The Blue Curtain Of Silence 

A dead kid. A cop's troubling past. And a possible cover-up.

The sudden turn caught their attention. It looked like the Pontiac Grand Prix was trying to avoid police.

Officer Scott Clayton ran the plates. Bingo: The car was wanted. Clayton radioed for backup.

The Pontiac turned down West 85th. The path was blocked by Car No. 113 -- Officers Matthew Baeppler and Robert Taylor. This was their second day of working together. With nine years under his belt, Baeppler was behind the wheel.

The driver spotted the cops and slowed to a stop. Baeppler and Taylor stepped out of the cruiser.

The engine revved. The Pontiac lurched toward Taylor.

He leapt for the safety of the passenger seat. The Pontiac roared past.

The chase was on.

Eastbound on Lorain. Left onto West 73rd. Blowing through stop signs.

After three minutes and 1.8 miles, it came to a sudden end: The Pontiac veered down a narrow alley. Hit a bump. Crashed into a fence post.

Baeppler pulled up a foot behind the Pontiac's bumper. The car wasn't going anywhere.

He rushed the driver's side door. Locked. "Show me your hands!"

The driver reached for something. The gear shift?

"I'm trapped!" yelled Taylor, who was penned in by the cars and the fence.

The engine revved.

BANG! Baeppler fired, shooting the driver in the face. BANG! BANG! Taylor fired twice. One hit the passenger in the back, the other just grazed him.

Backup arrived. And then they made the horrible discovery.

"Oh my God!" someone said. "These are kids."

At 16, Malcolm Hoyle was well on his way to a life in crime. He'd been convicted of receiving stolen property and had repeatedly violated probation by smoking weed.

August 26, 2002, started like any other summer day: He rolled out of bed late, washed up, and left his home on East 72nd and Colgate, taking a short walk to a convenience store on Elton Avenue, where everybody hung out.

Malcolm hit up his friend Bobby for weed. Bobby didn't have any, so they walked down the street and bought some, then smoked a blunt in front of the store.

The boys saw a crackhead they knew. He offered them a car to rent in exchange for rock. It was an old Pontiac, splattered with bird shit. Have it back tomorrow afternoon, the crackhead said.

Malcolm and Bobby cruised around all day, smoking blunts. As it got dark, Bobby said he wanted to see his girl, Latisha. They stopped by her house.

After half an hour, Malcolm wanted to bounce. He told Bobby to meet him at the car.

No sooner had he left than Malcolm saw the police. He was wanted for violating probation, so he took off running. The cops didn't follow.

Malcolm was cutting across a yard when he saw Ricardo Mason.

Ricardo was a more clean-cut kid, no convictions. He looked out for his kid sister, fought the boys at school who picked on her.

Ricardo's day had started nothing like Malcolm's. He and his family had cleaned up their house on East 50th Street. They danced and clowned, because that's what they always did.

Ricardo spent much of the day with his friend, Adam Michael, at his sister's house on Colgate Avenue. At around midnight, they were playing cards when Malcolm stopped by.

He was going to see a girl he knew on West 95th, off Madison. You wanna come, Ricardo?

Ricardo shrugged. Adam came too, climbing into the Pontiac.

They were getting close to the girl's house when they saw the cops. Just drive normal, Adam and Ricardo said.

Then they saw the cop car in front of them. Malcolm didn't know what to do. He didn't want to go back to detention.

The chase was on.

Eastbound on Lorain. Left onto West 73rd. It was blind panic. Just get away.

Malcolm hit a bump and lost control. Crashed into a fence post.

Just like that, the cops were on top of them. "Show me your hands!" one was yelling.

The boys put their hands up. "Don't do nothing," Ricardo said. "Do what they say."

BANG! Malcolm was shot in the face.

"Don't shoot!" Ricardo yelled.

BANG! BANG! Ricardo was shot in the back.

He lived four, maybe eight minutes. Just long enough to realize he was hurt. Hurt bad.

Adam escaped uninjured, until a cop dragged him out of the car and scraped his face against the ground.

The next day's newspaper carried the cops' version of the shooting: The car Malcolm was driving was stolen. When officers tried to pull him over, he took off, almost hitting Officer Taylor in the process.

