Police said they retrieved this Bushmaster rifle from near car where Jai Williams died. Courtesy of the Buncombe County District Attorney's Office.

ASHEVILLE – State Bureau of Investigation agents probing the July 2 fatal shooting of Jai Lateif Solveig “Jerry” Williams by Asheville Police Sgt. Tyler Radford had to sort out credible witness statements from several claims that were “ridiculous,” according to Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams.

The District Attorney invited a small group representing local news media to his office at the Buncombe County Courthouse Friday afternoon to clarify a range of issues about the case and review materials from the investigation that have not been released to the general public.

In a press conference Thursday at the federal courthouse in Asheville, the District Attorney announced that his office had evaluated the SBI’s findings and determined that Radford acted in justifiable self-defense and should not face charges.

During Friday’s session, the District Attorney asked that media members withhold the names of the witnesses who were present in Jai Williams’ vehicle during the incident in order to protect them from any reprisals for having cooperated with law enforcement.

During Friday’s meeting, press members viewed unedited video footage of two women talking with the SBI about what happened. The District Attorney has characterized their statements as “consistent and credible.”

Chain of events

Based on the videos and additional information revealed during Friday’s meetings, a more expanded official narrative of what happened July 2 has emerged:

A woman identified as Jane Doe 1, a resident of Deaverview Apartments in Asheville, was in a dating relationship with Jai Williams and was pregnant. A man residing at Pisgah View Apartments in West Asheville had previously been involved in a dating relationship with Jane Doe 1’s sister and had come to possess a cellphone belonging to Jane Doe 1.

Jai Williams, Jane Doe 1, her 1-year-old child and a woman identified as Jane Doe 2, also a Deaverview resident, rode in Jai Williams’ white Chevrolet Caprice to seek the return of that phone. Text messages warned the man who had the phone that Williams would bring his rifle.

The District Attorney agreed with a question from the press that this appeared to be a case of “masculine jostling” over the cellphone, rather than anything more sinister. He said there was no evidence from the phone that drug trafficking was involved, although Jai Williams did have a previous conviction on a drug charge.

The Asheville Housing Authority had banned Williams from being on the premises of either Deaveriew or Pisgah View since police arrested him in 2012 for possession of a stolen firearm and other charges – this ban was extended after police arrested him for breaking into a different ex-girlfriend’s apartment at Deaverview. The accuser in that incident was not involved on the day Jai Williams died.

As the group approached Pisgah View on July 2, Williams had a bottle of malt liquor open. Later evidence would show that his blood alcohol limit was well above the legal limit. Stashed behind him in the car, Williams had a Bushmaster assault rifle.

Negotiations for the phone did not go well. Williams went to the car, pulled out the rifle and fired it into the air. At this point, he, the two Jane Does and the young child returned to the car, but Jane Doe 1’s sister stayed behind at Pisgah View.

Video footage suggests that Williams pulled away from Pisgah View at a faster than normal speed. The women later told SBI agents that he sped through streets in West Asheville causing them to fear for their lives and the safety of the child.

Callers dialed 911 about the shots fired at Pisgah View and police dispatched officers to the area. The initial description was of an older white Cadillac, but when Sgt. Radford witnessed the older white Chevy speeding through the area, he realized it was the shooter from Pisgah View.

The women in the car described shouting for Williams to pull over, with the one in the front seat also trying to restrain him. Sgt. Radford reported that he could see an altercation between the driver and a passenger but did not know what it was about.

After traveling through West Asheville residential neighborhoods, then west on Haywood Street at a high speed, Williams led Radford at speeds faster than 70 miles per hour down Patton Avenue, turning off to go to Deaverview Apartments. At Deaverview, Williams’ car ran up onto a curb and came to a stop.

Radford yelled for everyone to put up their hands, but Williams refused to comply. Jane Doe 2 did put up her hands. Jane Doe 1 wrestled with Williams who said, “I ain’t going back to jail” and reached for the rifle.

Jane Doe 2 grabbed the baby and ran from the vehicle. As she fled, she could not see behind her, but heard shots. She dove down behind some bushes with the baby still her arms to seek safety.

Williams had broken free of a chokehold from Jane Doe 1 and gotten out of the vehicle, still ignoring Radford’s shouted demands for him to put up his hands. At about this time, realizing from earlier reports that Williams had a rifle, Radford holstered his Glock and went for his own rifle.

Standing with the driver’s door open, Williams opened the rear door and reached over it to retrieve the rifle. When Radford saw the stock of the gun and realized that Williams was preparing to shoot at the officer, Radford fired, releasing nine rounds in quick succession.

With only Williams’ arm, head and upper torso visible and his lower body mostly screened behind the rear door, Radford was unable to see how seriously his shots were injuring Williams. His objective was to ensure that Williams could not use the gun against him or anyone else present. Three shots passed through the door and into Williams. Six other rounds hit Williams in areas that were visible. No shots missed.

Although nine shots were fired, the rapidity of fire with Radford’s rifle was such that Jane Doe 2 thought only about three shots had been fired.

Jane Doe 2 emphasized in her statement to the SBI that Radford did the right thing and probably saved the lives of the passengers as well as his own.

The women were interviewed separately by the SBI at the Asheville Police Office with no other officers present. They were clearly informed that they were not under arrest and were free to leave at any time. Neither of the women faced any charges in the incident, the District Attorney told members of the press on Friday.

Rival statements

DA Todd Williams said the SBI’s files passed on to him did also include a number of statements that he had earlier characterized as less believable than those from the passengers.

Describing these Friday as “ridiculous,” the District Attorney said examples included one or more claims that a group of police officers executed Jai Williams, which was completely unsupported by other evidence, including video footage shot by a bystander with a cellphone and photos shot by a bystander with a camera.

Although Radford’s car lacked a dashboard camera, which the DA said would have been helpful, other officers who arrived on the scene were recording, showing that only Radford was initially present.

Some erroneous statements given to the SBI were apparently also given to members of the news media, which published a range of accounts. Because of the national background of furor over unjustified shootings of African American men by police around the country, these mistaken accounts of the incident led to a narrative of the event and public outrage, including a protest march.

But that narrative clearly does not match what the District Attorney’s Office has now revealed about this case.

Some media reports suggested that witnesses thought police had tampered with the crime scene and possibly moved or planted the rifle described as belonging to Jai Williams. While dismissing the claims in such reports as not matching the evidence, the District Attorney said this was one sort of allegation that he did not recall seeing in any of the statements witnesses gave the SBI.

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Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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