How a high-speed chase in Cleveland with two unarmed suspects led to two deaths, more than a hundred shots fired, and a police officer facing trial.
Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed
Cleveland Police Officer Vasile Nan was grabbing a computer from his parked cruiser when he was startled by a loud boom from a nearby Chevy Malibu.
"Popped a round off right as he drove by us," Nan announced on the police department's radio Channel 2, thinking he had just narrowly missed getting shot in a bizarre drive-by near the city's Justice Center. "Use caution — occupants are armed."
The chase that ensued would cast a national spotlight on the city and its police.
After Nan's dispatch, more and more cruisers joined the pursuit. Reports on the Cleveland Police radio got increasingly grim as officers seemingly described the violence they were witnessing.
"They're shooting at us! They're shooting at officers!"
"He's pointing the gun out the back window."
"Passenger is reloading."
The incident would lead to two deaths, more than a hundred shots fired, dozens of officers suspended, and one facing prosecution.
Timothy Russell's Chevy Malibu
Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation
The events of Nov. 29, 2012, began when Officer John Jordan stopped Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams for a signal violation. Jordan also suspected Russell and Williams of drug activity, originally spotting them outside the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry men's homeless shelter, a spot known for drug dealing and often referred to as "the wall."
Jordan told investigators that as he approached Russell's Chevy Malibu, Williams, in the passenger seat, became irate and started flailing and screaming. Russell put the car back in gear and took off. Jordan ran back to his car and gave chase, but he was too slow and Russell lost him.
The episode might have been over if Russell's Malibu, with a history of engine woes, didn't let out a booming backfire right front of Nan — which he mistook for a gunshot.
For the next 22 minutes, Timothy Russell led police on a chase reaching speeds of 100 mph.
As Russell ran red lights and blew through busy intersections, 62 police vehicles and more than 100 officers joined the pursuit, according to a state investigation. A federal investigation would later determine that 37% of the Cleveland Police Department was involved.
Russell eventually reached a dead end in the staff parking lot of Heritage Middle School. As he circled the lot looking for a way out, Officer Wilfredo Diaz took the first shots at the Malibu.
"Shots fired, shots fired!" rang out over the police radio as Diaz pulled the trigger and fired four shots. None of the officers on the scene knew for sure, but all would later tell investigators they assumed that it was the suspects firing, not the police.
"They're ramming us!" an officer broadcasted as Russell's Malibu collided with a police car blocking the only exit.
"Watch for crossfire! Crossfire!" someone yelled as the officers unleashed a barrage of bullets.
When it was all over, 13 officers fired 137 shots. Russell and Williams were hit more than 20 times each and died inside the Malibu. No guns were found inside the car. Every shot fired came from a Cleveland cop's gun. Investigators later determined that during the shoot-out there were two waves of gunfire — one lasting 17 seconds and another lasting about five seconds.
On Feb. 5, 2013, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine delivered the state's findings of an investigation into the chase and shooting.
On Russell's actions, DeWine said, "To state the obvious, this chase could have ended without tragic results if Timothy Russell had simply stopped his car in response to the police pursuit. Perhaps the alcohol and the cocaine in his system impaired his judgment. We will never know."
On the police's actions, DeWine said a "lack supervisor command and warnings ... resulted in an overall failure to control the situation" and "the large number of vehicles involved contributed to a crossfire situation ... that risked the lives of many officers."
"It is, quite frankly, a miracle that no law enforcement officer was killed," DeWine said. "Clearly, officers misinterpreted the facts. They failed to follow established rules."
Of the 62 police cars that took chase, only three had been authorized to do so. Because of the confusion and lack of organization on the radio, more than 90 police officers joined the pursuit without requisite clearance by dispatch.
In all, 63 officers were suspended, one supervisor was fired, and two more supervisors were demoted. Days of protests and rallies in Cleveland followed. The public outcry and horrific detail surrounding Williams and Russell's killings by police became the catalyst for a Department of Justice investigation of the department's use of force policies — the second federal probe of Cleveland Police in less than 10 years. The families of Williams and Russell each reached $1.5 million settlements with the city.
That might have been the end of the of the legal efforts to right the wrongs of Nov. 29, if it weren't for Officer Michael Brelo's role.
During the second wave of gunfire, the five-year veteran of the department jumped on the hood of the Malibu, trained his Glock on the suspects, and sent a hail of bullets into the windshield.
Of the 137 bullets fired by cops in the parking lot that night, 49 of them came from Brelo's gun. That second, five-second wave that investigators wrote about came solely from his Glock 17.
On April 6, Brelo will go on trial for two counts of voluntary manslaughter. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison. Of the 13 officers who fired shots that day, Brelo was the only one indicted by a Cuyahoga County grand jury. (Five other supervisors face misdemeanor charges for dereliction of duty.)
The trial comes as the Cleveland Police Department is facing federal supervision and national scrutiny. The Department of Justice and the department are currently negotiating the terms of a court enforceable agreement aimed at fixing the use of force, training, and supervision problems the department hasn't corrected since the November 2012 shooting. And while Brelo pleads his case to the judge — he waived his right to a jury trial — the people of Cleveland wait to see whether the officers who gunned down an unarmed 12-year old named Tamir Rice last November will face punishment.
To make their case, the prosecution is likely to call the 12 other cops who shot their guns on Nov. 29 — all of whom told investigators they felt the actions of the police that night were justified — and ask them to break the blue wall of silence, testify against a fellow officer, and tell the judge that when they stopped shooting, Brelo didn't.