Father issues new challenge to prosecutor over son’s death in 2004

By: - April 10, 2021 10:00 am
Michael Bell Sr. (center) and his family stand in front of one of the many billboards they bought to draw attention to internal police investigations after his son was fatally shot by Kenosha police in 2004. (Photo via Bell's Plea For a Change Facebook site.)

Michael M. Bell (center) and his family stand in front of one of the many billboards they bought to draw attention to internal police investigations after his son was fatally shot by Kenosha police in 2004. (Photo via Bell’s Plea For a Change Facebook site.)

A Kenosha man whose adult son was killed by police 16 years ago wants the state attorney general’s office to investigate a local prosecutor’s refusal to support a new inquiry into the fatal shooting.

Michael M. Bell’s new complaint to the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) focuses in part on statements that the Kenosha County District Attorney, Michael Graveley, made in 2017 about potential evidence in the police shooting death of Bell’s adult son, Michael E. Bell.

The elder Bell’s letter to the DOJ follows a grievance that an investigator working with Bell has filed with the state Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR), charging Graveley with professional misconduct.

Retired Kenosha Police detective Russell Beckman — who has been assisting Bell for nearly a decade in his attempts to get the investigation of his son’s death reopened — filed the grievance in February, updating it several times since then. In it, Beckman accuses Graveley of making false and contradictory statements about evidence in the younger Bell’s shooting death.

Bell and Beckman contend that Graveley’s statements contributed to a judge’s refusal three years ago to open a new special investigation into the circumstances surrounding the younger Bell’s death.

In an email response to questions from the Wisconsin Examiner, Graveley said he had not heard from OLR but that he “would expect them to find no factual basis” in the grievance’s allegations.

‘A flawed investigation…’

On Nov. 9, 2004, a Kenosha police officer shot 21-year-old Michael E. Bell in a confrontation after tailing the car he was driving. When the younger Bell arrived at his house and got out of the vehicle, officers seized him and used a taser on him, according to police accounts, and one officer trained his gun on Bell.

In the subsequent scuffle, a second officer shouted that Bell had taken his gun. The officer who was pointing his gun at Bell shot him in the head, killing him. The police department conducted a two-day investigation of the shooting and cleared the officers.

In 2010, the city of Kenosha paid Michael M. Bell $1.75 million to settle a federal lawsuit over his son’s death. The settlement followed pretrial depositions that the elder Bell says called into question police accounts of the incident.

In the years since then, Bell has continued to seek a new investigation into his son’s death, pointing to new information turned up by private investigators that he has hired.

Michael M. Bell speaks on Jan 4, leading up to the decision on whether there would be charges in the police shooting of Jacob Blake. (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)

“We believe a police homicide occurred,” Bell says. “And it fully fits under the description of second degree intentional homicide. It was a flawed investigation from the beginning and it has never been properly adjudicated.”

So far, however, he’s been unable to persuade any agency to reopen the case — not local prosecutors, the Kenosha Police & Fire Commission, federal prosecutors or the state DOJ.

In the meantime, Bell successfully campaigned for a Wisconsin law, enacted in 2014, that requires all deaths involving a police officer to be investigated by an outside agency instead of the officer’s own department. Since then he has proposed that all officer-involved deaths go through a special investigation to dissect what happened in detail. State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) has introduced a bill that would create that procedure in Wisconsin.

A former military aviator, Bell compares the concept to how the National Transportation Safety Board investigates airplane crashes. “When there’s an error, let’s look at the fundamentals and see what was wrong and how do we prevent it from happening again,” he says.

Disputed evidence

In November 2019, Bell released a trove of information compiled with the help of Beckman, the retired Kenosha police detective, and a film producer that Bell hired. Their review turned up details that Bell says conflict with police accounts of his son’s death. Perhaps the most dramatic conflict involves the police department’s description of the fatal shot.

At the time he was shot, Michael E. Bell was being held from behind by a Kenosha Police lieutenant. Bell stood on the driver’s side of the vehicle; he was being held bent over the front hood.

