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East Hartford police-involved shooting after stolen car chase in South Glastonbury ruled justified

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HARTFORD -- After every police shooting in Connecticut, an investigative report is completed by the Connecticut State’s Attorney’s Office.

According a recently released report, back on February 4, 2018, Juan McCray broke into his sister’s apartment and stole his grandmothers car. He then got into a pursuit and multiple physical struggles with the East Hartford police officers. Eventually the officers shot McCray, he died 11 days later.

McCray’ sister originally called 911 on him “Turtle creek lane. It’s my brother, he’s in the back in a red Nissan Sentra that he stole from my grandmother. He’s on drugs. And i don’t want to approach him, I’m on my way over there now, my grandmother just called me.”

East Hartford police officers initially spotted McCray on Burnside Ave and eventually pulled him over on Ralph Road. McCray was known to police, a five time convicted felon with two active arrest warrants.

When police pulled him over, he attempted to run. He and the officers got into an extended violent struggle. Much of this struggle was captured on private surveillance video. McCray was reported to say to officers many times “I’m not going back” as he fought to escape.

Three officers, a baton and a taser were not effective, as McCray is able to fight his way back to his vehicle and jump in the driver’s seat. Officers tried to pull McCray out of the car as he drove off. The door was open, and officers were next to it.

As McCray drove off an East Hartford sergeant fired one shot at McCray. It was never determined if this shot struck McCray. But what is known is that McCray drove off at a high rate of speed and led police on a reckless pursuit.

Officers pursued McCray on highways and town roads.  The report describes McCray as having an “unwavering resolve not to be taken into custody by the police” and lab tests would later identify amphetamines, cocaine, PCP, cannabis and other narcotics in his system.

After several other collisions, McCray eventually came to a stop on New London Turnpikek in Glastonbury. But McCray continued to try to escape, moving the car in reverse and forward, ignoring officers’ commands. As officers approached the car, they eventually fired their guns at McCray, striking him several times.

The Connecticut State Police Major Crimes Unit investigated the shooting with the State’s Attorney’s office. State’s Attorney Brian Preleski led the investigation and concluded that-  “the East Hartford officers who discharged their weapons in Glastonbury were justified in doing so in accordance with section 53a-22(c) of the Connecticut general statutes”

Report of the State’s Attorney Concerning the Death of Juan McCray:

Legal Authority of the Report | Circumstances of the Incident | Law Regarding the Use of Deadly Force by a Police Officer | Determination of the Appropriateness of the Use of Deadly Force | Appendix

Legal Authority for the Report

Connecticut General Statutes Section 51-277a provides:

(a) Whenever a peace officer, in the performance of such officer’s duties, uses physical force upon another person and such person dies as a result thereof, the Division of Criminal Justice shall cause an investigation to be made and shall have the responsibility of determining whether the use of physical force by the peace officer was appropriate under section 53a-22. The division shall request the appropriate law enforcement agency to provide such assistance as is necessary to determine the circumstances of the incident.

(b) In causing such an investigation to be made, the Chief State’s Attorney shall, (1) as provided in section 51-281, designate a prosecutorial official from a judicial district other than the judicial district in which the incident occurred to conduct the investigation, or (2) as provided in subsection (a) of section 51-285, appoint a special assistant state’s attorney or special deputy assistant state’s attorney to conduct the investigation. The Chief State’s Attorney shall, upon the request of such prosecutorial official or special prosecutor, appoint a special inspector or special inspectors to assist in such investigation.

(c) Upon the conclusion of the investigation of the incident, the division shall file a report with the Chief State’s Attorney which shall contain the following: (1) The circumstances of the incident, (2) a determination of whether the use of physical force by the peace officer was appropriate under section 53a-22, and (3) any future action to be taken by the Division of Criminal Justice as a result of the incident. The Chief State’s Attorney shall provide a copy of the report to the chief executive officer of the municipality in which the incident occurred and to the Commissioner of Emergency Services and Public Protection or the chief of police of such municipality, as the case may be.

In accordance with the above-referenced, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane assigned the New Britain State’s Attorney to conduct this investigation on February 21, 2018.  I wish to acknowledge the Connecticut State Police Central District Major Crime Squad for its invaluable assistance in conducting this investigation and the preparation of this report.

Circumstances of the Incident[1]

A 911 call was received by the East Hartford Police Department (EHPD) from Charissa Kearney on February 4, 2018 at 2039hrs.  Ms. Kearney reported that she learned that her brother, Juan McCray, had just broken into an apartment at 11 Turtle Creek Lane, at the Turtle Creek Apartment Complex, and was driving a red Nissan Sentra that he had earlier stolen from their grandmother Patty Camby. Ms. Kearney also told dispatchers she suspected that Mr. McCray was both high on drugs and dangerous.

