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This Cop Is On Trial For Firing 49 Shots At Two Unarmed Suspects

How a high-speed chase in Cleveland with two unarmed suspects led to two deaths, more than a hundred shots fired, and a police officer facing trial.

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Cleveland Police Officer Vasile Nan was grabbing a computer from his parked cruiser when he was startled by a loud boom from a nearby Chevy Malibu.

"Popped a round off right as he drove by us," Nan announced on the police department's radio Channel 2, thinking he had just narrowly missed getting shot in a bizarre drive-by near the city's Justice Center. "Use caution — occupants are armed."

The chase that ensued would cast a national spotlight on the city and its police.

After Nan's dispatch, more and more cruisers joined the pursuit. Reports on the Cleveland Police radio got increasingly grim as officers seemingly described the violence they were witnessing.

"They're shooting at us! They're shooting at officers!"

"He's pointing the gun out the back window."

"Passenger is reloading."

The incident would lead to two deaths, more than a hundred shots fired, dozens of officers suspended, and one facing prosecution.

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The events of Nov. 29, 2012, began when Officer John Jordan stopped Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams for a signal violation. Jordan also suspected Russell and Williams of drug activity, originally spotting them outside the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry men's homeless shelter, a spot known for drug dealing and often referred to as "the wall."

Jordan told investigators that as he approached Russell's Chevy Malibu, Williams, in the passenger seat, became irate and started flailing and screaming. Russell put the car back in gear and took off. Jordan ran back to his car and gave chase, but he was too slow and Russell lost him.

The episode might have been over if Russell's Malibu, with a history of engine woes, didn't let out a booming backfire right front of Nan — which he mistook for a gunshot.

For the next 22 minutes, Timothy Russell led police on a chase reaching speeds of 100 mph.

As Russell ran red lights and blew through busy intersections, 62 police vehicles and more than 100 officers joined the pursuit, according to a state investigation. A federal investigation would later determine that 37% of the Cleveland Police Department was involved.

Russell eventually reached a dead end in the staff parking lot of Heritage Middle School. As he circled the lot looking for a way out, Officer Wilfredo Diaz took the first shots at the Malibu.

"Shots fired, shots fired!" rang out over the police radio as Diaz pulled the trigger and fired four shots. None of the officers on the scene knew for sure, but all would later tell investigators they assumed that it was the suspects firing, not the police.

"They're ramming us!" an officer broadcasted as Russell's Malibu collided with a police car blocking the only exit.

"Watch for crossfire! Crossfire!" someone yelled as the officers unleashed a barrage of bullets.

When it was all over, 13 officers fired 137 shots. Russell and Williams were hit more than 20 times each and died inside the Malibu. No guns were found inside the car. Every shot fired came from a Cleveland cop's gun. Investigators later determined that during the shoot-out there were two waves of gunfire — one lasting 17 seconds and another lasting about five seconds.

On Feb. 5, 2013, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine delivered the state's findings of an investigation into the chase and shooting.

On Russell's actions, DeWine said, "To state the obvious, this chase could have ended without tragic results if Timothy Russell had simply stopped his car in response to the police pursuit. Perhaps the alcohol and the cocaine in his system impaired his judgment. We will never know."

On the police's actions, DeWine said a "lack supervisor command and warnings ... resulted in an overall failure to control the situation" and "the large number of vehicles involved contributed to a crossfire situation ... that risked the lives of many officers."

"It is, quite frankly, a miracle that no law enforcement officer was killed," DeWine said. "Clearly, officers misinterpreted the facts. They failed to follow established rules."

Of the 62 police cars that took chase, only three had been authorized to do so. Because of the confusion and lack of organization on the radio, more than 90 police officers joined the pursuit without requisite clearance by dispatch.

In all, 63 officers were suspended, one supervisor was fired, and two more supervisors were demoted. Days of protests and rallies in Cleveland followed. The public outcry and horrific detail surrounding Williams and Russell's killings by police became the catalyst for a Department of Justice investigation of the department's use of force policies — the second federal probe of Cleveland Police in less than 10 years. The families of Williams and Russell each reached $1.5 million settlements with the city.

That might have been the end of the of the legal efforts to right the wrongs of Nov. 29, if it weren't for Officer Michael Brelo's role.

During the second wave of gunfire, the five-year veteran of the department jumped on the hood of the Malibu, trained his Glock on the suspects, and sent a hail of bullets into the windshield.

