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Police still mum on fatal shooting of 12-year-old boy

Attorney for boy's family says race may be an issue

Saturday, December 28, 2002

By Jonathan D. Silver, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An attorney representing the family of a 12-year-old black boy who was fatally shot in the back while being chased by state police in Uniontown suggested yesterday that a white trooper fired the fatal bullet after his black partner slipped on ice and accidentally discharged his weapon.

Michael Hickenbottom, 30, above, looks out a window at Uniontown's Community Service Center, where he was part of a news conference yesterday to discuss the police shooting of his 12-year-old son Michael Ellerbe. The boy was killed while being chased from the scene of a stolen car. (DarrellSapp, Post-Gazette)

"We understand that two troopers may have been involved with firing shots. It may be that a black trooper pursuing this child may have fired accidentally," said Pittsburgh civil rights attorney Joel Sansone, who has been retained by the family of Michael Ellerbe.

"We believe, based on the facts we've been given, that a white trooper may have fired the fatal shot."

Troopers have said the boy was shot Tuesday afternoon during a foot chase after he wrecked and then abandoned a stolen sport utility vehicle.

State police declined to address Sansone's version of events. Sansone's intimation is that the white trooper, a rookie named Samuel Nassan, discharged his gun directly in response to his partner's weapon going off.

The partner, Juan Curry, has been a trooper for eight years.

Sansone would not identify the source of his information, and he did not speculate on whether the second trooper shot because he panicked, believed his partner had been hit or thought he was under fire.

Michael Ellerbe

However, Sansone said his evidence indicates that both troopers were running after the unarmed Ellerbe through a residential neighborhood with their guns drawn when the boy was brought down by a single shot. An autopsy showed that a bullet passed through Ellerbe's heart from back to front.

"Why are these troopers' guns drawn? For what reason would they have those guns drawn against a child who is fleeing from them?" Sansone asked. "As we understand it, the boy was unarmed and shot in the back at close range."

Sansone also suggested that the shooting had racial overtones. "Based on 20 years of experience, if this had been a white child running away from police, we would not have this problem."

Sansone's comments came during a news conference at Uniontown's Community Service Center. Sitting at a conference table, Sansone was flanked by Ellerbe's father, Michael Hickenbottom, the boy's stepmother, an uncle, and two grandparents from New Jersey who had originally driven in to spend Christmas with the family. The family did not speak during the news conference.

Hickenbottom maintained his composure until asked a question by one reporter about his son. His face contorted in grief, he was unable to answer. Ellerbe, who had three brothers, a sister and a stepsister, attended the New Directions school in Perryopolis.

Sansone declined to give details about the boy's activities in the hours leading up to the shooting.

"It was a normal day for a normal 12-year-old looking forward to his presents under a tree and looking for Santa Claus coming," Sansone said. "Michael was a loving son and a delightful child. On behalf of the family, I can say he was a spirited boy who loved life."

A few hours earlier, the Fayette County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People met in the same room with reporters to express concerns about the incident and asked for contributions to help pay for Ellerbe's funeral. NAACP officials also said they may ask federal authorities to get involved.

Later in the day at another news conference, Fayette County District Attorney Nancy Vernon said she did not have a problem with the state police's internal affairs division conducting the investigation.

When asked, state police would not confirm that the bullet that killed Ellerbe was fired by a trooper, saying they were still awaiting forensic results and would not discuss the specifics of an ongoing investigation.

Both Curry and Nassan have been put on desk duty for an indefinite time, which is standard procedure for troopers involved in a shooting.

Top brass were coy about ruling out other suspects in the shooting and refused to release state police guidelines for troopers to draw their weapons.

"This is a very serious situation," Vernon said. "We must be cognizant that police officers are forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving."

Vernon then went on to give an example in which an officer uses deadly force in the belief that his partner is down. Vernon insisted the example was hypothetical and not necessarily pertinent to the Ellerbe case.

Also yesterday, state police Capt. Roger Waters, the head of Troop B, which includes Uniontown, and barracks commander Lt. Harvey Cole Jr. -- both of whom are black -- met with Ellerbe's family to express sympathy.

Waters said he did not apologize for the actions of Curry and Nassan, which brought a rebuke from Sansone.

"I'm a little disappointed because the state police didn't even offer an apology other than to say they were sorry there was a loss of life," Sansone said.

On the day of the shooting, Uniontown Police Chief Kyle Sneddon said his department was alerted by state police to be on the lookout for a stolen sport utility vehicle. According to state police, the vehicle was stolen from the Uniontown home of Wade Allen Friend Jr. on Dec. 24 between midnight and 1 a.m.

Later that day, the Uniontown police dispatcher received a 911 call from someone who had spotted the vehicle. Sneddon said his officers were dispatched but could not locate the vehicle, so they notified state police and called off the hunt. After that, Sneddon said, state troopers sent cars into the city and found the vehicle on their own. Uniontown police officers were not involved in the chase.

Sneddon said his officers did not get involved again until after Ellerbe had been shot around 2:30 p.m. in a back yard between Cleveland and Murray avenues. Sneddon said he and his officers rendered aid to Ellerbe, who was lying on his side, unconscious and clearly wounded.

  Online Map:
Site of shooting in Uniontown



State police have declined to release a timeline of the chase or say whether there were other people in the sport utility vehicle with Ellerbe, who they claim was the driver. Sansone also would not speculate on whether there were others in the vehicle.

He acknowledged that Ellerbe was inside, but would not say how the boy ended up there.

"He never operated a vehicle prior to this, as far as we know," Sansone said.

State police said the vehicle crashed into a house and a tree in an alley between Edgemont Drive and Propsect Street. Ellerbe then jumped out and ran.

Ellerbe was shot after running down a broad driveway between two houses on Cleveland Avenue. People in the neighborhood said the boy managed to scale a low fence before collapsing in a back yard. He died a short time later at Uniontown Hospital.

Fayette County Coroner Phillip E. Reilly said Thursday that an autopsy showed that Ellerbe was shot in the back. Because the bullet was not recovered from Ellerbe's body, Reilly said he could not identify the gun from which it was fired. Reilly has scheduled an inquest on Jan. 29.

Sansone said he was contemplating contacting the U.S. attorney's office to open an investigation, but so far has not done so.

"The family is shocked at Michael's death," Sansone said. "There can be no explanation that we can conceive for him to die under these circumstances."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.

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