Hennepin County prosecutors said Monday that they would not bring criminal charges against a south Minneapolis pawnshop owner who fatally shot a man during the unrest that followed George Floyd's death earlier this year, saying they lacked the evidence to rebut the owner's self-defense claim.
County Attorney Mike Freeman said in a statement that the destruction of potential video evidence by looters and the refusal of key witnesses to testify precluded prosecutors from charging the owner, John Rieple, in the death of 43-year-old Calvin Horton.
"Based upon the facts and available evidence, the state could not prove it was not self-defense and prosecutors are ethically prohibited from filing charges against someone knowing it would not be possible to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt," the statement read. Prosecutors said they reached their decision following an "exhaustive" six-month police investigation.
While the Star Tribune generally does not identify people who haven't been charged with a crime, it is doing so with Rieple because his identity as the owner of the pawnshop is widely known and because he has been identified in other news accounts of Horton's killing.
Rieple, who was arrested the same night and later released, has maintained that he fired at Horton in self-defense. He has also refused to speak to investigators, prosecutors said.
Horton's relatives have pushed back on the suggestion that the father of seven took part in the looting that followed Floyd's death. And, they argued that even if he had he didn't deserve to be killed. Neither police nor prosecutors have publicly described Horton as a looter, though they've acknowledge that it was one of the theories they were investigating.
The case has became a lighting rod locally for critics who see it as an example of the criminal justice system's indifference toward Black lives. Monday's announcement brought a new raft of criticism that Freeman's office has charged cases with less evidence.
After the announcement, state Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, tweeted that Horton deserved justice.
"The owner of Cadillac Pawn reportedly fired into a crowd," she wrote. "This is disgusting."
Attempts to reach Horton's relatives were unsuccessful on Monday, and attorney Benjamin Crump, who has been retained by Horton's family, didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Horton was shot at Cadillac Pawn, 1538 E. Lake St., on May 27, the second night of protests that followed Floyd's killing during an encounter with four since-fired Minneapolis police officers. The investigation was troubled from the start.
Prosecutors said that despite the presence of numerous bystanders at the time of the shooting, only one eyewitness has so far come forward with information about the case. The witness, whose identity wasn't released, described seeing a large group of people, including Horton, breaking into the store and noted that one of the looters — not Horton — was armed with a handgun, according to prosecutors. The witness said that Horton was moving toward Rieple and that about 7 feet separated the two men when Rieple fired.
When police responded they were met by a hostile crowd that yelled and threatened officers, forcing them to move Horton to a nearby business while they waited for an ambulance, according to prosecutors. He died a short time later at HCMC.
Because of the chaos, officers arrested Rieple, but didn't stay to process the scene. As a result, the shotgun that was used was never recovered. Looters also ransacked the pawnshop, taking everything, including its security cameras and the DVR that would have recorded the fatal shooting and the moments leading up to it, prosecutors said.
Two more witnesses, one of whom was a close friend of Horton, were identified when detectives reviewed officers' body camera footage from the scene. But the female friend, who was not identified, later hired a lawyer, who told prosecutors that she would not talk to police, nor would she identify another woman she was with, prosecutors said.
The County Attorney's Office later put out a plea urging any other witnesses to come forward to no avail.
"When the Hennepin County Attorney's Office deferred the case on June 2, prosecutors asked police to canvass the neighborhood for additional witnesses to the shooting and any other surveillance cameras which might have captured the shooting. No other cameras were found," the statement read. "Some people had posted video and they were tracked down and interviewed. Their video showed Horton and the pawnshop after the shooting and the witnesses could only testify to the chaos at the time, but not the actual shooting."
Freeman's statement cited autopsy findings that concluded that Horton died of a shotgun blast to his left side, suggesting he was turned sideways when he was shot. But without corroborating evidence, authorities argued it was "impossible" to determine with certainty how far apart the two men were when Rieple fired the gun and when exactly Horton turned his body.
Under state law, a civilian can legally use lethal force against another only if he or she is reasonably in fear of death or great bodily harm to themselves or someone else. Even then, they must be a reluctant participant, have no reasonable means of retreat, and lesser force will not suffice.
Unlike states with so-called "stand your ground" laws, Minnesota state law says that civilians who feel threatened have a duty to retreat — unless they are in their own home. And yet, Freeman said that his office felt they could not meet the high burden — proof beyond a reasonable doubt — with the evidence available.
Horton's death was the first of two associated with the civil unrest; in the other case, Oscar Lee Stewart Jr., 30, died in an intentionally set fire that burned another pawnshop. His body wasn't discovered for several months.
Five carloads of family and friends drove up in June from Little Rock, Ark., where he was born and where his mother lives, to attend his funeral at Estes Funeral Chapel in north Minneapolis.
He attended North High School, his father said, but did not graduate. He would later earn his GED, and family members said he would "glow" whenever he had the chance help his kids with their homework.
He lived in the Twin Cities, but had no permanent address, according to family members. He was unemployed and received Social Security disability payments, they said.
Rieple started Cadillac Pawn in 1990. At one time, he owned a pawnshop and a jewelry store in Winona and, in 2002, a business called Mainstream Firearms and Marine, also in Winona. He also once operated a pawnshop in La Crosse, Wis. He could not be immediately reached for comment, and it's unclear whether he has legal representation.
Staff writers Randy Furst, Greg Stanley and David Chanen contributed to this report.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany