Ambrozaitis verifies Scozzari shooting justified

Clare County Prosecutor Michelle Ambrozaitis announced earlier this week that she has reviewed and upheld the determination that two Clare Police officers were justified in the 2007 shooting that killed William C. Scozzari. Her opinion was released as part of the civil trial which is going on now in Bay City’s U.S. District Court.

Scozzari died after he was shot during an altercation with Clare Police on September 18, 2007 when they attempted to arrest him at the Lone Pine Motel in Clare. The officers said Scozzari threatened them with a hatchet and a knife, which prompted the shooting. Scozzari was hit by five bullets from McGraw’s gun and died at the scene.

The Clare officers were cleared of wrongdoing in Scozzari’s death by State Police investigating the shooting and by former Clare County Prosecutor Norm Gage, who ruled the shooting justified because the officers had tried and were unable to subdue Scozzari with pepper spray and a Taser.

In a lawsuit filed in March of 2008 on behalf of his brother William, Scozzari’s brother Steven charged Clare Police Chief Dwayne Miedzianowski and Clare Police Officer Jeremy McGraw with “excessive force, deliberate indifference to Scozzari’s medical issues immediately after the shooting, assault and battery, gross negligence, municipal liability, conspiracy to violate Scozzari’s civil rights and discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A February claim, unearthed by the Clare Sentinel, reported that two witnesses, who were never interviewed in the investigation, have said in sworn statements that William Scozzari was unarmed when he was shot and that the hatchet was “planted” near his body. Hazel Duke and Noelle Hite, now living in Oregon, were interviewed there by State Police Detectives.

Ambrozaitis reopened the investigation into the shooting because of the new witnesses.

Duke agreed to the Oregon interview conditional on her not being extradited back to Michigan, where there are three outstanding warrants against her all related to non-sufficient funds checks.

Another witness who was interviewed during the initial investigation said in a letter to the editor after the claim was made that William Scozzari was wielding the weapons when the shooting happened.

Following is the information released this week by Ambrozaitis.

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On September 18, 2007, Clare City Police Chief, Dwayne Miedzianowski, and Clare City Officer, Jeremy McGraw, were involved in the shooting of William Scozzari. At that time an investigation was conducted into this matter by the Michigan State Police, assisted by the Clare County Sheriff Department. The Prosecuting Attorney at that time was Norman Gage. He reviewed the police reports and other external documents and evidence collected during the investigation before rendering an opinion that determined the shooting and ultimate death of Mr. Scozzari was justifiable homicide.

Mr. Gage wrote a lengthy and detailed opinion which supported his determination that this was justifiable homicide. Mr. Gage had also requested that Jackson County Chief Assistant Prosecutor, Mark Blumer (formerly of the Attorney General’s Office), review the reports and evidence and provide an opinion as to whether this shooting was justified. Mr. Blumer concurred with Mr. Gage’s final determination.

The final few paragraphs in the summary of Mr. Gage’s opinion are as follows: “It is my conclusion, based upon a careful review of all of the materials contained in the report, that the fatal shooting of William C. Scozzari was a justifiable homicide. I find no evil or criminal intent on the part of either officer. The officers were acting in the performance of their duties, the investigation of possible shots fired. During the course of this investigation, contact was made with Mr. Scozzari and the situation escalated as the result of aggressive actions by the deceased. The officers attempted to resolve the situation short of using deadly force, but were unsuccessful in this endeavor. This can be seen first with the Chief requesting several times for the deceased to drop the stick and talk to him. Then when the deceased threatened the Chief with the stick, the Chief utilized pepper spray and finally a TASER was utilized. All of the remedial steps were unsuccessful and when it appeared that Officer McGraw was in immediate danger at the hands of the deceased, then deadly force was utilized.”

