Losing the Battle and the War

Were the Jack in the Box killings a crime or just sloppy police work in the name of the war on drugs?

Oct 10, 2001 at 4:00 am
Chalk up another "victory" for the War Against Drugs That Don't Enjoy Corporate Sponsorship.

Chalk up another loss for the community.

The final verdict is in: There will be no verdict in the police killing of two unarmed men last year in a drug bust gone awry at a Jack in the Box restaurant. U.S. Attorney Ray Gruender said he was "troubled" by the case but that it didn't meet the standard of malicious intent needed to bring federal charges in the deaths of suspect Earl Murray and Murray's friend Ronald Beasley.

Murray, a small-time drug dealer, was the target of a 13-officer federal/county sting unit June 12 of last year. In his car as police approached, wearing jerseys and flashing badges, to arrest him, Murray panicked, slammed into a police car blocking him from behind and then was killed, along with his friend, as two officers fired 21 bullets into the front seat.

The officers -- DEA agent Keith Kierzkowski and Dellwood Det. Robert Piekutowski Jr. -- told state and federal grand juries that they shot in self-defense from 10 feet in front of the car because Murray was trying to run them down after ignoring their orders to halt. The state grand jury previously declined to prosecute the officers, enraging leaders in the black community (the dead men were black, the officers white) who demanded the federal investigation.

Gruender could hardly be faulted for his specific finding that the incident didn't meet the requirements of federal law, which he said would mean proving that the officers acted with malice. But in his stunningly candid remarks -- stunning, at least, in contrast to county officials' previous stonewalling -- Gruender offered new information that cries out for new answers.

Specifically, Gruender said the federal investigation found that Murray's car moved only in reverse and wasn't moving toward the officers when they fired their shots. He also stated that the officers told the federal grand jury they fired because they feared being run down by the car.

"Our investigation found that they were wrong," Gruender stated flatly at a news conference Oct. 3

I'm no lawyer, but that sounded a little like perjury to me, so I asked Gruender on Tuesday why there were no charges to that effect.

"We didn't find any evidence of intentional false statements on their part," Gruender told me. "Several of the officers testified they thought it was going forward -- and several that it wasn't -- and there could have been a misperception on their part, keeping in mind that things all occurred very quickly, in a matter of seconds, and that Mr. Murray's car was bouncing back and forth along the front of the arrest vehicle.

"We kept this question in mind the whole time, looking at whether there was collusion or any effort to make false statements, and we didn't find any."

Well, then, what exactly did Gruender mean when he said this case was troubling?

"I think it's troubling when anyone dies in a situation like this, whether it's law-enforcement personnel or a defendant," Gruender said. "At a minimum, the operational aspects of this should be looked at -- and I'm no expert on that -- and I think the citizens' review board and Internal Affairs ought to take a look at this."

That's pretty radical stuff, especially contrasted with the statements of others in law enforcement. In a low point even for drug warriors, DEA head Asa Hutchinson issued an inane statement saying he was pleased that the investigation had "exonerated" the two officers.

Exonerated? In the best-case scenario, the officers allowed their lives to be placed in jeopardy in what was supposed to be a staged event over something like 3 grams of cocaine.

This brings us to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, the lightning rod for the most virulent criticism from black leaders, defense attorneys and others for -- how does one put this nicely? -- his lack of enthusiasm for prosecuting police officers in cases such as this one. McCulloch's dad was a police officer killed in the line of duty.

McCulloch did Hutchinson one better last week with tasteless references to the dead men as "bums," and he didn't back off much while talking to me on Tuesday. He said the "bums" remark was taken out of context, that "it's very regrettable and tragic when anyone dies in a situation like this," but he repeated his drug-war mantra about how the men -- he lumps them together -- were "spreading death in the community." Those comments are consistent with county law-enforcement officials' gross insensitivity in this case, especially in light of the black community's anger over yet more deaths of black men at the hands of police. That's another story, but suffice it to say this wouldn't have happened at the Jack in the Box in Ballwin.

In any event, McCulloch steadfastly maintains that the officers "acted in justifiable self-defense and a reasonable fear" that they might have been run over by the car. End of prosecution, end of story.

But should it be? Judging from the facts Gruender revealed last week, this was a situation that got out of hand, raising a real question about the competence of the drug-war operation itself. No, this wasn't a murder case, but with 21 shots and a dead bystander, was this truly a "no harm, no foul" situation?

At McCulloch's state level, lesser charges suggesting involuntary manslaughter or the like could have been entertained, especially given the death of passenger Beasley. Prominent defense attorney Don Wolff tells me there's precedent for holding an officer liable for negligence, even in a justifiable shooting, if innocent bystanders are injured or killed.

This isn't to demonize the officers, who no doubt would react to such a suggestion with "This is the thanks I get for risking my life to protect you?" but even our underpaid, overstressed and underappreciated police officers have to face accountability when they use their weapons.

This wasn't some spontaneous rooftop struggle like the infamous Julius Thurman case a few years back; this was supposed to be a staged drug bust. Call it armchair quarterbacking from an untrained lay idiot if you will, but I have to wonder why the officers needed to put themselves and others in the vicinity of the restaurant in such mortal danger over such a minor felon.

At best, this wasn't good staging. It wasn't good police work.

And like the drug war itself, it was a horrible thing for the community being protected.