Father-Son Eyewitnesses to Laquan McDonald’s Shooting Tell Why They Came Forward
October 12, 2018
CHICAGO — Jose Torres passes the busy commercial intersection on his way to and from work most days.
The area on Chicago’s Southwest Side has changed a lot since that night four years ago when fate brought him and his son there moments before a police officer fatally shot Laquan McDonald. But the violent images and explosive sounds of gunfire remain seared in their minds.
Torres and son Xavier said the infamous police dashboard camera video of the shooting that so roiled the city doesn’t compare with what they witnessed.
Over the weekend, after Officer Jason Van Dyke’s historic murder conviction, the father and son returned to 41st Street and Pulaski Road to talk to a Chicago Tribune reporter about their decision to fight against the false narrative weaved by police in the days following.
Despite witnessing the shooting of the 17-year-old McDonald in October 2014, the two had been shooed away from the scene by a police officer who hadn’t bothered to ask them what they saw.
Both took the witness stand last month at Van Dyke’s trial, playing subtle but significant roles as the only civilian eyewitnesses to testify about the shooting. Indeed, prosecutors picked the elder Torres to be their final witness, said special prosecutor Joseph McMahon, because “I wanted the jury to hear from a real person.”
“I wanted the jury to hear from someone (who) was like them, a citizen of Chicago (who) is concerned about the relationship between the police and the community,” McMahon told the Tribune in an interview over the weekend. “And I thought that was a powerful way to end it.”
Van Dyke’s conviction Friday on second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet that riddled McDonald’s body — was the first for a Chicago police officer in half a century for an on-duty fatality. The landmark case was fraught with racial tension and social importance because it involved a white officer and black teen.
The jury was never told about Jose Torres’ refusal to stay silent about what happened that night after seeing television reports the next morning with a spokesman for the police union saying McDonald lunged at officers with a knife.
“I told my wife, ‘They’re lying,’” Torres said. “‘That didn’t happen.’”
Days later, the elder Torres contacted the city agency that then investigated police shootings. He and his son later spoke as well to the FBI and the city inspector general’s office and testified before two separate grand juries, one investigating Van Dyke and the other the alleged police cover-up that led to conspiracy charges against three additional officers.
Torres said some family members and friends warned him against getting involved, but he felt that justice was being subverted.
“It took me a few days to work up the strength, the nerve to call somebody and report it,” he said inside a Dunkin’ Donuts near the shooting scene that was mentioned often in trial testimony. “I couldn’t sleep. It was eating away at me and my conscience. It was killing me, and I thought if I stay quiet, then I’m part of the cover-up and I couldn’t live with myself.”
Torres, 46, said he was taking his son to a hospital for lingering flu-like symptoms just before 10 p.m. when he twice pulled over to let police cars — their lights flashing and sirens blaring — pass by in a northbound lane of Pulaski Road.
He continued driving north but pulled over a third time on the east side of the road just seconds later when he came upon the police activity. That’s when the two saw McDonald for the first time running from the area of a Burger King and onto a southbound lane of Pulaski.
Torres said he backed up his car, fearing he was too close as Van Dyke’s partner drove their police SUV south in the northbound lane to head off McDonald.
Jose and Xavier Torres testified that seated in their car just south of the Dunkin’ Donuts, they had an unobstructed view of McDonald as the teen with the unusual hop to his walk came up the street. They said McDonald was walking in a southwest angle on Pulaski away from police.
In the seconds before the shooting, McDonald had his hands to his sides, both said. The officers shouted at McDonald, who turned his head in their direction before gunfire erupted. As McDonald fell to the street, the two said they heard more gunshots fired than when the teen had been standing.
“Why the (expletive) are they still shooting him when he was on the ground?’” the elder Torres recalled on the witness stand asking out loud at that moment.
“As soon as I heard the gunshots, he fell,” he said in the interview. “And then there was a pause, and as soon as he just made a move, all of a sudden it seemed like it was never going to end. It was like pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop as he was on the ground, and they just kept shooting and shooting and shooting.”