She was right on both counts. Mr. McCray was a five-time convicted felon who had been last discharged by the Department of Correction less than nine months prior to this incident. He had been confined for much of the prior decade for a variety of offenses and, in fact, had a troubled disciplinary history even within the highly structured setting of prison.

On the evening of February 4, 2018, he was wanted on outstanding warrants in two other Connecticut towns and determined not to return to prison. He was also under the influence of drugs. Consistent with Ms. Kearney’s report and Mr. McCray’s conduct, his toxicology screen upon hospital admission found amphetamines, cocaine, PCP, cannabinoids and benzodiazepines in his system. In fact, Mr. McCray had consumed so much PCP that there were still detectable quantities in his system eleven days later.

In response to Ms. Kearney’s 911 call, at approximately 2042hrs, East Hartford Police dispatched Officers Garrett Ostafin and Thomas Castagna to 11 Turtle Creek Lane. They were advised to locate Juan McCray, who had stolen his grandmother's 2006 red Nissan Sentra, bearing CT registration 712XZY, had two active arrest warrants, and was high on drugs. Nearby Officers Stephen Grossi, Krzysztof Gorynski and Justin Santiago also responded but were unable to locate Mr. McCray or the Nissan.

Approximately fifteen minutes later, Officers Gorynski and Santiago observed the stolen Nissan traveling on Burnside Avenue and activated their cruisers' lights and sirens, signaling for the vehicle to stop. The operator was later determined to be Juan McCray. The Nissan continued driving onto Turtle Creek Lane and stopped on Ralph Road at the Turtle Creek Apartment Complex. Although officers attempted to take Mr. McCray into custody, he ran from the Nissan and fought with them. As Mr. McCray fought with these officers, he was yelling, “Fuck no, I’m not going back” and “I’m not going back,” verbalizing his commitment to avoid being taken into custody and returning to prison.

Sergeant Joseph Ficacelli arrived and assisted in attempting to gain control of Mr. McCray, however all three officers were unable to secure him. After approximately three minutes of physically fighting with officers, Mr. McCray ran back toward the Nissan and a TASER was deployed by Officer Santiago, which had no effect on him. McCray reentered the Nissan and attempted to leave. Officers surrounded the vehicle as Sergeant Ficacelli tried to pull Mr. McCray from the vehicle. Fearing that officers were going to be struck by the vehicle, Sergeant Ficacelli fired one shot from his handgun toward Mr. McCray. The officers remained on scene awaiting medical attention as additional responding officers pursued the Nissan from the apartment complex.

It bears noting that this is the only potion of the encounter between Mr. McCray and members of the East Hartford Police Department that is captured, in part, by video. A portion of this encounter was filmed by surveillance cameras at the apartment complex. None of the East Hartford officers involved wore body cameras and none of the cruisers involved had dash-mounted cameras.

Lieutenant Deborah Mormino located the Nissan traveling on Burnside Avenue and utilized her vehicle's emergency lights and siren in an attempt to stop it. Mr. McCray remained steadfast in his determination not to be captured. Officers Todd Mona, Jason Cohen, Marc Caruso, Thomas Castagna, Richard Hill, Garrett Ostafin and Briahna Martin were also involved in the pursuit as Mr. McCray fled from East Hartford to Glastonbury. Officers attempted to intercept the Nissan and deploy stop sticks to incapacitate it, but were unable to do so because of the speed at which Mr. McCray was driving. Radio transmissions indicate Mr. McCray was traveling at a speed of at least 60 mph on town roads. On the highway, he was reportedly traveling at least 85 mph.

Mr. McCray operated recklessly and dangerously throughout the pursuit, turning his vehicle's lights off repeatedly, nearly striking a pedestrian, other vehicles, and he discarded an unknown item out of the window which investigators were unable to locate. Mr. McCray left the roadway on at least three occasions and struck multiple objects with the Nissan, which included guide rails, a street sign, trees, and multiple police cars. On two occasions when McCray left the roadway, officers exited their vehicles and began approaching the car to take him into custody. Mr. McCray drove directly toward officers, placing them at risk of serious injury and/or death.

This photo shows a portion of one of the debris fields left by Mr. McCray after driving off the roadway in Glastonbury.

In short, Mr. McCray’s conduct during the entire incident demonstrated an unwavering resolve not to be taken into custody by the police. He evinced an extreme indifference to human life generally and constituted a grave public safety risk to other motorists, pedestrians and, particularly, the police officers trying to apprehend him over the course of a pursuit that took place over many miles in two towns. Most relevant to this inquiry is that, on multiple occasions, Mr. McCray engaged in conduct that would lead reasonable police officers to believe that he sought to use his vehicle as a weapon against the officers.

