January 25, 2016

Death at a Skate Park: Putting together the pieces of a deadly night

Screenshot of cell phone video from Los Altos Skate Park on March 22.

Three days after a mass shooting at an Albuquerque skate park that took the life of one, paralyzed another and injured five more, Albuquerque Police Department Detective Tara Juarez sat in a room interviewing the man who, according to transcripts of police interviews, shot and killed 17-year-old Jaquise Lewis.

An arrest warrant written for Gregory Buchanan sat in another room, according to statements made by another officer in a transcript from the interview.

The interview marked Gregory Buchanan’s third with Juarez since the March 22, 2015 shooting.

Until now, Buchanan insisted in police interviews that the gun he used on Lewis wasn’t his. Instead, he told Juarez that he picked it up from a friend who was shot in the chaos of the night. Buchanan said he fired the gun “at the assailants who were shooting at us,” killing Lewis in self defense.

On the night of the shooting, Juarez asked Buchanan if the gun he used belonged to the friend Buchanan said he found it on.

“I honestly, I don’t know,” Buchanan said. “If I knew, I would tell you guys, you know.”

But on this night, Juarez confronted Buchanan about a flaw in his story. She had since obtained and reviewed video of the shooting from a cell phone that showed Buchanan exchanging a gun with with a friend shortly before he shot Lewis.

“I know for a fact that you had a gun on you before that first, those first warning shots were fired,” Juarez said. “I know for a fact. OK, I, I understand that and I’m still not saying that you were not shooting in self-defense.”

She implored Buchanan to tell the truth about the gun. She even hinted a way out for him.

“What you need to remember is if you’re telling me this was in self-defense, even if the beginning part of it looks a little shady for you and doesn’t quite look right, you still need to be honest, because then that makes your self-defense [case] look pretty weak,” Juarez said.

Buchanan asked her whether “telling you guys everything builds my self-defense case stronger.”

“Telling us the truth,” Juarez responded.

Eventually, Buchanan caved.

Photo of Los Altos Skate Park, months after a shooting that left one dead and others injured.

Photo of Los Altos Skate Park, months after a shooting that left one dead and others injured.

“OK, I did come to the skate park, I did have a firearm on me,” he said.

Buchanan maintained that he never intended to use it.

“I carry it for self-protection,” he said. “Um, it’s my constitutional right.”

“Absolutely,” Juarez responded.

By all accounts, Juarez, who leads APD’s investigation of the Los Altos Skate Park shooting, didn’t reprimand Buchanan for changing such a big detail in his story.

“Because now you’re being honest,” Juarez told him, “your story is making sense.”

These exchanges, which come from recently released police interview transcripts from the city, shed light into Albuquerque Police Department’s now 10-month-long investigation into one of the city’s more high-profile mass shootings in recent years.

The entire time, APD has publicly stuck to one narrative of what happened that night—a narrative that Ahmad Assed, attorney for Lewis’s mother Munah Green, says blames the entire shooting on the deceased Lewis.

Two months after the shooting, APD held a press conference accusing Lewis of firing a gun at a crowd and getting killed in self defense. Tanner Tixier, an APD spokesman, told reporters at the time that police based this conclusion on the cell phone video and witness testimony.

Police have also claimed that the shooting wasn’t gang- or race-related. They have, however, maintained that some people present during the shooting had gang ties.

But at least five friends of Lewis who were at the skate park that night have told NM Political Report a different story, claiming Lewis never had a gun.

The aftermath of the shooting, as well as APD’s investigation, carry major racial implications. Lewis was a black teenager in a city where African-Americans make up just over 2 percent of the population. Buchanan was never detained in the fatal shooting and remains free today. He’s white.

Green and her legal representation argue that Buchanan’s actions played a pivotal role in causing the gun violence that night. Both are calling on Albuquerque District Attorney Kari Brandenburg to file second-degree murder charges against him.

As of press time, Green’s legal team was in the process of drafting a legal memo to Brandenburg arguing that Buchanan chose to use deadly force because he wanted to harm or kill Lewis.

Another issue remains with APD’s incomplete investigation of the incident.

