by Charlene Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
Cheryl Spear lost her son over a year ago, but the pain and the questions about his death won’t go away. She believes police mistakenly killed her teenage son. His body was riddled with 19 bullets, his mom isn’t sure why.
ORLANDO, Fla. (FinalCall.com) – What began as an exciting day filled with hope ended in a tragedy forever changing the lives of a still grieving mother, her new grandson, and a family with a haunting question: Was Omarri Williams murdered when three officers with the Orlando Police Department shot the 17-year-old last September?
Officers Alberto Negron, Travis Lamont and Ben Chisari riddled Omarri’s thin body with 19 bullets after receiving reports about a robbery. According to investigative reports, the officers fired more than 105 shots, five striking the teen’s head. The Orlando Police Department called the shooting justified. The department said Omarri fired a gun at the officers.
“They murdered my son and they’re supposed to serve and protect but all they did was they robbed, they stole and they killed and don’t even have no remorse for it,” Cheryl Spear, Omarri’s mother, told The Final Call during a visit to the place where her son died. The officers involved in the shooting were White, Black and Latino, she said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigates officer-involved shootings, closed its case in May 2013 and the State Attorney’s Office ruled the shooting justified.
“The autopsy showed that my son had never shot a gun, had no gunpowder on him or anything,” Ms. Spear said.
Police said upon approaching the gated, upscale Camden Reserve apartment complex, they saw Omarri firing at them. The officers began shooting.
Cheryl Spear, mother of 17-year-old Omarri Williams, points to where police shot her son. Photo: Charlene Muhammad
Local news reports at the time indicated police could not confirm whether Omarri had fired a semi-automatic weapon found at the scene.
In addition, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy told The Final Call in a phone interview she did not see any gunpowder residue on Omarri’s hands or clothing. Dr. Jan Garavaglia, chief medical examiner in Orlando, said she did not perform a gunshot residue test and no request for the test was made by police. It’s not a very good test, because it says a person touched a gun or was near a gun when it fired, she said. “I did not see any gun powder residue on his hands. I didn’t put it in the autopsy because I didn’t see any,” Dr. Garavaglia said.
She also told The Final Call she would review the autopsy again to double check about gun powder residue tests. Dr. Garavaglia had not called back at Final Call presstime.
At press time, The Final Call’s question about whether Omarri’s fingerprints were on the gun officers said he used was also unanswered by officials. The Orlando Police Department denied several requests for interviews.
The Final Call also e-mailed Noel Piros, executive assistant to Richard Wallsh, 9th Judicial State Attorney, to request an interview about his office’s findings, to ask about fingerprints and how many excessive force incidents involving the Orlando Police Department had come before his office this year and a monthly breakdown of such cases.
On Sept. 19, Ms. Piros replied she had forwarded the requests to deputy state attorney Jeffrey Ashton and was awaiting his response. Four-days-later she told The Final Call deputy state attorney Ashton would not grant an interview.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Ashton has declined your request for an interview. I believe this concludes our response to your public records request. If I am mistaken, please contact me immediately,” said Ms. Piros in a Sept. 23 e-mail.
In a separate e-mail in response to The Final Call’s further request for any public records the state attorney may have regarding Omarri’s fingerprints, Ms. Piros responded: “If (the) information you received from FDLE does not give details about the fingerprints from Mr. Williams, I am not able to answer that question. I have no documents except those from FDLE. There are no other public records in our possession related to the use of force investigation in this case.”
She also provided in the same e-mail letters from assistant state attorney M. Ryan Williams, clearing police officers of any misconduct. In the letters, the assistant state attorney said there were conflicting accounts from witnesses, but there was no wrongdoing by officers.
“The only inconsistent statements obtained by the FDLE investigators came from the civilians who initially contacted 911 as alleged victims of a purported armed robbery. Witnesses Jaime Moreno and Brandon Vega provided testimony indicating suspect Williams robbed witness Brandon Vega at gunpoint, but provided no reason for Williams doing so. Witnesses Victor Torres and Aracely Bruno—both acquaintances of suspect Williams—gave statements contradicting those provided by Moreno and Vega and indicating suspect Williams was blameless,” he wrote.
These inconsistencies, however, had no bearing on the officers’ use of force since none of the civilian statements contradict the testimony of officers “in regards to hearing shots fired,” he concluded.
