The Brief Life And Baffling Death Of John Crawford III
“How does somebody go into a Walmart and not come out alive?”
John Crawford Jr. would regularly make the 400-mile drive from his home in Jackson, Tennessee, to Fairfield, Ohio, to see his son, John Crawford III. Sometimes they would plan a week in advance to meet up. Sometimes Crawford would call his son along the way. On Aug. 5, he decided to surprise him. He got in his car and made the trek to the home of Tressa Sherrod, John’s mother.
When Crawford arrived in Fairfield he saw LeeCee Johnson, the mother of John Crawford III’s two children, outside on her cell phone. She looked perplexed, Crawford thought. He just waved and walked into Sherrod’s house.
“Where’s Trey?” Crawford asked her about their son John, using his nickname.
Sherrod said John had gone out with a friend. Crawford figured he’d be back soon, so he sat down on the couch and started playing with his two grandsons, nearly 2-year-old John Henry IV and 5-month-old Jayden.
Then Crawford heard Johnson scream to him from outside, “Oh. Mr. John, Mr. John! They shot him! They shot him!”
Crawford ran out to the front yard when he heard the cry. Johnson had been on the phone with John the whole time. She heard the shots ring out, and said John screamed: “Dad! Dad!”
Once Crawford got outside, Johnson put the phone on speaker.
“I heard him scream,” Crawford told BuzzFeed News. “Some more voices were saying stuff like, â€˜Try to hold your arms up, sir. We need you to try to stay with us.'”
Crawford stood there stunned, listening to the tragedy play out over the phone and unable to help his dying son. Johnson was jumping up and down. John, on the other end of the phone, was gasping, trying to breathe, sucking for air.
And then, suddenly, there was silence.
“That was it,” Crawford said.
That was the day 22-year-old John Crawford III was fatally shot by police inside a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio, near Dayton.
Surveillance video shows John Crawford III walking around the store with a pellet gun that he picked up inside the store.
A 911 caller would indicate that John Crawford III was pointing the pellet gun — which police would later discover to be a toy — at other shoppers, though there’s no way to tell if that’s true based on the video. The caller later recanted this statement. After the 911 call came in, Beavercreek police officer Sean Williams and Sgt. David Darkow responded to the scene.
Darkow said in an official statement that once he was inside the store, he yelled for John Crawford III to get on the ground, but that he made a “quick movement.”
Williams said in his official statement that he shot John Crawford III twice after he didn’t respond to multiple commands to drop his weapon and turned toward police in an “aggressive manner.”
The video, finally released to the public last week, doesn’t seem to support this. Williams appears to shoot John Crawford III right after commanding him to drop his weapon.
John Henry Crawford III was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 29, 1992, to John Crawford Jr. and Tressa Sherrod, who were both in their mid-twenties. The couple never married, but they were always a family.
“We were young. The timing just wasn’t there,” Crawford Jr. said. “We kind of laugh about it. We were together so much that people would often call her Mrs. Crawford.”
Crawford Jr. worked in the Tennessee criminal justice system as a probation officer and criminal counselor and eventually relocated south for work, but his various jobs kept him in and out of the Cincinnati area frequently. The couple’s only son, John, would frequently visit his father too. Crawford could always tell if his son was there if the Weather Channel or History Channel were on the television.
“I could tell if he had been there while I was gone if the TV was on one of those two channels,” Crawford said. “It got to the point, I would just leave it on the Weather Channel if I’m not there.”
“He and I had a conversation the night before [John was killed] about him getting back into school,” Crawford said. “If I had to argue, he was probably going into the sciences. Maybe he would have been a meteorologist.”
Growing up, John Crawford III was in and out of different public and private schools in the Cincinnati area. As a teenager, his dad remembers John getting “stressed out” and worried about the direction he was going. Sensing his son was in a rut, Crawford started calling around to various academies that could be an alternative to John’s normal high school. They made the decision for John to register at Greensburg Christian Academy, which offered a program where students pay a fee and take a test to receive their high school diploma rather than go to class. At age 20, John passed the test and got his high school diploma.
Following his death, stories attempting to raise questions about John Crawford III’s character began to surface in the media.
The Cincinnati Enquirer published a report on John Crawford III’s criminal record, stating that he had minor offenses for marijuana possession and disorderly conduct. The article citing Hamilton County Court records also said in 2013 John Crawford III was charged with a felony for allegedly carrying a concealed weapon and for aggravated robbery. A grand jury declined to indict John III on the felony charges and his dad told the Cincinnati Enquirer his son was only initially charged because he was in his cousin’s car at the time.
The scrutiny of John Crawford III was reminiscent of how the character of other young black men shot under controversial circumstances has been litigated in the media.