Malcolm led the cops on a dangerous, high-speed chase, blowing through stop signs and reaching speeds of 50 mph on the city streets. Police had no idea whom they were dealing with or whether he was armed.

As Baeppler tried to arrest him, Malcolm put the Pontiac into reverse. It rolled back and clipped Taylor's knee. The car was going to run him over. He was trapped.

Baeppler did the only thing he could to save his partner. He pulled the trigger.

Almost simultaneously, Taylor squeezed off two shots. He was aiming at the driver, but the Pontiac had knocked him off balance. He hit the passenger instead.

"They might have been young men, but they made adult decisions," says police union spokesman Bob Beck. "They could have stopped at any time."

Homicide investigated and found evidence to back that story. The unit sent its findings to the city prosecutor. They were in a thick stack of cases inherited by Sanford Watson when he was appointed city prosecutor in October 2002. Three months later, his desk was cleared. "Based on available evidence, Matthew Baeppler's use of force was justified," Watson wrote.

Taylor's case was more complicated. He had fired at the driver, but hit the wrong guy. So Watson punted. He sent the case to the grand jury, but with the rare recommendation not to indict. Jurors took the cue. No charges were filed.

Malcolm was in the hospital for a week. Surgeons rebuilt his jaw. Meanwhile, the county prosecutor charged him with Ricardo's murder.

Malcolm was looking at life. Even if he managed to skate on the murder charge and go down for manslaughter, he'd still do 3 to 10 years in an adult prison.

His attorney, Terry Gilbert, wanted to put the cops on trial, arguing that they acted rashly when they charged the car with weapons drawn.

But the prosecutor made an unusual offer: He'd drop the murder charge, if Malcolm pleaded guilty to manslaughter. And if the judge wanted to sentence Malcolm to probation, prosecutors wouldn't stand in her way.

The offer was too good to refuse.

"You wonder what that's all about, from a murder charge to probation," Gilbert muses. "They didn't want a trial to happen. Because if a trial happened, a lot of stuff would have come out."

But Ricardo's mom refused to go so quietly. On August 27, 2003 -- one year to the day after Ricardo's death -- Harriet Green filed suit against the officers and the city.

She asked for $10 million -- and an answer for why her 16-year-old was dead.

Matthew Baeppler was no ordinary beat cop. Police work was a family legacy. His father, Gregory Baeppler, was commander of the Second District. He was popular with the residents, even more so with fellow officers, not least because he controlled 100 off-duty security jobs at Indians games -- a plum assignment.

Matthew Baeppler's older brother, Paul, was also a cop. Not long after Matthew graduated from high school, they'd gotten into trouble together.

In August 2000, Paul was working as a bouncer at Shooters on the West Bank of the Flats.

According to police reports, Steve Severin was leaving the bar with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Blum, when a bouncer grabbed them from behind in an apparent case of mistaken identity.

Three other men quickly piled on. One held Severin down while a bouncer repeatedly punched him in the face, fracturing a bone under his left eye.

Blum tried to intervene. She grabbed the bouncer's shoulder to tell him he had the wrong man. He punched her too.

The couple staggered out to the parking lot where they met a valet. They gave him a description of one of the bouncers: blond hair, surfer cut, about 25 years old.

The valet fingered Paul Baeppler.

Paul told police that the couple was lying. He maintained that he had only broken up one fight that night, and it involved a bunch of girls. He hadn't punched anybody, he said.

The couple sued. Shooters settled out of court.

Matthew Baeppler joined the force in 1995. Less than two years into the job, he killed someone in the line of duty.

The incident began when he and his partner, David Wilsman, received a report of a man with a gun.

Adolph Boyd Jr. was upset because someone had sold him fake drugs. Boyd had a pistol and was going to get his money back.

Baeppler and Wilsman spotted Boyd at East 119th and Buckeye. Boyd allegedly pointed his gun at Baeppler, who fired four rounds, but missed.

Then Boyd pointed his gun at Wilsman. Wilsman let loose with a shotgun. Boyd went down.

He still had the gun in his hand. He pointed it at Wilsman.

Baeppler riddled Boyd's back with seven shots. That ended it.

Boyd was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke's. The city prosecutor sent the case to a grand jury, which declined to file charges.

But the incident raised eyebrows in-house. An internal-affairs investigator had concerns about Baeppler.

