When the rest of the world watches recently released videos of her son Fong Lee being chased by police, there is growing doubt whether a gun is in the teen’s hand as initially claimed by the police. Many question if Fong deserved to be shot eight times to his death by the police officer whose story continues to be filled with perplexing holes. These videos are at the middle of rumblings in the local media and among community groups charging the possibility of a police conspiracy involving a ‘drop’ gun, cover-ups and corruption.
However, when Youa Vang Lee watches these videos, she is filled with strong maternal sentiments. Her heart aches when she sees the last few seconds of her son’s precious life flashing before her eyes. She is filled with emptiness when she sees the fuzzy last images of the boy who will never get to care for the nieces and nephews that he loved and adored. And tears continue to swell in her eyes when she is reminded of that last day when she saw her baby boy riding off on his bicycle to play with his friends on that warm summer day, never to return.
Even though three years have passed since Fong was killed by Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen, the pain has not subsided for Youa Vang Lee. Her pain and anguish has been compounded by the mounds of evidence recently released to the public which seemingly substantiates Fong’s innocence on the evening of his death.
She saw her baby boy riding off on his bicycle to play with his friends on that warm summer day, never to return.
She, along with all who loved Fong, have maintained his innocence from the beginning of this ordeal and are now finding some solace from the community spirit that has embraced their belief that justice has not been served in the case of Fong Lee’s murder.
Until justice is served, this loving, devoted mother does not stop crying.
The recent media interest in the Lee family’s lawsuit against Officer Andersen and the city of Minneapolis has brought to the surface a list of compelling questions as to what actually happened on this fateful July day.
“It isn’t so much what the family is trying to claim in this case,” states Mike Padden, an attorney working with the Lee family. “We just follow where the evidence leads us and what we’ve uncovered is quite alarming. The facts in this case speak for themselves.”
In terms of the weather, nobody disputes that July 22, 2006 was a fairly warm, dry summer day. It was the perfect weather to go on a bike ride with friends.
Beyond the weather, however, there seems to be little else to agree on.
We just follow where the evidence leads us and what we’ve uncovered is quite alarming.
Statements given by Minneapolis Police Officer Jason Andersen and Minnesota State Trooper Craig Benz, partners for the first time that evening through a collaboration between Minneapolis Police and the Minnesota State Patrol, place the two law enforcement officers inside Officer Andersen’s marked squad car as the two approached a group of Asian males casually riding their bikes towards the Cityview Elementary School in North Minneapolis.
Both officers stated there was nothing about the group that was cause for alarm. Yet, in a sworn deposition filed with the courts, Officer Andersen specifically told his partner, “We’re just going to drive behind these guys and see what happens.”
Trooper Benz’s statements corroborate the notion that the boys on their bikes were doing nothing wrong. In his deposition, he even indicated that he “did not even see any of the young men spit.”
Suddenly, as the patrol car approaches the group, the officers say they saw two of the bicyclers separate from the group as they exchanged something suspicious while still on their bikes.
“I immediately advised Trooper Benz, who was in the passenger seat, that the individual had a gun,” Officer Andersen stated to investigators. “The male on the right split off, and as I continued to follow the male with the gun, I activated my red lights and siren.”
Officer Andersen continues that the bicycler who had the gun “dumped his bike and fled northbound on foot towards Cityview Elementary School with the gun in his hand.”
Trooper Benz also recalls that the boy who was wearing a “red baseball cap and baggy shorts” dumped his bike and fled on foot.
All eyewitness of this event, however, tell a different story on how the squad car approached the group.
Independent eye witnesses interviewed at different times all say that the squad car sped up behind the bicyclers and eventually bumped into the bicycler later identified as Fong Lee, knocking him down to the ground.
In 2006, this reporter interviewed at least three different eye witnesses including 17-year-old Pang Vang who observed the incident from her backyard.
“It was like they were trying to kill him while he was on his bike,” Vang proclaimed at the time.
All eyewitness … tell a different story on how the squad car approached the group.
Attorneys for the Lee family subsequently interviewed four independent eyewitnesses, two of whom were part of the bicycle group, who all saw the squad car speed up to hit Fong Lee’s bike.
