14 Shots

Officer James Toomey didn't waste any bullets when he killed Bug Finley. The question: Was it just?

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Deena Toomey heard the noise first -- a banging that sounded like somebody trying to break in. She woke her husband and shut off the air conditioner. As the hum faded, James Toomey could hear the thumping outside. The Cleveland cop pulled on a pair of shorts, grabbed his Smith & Wesson, and crept downstairs.

A backyard light burned; someone or something had tripped the motion detector. Toomey slipped out the back door. "I'm a police officer!" he yelled. Moments later, he spotted a man lying by his garage. "Freeze!" he barked.

The man ignored the order. He stood and swung a yellow metal pole into Toomey's chest. The officer opened fire with his 9 mm as he screamed at the intruder to move back. The man collapsed to the ground; Toomey grabbed the pole and flung it away.

Deena called 911. Squad cars, already in the area responding to reports of a prowler, arrived within minutes. Paramedics rushed the man to MetroHealth Medical Center. He was declared dead at 3:01 a.m.

That account of Joseph Finley Jr.'s death comes from police and coroner reports. The June 28 shooting occurred at the Toomeys' red-brick colonial in the 3600 block of West Boulevard. The off-duty cop plugged Finley with 14 bullets -- three in the back.

Those are the sole details in the reports that Finley's family trusts. Almost everything else, they suggest, is a lie.

Police say Finley, 20, attempted to rob several homes in the West Side neighborhood that night, and contend Toomey acted in self-defense. Finley's loved ones insist he was running from a half-dozen attackers who wanted to kill him. They think that, fearing for his life, he went to Toomey's house seeking protection -- and instead got blown away.

Their theory rests more on faith than facts. No one witnessed a mob chasing Finley, he was drunk, and he trespassed on a cop's property. Yet relatives and friends angrily believe that, even if he struck Toomey, Finley could not have posed so severe a threat to an armed officer that he needed to pay with his life. Their fury has roused them to protest outside Toomey's house and accuse the police of covering for one of their own.

"This wasn't self-defense," says Finley's father, Joe Sr. "This was 14 shots. This was murder."

Those closest to Finley Jr. called him Joey or Bug, a childhood nickname. According to them, the story of how he wound up at Toomey's house begins in spring of last year.

On April 17, Terrence Robinson, 17, was found dead in the backyard of a house on West 95th. Stripped of his pants, he lay on his side in a patch of mud, six bullets in his head, chest, and legs. Officers responded after a woman heard Robinson, father of a month-old son, moaning for help.

While witnesses claimed three people fled the scene, police charged only Peter Kenney in the killing. A Common Pleas judge sentenced him to life after a jury trial in November 2001. Rumors swirled that Kenney, now 18, shot Robinson in a race-related clash over drug turf. Kenney is white, Robinson was black. Kenney's defense attorney disputed the drug allegations, and prosecutors lacked evidence to prove them.

But on the West Side, the rumors fueled vows of revenge.

Robinson's friends knew of the tight bond between Finley and Kenney, nicknamed Shorty, who ran together in the Cudell-West Boulevard area. The neighborhoods also were familiar territory to Robinson and his friends, some of whom suspected Bug was with Shorty at the time of the murder, says Bobby Early, Finley's cousin. From then on, whenever they saw Bug, they greeted him with menace -- usually spoken threats, sometimes a wave of a Glock.

"Terrence's people would roll up when we'd be hanging at King's," Early says, referring to a scruffy corner grocery at West 98th and Almira. "They'd be saying how Shorty killed Terrence and what they were gonna do to Bug. Bug would stick up for Shorty, you know, tell 'em to stop talking their shit."

Finley spent most of his life in the disheveled enclaves a stone's throw from that intersection. He grew up in his mother's house a few blocks away and spent weekends visiting his father, who lived nearby, as did a large collection of aunts, uncles, and cousins. They recall a sweet-natured boy whose early shyness made him easy pickings for bigger kids.