The Nissan continued east on New London Turnpike in Glastonbury, with the hood bent up in front of the windshield, preventing all of Mr. McCray's vision through the front windshield. The Nissan went onto the grass, destroyed approximately one hundred feet of wooden fence and contacted multiple trees. The vehicle finally came to rest in the area of 2187 New London Turnpike, near the intersection of Copley Road in Glastonbury.

Based upon officers' statements, they approached the Nissan while it was perpendicular to the roadway. The engine was roaring and the vehicle began to move forward and backward. Mr. McCray, ignoring commands, was attempting to reengage in pursuit with no concern for the extreme risk to the officers attempting to surround his vehicle. After several attempts to block in the vehicle and set up stop sticks had already been unsuccessful, Officer Hill fired at the Nissan's driver side rear tire to try to immobilize the car. He missed, striking the rim. The car suddenly moved backward, and due to the imminent threat of serious injury and/or death to Officer Grossi, who was about to be struck by the Nissan, officers fired at Mr. McCray. The vehicle came to a stop and all shooting ceased.

At this point, Mr. McCray redoubled his efforts by putting the Nissan in reverse and making a sharp left turn directly toward Officer Hill. Observing this, multiple officers fired their weapons at Mr. McCray in order to protect against the imminent threat to Officer Hill and surrounding officers, several of whom were at risk of being struck by the Nissan. The Nissan struck Officer Mona's vehicle and shooting stopped. The gear shift of the Nissan was later determined by investigators to still be in the "R" position for reverse. During the period of time in which shots were fired in Glastonbury, officers' statements indicate they were unsure if it was Mr. McCray or officers shooting due to the chaotic nature of the scene. Some officers also believed that Mr. McCray either struck at least one officer with his vehicle, or shot at least one officer.

This photo is shows where Mr. McCray’s vehicle ultimately stopped after striking Officer Mona’s cruiser.

Officers observed that Mr. McCray suffered gunshot wounds and requested medical assistance. He was transported to Hartford Hospital for treatment, where he died eleven days later as a result of his wounds.

In total, thirty-six bullets were fired by officers between the two scenes.  Sgt. Ficacelli fired one shot in East Hartford. Investigators were unable to locate the bullet strike and there is nothing to indicate that this shot struck Mr. McCray. On New London Turnpike, Officer Hill fired one time from a position beside the driver side of the Nissan, striking the driver side rear tire rim in an attempt to disable the car. The remaining thirty-four shots were fired by officers from positions behind the Nissan. Officer Ostafin fired nineteen times, Officer Castagna fired seven times, Officer Hill fired an additional five times, and Officer Caruso fired three times. Twenty-eight of these projectiles struck the Nissan.

An autopsy was conducted on February 16, 2018 by Dr. Frank Evangelista.  Dr. Evangelista concluded that Mr. McCray died as a result of gunshot wounds of the head, torso and extremities. The only projectile to strike Mr. McCray that could be determined to have come from a particular officer’s firearm was a projectile striking Mr. McCray in the right shoulder which was determined to have been fired by Officer Castagna.

Law Regarding the Use of Deadly Physical Force by a Police Officer

Section 53a-22(c) of the Connecticut General Statutes permits a police officer to use deadly physical force upon another person when he reasonably believes such force to be necessary to defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of deadly physical force. Section 53a-3(5) of the Connecticut General Statutes defines “deadly physical force” as physical force that can be reasonably expected to cause death or serious physical injury. Section 53a-3(4) of the Connecticut General Statutes defines “serious physical injury” as physical injury, which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious disfigurement, serious impairment of health, or serious loss or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.

The test to determine an officer’s reasonable belief is both subjective and objective. First, the officer must believe that the use of deadly force is necessary to defend himself or another from the imminent use of deadly physical force. The police officer must honestly believe that this level of force is necessary in the immediate circumstances. In other words, the subjective portion of the test considers whether the police officer believed the use of deadly physical force was his only reasonable choice under the circumstances.

The second part of the test requires that the officer’s belief be objectively reasonable. State v. Smith, 73 Conn. App. 173, cert. denied, 262 Conn. 923 (2002). The test is not whether it was in fact necessary for the officer to use deadly physical force in order to defend against the imminent use of deadly physical force. The test is whether the officer believed it was necessary to use deadly physical force and whether such belief was objectively reasonable, based on the facts and circumstances known to the police officer at the time the decision to use deadly force was made. Cf. State v. Silveira, 198 Conn. 454 (1986); State v. Adams, 52 Conn. App. 643 (1999).

Simply stated, the test considers whether a reasonable officer placed in the shoes of the subject officer would have found it necessary to use deadly force under the circumstances.