Last fall, APD said they’d hand over a completed case file of the shooting to Brandenburg’s office by the end of September. Nearly four months later, APD still hasn’t done so.

Screenshot of cell phone video from Los Altos Skate Park on March 22.

Screenshot of cell phone video from Los Altos Skate Park on March 22.

Brandenburg most recently requested the completed case file from APD Chief Gorden Eden on Jan. 19.

“We have not received them and we are getting numerous and regular calls from the media regarding such,” she wrote in an email to Eden.

While APD has argued Buchanan acted in self-defense, only Brandenburg’s office can legally make that final determination. Brandenburg’s office can also ask for documents from incomplete APD investigations, but reviewing them without a completed case file would amount to “looking at a puzzle without important pieces,” according to Kayla Anderson, a spokeswoman for Brandenburg’s office.

“We are still awaiting everything at this point,” she said.

Buchanan, who argues his self-defense throughout the transcripted interviews with police, declined to speak for this story, saying he needed to solidify legal representation before commenting. Juarez and Tixier also didn’t return NM Political Report’s multiple attempts seeking comment for this story.

APD’s handling of the case, at the very least, raises questions about its investigation of the shooting. One case bearing similarity involved an ex-marine in Valencia County shooting and killing a burglary suspect in 2009. The ex-marine was charged with murder, despite his claims of self-defense.

At the time, Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera said that his office had no choice but to charge him. “He admitted to shooting and killing someone,” Rivera said.

A court, however, later cleared the ex-marine of the charges.

Lewis was shot twice—once in his upper back and once in his left arm near the elbow. Police found no gun on Lewis, although they did find a key, a watch and money. To this day, APD hasn’t recovered any of the guns used that night, including Buchanan’s.

Green says if her son were in Buchanan’s exact situation, police would have treated him differently because he’s black.

“If the shoe was on the other foot, from day one Jaquise would have been charged,” Green said. “Day two, he would have been convicted and day three he would have been in prison.”

Before letting Buchanan go during their third interview, Juarez raised frustrations with him for not telling her the truth about his gun.

“When we first talked I believed you. When we talked the second time I believed you,” she says in the transcripts. “And then I was mad when I seen that video.”

“I know,” Buchanan replies. “I, I understand, and I, I’m a little frustrated with myself.”

“But the things you have explained we didn’t even see in this video until you explained ‘em to us,” Juarez says.

Specifically, Juarez tells Buchanan that if he wouldn’t have explained portions of the video where he was handing belongings off to other people, including his gun to a man who seconds later got shot, she never would have noticed.

Still, some see problems with this type of police interview style. Dan Klein, a retired APD sergeant and vocal critic of the agency’s top brass, said the fact that Buchanan changed a detail as big as bringing his own gun to the skate park in his story should have prompted less trust of him from police officers, not more.

“If somebody repeatedly lied to you, you didn’t treat them with kid gloves when they finally came clean,” Klein said.

The transcripts of Juarez’ interviews with Buchanan were released as part of a court order in December after a judge found the city guilty of wrongly withholding public records from Green related to the shooting.

In his ruling for the lawsuit, which Green filed in the summer after the city didn’t hand over pertinent information from its investigation of the shooting, Albuquerque District Judge Victor Lopez stated that the city “willfully ignored” Green’s “otherwise lawful requests for public records.”

According to witnesses and police reports, the March 22 shooting began with two groups—one of them predominantly African-American, one of them not—hanging out at the skate park. The group of African-Americans started the evening at Manzano Mesa Park, where they were throwing a barbeque send off for Lewis, who was getting ready to move in with his mother in Las Vegas, Nevada the following week.

Some were drinking, and two police officers approached the group and told them to move to Los Altos Park, where drinking alcohol is allowed until 10 p.m. APD has maintained they didn’t specify the skate and bike area located inside of Los Altos Park, a public park where drinking isn’t allowed.

The African-American group headed on to the skate park.

There, a group of mostly white skaters were drinking and celebrating a friend’s birthday, according to both witness statements and pictures from police that show empty liquor and beer bottles from the scene.