"Bikes, shoes, jackets -- you name it, he got it stolen," says Marlys Rambeau, his aunt. "Every day he came home from school, he'd be missing something."

Soon he was missing school, bombing out of junior high. The following years brought typical city kid troubles -- scuffles and a scrape with the law. Walking home from a party one night, he got stabbed in the gut. In December 2000 -- five months before Robinson's slaying -- cops busted him for possession of crack.

Family members sugarcoat none of Finley's screw-ups, but deny he became a hardcore punk. They say his closest brushes with gang-banging were a "Thug Life" tattoo and listening to Tupac. Smoking weed was like breathing to him, they admit, but his arrest doused whatever small-time dealing he'd done. He and his pals could be considered a posse only when they gathered to play Nintendo. They were couch-loungers -- good at drinking beer, bad at scoring women. But rejection rarely stole the smile from Bug's still-boyish face. "He was pretty quiet, always pretty happy," says cousin Bruce Finley. "He was just a regular guy."

He'd also started to turn his life around in his last year. Despite it sounding like an urban cliché, relatives insist it's true: "Bug was trying to get himself more straight," says cousin Cathlita Early. "He was trying to get away from the streets."

Bug traveled to Oklahoma in summer 2001 to live with his mother and stepfather, who wanted him to escape Cleveland's malaise. But homesickness lured him back that fall. He moved in with Bobby Early and his parents in North Ridgeville and took a job as a busboy. Away from work, he and Early, 17, spent hours improvising rap lyrics and drawing images of gothic doom. One of Bug's pencil sketches hanging in Bobby's bedroom shows a grinning Grim Reaper, sprawled beneath the words "Land of the Heartless."

"That's what he called Cleveland," says Early, who got a large cross tattoo to honor his dead cousin. "It's the place with no heart."

Last June, Bug returned to the West Side to live with an aunt after landing a job at a car wash in Old Brooklyn. He planned to get his own apartment, earn a GED, and qualify for the Job Corps to become an electrician.

Still, wriggling free of the past did not mean shedding longtime loyalties. Finley refused to forget his pal Kenney, who he believed innocent of Robinson's killing. When anyone bad-mouthed Shorty, Bug never let it slide.

That, they say, is what happened the last night of his life.

Their accounts of Finley's final hours differ slightly. The distilled version: He went to a party near West 94th and Almira late on June 27. At some point, five or six of Robinson's buddies arrived. Harsh words flew, possibly a few fists, until others broke it up. Robinson's friends left soon after.

Hours later, a night of drinking behind him, Bug began walking west on Almira around 1:30 a.m. His aunt's house stood about a half-mile away. Somewhere on his route -- probably near West 100th -- the Robinson crew confronted him.

He took off, running about 10 blocks south on 100th toward Walford. Along the way, he grabbed a yellow metal pole. Searching for a place to hide, he tried to force open doors and windows of a half-dozen homes. Frantic and unable to gain entry, he staggered a block over to West Boulevard -- and into James Toomey's yard.

According to police, a woman in the 3500 block of West 100th reported a prowler in her driveway around 1:45 a.m. A half-hour later, Bev Miller, the woman's next-door neighbor, says an officer's knock woke her up. He told her about the attempted break-ins and wondered if she'd heard anything. Miller noticed four squad cars on her street. "It looked like they were searching for a serial killer, they had so many of 'em out there."

Miller had opened her windows, her air conditioner dead on a humid, stifling night. At about 2:30, she heard the staccato burst of three gunshots. A short pause ended with more blasts, followed by yelling she couldn't make out.

Miller remained unaware that her son's close friend had been shot 14 times in the yard behind her own. Tim Miller, 19, regarded Finley as a brother. His right forearm now bears a tombstone tattoo with the words "R.I.P. Bug."

Bev Miller shakes her head at the police's depiction of Finley as a house burglar. He wasn't the thieving kind, she says. "I could have money, jewelry, CDs, radios, whatever lying around when he come over. Nothing was ever missing when he gone home. This was a kid who would ask, 'Can I get a cup of water? Can I get a can of pop?' You don't see kids like that anymore."