Of the 137 bullets fired by cops in the parking lot that night, 49 of them came from Brelo's gun. That second, five-second wave that investigators wrote about came solely from his Glock 17.

On April 6, Brelo will go on trial for two counts of voluntary manslaughter. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison. Of the 13 officers who fired shots that day, Brelo was the only one indicted by a Cuyahoga County grand jury. (Five other supervisors face misdemeanor charges for dereliction of duty.)

The trial comes as the Cleveland Police Department is facing federal supervision and national scrutiny. The Department of Justice and the department are currently negotiating the terms of a court enforceable agreement aimed at fixing the use of force, training, and supervision problems the department hasn't corrected since the November 2012 shooting. And while Brelo pleads his case to the judge — he waived his right to a jury trial — the people of Cleveland wait to see whether the officers who gunned down an unarmed 12-year old named Tamir Rice last November will face punishment.

To make their case, the prosecution is likely to call the 12 other cops who shot their guns on Nov. 29 — all of whom told investigators they felt the actions of the police that night were justified — and ask them to break the blue wall of silence, testify against a fellow officer, and tell the judge that when they stopped shooting, Brelo didn't.

One person who won't be able to explain what happened on Nov. 29 at the trial is Tim Russell.

An autopsy revealed that Russell's blood alcohol level that night was at 0.131, more than twice the legal limit. They also found cocaine and marijuana in his system, and a crack pipe on the front seat of the Malibu.

In the immediate aftermath, local media and police portrayed Russell and Williams as dangerous drug addicts with long rap sheets who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. The police union, based on the fact that no officers were harmed, called the event "the perfect chase." And even when no gun turned up inside the Malibu, the police continued for days to search the chase route and the Cuyahoga River, determined to find the gun that Russell and Williams had inevitably tossed. Those searches came up empty.

Russell's family acknowledges that Tim struggled with drugs since the mid-'90s, but they still maintain that he was no hardcore criminal hell-bent on fighting it out with the police. Rather, his sister Michelle Russell described him to BuzzFeed News as "loud, boisterous, jolly, happy."

"He had a lot of the same characteristics as my mom; when she died in '97, a lot of things started to fall apart for Tim," Michelle said.

It seemed that around the time Russell's mother died, things were already falling apart for him.

In 1996, Russell went to jail for petty theft. His wife April divorced him while he was locked up. Prior to their divorce, the couple lost custody of their son, Tim Jr., who went to live with April's parents.

Then in January 1997, his mother had a fatal stroke and died. Russell, who had been a casual drug user in the past, started to lose control.

"He was struggling with these two major things — that's what caused him to go back to the drugs," Michelle said. "Prior to that he had been clean for 10 years plus."

Despite his struggle with addiction, Russell went through long periods of sobriety, his sister said. Michelle believes that at the time of his death, her brother was on the road to recovery. She said that every week Russell would go to church with her and and ask the congregation to pray for him.

"Even though my brother was struggling, he still continued to come to church and ask for help," Michelle said. "He knew he had a problem. He was his biggest critic. He wanted to be an overcomer."

Malissa Williams' criminal history showed 33 confrontations with Cleveland Police dating back to 2001. The majority of her run-ins with police were for drug-related incidents or mental health/crisis interventions. The day before she was killed, Williams was cited for evading bus fare.

Trina Williams, her first cousin, told investigators she was like a sister to Williams. Speaking to authorities the week after she died, Trina stated that Malissa was "mental," but "wasn't always mental."

Her cousin told investigators that Williams had abandoned her apartment to live at a homeless shelter because it made her feel comfortable. Trina said Malissa was addicted to "crack and weed" and she worried about her drug habit. Malissa rarely talked about the troubles in her life to her because her family would only offer "tough love," Trina said.

Her cousin told an investigator that Williams was eligible for financial, outpatient medical, and therapy assistance through Mental Health Services, but she had refused help.

BuzzFeed News tried to reach the Williams family but their attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

A year before their deaths, Russell met and befriended Malissa Williams while in rehab recovering from injuries that occurred when he crashed his car during another police chase.

According to the police report, on Dec. 3, 2011, Russell led a police cruiser on a short chase in Mentor, Ohio, before losing control and crashing into a service pole.

"He was on drugs that night and he wouldn't pull over," Michelle said. "They got him because he wrecked the car."

Russell was charged with felony failure to comply with an order of a police officer and ended up pleading to a "minor misdemeanor offense," according to the police report.