Photo of Los Altos Skate Park, months after a shooting that left one dead and others injured.

Photo of Los Altos Skate Park, months after a shooting that left one dead and others injured.

In a separate interview with another key witness, Juarez says that the African-American group was “out of their element” and “at the wrong place” after noting that they weren’t skaters.

“It was, you know, you guys have a great group of people there,” Juarez says in police transcripts. “And you have a good park and this was an unfortunate event that happened, absolutely.”

Another officer identified in the transcript as Detective L. Monty similarly praised this witness and the skater group he was a part of.

“We like you and guys on your side of the community that we’ve dealt with,” Monty says. “All cool people, we love the whole thing at the park.”

Juarez made similar remarks about the African-American group in her second interview with Buchanan.

“I think they were in the, they’re outta their comfort zone, not in the right place?” she asks him.

Buchanan responds in the affirmative.

“Uh, don’t get me wrong,” Juarez says, “but, you know, uh, somebody had mentioned that maybe one of the people in your group might’ve known somebody in that group, but not like they invited ‘em or anything.”

Green, Lewis’ mother, calls these comments “despicable” and a “disgrace,” especially since APD officers told Lewis’s group to Los Altos Park in the first place.

“Why would she say that?” Green said, referring to Juarez. “That’s not her place or her job to say that.”

According to a version of events accepted by police, someone from Lewis’s group that night stole a skateboard from the skaters, which escalated into fighting between people from both groups.

Multiple witnesses who were with Lewis that night, on the contrary, tell NM Political Report that the fighting didn’t start until someone yelled racial slurs.

One of them, Annette Webb, said she first saw Lewis arguing with a white couple about a skateboard. According to Webb, the couple were accusing Lewis of stealing a skateboard, which she said he was denying.

Webb said she then approached them.

“I’m telling the girl to move, like, get out of his face,” Webb said. “And she’s calling him ‘nigger’ and all that.”

The cell phone video of the incident obtained by police begins right after this exchange, according to Webb. The video starts with a fight between a black man and a white man. Lewis is not a part of this fight. In the video, Lewis is off to the side when a woman strikes him. He strikes her back.

Then, a man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans whom Buchanan identifies as himself in police transcripts runs into the camera’s view and confronts Lewis. Lewis is wearing a yellow Los Angeles Lakers shirt and a white glove on his right hand. Lewis doesn’t back down.

They stay squared up in fight stances as people block them from the view on the video.

Soon, Buchanan turns around and exchanges something with a man in a gray sweatshirt. In interviews with police, both Buchanan and the other men say they were exchanging a wallet and keys.

From here, the action in the video creeps away from the skate park toward a nearby parking lot. Buchanan tells Juarez that around this point, someone from Lewis’ group pulls a gun out.

“And when he pulled his gun out, I saw all of ‘em,” Buchanan said, “just like a bunch of ‘em start pulling ‘em out and then they went behind the cars.”

This incident is not in the video.

Next in the video, someone from a distance—it’s unclear who—fires what appear to be four warning shots in the air. Closer to the camera, the man in the black t-shirt is seen handing something to a lightskinned man with dreadlocks in a yellow t-shirt. In his third police interview, Buchanan says he’s handing his gun to a friend here.

The video gets shaky again, but it next shows the man with dreadlocks walk in between cars parked at the curb of the skate park. Lewis is seen across the street, appearing to grab something.

Then the camera moves out of focus and two gunshots are heard. Five witnesses who were with Lewis that night—Webb, Shamelia Emerson, Brianna Keyes, Zaivia Money and Desiree Duran—have all told NM Political Report that they saw the man with dreadlocks shooting at this point.

Keyes and Duran also said they told Juarez that they saw the man with dreadlocks firing his gun.

They also all maintain Lewis never had a gun.

“I’ve never once seen him with a gun,” Webb said. “I was around him every single day and stuff and would know if he had a gun.”

But police have said they believe Lewis fired these two gunshots.

“We have a witness statement that puts Jaquise Lewis as the shooter, but we haven’t forensically confirmed it,” APD spokesman Tanner Tixier said at the May press conference in reference to the two gunshots.

Tanner told NM Political Report last June that APD based its account of the incident on the video and 10 witness interviews. He said at the time that nobody from Lewis’s group was cooperating with APD’s investigation. But the five witnesses from Lewis’s group call this a lie.

Webb, Emerson, Keyes, Money and Duran all say they gave statements to the police during the night of the shooting, with some staying late to do so.

“We waited there all night for her,” Webb said, referring to Juarez.

NM Political Report obtained a police report of Keyes’s statement that night, but has not seen the statement from Webb, Emerson and Money. Green’s legal team says APD has still not provided their statements to them.

Webb and Keyes both say they also tried to call police after that night to schedule additional interviews, all to no avail. Juarez interviewed Duran on July 6, one week after NM Political Report ran a story quoting Duran extensively about the shooting.

For this story, NM Political Report also reviewed police summaries of interviews with 15 witnesses from the shooting and transcripts of interviews with four additional witnesses, including three interviews of Buchanan alone.

In the reports reviewed by NM Political Report, not many witnesses are able to identify who they saw shooting beyond basic details like skin color and clothing color. Within these documents, two people, one of whom is Buchanan, identify Lewis as a shooter.

Another man who told NM Political Report he was at the scene that night, but never talked with police, said he saw Lewis with a gun but didn’t see him shoot it. The man, who was part of the skater group, said he didn’t want his name revealed in fear of retaliation.

“I was laying on the ground in the parking lot when a bunch of bullets were going off,” he said.

He maintains the fight started over a stolen skateboard and denies anyone from his side yelled any racial slurs. He said he’s one of many regulars in a tight-knit group that still frequents the skate park to this day.

“If you’re just there causing drama, if you mess with one person, the whole skate park is going to have everybody’s back,” he said.

He also credits Buchanan’s shooting of Lewis with saving lives.

“If he didn’t shoot back, who knows what would have happened?” he said.

Green and her legal representation strongly deny the man’s narrative. Greg Payne, a former Albuquerque city councilor who’s part of the Green’s legal team, notes that five people from Lewis’s group have given their names to media and police on the record all saying the fight started with a racial slur and denying Lewis had a gun.

Green notes that the man’s account also doesn’t explain where Lewis’s alleged gun went.

“Let’s think about this,” she said. “They’ve had 10 months literally to get their story together. Jaquise is not here. Why wouldn’t they blame Jaquise?”

After the two unidentifiable shots are heard in the video, Lewis walks into the frame toward people standing back near the skate park entrance. He’s still off in the distance with his arms raised in the air.

Police have said this frame shows Lewis with a gun in his hand, but the video evidence itself is inconclusive. Green and her attorneys have argued that what police say is a gun is merely Lewis wearing his white glove.

Next, Lewis turns around and walks back into the parking lot. According to police transcripts, Buchanan is the man who is next seen in the video raising his gun and firing eight times.

Lewis runs from the bullets just before the cameraman quickly turns around and runs away from the action, cursing. Over the next minute, at least 13 more gunshots are heard but not seen.

Throughout his interviews with police, Buchanan says he had no choice but to shoot Lewis to stop others from being harmed.

“Before I even took shots, I made sure that there was a firearm in his hand,” Buchanan tells Juarez in his second interview with her, conducted the day after the shooting. “And I could distinctly see it, and I opened fire on him, and I look and I see more, and I could just, they’re just shooting and shooting.”

At the time, Buchanan was still claiming he picked up the gun from a friend who had been shot by Lewis. In his third interview, after he admitted to bringing the gun himself, Buchanan again told Juarez that he saw Lewis shoot the man Buchanan handed his gun to. When she asks Buchanan if he then shot Lewis because he was mad, Buchanan says no. He says he had no choice.

“I was in fear for everyone else’s life,” he said. “I was in fear for everyone. It wasn’t due to anger. It wasn’t due to anything in that manner.”

Lewis was pronounced dead in the early hours of the morning. An autopsy report later showed he died of two gunshots fired from a distance—once on the left mid-back just below his head and once on the left upper arm.