Photos of Trayvon Martin giving the middle finger were widely circulated following his February 2012 shooting death. Reports surfaced nine days after he was killed in August that Michael Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of his death. The attorney for Michael Dunn, the man recently convicted of murder for shooting unarmed black teenager Jordan Davis, said the case was really about “a subculture thug issue.”
After receiving his high school diploma from Greensburg, Crawford III worked a number of odd jobs. He would pick up telemarketing gigs through a temp agency and manual labor jobs through some guys that his dad knew.
Soon, LeeCee Johnson and John Crawford III had their first son: John Henry Crawford IV. On John deciding to give his son the family name, John Crawford Jr. said, “I didn’t really expect that. That showed me that he really thought a lot of me.” The family gave John IV the nickname “Quatto” — just like his family had nicknamed John Crawford III “Trey.”
A year later, Johnson would give birth to their second child, Jayden. John was growing increasingly frustrated with his job prospects — he had two sons and needed a steady income. And he was tired of asking his parents to help him financially.
“The night before everything transpired we had a conversation about him wanting to get back into school,” Crawford said. “I was trying to expedite that, get him going in the spring somewhere — Kentucky State maybe, that’s my alma mater.”
John was, as his dad put it, “getting on track.”
After the phone went silent, Crawford and Sherrod jumped in the car, barely speaking as they made the 25-minute trip from Fairfield to Dayton. All they knew was that their son had been shot and was being taken to the hospital.
“I don’t know if we said two or three words to each other,” Crawford remembered about the drive.
Crawford drove with a range of questions running through his head:
How could police run up in the place and shoot somebody?
Was it a shootout?
Did someone commit a crime?
Did they get the wrong guy?
How does one go inside a Walmart and not come out alive?
On Sept. 24, special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier announced that the grand jury — which received testimony from 18 witnesses and watched hours of audio and video — would not indict Sgt. David Darkow and officer Sean Williams for the fatal shooting of John Crawford III. The investigation is now out of the hands of local authorities, and under the control of the U.S. Department of Justice. The federal government is conducting a “thorough and independent review of the evidence” and will “take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes.”
At a Sept. 24 news conference to announce the grand jury’s decision, Piepmeier presented about 20 minutes of surveillance video from inside the store. The footage shows Crawford III holding the pellet gun, and then dropping it and collapsing as police confront him. It is unclear exactly when the officer shot, based on the angle of the video. On the tape, you can hear the officers yell something at Crawford III followed by a gunshot about a second later. The audio of what the officers said to Crawford III is indiscernible because the shot followed quickly, but presumably they commanded that he drop the weapon.
There are more than 200 cameras in the Beaver Creek Walmart, according to a spokesperson for the Ohio attorney general. That means there are hundreds of hours of footage from Aug. 5 alone. When asked why, if there were 200 cameras in the store, the video only contains one angle and fails to show footage of the first shot fired at Crawford or the proof of the allegations that Crawford was pointing the pellet gun at customers, the federal government officials now in control of the investigation had no response. At the news conference, regarding the tape he was making public, Piepmeier said, “Because of the grand jury secrecy I cannot show you everything that was shown to the grand jury.”
John Crawford III’s family asked to see the Walmart surveillance video the day after the shooting, but it would be two weeks before the family was allowed to see about four minutes of security footage on Aug. 19.
The state Attorney General Mike DeWine made the decision not to release the tape to the public, claiming that it was evidence that could possibly sway the grand jury in the case.
DeWine only led the investigation for a few days before turning it over to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), and recommending that special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier take over the case. The court officially appointed Piepmeier on Aug. 26.
The state attorney general’s office described Piepmeier as an experienced prosecutor they were happy to have lead the investigation. During the Sept. 24 news conference, Piepmeier said that his assistant, Stacy DeGraffenreid, had been “side by side with me in all of this.” In fact, for some time during the investigation, she had led the proceedings. Piepmeier was on vacation.
John Crawford Jr. said he first spoke with Piepmeier “on or around Thursday, Aug. 28.” He called Crawford’s cell and introduced himself and stated that he did not want the case but that he was “made to take it.” Piepmeier let Crawford know that he would be on vacation and would contact him upon his return to Ohio. Crawford told BuzzFeed News he did not meet with the special prosecutor again until several weeks later “on or around Monday, Sept. 15,” in Piepmeier’s office in downtown Cincinnati.
“He had a long-standing prior commitment,” Piepmeier’s spokesperson told BuzzFeed News during a phone call, refusing to use the word vacation. “Ms. DeGraffenreid took over the investigation in his absence.” Piepmeier’s office refused to comment on the dates of his absence. DeWine’s office refused to say if they knew that Piepmeier would be on vacation during the investigation when they recommended him to lead the case.
