Man shot by Gulfport officer was unarmed, driving less than 5mph, say witnesses

On Wednesday, the family of Leonard Parker Jr. filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Gulfport alleging unnecessary excessive force.
Published: Jun. 23, 2021 at 2:21 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 23, 2021 at 3:18 PM CDT
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GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Just 30 seconds after a Gulfport police officer arrived at the scene of a disturbance call last year, Leonard Parker Jr. lay dying in the road as his friends watched on in horror. That’s according to witnesses’ accounts in documents recently obtained by WLOX News.

The night of Jan. 31, 2020, began with friends and family coming together to celebrate a birthday. It ended in tears with lives changed forever after an officer fired multiple shots, killing Leonard Parker Jr., a 53-year-old Army veteran from Covington, Ga.

Leonard Parker Jr. was shot on Feb. 1, 2020, in the 200 block of 25th Street, while still in...
Leonard Parker Jr. was shot on Feb. 1, 2020, in the 200 block of 25th Street, while still in his vehicle. Police had received multiple calls from a residence in the area where the shooting took place earlier that day, said Gulfport Police at the time of the incident.(Romanucci & Blanden LLC)

Wednesday, the family of Parker filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court against the City of Gulfport and the officer who fired the fatal shots. The complaint says the officer used unreasonable excessive force when he fired the shots that took Parker’s life. The lawsuit states Parker was not suspected of any crime, did not have a warrant against him, never displayed a weapon and was not attempting to flee.

The lawsuit further alleges that the officer never identified himself as law enforcement and did not issue a warning before firing his weapon, striking Parker and killing him.

Last month, a grand jury cleared the officer of wrongdoing, ruling that the shooting was justified. That decision cleared the way for the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to release a redacted 21-page file detailing the statements of police and six witnesses who recounted what happened the night those fatal shots were fired.

The following information comes from documents obtained by WLOX News through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations. It’s a retelling of what happened that night based on the statements of multiple police officers and the witnesses they interviewed. The names of the officers and witnesses have been withheld. While the lead officer’s name is available through public records, WLOX News has made the editorial decision to withhold his name in our reporting because he is not charged with a crime, and was cleared by a grand jury.

Before the shooting

The house on 25th Street in Gulfport was filled with people on that Saturday night, all there to celebrate the birthday of the homeowner. One of the guests attending that night was her sister’s friend Leonard Parker Jr., a retired servicemember who had traveled from his home in Covington, Ga. to be there.

As the party went on, the guests there drank wine and beer, enjoying themselves late into the night. Two of the guests, however, were not having as good of a time. A woman and her boyfriend had been arguing all night, according to multiple witnesses who were there. The argument began after someone walked in on the man while he was in the bathroom. It continued throughout the night, spilling over into the early morning hours of Feb. 1.

Everyone had been drinking and the woman’s boyfriend was drunk, said witnesses. Parker stepped in and tried to defuse the situation, separating the couple. A brief physical altercation between Parker and the other man then broke out.

While everyone present attempted to calm things down, the homeowner’s aunt called 911, telling them the man was drunk and wouldn’t leave. In the call, she described the man to the dispatcher, saying he was a Black man who was wearing grey clothing and who did not have any weapons on him. That call was made at 2:49 a.m.

The homeowner then suggested that the woman’s boyfriend, who was from Louisiana, leave and go back to his hotel to sleep it off. Before police could arrive at the house and in an effort to avoid anyone getting in trouble, Parker volunteered to drive the intoxicated man back to his hotel room.

Within minutes of backing out of the driveway, Parker was dead. No weapon was ever recovered from Parker, his vehicle, or the passenger.

‘Shots fired!’

At 19 seconds after 2:55 a.m., a Gulfport officer arrived at the end of 25th Street with his headlights off and no sirens or lights activated on the vehicle. With flashlight in hand, the officer left his patrol car at the end of the road and began walking down the street looking for the house where the disturbance was reported. The officer later told investigators that he saw a vehicle backing out of a driveway just ahead of him. The vehicle - a 2014 black GMC Sierra - backed into a mailbox across the street then began heading down the street in the direction of the officer.

The officer said he deduced that the vehicle was coming from the house where the call to police was made. He said he began yelling at the vehicle, telling the driver, “Stop the vehicle! Stop the vehicle! Police, stop the vehicle!” The truck continued driving towards the officer, who said he heard the engine pick up as the truck inched closer. The officer began backtracking towards the south end of the road when he said he saw the truck’s tires turn toward him.

That’s when he fired his service weapon three times toward the vehicle. Those shots were fired exactly 30 seconds after the officer arrived on 25th Street. At least one of those shots struck Parker in the face.

The truck then came to a stop as if the vehicle had been thrown into park, said the officer. As the officer began approaching the truck with his gun pointed toward the driver, he yelled, “Let me see your hands!” He told investigators that the passenger in the truck - who was later identified as the drunken man that Parker was taking to a hotel - had his hands in the air. The officer said the passenger unlocked the doors to the truck and opened the driver’s side door. It was at that time that the officer said he saw the driver had been shot.

Around this time, a second officer arrived at the scene and rushed over to the vehicle. The first officer asked the second officer to get the passenger out of the vehicle. As the first officer tried to help Parker out of the truck, the officer’s legs gave way and Parker fell out out of the truck facedown. Parker was still breathing at this time, said the officer.

The first officer said he handcuffed Parker and rolled him onto his back. By this time, people from the party gathered outside and were coming closer, yelling at police and calling the first officer there “the devil.”