Race factored into at least one incident after the events.

The day following the shooting, a KRQE-TV newswoman reported hearing someone yelling “nigger” as they drove by a group of mourners gathered at the skate park for Lewis’s memorial.

A memorial friends made for Lewis at the skate park was also burned.

The city refused to publicly release the cell phone video as long as it could, arguing as recently as last month that doing so would jeopardize their investigation of the incident. APD maintained their investigation was ongoing, but Assed and Lewis’ family have raised public doubts that this was the case.

The most recent of the 19 police interviews NM Political Report has obtained occurred on April 22, 2015. The bulk of them happened the night of the shooting and the day after. At the open records trial in mid-November, Juarez said her most recent interview for the case came four weeks before then.

Shortly after the shooting took place, some media outlets dug into Lewis’s past. They found that on night of his death, Lewis was on house arrest from an alleged incident involving himself, a friend and a gun accidentally going off and hitting his friend in the buttocks earlier that month.

Buchanan also had previous problems with the law. Two months before the Los Altos Skate Park shooting, police arrested him for possession with and intent to distribute cocaine, something that could bring a second degree felony.

On the night he brought his gun to the skate park, Buchanan was still on bond from this arrest. The conditions of his bond barred him from using, possessing and selling drugs without a prescription, committing a local, state or federal crime and changing his address without approval from a metro judge. No conditions mentioned firearms.

Because police didn’t charge him with a crime for shooting and killing Lewis, Buchanan didn’t violate his bond terms for his role in the shooting.

But he may have violated them three weeks later when he failed to show up to an aggravated driver improvement class that metro court ordered him to attend. The requirement came after he was arrested in September 2014 for a careless driving charge.

Three weeks after the shooting, Metro Judge Yvette Gonzales issued a bench warrant for Buchanan’s arrest for failure to appear on April 14, 2015. That bench warrant for Buchanan is still active today, according to court records.

An Albuquerque District Court Judge soon dismissed Buchanan’s cocaine possession charge on April 28, 2015 nolle prosequi, a legal term that in this case means Brandenburg’s office didn’t pursue it. The judge dismissed the drug charge without prejudice, meaning the district attorney can refile it at a later date.

Anderson said that Buchanan’s drug charge got dismissed because her office was awaiting additional discovery.

“The case is still pending with our office, and we anticipate moving forward appropriately,” Anderson said.

Details from transcripts of Juarez’ three interviews with Buchanan do not show her or any other officers asking him about the cocaine charge or the aggravated driving charge.

APD also never retrieved Buchanan’s gun as evidence. Instead, he said he threw it in the skate park after shooting it and fled in fear for his life. Hours later, Buchanan reappeared after police arrived at the scene and volunteered to make a statement.

After he admitted to bringing the gun to the skate park, Juarez told Buchanan more than once that he was allowed to carry it.

“I’m just scared that like they’re try—they’re going to try and use it against me as like I came to the park trying and no—” he said.

“You’re allowed to carry a firearm,” Juarez told him.

Under New Mexico law, people are allowed to carry guns in the open. But they’re not allowed to carry concealed guns unless they have a state concealed carry permit. This includes carrying a gun in the back of your pants, as the video showed Buchanan doing on the night of the shooting.

In transcripts of the three interviews, Juarez never asks Buchanan if he owns a concealed carry permit.

The state law establishing concealed carry exempts these permits from public record. The state Department of Public Safety, which is in charge of concealed carry records, would not release information about whether Buchanan had one to NM Political Report, citing the exemption in the law.

Toward the end of his third interview, as Juarez prepares to release Buchanan, an officer only identified in transcripts as “other speaker” tells Buchanan that “there’s a lot of politics and phone calls and things involved.”

“Like, um, homicide investigations everybody on up to the mayor has to know,” he said.

The Albuquerque mayor’s office didn’t respond to NM Political Report’s voicemail seeking comment on this exchange.

Buchanan soon mentions that he is planning to leave New Mexico that night.

“At this point I believe what you’re telling me,” Juarez told him. “OK? Now I can’t keep you from leaving town. You are not under arrest.”