Just 18 hours after Omaha police killed a television crew member and a robber armed with only a pellet gun, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said his officers were justified in firing their weapons.
The chief said Wednesday that he based his initial findings on three eyewitness accounts as well as footage captured by the crew’s cameraman as he sheltered himself from gunfire.
“The officers had no choice other than to respond in the manner in which they did,” Schmaderer said during a midafternoon press conference with the mayor and the producers of the “Cops” reality show, whose crew has been in Omaha all summer recording the actions of officers.
The violence broke out about 9:20 p.m. Tuesday at the Wendy’s restaurant at 4308 Dodge St.
Three officers shot multiple times after the 32-year-old robber fired what looked and sounded like a real firearm, Schmaderer said.
Schmaderer said the investigation into the double fatality has just begun. A Douglas County grand jury will be called to examine the Police Department’s actions, and the department’s officer- involved shooting unit also will investigate.
The “Cops” crewman, 38-year-old Bryce Dion, was a sound mixer from Boston who had recently been promoted. He died at the Nebraska Medical Center.
Dion was wearing a bullet proof vest, but that protection couldn’t save him. Schmaderer said the bullet entered Dion’s body through an opening in the vest just under his armpit.
The “Cops” crew had only had one week to go until the show was scheduled to wrap up its work in Omaha.
“He really is one of our best,” said Morgan Langley, a “Cops” producer, adding that Dion was “a very talented guy.” Michael McCann, Dion’s close friend in high school, said he was passionate about entertainment production, and family and friends back home were proud to see him succeed in Hollywood.
“On some level I imagine there’s a risk in doing a show like this,” McCann said. “But for him to be taken so young, it’s very sad.”
The robber, Cortez Washington, was a recent parolee from Kansas City who had moved to Nebraska. He was shot multiple times and also died at the hospital.
His sister-in-law, Tawanna Washington, said Washington moved to Omaha to be near his dad’s side of the family and to try to better his life. He had seven children and was working temporary jobs and doing manual labor.
The police chief on Wednesday outlined the events that led to the deaths. The longtime reality show began working with police in June. Schmaderer had agreed to let “Cops” come to Omaha in the hope that the community’s ability to see its police force in action would build public trust.
Instead, “I will live with this forever,” Schmaderer said.
Schmaderer said three officers fired their guns: Detective Darren Cunningham, 37; Officer Brooks Riley, 35; and Officer Jason Wilhelm, 39. Cunningham has been on the police force for a decade; Riley and Wilhelm each have four years of service and were assigned to the department’s northeast precinct.
All three have been placed on paid administrative leave, per department policy. The investigation is still in its early stages, Schmaderer said, and Nebraska law requires a grand jury to be convened in officer-related shootings.
“We are striving for unprecedented transparency in this investigation,” the chief said.
Investigators discovered after the shooting that Washington had been firing an Airsoft pistol that doesn’t fire real bullets. The gun looked and sounded real to officers, Schmaderer said.
Roxy Galloway, an employee at Wendy’s, remembers the smoke and the sounds the most.
She said she had been preparing to lock the lobby when Washington came in with his nose and mouth covered by a bandanna. She thought he was joking, until he pulled out a gun and pointed it at her, telling her to put all the money from the drive-thru and the front registers in the bag. It was while she was taking money from the front register that police came in and saw the gun pointed at her, she said.
“There was a bunch of yelling. I heard the bang. (Washington) was about a foot away from me when it started,” Galloway, 21, said. “It was really loud. It sounded like a real gun. I couldn’t even tell the difference between officers’ guns and his gun.
“It was pretty much a hostage situation. The gun was pointed at me.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, Chief Schmaderer provided a rundown of events Tuesday night:
» At 9:05 p.m., Cunningham responded to a report that a woman had robbed Little Caesar’s Pizza at 637 N. Saddle Creek Road. Fifteen minutes later, he got a report of a robbery in progress less than a mile away, at the Wendy’s. Once Cunningham arrived, he spotted an armed man wearing a black hoodie and a white bandanna and called for backup. Two officers, Riley and Wilhelm, arrived along with Dion and cameraman Michael Lee.
» Several witnesses in the parking lot urged the officers to go inside the building. Schmaderer said officers don’t typically enter a building during an ongoing robbery, but in this case the officers “thought they needed to rescue somebody.” Police may have been told that Washington was holding a gun to an employee’s head.
» Cunningham and Riley entered Wendy’s through the doors of an east vestibule. Lee and Dion followed. Wilhelm went in through the west entrance.
» Washington fired two shots, according to witness accounts. The officers returned fire; law enforcement sources have said they fired more than 30 rounds.
» Washington headed toward the east exit. Dion, who was still in the east vestibule, was shot once.
» Washington was shot multiple times. Police have not said where he was hit. He collapsed in the parking lot, where he was handcuffed.
» None of the officers was hurt. Lee also was unharmed; he had crouched down inside the restaurant and recorded the incident with his camera.
After the shots, Galloway said she saw Lee rush over to Dion and tell him, “Stay with me, stay with me. We need an ambulance.”
Schmaderer said that he had seen the footage and that it was evidence in the investigation.
“The (members of the TV show crew) have a close relationship with the officers that they ride with each and every day,” the chief said. “Just as officers face the dangers of policing with honor, courage and integrity, so do the production crew of ‘Cops.’ ”
Schmaderer said any suggestion that officers were showing off for the cameras was “absolutely ridiculous.”
“This was a very harrowing situation. ... And I’m going to tell you that first two shots that you — They sounded like a gun,” Schmaderer said at Wednesday’s press conference. “And if you can tell me which one’s real and which one’s not real from this gun, I don’t know if you can. ... So any criticism on that front is simply unmerited.”
Washington had a lengthy criminal history, Schmaderer said.
He was convicted in Missouri of robbery, and in 2011 started parole in Kansas City. In September 2013 he was transferred to Nebraska, where his parole was set to expire on June 10, 2017.
Washington was at his sister-in-law’s house less than an hour before the robbery occurred, but didn’t say where he was going, she said. Tawanna said Washington often drove by to chat and check on family.
She said she recognizes that Washington committed a crime, but she said police acted excessively. To see how real the Airsoft gun looked, she bought one Wednesday, she said.
“(He) is supposed to be in jail, he’s not supposed to be in the grave.” she said. “It wasn’t justified with how he was killed. ... All of these bullets in the building for a man with an airgun?”
Morgan Langley and his father John Langley — the president of Langley Productions, the company that produces “Cops” — flew in from California on Wednesday to attend the press conference. Morgan Langley described Dion as a private person who was single and had worked for the company for seven years.
“Just a great guy, very positive. And our primary concern is for his family. ... It’s a tough one for us,” Morgan Langley said.
According to the city’s contract with the show, the “Cops” crew was allowed broad access during the ride-alongs with police. The contract language also ensures the city isn’t liable for injuries or death. The city was not compensated by the producers for allowing “Cops” to film police.
Six or seven episodes of “Cops” had already been recorded in Omaha. Dion’s slaying marks the first time a member of the film crew has been fatally wounded since the series began in 1989.
The Langleys said Dion had developed a close relationship with the Omaha police officers he had met on the job.
“The guys he was riding with had befriended him and were befriended by him,” John Langley said.
World-Herald staff writers Kevin Cole and Emerson Clarridge and chief librarian Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.