Was gun inside a bag a threat to five officers?
By A.C. Thompson, ProPublica, Brendan McCarthy and Laura Maggi, Times-Picayune. First published in ProPublica.
Matt McDonald left his native Connecticut and headed to New Orleans in the summer of 2005, shortly before Hurricane Katrina struck and floodwaters engulfed the city. McDonald was a troubled soul, a heavy drinker who had lived on the streets, but he kept in touch with his family, calling from time to time.
After the storm, his brother John, an auto-body technician who lives in Norwich, Conn., began working the phones, reaching out to anyone in Louisiana he thought might know something. “I heard so many different things,” John McDonald recalled.
John McDonald’s wife, Kerry, spent the next month making one phone call after another. “It was such a big runaround,” said Kerry McDonald, who recalled speaking to FEMA officials, American Red Cross staffers, New Orleans police officers and numerous others. “One person would say he was shot to death; the next would say he was found floating.”
Eventually, despite the conflicting stories, one thing became clear: Matt was dead at 41. His body was identified by several distinctive tattoos, including the name of his daughter, Crystal, and a pair of black bat wings.
His girlfriend, Martha Dziadul, paid to cremate the body.
Four years later, a reporter looking at the conduct of the Police Department in the aftermath of the hurricane called Dziadul to ask whether she had ever seen the official report on McDonald’s death. The document said a police officer armed with an AR-15 assault rifle had shot him to death on Sept. 3, 2005.
She was staggered. “They never, ever told me the police shot him. They told me it was a homicide,” she said. “They said: We don’t even know what day it happened because we weren’t there.”
Kerry McDonald said, “We were never told he was shot by the police.”
Dziadul and McDonald family members said they could not recall the names of the NOPD officials they spoke with. But, they said, they were quite sure no one ever told them it was a police officer who killed Matt McDonald or that the slaying had been detailed in an official report.
The Times-Picayune, nonprofit investigative newsroom ProPublica and the PBS series “Frontline” joined forces to examine at least 10 police shootings of citizens during the week after Katrina (PDF) made landfall. Interviews and police documents show the department did little to determine whether these shootings were justified—failing to track down civilian witnesses, collect evidence or thoroughly question officers who fired the shots.
Police Department spokesman Bob Young said the department could not discuss the shootings because of an ongoing Justice Department inquiry into the NOPD’s actions in the wake of the storm.
Capt. Michael Glasser, head of the Police Association of New Orleans, said it was impossible to conduct a comprehensive investigation at the time. “Normally you do forensics, a crime-scene investigation,” he said. “We didn’t have that. We didn’t have anyone to collect the deceased.”
At one point, at least, the NOPD saw Matt McDonald’s shooting as a potentially newsworthy event. On Oct. 11, 2005, the department issued a one-page news release saying officers killed an unidentified male after he tried to assault them. Investigators, the news release stated, were still trying to establish “an exact motive for this incident.”
The release came out three days after The Times-Picayune published a story that identified McDonald as a casualty of the storm. The article did not say how he died.
The events that precipitated McDonald’s shooting are chronicled in a seven-page NOPD report, which describes him threatening a group of police officers with a 9 mm pistol, and refusing to obey their instructions to drop his weapon. It is unclear when the report was prepared.
Confronted by five officers
As the document tells the story, five officers were in a white GMC pickup driving down Burgundy Street in Faubourg Marigny on the afternoon of Sept. 3 when they saw McDonald.
In interviews with Sgt. Doug Eckert, the officers said they observed McDonald carrying a “handgun and a bottle containing an unknown liquid” in a white plastic bag. The report doesn’t explain how the police could tell the bag contained a gun.
According to the report, Lt. Bryant Wininger hopped out of the pickup armed with an assault rifle and commanded McDonald to drop the sack. McDonald ignored the order and “reached into the bag in an attempt to remove a handgun,” the report said.
Wininger, the report said, feared for his life and fired four shots in rapid sequence, the last two as McDonald lay on the ground. The officers said they then immediately rushed McDonald to West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero.
According to the report, Matt McDonald suffered “what they believed to be a single gunshot to the left back area” and died at the hospital.
At the scene, Wininger and the other officers collected and sent to the police evidence room the following items: a black 9 mm handgun, 10 bullets and a 6-inch hunting knife. The knife was pulled from McDonald’s pocket.
