A Shot in the Dark

Questions linger in police shooting death of local musician

May 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Laura Harrell remembers vividly the time she first met David “Bones” Hebert, the man who would become her close friend and, eventually, her roommate. It was nearly 14 years ago in Clifton Heights, when she visited friends at their Ohio Avenue apartment and Hebert lived in the small space below.

“He really made an impression on me,” Harrell says. “He was a sweetheart. He was a very warm, loving person.”

The years of companionship, though, came to an abrupt end on the morning of April 18. While Harrell was getting ready for the day around 8:30 a.m., her 9-year-old daughter told her that there was a Duke Energy worker on the front porch of her Northside home with a clipboard. When Harrell checked outside, she learned it actually was a Cincinnati Police detective, who informed her that Hebert had been shot and killed by an officer a few hours earlier.

Hebert, 40, was a lanky, tattooed neighborhood fixture and local musician who had played in several Rock and Punk bands in the 1990s including AMF and Shoot the Gift. Many others grew to know him during his long stint as a cook at The Comet bar.

After living in Portland for a brief period, Hebert had returned to his hometown of New Orleans before making his way back to Cincinnati about six months ago. While working part-time jobs at Melt and Northslice Pizza, he had just moved in with Harrell about three weeks before the shooting.

The incident, which occurred shortly after 3 a.m. in Northside near the corner of Chase and Georgia avenues, was prompted by a 911 call made by Jason Weller. Phoning from his basement apartment on Virginia Avenue, an apparently intoxicated Weller told the dispatcher in slurred speech that he had been socializing with Hebert and a female companion when Hebert allegedly “robbed him” and attacked him with “a big-ass pirate sword,” according to a tape of the call released by police.

After the dispatcher repeatedly asked a rambling Weller whether he needed medical attention, he replied that he only had a small cut on his hand.

Police caught up with Hebert about 10 minutes later on Chase Avenue, five blocks from Weller’s apartment, walking with the female companion and his dog, Shady. What happened in the next few minutes is murky and open to debate.

At a press conference on the day after the shooting, acting Police Chief Richard Janke said Hebert was shot after he twice refused to remove his hand from his right pocket, then suddenly took a knife from the pocket and took a step toward two officers. That’s when a third officer, Sgt. Andrew Mitchell, pulled out his gun and shot Hebert twice in the chest. (A fourth officer also was present at the scene.)

Janke said Mitchell acted appropriately because Hebert had “a deadly weapon.”

But that account raises numerous questions for Harrell and other of Hebert’s friends. Moreover, it differs sharply from comments made to some of them by Hebert’s female companion at the scene that night. The woman, whose name hasn’t been released by police, has retained a Blue Ash attorney and declined any public comment.

Hebert’s friends said Weller, Hebert and the woman were partying at Weller’s apartment when Weller made an unwelcome sexual advance on her, and an altercation occurred after Hebert pushed him away. Hebert and the woman were on their way home when confronted by police.

Further, friends wonder why two officers standing much closer to Hebert — Lawrence Johnson and Nicolini Stavale — didn’t draw their weapons but Mitchell did. Mitchell has a history of using force against suspects.

Since joining the department in 2006, Mitchell fired his gun at a burglary suspect wielding a BB gun in Westwood, hitting him in the arm and hand; and used a Taser on a high school student who he mistakenly believed was a robbery suspect. Also, a man filed an excessive force complaint against Mitchell for grabbing his wrist at the Bengals stadium, an allegation that wasn’t substantiated.

Additionally, the description of Hebert’s knife continues to change. Originally described as a large Bowie knife, it was later referred to as a switchblade with a 7-inch blade, then a 6-inch blade.

In fact, several friends say Hebert showed them the rusty knife he had begun carrying after an acquaintance gave it to him as a gift a few weeks ago.

If Hebert was lunging at officers, as police have said, friends wonder why the knife ended up about 25 feet behind him, shattering the window in a house before landing upright in a yard. The trajectory suggests he was trying to throw it away, they add.

“The picture being painted that he was a knife-wielding thief who lunged at police are not true,” says Lisa Wurster. “We believe our friend was murdered and it’s being covered up.”

Tellingly, friends say, Janke has refused to divulge how close the officers were to Hebert. They say the companion told them it was about two feet. Moving so close suggests that the other two officers didn’t feel threatened.

Police confiscated Hebert’s van from Harrell’s driveway, but told Hebert’s parents they took it at Harrell’s request, which she says is untrue.

Janke’s press conference defending Mitchell angers Hebert’s friends. The Police Department has asked them for patience and to reserve judgment until the investigations are complete, but that’s not being reciprocated.

“The statements made that morning do not reflect reservation of judgment or neutrality,” says Rob Linneman. “It affects public opinion … Bones is innocent until proven guilty.”

Three separate investigations are underway, one each by the department’s Criminal Investigation and Internal Investigation sections, and by the Citizen Complaint Authority.

Police have released video taken from cruiser cameras but the footage just depicts officers driving to the scene and the shooting’s aftermath. That’s because the cameras only activate while a cruiser’s lights and sirens are on, police said.

Al Gerhardstein, a prominent civil rights attorney who helped negotiate dozens of police reforms in 2001-03, says that policy should change.

“Every time there is an encounter with a citizen, if the capacity is there, it should be videotaped,” he said, adding some departments use cameras attached to officers’ shirts.

Harrell and many others in Hebert’s extended circle of friends already have held a fundraiser and a vigil in his memory, as well as appearing before City Council pleading for a thorough, independent investigation of what transpired under cover of darkness.

“I want to get to the truth and see policies changed so this doesn’t happen again,” Harrell says. “That’s all we can do. We can’t bring him back.”