With the rendering of this opinion, no criminal charges were filed against Chief Miedzianowski or Officer Jeremy McGraw, and the criminal case was closed. On March 5, 2008, Mr. Gage sent a memorandum to Detective Carter at the Michigan State Police Post in Mt. Pleasant directing him to dispose of the physical evidence. He directed that Mr. Scozzari’s personal effects be photographed, catalogued, and returned to his family. He then indicated that the other evidence could be disposed of pursuant to departmental policy, but he cautioned that there may be potential civil litigation and that it would be wise to maintain those items in evidence pending resolution of those potential issues.

In January of this year, over four years after the shooting of Mr. Scozzari, two women came forward stating that they were witnesses to this event but were never interviewed by law enforcement. Their names are Noelle Hite and Hazel Duke and both are now residing in the State of Oregon. These two women contacted the editor/owner of The Clare Sentinel (no longer in business) and provided him with their version of what they witnessed on September 18, 2007.

The Clare Sentinel recounted their statements in an article that appeared in the January 17, 2012, edition of the paper. Both women signed Declarations that recounted their statements in simple terms outlined in numbered paragraphs. Those declarations were signed before a Notary Public in Douglas County, Oregon, on January 10, 2012, and ultimately provided to law enforcement.

On February 23, 2012, Michigan State Police Det. Carter and Lt. Henke made contact via telephone with the two women. Both women agreed to be interviewed by law enforcement if law enforcement traveled to Oregon to meet with them. Det. Carter did have to promise Hazel Duke that he would not have her arrested and extradited on the open warrants for her arrest out of Clare County at this time.

Hazel Duke has three separate open warrants for her arrest (meaning that she has failed to appear in Court to address these matters), they are as follows:

08-0471-FY she is charged with one count of Non-Sufficient Funds Checks -3 within 10 days as habitual 2nd offender for writing bad checks to Witbeck’s on 10/29/07, 10/30/07, and 11/3/07, for a total amount of $222.00. The felony that supports the habitual offender notification is a Burglary of Habitation conviction out of Austin, Texas, in May 2000;

08-0266-SM she is charged with one count of Non-Sufficient Funds Check $100.00 to $500.00 and one count of Non-Sufficient Funds Check less than $100.00 for writing bad checks to Gateway Lanes on 11/15/07 for a total amount of $289.75;

08-0368-SM she is charged with one count of Non-Sufficient Funds Check $100.00 to $500.00 for writing a bad check to Steve’s Country Market on 11/24/07 in the amount of $106.89.

Hazel Duke has additional criminal history as follows: Hinder Apprehension/Prosecution of Known Felon (Felony in the 3rd Degree) in May 2001 in Bastrop County, Texas; and, Theft of Property less than $1500.00 in December 2011, in Bastrop County, Texas.

Based upon the appearance and interviews of these two women, the Michigan State Police requested that this office review the newly provided information to determine if it would change the previous determination of justifiable homicide.

We were unable to locate any of the investigative materials that were provided to this office in 2007. On June 12, 2012, the Michigan State Police provided the following documents to this office for review and my decision is based upon this information:

Mr. Gage’s opinion

  1.  Memorandum from Mr. Gage releasing evidence
  2.  Original Police Report
  3.  Supplemental Reports 1-17
  4.  Lab Report
  5.  Diagram
  6.  Clare County Sheriff Department Report
  7.  Scene Log
  8.  Clare Police Department Report
  9.  CAD Report
  10.  Autopsy Report
  11.  Lab Reports, Records 2, 3, 6, and 7
  12.  Forensic Science Report
  13.  Evidence Return Receipt
  14.  Taser Report
  15.  Letter from Steve Scozzari
  16.  Declaration of Hazel Duke
  17.  Declaration of Noelle Hite
  18.  Deposition of Jeff Morgan, Sr.
  19.  Search Warrant for room #17, deceased’s room

Hazel Duke provided the following information in her statement to the police, as reported in supplemental report #16:

In the evening on the day of the shooting she had gone to her car to retrieve items for her dog. She stated that her and Noelle Hite had been watching “Law and Order” on the television. While at her car she heard “get down, drop your weapon.” This prompted her to get down because she didn’t know if the person who made the statement was speaking to her. She then noticed a police car parked in front of a cabin. She states that the deceased was standing in front of cabin about 6 feet from the officer who was standing in front of his car.

