(Update: Officer Yant cleared by inquest as predicted. Family may bring RICO lawsuit.)
On the night of June 11, 21-year-old Trevon Cole and his nine months pregnant fiancé, Sequoia Pearce, were sitting at home in their Las Vegas apartment, settling in for a quiet Friday evening in front of the TV. But Cole didn't live to see the next day. Instead, he was the target of a drug raid and was shot and killed by a Las Vegas narcotics detective as he knelt on his bathroom floor, hands in the air. (Read our earlier coverage here.)
Trevon Cole, killed in his bathroom by a police officer, had just 1.8 ounces of marijuana
Since then, questions and outrage have mounted as the circumstances surrounding Cole's death have emerged. A coroner's inquest, which is done with all fatal shootings by Las Vegas police, is set for Friday. Given the history of such inquests -- only one police killing out of 200 in the past 35 years was found unjustifiable -- justice is unlikely to be done there.
The affidavit in support of the search warrant targeting Cole gave the impression that police thought they had a major drug dealer on their hands. Detective Brian Yant, the officer who wrote the warrant and who pulled the trigger on Cole, wrote that "almost all" drug dealers keep "sophisticated and elaborate" records and that police expected to find such records, as well as guns and drug paraphernalia. Cole had a "lengthy criminal history of narcotics sales, trafficking and possession charges," Yant wrote.
Police found no guns. They found no evidence of a "major drug dealer." They did find a small, unspecified amount of pot (Pearce contends they found no drugs and were angry they could not), a digital scale, a cell phone, and $702 in cash (of which $350 was found to have come from jewelry Pearce pawned days earlier to pay rent). Oh, and a spent .223 caliber rifle cartridge in the bathroom.
The search warrant affidavit also misidentified Cole
, confusing him with another Trevon Cole from Houston, Texas. The other Trevon Cole had a different middle name, was seven years, older, is three inches shorter and a hundred pounds lighter. His "lengthy criminal history"? Three misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests. The only criminal record the now dead Trevon Cole had was for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle as a teenager.
"Don't they ever run the dates of birth down there?" asked an incredulous David Doddridge
, a retired 21-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department who now runs a private detective agency and is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition
"The standard ID is name and date of birth," said Peter Moskos
, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "They had a different initial for the middle name. It should have been obvious that this was not the same guy."
Part of the problem is pressure to perform, said Moskos. "These guys are judged by how many warrants they can get," he said. "But it's better to conduct one good warrant than five bad ones."
"Each squad is trying to serve the most warrants, get the most dope, so you have a tendency to exaggerate and embellish, and sometimes even fabricate on the warrants," said Doddridge. "They invent handguns inside the house so they can get a dynamic entry warrant, and then they go in, kicking down doors, rushing in with guns drawn, forcing everybody down on the floor. It's very scary, everyone is going in with guns drawn, they're sometimes shouting over each other, it's a very tense and dynamic situation and just a tremendous opportunity for somebody to get shot," he said.
"It's really crazy, a waste of time and money, but they have to justify their existence," said Doddridge. If they're not serving warrants, they'll get sent back to patrol. You have to produce."
According to the search warrant, police had made three undercover pot buys from the Trevon Cole they ended up shooting. The total haul was 1.8 ounces of marijuana and, also according to the warrant, when police wanted to make a big score -- $400 worth -- with Cole, the alleged major drug dealer, they had to reschedule because Cole didn't have that much on hand.
Not incidentally, under Nevada law, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is decriminalized. Yant and his dope squad buddies were going after Cole for allegedly selling them amounts of marijuana it wasn't even a crime to possess.
"Like other tragic incidents, this brings into question the need to use such force in raids on people who at best are being charged with a non-violent crime," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project
. "Especially in this case, where officers are coming into a house with guns drawn. We saw a man get killed and it turns out it wasn't even the man they were after."
