Crime & Justice

13 seconds from stop to shots: The events that led to Ezell Ford's death

In this family photo, Ezell Ford, right, is with his mother, Tritobia Ford and three younger brothers.
In this family photo, Ezell Ford, right, is with his mother, Tritobia Ford and three younger brothers.
Courtesy of Mahalia Clark

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Nearly a year after Ezell Ford was fatally shot by LAPD officers, two reports released Tuesday for the first time reveal in detail what happened the night of Aug. 11, 2014: what the officers say they did and thought, what they say Ford did, what a handful of witnesses saw - and how it all squares with departmental policy.

The officers were not named in the report, but based on previous reporting, KPCC was able to figure out who was who.

Based on those documents – prepared by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the department's Inspector General, Alexander Bustamante – here is a step-by-step description of what happened.

It was dusk and LAPD officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas were on gang patrol on West 65th Street between Main and Broadway. A week earlier, the agency had investigated a gang shooting at a party nearby and the officers said they were well aware of it.

A group of four or five people were hanging around 65th street near Broadway: some standing, others sitting on a couch outside.

Wampler and Villegas drove slowly by, and Wampler kept looking at them through the rearview mirror once they'd driven past.

The pair had been working the Newton Division together for five months and Wampler said he recognized some of the men on the street. He knew them to be gang members.

He said he was getting a good look "to make sure there was no obvious signs of criminal activity."

Then Wampler's attention turned to another man who was walking west.

"He was, I don't know, 20 feet or so – 30 feet west of them," he would later tell investigators. It was 25-year-old Ezell Ford.

Wampler said he didn't recognize Ford at the time, but he knew him.

Six years earlier, Wampler had arrested Ford as he sat in a Dodge van a few blocks away, smoking marijuana.

The night of the shooting, Wampler was driving a marked black and white hybrid cruiser.

He slowly rolled towards Ford. Ford looked back at the officers a few times and put his hands in his pockets as he walked.

"Let's at least talk to him," Wampler, a 12-year LAPD veteran, said he told his partner.

Wampler pulled over, parking his police car diagonally, and both men got out. Neither of them grabbed a TASER they carried in the patrol car. Villegas, who had been with the department for 8 years, pulled his gun immediately.

"Because it's a gang area," Villegas told investigators, "I believe he possibly had a weapon." (The police commission would later decide that was not a good reason to pull his gun.)

He put it away soon after and positioned himself as the "cover" officer, as Wampler approached Ford.

Wampler said he called out: "Hey, let me talk to you." Ford looked at him and kept walking.

The LAPD calls it a "consensual encounter," when officers ask someone if they wouldn't mind talking to them. Legally, anybody can walk away – and, according to the Inspector General's report, police should drop it there if they don't cooperate.

Officers can only detain someone when they have reasonable suspicion he or she committed a crime.

Wampler told investigators Ford veered into a residential driveway and slipped between a car and some bushes. When Wampler caught up with him, he said Ford was bent over, hands obscured.

Given the neighborhood's well-known drug problem, both officers told investigators they suspected Ford was carrying drugs and trying to dump them. At that point, Wampler said he felt he had enough to cuff him. (No drugs were ever found there.)

The department's Inspector General and Police Commission don't think there was reasonable suspicion – although the Police Chief does.

The fact that Ford was walking in a gang and drug-ridden neighborhood "are factors that would have applied to any person walking along the section of street ... irrespective of that person's involvement in criminal activity," according to the IG's analysis.

Wampler and Villegas cornered Ford – taking tactical positions to stop him if he decided to run in any open direction. They said they didn't see any bulges suggesting he might be armed.

Wampler came up behind Ford and said he pulled back Ford's right shoulder to handcuff him. This, too, was a problem, the Inspector General wrote.

"[Wampler]'s statement that he wished to prevent [Ford] from discarding any narcotics he may have possessed did not justify the substantial deviation from tactical training that his decision to initiate physical contact with [Ford] entailed," the IG wrote. Choosing to approach Ford put Wampler "at a significant tactical disadvantage by unduly exposing himself to the risk of assault."

And that, according to the officers, is exactly what happened next: Ford resisted.

He spun around, wrapped his arms around Wampler and drilled his head into Wampler's belly – a tackle. Wampler dropped to his knees to control his fall. They hit the ground, with Wampler on top.

Wampler said Ford immediately rolled over and took the top position, his head still tucked into Wampler's chest.

Villegas had briefly looked away at nearby voices. When he looked back, Ford and Wampler were on the ground.

He tried to help Wampler, shoving his right knee into Ford's back and grabbing Ford's right wrist to handcuff him.

That's when Wampler said he felt slack in his holster. The snaps that hold the gun in place were loose – which he later said may have happened during the fall. He said he was trying to push the pistol down to keep it in the holster and felt Ford grasping at it.

"He's going for my gun!" he yelled to Villegas.

Villegas stood up. He told investigators he saw Ford's left hand "tucked under" Wampler's "holster area."

"Pepper spray in my opinion wouldn't have been effective," he told investigators "and I didn't want second-hand contamination.

"Because he was going for my partner's weapon, I was in fear for his life and, in return, my life," he added.

Villegas pulled out his gun, put the barrel up to Ford's right arm and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit — but didn't seem to faze Ford, Villegas said.

Wampler said he "felt his pistol coming halfway out of his holster." Ford, he said, seemed to have gotten a tighter grip.

"Shoot him! Shoot him again!" Wampler yelled at Villegas, according to the report. "You have to stop him!"

Villegas said he could hear the fear in Wampler's voice. Again he put his gun up close – this time, to Ford's side — and fired a second round. The coroner would later find it was one of two fatal shots.

Wampler said Ford kept fighting, so he unzipped his shirt and pulled his backup gun off his bulletproof vest. Wampler then reached his hand around, put the muzzle of the gun against Ford's back and fired a single, fatal round.

He felt Ford "go limp." Villegas called for an ambulance. Wampler handcuffed Ford's limp body.

The entire episode – from the moment Wampler and Villegas stepped out of the car, until the shots were fired – took 13 seconds, according to investigators.

A crowd immediately gathered. Wampler told investigators one man seemed angry. He raised his gun, pointed it at the unnamed man and said: "Get the [expletive] back." The man ran away.

Wampler checked his service pistol. He noticed it was useless. Sometime during the fight, the magazine holding its bullets had dislodged. He found it lying on the ground nearby.