Several residents had recently filed complaints against him, Sergeant Daniel Hayes noted. And in this incident alone, Baeppler had fired 11 rounds.

"While criminal charges turned on the availability of evidence, departmental charges would not, at least to some extent," Hayes wrote.

Apparently, no one followed up on that recommendation, and Baeppler continued to rack up complaints.

By 1999, he was facing three separate allegations of physical abuse. Two were dismissed for lack of evidence. The third was forwarded to internal affairs.

The alleged victim was Robert Harrell, a middle-aged crackhead. He claimed that at 2:30 a.m. on August 1, 1998, Baeppler had roughed him up.

According to the abuse complaint filed by Harrell, Baeppler and another cop stopped him and a friend named Fred as they walked through a Walgreen's parking lot at West 130th and Bellaire.

After questioning, Baeppler let Fred walk. But he was pissed at Harrell. Baeppler thought he saw him throw away a crack pipe as the cops arrived.

"You son of a bitch," Baeppler allegedly said. "I'm going to teach you not to throw things when you see me."

Baeppler cuffed him and put him in the cruiser. The cops drove him to a parking lot, where Baeppler dragged him out of the car into some gravel, Harrell claimed. Then Baeppler beat him up while the other cop watched.

Afterward, Baeppler allegedly took off the handcuffs and said that the next time he saw Harrell throw something, he'd put a bullet in his head.

Harrell suffered a punctured eardrum, a black eye, a swollen cheek, and innumerable scrapes and bruises, according to his complaint.

Baeppler told investigators that Harrell was making it up. He'd been nothing but polite to the man, warning him that the area was known for drug activity.

Police forwarded the case to the city prosecutor, who wanted to interview Harrell. But by then, a year had passed. Harrell was no longer at the same job, and he'd left no forwarding address.

The case was closed.

"Just because someone has a lot of complaints against him doesn't mean he did anything wrong," says Lieutenant Thomas Stacho. "What I see from this officer is an aggressive officer who's out doing his job."

More accusations followed.

In July 1999, then-Mayor Mike White launched a probe into bigotry within the police department.

Commander Charles McNeeley was asked whether he had suspicions about any officers. He singled out Baeppler in an interview with internal affairs that was later released to the public as part of the investigative report.

McNeeley offered several pieces of anecdotal evidence. He mentioned the Harrell case, as well as a recent complaint that Baeppler had used racial slurs while on patrol.

"Calling these kids niggers," McNeeley explained. "'Get off the corner, you nigger.' That type of stuff."

McNeeley had talked to Baeppler's street supervisor about it. The supervisor gave McNeeley the impression that he'd had trouble pairing Baeppler with partners. Even fellow officers apparently found Baeppler's ways disconcerting.

McNeeley arranged for Baeppler to transfer to the day shift, where supervisors could keep a close eye on him. That appeared to solve the problem, McNeeley told investigators. Now the police chief of Olmsted Township, McNeeley refuses to talk about the incident.

Baeppler also declined comment on this allegation and all others through a police spokesman.

But former union president Beck defends him. "That report and that content in it were wrong," Beck says. "That really has nothing to do with what happened the night that Matt had to use deadly force."

If Baeppler was under closer scrutiny from his supervisors, it didn't make him cautious. After years of averaging only one or two arrests requiring force, Baeppler had 14 in 2001. In February 2002 alone, he got in two violent confrontations in just three days.

In all 16 cases, Baeppler's force was found to be justified. But it says something about his state of mind six months later, when he set off in pursuit of the Pontiac Grand Prix.

Shortly after the shooting, Baeppler used his cell phone to call his brother. Paul arrived at the scene and found Matthew in a patrol car with Officer Michael Duller, who was assigned to baby-sit Matthew until he went to the Justice Center to provide a statement.

Paul, by then a sergeant, pulled rank and ordered Duller out of the car. Only the brothers know what was said. But Paul later accompanied his brother to the Justice Center and even participated in Matthew's official statement, signing off as a witness.

That wouldn't be Paul's only involvement in the investigation. Another officer testified that Paul tromped through a puddle of gore, leaving bloody footprints at the crime scene.

It was just the beginning of a series of acts that would compromise the evidence.