Eckert later questioned the officers but didn’t speak to anyone else, stating in his report that he was unable to locate any witnesses to the incident.
Two hours after the shooting, Eckert went to the scene but didn’t find “any physical evidence” there, according to the report. He does not mention taking any photos, which would be the normal practice after a shooting.
The document contains a noteworthy inconsistency. Pages four and five are identical except for a few sentences, which describe differently how McDonald came to be shot in the back.
On page four, McDonald is said to swivel his body—first turning away from the officer, and then turning back toward him. When Wininger pulls the trigger, the report states, it prompts McDonald “to turn away again.”
A page later, McDonald is depicted as continually turning toward the officer. Then, as the shot is fired, McDonald pivots and begins “to turn away to avoid being struck,” according to the report.
The NOPD released the seven-page document in response to a public records request. The department declined to divulge a second—more detailed—report on the incident, or the transcripts of interviews with the officers.
Wininger, who has since retired, did not respond to calls for comment about the incident. Eckert also declined to comment, as did two officers who were present for the shooting, Detective Nicholas Gernon and Sgt. Daniel Scanlan. Those officers remain on the force and are forbidden to talk to the media by departmental policy.
A review of NOPD personnel records indicates Wininger was not disciplined for the shooting. The district attorney’s office also declined to bring criminal charges against him.
Discrepancies in report
Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf examined the NOPD report at the request of a reporter. He said the discrepancy in the narrative—whether McDonald turned away from or toward Wininger—could have multiple explanations, including an error in transcribing the interviews or a mistake in the writing process. The two versions, he said, could also suggest an attempt to tweak the story.
Scharf said that the flaws in the report are understandable, given the chaos in New Orleans at the time. But he said that, ultimately, it is nearly impossible to tell from the report whether the shooting was justified. “There really is no physical evidence to document this is what happened,” he said.
When police kill a citizen, the department has a responsibility to disclose exactly how the event unfolded, said Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who has represented the families of people slain by New Orleans police officers. The most important thing, she said, is tell to the family “the truth, whatever that is. It is pretty appalling if this family was not given correct information or they were misled.”
In a police shooting, gunshot wounds to the back automatically raise questions that should be explored, Howell added.
In such instances, it is important to talk to as many witnesses as possible. “Yes, there are times when there are justifiable explanations in those situations,” Howell said. “You have to investigate it critically and thoroughly.”
A troubled life
People who knew Matt McDonald describe him as a solitary character who worked rarely and drank frequently. His family said he drifted from place to place, often subsisting on the charity of female companions or his father.
He loved the rock band KISS and science fiction. He favored black jeans and leather jackets and cowboy hats. But what Matt McDonald liked most was drinking, which he preferred to do alone. “Unfortunately, he liked his alcohol, which ruined a lot of relationships,” Kerry McDonald said.
The McDonalds and his Connecticut girlfriend, Dziadul, find it hard to imagine the man they knew owning a semiautomatic handgun. They find it even harder to picture him confronting five cops with such a weapon.
“Matt would never do that,” John McDonald said. “He would’ve laid right down. He wasn’t a fighter.”
A search of public records in New Orleans and Connecticut did not turn up any criminal record for McDonald, although a man with the same name but a slightly different date of birth was cited for trespassing in New Orleans in 1997.
The shifting accounts of his death family and friends say they received from authorities have deepened their suspicions.
Dziadul was incredulous when she learned about the NOPD report on the shooting, saying she distinctly recalls being told that he had been murdered by another civilian. “They told me it was a homicide,” she said.
Both the McDonalds and Dziadul said they took notes on their conversations with authorities, but have lost them in the years since.
According to Glasser, the police association president, the NOPD doesn’t always notify the families of shooting victims. That task, he said, is often left to the coroner’s office.
Both Dziadul and the McDonalds said they understood from their conversations with New Orleans officials that there was no autopsy report on Matt McDonald
The Orleans Parish coroner’s office said forensic pathologists did, in fact, examine Matt McDonald.
Chief investigator John Gagliano initially said that the office had a copy of the autopsy but would not release it. On Friday, Gagliano said those records had been lost and that coroner Frank Minyard couldn’t locate Matt McDonald’s file anywhere in the building.
The coroner’s attorney, Bill Bradley, had also dug through the files without success, he said.
“I want the truth,” John McDonald said. “I want to know what happened.”