By Frank Taylor, Carolina Public Press
This story is from Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit online news service focused on in-depth and investigative reporting in Western North Carolina.
ASHEVILLE – Contrary to several previous news media reports, Jai Lateef “Jerry” Williams had faced charges of serious criminal activity prior to July 2 when an Asheville Police Officer shot him, Carolina Public Press has learned from multiple sources.
Rondell Lance was among the officers who responded to Deaverview Apartments early on the morning of May 19, 2014, where Williams had broken into the home of a former girlfriend. Lance, who has since retired from the Asheville Police Department and now works for the Fraternal Order of Police, talked by phone with CPP about the case late Thursday.
Although Lance remembers the 2014 incident well, prior to speaking with CPP he had not realized that the man arrested in that case was the same one whom police shot last month at the same apartment complex.
Lance said the woman awoke to find Williams was in her apartment, having broken in. When Lance and other officers reached the scene, Williams fled on foot. They finally caught up with him at a creek a short distance to the north. Williams faced multiple charges from the incident, including felony breaking and entering, felony larceny after breaking and entering, resisting public officers, second degree criminal trespass and domestic criminal trespass.
Williams was never tried on those charges because the case was dropped in July when the victim didn’t appear in court. Several sources have told CPP that this is not unusual in domestic cases, in which victims may be reluctant to testify due to their previous or ongoing relationship with the defendant or due to fear of reprisal.
CPP has confirmed that the State Bureau of Investigation, which is handling the inquiry into Williams’ death, is aware of the 2014 incident, as are the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office and Asheville Police Department. A spokesperson for the police told CPP on Thursday that no news media organization has previously asked the agency for information about Williams’ criminal past.
The charges against Williams in 2014 undermine assertions by some activists that he had no criminal history. While less serious than the charges that were dropped two years later, Williams was also convicted in 2012 on a misdemeanor charge of possessing stolen goods and received a sentence of probation. The case may not have drawn public attention because the N.C. Department of Corrections incorrectly split up the components of his name as “Jaila Teef” instead of “Jai Lateef.”
Williams additionally had a previous civil case involving a conflict with another former domestic partner in 2010, when he faced a demand for child support.
However, it’s the May 2014 criminal case that may offer eerie parallels with the police’s account of what happened in July 2016.
Police version of shooting
Police have released limited statements about Williams’ death because the SBI is handling the investigation. The officer who shot Williams, Sgt. Tyler Radford, could theoretically face charges.
But the general narrative, according to police statements and radio traffic, has been that police received an anonymous call July 2 from a person at Pisgah View Apartments who reported that a man in a white Cadillac was firing a gun.
Radford responded to this call and encountered Williams driving a white Chevrolet, a potentially similar looking model. Radio traffic indicates that Radford pursued Williams at a high speed.
Williams drove off the road near the Deaverview Apartments as Radford reported observing a struggle between Williams and a woman riding in the front seat. Another woman carrying a child fled the backseat of the vehicle. Police said Williams “displayed” a gun and the officer shot him.
Several media outlets have reported that the woman in the front seat had been his girlfriend and is pregnant with his child, though CPP has not confirmed this.
Police have said they recovered an AR-15 rifle near Williams’ body and that shell casings were found at Pisgah View. Neither police nor the SBI would say whether the shells matched the rifle, but that analysis has presumably been done or is underway.
As in the 2014 incident, the police account has Williams committing a domestic crime against a current or former girlfriend. Both accounts have him engaging in criminal activity at the Deaverview Apartments. Both have him posing a threat to unarmed women, then fleeing from police until cornered. In 2014, this resulted in him being taken into custody, while last month’s incident ended in his death.
But the police version of Williams’ death is not the only one that has emerged.
Witnesses who have spoken with various news media outlets have disputed multiple aspects of the police account.
They have claimed Williams was not the person firing a gun at Pisgah View and said the gun at Deaverview was not his, but was planted there after he was dead. They have said he reached out the window with empty hands to surrender when he was shot. They’ve also denied that a “chase” occurred and that there was a struggle between Williams and the passengers in the vehicle.
Police and the SBI are not responding to most of these counterclaims, though police are sticking by the key details they have released: Williams fled at a high speed, struggled with a passenger and displayed the AR-15 rifle prior to being shot.
Asheville Police told CPP they released some of those statements only after checking with the SBI to be sure that the public information would not harm the independent investigation into Radford’s actions.
This doesn’t mean that the SBI automatically accepts the version of the facts released by police, according to SBI spokesperson Shannon O’Toole, who talked with CPP on Thursday about the case.
“We’re not going to tell another agency what to put out there,” he said. But he made it clear that not blocking a statement’s release didn’t mean the SBI assumed all its factual claims were correct. And he said the SBI is working on a very thorough investigation of the shooting.
The news media have widely reported that police were due to begin using body cameras a few days after the incident. O’Toole’s squad car was not equipped with a camera and no Asheville Housing Authority surveillance cameras exist at Deaverview. But less information has been clear about the existence of video from earlier locations related to the incident.
O’Toole said he couldn’t confirm which surveillance footage has actually become part of the investigation, but he said the SBI has requested or received every known video relating to the situation, potentially including the early aspects of the case at Pisgah View and points that Williams and Radford may have passed through en route to Deaveriew.
If video at Pisgah View captured a man firing shots, this could show definitively whether it was Williams, as well as how the passengers happened to be in the vehicle he was driving. If government or possibly private video, such as from a bank security camera, happened to capture Williams driving to Deaverview, it could demonstrate whether he was fleeing at a high speed.
At the same time, O’Toole welcomed anyone with additional evidence to come forward. Someone could have recorded amateur video or obtained some other evidence that could prove important to the case. He invited anyone with information to contact the SBI’s district office in Fletcher at 828-654-8901.
Both the SBI and police sources who talked with CPP this week have been unwilling to clarify one potentially important contested aspect of the story.
Police have not directly stated whether Radford had reached Pisgah View when he encountered Williams and thus are unclear about whether police can actually place Williams at the site of the reported shooting. This appears to be one subject that the SBI is likely to explore further in its inquiry.
On the other hand, not every allegation from “witnesses” that have appeared in the news media is being taken with equal seriousness – hardly a surprise since some of the statements criticizing the police have described mutually exclusive versions of the facts, differing over details such as whether Williams’ backseat passenger and her child were still in the vehicle when Radford shot Williams.
Some more outlandish allegations drew stronger rejection. “The SBI is never going to prevent a mother from viewing the body of her son,” O’Toole said in response to one claim that has appeared in other media. “That’s ludicrous.”
The case has received national attention in part due to the toxic conditions created by multiple cases in which white officers fired on and killed a black suspect. As in those cases, Radford is white and Williams is black.
Protesters marched through downtown Asheville last month, calling for “Justice for Jerry.” Signs in the crowd announced solidarity with the national “Black Live Matter” movement, which has drawn attention to police violence against blacks. The movement has drawn controversy after several recent deadly ambushes of police that some have blamed the activists for inciting.
While no incident takes place in a vacuum, each possesses its own circumstances that may not be shared with the others.
Unlike most of the other cases, the police version of events in the Asheville case has Radford acting to protect two women and a child, also black, from an armed man with a history of domestic crimes.
CPP has requested additional records in this case and plans to follow-up with additional information as it becomes available.