The Aurora police officer who fatally shot 14-year-old Jor’Dell Richardson in June was legally justified in his use of force and won’t face criminal charges, Arapahoe County prosecutors announced Wednesday.
A second officer involved in the shooting also won’t be charged.
Richardson was shot June 1 while wrestling with a police officer after robbing a store near the intersection of Dayton Street and East Eighth Avenue. He was carrying a pellet gun that looked similar to a real pistol.
Officer James Snapp was legally justified when he chased Richardson as he fled the store and Officer Roch Gruszeczka was legally justified in using deadly force, 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner wrote in a letter announcing his decision in the case.
“I find that there is no criminal liability on the part of Officer Roch Gruszeczka,” Kellner wrote in his letter. “Therefore, criminal charges are not appropriate or warranted related to the officer’s use of deadly force.”
The shooting happened as the Aurora Police Department was already under a microscope after a series of controversies, including the August 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who was restrained in a chokehold and given a large dose of ketamine after being stopped by officers who said he looked suspicious. McClain was wearing a ski mask on a warm summer night — family said he wore the mask because he had anemia, which made him cold.
Several officers and paramedics have been charged in McClain’s death. Aurora paid $15 million to settle a lawsuit filed by McClain’s family.
Richardson’s death sparked protests in Aurora and calls for interim Chief Art Acevedo’s resignation. Acevedo was accused of twisting the facts to protect the two officers involved in the shooting after he initially said Richardson was armed with a semi-automatic firearm and then didn’t correct the record until eight days later.
Snapp and Gruszeczka were patrolling an area in west-central Aurora, when they heard a police sergeant report that five Black juveniles wearing face masks and sweatshirts with hoods cinched over their heads were gathered in a strip mall parking lot. The sergeant thought the teens’ clothing was unusual given that temperatures were between 70 and 80 degrees that day, he told investigators, and believed a robbery was about to happen.
As Snapp and Gruszeczka arrived at the strip mall, they saw several people wearing masks running out of a store with armfuls of merchandise, Kellner’s letter said. As Gruszeczka activated his patrol car’s lights, members of the group — including Richardson — dropped the items and fled.
Snapp and Gruszeczka started to chase Richardson down an alley. The officers had a “reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred and were legally justified in pursuing and stopping the fleeing individual,” Kellner wrote.
“As is relevant to this incident, an individual dressed in a manner obviously intended to conceal themselves, fleeing from the presence of the police in an area where a crime had just occurred has been found to be ‘reasonable articulable suspicion’ to detain the individual,” Kellner wrote.
During the chase, Snapp and Gruszeczka identified themselves as police officers and yelled at Richardson to stop. Snapp eventually tackled Richardson.
Gruszeczka told investigators that he thought Richardson was running as if he was holding something in his waistband or pocket. As Snapp tackled him, Gruszeczka, who was six feet away, saw what he believed was a handgun in Richardon’s waistband. He called out “gun!” and dove onto Richardson’s stomach.
Gruszeczka said he saw and felt Richardson reaching his hand between their bodies to grab the weapon. The officer said he then unholstered his own weapon and ordered Richardson to drop the gun. Gruszeczka said he felt Richardson’s fingers and knuckles move along his stomach, re-gripping the weapon.
Gruszeczka fired one round into Richardson’s stomach and the boy’s grip of the gun softened, the letter said. The officer threw the gun, which was later revealed to be a pellet gun, away from both him and Snapp.
The clerk of the store that was robbed told police she believed Richardson was armed with an actual handgun and feared for her safety as Richardson approached her and demanded vape products.
Crime technicians at the scene immediately determined the weapon in Richardson’s waistband to be a black H&K pellet gun, according to investigators’ report.
Investigators believe the other juveniles involved in the robbery gave Richardson the pellet gun without telling him it wasn’t a real pistol and that Richardson believed it was a real firearm as he demanded the vape products.
The metal pellet gun had a magazine with a similar shape to a magazine compatible with an H&K handgun. It had no markings that would distinguish it from a firearm capable of firing bullets by looking at it, an investigator said.
When deciding whether to file charges against Gruszeczka, Kellner said he considered the officer’s perception of the handgun as he encountered Richardson — not what was determined by investigators after the shooting.
“At the time he encountered the individual, Officer Gruszeczka observed that individual to be in possession of an item that was in every relevant aspect manufactured to appear to be a genuine handgun,” Kellner wrote.
Kellner found that Gruszeczka’s belief that Richardson was armed with a deadly weapon was objectively reasonable, as was the officer’s belief that the boy had an “imminent ability to inflict death or serious bodily” injury.
Body-camera footage didn’t show exactly where Richardson’s or Gruszeczka’s hands were as the two struggled on the ground before the shooting and at the moment Gruszeczka fired his gun. But, according to Kellner’s letter, video footage from a security camera in the alley where the shooting happened showed Richardson moving his right hand to his waist area as Gruszeczka was on top of him.
“Officer Gruszeczka possessed an objectively reasonable belief that lesser degrees of force were inadequate to the situation, and an objectively reasonable belief that both he and Officer Snapp were in danger of being killed or receiving serious bodily injury,” Kellner wrote. “As such, his actions fall within the statutory framework for legally justified use of lethal force by a peace officer.”
In a statement Wednesday, Acevedo defended the officers’ “split-second decisions” based on the information that is available to them.
“I believe the 18th Judicial District Critical Incident Response Team made a fair and just decision today following a comprehensive analysis of all the facts over the last three months. Regardless of this finding, the death of a young man is a tragedy for his family and extended community, and it will continue to weigh heavily on members of our department,” the chief said.
The department is conducting a separate investigation, which is in its final stages, to determine whether any policies were violated in the shooting, he said.