AURORA — Several hundred people marched through the rain Friday night behind a hearse carrying 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson’s body 15 days after the teenager was fatally shot by a police officer.
The processional and solidarity march followed a public memorial for Richardson outside the Aurora Municipal Building, where the city council has for years searched for answers to the problem of deadly police encounters.
Instead of answers, the teenager’s coffin was in a hearse outside, just hours after his private funeral.
“My son did not deserve this,” Laurie Littlejohn said in a tearful address at the outdoor ceremony. “We make mistakes. He should have been able to go and whatever consequences he had to face, been able to face them.”
People stood in clusters, many under umbrellas, as they gathered in mourning following the latest police killing in Aurora. The shooting has exacerbated mistrust in police and reignited a far-too-familiar conversation about racism and discrimination against Black people at the hands of police while generating more of the same dialogue about the proliferation of gun violence.
On June 1, Aurora police officers James Snapp and Roch Gruszeczka were driving in a police vehicle when they saw a group of kids wearing hoodies and medical masks, who they said appeared to be scoping out local businesses, according to body camera footage.
“They just shoplifted out of there,” Snapp said.
“I’m going to light ’em up,” Gruszeczka said before he stopped the vehicle soon after.
The officers began chasing Richardson. Snapp ordered Richardson to get on the ground before tackling him. Then Gruszeczka told Richardson to let go of a gun and repeatedly warned he would shoot, according to a timeline of events compiled by the police department.
Seconds later, Gruszeczka shot Richardson, body camera footage shows. The footage does not show the position the gun Richardson had during the shooting.
Police later disclosed the weapon Richardson had was a pellet gun that resembled a semi-automatic pistol.
“I’m sorry. I’m done. Help me. Take me to the hospital. Get it. Get it. I can’t breathe. Help,” Richardson says in the video. “They made me do it. I didn’t know who they were. They made me do it.”
Police have said Richardson flashed the pellet gun to a clerk at a convenience store near Dayton Street and East Eighth Avenue where and a group of four other kids stole vape canisters before the shooting. Gruszeczka and Snapp weren’t aware of the robbery when they started chasing Richardson.
The teenager’s death comes while the Aurora Police Department is already under scrutiny. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office released a 112-page report in September alleging the police department consistently violates state and federal law in a pattern of racially biased policing and excessive use of force.
Since the shooting, Aurora Police Chief Art Acevedo has been accused of twisting the facts to protect the two officers.
Acevedo originally said Richardson had a semi-automatic firearm. It took eight days for him to correct the record and say the teenager actually had a pellet gun.
Acevedo also said Richardson reached for the gun before officers shot him, which can’t be seen in any of the body camera footage released so far by the police. The police chief also said the officers involved in the shooting did not have any significant disciplinary record before Richardson was killed. But Officer Gruszeczka was involved in a racial profiling lawsuit. The city paid $100,000 to settle the case in February, according to Sentinel Colorado.
“Why didn’t he also say Jor’Dell also had no contact with law enforcement and no criminal history? You know they looked it up, and you know if he did (have criminal history), they would be saying that,” Siddhartha Rathod, a Denver-based civil rights and criminal defense attorney representing Jor’Dell’s family, told The Colorado Sun this week. “He made a bad mistake. But he didn’t deserve to die.”
Rathod said a surveillance camera is located directly above where Richardson was shot and that a local establishment gave the footage to Aurora police. Rathod said he’s called on Acevedo to release that footage soon, along with all other surveillance and body camera footage the police department has collected.
At the memorial Friday, Rathod said Acevedo should publicly apologize to Richardson’s family and the community and resign. Only then can the public begin to heal and start working toward rebuilding trust in local police, he said.
“This family just laid to rest their 14-year-old child hours ago,” Rathod said. “Jor’Dell is here with us in both spirit and in body. We don’t want to be here. This family does not want to be here. The community does not want to be here — again. But we will not be silenced.”
Rathod urged mourners to press for change from their local leaders.
“We demand accountability from our elected leaders and those who put the Aurora chief of police into power,” Rathod said.
The Aurora Police Department’s internal affairs bureau is conducting an administrative review to determine if the officers followed departmental policies.
“Every investigation is different and there is no set deadline for when that needs to be complete. We don’t comment about active cases to protect the integrity of the investigation,” police spokesman Joe Moylan said in an email.
Both officers involved in the shooting are on paid administrative leave, Moylan said, and two 14-year-olds have been arrested and charged with false imprisonment and aggravated robbery.
“Others involved have been tentatively identified,” according to the police department.
A separate probe into the officer-involved shooting is being conducted by the 18th Judicial District Critical Incident Response Team. That review will establish whether laws were broken by the officers involved.
The team’s investigation is expected to take up to several months to complete, said a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, which will review the investigative findings and determine if the shooting was lawful.
Friday’s community memorial also included eulogies from Richardson’s father, Jameco Richardson, his brother, Anton Richardson, and a local pastor, Dr. Thomas Mayes.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Anton Richardson said. “It’s still unbelievable. They took a part of my world, a part of me, my soul. I wake up every morning lost, my mind empty, not knowing what to do.”
Jameco Richardson said police need better training. “Scary thing is, I don’t think this is going to stop.”
During the processional afterward, mourners walked under umbrellas and waved signs, trailing the hearse. They chanted “Black lives matter” and Richardson’s name as daylight began to fade.
A public memorial is unique, attorney Rathod said, and the benefit of such a commemoration is that the community can grieve together.
“Jor’Dell was a member of the Aurora community. Jor’Dell was one of our children and is a child of Colorado and the public has a right to mourn,” he said Wednesday. “When there are horrible tragedies like this, the community comes together to mourn and support the family and say, ‘No more.’”
There will never be justice for Richardson’s family, he said. “Justice is Jor’Dell walking through his mother’s front door,” Rathod said. “But bringing attention to Jor’Dell’s life and death is important.”
On Friday morning before the public memorial, Richardson’s mother, Littlejohn, said in written statements sent through Rathod, that her son was a “joyful spirit,” who came from a good family. Richardson excelled at every sport he played, she wrote, and like many kids his age, he wanted to become a professional athlete one day.
“We were blessed to have him for 14 years,” she wrote. “His smile made everyone else smile. You couldn’t stay sad around Jor’Dell.”
The last time Littlejohn saw her son was during the morning on the day he was killed. It was a normal day, she said. The mother and son told each other, “I love you,” and had planned to see each other again later that night.
Since his death, loved ones and some community members have been supportive while the family grieves, Littlejohn said, but others have “smeared Jor’Dell’s name,” she wrote. “They didn’t know Jor’Dell. They talk about him like he wasn’t a real person.”
Richardson’s parents have not watched any of the body camera footage chronicling the teen’s death and don’t plan to view it. Littlejohn said the family agrees that the public has a right to view the footage and that she and her family wish Aurora police would have solely released body-camera videos instead of making misleading statements.
“He defended his officers before the investigations are complete,” Littlejohn said about Chief Acevedo. “He proved he is biased and can’t be fair and objective.”
As the family continues to grieve, Littlejohn said she is asking the public to remember that Jor’Dell was a human being, and a teenager. The family is asking the public to encourage the police department to be transparent about the shooting and to continue praying for Richardson, the family and the community. Richardson’s family is speechless and exhausted by grief, she said.
“This is the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. We wouldn’t wish this pain on anyone else,” she wrote.
“We still don’t understand why the officer had to kill Jor’Dell. Jor’Dell had surrendered before he was shot and killed,” she wrote.
Richardson is survived by his parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, according to his obituary.