, including the police shooting — and subsequent cover-up — of several unarmed citizens on the Danziger Bridge.
After two investigations and six years of grieving, the pain remains undiminished for Grimes’ parents, who feel shortchanged by the criminal justice system.
“They killed my son, and they’re walking away with it,” said Grimes’ mother, Patricia Grimes, who has long accused the authorities of a whitewash. “They go on about their business, and I’m sitting here suffering every day.”
It’s unclear which factors the Justice Department weighed in its consideration of the case and why it took until May 2013 for prosecutors to break the news to Grimes’ parents that there would be no day in court.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite Jr., who took a fresh look at the shooting after taking office in the latter part of last year, declined a request to discuss the case. The FBI, which began its probe in 2009, refused to comment on the civil rights investigation or release a report on its findings.
Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans who represented several officers involved in the case, said the Justice Department’s decision vindicates the officers who encountered Grimes about 3 a.m. Jan. 1, 2009, as he sat in a rental car parked on Gov. Nicholls Street in the 6th Ward. The officers, working a special New Year’s patrol aimed at thwarting armed robbers, had deemed Grimes’ vehicle suspicious because they believed it resembled a car they had seen minutes earlier fleeing the scene of a reported shooting at a nearby club.
Five plainclothes officers riding in an unmarked Ford Expedition pulled alongside Grimes’ vehicle, police said. They said they began shooting in self-defense after Grimes trained a handgun on them and fired a single round through the back windshield of his rented Toyota Camry.
“We were able to piece it together, with the help of all the officers involved, and it was quite clear that the way they said it occurred and the physical evidence all pointed to the fact that this individual did pull a weapon on them and fire,” Hessler said. “We knew the evidence, when it was all collected, would support them.”
Richard Root, a civil attorney who represents Arabia “Shea” Whitfield, the mother of Grimes’ son, said he was surprised the Justice Department decided not to prosecute the officers, though he acknowledged he does not know what the government’s review entailed and whether experts were engaged. He said the forensic evidence raised troubling questions about Grimes’ death, including an autopsy he said suggested Grimes had been shot even after he collapsed.
“He may have made the fatal error of showing he had a gun or pulling a gun,” Root said, “but they have absolutely zero evidence that he fired first.”
A review of nearly 300 pages of NOPD interviews and investigative reports reveals conflicting claims between the police, who said they left no doubt they were law enforcement agents when they confronted Grimes, and at least two witnesses who insisted the officers had not activated their flashing blue lights before unloading a hail of bullets.
One witness, Keyneshia Taylor, told homicide detectives she had been so startled by the eruption of gunfire that she jumped over a fence seeking cover, learning only after the fact that the people firing at Grimes were police officers.
“It’s New Orleans, and a lot of people are killing and stuff like that,” Taylor told a detective. “I didn’t know, really, that they were police because they didn’t identify themselves as police. I didn’t know if they were after (Grimes) to kill him or really what happened.”
After gathering about 34 hours later on the fourth floor of the parking garage at NOPD headquarters to re-create the scene of the shooting, the officers provided statements to homicide detectives that consistently portrayed Grimes as an unequivocal perpetrator who became nervous at the first sight of law enforcement. It was only later that the authorities learned Grimes had no active warrants and had never been arrested.
“His motions were real quick and sharp. He was kind of looking around (in the car), consistent with what I’ve seen when someone’s gonna run,” said Greg Lapin, an officer who fired at least 16 times at Grimes. Lapin, who has since left the NOPD, told colleagues investigating the shooting that Grimes fired a shot at him through the vehicle’s rear window.
“I could hear the sonic zoom of the round come past my head,” Lapin added. “There’s no mistaking that he fired a round at me.”
A controversial shooting
While not coming close to the fallout from the recent police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Grimes’ death prompted outrage and demonstrations in New Orleans, in large part because his alleged aggression seemed out of character to those who knew him.
“He was a wonderful father, fully employed, doing everything right,” Root said. “It seemed totally contradictory to everything about his personality and everything about his life.”
The community also had grown increasingly skeptical of the NOPD by then. A few months before Grimes’ death, federal prosecutors announced they were investigating the 2005 case of several New Orleans police officers who opened fire on six unarmed people — killing two of them — on the Danziger Bridge a few days after Katrina. Some of the troubling facts surrounding Henry Glover’s death at the hands of police, also after Katrina, had begun to surface as well.
