by Carina Julig and Max Levy, The Sentinel (AP Storyshare)
Why? Questions build after police begin revealing details after police shoot and kill boy, 14, accused of armed robbery
For the first time since the long, hot summer of 2020, racial justice protesters shut down traffic in Aurora as they marched in the streets Friday afternoon demanding justice for Jor’Dell Richardson, a 14-year-old shot and killed by police on June 1.
The protestors voiced anger at Friday’s announcement from the Aurora Police Department that Richardson, a suspect in the robbery of an Aurora convenience store, had a pellet gun at the time of his death — not a firearm, as police had said earlier.
“Jor’Dell was a boy and had a toy,” said Siddhartha Rathod, a lawyer representing Richardson’s family.
Police argued that the pellet gun looked like a real firearm, describing it as a replica of a Heckler & Koch USP handgun.
On Monday, friends and members of Richardson’s family announced they will hold a memorial and funeral procession Friday at the Aurora Municipal Center with the boy’s casket.
Many in the crowd on Friday were veterans of the protests calling for justice for Elijah McClain, and questioned why the city was yet again asking for answers following the death of a young Black male at the hands of police.
“You cannot be trusted if you cannot tell us the truth,” Pastor Thomas Mayes said of APD. “Come clean, or stay away dirty.”
Dueling press conferences took place Friday afternoon at the Aurora municipal complex, with APD holding a press conference where body-worn camera footage of the shooting was publicly released for the first time. Following the police press conference, Richardson’s family held a press conference and then a march around the complex, which spilled into the streets.
Scheduled for 3:30 p.m., the family’s press conference began over an hour and a half late due to how late the sprawling and lengthy police press conference ran, where the footage was not shown until about 45 minutes in.
Some protesters accused the police of intentionally stalling to try to discourage the crowd, which Interim Police Chief Art Acevedo scoffed at.
“I’m not going to come in here and rush this press conference because he thinks that’s what I should do, and shame on him,” he said in response to a comment from Rathod.
Acevedo at the press conference, avoided weighing in on the decision by one of his officers to fatally shoot Richardson but displayed an image that he said showed the boy reaching into his waistband for a pellet gun resembling a firearm.
Explaining his reluctance to talk about officers’ actions, he said the investigation by the 18th Judicial District’s Critical Incident Response Team into whether criminal charges ought to be filed against the officers involved was ongoing, along with an internal probe.
Multiple sources familiar with the matter told the Sentinel that the chief has spoken about the possibility of pulling the department out of its current agreement with the 17th and 18th judicial districts to handle investigations of officer-involved shootings.
The chief would not answer whether Aurora police would remain in the current agreement but said the process was not entirely consistent with what he would like to see. He said it would not impact the Richardson investigation and that he didn’t want to speculate on who might take over those investigations.
Friday’s event included the release of body-worn camera footage from the perspective of two Aurora officers involved in the June 1 incident — including the officer who fired the fatal single shot, Roch Gruszeczka — though the videos fail to show what exactly Richardson was doing at the moment he was shot.
After Officer James Snapp tackled Richardson, the teen said, “Stop, please, you got me.”
“Gun, gun, let go of the f*****g gun,” Gruszeczka yells. He then yells that he is going to fire, and a gunshot is heard.
The footage captures the hectic final moments of Richardson’s life as he screams, pleads for help, tells officers that he cannot breathe and becomes unresponsive. Police tried unsuccessfully to revive Richardson before paramedics arrived and took over medical care.
While Acevedo would not say whether he believed Gruszeczka was right in shooting Richardson, one image highlighted by Acevedo that was taken from another officer’s perspective shortly before Richardson was tackled to the ground and several seconds before he was shot showed Richardson’s hand near his waistband.
The chief remarked to those present, “you can make your own assessment, and that will be part of the investigation.”
Acevedo said Gruszeczka and Snapp were both hired in 2017 and are presently serving with the department’s gang intervention unit. He also said neither officer had a record of “significant” use-of-force incidents or disciplinary histories.
Responding to criticism from community members stemming from his apparent decision to tell Richardson’s mother that he didn’t think the teen had suffered, Acevedo said he was hopeful Richardson did not suffer as his stomach wound worsened.
“I just hope and pray that he didn’t suffer, that he was in the arms of angels right away when he went into cardiac arrest,” he said. “It’s a tragedy because we have yet again in this country an encounter involving young people, and acts of violence, and ultimately an officer-involved … shooting.”
