Police say teen killed by Zion cop was caught in gun sale gone bad
A teenager who was fatally wounded by a Zion police officer after a weekend foot chase was shot twice in the back, authorities disclosed Monday.
That revelation about how 17-year-old Justus Howell of Waukegan died came from an autopsy conducted Sunday by the Lake County coroner's office.
One bullet hit Howell on the left side of his back, according to a news release from Coroner Thomas Rudd. A second bullet hit Howell on the right side of his back.
Police said later Monday that the teenager had just been involved in a scuffle while trying to steal a handgun during a street sale, and the officer who shot Howell is a nine-year veteran who has been placed on administrative leave.
In a statement Monday evening, Zion Police Chief Steve Dumyahn declined to comment on the autopsy, saying the report is not yet completed and hasn't been given to police.
But he provided additional details about the moments leading up to the shooting, saying Howell had just been involved in a gun deal with 18-year-old Tramond Peet, who appeared in court Monday on weapons charges. Dumyahn said the Zion Police Department was releasing the information because media outlets had connected Peet's case to the shooting; he said the department "has no desire to defame the deceased."
Howell was shot Saturday afternoon near Gilead Avenue and 24th Street. Police were called to Gilead Avenue by someone complaining about an argument or fight who had also heard a single gunshot, police said in a news release.
Howell was taken to Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan and was pronounced dead there at 2:38 p.m., Rudd said.
Peet told investigators he had met Howell to sell him a handgun but that Howell tried to take it without paying for it, Dumhayn said. Peet said the gun discharged into the ground during a subsequent struggle and said that at one point Howell pointed the gun at him. Peet said he released the handgun when he heard police cars approaching.
He said he saw officers running after Howell, heard them giving Howell commands and then heard gunshots, according to police.
Peet was later arrested and appeared in bond court Monday on two counts of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He was being held on a $15,000 bail.
Dumhayn did not release the officer's name or any additional information about him, including his race.
Howell was black, and Lake County NAACP President Jennifer Witherspoon said his relatives have asked her organization to speak on their behalf.
Witherspoon said authorities told the NAACP that they have videotape of the scuffle between Peet and Howell but can't yet say what led the officer to shoot Howell. She said Howell's relatives are hoping to find out exactly what happened as quickly as possible.
"Whether it was a mistake on his part or a mistake on the police's part, they want answers to make sure something like this never happens again," she said.
"Here in America we are seeing this with too many brown and black boys," Witherspoon said.
The Lake County Major Crimes Task Force is investigating the shooting.
"Our role in this is strictly fact finding," task force commander George Filenko said.
The information the team gathers will be presented to the Lake County state's attorney's office. "We're not going to divulge any of our findings until we present them to the state's attorney," Filenko said.
The officer was taken to a hospital as a precaution, authorities said.
Earlier Monday, police said a handgun was found where Howell was shot. But Zion activist Clyde McLemore said he's spoken to two witnesses who deny there was a second gun.
"Justus didn't have a gun on him," McLemore said.
Howell was enrolled as Waukegan Unit District 60 student but attended Lakeshore Academy, a private school for struggling students, District 60 spokesman Nicholas Alajakis said. A high school junior, Howell transferred to District 60 from a Wisconsin school in February.
A spokesman for Lakeshore Academy declined to comment.
Howell has a history of run-ins with the police and recently was released from jail, McLemore said.
"Justus wasn't no angel," McLemore said. "He's had some trouble with the law. But this doesn't justify killing him."
McLemore said he and other Zion residents may stage a protest march this Saturday. He also is calling for a Justice Department investigation into the case.
"We don't want the police department to do it," he said.
• The Associated Press and Daily Herald staff writer Mick Zawislak contributed to this report.