East Cleveland police officer Larry McDonald will not face charges in the January shooting that left Vincent Belmonte dead. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced the Cuyahoga County grand jury’s decision Friday.
The incident stems from a traffic stop on the morning of Jan. 5, this year. McDonald was on traffic patrol, training fellow officer Dillon Crosier. According to state Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents, McDonald said an equipment violation was the pretext for the traffic stop.
“Sgt. McDonald stated that the vehicle he observed had a loud muffler and Sgt. McDonald advised that he could see the cracked windshield as well,” the report reads.
While the car was pulled over, McDonald says they ran the car’s license plate. He told investigators it was a “red flag” when the report came back as a dealer plate, and he believed the car might flee because of how the driver was checking his rear and side view mirrors.
“Sgt. McDonald told Officer Crosier, ‘This guy looks like he’s gonna pull off on us,’ and at that time, the driver of the vehicle drove away from the traffic stop,” the report says.
The officers chased the car through side streets and it eventually broke down. When Belmonte and his passengers fled from the vehicle, McDonald reported seeing the magazine of gun sticking out of his coat. McDonald chased Belmonte, who was running toward a school called Apex Academy. After Belmonte jumped a fence, he turned back toward McDonald.
“I said, just stop, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t grab that gun. I’m yelling at him, giving him these orders,” McDonald told investigators. “He said, ‘N—–, you gonna have to kill me. You got to kill me.’ He grabbed the gun and he went to pull it. I stepped to the side and I fired three shots.”
Investigators did recover a weapon at the scene, and although there is no body camera footage from McDonald of the shooting, special prosecutor Anthony Pierson said audio of McDonald’s commands can be heard in Crosier’s footage.
“He was either saying ‘Police, stop.’ or ‘Please stop.’ It is unclear from the audio that we were able to extract but he’s saying either please stop or police stop, please don’t do it, please don’t do it, before the shots were fired,” Pierson said. “So we do hear that audio loud and clear from officer Crozier’s body cam.”
Pierson explained the department was using GoPro cameras with a single button for turning the device on or off. McDonald told investigators he believed he was turning his camera on when in fact he ended up turning it off.
After sifting through the evidence from the incident, grand jurors returned a “no bill,” essentially determining there was not sufficient evidence to charge McDonald with any crime. The AG’s office has released the investigative files online.
Because grand jury deliberations are sealed, Pierson couldn’t say much about the proceedings, but he explained any officer involved shooting the AG’s office handles goes to a grand jury regardless of how he feels about the evidence.
“The grand jurors are first tasked with determining whether the officer’s actions were reasonable,” Pierson described. “And if the officer’s actions were not reasonable, then they vote on specific charges. So I can’t tell you how they came out, but the grand jurors did hear discussion of murder, felonious assault (and) tampering with evidence.”
Attorney General Yost tried to thread a difficult, and increasingly familiar, needle, voicing both sympathy for the family and faith in a judicial process that rarely charges officers.
“I can’t imagine the grief that the family must bear in burying a 19-year old son or grandson and my heart goes out to them. My heart goes out to the community, because this is a loss for all of us,” Attorney General Dave Yost said. “And yet, at the end of the day, Sergeant McDonald did what his training and his duty required him to do in the protection of himself and others, and the grand jury has rendered its decision.”
But with the Belmonte case joining the list of incidents where a relatively mundane traffic stop escalated to a shooting, Yost acknowledged criticism of how stops are utilized.
“There’s a good question as to whether those things are worth the risk,” Yost said. “On the other hand, it’s an indisputable fact that many fugitive felons, violent felons, are apprehended out of a traffic stop, and getting those fugitive violent felons off the street is an important factor here.”