Richardson’s father, Jameco Richardson, criticized Acevedo for those comments at the family’s press conference.
“Our son died in a dirty alley,” he said. “How dare you.”
While Acevedo lamented the fact of the shooting, he said officers may have feared for their lives during the struggle with Richardson, who police say was tackled after robbing a convenience store for vape cartridges.
Addressing the attorneys representing the family of the slain teenager, Acevedo accused representatives of the family of misrepresenting what happened and said officers weren’t able to break the situation down at the time like people viewing the video footage frame by frame.
“When your life is on the line, mister attorney, what are you going to do?” Acevedo asked. “We have a 14-year-old kid dead, and we have officers who were involved who have to live with this critical incident for the rest of their lives. So it is not a toy. In fact, our officers believed that it was a semi-automatic, nine-millimeter (pistol). But I understand the lawyers’ (decision) to call it a toy. And by the way, pellet guns can cause serious bodily injury or death.”
Rathod said Richardson’s family was told that he had a pellet gun, not an actual handgun, “about five minutes” before the public press conference began. He said police did not give any explanation for why they were just being told this over a week after the shooting.
Acevedo said he had “confirmed” that the item was a pellet gun rather than a firearm the day before Friday’s news conference. He later blamed a communication breakdown within the department for the delay.
Juan Marcano, an Aurora City Council member, also said that the information was new to him despite having been in conversation with the police department since the incident.
Acevedo criticized the media for sharing what he said was incorrect information about the shooting without specifying what coverage had been in error.
Leon Kelly, executive director of Open Door Youth Gang Initiatives, was also invited by police to speak. He argued that the individuals who were with Richardson, and community members who did not intervene to dissuade Richardson from involvement in crime, were also to blame for the teen’s death.
“I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t have compassion for the family,” he said. “This is not a George Floyd. … This was technically a robbery. It was in the commission of a crime.”
He argued that Acevedo had acted with transparency by releasing the body-worn camera footage and sharing other information with the public.
Acevedo said two other 14-year-olds involved in the alleged June 1 robbery had been arrested on suspicion of false imprisonment and aggravated robbery and that other people who were involved had been tentatively identified.
Rathod characterized APD’s press conference as an attempt by Acevedo to “exonerate” the officers rather than an exercise in transparency. Other speakers made similar remarks.
Jameco Richardson said that he would like to see Acevedo removed from his position. “You don’t deserve that badge,” he said. “You don’t deserve to be called chief. You’re a coward.”
Also present were Richardson’s mother, 19-year-old brother and grandmother. His mother, Laurie Littlejohn, said that he had been “the light of our house.” “For a week now, our light has dimmed low,” she said.
Littlejohn thanked everyone for the support the family has received over the past week, and said that her son did not deserve what happened to him. “In life, we make mistakes so that we can grow,” she said. “They took that from our son.”
Littlejohn asked people not to forget his name in the weeks and months to come.
“This is going to be a long road for us,” she said.
>>>>>Pellet gun revelation timeline
On Monday, Acevedo blamed communication lapses in his department for the fact that it took more than a week to correct past statements that Richardson had a handgun at the time of the shooting.
Acevedo announced at a news conference the day of the shooting that Richardson had a “semi-automatic firearm pistol,” referring to the item as a firearm or gun no fewer than four times. Community activists Candice Bailey and Tim Hernandez said the chief reiterated at a meeting early last week with Aurora residents that Richardson had a gun.
While activists accused Acevedo of lying to deflect criticism from officers, the chief said after Monday’s Aurora City Council meeting that he first learned of the discrepancy Thursday when he asked department staffers for information about the gun that he could share with the public.
Acevedo said he would have had “nothing to gain” by intentionally misleading the public. When asked who told him that the item was a gun, Acevedo said, “I looked at it,” and also that he had not handled or touched it.
“Everybody’s looking at it. Everybody thinks it’s a firearm. What did it look like to you when you looked at it?,” he asked. “I didn’t get an update, and my assumption was that that was accurate. … I still need to find out who booked it into evidence, how it was booked into evidence and why I wasn’t updated sooner. Had I not asked for that update, I would still be in the dark on it.”
Rathod said he didn’t understand Acevedo’s comments over the past few days.