A police sergeant arrived soon after and said the officer who shot Parker began crying and started washing blood off his hands. The officer was then removed from the scene. Parker was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after.

Later, while being questioned at the police station, the officer told investigators he was thinking “this is it” as the truck drove toward him. He then said it was almost like his body “just took over” and went into autopilot trying to save himself.

The officer said he didn’t know how fast the truck was going but that it was picking up speed as it headed toward him. However, all six witnesses who were standing in the yard outside of the home when the shooting happened reported that the truck was going between 3-5 mph.

Inconsistent accounts

Statements from the six witnesses and the two officers mostly recount the same version of events. However, there are some key details from each that are different.

The passenger who was in the truck with Parker at the time of the shooting told investigators that he saw the officer walking down the street toward them but was unsure if Parker knew it was a police officer. Neither man was aware that the police had been called, he told investigators.

A different witness noted that the windows were up on Parker’s truck and said the officer didn’t offer any warning other than to yell once before opening fire.

The passenger in the truck with Parker reported hearing the officer yell 2-3 times at the vehicle to stop but said he didn’t know if Parker heard it. However, the homeowner’s aunt who called police told investigators later that she had tapped on the window of Parker’s truck and told him that the police had been called, advising him to let them handle it.

The truck’s passenger told investigators that Parker didn’t do anything wrong, but also noted: “If I was the officer, I would have thought that I was going to get run over, too. I’m not gonna lie.”

Witnesses from the party, who were outside at the time of the shooting, each told investigators that the officer was approaching the vehicle from the side of the road and was not directly in front of the truck.

The homeowner told investigators that she heard the officer yell at the vehicle to stop, to which she yelled back at the officer telling him that Parker was not armed. Then, she heard the three gunshots.

The homeowner told authorities the truck was already stopped when the shots were fired, saying the vehicle didn’t move when Parker fell out, indicating the truck was already in park. Another said the truck had its brake lights on and was slowing almost to a full stop.

The Gulfport officer who was second to arrive on the scene said when he walked up to the vehicle, it appeared as if the first officer was trying to put the truck in park.

Parker’s friend who he attended the party with told police she saw the truck back out of the driveway, go down the road a bit, then start to slow down almost to a stop. She then noticed a flashlight in the road approaching the vehicle but said she was unaware anyone had called the police. Suddenly, she heard three shots fired but thought they were firing in the air. It wasn’t until she heard the officer shout “get your hands up” that she realized it was the police. Then, she saw Parker’s motionless body fall out of the truck and into the street.

Further confusion also stems from how much alcohol Parker had the night he was killed. Witnesses at the party told investigators that they had not seen Parker drink anything alcoholic, yet a toxicology report would later show that Parker’s blood alcohol limit was two times the legal limit. Parker did not have any other substances or drugs in his body when he died, states the report.

Additionally, Gulfport Police said after the shooting that multiple 911 calls were made from houses surrounding the home where the party was taking place that night. However, only one 911 call made by the homeowner’s aunt was referenced in the report from MBI.

So where’s the video?

No video evidence exists showing the shooting. The officer later told investigators that he thought he turned his body cam on, but hadn’t. In the investigator’s report, it is noted that cameras automatically switch on when blue lights are activated, or officers can turn the body cam on manually using a special function on their wristwatch.

His dash cam also wasn’t activated since he turned his vehicle off and left it parked. Witnesses at the party said it all happened too quickly so none of them had their cameras on either. The second officer to arrive on the scene after the shots were fired did activate his body cam.

A Gulfport officer said he canvassed the neighborhood after the shooting in an effort to find anyone with a working surveillance camera that may have captured the shooting. Four residents who live nearby said they didn’t have cameras. Another resident said they have one but it wasn’t on at the time.

“We need answers.”

A retired Army veteran, Parker was a husband and father of five who proudly served his country. His family is devastated he’s gone.

“Leonard was a wonderful father, husband, brother and son, and we continue to grieve and struggle with his loss. He was full of life and should be alive and with us today. We need answers. We need accountability. We need justice,” said his wife, Catina Parker.

Catina Parker is now suing the City of Gulfport for the actions that took her husband’s life, saying unnecessary excessive force was used. She is demanding damages for Parker’s death, as well as compensation for the pain, suffering, and loss of income she and Parker’s children have suffered because of his death. A jury trial has been requested.

WLOX reached out to the Gulfport Police Department on Wednesday but were told that they would not be making a statement at this time due to pending litigation.

In April, Chicago civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci announced they are preparing to file a federal civil rights lawsuit in the Fifth Circuit Court on behalf of Parker’s family. Romanucci and Crump were most recently in the spotlight for representing the family of George Floyd.

“The lack of a bystander video to this tragedy is so unfortunate, as not only has it made it hard for many people to understand what happen and share this family’s outrage, but it has also allowed law enforcement here to try and bury this case from public view. Officials have not turned over key documents, body camera footage, or the name of any officer involved. But worst of all, they have not shown the Parker family the respect of even acknowledging the death. This is completely shameful, and we will ensure this family gets the justice they deserve,” said Romanucci.

According to Romanucci, at least one of the key witnesses - the passenger in the truck with Parker on the night of the shooting - was not even asked to testify before the grand jury when they convened earlier this year.

As of June 23, a civil rights lawsuit had not yet been filed in federal court, only the wrongful death lawsuit. To read the wrongful death lawsuit in full, click here.

Copyright 2021 WLOX. All rights reserved.

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