The position of the cars was crucial to establishing the angle of the bullets and the positions of the officers. Baeppler and Taylor had justified the shooting by saying that the Pontiac was going to run over Taylor. The cars, presumably, would back that story.

Yet the cruiser was moved before investigators even arrived. The cop who moved the car, Adrian Neagu, claims he did so at the behest of EMS, which needed room to remove Ricardo.

But in a deposition, EMS Supervisor Dean Mills says he asked cops to move a different cruiser, one far from the crime scene.

There's also evidence that the Pontiac was moved. An accident reconstruction expert hired by the plaintiff analyzed several photos of the scene and says they can't possibly all show the car in the same position, as the city claims.

Even one of the city's own experts says that the Pontiac moved after the crash, though he asserts it was either when the car bounced off the fence post or when the driver put it into reverse. Drawing his conclusion from skid marks he examined, Richard Stanford testified that the Pontiac traveled three, maybe four feet backward.

But that would seem to contradict police accounts that the Pontiac was trapped just six inches from the cruiser's bumper.

"I don't know who moved it or when it was moved," Stanford admitted in a deposition. "Maybe an outer space ship grabbed it and it moved it back there."

Diagrams of the scene were of little help. Maps were drawn by hand and not to scale, though police had software especially for that purpose.

Perhaps the most important piece of information was the angle of the bullets. It's the kind of thing covered in Shooting 101. Yet no one even bothered to take the trajectories.

"At the time, there was nobody there that was an expert in it," Internal Affairs Lieutenant Charles Boddy testified in a deposition.

Hoping to conduct the kind of basic tests police had neglected, a lawyer for Harriet Green asked the city to turn over the Pontiac.

He was in for a surprise: The car had been sent for salvage.

The lawyer was able to buy it from Progressive Insurance just before it was destroyed. He hired his own experts to reconstruct the shooting. The damage to the car cast further doubt on Taylor and Baeppler's account.

To Larry Danaher, a retired commander in the Lafayette, Indiana police department who reviewed the evidence, the case was more than just inept police work. It was an outright cover-up.

"It is my opinion that the Cleveland Police Department made a conscious and deliberate decision not to properly investigate the misconduct of Officers Taylor and Baeppler as well as the misconduct of others," he wrote in an opinion filed with the court.

Harriet Green's lawyer, David Malik, declined to comment, citing a gag order by the judge and a general reluctance to discuss pending litigation.

But court documents make clear the plaintiff's position: The officers acted rashly and tried to cover it up.

Baeppler was agitated from the chase when he charged the driver's side door, the lawsuit maintains. An independent witness, Debra Nelson, says she heard an officer yelling, "Fuck you, motherfucker, you stupid motherfucker," immediately before shots rang out.

By his own admission, Baeppler couldn't see Taylor when he fired. All he knew was that Taylor said he was "trapped."

But the damage to the Pontiac suggests Taylor wasn't trapped between the cars, but rather off to one side.

Taylor fired two shots: one through the right rear passenger window, the other through the back window. An expert hired by Malik testifies that the nearer shot was fired first -- meaning that Taylor was running toward the back of the car.

That would explain a piece of forensic evidence discovered by the coroner's office. A trace-evidence expert detected gunshot residue on Ricardo's right hand, indicating that Taylor was less than three feet away when he fired the first shot.

It would also square a statement that Baeppler provided at the scene, which contradicts the accounts the officers gave later.

According to city investigator Ross Steinberg, Baeppler told him that as he was trying to open the driver's door, Taylor was trying to access the passenger door, "but became pinned between the passenger's side of the vehicle and some bushes."

The lawsuit suggests that Taylor's life was never in jeopardy. Even if the car was moving backward -- which the plaintiff disputes -- Taylor wouldn't have been in its path.

After Baeppler fired, Taylor reacted on instinct -- a phenomenon known in police circles as "contagious gunfire," the lawsuit asserts. It wasn't until the frenzied action was over and the officers were able to compare notes that they realized their mistake -- and conspired with fellow officers to cover it up.

All of which has only hardened attorney Gilbert's initial suspicion that the police pinned the blame on Malcolm Hoyle to avoid owning up to their mistake.

"I believe they overreacted, at best," Gilbert says.

And at worst?

"An execution."

More by Kevin Hoffman


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