Trevon Cole and his fiancé, Sequoia Pearce
"This is just another tragic incident in the failed war on marijuana," said Dave Schwartz of Sensible Nevada
, which seeks marijuana law reform there. "People are being killed even for small amounts, and it just makes no sense. This is yet another death caused by prohibition, not by marijuana."
It is also another death caused by Detective Yant. The killing of Cole marked the third time
Yant has controversially used his police firearm. In 2002, he shot and killed a robbery suspect, claiming the suspect, who was on the ground, aimed a weapon at him. But although the suspect's gun was found 35 feet away, coroner's inquest took only half an hour to find the shooting justified.
The following year, Yant shot and wounded a man with a baseball bat, saying he mistook the bat for a shotgun and that the man had attacked him. But the man said he never threatened Yant and dropped the bat before Yant fired. Since he wasn't killed, there was no coroner's inquest, but Yant was exonerated in a departmental investigation.
"Any time an officer is involved in three shootings, they may be justified, but it's a classic red flag example of when the department should wonder about the officer," said Moskos. "There are shoot/don't shoot scenarios where furtive movement may provide some justification for shooting, but this guy Cole didn't have a weapon. In hindsight, it's obvious he was no threat," he said.
"This guy Yant did a lot of bad things in this raid," said Moskos. "He got the wrong person, he shot an unarmed guy. The department certainly has to look at this officer."
Yant is on paid administrative leave pending the coroner's inquest and the results of a departmental investigation.
It could be that Yant is a case of the wrong guy in the wrong job for the wrong reasons. "Some guys like being street cops, some are more analytical and want to be detectives," said Doddridge. "Then you have the gung-ho types, maybe ex-military or wannabe military with their shaved heads. They want to get in on the action, they're the kind of people who gravitate to SWAT or narcotics. In these units, they are disproportionately gung-ho types. It's trouble on top of trouble," he said.
It wasn't always like that, Doddridge recalled. "Back in the day, if we had a drug warrant, we would just drive up in a black and white with our .38s, but now, somebody sells 1.8 ounces of marijuana, you call in the big boys. They have all this federal money, those Byrne grant funds, and they have to justify that. When you have a military mentality, you have to have an enemy, and that makes the war on drugs a war against the people."
"This looks like another fucked up raid and unnecessary death in the drug war," summed up Moskos. "Even in the best case scenario for police, doing undercover buys and raids for small amounts of marijuana seems like a waste of resources. Why do that?"
"The important thing to remember is that hundreds of raids like these occur across the country every year because we are militarizing our police forces and issuing orders to take down houses of people accused of nonviolent offenses," said Meno. "Trevon Cole's case is a perfect example of what can go wrong. He was sitting at home with his fiancé, there was nothing violent going on, and bang! -- he's dead. This was on a Friday night in Las Vegas," noted Meno. "You'd think there would be something more important officers could be doing on a Friday night."
And now for the coroner's inquest. It is performed by the Clark County District Attorney's office and overseen by a court hearing master with a jury of citizens hearing the facts. The goal is to simply find if the death was justified, excusable or criminal in nature.
But no one represents the dead person. The family of the deceased or their attorneys are not allowed to speak present evidence. They are not allowed to call witnesses who might contradict the police or prosecutors' version of events. They can submit written questions, but it is up to the judge to decide whether to ask them. [Editor's Note: The Chronicle has an appointment to interview Cole family attorney Andre Lagomarsino on Thursday and will be posting updated material then.]
The ACLU of Nevada has called the system a "story-telling exercise
, an opportunity for the police, with the assistance of the DA, to tell their side of the story" and likened it to "the sound of one hand clapping." As noted above, in 34 years of inquests and 200 hearings, only one officer has been found criminally negligent.
Justice for Trevon Cole? Don't hold your breath. But the city of Las Vegas will most likely have to pay big time down the road once the inquest is done, and Cole's family then proceeds with its wrongful death lawsuit.