“They (police) accused him but they did the crime. They accused him of robbery but they did something far more than Omarri could ever do. It’s murder,” said the teenager’s mother.
Police reports listed the gun, which they said was stolen, as Omarri’s property but no registration information was cited. His mother wants to know if his fingerprints were on the gun. She told The Final Call she has been stonewalled by Orlando Police Department investigators and no representative of any investigating agency reached out to her with information about what happened.
The FDLE records found no disciplinary action relevant to the investigation about Omarri.
But in August 2012, a jury awarded $880,000 to an 86-year-old man after Officer Lamont broke his neck in 2010 in an unrelated case.
By June 2013, the police department had investigated 8 fatal officer-involved shootings in Orange County and Orlando, according to news reports.
“The recent increase in deadly force encounters occurring within the Central Florida area is of grave concern to this office as well as the community we jointly serve,” state attorney Ashton wrote in a June 14 letter to Orange County Police Chief Paul Rooney.
Tension between Orlando cops and Black community?
“The relationship is horrible and it’s gotten worse between the police and the community,” said Antjuan Jefferson, a community activist in Orlando. Part of the problem is people have shot at police in recent months, he acknowledged.
“But why are people shooting at the police? A lot of it has to do with their aggravation, which started with an undercover Orlando Police Department task force. There’s been a lot of harassment, pulling people over for no reason, and it’s gotten out of hand and people are fed up,” Mr. Jefferson said.
While police and political leaders have tried to pull the community together to discuss the tensions, the people’s trust just isn’t there so they don’t show up, he noted.
“We as a community in Orlando need to come together. That’s the only way we’re going to stop the violence because anger on anger is never going to stop the violence,” Mr. Jefferson continued.
He recommends holding events like the Sept. 7 Unity in the Community day of panels dedicated to youth, and smaller forums to help get people engaged about issues, such as the Omarri Williams case.
The NAACP Orlando Branch hadn’t heard about Omarri’s case before contact from The Final Call, according to Kran Riley, branch president. He plans to have someone check into it.
On activists’ concerns about a hostile relationship between Orlando police and the Black community, Mr. Riley said, “If you ask 10 people, you might get that but there’s a lot of facts behind it, too, you know. We look at both sides. We don’t uphold neither one.”
“Sometimes, on the streets, they’ll tell you one thing and it’s really not that. I’m not saying there’s not, in all agencies there’s problems. There’s no perfect agencies around,” Mr. Riley told The Final Call.
Changes in a son
Ms. Spear insists Orlando police officers made a mistake the night they killed her son and feels they should just admit it.
Mother and son were both moving into new homes that day. Omarri was trying to earn and save money to take care of his unborn child and girlfriend. Ms. Spear didn’t know why at the time, but a definite change was taking place with her son.
They were almost settled into their new, separate places. That evening, Omarri was helping his mom move into a quiet, middle-class community. He paused to go buy a money order for his own rental deposit, Ms. Spear said. On his way back to her place, Omarri called for help, according to his mother.
“ ‘Mom. I’m lost. How do I get back to your apartment? This place is huge,’ Omarri said. I told him how to get back and then he said, ‘Mama, I’m getting wet.’ I said well, ‘take your shoes off,’ ” Ms. Spear said. She knew her son hated for anything to happen to his sneakers, so walking in Florida rain in bare feet was her advice.
As the call was ending, Ms. Spear said she heard gunshots through the phone and loud gunfire outside her apartment. “Right away I ran to try to see what was going on. I was telling the policemen, ‘Look. My son is down here and he’s lost,’ but they wouldn’t let me through. They wouldn’t let me see him,” she told The Final Call.
“As a mother, I felt it. I actually felt it and knew it was my son, though they wouldn’t tell me that it was,” she said. “They wouldn’t even tell me who had killed him, just that there was a robbery in progress.”
The next morning watching the 6 a.m. news, she learned Omarri was killed by police officers. Media also reported 2 robbery victims named Omarri as their assailant along with another man. Richard Calderon was arrested Sept. 12, and police say he told officers Omarri asked him to take part in a fake drug deal. According to Ms. Piros, Mr. Calderon was charged with six counts, three counts of robbery with a firearm and three counts of aggravated assault with a firearm. He pled no contest to the first count and in exchange, the other counts were dismissed, Ms. Piros said. He was tried and sentenced to just over 4 years in prison, Ms. Piros said.
