The family of a St. Paul man who was shot and killed by Woodbury police after escaping unarmed from a hostage taking in 2012 has filed suit against the suburb and three of its police officers.
Tawana Henderson, mother of Mark Eric Henderson Jr., alleges in federal court that all three officers fired several rounds at her son, and that one of them cried out, “Oh, my God!” after the 19-year-old exclaimed, “I can’t believe you shot me!”
Named in the case are officers Anthony Ofstead, Natalie Martin and Stacey Krech. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which investigated at the time, said the officers asserted that they fired only after Henderson, whom they believed to be armed, was “noncompliant with officer commands.”
The family’s attorney, Stephen Smith, said Friday that although there’s no videotape of what happened, as in several high-profile cases nationwide in which police shot young black men, there are witnesses.
“Individuals observed what happened, and that’s why we feel strongly we needed to proceed with this case,” Smith said. “I guess I don’t accept at face value assertions made by officers, and when we have reason to believe the information they communicated was not completely accurate, we have to attempt to seek some justice.”
A grand jury declined to indict the officers, he said.
Michelle Okada, a spokeswoman for Woodbury, said Friday that the city had not yet been served the lawsuit “so we are unable to comment at this time.”
‘Something to do’
The shooting took place on August 31, 2012, after Henderson and several others entered a room at a Red Roof Inn in Woodbury. The group bought some vodka.
According to the complaint, Demetrius Ballinger, then 25, of North St. Paul, who had been kicked out of his home by a fiancée, “impulsively decided to rob everyone in the room, just for ‘something to do’ after drinking some vodka and smoking some marijuana.
“He pointed a 9mm semiautomatic handgun at the occupants of the room and ordered them to place their personal belongings on one of the beds. One of the girls in the room apparently dialed 911 before relinquishing her phone.”
Woodbury police responded. Martin and Ballinger found themselves facing one another through a window, and Ballinger pointed his gun at her. She moved away.
Then, the complaint says, “Henderson suddenly ran [outside] to escape what had become a hostage situation.”
The young man “slowed down to a hurried walk and raised his hands when he became aware of the officers,” the complaint says. “None of the officers observed Henderson with a gun or any other weapons, and he was in fact unarmed. Nevertheless, all three officers fired multiple rounds” and Henderson died soon afterward.
In news coverage at the time, a witness said he heard repeated shouts of “Get on your knees now!” and “Freeze!” before several shots were fired, after which he saw a man lying down.
The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, accuses the officers of excessive force, gross indifference to Henderson’s rights and wrongful death. It seeks monetary damages to be determined at trial, including punitive damages.