The United States Supreme Court has explained this test in a civil rights case: “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on scene rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. . .The calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance of the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions- in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 at 396-397 (1989). “The appropriate inquiry is whether the officers acted reasonably, not whether they had less intrusive alternatives available to them.” Scott v. Henrich, 39 F.3d. 912, 915 (9th Cir. 1992).

Of particular relevance to the facts of this case are two United States Supreme Court Cases addressing the reasonableness of police actions in terminating dangerous high speed pursuits; Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007) and Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. 765, 134 S. Ct. 2012 (2014). In Scott, a ten-mile pursuit taking place at speeds up to 85 miles per hour was terminated by police using a PIT maneuver (Pursuit Intervention Technique). In determining the reasonableness of the PIT maneuver, the court explicitly took into account the “actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved.” Scott at 384.

The case tacking most closely to the shoals navigated by the East Hartford officers in this case is Plumhoff. In Plumhoff, Mr. Rickard engaged officers on a high-speed car chase that came to a halt when Mr. Rickard spun out into a parking lot. Mr. Rickard then resumed maneuvering his car, and as he continued to use the accelerator even though his bumper was flush against a patrol car, an officer fired three shots into his car. He managed to drive away, almost hitting an officer in the process. Officers fired 12 more shots as he sped away, striking him and his passenger, both of whom died from some combination of gunshot wounds and injuries suffered when the car eventually crashed. In Plumhoff, the court concluded that:

Under the circumstances at the moment when the shots were fired, all that a reasonable police officer could have concluded was that Rickard was intent on resuming his flight and that, if he was allowed to do so, he would once again pose a deadly threat for others on the road….In light of the circumstances we have discussed, it is beyond serious dispute that Rickard's flight posed a grave public safety risk, and here, as in Scott, the police acted reasonably in using deadly force to end that risk. Id at 134 S.Ct. 2022

Determination Concerning the Appropriateness of the Use of Deadly Force

The scope of the determination being made by the undersigned is limited to whether the officers using force resulting in Mr. McCray’s death did so appropriately in accordance with Section 53a-22(c) of the Connecticut General Statutes.

In this matter, there are two locations at which shots were fired. The first, in East Hartford, took place when Sgt. Ficacelli discharged a single round.  There is no evidence that this shot struck Mr. McCray and, in fact, one might fairly infer otherwise based upon Mr. McCray’s subsequent ability to engage in a lengthy pursuit at high speeds. As such, I cannot conclude that Mr. McCray died as a result of Sgt. Ficacelli’s use of force.

The other incident in which shots were fired occurred in Glastonbury. It is undisputed that Mr. McCray died as a result of being shot by members of the East Hartford Police Department during this encounter. However,  I am unable to conclude which officer or officers fired the shots striking Mr. McCray, with the exception of Officer Castagna. Nonetheless, based upon the facts above, the East Hartford officers who discharged their weapons in Glastonbury were justified in doing so in accordance with Section 53a-22(c) of the Connecticut General Statutes.

These officers were confronted with an individual determined to elude capture and willing to drive a vehicle at them in order to do so. The similarities between the facts of this case and those found in Plumhoff  are remarkable. As in Plumhoff, the use of deadly force in question occurs at the conclusion of a high-speed chase with multiple shots fired to stop an offender posing a grave risk to the safety of the officers present and the public at large. Under these circumstances, the United States Supreme Court has found the use of deadly force by officers to be reasonable and in this case, it is unquestionable that any reasonable officer confronting the same scenario would have found the use of deadly force necessary.

No further action is to be taken by the Division of Criminal Justice as a result of this incident.

Respectfully Submitted,

/s/

Brian Preleski
State’s Attorney

Dated[2]:

APPENDIX

-- Audio recording of 911 call placed to East Hartford Police Department by Charissa Kearney on February 4, 2018, at 2039hrs.

-- Video recorded on February 4, 2018, from surveillance cameras Turtle Creek Apartment complex in East Hartford.  Note: This is a large file that may take prolonged time to download. If you are unable or do not wish to download the file, it may be viewed by making an appointment to view it at the State's Attorney's Office in New Britain. 

[1] This portion of the report consists of legally relevant factual findings based upon the entirety of the investigation.  It is not a verbatim record of the entire investigation.  Consistent with the undersigned’s past practice, the entire investigatory file, with the exception of materials otherwise confidential, is available for review in the New Britain State’s Attorney’s Office during regular business hours.

[2] There are frequently questions raised concerning the length of time between the incident and the issuance of a report.  Any State’s Attorney preparing such a report cannot do so until he or she is satisfied that they have a complete and thorough investigation which necessarily includes a review of every report prepared by any involved agency.  I will note that the last item reviewed in preparation of this report, a Glastonbury police report, was not completed until November 24, 2018.

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