Family members said Grimes had never been a troublemaker and that he tended to keep to himself as a youngster rather than roam the city streets. Ashley Spears, a cousin who grew up with Grimes on Gov. Nicholls Street, said Grimes had been a good student at Brother Martin who excelled in math and Spanish.
Grimes had gone to work for the Sewerage & Water Board before Katrina scattered the family, sending him to Houston and his parents to Charlotte, North Carolina. Despite the upheaval, it didn’t take long for him to settle in and find a good job in Texas working for AT&T, Spears said.
“He was the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to go out with,” his father, Adolph Grimes Jr., said.
The family sought to reunite at least once a year, often around New Year’s. Grimes’ parents said they’d been especially eager to see him this time because he had a son of his own, Christopher, who was about 17 months old. Grimes’ vehicle had been on the fritz, so he rented a car but didn’t get on the road until early evening on New Year’s Eve, his mother said, making it to a family celebration around midnight.
A few hours later, after taking a bath, he planned to go to a bar Uptown. He had been waiting for a relative in the rental car about 3 a.m. when the first five plainclothes police officers turned off North Claiborne Avenue onto Gov. Nicholls Street in the unmarked Expedition. The officers had just regrouped after responding to a report of a shooting at Club Fabulous, a notoriously violent hangout on North Claiborne.
After clearing out the club and searching the area, police couldn’t find any signs of an actual shooting. But they grew suspicious of a black car they saw leaving the scene.
Decision to investigate
While Grimes’ mother maintains her son had been inside a relative’s home in the 1700 block of Gov. Nicholls at the time of the reported club shooting, the officers spotted Grimes’ black vehicle, parked the wrong way on the street with its interior dome light on, and decided to investigate. Grimes had been looking at something in his lap, the officers said. One witness said she believed he had been combing his hair.
Officer Steven Keller, in an interview with homicide investigators, said the driver of the Expedition, Sgt. Daniel Scanlan, immediately switched on the vehicle’s emergency blue lights as he pulled alongside Grimes’ vehicle. The dome light turned off, the officers said, and Keller shined his flashlight inside. “That’s when he looked at me and, without hesitation, he raised the semi-automatic handgun,” Keller said.
Grimes’ family members say it’s hard to believe he would point a weapon at anyone without provocation, and they insist he couldn’t have known the occupants of the Expedition had been police.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he thought he was about to be carjacked,” said Spears, Grimes’ cousin, adding that another family member had been carjacked on St. Bernard Avenue a few months before the shooting.
The assertion that Grimes did not immediately know he was dealing with the police is supported by the account of Tannia Jacob, a young woman who told investigators she had been dropping off Taylor when she saw the first part of the shooting from her vehicle on Gov. Nicholls Street.
Contrary to the officers’ claims they had been shouting “police” at the top of their lungs — “We have two females,” Lapin said in his debriefing, “and you can’t mistake their voices” — Jacob said she heard the officers only warning one another about Grimes’ weapon. She insisted the Expedition had not activated its blue lights and that nothing she saw or heard suggested a police presence.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” added Jacob, who backed up and left the scene, heading away from the gunfire. “I (was) like, ‘S***, I could be next.’ ”
Scanlan stepped on the gas and “shot up about two car lengths” away from Grimes, he said, so that Grimes’ rental car now faced away from the Expedition toward Claiborne. Meanwhile, four more plainclothes officers in another unmarked car turned onto Gov. Nicholls, bringing to nine the number of officers at the scene. That vehicle, a maroon Ford Taurus, also immediately activated its blue lights, police said.
‘Difficult to determine’
Lapin, one of the officers in the Expedition, climbed out and was trying to use the vehicle’s engine block for cover, he said, when Grimes fired the first shot. The officers said they saw a muzzle flash inside the vehicle, and Lapin, claiming the bullet had been intended for him, recalled experiencing a “snap of the sonic boom coming past my head.”
The officers, having bailed out of the Expedition, opened fire. Grimes soon got out of his vehicle and crouched down, the officers said, but continued to point his gun at the police. “I could see him as he ducked for cover trying to shoot through the car,” Scanlan said.
While police said Grimes kept his weapon aimed at them, he is not accused of firing more than the initial shot, according to police reports, though officers recalled an extended magazine protruding from his weapon.
