The graphic cellphone videos that captured the shooting death of Alton Sterling last summer sparked widespread outrage and several nights of protests in Baton Rouge. But the footage, however disturbing, offered an incomplete account of a violent struggle in which two policemen sought to detain Sterling before one shot him six times.
Those grainy videos captured just a portion of the encounter, which the U.S. Department of Justice revealed Wednesday lasted fewer than 90 seconds from the moment Officer Howie Lake II issued his first command to Sterling until the moment when Officer Blane Salamoni last pulled the trigger on his service weapon.
Sterling's death remains riddled with unknowns, even after the U.S. Justice Department announced Wednesday that it will not bring civil-rights charges against the officers. Key evidence, including police-worn body camera footage, has not been made public in light of a separate state investigation just getting underway.
But in explaining their reasoning — and breaking a 10-month silence about the case — federal authorities revealed a host of new details about the fatal encounter and, for the first time, offered a timeline of events based on a review of forensically enhanced video and interviews with dozens of witnesses.
Salamoni and Lake were dispatched to the Triple S Food Mart about 12:30 a.m. July 5, responding to a report that someone had been threatened outside the North Foster Drive convenience store by a black man wearing a red shirt and selling CDs. The caller reported that the armed man had brandished a firearm and had the weapon in his pocket. The first 911 call disconnected, the authorities said, but the caller quickly phoned the police again to reiterate his complaint.
Those details were provided to officers Salamoni and Lake, said acting U.S. Attorney Corey Amundson, and they soon encountered Sterling in front of the Triple S standing by a table with a stack of CDs.
"It is reasonable to expect officers with this information to focus on eliminating any threat of a gun immediately upon arriving," Amundson said.
Federal investigators pieced together the shooting based on footage from at least a half-dozen cameras that captured portions of the shooting, including cellphone videos, surveillance footage from the store and the officers' body-worn cameras, which authorities have said fell off their uniforms at some point.
The officers ordered Sterling to place his hands on the hood of a nearby car and physically confronted him when he refused, according to the Justice Department. A struggle ensued, and Salamoni pulled out his gun and pointed it at Sterling's head, prompting Sterling to place his hands on the hood. Amundson said Sterling appeared to be "confused" at this point.
L. Chris Stewart, a lawyer who represents two of Sterling's children, said federal authorities quoted Salamoni as saying "I'm going to kill you, bitch" as the gun was aimed at Sterling.
Sterling then "briefly attempted to move his hands from the hood," the Justice Department said in a lengthy statement, and Lake fired his stun gun at Sterling, "who fell to his knees but then began to get back up."
"The officers ordered him to get down, and Officer Lake attempted unsuccessfully to use his Taser on Sterling again," the statement said. "Officer Salamoni holstered his weapon, and then tackled Sterling; both went to the ground, with Officer Salamoni on top of Sterling, who was on his back with his right hand and shoulder partially under the hood of a car. Officer Lake joined them on the ground, kneeling on Sterling’s left arm while Officer Salamoni attempted to gain control over Sterling's right arm."
At that point, Salamoni yelled, "Going for his pocket. He's got a gun. Gun." according to the Justice Department — a warning that proved to be critical in the government determining whether Salamoni reasonably feared for his life when he pulled the trigger. In order to charge the officer with violating Sterling's civil rights, Amundson said, the government in this case would have to have proved that Salamoni actually did not believe that Sterling had a weapon and shot him anyway.
After shouting that warning, Salamoni "then unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of Sterling's right hand, while Officer Lake drew his weapon and yelled at Sterling, again directing him not to move."
The next movements underscored the limitations of the evidence available to the government, despite the multiple sources of video. Less than a second after Lake warned Sterling not to move, Salamoni yelled again that Sterling was "going for the gun," a point during which Sterling's right hand was not visible from any of the camera angles. Salamoni then fired three shots into Sterling's chest.
His weapon still drawn, Salamoni fired three more rounds into Sterling's back after he began to sit up and roll to his left. Those shots followed Sterling bringing "his right arm across his body toward the ground, and Officer Lake (yelling) at Sterling to 'get on the ground.'"
Lake then reached into Sterling's right pocket and retrieved a loaded .38 caliber revolver. The entire struggle on the ground lasted 27 seconds.
The officers provided statements in which they defended their response to the shooting, describing Sterling as uncooperative and imposing in stature. "Mr. Sterling's size — 6 feet, 3 inches and over 300 pounds — made it difficult for officers to control, much less handcuff Mr. Sterling," Amundson said.
Both officers said they had seen Sterling's hand on a gun. Salamoni recalled seeing "silver" and recognizing it as a firearm. "Both officers reported that after the first three shots, they believed that Sterling was attempting to reach into his right pocket again, so Officer Salamoni fired three more times into Sterling’s back," the Justice Department's statement said.
Federal authorities said that some details about the shooting could not be released, either because they "are not permitted to be disclosed" under federal law or are "particularly sensitive facts" that cannot be disclosed in order to protect the ongoing state investigation.
Still, Amundson described the federal probe as an "exceedingly thorough and comprehensive investigation."
"One agent actually remarked that we would not only leave no stone unturned, but after we turned over each stone we'd just keep digging," he said.
Staff writers Grace Toohey and Bryn Stole contributed to this report.
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TIMELINE AT A GLANCE
- Approximately 12:30 a.m., a 911 caller reports he had been threatened by a black man with a gun wearing a red shirt and selling CDs outside of the Triple S convenience store.
The U.S. Justice Department has decided not to charge two white Baton Rouge police officers …
- Baton Rouge Police Department officers Howie Lake and Blane Salamoni respond to the call, arriving at the Triple S, where they see Alton Sterling outside the store, matching the caller’s description.
- The officers direct Sterling to place his hands on the hood of a car. When Sterling does not comply, the officers place their hands on Sterling, and he struggles with the officers. Salamoni then pulls out his gun and points it at Sterling’s head. Sterling then places his hands on the hood.
- After Sterling briefly attempts to move his hands, Lake then uses a Taser on Sterling, who falls to his knees but begins to rise. He’s ordered to get down, and Lake unsuccessfully attempts to use a Taser on Sterling again.
- Salamoni holsters his weapon and tackles Sterling; both falling to the ground, with Salamoni on top of Sterling, who is on his back with his right hand and shoulder partially under the hood of a car. Lake joins them on the ground, kneeling on Sterling’s left arm while Salamoni attempts to gain control over Sterling’s right arm.
- Salamoni yells, “Going for his pocket. He’s got a gun! Gun!” and he unsuccessfully attempts to gain control of Sterling’s right hand, while Lake draws his weapon and directs Sterling to not move.
- Less than one second later, at a point when the location of Sterling’s right hand is not visible to the cameras, Salamoni again yells that Sterling is “going for the gun!”
- Salamoni fires three shots into Sterling’s chest, rolls onto on his back, facing Sterling’s back, with his weapon drawn.
- Lake stands behind both Sterling and Salamoni with his weapon drawn and pointed at Sterling. Sterling begins to sit up and roll to his left, bringing his right arm across his body toward the ground.
- Lake yells at Sterling to “get on the ground.” As Sterling continues to move, Salamoni fires three more rounds into Sterling’s back.
- Seconds later, Lake reaches into Sterling’s right pocket and removes a .38-caliber revolver, loaded with six bullets.
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