It’s been four years since Eugene Ellison, 67, was shot to death by two LRPD officers in his apartment near the corner of Col. Glenn and University Ave. At a press conference held Tuesday night at a Little Rock church, Ellison’s sons and their attorneys marked the anniversary of Eugene Ellison’s death by laying out details of the case that they believe suggest the Little Rock Police Department may have covered up important information about Ellison’s shooting — information that’s only come to light since Troy and Eugene Ellison filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in Oct. 2011. Their attorney, who will argue against an “qualified immunity” appeal in the case before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals later this week, says the Ellison shooting fits a pattern seen in police use of force cases nationwide.
LRPD officers Donna Lesher and Tabitha McCrillis were working off-duty security at Big Country Chateau apartments on Dec. 9, 2010 when they noticed Eugene Ellison’s door ajar. According to their account, after going in to check on Ellison’s welfare, Ellison became combative, struggling with Lesher and McCrillis and swinging his cane at them before Lesher shot him in the chest. At the time Lesher shot, she was on the balcony outside Ellison’s door, standing with McCrillis and two male officers who had arrived as backup.
At Tuesday night’s press conference, held at Allison Presbyterian Church on Wright Avenue, Ellison’s sons Troy and Spencer Ellison were joined by their attorneys Michael Laux and Flint Taylor, both of Chicago. Laux filed the federal civil rights lawsuit in the case. Spencer Ellison is a former detective with the LRPD. Troy Ellison, currently a sergeant with the Little Rock Police Department, said tonight that he believes he has suffered employment retaliation due to the ongoing litigation, including being transferred out of his post in the training division to the downtown patrol division, where he was assigned to work an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
Speaking of the shooting of Eugene Ellison, Laux said that the depositions he has taken in the case, along with evidence he has uncovered, shows that “Mr. Ellison’s killing was not only needless and tragic, but really part of a larger pattern of police abuses affecting not just the African-American community, but the entirety of the city.” Among the things that Laux said his work on the case has uncovered:
- — After Donna Lesher shot Ellison, Laux said, Lesher called her husband, Sgt. James Lesher, who is the sergeant in charge of the Homicide unit, which investigates police-involved shootings. Laux said that James Lesher came to the scene, picked up Donna Lesher in his personal car, and then left with her for three hours. Their whereabouts during that three hours are unknown, Laux said. James Lesher, Laux said, never signed the crime scene log or filed a report stating he’d come to the scene, with Laux saying the only reason he learned James Lesher was there that night was because a patrol car’s dash cam filmed him at the scene.
- — LRPD investigators took possession of the raw footage from the apartment complex surveillance cameras immediately after the shooting. Laux said that when the footage was handed over to him to review in preparation for trial, he discovered that the video from the only camera that was filming the balcony outside Ellison’s door at the time of the shooting had somehow became damaged while in police custody. “It’s damaged at the very time when the shooting took place,” Laux said. “I kid you not. When asked about that at deposition, you had a lot of shrugging shoulders and scratching heads.”
- — Laux said that Lesher and McCrillis both claimed that Ellison was pepper-sprayed in an attempt to subdue him before Lesher resorted to deadly force. “What they’re trying to demonstrate is that less-lethal forms of force were unsuccessful,” Laux said. However, Laux said, Ellison’s face was never swabbed for pepper spray by investigators at the scene. First responders didn’t report the presence of pepper spray on Ellison’s body or clothing, Laux said, and the odor of pepper spray wasn’t mentioned in initial reports by officers. After then-Pulaski County Coroner Garland Camper publicly stated that he had found no pepper spray on Ellison’s body, Laux said, several officers came forward with “a flurry of supplemental reports” that say that they had detected the presence of pepper spray in Ellison’s apartment the night of the shooting. The clothes McCrillis and Lesher were wearing that night were not taken as evidence, Laux said, and were washed before they could be examined by investigators, and Lesher and McCrillis’ pepper spray canisters were not collected as evidence until five days after the shooting.
- — Laux said McCrillis and Lesher still haven’t filed “use of force reports” regarding the incident, as required under departmental regulations. Such reports would include information on their use of pepper spray that night, any blows they delivered during the struggle, and details of Lesher’s eventual shooting of Ellison. “There’s nothing preventing them from doing that tomorrow,” he said. “They’re not doing it.”
- — Laux said that Lesher and McCrillis were questioned by LRPD Detective Tommy Hudson. During the interviews, Laux said, Hudson turned off the camera that usually feeds video to the detectives’ room so other detectives can watch interviews with suspects. Lesher’s interview was recorded only on audio, and Laux said he later learned during depositions that Lesher had read from what Laux described as “a prepared statement.” Laux said he doesn’t know who wrote the prepared statement.
- — Forensic examination of Ellison’s body, Laux said, shows the bullet trajectories through Ellison’s chest travel front-to-back at a downward angle, with entry wounds in the area of Ellison’s clavicle. Given that Ellison was 6-foot-one and Lesher was 5-foot-6, Laux said, the downward trajectory of the bullets are “physically impossible” if Ellison was standing upright and advancing toward Lesher as Lesher has stated. Laux said the angle of the trajectory would seem to suggest that Ellison was “kneeling or getting up from the ground” when Lesher fired, with Laux remarking at the press conference: “She was not standing on a soap box when she shot the man.” Laux added that a former downstairs neighbor of Ellison’s that he located after a long search has since claimed that the night Ellison died, she heard a thump, as if a body had fallen on the floor above, followed by the shots. “We believe Mr. Ellison fell,” Laux said, “and then was shot by Donna Lesher.”
“This is what the LRPD calls an intense departmental review,” Laux said at the press conference. “This is what we’re seeing nationwide. It’s not just the fact that there are these improper shootings. It’s the mechanism that goes into effect after these shootings that insulates these officers and allows the situation to continue.”
In October, Laux, the NAACP, the American Bar Association and Troy and Spencer Ellison requested that the Department of Justice make a “pattern and practice” investigation of the Little Rock Police Department, much like the DOJ investigation that resulted in a recently released report that found a pattern of excessive force in the Cleveland Police Department. Soon after that request was made, Laux said, Sgt. Troy Ellison was moved to the night shift.
Former LRPD detective Spencer Ellison, who is now an adjunct professor of criminal justice in Texas, said that he still has the small, bloodstained Bible his father had in his pocket the night he was killed. Ellison said the past four years have been difficult for him and his brother. He said he has “lost two families”: his father, and the family of friends and colleagues at the LRPD who have turned their backs on him since he and his brother filed the civil suit over their father’s death.
Reading from a letter he’d written two days before the anniversary of his father’s death, Spencer Ellison said that as a former police officer, he understands that there are times when an officer must use deadly force in the line of duty, But, he said: “Objective evidence is not easily refuted, and the truth is the truth all by itself. Eugene Ellison did not deserve to die.”