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ASHEVILLE — Police Sgt. Tyler Radford will not face criminal charges in the July 2 fatal shooting of Jai Lateef Solveig “Jerry” Williams, Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said Thursday, thanks in part to witness statements and photographic evidence that supports Radford’s claim he fired in self defense.
Jai Williams “really tried to shoot the officer and the officer did what he had to do,” a former passenger in his car later told the State Bureau of Investigation, according to files the District Attorney’s office released. “To me, the officer was not in the wrong … because (Jai Williams) had three people’s life in danger. Three.”
The shooting had raised national attention and drew local protests over police misuse of deadly force because of several incidents nationwide in which police officers killed African Americans without clear justification. According to several reports from local news media at the time, some witnesses claimed Jai Williams did not have a gun and was attempting to surrender when Radford shot him.
While the District Attorney did not go into detail about any contradictory witnesses during Thursday’s press conference, he described some accounts that investigators received as less “credible and consistent” than those from the passengers.
Investigators had kept the existence of substantial video evidence from the case a secret. Media reports noted early on that Radford did not have a body camera and his car did not have a camera set up. The Deaverview Apartments also did not have functional surveillance video. But bystanders did shoot video and take photos as the event unfolded.
Based on the passenger accounts, Jai Williams first drove three women and a 1-year-old child to Pisgah View apartments seeking the return of a cellphone belonging to one of the women. Text messages show Williams warned the person with the phone that Williams was bringing his rifle.
After the group arrived there, Williams returned to the car and retrieved the gun, a Bushmaster rifle, shooting it in the air. People at Pisgah View encouraged the group to leave, which Williams, the child and all but one of the women did. Police received multiple calls from people concerned about shooting. At least one caller described a white older-model Cadillac, which Williams’ 1990 Chevrolet Caprice Classic somewhat resembled.
Surveillance footage from Pisgah View shows Williams’ vehicle there. Shell casings recovered from the site also matched those from his rifle.
Radford encountered the vehicle traveling at a high speed through a West Asheville residential neighborhood and gave chase. The women said they screamed for Williams to pull over but he would not. Toxicology reports later showed that Williams had been drinking and was over the legal limit; police found a bottle of malt liquor in the front seat. The women said Williams told them he wasn’t going back to jail as he sped away, eventually reaching the Deaverview Apartments, where the car ran onto a curb and stopped.
The front seat passenger struggled with Williams, trying to keep him from reaching the rifle, which was stowed to the left of the driver’s seat. But he eventually broke free from her, as Radford shouted for Williams to put his hands up. As he again told the passengers he wasn’t going to jail, the woman in the back seat grabbed the child and fled the vehicle.
“‘What am I supposed to do besides grab her (the child) and go?’ … that was my only thinking,” she told investigators. “I just ran behind the bushes … because I didn’t know what to do. I was just in so much shock … I was worried about (the front-seat passenger) but at the same time she was trying to handle (Williams). I couldn’t do that.”
A photo taken by a bystander appears to show Williams reaching for the rifle over the open rear door as the passenger in the front stretches her belt to try to reach him again.
Radford described seeing the butt of the rifle in Williams’ hands and opened fire believing that Williams was about to shoot. Radford, fired nine rounds in quick succession, some of which passed through the car door before striking Williams.
Analysis of the rifle later showed that it was laded with “one round in the chamber and 9 rounds in the magazine,” according to the District Attorney’s report.
The District Attorney’s Office released what it described as “unprecedented” records in the case on its Twitter feed, which can be viewed by the public.
Asheville Police indicated that Radford will remain on leave while the department’s administrative review is completed.