Just before midnight on January 11, two hooded figures squeezed in the drive-thru window of a Whataburger on North Dysart Road in Avondale. One, a 14-year-old boy holding a pellet gun, directed an employee to a back room and told him to open the safe. The other, 20-year-old Jeremiah Triplett, headed toward the front of the restaurant and unlocked the front door, letting 19-year-old Jacob Harris inside.
Police watched as the three went through the cash registers, then ran outside into a 2001 red Honda Passport. The officers had been surveilling the group all day, believing them to be connected to a string of robberies targeting places like Whataburger and Circle K.
Six unmarked cars driven by members of the Phoenix Police Department's Special Assignment Unit followed the Passport for 10 miles. There wasn't a high-speed chase. No lights or sirens were blaring when, outside a Circle K on West Camelback Road and North 91st Avenue, Phoenix police officer David Norman drew closer to the vehicle and deployed a device that seized the back left tire, disabling it. A civilian driving a blue Honda Civic stopped short, caught in the middle of the police and the small SUV they were tailing.
Phoenix Officer Charles Holton threw a flash grenade. One officer mistook it for gunfire. On the dimly lit roadside, Jacob Harris opened the Passport's rear passenger door and sprinted away from the officers. He took seven steps before two Phoenix police officers gunned him down. It was 12:22 a.m. Three seconds after exiting the vehicle, Harris was shot in his liver, lung, and heart. Within an hour, he was dead.
Police say the shooting was justified. They say that Harris had a gun and they were in fear for their life. But video footage of the incident doesn't appear to match officers' descriptions of the event, and the 120-page police report and 80-plus pages of court records in the case against Triplett, the 14-year-old, and the 19-year-old getaway driver, Sariah Busani, are rife with inconsistencies. Though Harris was killed in January, the Phoenix Police Department only released the report this week after Harris' father, Roland, sued the department.
The Phoenix Police Department is also fighting tooth and nail to keep additional footage of the incident out of the public eye.
On Wednesday, Channel 12 News obtained a 13-second, heavily redacted video that shows Harris getting out of the car and sprinting away. Harris does not appear to stop or look back or turn at any point in the video. He appears to be fleeing, and the autopsy report shows Harris was shot twice in the back.
A spokesperson for the Phoenix police department said the records department released the video by mistake. On Wednesday, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office filed a motion requesting the court "prohibit the public dissemination of all discovery" including "air surveillance video, body camera videos, surveillance videos, and any other video recorded by the Avondale Police Department or the Phoenix Police Department on January 11, 2019."
Deputy County Attorney Mitchell Rand argued that seeing the videos isn't necessary to inform the public or the media and that it is more important to keep the footage under wraps in order to "protect the integrity" of the first degree murder case against Busani, Triplett, and the 14-year-old who were in the car with Harris. Police reports are available and that "should be sufficient to satisfy the media and any public interest in the case," wrote Rand.
But the police report is filled with conflicting information that only video footage could clear up.
Norman said he fired his handgun four times. Kristopher Bertz said he fired two shots from his rifle. But when officer Matthew Hamas inspected the scene, he found "four handgun shell casings and seven rifle shell casings."
While under oath and speaking before a grand jury, Detective Jacob Rasmussen said that as Harris ran toward the Circle K "there were people pumping gas at the pumps and you could see — officers saw people going in and out of the store."
But Phoenix police officer Josephine Jenkins was tasked with interviewing witnesses at the Circle K. In the police report, she said, "There was only a female Circle K clerk, the Circle K clerk's boyfriend, and a Shamrock Foods delivery driver. Everyone was ok in the Circle K and nobody witnessed any of the officer involved shooting."
Bertz said he saw Harris get out of the car with a gun in his hand. He said Harris looked at the officers when he got out of the car, then, as he was running away, turned to look again, "making a deliberate manner with the handgun." Norman said he saw Harris get out, begin running, then "look back at officer Bertz, take a few more steps, then turn back toward officer Bertz a second time."
Officer Holton said he only saw Harris run and couldn't see Harris' hands. In statements and interviews contained in the police report, four other officers on the scene either said they didn't see what happened or glossed over the moment when Harris ran out of the car entirely.
During grand jury proceedings, Detective Rasmussen went so far as to say that from the car, Triplett thought Harris shot back at police, leading the jury to believe that Harris fired back. It's not until much later, when pressed, that Rasmussen admits "there was not a round in the chamber and a casing was not found, so we don't believe he fired a shot."
But in introducing the case, Heather Kirka, a prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, said "Jacob Harris fled from the vehicle, exchanged gunfire with police, and was shot and killed."
"The grand jury presentation falsely describes the fatal shooting of Jacob Harris," wrote Sariah Busani's defense attorney, Adrian Little, in court filings. "In the video, Jacob Harris clearly runs directly away from officers for approximately seven steps. Never turns towards the officers, never points a weapon at the officers, and was shot in the back. He did not receive medical attention for over ten minutes; instead, he was shot with a riot gun three times while he lay on the ground and was then dragged several yards by a K-9 unit after being fatally wounded."
