The mother of an unarmed Iowa woman fatally shot by a police officer who was then cleared of any wrongdoing has a message for the cop in question: it's not over.
“There's no question that it was a cover up,” says Gina Colbert, Autumn Steele’s mother.
Steele, herself a 34-year-old mother of two, was killed by Burlington, Iowa police officer Jesse Hill on Jan. 6, 2015 in what officials characterized as an accident. The local prosecutor, Amy K. Beavers, decided not to charge Hill with a crime, and he returned to duty less than three months later.
“Definitely the investigation should be reopened, now that the truth is coming out,” Colbert tells Oxygen.com. “He should be arrested, charged and fired.”
Colbert points to newly released records she says shows Hill is guilty of criminal wrongdoing. More than that, she says, Hill knew it. Among the records is Hill's body camera footage showing his frantic reaction.
“I’m f---ing going to prison,” Hill said moments after shooting Steele.
But that footage and other records from the official investigation were concealed by local officials until last Thursday, when a federal judge ordered it released to the public, as previously reported by Oxygen.com.
“The severity of the resistance of the city of Burlington to release the full footage of what happened that day just compounded the grief of the family,” says Mark Shellnutt, one of Colbert’s attorneys.
“The DA’s office should have been a source of support and information to Autumn’s family yet they closed rank with the city and quickly closed the so-called investigation,” he added.
Beavers, the local prosecutor who declined to charge Hill in 2015, said Sunday she stands by her original determination. However, she said, “if DCI conducts a new investigation then I’ll review any new information.”
DCI, the Iowa State Police Division of Criminal Investigation, is the police agency charged with investigating the shooting and presenting their results to Beavers. Her office is entirely dependent on DCI investigators, evidence they uncover and reports they prepare, Beavers said.
Mitch Mortvedt, DCI’s assistant director, failed to respond to an email asking whether DCI would reopen the investigation, as well as a request to comment on Colbert’s allegations that DCI participated in a cover-up.
Douglas Beaird, the now-retired Burlington Police chief who decided not to fire Hill or discipline him administratively could not be reached for comment; an email to current Burlington Police Chief Dennis Kramer seeking comment went unanswered.
(Warning: The video below contains graphic content)
Hill was responding to a domestic dispute involving the Steeles on the snow-covered sidewalk in front of their house. In a matter of a few seconds, Hill reaches out for Steele, a dog can be heard at the scene and Hill says "Get your dog" before firing two shots.
It quickly becomes clear that Autumn has been struck by one of the bullets as she collapses face-first into the snow.
"He shot you!?,” Gabriel Steele says, looking down at his wife's still body, before turning to Hill, “You shoot her!?”
Hill responds, “Did I? Oh my God. Oh my God.”
She bled to death in the snow, in front of Gabriel, and their son.
Colbert says Hill “should’ve been charged with involuntary manslaughter,” not “walking freely out his front door, living like he's never done anything wrong.”
Instead, she says, officials covered up for Hill “because he was a police officer and that's how it works in this country, the majority of the time.”
Criminal charges in cases of police shootings of unarmed victims are rare, but two recent examples have some similarity to the Steele case.
Wichita, Kansas police officer Dexter Betts fired two shots at a dog who charged him while responding to a domestic dispute on Dec. 30, 2017. Shrapnel from one of Betts' rounds ricocheted off the floor and wounded a 9-year-old girl. Betts was fired and charged with felony aggravated battery, according to the Wichita Eagle. He’s awaiting trial.
NYPD officer Peter Liang was conducting a vertical patrol in the stairwell of a Brooklyn apartment building in 2014 with his gun in his hand when he went through a door and was surprised by Akai Gurley.
Liang said he shot Gurley by accident, because he was “startled,” according to the New York Times. “And the gun just went off after I tensed up,” he said. Liang was charged with second-degree manslaughter and convicted.
The second-degree manslaughter charge Liang was convicted of is similar to the Iowa involuntary manslaughter law Colbert says Hill should be charged with -- neither requires proof of intent to kill, just reckless action that creates a foreseeable risk of serious injury or death, according to a comparison of the two laws and court decisions implementing them.
In contrast to the Liang case, Chief Beaird and Beavers, the prosecutor, justified their decisions to not charge Hill with wrongdoing because, they said, the Steele’s dog bit Hill and he had a right to defend himself, according to statements made by Beaird and a memorandum signed by Beavers explaining her decision.
Indeed, the first news release in the case issued by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said that after the shooting Hill was transported to the hospital where he “received treatment for dog bite(s)."
But Hill was never bit, Colbert says, pointing to the newly revealed records and Hill’s full body camera video of the shooting and its aftermath. Hill, in fact, never even specifically claimed to have been bitten. What Hill says is that “the f---ing dog jumped on me” once, which he characterizes as an “attack.”
At the hospital, the ER doctor who treated Hill, Brandon Beauchamp, said he saw an abrasion on one of Hill’s legs but no puncture wound, according to records released Thursday. Those records also show Beauchamp observed the abrasion was not bleeding and did not think it called for even a bandaid.
David O’Brien, a member of Colbert’s legal team, said one witness to the shooting, Laura Mellinger, even told investigators “she assumed, after Hill started pulling his gun out, that Autumn must have had a weapon because the dog wasn’t doing anything.”
The body camera video also captures the frantic admission Hill made to his partner, Tim Merryman, after the shooting that Colbert feels is tantamount to a confession: “Oh, my God, no! Oh, f--k, Tim! S--t I’m f--king going to prison, Tim!”
But no report prepared by investigators in the cache released last week documents those statements. And it was those reports, Beavers said, that she relied on in reaching her decision not to charge Hill.
Hill himself could not be reached for comment, and an assistant to his lawyer James F. Dennis said she would forward a request for comment to Dennis, but no response was received.
However, during Hill’s deposition in a federal lawsuit brought against him by Colbert and Autumn’s other survivors, Hill said he did nothing wrong. He even warned that “if the same factual circumstances arose again [he] would conduct [himself] in the same manner.”
Hill and the City of Burlington paid Autumn Steele’s survivors $2 million to settle the suit after Hill said that, Colbert and O’Brien, the civil rights lawyer who led the federal court effort, said.
Today, Colbert says Hill is the school resource officer -- tasked with policing and protecting Burlington’s children, according to the Associated Press.
“I keep up with all these people and I will until the day I die,” Colbert says. “This will never be over. This is never going be over. This is something that we live with forever.”
Then Colbert addressed the officer directly: “Hill, Autumn will haunt you all the days of your life.”
[Photo: Autumn Steele, courtesy of Gina Colbert; Jesse Hill's leg, where he said he felt a "sensation of being bit," which he circled in red ink during legal proceedings in the case, unsealed federal court records, courtesy of David O'Brien]