Miller thinks Finley's self-awareness explains in part why he bypassed her house. He realized her bulldog would bark if he barged in -- a racket that could tip off the mob and put her in harm's way. The other reason she offers: Finley had met Toomey once before and figured a cop could save him.

Three or four years earlier, she says, Toomey approached Tim and Bug as they sat in her backyard. He wanted to let his neighbor know that he planned to build a seven-foot fence to wall in his dogs. As they talked, he mentioned his job in passing.

It's fair to question the premise, held by Finley's friends and family, that Toomey should have recognized him from that brief encounter years before. Still, they believe Bug finally ran to the officer's house in desperation.

Wayne Hughes, who lives next to the Millers, says one of his basement windows was shattered around 2 a.m. that night. A woman on West Boulevard says her motion-detector lights scared off someone trying to break into her garage a short time later. To Finley's relatives, his zigzag path suggests a man running for his life.

"If five or six people are after you, where you gonna go for help? You're gonna go to the police," says Tim Miller. He stares at Toomey's two-story home, barely visible above the wood fence. "That's what Bug did, and that guy killed him anyway."

The coroner's report shows Finley had a blood-alcohol content twice the legal limit -- well past the point of sound judgment. Between being drunk and afraid, relatives say, he may have panicked and swung the pole at Toomey when the cop told him to freeze. Or maybe, they speculate, he never swung at all and just lurched forward in a drunken stupor. Either way, they're certain Toomey intended for him to die, so only one witness -- one version of events -- would survive.

At 5 feet 11, 190 pounds, Bug's frame held more baby fat than muscle. "How can it take 14 shots to stop a 20-year-old kid?" asks Joe Finley Sr. "I'm not saying Joey should have done what he done that night. But we aren't living in the day of Bonnie and Clyde no more. He could just shoot him in the knee or the shoulder and he'd still be alive."

Besides three bullets in the back, Finley took two in the chest. Eight struck his arms and legs, another grazed his mouth. "How much could he have been moving after three or four shots, let alone 14?" asks Dianna Albertson, a family friend. "Fourteen just seems insane."

Albertson has canvassed Toomey's neighborhood, talking to residents to try to stitch together the night's chaos. One rumor in particular -- that someone heard Finley begging for his life as Toomey fired -- sets her off.

"It would be one thing if this were some person that had walked out of his house and freaked out and shot Joey," she says. "This is a trained police officer shooting someone repeatedly, shooting someone in the back. That's where the excuses fall apart."

Charges of brutality have dogged Cleveland cops in 2002. Officers have shot and killed six people, compared to eight the previous five years combined. Five of this year's victims, including Finley, took bullets in the back.

His family and friends contend police amplified their grief by stonewalling them. They claim authorities, hoping the case would disappear, waited several days to notify them of Bug's death. Relatives also say detectives changed their story, variously telling them that Toomey found him outside the house, inside the house, or in the garage.

At the same time, family members concede their own theories rely less on hard evidence than on third-hand accounts. They have yet to track down anyone who attended the party with Bug. Two men who used to live at the house are no longer there: Patrick Evans now sits in prison for drug trafficking; he did not respond to Scene's interview request. The other man, known only as Lonnie, moved away -- apparently without a trace.

Cathlita Early says once she started pestering her cousin's friends for answers about the party, they shunned her. "Nobody wants to talk about it. Everybody says they loved Bug, but nobody wants to say what happened. How would they like it if someone shot them 14 times and nobody said anything?"

His death scared them silent, says a friend of Finley's who asked not to be named. "People saw what happened to Bug. Nobody wants that shit to happen to them. You leave it alone."

News of Finley's death reached Peter Kenney behind bars, where he'll spend at least 32 more years. He could not be reached for comment by Scene. But in a note he sent to a pal last summer, he says Robinson's people chased Bug after the party, intending to shut him up forever. They got their wish when he stumbled into Toomey's yard.