 

She states that she heard a “zzzt” sound. She believed that sound to be the sound that a taser would make. She indicated that the deceased looked like he was having a seizure. She stated that the deceased backed up, stumbled, and turned sideways, but did not fall down. She then went back toward her car and then heard gunshots. She then went back up to her room, met with Noelle, and went into the room because she didn’t want any part of it. She states that Noelle went to the end of the balcony to see what was going on.

She then clarifies for Det. Carter that she heard the tasing, but she didn’t actually see it because of where the officer was located.

She asserted that law enforcement checked the cabins and everyone who was staying there, but that they did not come up to where she was staying to speak with those individuals.

When asked to repeat her statement, she said that she heard “drop your weapons” about four times. When she heard that she was on the opposite end of the building in the parking lot. She stated that she saw that the deceased had his arms and hands in front of him in a certain way and that he didn’t have a weapon in either of his hands. She then admits to Det. Carter that she has issues with her vision and she uses the different tones of voices to identify who is speaking. She estimates that she was at least 60 to 75 feet away from where the incident occurred.

She then stated that she did have interaction with a trooper. She stated that he came around and asked if anyone had seen what had happened. She was clear that law enforcement were trying to locate witnesses.

She then stated that she didn’t come forward at that time because she had heard “from people in Clare that the officer is trigger happy and likes to shoot first and ask questions later.” She is unable to identify the officer that she saw interacting with the deceased or equate that particular officer with the one she had heard was “trigger happy.” She also was unable to clarify if she heard that information prior to law enforcement trying to locate witnesses or after that occurred.

She did state that she viewed video taken by another guest/resident who was out on the balcony watching the events. She asserted that in the video she saw the officer go into the deceased’s room and come out and put a hatchet in his hand. She was very clear that she watched this video while Noelle Hite was present with her and the video depicted everything that Noelle stated that she had witnessed.

She mentioned that there was a group of Hispanics staying at the end hotel room and that they peeked out of their room but closed their door and did not come out at all.

Noelle Hite provided the following information in her statement to police, as reported in supplemental report #16:

She was watching “Law and Order” in her room when she heard someone say “drop your weapons” and then heard gunshots, about 9 or 10 shots. She didn’t see anyone shooting. She went out of the room as Hazel was coming into the room. She went to the balcony and she saw the deceased laying on the ground. She stated that she then saw the officer go in to the cabin and come out with a hatchet in his hand and placed it by the deceased. She stated that she yelled down to the officer that she saw what he did and he just looked at her, shook his head, and walked away. She did state that she didn’t recall if the officer had anything in his hands when he went into the deceased’s cabin.

She stated that there were quite a few people with her on the balcony and that there was a young couple taking pictures, but she didn’t know who they were.

She stated that neither she nor Hazel spoke to any officers, but that the officers were down below looking at the cabins. Then she stated that one officer did make contact with her and Hazel while they were on the balcony and he was asking who was living in the cabins. She didn’t engage the officer further.

Later in her statement she stated that when she heard the shots she ran out of the door and went to the end of the balcony and that is when she ran into Hazel, who asked her what was going on.

Later she changed her statement and said that she didn’t leave her room right after she heard the shots, she wanted to make sure Hazel was okay. She met Hazel outside the door and they both went back into the room before she went down to the end of the balcony.

She then stated that one of the neighbors had binoculars and one neighbor was snapping pictures with a phone. She didn’t see the pictures, nor did she discuss the photos that individual was taking with anyone. When she was asked if Hazel had viewed any of the photos or video she stated that Hazel had not seen those items. She stated that Hazel couldn’t have seen them because the couple taking them was only out on the balcony briefly and then they were gone the next day. She wasn’t sure what room they were staying in and could not describe them at all.

