One night last September, Minneapolis traffic cop Jerome Haaf, 53, sat completing some paperwork and reading a newspaper at the Pizza Shack, a well-known police hangout in the south part of town. About 1:45 a.m, two men entered the restaurant and shot Haaf in the back. He died a few hours later.
Beginning as early as today, prosecutors will present a case charging that Haaf was assassinated by members of the Vice Lords street gang in an act of retribution against police in general.
Partly because Haaf was white and the suspects are black, the case has strained race relations and escalated tensions in Minneapolis.
“This has struck at the heart of the community in a way few other first-degree murder cases have,” said Peter Erlinder, one of the defense attorneys. “The idea of shooting a police officer in the back while he’s drinking coffee in a restaurant--this has never happened before.”
The case also has snuffed out a budding effort at cooperation between police and gangs.
Before the shooting, the Minneapolis police were working with United for Peace, a coalition of gang leaders formed to reduce gang-on-gang violence and get “gangbangers” into jobs and school. The group had been enlisted by police to help defuse more than one tense street altercation. After Haaf’s murder, Police Chief John Laux formally severed police ties to United for Peace.
Prosecutors believe that the Haaf shooting was planned in the home of United for Peace President Sharif Willis, a Vice Lord leader, by other Vice Lords. Although they do not contend that Willis was involved, he has been tainted by the association. And one of the defendants is Willis’ nephew.
“Incidents such as this, tragic as it was, only gives ammunition to those who want to destroy United for Peace,” Willis said of the shooting.
Prosecutors say the motive for the shooting was anger over a scuffle the day before involving a blind black man and police on a bus. The struggle, which began with a fare dispute, raised community tensions, already high because of other incidents.
Defendant A. C. Ford, 26, will be tried first, with three other defendants following in separate trials. All are charged with first-degree murder for allegedly planning and carrying out the shooting. The fifth suspect is a juvenile.
Ford is accused of driving one of the cars used in the shooting. Amwati (Pepi) McKenzie, 19, and Shannon Bowles, 21, are the alleged gunmen. Montery Willis, 25, is accused of riding with Ford.
Another Vice Lord, Ed Harris, was killed two weeks later. Prosecutors think he was killed out of a mistaken belief that he had offered evidence in the Haaf case.
Erlinder contends that prosecutors appear to be making their case based on who the defendants are, rather than the evidence against them.
George Widseth, Hennepin County attorney, admits that witnesses could not identify the suspects in a lineup and said most of his evidence comes from accounts by defendants’ friends.
But “we feel obviously that we have the right people,” said Sgt. Phil Van Tassel, the police chief’s administrative assistant. “More than anything the community needs a conviction. What is at issue here is, a group or an individual that will take on an armed police officer will not question in the least killing anybody else. You’ve got to remember, that is an attack on authority, and authority is all that is keeping us civilized in the world today.”