His footprints were found on the hood of a beat-up Chevy Malibu that had been strafed by police gunfire, killing its two unarmed occupants after a high-speed chase over streets and freeways in and around Cleveland.
Yet Officer Michael Brelo told investigators he couldn't remember standing on the hood and firing the final 15 rounds of a 137-shot barrage down into the windshield — even though a police officer told those same investigators that Brelo talked about it days afterward.
“It's possible,” Brelo allowed when questioned by investigators two weeks after the November 2012 shooting, “because I was so terrified that I was going to get run over.”
“But I don't recall that, sir.”
Brelo, 31, goes on trial Monday on two counts of voluntary manslaughter for the deaths of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30. He is the lone officer among the 13 who fired their weapons that night who is charged criminally because prosecutors say he stood on the hood and opened fire four seconds after the other officers had stopped shooting.
A judge — not a jury — will decide whether Brelo is guilty or innocent. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years if convicted.
Brelo's defense team has argued that all 49 rounds Brelo fired that night, including the last 15, were lawful and that the threat did not end until Brelo reached into the Malibu and removed the keys, preventing the suspects from using the car as a weapon. Russell and Williams were each shot more than 20 times.
Regardless of the trial's outcome, the after-effects of the chase and shooting will likely endure for years to come.
The incident helped spur a U.S. Justice Department probe that concluded Cleveland police officers have shown a pattern and practice of using excessive force. The city and federal authorities are negotiating a consent decree to reform the police department that will cost the city millions of dollars to implement and enforce. Cleveland has already paid $3 million to the families of Russell and Williams to settle a lawsuit.
The chase started with a failed traffic stop on the edge of downtown by a plainclothes detective who never reported to dispatchers that he had lost sight of the vehicle. Russell then sped past Cleveland police headquarters, where his car backfired. Officers and witnesses standing outside were certain they had heard gunshots and a police radio call for shots fired triggered an adrenaline-fueled rush by officers to join the chase.
Brelo and his partner were two of the first officers to join the pursuit that ultimately included more than 60 police cars, 104 officers and reached at least 100 mph.
The police officers involved in the shooting were all white, and the victims were black, according to local news site Cleveland.com, citing a motion filed by the prosecutors in the case. The incident could become yet another flashpoint in ongoing international scrutiny on what rights activists have called U.S. police departments’ extrajudicial killings of black people, often unarmed, a phenomenon that has in recent months driven protesters to the streets across the United States.
In November, Cleveland police shot dead a 12-year-old brandishing a pellet gun at a public park, fanning the flames of a movement now known by the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
After driving into a school parking lot more than 20 minutes after the chase began, Russell turned the car around and tried to flee again, sideswiping a cruiser before coming to a stop. Another officer, who said he feared for his life, opened fire, prompting others including Brelo to do the same.
Brelo and his partner fired 15 rounds through their own windshield and told investigators they saw dark objects in Russell's and Williams' hands. Brelo said he left his cruiser because he said he was afraid the Malibu would hit him, even though he then crossed in front of the car to climb on top of another cruiser and open fire again.
“I had leapt trying to get out of the way of this car so it doesn't run me over and kill me,” he told investigators.
Investigators eventually concluded that neither Russell nor Williams had a gun. An exhaustive search was conducted along the route of the pursuit, including the use of a dive team to look in bodies of water, but no gun was ever found.
While Brelo claimed not to remember jumping on the hood, prosecutors have evidence to show that he did. Investigators from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation found footprints on the hood of the Malibu that matched a set found on the trunk and roof of a police car that Brelo had climbed on top of to fire from behind the light bar.
A rookie police officer assigned to the same district as Brelo told investigators that he stopped firing after “someone” jumped on the hood of the Malibu. Officer Brian Sabolik said he later learned it was Brelo.
Asked how he found out, Sabolik said: “Because [Brelo] was talking about it.”
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press