“I told them it’s impossible. My son was on the phone with me. How would he be shooting a gun and robbing someone at the same time?” Ms. Spear asked.
Ms. Spear acknowledged Omarri’s once frequent marijuana use reported in the local media. She told The Final Call she didn’t want news media to think it could paint her son as a monster by embellishing anything or ambushing her with questions about something she already knew about Omarri.
In fact, the mother believes her son was robbed of money he had for a deposit on his new apartment. His girlfriend was pregnant. They were quietly preparing for their new life together, said Ms. Spear.
“I was trying to help him get a place. Never did they tell me that she was pregnant but he was trying to do some things before I found out. He was trying to make things right, to clean up his life, stop smoking, to be a daddy,” she said softly.
The days are long and rough for Omarri’s girlfriend and the mother of a young son. The baby’s mother stays depressed and this grandmother rarely sees her grandchild, said Ms. Spear.
“Omarri would have made a great dad. He loved kids. I think we all need justice. It would make the hurt go away a little,” she said.
Haunting images, flowers and prayers
Eyewitnesses, who requested anonymity, said police left the teen’s body in the rain, uncovered, from approximately 8:45 p.m. that night until 6 a.m. the next morning.
One witness heard two shots right outside a window, but doesn’t know who fired the shots and whether it was Omarri or 32-year-old Calderon, who escaped that night but was arrested by police days later.
“When I walk out, I still see him with his feet sticking up, one tennis shoe sticking straight up in the air,” a male witness said, demonstrating Omarri’s final position in nearby bushes. “One shoe was off,” he said.
Ms. Spear said Omarri had one sneaker on because he hated getting his shoes wet and had begun taking them off.
She sat quietly, soaking up the witnesses every word and watching a demonstration by a female witness. The reenactment with a wooden stick on their dining table was the closest picture she’s received of her son’s last moments.
“And then when they told me he was 17 that really shook me up,” the male witness said.
“I could still hear him (the witness) shaking when he’s sleeping, saying, ‘No! No!’” said the man’s wife. The shooting traumatized the man and the couple sometimes goes to the place where Omarri died to pray or lay flowers.
“I thought it was overkill when they done it. I see different things on TV that the cops are in the wrong when it’s done. They could very well be in the wrong with that. They’re not perfect and nobody’s perfect,” said the male witness.
“If this is not a case of excessive use of force then what is?” asked Kendrick Muhammad, student coordinator of the Nation of Islam Study Group in Orlando.
He’s concerned about Ms. Spear’s assertions that she has received no evidence, communication or a follow up about her son’s case from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the State Attorney Office. According to Ms. Spear, she didn’t know the investigation was complete or that a ruling was issued, until told so by The Final Call in September 2013.
“If this is accurate, in my view, they failed to follow up with Ms. Cheryl Spear as to the outcome of their investigation … If it’s not the policy of FDLE or the 9th Judicial District State Attorney Office to send communication with an update on the outcome of their investigation then I think it should be a policy,” said Mr. Muhammad.
It was 8 months before Ms. Spear received information about the shooting.
Attorney Beatrice Brown helped her to obtain Omarri’s autopsy April 2 through a freedom of information request. According to Atty. Brown, who had represented Omarri in an unrelated matter, the treatment and lack of information Ms. Spear has received since the incident isn’t typical.
She also credits the City Attorney’s Office with obtaining the autopsy.
“I was finally able to press upon them … It’s been all this time. What’s left to know? Omarri’s dead. The other man’s been charged. What else you’ve got to do?” Atty. Brown asked.
“Here’s this grieving mother and it was coming up on his birthday, and that’s why I give them credit. She’s saying, ‘Look, it’s my baby’s birthday coming up and I don’t even know what happened.’ And that’s just heartbreaking.”
The authorities didn’t rush but they provided the autopsy, the former public defender continued.
Atty. Brown doesn’t believe Omarri committed robbery with a firearm. “He had the baby coming and all of that,” she said.
“I want justice and some answers. The police won’t give me everything. They would not give me his phone, not his Louis Vuitton bag, which was mine. They didn’t give me his watch, nor his money. But they did give me his grill filled with blood,” said Ms. Spear.