"I feel like it was my fault dat he died," Kenney wrote, "cause he ain't let no [one] talk shit bout me."

Bob Beck has a simpler answer for why no witnesses have piped up about a chase. It never happened.

"That's a self-serving story made up by family members to mitigate the actions of their loved one," he says. "I understand that, but it's wrong."

Beck heads the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association. He's also the most candid member of the force in publicly defending Toomey. Sergeant Jacqueline Lewis, a department spokeswoman, declined to talk about the shooting, citing the city prosecutor's ongoing probe into Finley's death. Toomey did not respond to interview requests.

Beck admits he scrutinizes the incident through the eyes of a 33-year cop. He sees a case as black-and-white as a squad car: Finley invaded an officer's personal property. He ignored orders not to move. He wielded a deadly weapon. The end.

"Officer Toomey was within the law and his training. He fired until Mr. Finley was incapacitated and no longer a threat . . . It happened to be 14 times."

Likewise, scarce gray area exists in the department's policy on stopping a would-be assailant. The rule authorizes officers, including those off-duty, to "use deadly force to protect themselves or others from an actual or clearly apparent threat of death or serious physical harm . . ."

Describing the threat, of course, falls entirely on the cop when the only other witness becomes a corpse. But Beck, who says he knows Toomey, 36, "fairly well," has no qualms about the officer's honesty. His account of the shooting jibes with the physical evidence collected, Beck asserts, and it appears to be the first time he's used deadly force in five years with the department.

"I believe Officer Toomey is not the kind of person who would look to hurt someone without cause or without threat. He was a homeowner -- that's something that shouldn't be forgotten here -- and he was defending his life and his family."

Most police agencies train officers to fire until an attacker is stopped. "They don't try to shoot a weapon out of someone's hand," Sergeant Lewis says. "That's on TV." Cops shoot in two- or three-bullet bursts, alternating between the chest and head as targets.

Emptying a clip -- as Toomey did -- is a common symptom of "adrenaline blindness." So says Daniel Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, who's testified in dozens of cop-shooting cases nationwide. What families bemoan as overkill, he argues, instead reflects a practiced police reaction to intense duress.

"It's not a matter of evil or malice. It's a matter of an automatic response in a close-quarters situation," Kennedy says. "A cop is in complete combat mode, not the arm-chair, contemplative mode that's there after the fact. You don't shoot and check to see what happened, then shoot and check again. You shoot until the person is stopped."

The rapid-trigger response, experts say, often causes shots to hit a victim's back. A person tends to turn away from a gun, and a body hit by bullets also will twist. In the one to two seconds before the brain grasps that an attacker is down, a cop can squeeze off a dozen rounds on a 9 mm.

"What matters is what the officer perceives in those split seconds," says Dr. Aaron Westrick, a Detroit criminologist. Someone as drunk as Finley, he adds, might continue to stagger forward, numb to bullets striking him. "If the person in this case was moving at the officer and was seen as a threat, then what this officer did would be seen as good shooting."

Which brings no argument from Beck.

"If I were in Officer Toomey's shoes, based on what he said, and it took 14 shots for the person to be incapacitated and on the ground, that's what I'd do. If 14 shots didn't do it, and I had to reload, and it took 14 more, that's what I'd do."

One of Toomey's neighbors dubs it his "murder vacation" -- the paid leave the department placed him on after the shooting. Others suggest that gunning down a man put little damper on the cop's summer. Within two weeks of Finley's death, they say, Toomey hosted a large barbecue; more parties followed. He reportedly also used the time off to build a shed in his backyard and pour a new driveway.

"Sounds like he's really been broken up," says Kimberly Early, Finley's aunt. "You'd think he'd at least have the decency not to show himself for a while."

Toomey and his wife bought their $105,000 house in 1997, around the time he joined the force. Short and wiry, with a shaved head, he soon made himself known to neighbors.

