An Omaha man pleaded no contest Thursday to four felony counts that could send him to prison for the rest of his life for a Sept. 11, 2018, shooting that wounded Omaha Police Officer Ken Fortune.
But in a rare twist, gunman John Ezell Jr.’s attorney went on to contest what seemed apparent on the body cameras of the gang unit officers Ezell opened fire upon: that Ezell knew that he was shooting at Omaha police officers that afternoon.
Attorney Peder Bartling said body cameras showed that the officers — wearing plain clothes, a handgun in a holster and bulletproof vests that typically say “police” and/or “gang unit” — didn’t call out “police” when they approached the vehicle carrying Ezell in the passenger seat. Bartling contended that the only way to know that they were officers was by the 2-by-4-inch patch that said “police” on the front of their bulletproof vests.
The bodycams of Fortune and fellow Officers Christopher Brown and Jeffrey Wasmund revealed that Fortune first approached the car at 26th Street and Laurel Avenue, just south of Miller Park, to try to put down tire-deflation devices known as stop sticks. The sticks didn’t pierce a tire, and the car drove west at a low speed.
That caused one of the officers to mutter to another.
“They didn’t see us,” he said, according to Bartling’s summary of bodycam footage. His fellow officer responded, “I don’t think they knew we were cops.”
Authorities took issue with the portrayal that Ezell, a gang member who served a federal prison stint on a weapons count and two prison stints on convictions of possessing cocaine and a deadly weapon, had no idea that plain-clothes officers were approaching the car. For one, prosecutors noted, it was daylight.
For another, Omaha police have said that officers activated the red and blue light bar attached to the unmarked car the gang unit was in. And while Bartling said one bystander had no idea that they were police, a law enforcement official said two lay witnesses knew right away.
Those witnesses referred to the gang unit officers as “jumpout boys” because they’re known to jump out of unmarked vehicles to try to nab suspects. “They’re so obviously cops,” the law enforcement official said.
That wasn’t obvious to Ezell, according to Bartling.
Bartling said investigative reports and interviews with witnesses showed that the original gang suppression probe was focused on the driver of the vehicle, Brandon Richey, not Ezell.
Richey, convicted in 2013 for felony criminal impersonation, was under surveillance after police received a report that he had a firearm. It is illegal for convicted felons to possess firearms.
According to Bartling: Gang unit officers had spent about a week surveilling Richey and had grown weary of it. On Sept. 11, they saw Richey in his car in the area of Miller Park, which is known in gang circles as “Killer Park.” Laurel Avenue is just two blocks south of the park.
“They did not have John Ezell on their radar,” Bartling said.
Richey — who eventually received 120 days in jail for misdemeanor operating a vehicle to avoid arrest — was parked in front of a fire hydrant in a car with dark-tinted windows. Fortune, Brown and Wasmund decided to approach the vehicle.
“Officers did not say anything to anyone in the vehicle,” Bartling said. “They specifically did not announce that they were police officers or otherwise identify themselves as police officers. Furthermore, officers did not issue any commands.”
Officers did not see Ezell with a firearm at that time. The vehicle drove away at a normal speed.
The officers followed it. This time, when Richey’s car stopped at a stop sign at 30th Street, Fortune succeeded in placing the stop stick in front of a tire.
Richey took a right onto 30th Street but stopped shortly after the turn. Bartling said Fortune did not call out “police” but approached the passenger side and blocked the door, his gun drawn.
That’s when Ezell called out “What’s going on?” through the window, pointed a revolver at Fortune and fired. One bullet went through the microphone mounted on Fortune’s shirt and struck his shoulder.
Ezell also fired at Wasmund, missing him. Ezell ran east, along a building. Brown fired five shots, and Wasmund fired two — hitting Ezell several times. Ezell collapsed and was arrested, his revolver ending up a few yards away.
As opposed to Ezell mistaking police for gunmen, prosecutors Amy Jacobsen and Jameson Cantwell have suggested that he fired because he didn’t want to go back to prison. Being a felon with a firearm carries a mandatory minimum of three years in prison.
That clearly was on Ezell’s mind Thursday. The only comment he made — other than his no-contest pleas — is that he didn’t understand why his gun charges had to be stacked on top of his sentences for attempted first-degree assault of Fortune and Wasmund. (Judge Kim Pankonin explained that state law requires gun terms to be served consecutively.)
“It should be all ran together, like everybody else,” Ezell said. “This is one day, one event.”
It was almost a dark day, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has said.
Schmaderer has noted that the shooting occurred on Sept. 11, a grim day for the U.S. and also for Omaha police. Omaha Police Officer Jason “Tye” Pratt was fatally shot on Sept. 11, 2003, less than a mile from where Ezell shot Fortune.
“We are fortunate,” Schmaderer said of Fortune’s survival. “It could have been much worse.”