“It’s no wonder, therefore, that this kid would be startled enough to run from the cops after getting knocked off his bike,” explains attorney Mike Padden. “It’s hard to say what anybody else would do in this situation.”
Up to this point, there are three main concerns brought up by the family and their attorneys as indicated in their court filings:
First and foremost, attorneys point out that in regards to the Constitutional Rights of the bicyclers, “Neither Defendant Andersen nor Craig Benz could articulate any objective suspicion (reason) for catching up to and driving behind the Hmong men.”
Secondly, both officers claimed that they turned on the squad’s lights and sirens before they sped up and approached Fong Lee. The onboard video recording device that is designed to automatically turn on when the siren has been engaged should have caught some video of this. Yet, according to documents filed by investigators, it wasn’t until ten days later on August 1st when police finally recovered the video from Officer Andersen’s squad. Furthermore, the tape that police eventually handed over to attorneys shows that the squad was parked by the Cityview Elementary School with no movement or audio showing either of the officers getting in or out of the vehicle.
“The tape produced by the City does show Officer Andersen’s previous hours and days worth of traffic stops and, for some reason, squad motion is captured, along with the officer’s voice and presence. Yet, mysteriously, there is void of any of that information depicted on the video” that should have been turned on right when the squad’s sirens were engaged in the seconds before approaching Fong Lee.
Police released a statement indicating that there is a three second delay between sirens being turned on and the video camera being activated. However, time stamps located on the patrol car video and video captured by the school’s video system show that much more than three seconds elapse between the siren supposedly being engaged and when the eventual foot chase begins.
The third and most “disturbing” police action that the attorneys bring up to this point is, “The fact that after this tragic event, not one of Fong Lee’s friends or any of the eye-witness neighbors were formally interviewed by the City of Minneapolis when they quickly concluded their investigation.”
This shoddy police work continues throughout this investigation, attorneys point out, from the internal affairs investigation to the grand jury that relieves Officer Andersen of any wrongdoing just days after this tragic event. Even the city’s Human Rights Office which was supposed to conduct an independent investigation into whether Fong Lee’s civil rights had been violated lacks any substantive interviews.
” … not one of Fong Lee’s friends or any of the eye-witness neighbors were formally interviewed by the City of Minneapolis”
“The police formally interviewed one witness from the neighborhood. ONE. Just one.” Raising his voice and shrugging his shoulders, attorney Mike Padden proclaims, “This is just incompetent police work bordering on negligence and malice.”
THE GUN WAS IN WHAT HAND?
According to the time stamps located in videos taken from two different school cameras, the foot chase takes less than one minute. During this minute, both officers claim to see Fong in possession of a gun. Officer Andersen is adamant in all his statements that the gun is in Fong’s right hand and that Fong had “started to raise the handgun swinging in my direction” on three different occasions, including one time after Fong had already been shot and had fallen to the ground.
After the first time that Fong “raised” the gun towards Officer Andersen’s direction, the officer fired one shot from his department issued .45 caliber H&K handgun which apparently missed its target.
“As I was advancing on the suspect yelling for him to drop the gun, he swung once again raising the gun in his right hand, again indicating he was going to shoot,” Officer Andersen deposed to the investigating officer. “Being in fear for my life and leaving me with no other option, I fired my handgun in self defense knocking the suspect to the ground.”
He indicated then that even while Fong was on the ground, he was able to maintain possession of his handgun and attempted to “raise the handgun from the lower portion of his body in my direction” at which time Officer Andersen then continued to shoot “until the threat was stopped.”
Throughout the chase, Trooper Benz trails behind Officer Andersen by an estimated 30 yards but is able to hear Officer Andersen “yelling” at Fong Lee. By the time he catches up to Officer Andersen, the first two shots have already occurred and Fong Lee has already hit the ground. Trooper Benz indicates in his police interview that he does witness Officer Andersen shoot the remaining rounds at the fallen boy at which point he says he turned around to cover for them in the event another suspect could ambush them.
By the time backup police arrive, Fong Lee is dead. According to all subsequent police reports, Fong is found lying on his back with a black handgun approximately three feet away from his left hand.
“The fact that the gun is found three feet away from his left hand is significant,” Attorney Mike Padden proclaims. “Because we question how the gun is able to fly three feet away from the left side of his body when he was supposed to be holding the gun with his right hand, as Officer Andersen has claimed throughout this ordeal. That’s very suspicious.”