“Are we saying when APD officers shoot a 14-year-old boy, the chief of police isn’t briefed?” he asked. “I understand there’s a CIRT team investigation, and rightfully so…then he should be going out to the public saying I’m not briefed, I don’t know what happened. That’s not what he said.”
Rathod questioned why Acevedo had been making definitive public statements about the shooting if he wasn’t fully up to date on the investigation.
“Isn’t it irresponsible of him to be issuing a statement? None of this makes sense,” he said.
At Friday’s press conference, Acevedo said that he makes a point to personally respond to the scene of officer-involved shootings, noting that “you can rely on a report, you can rely on your own eyes, and I like to rely on both.”
He said he wanted to review the process of how information is shared within the department. The Sentinel asked the Aurora Police Department to provide a timeline of how the information was relayed before the chief reportedly made his request Thursday and were told police would “not be releasing any reports or documents until the three open investigations are completed.”
Before Acevedo spoke with the Sentinel on Monday, the Aurora Police Department offered an unclear answer for why it would take the police chief a week to determine the kind of weapon Richardson had.
“The 18th Judicial District Critical Incident Response Team is the primary investigative agency into the shooting,” spokeswoman Faith Goodrich wrote in an email Monday afternoon.
“Additionally, the officers, at the time the information was confirmed to the Chief, had not been interviewed. To respect the open investigation by CIRT, and to not taint any interviews that had not yet occurred, that information was withheld until Friday’s press conference.”
Acevedo said he was still getting accustomed to Aurora’s arrangement with the CIRT team and that the situation was complicated by the multiple ongoing investigations into the incident, including the robbery case and concurrent internal affairs and CIRT probes.
The CIRT team is responsible for conducting all outside investigations of lethal officer use-of-force incidents for APD, though crime-scene evidence is the responsibility of the law enforcement agency being investigated, the district attorney’s office confirmed Monday for the Sentinel.
The chief also said representatives of the Richardson family who called the pellet gun “a toy” and who criticized officers’ decision to shoot the 14-year-old were trying to “rile up” the community.
“It is not a toy,” Acevedo said of the pellet gun carried by Richardson. “It looks just like what? An exact replica.”
Acevedo mentioned Friday and Monday how pellet guns have caused serious injuries and deaths, though they are not classified as firearms by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He also struck back at his critics, saying they were trying to sow discord in the community.
??“I made a report based on what I knew, and no one had advised me otherwise,” Acevedo said Monday. “I know that we want to find a boogeyman behind everything and try to build mistrust, but that’s not the way I roll.”
Past complaints about officer
Acevedo’s remarks at Friday’s press conference that neither officer involved in Richardson’s death had a record of “significant” use-of-force incidents or disciplinary histories were also called into question by court records showing Gruszeczka was a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that he and two other officers racially profiled two Black Aurorans during a 2018 search.
Officers Gruszeczka and Snapp took Richardson into custody, with Gruszeczka firing the single shot that killed him. The city settled the lawsuit against Gruszeczka and others for $100,000 in February.
In a complaint filed in 2020 in U.S. District Court in Colorado, lawyers for plaintiff Tevon Thomas allege that the City of Aurora and APD officers Gruszeczka, Jonathan Fullam and Cassie Longnecker violated Thomas’ Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.
On Nov. 10, 2018 at about 3 a.m., a female friend gave Thomas a ride home to the apartment complex in Aurora where he lived with his mother, according to the complaint. The two, who are both Black, were having a conversation and continued to talk in the friend’s parked car once they arrived.
Around 4 a.m. another resident returning home from work called 911 and asked officers to escort her to the building out of an abundance of caution because there was a parked car running outside. The three officers responded, and after walking her inside, parked their police car behind the vehicle and began questioning the pair about where they lived.
“When Mr. Thomas began to answer, ‘my mother stays—’ he was interrupted by Defendant Gruszeczka, who demanded to know ‘honestly, where do you guys live at?’” the complaint said.
Gruszeczka then asked about the contents of the car and if there was “anything in the car I should know about,” the complaint said. He did not articulate a reason for his suspicion, according to the complaint.
After asking for both their IDs, Gruszeczka ordered the woman out of the car for questioning and placed her in the back of the police vehicle, the complaint said. He and the other officers then ordered Thomas out of the vehicle, and after seeing the handle of a pistol in his pocket, drew their guns and ordered him to lie down on the ground. He complied, and the officers handcuffed, searched and arrested him.
