Witnesses Raise New Questions About Fatal Police Shooting of South Florida Teenager
photo courtesy Sunjee Louissaint
It was December 13, 2012, when 40-year-old Sunjee Louissaint, a soft-spoken woman with gentle eyes, looked across the front yard of her West Palm Beach home and saw two green-and-gold-striped Palm Beach County Sheriff's cruisers.Two deputies had pinned her 17-year-old son, Devin, to the ground. She heard a bang and, suddenly, his body shook violently.
Louissaint thought he had been hit with a Taser. Then she saw the blood. He's been shot, she thought.
"I ran over and put my face on the ground," she recalls, "because his face was on the ground, and I saw his eyes were dilated. He was gone."
(Skip ahead to 8:30 for video of the shooting.)
Devin Jolicoeur died of gunshot wounds in the early evening that Thursday. Four bullets pierced his chest and one his hand. Not only his mother, but also his grandmother, aunt, and best friend were there. So were several other family friends and neighbors who had come out to see why police were questioning the teen.
After a brief investigation, Palm Beach State Attorney Dave Aronberg ruled the shooting justified. Josh Kushel, the deputy who had fired the gun that killed Devin, claimed the kid had pointed a gun at his partner, Sgt. James Hightower.
But many questions remain unanswered. Several witnesses said they never saw the boy draw a gun. Officers seemingly contradicted one another in testimony after the shooting. And they either lied or were mistaken about the presence of marijuana, which they used as a basis for the interrogation. "They murdered my son, and then they lied about him," Louissaint insists. "It just didn't happen like they said it did. Not at all."
The Palm Beach Sheriff's Office did not respond to three phone calls seeking comment. Written inquiries also went unanswered. Teri Barbera, a spokesperson for the PBSO, repeatedly said nobody was available.
Devin Jolicoeur was born January 31, 1995, in Westchester County, New York. Bearing a child was an unexpected life event for his mom, Sunjee Louissaint, who was then 25 years old. She had a severe strain of sickle cell anemia that inhibits blood cells' ability to carry oxygen. During pregnancy, this can often cause miscarriage.
"Doctors told me I wouldn't be able to have a baby," she says. "That's why I always called him my 'miracle baby.' "
When Devin was 7 years old, he and his mother moved to Palm Beach County. Because of her anemia, New York weather caused Sunjee severe pain. Sunny Florida was enticing. And several family members, including her parents, lived in the area.
Devin grew up in a West Palm Beach home with his mother, uncle, and grandparents. His biological father lived in Haiti and occasionally visited, but Devin's grandfather was the man of the house. An eclectic man, also from Haiti, who worked in a pharmaceutical factory for 20 years, he considered Devin a son.
At Jeaga Middle School, Devin played basketball and ran track. He was fast too. His speed earned him the nickname "Devin Dash."
Devin attended Mavericks Charter High School in Palm Springs. Although he went to class and earned good grades (he was just one semester shy of graduation when he died), he had been in trouble with the law. On September 2, 2011, he was picked up for having a fake license plate and briefly sent to jail. A week later, police said he acted as a lookout in the burglary of a home. He was arrested and sent to jail again, for 30 days, but never charged.
About four months later, he was picked up with two other boys trying to sell a gold coin at a pawnshop. His mother says those charges were also dropped. "Devin had some friends from middle school that he got in some trouble with, but he was straightening out," she says. "He was growing up; he was really starting to mature."
The night of the shooting, quite a few visitors were at the family's house on Orchard Way. When one of Devin's friends, Andre Shanks, pulled up, the driveway was full, so he parked his car halfway on the front lawn.
As Devin walked out to meet Shanks, Devin's grandmother, Gladys, asked if he was heading out.
"No, I'm not leaving. I'll be right here," Gladys recalls him saying. He left behind a cell phone and a miniature Bible he often kept in his pocket.
After the boys sat down in Shanks' car, a neighbor grew nervous and called police to report suspicious activity. Soon, PBSO Dep. Josh Kushel arrived. The six-year veteran had gained a reputation for trouble. More than 50 complaints had been lodged against him before that night -- most related to rudeness and disrespect, but there were also allegations of reckless driving and four for excessive use of force.
In one, Kushel allegedly slapped a woman and threw her to the ground. Twice he was accused of drawing his gun unnecessarily. And once he tasered a suspect who was already handcuffed. None of those complaints was substantiated by investigators.
In August 2011, a girlfriend filed an informal complaint, saying she was concerned about behavior-related drugs Kushel was taking. Details are not discussed in the records, but PBSO concluded, "Her concerns about the medication were addressed at our level, and we did not find cause to go any further."
When Kushel pulled up -behind Shanks' car, the dashcam video recorded Devin opening his door halfway. Kushel immediately drew his pistol and approached, shouting a command to shut the door. Devin did as he was told.
Kushel remained by the car and called for backup. By this time, Devin's mom, grandma, and houseguests had heard the commotion and walked outside.