Even if the laws of physics were somehow circumvented as the juxtaposition of the body and gun would indicate in this case, the attorneys go on to point out two major flaws in the police version of what occurred before and after Fong Lee’s massacre.
Immediately after police investigators arrived on the scene, they were able to access and confiscate the security video hard drives containing the recorded activity shot around the perimeter of the school. To this day, the police have kept the originals in their possession and have only released a few edited versions of what they deem to be relevant to the case, despite multiple requests to obtain the original, full length tapes.
The first time the video was shown to the public was two days after the shooting when Chief Tim Dolan (he was interim chief at that time) showed parts of the video to a closed door audience which included Fong Lee’s family members and their representatives. He however denied their attorneys access to the meeting, which is perplexing because immediately after meeting with the family, Chief Dolan is reported to have met openly with members of the media.
Chief Dolan insisted at that time that the video showed Fong Lee carrying a gun. At this meeting, he also carried a plastic bag containing the actual gun found at the scene and waved it in the air to show that this was the gun Fong Lee was carrying at the time he was shot.
“When he showed us the video, I couldn’t see a gun no matter what the Chief was trying to tell us,” said Shoua Lee who is Fong Lee’s older sister and family spokesperson. “That’s when our family decided to sue the city.”
The family’s attorneys have since been able to acquire the services of Richard Diercks, owner of Forensic Video Inc., whose expertise is in examining video evidence. Diercks wrote a two page report on what he examined from the video of the shooting and declared that none of the images shows anything in Fong’s right hand.
The report, which is part of the court papers filed in the suit, maintains that, “His knuckles are visible and form a straight, smooth line in such a manner as to preclude his gripping or holding an object the size of a firearm…”
Although Chief Dolan has refused to make any rescinding remarks on his original claims, Minneapolis Police spokesman Sgt. Jesse Garcia has publicly announced that he cannot tell by looking at the video that Fong Lee was carrying a gun.
In the Pioneer Press, Sgt. Garcia stated that although the video might not show the gun,
“The video doesn’t perceive that danger or life is threatened as the eyes of Jason Andersen would. That is video that we’re not able to pull out, other than his sworn statement.”
On another occasion, while calling in to a talk radio show on KTLK-FM, Sgt. Garcia said that those four seconds of video, though not showing a gun in Fong Lee’s hands, “Only represent four seconds of a 33-second foot chase. Jason Anderson didn’t need to see the gun during these four seconds to perceive danger during the chase.”
When the host challenges Sgt. Garcia to explain how Officer Andersen could have claimed to have seen Fong Lee carrying the gun when videos show it clearly was not in his hands, Sgt. Garcia stumbles for words, only to say that the case will be brought to litigation where Officer Andersen will be able to explain it.
THE GUN THAT MAGICALLY REPELS FINGERPRINTS, DNA AND BLOOD
Even if the City were to win its argument about the video not carrying enough evidence to disprove Officer Andersen’s contention that Fong Lee had a gun, perhaps the most damning evidence against Officer Andersen’s statements can be found on the gun itself. Or more appropriately stated, what cannot be found on the gun.
Immediately after crime scene investigators secured the gun that was reported to have been carried by Fong Lee, a black Russian made Baikal .380 with the serial number #BHE2281, the City’s own crime lab ran a fingerprint and DNA test on the gun.
The report came back to say that no fingerprints, DNA or fiber traces were found on the gun linking it to Fong Lee.
In an interview given exclusively to KSTP-TV on April 16, 2009, Chief Dolan defended the crime lab findings by saying that, “It’s rare that we would find a fingerprint on a gun…” in regards to why no DNA evidence was found on the gun, Chief Dolan indicated that testing at that time only allowed police to test for a fingerprint or the presence of DNA. Once the gun in the Lee case was tested for a fingerprint, Dolan said, “The gun was spoiled and could no longer reliably be tested for DNA because of the chemicals used in fingerprint testing.”
Although Chief Dolan did not address the video evidence showing Fong Lee without a gun, he did say on camera that he would be upset if this case didn’t go to trial.
“When you look at the facts involved in this case,” Chief Dolan adamantly points out. “it’s pretty clear cut.”