The complaint argued that the officers did not have any justification to search the car because neither Thomas nor his friend had been doing anything illegal at the time, and that the search was another example of Aurora’s “longstanding, persistent and widespread custom of illegally seizing Black people.”
“Rank-and-file members of the APD regularly escalate their interactions with Black people into unreasonable seizures without any basis for suspecting them of criminality or of being a threat to themselves or others,” the complaint said. “In conjunction, APD officers regularly use race and race-based animus as motivating factors in police decisions and actions.”
Thomas was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm as a felon. In 2020 a federal judge ruled that the evidence was inadmissible in court because Thomas had been illegally searched.
David Lane, one of the two attorneys who represented Thomas, said Tuesday that the treatment of his client was a clear example of racially biased policing.
“He was basically arrested for being Black while sitting in a parked car, and it cost Aurora $100,000,” Lane said.
Rathod said he believed it was hypocritical of Acevedo to specifically mention the officer’s lack of disciplinary history without also mentioning that Richardson had no previous criminal history.
“You know if he had a criminal history, they’d be going through it,” he said.
He said that the press conference, which Acevedo described as an exercise in transparency, was another example of APD selectively releasing information.
The department is under a consent decree “because of this exact type of behavior,” Rathod said.
The City of Aurora has been under a consent decree with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office since 2021 which mandates it to implement a litany of reforms intended to break a pattern of excessive force and racial bias. A “patterns and practices” investigation by the AG’s office found that APD had broken state and federal law and violated the civil rights of its residents through its policing of minorities.
The investigation, which began in August 2020 and was published about a year later, claims Aurora police use force against people of color about 2.5 times more than on their white counterparts, and local officers arrest Black residents about twice as much as whites.
Both Gruszeczka and Snapp have active certifications in Colorado’s peace officer database, according to Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards & Training website. Neither have any disciplinary records listed.
A records request from the Sentinel for both officers’ internal affairs files from APD is currently pending.
A public funeral and procession
For the second Friday in a row, supporters and family members of Richardson will gather at the Aurora Municipal Center, this time for a community memorial and procession.
The event will be directly following a private funeral for Richardson and will include eulogies by local faith leaders and a public procession of Richardson’s casket.
“Our family is in mourning, we are in pain, but our entire community is also in pain,” Jameco Richardson, Jor’Dell Richardson’s father, said in a Monday news release. “We are gathering together to honor and celebrate his life, and grieve a death that came far too early.”
The public event is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. at city hall with eulogies from Richardson’s family members and faith leaders. At 5:40 p.m. a processional march will begin which will be led by pallbearers carrying Richardson’s casket.
The procession “will likely follow a route that surrounds the Aurora Municipal Center,” the release said. That’s the route protestors took Friday following a press conference on behalf of Richardson’s family, where a group of several hundred briefly halted traffic on South Chambers Road and East Alameda Parkway during a march around the complex.
A flyer for the event says the procession is scheduled to last until 6:30 p.m.
The event was initially announced Sunday to be taking place outside the Capitol Building in Denver, but was moved Monday afternoon.
“Jor’Dell Richardson lived in Aurora and died in Aurora at the hands of the Aurora Police Department,” teacher and activist Tim Hernandez wrote in a Twitter post Monday. “Jor’Dell’s Community March and Procession will NOT be in Denver; it will be in Aurora, too.”
Donations for Richardson’s family are being solicited through a GoFundMe page which has raised about $16,500 as of Monday evening.
Organizers of the event include longtime Aurora activist and former city council candidate Candice Bailey.
“We are asking all people who care about racial justice in Denver, Aurora, and the larger Denver-Metro area to support the family of Jor’Dell Richardson on Friday as they lay their son to rest with community,” Bailey said in a statement.
Other organizers included Richardson’s friends and several former teachers.
Alicia Garcia, a former dean at Kenton Elementary School where Richardson attended prior to Aurora West, told the Sentinel on Friday that she was “absolutely gutted” by the news of his death.
While she believes that all kids have an inherent goodness, she said Richardson wasn’t the kind of student who got into trouble at school.
“If he was in the dean’s office, it was to bring my spirits up,” she said.
Garcia remembered Richardson as someone who was always trying to make jokes and cheer other people up.
“Some kids just have a bright light,” she said, tearing up. “And that was Jor’Dell.”