Hessler, the police officers’ attorney, said the authorities determined Grimes’ handgun had jammed, a finding federal prosecutors apparently mentioned when they told Grimes’ family there would be no civil rights case. “In a situation like that, it’s difficult to determine if he’s continuing to fire or not,” Hessler said. “At all points, he continued to point the gun at them.”
With officers still firing at him, Grimes ran past the unmarked Taurus and dashed across Gov. Nicholls toward Claiborne, police said. Scanlan and Lapin chased Grimes as he rounded the corner onto Claiborne. “Soon as we turned the corner,” said Lapin, who had just reloaded, “he was there sideways with the gun, pointing it at us.”
Scanlan took cover after running out of rounds, as Lapin continued to fire. “At no time had I seen him respond at all to getting shot,” Scanlan said.
Grimes finally fell to the sidewalk in front of 1133 N. Claiborne, his body riddled with bullets. Scanlan said he approached the young man and immediately took the gun out of his right hand, placing it in the vehicle of a K-9 unit officer, part of a growing police presence at the scene. The weapon later was found to have a spent 9 mm casing in its chamber, according to police reports.
Lapin holstered his gun and placed Grimes in handcuffs. Marlon Defillo, then an assistant police superintendent who was on a New Year’s patrol, then approved the removal of the cuffs so emergency medical personnel could check Grimes’ heart rate, which was negative.
Grimes’ mother, who had been inside a home on Gov. Nicholls Street, said she easily distinguished the gunfire from the fireworks that had lit up the skies earlier in the night. “I opened up the door and it was just like something that was a movie,” she said. “Police all over, running around and stuff.”
Re-enacting the events
Within five hours of the shooting, police ran Grimes’ name through the National Crime Information Center database and learned he had “no recorded arrests,” according to police reports.
Grimes had a concealed-carry permit for his handgun. The authorities also found a 12-gauge shotgun under some clothing in the trunk of his rental car, along with several dozen rounds for his handgun and a box of shotgun shells.
Root, the civil attorney, said both firearms were legally obtained and that Grimes enjoyed “recreational sport shooting.”
The homicide investigation that followed spanned several weeks, and it wasn’t until months later that the NOPD determined the shooting had been justified and cleared the officers of any administrative or criminal violations.
In addition to Lapin, Scanlan and Keller, the exonerated officers were Lt. Joseph Meisch and officers Regina Barr, Marcellus White, Julio Alonzo, Colette Booth and Larissa Austin.
Meisch, the ranking officer involved, was fired from the department in 2011 for neglect of duty in the Glover case.
Only Scanlan, Barr, White and Booth remain on the force, said Tyler Gamble, a police spokesman.
According to the investigative police reports, Sgt. Daniel McMullen, who was handling the homicide probe, “made the determination, before obtaining any statements in the incident, (that) it would be of great importance to have the entire scene re-created to the best of the officers’ knowledge.”
The re-enactment took place in the parking garage at NOPD headquarters, in the presence of Police Association of New Orleans attorney Frank DeSalvo and another PANO representative.
The meeting, a day after the incident, became emotional when one of the female officers, recalling how Grimes pointed his weapon at her, “became visibly upset and began to tremble as she attempted to speak.”
The officers each gave their formal statements about the shooting several days later.
While Grimes’ cousin, Spears, alleged the meeting “gave them time to get their story straight,” Hessler said there was nothing untoward or unusual about the re-creation of the scene.
“It’s very unusual to have that many officers involved in a shooting like that, and it was a mobile scene,” he said. “It was part of their statement; it was just more of a show-and-tell.”
Two lawsuits were filed against the city and later consolidated. One was filed on behalf of Whitfield, who Root said was considered Grimes’ common-law wife, and the other one by Grimes’ parents, who claimed their son’s “execution” caused them “extreme mental anguish and emotional distress.”
The civil proceedings were stayed in 2010 pending the Justice Department’s investigation. Root said he’s waiting on formal notification from the government that there is no prosecution before moving forward with the civil case.
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, said NOPD referred the case to the office under standard protocol on police shootings but that federal investigators requested that the office step back from taking any action. Bowman said the office complied with that request.
Six years later, the Grimes family is enduring its most challenging time of the year. The anniversary of the shooting looms large over Christmas and New Year’s.
“Since that happened, the holidays have never felt the same,” Spears said of the shooting. “You just want to lay around in the bed all day. Because of that, I think we will never find closure.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.