Both said they heard so many gunshots that they mistakenly believed more than one officer had fired.
Xavier Torres, 26, said he saw McDonald move while on the pavement like “he was in pain.” Neither thought he was trying to get up as Van Dyke testified — in contrast to what the dashcam video showed.
Within minutes, a police officer motioned with his flashlight for the Torreses — and another motorist who arrived later and pulled in front of them — to drive off, they said.
As the father and son continued to the hospital, each said, they tried to give the benefit of the doubt to the police for what they had just seen. Neither noticed the knife in McDonald’s hand. They assumed police shot him because he had a gun and “did something really bad,” the younger Torres said.
Jose Torres said he grew angry the next morning after learning on TV that the police union alleged McDonald lunged at officers with a knife. He and his son talked about what to do next.
Xavier Torres, whose daughter was young, said he worried about her well-being if he and his father went public with what they saw.
“I always stand behind my dad. I always believe in his decisions,” he said. “He was clear that what happened was wrong and that we had to do our part in coming forward.
“We talked about it and worried about possible threats and things that could possibly happen,” the son continued. “But at the same time we’re already in it, and you just got to follow your heart and do the right thing, the way he taught me.”
The elder Torres said he walked away from his initial interview with the Independent Police Review Authority, the city agency that then investigated officer-involved shootings, concerned that authorities were more interested in protecting Van Dyke than uncovering the truth.
No one contacted him for months, Torres said, and he assumed the entire incident would be “swept under the rug.”
The next time anyone inquired about the shooting was when independent Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven knocked on his door.
Months later, the father and son found themselves meeting with the FBI and testifying before a secret grand jury.
The explosive dashcam video was released in November 2015 on the same day Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.
When Xavier Torres took the stand at Van Dyke’s trial, he said he was caught by surprise when the officer’s lawyers peppered him with questions. His only previous experience had come in testimony before the grand jury, and witnesses there are not cross-examined.
His father watched his son’s testimony on television and was ready when he stepped into the witness box days later.
The elder Torres went toe to toe with an attorney for Van Dyke on whether he truly had an unobstructed view of the shooting. Torres did not back down.
McMahon, the special prosecutor, said he had expected the father and son to come off as credible witnesses.
“They brought a commitment from the public that this case mattered to more than just Laquan McDonald’s family,” McMahon told the Tribune. “ … It affected the entire city, not just the African-American community. One of the things that Mr. Torres said to me when I interviewed him pretrial was that he would hope that somebody would stand up and speak up if that happened to his son. … That was something that really struck a chord.”
Jose Torres said that as the jury’s verdict was announced, he watched live on television like so many others around the Chicago area. He said he grew emotional listening as a court clerk read the guilty verdicts.
Torres pulled his granddaughter out of school early on the day of the verdict out of fear for her safety, but he said his family has not experienced any retaliation since he and his son testified.
Torres said he feels badly for the officer’s family. Van Dyke has a wife, two young daughters and elderly parents who are steadfast in their belief that he did his best in a difficult, dangerous job and note that he had never before fired his gun on duty before that night.
Still, Jose Torres said he believes strongly that the jury’s verdict was just.
“He needs to serve time for what he did, but I don’t think the rest of his life,” Torres said. “After the first shots, he should have just ended it. That’s where I don’t feel sorry for him because he chose to continue to shoot.”
Van Dyke, 40, who was taken into custody at Cook County Jail after his conviction, faces a minimum of six years in prison at sentencing. He soon will trade in his police star number for a state prison ID.
Jose Torres said he still frequently thinks of the shooting and becomes upset when people try to blame McDonald for what happened to him.
“No one deserves that,” he said. “I don’t care if he was innocent or not. Nobody deserves to be shot like that — 16 times on the street. … I don’t care what anyone says. That shooting wasn’t justified.”
Chicago Tribune’s Stacy St. Clair and Megan Crepeau contributed to this report.
©2018 Chicago Tribune
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