A poster depicting Christopher Davis. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
“My kids call me every day,” Doretha Lock told Wisconsin Examiner, recalling the day that her son, 21-year-old Christopher Davis, was killed by police in Walworth County. Although he’d called to check in, Lock could tell something wasn’t right. As she listened for any clues which may be hidden in the background noise, Davis told his mom he loved her.
“I said, ‘Chris … where are you?’ He said, ‘I love you mom.’ And I said I love you, too, baby … I knew something was wrong.’” Some 45 minutes later Lock, sitting in her Milwaukee home, would get the call from Davis’ girlfriend that he’d been shot by police.
“I said, ‘How do you know? I just talked to Chris,’” Lock recalled. “She said one of her cousins that was in the car with them said he’d been shot. And I said, ‘Well where are they?’ And she said she didn’t know.” That was over four years ago, on February 24, 2016. But for Davis’ family, neither the memories nor their struggle for justice and accountability have dissipated.
Following the shooting, Davis’ family filed a sweeping lawsuit asserting that his civil rights were violated. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that defendants in the lawsuit include Walworth County and its sheriff, the Town of East Troy, the Village of East Troy—as well as their respective police chiefs—numerous other parties. Among those specifically listed is Juan Ortiz who, at the time of the Davis shooting, was a Walworth County sheriff’s deputy. Ortiz was the officer who fired the bullets that struck Davis in the head, killing him. After being placed on administrative duty while the case was investigated, Ortiz returned to patrol duties.
Since then, Ortiz has been promoted to detective and assigned to the sheriff’s office Digital Forensics Service. According to the Walworth County Sheriff’s 2019 annual report, “the detectives [Ortiz and a colleague] perform analysis of digital evidence in addition to their primary duties of investigating crimes. Both detectives regularly attend training to assist them with case investigations. Detectives regularly seek new technology to defeat encrypted and pass code protected technologies.”
Detective Oritz is also battling Davis’ family in appeals court, which may ultimately amount to a test of qualified immunity for officers, who are protected, as government officials, from civil suit. The suit had a day in Appeals Court on Sept. 21.
Wrong place, wrong time
In February 2016, Davis accompanied friends who drove to Walworth County from Milwaukee. They wanted to check out a car for sale. While Davis was okay with using his own car for the journey, he was uncomfortable with driving on the freeway, his family said. Instead, Davis allowed one of the friends he was with, Jose Lara, who was the cousin of Davis’ girlfriend, to drive. Davis sat in the front passenger seat and a third passenger sat in the back seat.
Lock explained that Davis was at a grandmother’s house, when one of his cousins came over and asked him to give him a ride to go pick up a car. Davis’ mother said, “Chris volunteered. Which is normal for him to do, he’s that type of person.” She fondly remembers her son as kind-hearted and always willing to help someone out.
As they entered Walworth County the third passenger asked Lara to stop off at a nearby restaurant so that he could meet someone who owed him money. Lara initially protested, stating the trip was already lengthy and the detour would take them far out of their way to view the car.
After agreeing to make the stop, they drove to a Roma Restaurant parking lot and the third person made a phone call. In investigative reports compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s DCI (Division of Criminal Investigations) Lara told investigators he had no clue who was on the other end of the phone.
As they waited, a marked squad car pulled into the mostly empty lot and turned on its lights. When that happened, Lara told investigators that the third passenger began pleading for him to drive away. It was at that moment that the passenger admitted to having cannabis on him, and that the detour was actually so that he could sell it. The third person’s panic stemmed from the fact that he was on probation.
In those short moments, Lara briefly expressed his anger and shock at the situation he and Davis had been unknowingly dragged into by the third passenger. Lara began to back out of the lot when Ortiz, who’d exited his squad, fired what Lara thought were at least two shots. Another officer at the scene later told DCI that he heard four shots.
“Lara said he was turning,” investigative documents state, “and as soon as he turned, the officer shot.” Davis was struck in the head, and bled next to Lara as the car sped away and entered the highway. “Lara said he was trying to get to the hospital because he looked over and saw blood ‘all over’ Davis’ face. Davis wasn’t saying anything but he was breathing,” the report states.
From the officers’ point of view, the situation had turned into a high-speed chase. They raced down the expressway, and eventually caused Davis’ car to crash using a PIT (Pursuit Intervention Technique) maneuver, which flipped the car.
Although multiple squad cars chased the vehicle, no dash footage was captured. Body cam footage from at least one officer was collected and analyzed by DCI agents. Other officers on the scene were wearing body cameras, including a Big Bend Police Department Lieutenant who aided in locating Davis’ car after the chase began. That lieutenant, however, didn’t activate his body camera, telling investigators that the incident happened too fast, and his microphone fell off when he exited his car.
Lara was tasered and apprehended as he climbed out of the car, while the third individual escaped and hid in the nearby woods for some time before being arrested. Davis lay dead in his own car along the side of a Walworth County road. Wisconsin’s DOJ and DCI investigated the case. Then-District Attorney Dan Necci cleared all officers of wrong-doing.