Russell's sister said she was aware of his problems. But she says she still needs answers about what exactly happened the day he was shot to death – and she's hoping a trial will bring forth that information. In a way, it's more important to her that the Cleveland Police come clean about everything that happened than to see Brelo convicted.

"I want to make sure my brother's life wasn't in vain. If somebody was responsible, I want it uncovered," Michelle said. "I really believe that they're using this guy Brelo as a scapegoat to take the fall.

"I believe that Brelo getting up on that car and shooting into deceased bodies was just unnecessary, but there were other officers there that shot a lot. And I don't think it's fair that he's the only one who should be brought to trial."

One question she may never know the answer to is why her brother didn't stop that night when he was pulled over.

"I know he had a reason. I don't believe he was high and out of his mind."

In his interview with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation two weeks after the shooting, Officer Michael Brelo said that he and his partner heard and felt shots coming at them as soon as they drove up the middle school driveway.

"I've never been so afraid in my life," said Brelo, who did a tour in Iraq in 2005 as a Marine. "I thought my partner and I would be shot and that we were going to be killed."

As their own car started to take crossfire from other police shooting through the back of the Malibu, Brelo and his partner, Cynthia Moore, thinking they were being shot at by the suspects, fired through their windshield as they had been instructed to in this scenario that past summer at in-service training.

After five or six shots, Brelo's clip jammed. He reloaded, scurried out his driver's side door, and continued firing at the Malibu.

"I feel like I'm being shot at by these suspects. And I see the suspects kept on — kept on moving — and firing," Brelo said during his interview.

He told investigators he remembered getting on top of another squad car to get a better shot and use the lights on the hood as cover, but his memory goes fuzzy after that.

"The next thing I remember I'm next to the suspect's vehicle ... and I remember having my weapon in my holster," Brelo told investigators.

Asked if he remembered jumping on the hood of the Malibu, Brelo said, "I have no recollection if I did. Absolutely none."

When asked if it would surprise him that shoe prints that were on the car that Brelo used for cover matched shoe prints that were on the hood of the Malibu, Brelo said, "I was so in fear for my life, it wouldn't — I mean, I have no recollection of how I got there."

After a Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted Brelo, County Prosecutor Tim McGinty put out a statement alleging that Brelo pulled the trigger on the kill shots.

"After more than 100 shots were fired at Mr. Russell's car, it was trapped by police cruisers in a narrow lane and came to a full stop. All officers at the scene saw fit to cease fire. Then Officer Brelo started shooting again and fired at least 15 shots, including fatal shots, downward through the windshield into the victims at close range as he stood on the hood of Mr. Russell's car."

How McGinty plans to get the other officers involved to corroborate this story will be determined when those who did not face indictment take the stand at Brelo's trial.

BuzzFeed News reviewed the criminal investigation interviews of all 13 officers who shot their guns during the confrontation. Every officer who fired their weapon believed it was the proper action to neutralize the threat — and most believed that their shots hit the target.

The only officer that investigators asked directly about Brelo's actions during the shootout was Moore. Moore told investigators that after they exited their squad car, "I went one way and he went the other way, so I couldn't really see him."

Even though they weren't asked specifically about Brelo, two officers recalled during their interviews that they saw him on top of the police car and the Malibu.

Rookie cop Brian Sabolik told investigators that Brelo getting on the hood of the Malibu was the reason he held his fire.

"When I was firing, I was looking at the driver. And then I stopped firing because I saw somebody jump on the hood of the car," said Sabolik, who at the time had been with the Cleveland Police just five months.

His partner, Officer Michael Farley, told investigators that he couldn't remember any of the other officers who shot except Brelo.

"The only other person I remember shooting was Brelo ... Brelo was on the back of the trunk of the [police car] shooting down into the [Malibu]."

Court documents show that during the grand jury proceedings that followed the state's investigation, all officers who shot their weapons on Nov. 29 invoked their Fifth Amendment rights and declined to testify for fear of self-incrimination.

Then Sabolik and Farley were granted immunity and testified.

Sabolik and Farley's grand jury testimonies remain sealed. However, during his interview with investigators, Sabolik's recollection of how he learned the identity of the shooter on top of the hood contradicts Brelo's explanation that he lost time between when he took cover and holstered his gun.

"You said later on you found out what was up on the hood of the car?" investigators asked Sabolik. "How did you find out?"

"Because he was talking about it," the rookie replied.

"He was talking about?" investigators probed. "Who was that?"

"Mike Brelo," Sabolik said.

Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mike Hayes at mike@buzzfeed.com.

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