DOVER, Del. — Delaware’s Department of Justice has cleared police of criminal wrongdoing in four shootings last year, one of them fatal.
Reports released Friday concluded that police were justified in using lethal force in each incident, including the death last May of a man who fatally shot an elderly couple visiting their son’s grave at the Delaware Veterans Cemetery.
After shooting Paul Marino, 86, and his wife, Lidia, 85, Sheldon Francis fled into a nearby wooded area where he had erected a makeshift tent, armed with a rifle and several handguns, according to the DOJ.
The law enforcement response included a Delaware State Police armoured vehicle, which took heavy rifle fire from Francis.
Three troopers in the vehicle, including Cpl. Ricardo Torres, got out and began returning fire. One of the rounds fired by Torres struck Francis in the head, according to the DOJ report.
Police initially were unsure whether Francis had killed himself.
The DOJ’s Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust concluded that Torres feared for his life and was justified in using deadly force to protect himself and others.
Investigators did not reveal any known connection between Francis and his victims. Relatives of Francis told police that he had become “extremely paranoid” about contracting COVID-19 and that he had developed a “doomsday-like” attitude, according to the report.
The three other shootings involved Wilmington and New Castle County police officers.
Jabri Hunter was shot by Wilmington police officer Luis Vazquez in April after police found him passed out behind the steering wheel of a vehicle at an intersection.
Police said Hunter ignored commands to put the vehicle in park and roll the window down, and that officers saw him reach into his pants and believed he had a weapon. As the vehicle crept forward, one officer tried to break a window with his baton, resulting in a loud bang. At the same time, Vazquez saw Hunter quickly move his hands from his pants, according to police.
“The loud bang … coupled with the sudden movement of Hunter’s hands from his pants led Officer Vazquez to believe Hunter was shooting,” investigators wrote.
Vazquez, standing on the passenger side of the vehicle, fired three times, striking Hunter in the shoulder and torso.
Investigators said Vazquez’s belief that officers on the driver’s side of the vehicle were being fired upon was not negligent under the circumstances.
Police recovered a handgun in Hunter’s pants, 38 bags of heroin at the scene, and 26 more bags from his sneaker at the hospital, according to the report. The gun he was carrying was linked through a criminal database to two shootings in 2019, according to the DOJ report.
Toxicology testing on Hunter returned positive results for fentanyl, benzodiazepines and marijuana, investigators said, adding that the fentanyl was most likely from pain medication administered at a hospital.
Hunter is charged with possession or control of a firearm by a person prohibited because of a prior felony conviction, carrying a concealed deadly weapon, and illegal possession of a controlled substance or counterfeit controlled substance while in a vehicle.
DOJ investigators also cleared Wilmington police officers David Simmons and LaVette Williams in the March shooting of Orrin Daniels.
Daniels was shot as he drove a vehicle at officers who had responded to a domestic disturbance. He was treated for a gunshot wound to the arm. Medical workers also administered an overdose antidote because of the amount of cocaine he had ingested before the incident. Daniels is charged with multiple counts of reckless endangering and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a felony, and resisting arrest with force or violence.
In the fourth incident, Robert Schneider was shot by New Castle County police officer Steven Cronin after a standoff with county and state police who responded to a domestic disturbance last August. Authorities said Schneider was drunk and carrying a handgun in a holster, and refused police commands to disarm himself. Footage from body cameras worn by Cronin and another officer showed Schneider approaching them raising his left arm toward them with a bright light, which blurred the visibility of his upper body, according to investigators.
While securing Schneider, police recovered both the revolver from his holster and a semiautomatic handgun on the ground underneath him, officials said.
Schneider is charged with offensive touching, malicious interference with emergency communications, and endangering the welfare of a child.
Randall Chase, The Associated Press