“I should’ve ended our involvement right then,” said one officer
The events which resulted in Davis’ killing began with officers who weren’t even from the same department as now-Detective Ortiz. Two officers from the Village of East Troy Police Department, Jeff Price and Aaron Hackett, arrested a man for a domestic charge, and recovered a bag of cannabis in the process. According to the interview Hackett gave DCI agents, Price wanted to use the man’s charges to turn him into an informant.
Hackett’s shift was about to end, and he asked if Price would still need him. “Hackett said that Price informed him he could go home,” reads the investigative file by DCI. “Hackett stated he hung around the police department thinking that he may be needed. Hackett stated he did end up helping Price come up with an arrest plan, which resulted in Hackett and Price moving the now-confidential informant’s (CI) red vehicle to the Shell gas station.”
The police officers’ plan involved having the informant call dealers from Milwaukee to come and sell to him in the Village of East Troy. As the dealers approached the gas station, police would initiate traffic stops, search the cars, and conduct arrests. One of these arrests was actually happening as Davis’ car was arriving, as evidenced by texts between the informant and the third passenger, obtained from seized phones by DCI.
Price was in a marked squad car and in uniform, while Hackett, who was off duty, dressed in plain clothes, driving his own car, and carrying his personal firearm not issued by the department. Price had also recruited other officers including then-Deputy Ortiz for the plan.
One of Price’s other recruits was Town of East Troy Police Department Sergeant Paul Schmidt. He was accompanied by another officer from his own department, Officer Craig Knox. The Village and Town of East Troy have separate police departments. Schmidt told DCI that he and Knox were leaving a training class when Officer Price, from the Village of East Troy PD, contacted Knox over the radio. Price was requesting assistance and told Knox to drive to a nearby Burger King.
There, Schmidt told investigators, Price held an informal briefing with Village of East Troy officers and multiple Walworth Sheriff’s deputies. Both Schmidt and Knox were in plain clothes, and only Knox carried a service weapon. The pair, however, had driven to the briefing in what Schmidt described as “Town of East Troy PD’s newest patrol squad, a fully marked Ford Explorer.” Knox, however, told DCI that “his squad SUV did not have audio or video recording capabilities.” Since he was out of uniform, he also lacked his body camera.
Schmidt thought the briefing lasted about two minutes, though he never got out of the car to stand with the others. Knox, who told investigators the briefing actually lasted about 30 seconds, filled Schmidt in after getting back in the squad. Sergeant Schmidt, who had not been fully introduced to all of the involved officers, quickly started to re-think the plan.
Not only was Schmidt unarmed, but neither he nor Knox had their ballistic vests. Hackett, the Village of East Troy officer who helped Price set everything up, also lacked a uniform and a police vehicle. Schmidt was also concerned that the information they had received about the supplier’s vehicle wasn’t enough. Particularly since the plan revolved around setting up the informants’ vehicle as bait to draw in the suspected cars they had almost no information about.
“Schmidt told the agents he felt it was not a good plan,” the investigative report states. “Schmidt stated he and Knox should not have taken part in the potential arrest,” it continued, noting that Schmidt felt, “only having information about a Mercury Marquis or someone/some vehicle in front of or near a Mercury Marquis was not good to go on.” As the officers left the Burger King lot they followed Price, who “surprised both Schmidt and Knox” by turning onto the highway headed to the Roma restaurant. “I should’ve stopped our involvement right then in this whole thing,” the file states Schmidt told investigators. “Schmidt felt they didn’t have enough information or manpower to attempt an arrest.”
After Davis was shot and the car immobilized, Schmidt contacted his chief to inform him of the incident. Meanwhile, Knox changed into his uniform as the officers waited for DCI and firefighters to arrive. “They had two drug deals going on at the same time,” Davis’ mother told Wisconsin Examiner. “They were not prepared. They didn’t have a plan. They didn’t have things set up for this to happen.”
Lock and her lawyer also question whether some of the officers, including then-Deputy Ortiz, were specifically trained for that kind of operation. “A lot of times, I just don’t know what happened,” she added. The third passenger described Davis as an “innocent person” who was accidentally caught up in the situation. No weapons were recovered, and no hand-off of drugs occurred before Davis was shot. Davis was the only African American in the car.
Remembering Christopher Davis, and moving forward
Davis’ mother plans to continue pushing for justice and accountability in her son’s case. It has taken four years, and a change in lawyers, but Lock feels better days are on their way. Few things are the same. The world is in the grip of a pandemic, police brutality protests have been going on, nationwide, for months, Necci is no longer Walworth County’s district attorney, and Ortiz is now a detective. Lock says she’ll continue pushing on but, through everything happening, she holds onto who her son was, and what he was like.
“[Chris] was the most generous, loving [person],” Lock told Wisconsin Examiner. “He was a mellow kind of dude. He would give you the shirt off his back like, ‘Are you cold, man? You need help?’ He’s one of those very friendly kind of dudes, he’s very mild-mannered. It was easy [for him] to make friends. He could be sitting here like, ‘Hey man, my name’s Chris.’ Then, next thing you know you’ll be sitting here talking about your lives. Anything you’re interested in, he’d ask you why you’re interested in it. And next thing you know, you’d be laughing and talking about something.” Lock recalls her son was like a magnet for people, “he was just that type of dude.”
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