They say for the first year or two, he seemed bent on cleaning up his corner of Cleveland, his ire stirred by stray dogs or trash cans left too long at the curb. Councilman Jay Westbrook says Toomey called him a few times to complain about similar irritations. Residents say he's become less visible the last couple of years, save for one odd habit. In the weeks before the shooting, according to two neighbors, Toomey mowed his lawn in full uniform, gun belt and all.

"I'm not surprised he'd kill someone," says a resident, who asked not to be named, fearing reprisals by the cop. "He's always seemed a little off the edge to me."

Beck chalks up such gossip to nothing more than the usual neighborhood grudges. "You have a disagreement with one neighbor," he says, "and all of a sudden you're an asshole when something like this comes up."

The shooting in the West Side neighborhood shocked few, owing to a decade of decline that has spurred a surge in crime. Residents say thieves treat garages as personal discount centers. A rash of bike thefts hit in the fall. Teens brazenly sell coke on the corner.

Little wonder, then, that stickers reading "This Home Protected by Smith & Wesson" are a popular window decoration. Or that some longtime residents don't blame Toomey for killing Finley.

"Who knows how you'd react if you saw someone in your yard at 2:30 in the morning?" says Wayne Hughes, 67, Bev Miller's neighbor on West 100th. "That's a tough spot, even for a cop."

Down the street, Ann Pearson installed a home-security system after the shooting. The nurse moved in 10 years ago and now wants out -- away from the likes of Finley.

"You gotta wonder what a kid is doing at two in the morning, running around like that. If I'm in a situation like that officer, my first concern would be me, not whoever's on my property."

About 100 protesters gathered outside Toomey's home last month. They carried signs that read "This Should Never Have Happened" and showed a picture of Bug, his face bloated and bruised, lying in a coffin. Fourteen cops stood guard in front of the officer's house.

Toomey and his wife are expecting their first child. The rally, along with the unease hovering over the neighborhood, has them thinking about moving, Beck says. But Bug's relatives say that beyond pricking Toomey's conscience, they want to expose what they consider the department's hush-hush approach to police shootings.

It's a frequent lament, says Gordon Friedman, one of the few Cleveland lawyers willing to take on excessive-force cases. He's representing the family of an East Side teen who was shot by an officer last year, after he rammed the cop with a stolen car. While unfamiliar with the details of Finley's death, Friedman calls the firing of 14 shots "kind of incomprehensible." Easier to grasp, he says, is police reaction to such cases.

"It would seem to me there is generally a code of silence, an effort to protect police officers by the police union, the prosecutor's office, and the police department itself."

Sanford Watson, the city's chief assistant prosecutor, replies that case reviews take time. His office will decide by month's end whether to charge Toomey in Finley's death. But the six-month probe has only deepened the perception of a cover-up -- the lone point on which all sides agree.

"I hate to throw mud balls at the prosecutor's office, but that's where I think the problem is," Beck says. "They've had this investigation for some time, and the delay in issuing a ruling -- one way or the other -- has created anxiety for the family and within our department."

Westbrook adds that the long wait "puts a cloud over the whole investigation that could extend to the entire police department." Yet the councilman, who attended a candlelight vigil for Finley in September, seconds Beck's criticism that protesting in front of Toomey's house "goes over the boundaries of respect."

The sentiment draws a snort of disgust from Joe Finley Sr. "Somebody shot my son 14 times. That's going too far."

Finley Sr. now lives in West Virginia, but he's staying with relatives in North Ridgeville until his son's death is sorted out. Like the rest of his family, he expects Toomey to keep his badge. In the meantime, he tries to bottle his rage. Sometimes it leaks out -- a few weeks ago, he blew up in a bar and got arrested for disorderly conduct.

"What would happen if I had shot someone like that?" he asks. "I'd be sitting in jail right now. But a cop, he walks away."

On February 15, Bug's family and friends would have celebrated his 21st birthday. In the past, his father might have taken him to dinner, or they'd go to a movie or a monster-truck rally.

This time, he'll get a tattoo in his dead son's name.

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