Attorneys for the Lee family issued a response saying that they would call on the Chief to testify if this case does go to trial.
Lee family attorney Richard Hechter told community members that this case is significant because in the “History of the United States, this will be the first time ever that CSI (crime scene investigations) will prove that a gun was ‘dropped’ by the police.”
(A ‘drop’ gun is in essence a gun that is placed in a crime scene to produce artificial evidence in support of police actions.)
“Fong Lee was shot eight times. He was shot in the heart. There was blood everywhere,” emphasized Attorney Hechter. “There was so much blood that the city had to call the fire department to wash away the blood. My question, therefore, is why didn’t the gun have any blood splatter?”
OFFICER JASON ANDERSEN: HERO OR COLD BLOODED MURDERER?
At the time Officer Andersen shot and killed Fong Lee, he had been on the Minneapolis Police Force for just under a year. He was no rookie cop, however. According to police records, Andersen had been employed as a law enforcement officer with other departments since 1997.
Within weeks of arriving in Minneapolis, while still in the Academy, Andersen was disciplined for using a “derogatory racial term” while at an off-duty gathering of other Department employees. While there was some recommendation to fire Andersen, his supervisors stepped in to save his job. His only punishment was to write an essay about racial sensitivity, according to records confirmed by reliable sources.
Andersen’s luck as a police officer seemingly continues after he kills Fong Lee despite the controversy in this case. Rather than finding himself in hot water for all the inconsistencies found in this case, an internal affairs investigation and a Hennepin County grand jury found that Officer Andersen was justified in using deadly force on Fong Lee.
So sure of Andersen’s innocence, Chief Dolan reinstated Andersen back on the force one day earlier than the customary 3-day paid suspension that is enforced upon officers after using their firearms on duty.
What is most perplexing from a community point of view is that despite all the questions lingering in the Fong Lee killing, including a law suit hovering over the city, Officer Andersen was awarded a Medal of Valor for his “obvious self-sacrifice in the face of death or great bodily harm” in the Fong Lee killing incident.
In a handwritten note dated on June 16, 2008, Chief Dolan remarks, “Nice work Jason, Congrats!”
Attorney Mike Padden states in the Pioneer Press, “Here’s a guy who killed an unarmed citizen and he gets an award. Chief Dolan has taken audacity to O.J. Simpson levels.”
THE COMMUNITY RESPONDS
One of the positive notes arising from the killing of Fong Lee is how different groups from the community have been able to connect and unite as a result of the community concern over police actions.
At the initial community rally that was held at the Cityview Elementary School days after Fong Lee’s killing, members from the African-American, American-Indian and Hmong-American communities gathered together to denounce police actions in this case.
Since the new allegations have surfaced, these same groups have united to voice their concerns once again.
Dianne Binns of the St. Paul NAACP released to the press that her organization is monitoring the case very closely. “This is one of the most egregious cover-ups we’ve seen in a long time regarding the police,” she said. “There needs to be some kind of accountability for this kind of cover-up.”
Additionally, former members of the now disbanded Police Community Relations Council (PCRC) have indicated that they will petition the U.S. Justice Department to independently investigate the possibility of a police ‘cover-up’ in the case of Fong Lee’s death.
Clyde Bellecourt, former co-chair of the PCRC, stated to the media that the police will, “do everything they can possibly do to still try to find a way to cover that up, and this is why we’re asking the U.S. Justice Department to step in.”
Community members plan to hold a rally in support of justice for Fong Lee
on May 11 at the doorsteps of the Federal Courthouse in St. Paul, which is where the settlement hearing between the City of Minneapolis and the Lee Family is scheduled to take place.
“We are asking that Mayor RT Rybak’s office to join us in asking for the resignation of both Chief Dolan and Officer Andersen. We feel that their actions in this case have proven to us that we cannot trust them as public servants any longer,” said Dai Thao, spokesman for Take Action Minnesota, a progressive based political organization that will help to organize the May 11 rally. “Furthermore, we will also ask that the Mayor assist us in acquiring an independent investigator to review this case.”
Despite Chief Dolan’s many references to an article that ran in Hmong Today, our request for an interview in regards to the Fong Lee case has been denied, “At the request of the City Attorney.”
|Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.|