They saw Sgt. James Hightower arrive and approach Shanks' car. Hightower was a 20-year veteran who had far fewer complaints than Kushel. In one 2007 event, a fellow officer had shot dead a fleeing bank robbery suspect who had tried to grab Hightower's gun. The State Attorney's Office ruled the shooting justified.
That shooting paralleled in some ways the events of December 13, 2012. Kushel and Hightower smelled marijuana, according to their later testimony, and ordered the boys from the car for a search. (Interestingly, no marijuana was ever found, and a toxicology report on Devin's body came back negative for all drugs.)
Shanks exited and placed his hands on the trunk. But when Devin got out, he quickly pivoted and sprinted away. Kushel chased him.
After that, Kushel and Devin disappeared from the view of the dashboard camera. But audio sheds some light on what happened.
"Get on the ground! Now you are gonna be arrested!" Kushel shouts.
"Don't move!" Hightower adds.
"Do not move!" Kushel screams.
Sixteen seconds after Devin -began running, Kushel yells, "Gun!"
He then bellows into his radio: "I think we have a gun."
Off radio now, Kushel screams, "I'm gonna kill you! I'm gonna kill you!"
Two seconds pass, and three gunshots are fired.
A female is heard screaming.
Three seconds after the third shot is fired, a fourth is heard. Moments later, Hightower appears in front of the dashcam holding an Intratec TEC-22, a gun police would later say Devin had been wearing in his waistband. Shanks lies down on the ground, and Hightower puts his foot on the teen's back. Sunjee's blood-curdling screams are heard as she realizes her son is dead.
Later that night, Kushel gave sworn testimony to Det. James Evans. "I proceeded after [Devin] and I was able to grab onto his shirt... he began to go off balance," Kushel says, adding that the two struggled and fell to the ground as Hightower hurried over.
"I believe I kept saying, 'Put your hands behind your back,' " Kushel told Evans.
As Hightower joined the struggle, Kushel said Devin pulled the pistol from his waistband.
"The gentleman, at this point, had his hands on the gun and he was pointing in the direction of Sergeant Hightower," Kushel told the investigator. "I believe I asked Sergeant Hightower to tase him."
Then Kushel said something odd. "The butt of the gun was pointed at Sergeant Hightower." He repeated that phrase several times -- indicating the barrel was not directed at the officers. Then he continued, "I was in fear for [Hightower's] life and mine. The male yelled out, 'You're just gonna have to shoot me,' in a loud, commanding, verbal voice. At that time, I knew that he wasn't gonna let go of the gun and he might shoot Sergeant Hightower. At that point, I took out the Glock that I'm issued and I shot the subject five times."
The interviewer then said, "Just a clarification: When you explained the butt of the gun, you're explaining the area where the projectiles come out, right?... Not the handgrip?"
"Yes, sir," Kushel responded. "The actual -- where the projectiles come out."
In Hightower's interview, which followed, he never said the gun was pointed at him. "Kushel noticed a gun because [Devin] kept pulling at his shirt and he'd seen the handle or whatever of the weapon," Hightower said. "I kept pulling, trying to get it away from him, and I finally had both hands on it...and that's when Deputy Kushel fired a round."
Kushel claimed he shot Devin twice before the teen let go of the gun. And then, he said, he shot the boy three more times while kneeling over his body. He didn't explain, nor was he asked, why he shot three more times.
A neighbor who asked not to be named told New Times that Devin never threatened the deputies. "He didn't point a gun. I saw the whole thing from start to finish. When [Devin] ran, they grabbed him, and it was like, right away they started shooting."
Nor did two eyewitnesses interviewed by police mention seeing a weapon. They were unnamed in the PBSO investigation report due to concerns about their safety. "Witness 1," the 39-year-old male who called police about the suspicious vehicle, didn't mention seeing a gun. "One of the deputies was trying to control [Devin's] hands because [Devin] was trying to reach into his pockets or waistband."
The other unnamed witness, a 41-year-old female, was outside walking her dog when she saw Devin trying to flee the deputies. She turned around out of fear and heard shots.
Shanks, Devin's friend, told investigators Hightower removed the gun from Devin's waistband only after he was dead.
The questions remain: Why did Devin run from police? And why did he have a gun?
Police often stopped Devin and his friends without reason, Louissaint says. She recalls one 2010 incident when her son was playing basketball at a public court and police arrived and ordered everyone to the ground. Devin happened to be standing on a fire ant hill but was forced to lie face-down. Ants stung up his torso.
"After that, he didn't want police to touch him," Louissaint says. "He told me he would always run."
Whatever the case, Louissaint says police overreacted from start to finish. They shouldn't have been bothering the two teens in the driveway of her family's home, and they didn't need to shoot Devin.
Sitting in her Greenacres apartment, Louissaint turns off a TV news program reporting about recent protests over police shootings in New York and Missouri. "Seeing all this is just so painful," she says. "It's like watching my son get killed over and over and over again."