“Piepmeier did not want the case,” John Crawford Jr. told BuzzFeed News, saying that he was furious with how the investigation proceeded. “I have no idea where he went. I just know he went on vacation. We didn’t find this out until it was told to us right before he went on vacation we would have to wait until he got back.”
Like DeWine, Piepmeier chose not to release the video. In an editorial in a local paper last week, DeWine discussed how he and the special prosecutors saw eye to eye on the issue:
When Greene County Common Pleas Court appointed Mark Piepmeier as the special prosecutor in the Beavercreek case on Aug. 27, 2014, he could have changed course and released the videos to the public. He did not. He waited until the grand jury concluded its work. He determined that releasing the videos prematurely created too great of a risk of tainting the judicial process.
But before Piepmeier left for his trip, he and DeGraffenreid met with DeWine, according to a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office.
“I can’t comment on everything they talked about,” DeWine’s spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “But I’m sure it [whether or not to release the video] was discussed.” It’s unclear whether or not DeWine encouraged or persuaded Piepmeier to remain consistent with his stance.
In the same editorial, DeWine describes that nobody in the media filed a “legal action seeking disclosure.” DeWine writes:
If anyone, including the media, had disagreed with my decision or the appointed special prosecutor’s decision not to release the videos, they could have filed a legal action seeking disclosure. I remain confident that had such an action been filed, the courts would have agreed that the video was not subject to disclosure.
BuzzFeed News filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Captain Eric Grile of the Beavercreek Police Department on Aug. 19. We requested all records including “Beavercreek police policies and procedures, personnel files of Officer Sean Williams and Sgt. David Darkow, all pertinent 911 calls, and the incident report and all related materials.”
Over a month later, after the grand jury decision, BuzzFeed News obtained the incident report, witness statements, statements from Williams and Darkow, and a Response to Resistance report signed by Williams and Darkow.
A number of details in the case remain unclear. In the news conference, Piepmeier stated that he told the Crawford family that he believed John Crawford III didn’t realize he was even carrying the pellet gun anymore, since he was on the phone.
Piepmeier told the Crawford family because Crawford III was on the phone, “he probably didn’t realize that he’s carrying that gun.”
“He’s still on the phone. He’s probably not paying attention to what he’s doing,” said Piepmeier. As previously mentioned, the police officers’ statements said that Crawford III acted aggressively and moved toward them in a threatening way.
Additionally, in the Resistance to Response report, the officers indicate that weapons were used against them. The video shows no indication of this.
The Department of Justice told BuzzFeed News they were following procedure by letting the local officials conduct the initial investigation. Crawford’s family, on the other hand, wanted them to take over from the beginning.
“Mike DeWine should have recused himself of the case,” said Crawford Jr., noting that the BCI and the special prosecutors both were technically working under the Ohio attorney general. “He should have handed it over to the U.S. attorney general’s office so that the Department of Justice can get involved. He cannot exercise his duty without being biased. That’s the upsetting part.”
DeWine says that after the case was handed to the special prosecutors, however, he had “no involvement.”
“The Bureau of Criminal Investigation remained the investigative agency,” a spokesperson for DeWine said. “And yes, the BCI works under the attorney general’s office. But other than that, DeWine had no involvement.”
July 29, 2014, was John Crawford III’s 22nd birthday. On the night before, he called up his dad.
“Hey, Dad, I’m almost 22. Let’s do something,” Crawford Jr. remembered John saying to him on the phone. “I’ll miss that. That’s how he always started our conversations: â€˜Hey, Dad…'”
The father and son then went to Memories Sports Bar in Fairfield. They played pool and talked. “I talked to him about the school situation, but for the most part we just enjoyed each other’s company,” Crawford said.
They stayed until midnight, so it was technically John’s 22nd birthday. The two played music, drank, and joked around. Crawford beat his son at pool. “Shooting wise, he couldn’t match me,” Crawford said. “He knew he couldn’t, he just liked to play.”
A week later, Crawford and Sherrod were in a Dayton hospital, searching for news about their son. They were taken to a room in the back where four doctors, a couple of nurses, and a hospital chaplain were waiting for them. Crawford knew it was bad.
A doctor began to tell Crawford and Sherrod what happened to their son: He was hit in the back of his left elbow. The bullet exited, breaking his arm. A second bullet hit him in the upper torso and went straight through his right side and through his right arm. He had a total of six holes in his body. The doctor said they attempted to resuscitate him.
“So I interjected and said, â€˜Ma’am, are you trying to tell me my son is dead?'” Crawford said.
“And she said, â€˜Mr. Crawford, I’m so sorry, he did not make it.'”
“Everything she said was in the past tense: â€˜He tried to fight. He tried.'”