Two former Philadelphia police officers were charged Friday in a 2008 shooting that eventually led to the death of West Oak Lane father of three Lawrence Allen, then 19, who prosecutors say was just trying to mediate a dispute between the officers and a neighborhood teen over a stolen pizza.
"This young man was shot over a pizza by someone who was supposed to protect and serve our community," District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement. "Words cannot adequately describe how tragic that is."
Former sergeant Chauncey Ellison Sr., 39, who was off-duty at the time, allegedly shot Allen in the back, severing his spinal cord, on Nov. 17 as Allen tried to quash an argument sparked when his friend Demetrius "Meaty" Haywood, then 16, stole a pizza from the two 14-year-old sons of Ellison and Ellison's girlfriend, former officer Robin Fortune, 44.
Ellison Sr. is charged with voluntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, possessing an instrument of crime and conspiracy, while Fortune is charged with conspiracy and reckless endangerment for allegedly egging on Ellison Sr.
Both officers were fired from the force in 2010, but former District Attorney Lynn Abraham declined to bring charges against them, reportedly issuing the decision quietly on her last day in office. Williams vowed to convene a grand jury to take a fresh look into the matter when he took over in 2010.
According to Haywood's testimony before that grand jury, tension began brewing when Fortune's son and Ellison's son went to neighborhood takeout restaurant Bruno's Pizza on Cheltenham Avenue. Haywood waited for them to leave with their food, then punched Fortune's son in the face, chased Ellison Jr., who recognized Haywood from middle school, and stole Ellison Jr.'s pizza.
Ellison Sr. and Fortune didn't call 911 to report the robbery when their sons told them what happened, but took Ellison Jr. and Fortune's 16-year-old daughter on what prosecutors called "a relentless hunt," canvassing the neighborhood for Haywood in Ellison's SUV.
When they caught up with the since-adjudicated Haywood, he was walking with Allen, who he encountered after the robbery, Haywood said. Ellison allegedly jumped out of the SUV as the two teens were waiting at a traffic light and wordlessly leveled his police-issued Glock semi-automatic handgun at Haywood's head. Haywood testified that Ellison at no point identified himself as a police officer.
The teens ran and Ellison, Fortune and their two children allegedly chased them on foot. When they lost sight of the boys, they piled back in the vehicle and Ellison allegedly continued the pursuit "down the dark alleyways off of Cheltenham Avenue," driving erratically and at times against traffic, according to the report.
Multiple witnesses testified that after the chase, Haywood either came inside the Allen home or spoke with family members out front, saying he had robbed a boy whose father was now chasing him. Allen and his family offered to "take him back and settle what he did."
Allen, his two sisters and his pregnant girlfriend left their home on the 1900 block of Renovo Street shortly after 9 p.m. and began to walk toward the area where Ellison allegedly confronted Haywood while he was with Allen, according to Allens's sisters and girlfriend.
All three testified they then saw an SUV speeding the wrong way up the block and that a man pointed a gun from the open driver's window, causing everyone to hit the pavement. Haywood said he hid near Allen's home as Ellison again jumped from the SUV, weapon drawn.
One of Allen's sisters said she saw Allen get up from the pavement and approach Ellison. The mother of Allen's two children, who was then pregnant with his third, said that she and Allen started to walk back toward their house when they noticed their young son in the window and decided to stay near the street.
Allen told the off-duty officer, "guns don't need to be involved in this, it's a pizza," one of his sisters said, a claim backed up by the testimony of Fortune's daughter. Multiple witnesses told the grand jury that Allen tried to deescalate the situation and even offered to pay for the stolen pizza despite the fact he had nothing to do with its theft.
Multiple witnesses also testified that the elder Fortune, clad in a white shirt and pajama pants, allegedly seemed determined to "ignite the already tense situation" by "acting crazy," "jumping up and down," "cursing and yelling" and berating Ellison, calling him a "p---y," asking him if he was going to let "these punk ass little n-----s get away with this s--t, they robbed your son."
According to one witness, Ellison got back into the SUV several times as if to leave, but Fortune each time demeaned him and insisted he stand up for his son.
Fortune also allegedly issued direct calls for violence, telling Ellison "you better do something" and directing him to "pop one of these m-----f----rs," multiple witnesses testified.
When Allen realized the argument was going nowhere, he reached for his girlfriend's hand and said, "let's go into the house," she said. But she testified that, as Allen turned, Ellison grabbed him at an angle and pointed the gun toward his back. Allen tried to push Ellison off and Ellison shoved Allen into the car.
All of the witnesses said they then heard a pop. Allen's girlfriend said she caught Allen as his body slid down the car and she laid him down on the ground.
Ellison allegedly stood over the couple, gun still pointed at them, until the girlfriend began to scream for help, she testified. Several other people also recalled the sight of the former officer standing over the huddled couple, weapon still raised.
After the shooting, the officers and their children allegedly fled the
scene in the SUV. Ellison then found a nearby Cheltenham Police Officer
and told him that he shot someone. Both Fortune and the Cheltenham
officer called 911.
Neighbors loaded Allen into a car and drove him to Albert Einstein
Medical Center. The bullet wound rendered Allen a paraplegic and he
spent the rest of his short life in treatment facilities due to
complications stemming from the injury until his death from sepsis in
February of 2009, a little over a year later.
The majority of neighbors who testified corroborated this version of events. One woman, who "believed that Lawrence Allen terrorized the block after he came to live there with his family," according to the grand jury report, watched the confrontation from her window and claimed that Allen pulled out a small silver gun, which touched off the struggle.
The woman's daughter, who watched from the same window, said that the two men weren't physically struggling at all when she saw Ellison take out his gun and shoot Allen.
Fortune and her daughter, too, claimed that Allen was armed and sparked the struggle by pulling a gun from his waistband.
But both Fortune's daughter and Ellison Jr. agreed that Allen had nothing to do with the robbery, but that their parents "would not be swayed from their pursuit" that night.
Despite the conflicting testimony as to whether Allen was
armed, the only ballistics evidence found on the scene was one fired
cartridge casing, determined to fired from Ellison's service
weapon, which was confiscated. No other firearm was recovered.
The jury found that the officers' self defense argument didn't pass the smell test, as Ellison was the alleged aggressor and, by egging him on and allegedly calling for direct violence, Fortune conspired with Ellison during "the violent confrontation that he and his family brought to Allen's doorstep."
The jury also concluded that the two were not acting as police officers, that the shooting "was the result of emotion and passion, not reason" and the use of deadly force was not justified.