‘That didn’t happen’: Why father-son witnesses to Laquan McDonald shooting took on the Chicago police
Jose Torres passes the busy commercial intersection on his way to and from work most days.
The area on the Southwest Side has changed a lot since that night four years ago when fate brought him and his son there moments before a Chicago police officer fatally shot Laquan McDonald. But the violent images and explosive sounds of gunfire remain seared in their minds.
Torres and son Xavier said the police dashboard camera video of the shooting that so roiled the city doesn’t compare with what they witnessed.
In the wake of Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder conviction, the father and son returned to the scene of the shooting to talk about their decision to fight the false narrative weaved by police in the days following.
Despite witnessing the shooting of 17-year-old McDonald in October 2014, the two had been shooed away from the scene by a police officer who they said didn’t bother to ask them what they saw.
Both took the witness stand last month at Van Dyke’s trial, playing subtle but significant roles as the only civilian eyewitnesses to testify about the shooting. Indeed, prosecutors picked the elder Torres to be their final witness, said special prosecutor Joseph McMahon, because “I wanted the jury to hear from a real person.”
Van Dyke’s conviction Friday on second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet that riddled McDonald’s body — was the first for a Chicago police officer in half a century for an on-duty fatality. The case was fraught with racial tension and social importance because it involved a white officer and black teen.
The jury was never told about Jose Torres’ refusal to stay silent about what happened that night after seeing television reports the next morning with a spokesman for the police union saying McDonald had lunged at officers with a knife.
“I told my wife, ‘They’re lying,’” Torres said. “‘That didn’t happen.’”
Days later, the elder Torres contacted the city agency that then investigated police shootings. He and his son later spoke to the FBI and the city inspector general’s office and testified before two separate grand juries, one investigating Van Dyke and the other the alleged police coverup that led to conspiracy charges against three additional officers.
Torres said some family members and friends warned him against getting involved, but he felt that justice was being subverted.
“It took me a few days to work up the strength, the nerve to call somebody and report it,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. It was eating away at me and my conscience. It was killing me, and I thought if I stay quiet, then I’m part of the coverup and I couldn’t live with myself.”
Torres, 46, said he was taking his son to a hospital for lingering flu-like symptoms just before 10 p.m. when he twice pulled over to let police cars — their lights flashing and sirens blaring — pass. He pulled over a third time when he came upon the police activity. That’s when the two said they saw McDonald for the first time, running from the area of a Burger King.
Torres said he backed up his car, fearing he was too close, just as Van Dyke’s partner drove their police SUV south in the northbound lane to head off McDonald.
Jose and Xavier Torres testified that seated in their car, they had an unobstructed view of McDonald as the teen came up the street. They said McDonald was walking away from police.
In the seconds before the shooting, McDonald had his hands to his sides, both said. The officers shouted at McDonald, who turned his head in their direction before gunfire erupted. As McDonald fell to the street, the two said, they heard more gunshots.
“As soon as I heard the gunshots, he fell,” Jose Torres said. “And then there was a pause, and as soon as he just made a move, all of a sudden it seemed like it was never going to end. It was like pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop as he was on the ground, and they just kept shooting and shooting and shooting.”
Both said they heard so many gunshots that they mistakenly believed more than one officer had fired.
Xavier Torres, 26, said he saw McDonald move while on the pavement like “he was in pain.” Neither thought he was trying to get up as Van Dyke testified — in contrast to what the dash-cam video showed.
Within minutes, a police officer motioned with his flashlight for the Torreses to leave, they said.
As the father and son continued to the hospital, each said, they tried to give the benefit of the doubt to the police for what they had just seen. Neither noticed the knife in McDonald’s hand. They assumed police shot him because he had a gun and “did something really bad,” the younger Torres said.
Jose Torres said he grew angry the next morning after learning on TV that police alleged McDonald lunged at officers with a knife. He and his son talked about what to do next.
Xavier Torres, whose daughter was young, said he worried about her well-being if he and his father went public with what they saw.
“I always stand behind my dad. I always believe in his decisions,” he said. “He was clear that what happened was wrong and that we had to do our part in coming forward.”
The elder Torres said he walked away from his initial interview with the Independent Police Review Authority, the city agency that then investigated officer-involved shootings, concerned that authorities were more interested in protecting Van Dyke than uncovering the truth.
No one contacted him for months, Torres said, and he assumed the entire incident would be “swept under the rug.”
The next time anyone inquired about the shooting was when a freelance journalist named Jamie Kalven knocked on his door. Kalven, whose coverage of the case helped bring it out of obscurity, was the first to report about the existence of the dash-cam video.
Months later, the father and son found themselves meeting with the FBI and testifying before a secret grand jury.
The explosive dash-cam video was released in November 2015 — the same day Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.
Jose Torres said that as the jury’s verdict was announced, he watched live on television like so many others around the Chicago area. He said he grew emotional listening as a court clerk read the guilty verdicts.
Torres said he feels badly for the officer’s family. Van Dyke has a wife, two young daughters and elderly parents who are steadfast in their belief that he did his best in a difficult, dangerous job and note that he had never before fired his gun on duty.
Still, Torres said he believes strongly that the jury’s verdict was just.
“He needs to serve time for what he did, but I don’t think the rest of his life,” he said. “After the first shots, he should have just ended it. That’s where I don’t feel sorry for him because he chose to continue to shoot.”
Van Dyke, 40, who was taken into custody at Cook County Jail after his conviction, faces a minimum of six years in prison at sentencing.
Torres said he still frequently thinks of the shooting and becomes upset when people try to blame McDonald for what happened to him.
“No one deserves that,” he said. “I don’t care if he was innocent or not. Nobody deserves to be shot like that — 16 times on the street. ... I don’t care what anyone says. That shooting wasn’t justified.”
Gutowski writes for the Chicago Tribune. Tribune staff writers Stacy St. Clair and Megan Crepeau contributed to this report.
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