She stated that she didn’t report what she witnessed to the police because someone told her that the cop was a trigger happy cop. She stated she heard this from the family next door to where they were staying. She was unable to identify the officer that was equated with the one she had heard was “trigger happy.”

When asked about the taser, she stated that she did not witness that. She wasn’t sure if she heard the taser, but she did recall hearing the gun shots.

She mentioned that she thought the individual staying in the cabin next to the deceased was interviewed, but that she did not see police interact with him.

When questioned further about her timeline and when she witnessed certain events, she stated that she was at the end of the balcony at least 10 minutes watching before she states the officer went into the room and came out with the hatchet to place in the deceased’s hand. Yet, during that time she did not view law enforcement interact with any of the residents of the cabins adjoining the deceased’s.

She then states that she was the only person who saw the officer go into the cabin. She was by herself at the end of the balcony for a period of time. She stated that the people who were taking pictures were taking pictures after the officer had come out of the cabin and placed the hatchet into the deceased’s hand.

When she was asked if she actually made the statement “I saw what you did” to the officer if she said it loud enough for him to hear, she said she might not have, that she might have just said it to herself.

When asked to clarify when she was told that the officer was trigger happy, she stated that it was the next day after the shooting that she heard of the officer’s reputation about being quick on the trigger.

The following individuals were interviewed by law enforcement at the scene or deposed in the civil case: Jeff Morgan, Sr.; Jeffrey Richardson, Jeff Morgan Jr.; and, Wanetta Gibbons.

According to Jeffrey Richardson, the guest in cabin #18 (right next to deceased’s) he heard yelling and what appeared to be the sound of a taser. He got up and looked out the window. He saw two law enforcement officers with their guns drawn. They were repeatedly yelling put the knife down and they said this at least 8-10 times. He never saw the deceased during this interaction. Then he heard shots fired, at least 8 of them. Then he saw the officers talking on the radio. Officer McGraw knocked on his door and asked him to come outside and witness the knife in the suspects hand. He stated that he did see the knife in the suspects hand.

According to Jeff Morgan, Jr.; who was a guest in cabin #19 (two doors down from deceased’s) he saw flashlights pass by the window and when he opened the door to see what was going on a police officer told him to go back inside and he did so. About 5 minutes later he heard a taser and then voices repeatedly yelling to drop the weapon at least 20-30 times. And about one minute later he heard gunshots -about 5-6 of them. Approximately two minutes later law enforcement knocked on his door and asked him to observe a knife in the deceased’s hand. He stated that he saw this and he also saw a hatchet in deceased’s other hand.

According to Wanetta Gibbons, who was a guest in cabin #20, she was awakened by someone yelling “put the knife down.” She witnessed the deceased standing in front of his cabin with an arm extended out in front of him. She could not see what, if anything, was in his hand. She heard the officers repeatedly tell him to put the knife down but he didn’t. She stated that the deceased stepped over the wood ledge toward the police officers when the shots rang out. She saw one of the officers checking for a pulse and the other was on the radio. She saw the officers remove something from his hands.

Jeff Morgan, Sr. was deposed. According to his testimony, the migrant Mexican workers were with him on the balcony and they were all watching. He was clear about this fact; however, his timeline on other events was not as clear.

There are many inconsistencies within the statements provided by Hazel Duke and Noelle Hite and their statements are also inconsistent with one another. Their statements are also inconsistent with information provided by other witnesses who were present and interviewed at the scene.

Further, Hazel Duke described to law enforcement what she believed an individual might look like if he were being tased; however, the autopsy report is silent as to wounds caused by such action. The gunshot wounds and other abrasions were carefully measured and noted, but a taser wound was not accounted for.

The criminal investigation will not be reopened and the prior decision by Mr. Gage that this was justifiable homicide will stand.