After Harris fell to the ground, another officer shot him with non-lethal rounds, allegedly because they feared Harris could have reached for the gun that was alternately described as being "3 to 4 yards" and "a couple of feet away" from Harris. To get Harris away from the gun, police released a K-9, which bit Harris' ankle and dragged his body back toward police.
At this time, Harris was still alive. Police handcuffed him. The other three passengers had surrendered peacefully and were taken into custody. While waiting for the fire department to arrive to transport Harris to the hospital, an officer noticed one of Harris' bullet wounds "appeared to be bubbling, as if air was escaping from the wound. This is consistent with the penetration of the bullet causing damage to a lung, either directly or via fragmentation of the bullet or bone. This sucking chest wound was treated with an occlusive dressing, which provides an air tight seal to the wound."
Forty-one minutes later, Harris died. Now, Triplett, Busani, and the 14-year-old who accompanied them are being charged with murder. Police reports indicate that Harris was charged with aggravated assault on an officer, but the case was cleared when he died.
Police killed Jacob Harris, but his friends are on trial for it:
Arizona law allows people to be charged with murder even if they
never killed anyone. In states that allow felony murder charges, someone can be held responsible for another person's death if they were committing certain felonies at that time. In this case, Triplett, Busani, and the 14-year-old are also charged with robbery and kidnapping, allowing prosecutors to seek first-degree murder charges. People who are convicted of first-degree murder face possible life sentences, and in certain cases, the death penalty.
Most states allow felony murder charges, but it is rare to see two young adults and one child charged with the death of their friend at the hands of police officers.
"My son was the father of two children," said Roland Harris, Jacob's father, at a press conference yesterday. "He worked full time, had his own place, taught basketball. At 19 years old, I'd like to find any person in this world who says they haven't made any mistakes. It's just unfortunate that Jacob's mistake cost him his life."
Taken together, police reports and court records paint a picture of a robbery orchestrated by Triplett, who lured his girlfriend, 19-year-old Sariah Busani, to act as getaway driver while a friend, the 14-year-old, did the risky work of sneaking into the Whataburger first and wielding the pellet gun. To police, Triplett referred to the 14-year-old as his "little brother" and said that he was just there to "watch out for him."
Harris, meanwhile, appears to have been given the role of lookout, but at some point, Triplett opened up the front door and let him in the store.
In February, police talked to a man whose fingerprints were found inside the Honda Passport. The man, Ymoni Colter, said that he was friends with Harris and knew of Triplett and Busani, but was not close with either of them. Ymoni told police that Triplett had been carrying out robberies for a while. (Triplett was also arrested for robbery in 2018.) He said he told Harris not to get involved with Triplett.
Busani, Triplett, and the 14-year-old have been in jail since their arrests on January 11. Triplett is held on $1 million bond, as is Busani, while the 14-year-old is held on a $500,000 bond. Their trial is scheduled for September 17 and is listed as a "complex / capital case."
In court filings, Busani's attorney, Adrian Little, has contested the grand jury indictment.
"The state violated Ms. Busani's right to due process by presenting perjured testimony, or at a minimum misleading testimony, in addition to failing to disclose exculpatory evidence to the grand jury... The State ... knew: 1) Ms. Busani did not drive in a manner indicative of being pursued; 2) Ms. Busani was not given an opportunity to obey a siren or police light to pull over; 3) that Mr. Harris did not fire at officers; 4) that officers did not fire 2 shots in return to a shot fired by Mr. Harris; 5) that officers actually fired 11 rounds at the back of a fleeing suspect."
"Instead," Little wrote, "the State provided an unfair and partial presentation by painting a picture of a 'fleeing' group of suspects that had to be stopped by ramming their vehicle, a suspect that threatened officers with a gun, and officers firing minimal shots only after being fired upon."
Jacob's father, Roland, has criticized the police department for taking so long to release any information about his son's death — and only doing so after being sued. For months, Roland had no idea what happened on the night his son was killed. Much of that evening remains unclear.
"Jacob had a smile that if he walked into the room, it'd light up the room," Roland said. "They said that he could still crawl and reach [the gun], well, Jacob was shot through his liver, through his lung, and the left side of his heart... If he was still alive after he hit that ground, he was gasping for air and his lungs were filling with blood."
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The police officers who killed Jacob Harris have each shot and killed people before. According to a database of statewide police shootings created by The Arizona Republic, Kristopher Bertz shot and killed 38-year-old Erik Pamias in 2017. David Norman killed Craig Uran in 2014 and Stephen Hudak in March 2018. Three months later, Norman shot Stephen Harris, but he lived.
Last year, Phoenix police officers shot far more people than any other law enforcement agency in the United States. Phoenix police shot at people 44 times last year. The NYPD shot at people 23 times. The NYPD has nearly 40,000 police officers. Phoenix has roughly 3,000 officers.
Roland Harris has filed a $6 million notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the city. He has repeatedly called for the officers involved to be fired, citing their histories of using lethal force. More than anything, he is desperate for answers and wants the police department to release the remaining footage of his son's final moments.
"Running away from a policeman is not punishable by capital punishment delivered instantly without any process," said Roland's attorney, former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne. "Had he been a threat to somebody, that would be a different story, but the helicopter video shows that he was not and flatly contradicts what appears in the police report."