According to the police account, the officer who fired the shot — Albert Gonzalez — was standing at the front of the vehicle, on the younger Bell’s left side and with the barrel of his gun at Bell’s left temple.

But eyewitnesses described the scene differently, with Gonzalez on the younger Bell’s right side and his gun at Bell’s right temple.

Michael M. Bell, seen in the video he has posted to YouTube about his son’s death. (Screen capture | YouTube)

The autopsy report of the younger Bell’s body also placed the bullet entrance wound on the right side of his head, with the exit wound on the back left. Blood on the car hood from the gunshot also corroborates that description, says the elder Bell, who has posted a YouTube video to make the case for why the official account is wrong.

The position of Gonzalez is relevant to another detail about the incident: the officer who shouted that Michael E. Bell had grabbed his gun.

That officer was named Eric Strausbaugh. In the moments after he shouted that his gun had been seized, Gonzalez fired the fatal shot.

In the State Crime Lab’s 2005 report on the shooting, investigators stated they found no evidence of the younger Bell’s DNA on Strausbaugh’s gun. That finding has become an important part of Michael M. Bell’s argument that important information is missing from the official account of his son’s death.

The elder Bell argues that since no DNA was found on the gun, his son never touched Strausbaugh’s weapon.  Strausbaugh died by suicide in 2010. Beckman began working with Bell two years later, in 2012, to reopen the investigation of the younger Bell’s death.

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In the police version of the incident, Gonzalez was on the younger Bell’s left and Strausbaugh was immediately to Bell’s right. But in the Bell version, both officers were on Bell’s right — with Gonzalez between Bell and Strausbaugh.

Michael M. Bell’s YouTube video says that with Gonzalez between the younger Bell and the other officer, “the police should have been able to confirm that Michael did not have Strausbaugh’s gun.”

Beckman says his review of the case led him to believe that in the heat of the moment, Strausbaugh might have believed that the younger Bell had grabbed his gun.

Strausbaugh, Beckman says, probably caught his belt and holster on the car’s outside mirror by accident during the struggle. He believes that the resulting tugging sensation probably caused Strausbaugh to mistakenly believe that his gun was being grabbed when it was not — leading to his panicked cry in reaction and the shooting that followed.

Seeking a new review

Kenosha Police and the Kenosha County District Attorney’s office have continued to stand by the account that the officers involved in the arrest gave of the shooting.

Michael M. Bell, meanwhile, has posted an extensive collection of materials, including the YouTube video examining the moments surrounding the shooting, on a website that charges that police and prosecutors covered up police wrongdoing in connection with his son’s death. (Bell is also suing Albert Gonzalez, the officer who fired the fatal shot, for libel after Gonzalez self-published a memoir about the incident.)

Both Bell’s new appeal to Kaul and Beckman’s grievance with the OLR against Graveley focus in large part on the absence of DNA on Strausbaugh’s gun.

When Bell met with Graveley in 2017 to seek a new investigation of his son’s death, he pointed to the lack of DNA as one of the reasons to examine the incident more thoroughly.

After their meeting, Graveley wrote a letter to Bell, denying the request. In 2018, Bell asked the Kenosha County circuit court to appoint a special prosecutor and open a John Doe investigation into the case, again citing the missing DNA evidence among other issues. The petition was referred to Racine County Circuit Judge Timothy Boyle, who in March 2019 declined to authorize an investigation.

Both Boyle’s order and Graveley’s letter minimized the lack of DNA on the gun.

Writing to Bell on Sept. 27, 2017, Graveley stated that based on his own experience as a criminal prosecutor and on his training, “in circumstances where the firearm or holster is simply touched by the party, and for an extremely limited period of time, you would almost never see a positive test result for the presence of that person’s DNA.”

In the letter, the DA also stated that, before writing it, “I again called the DNA analysts at the State Crime Lab to confirm my prior training and assumptions and was again told that there would be no expectation of DNA results under the facts and circumstances described in your son’s death.”

That letter was among the documents that were submitted to Boyle when the judge considered Bell’s petition for a John Doe investigation the next year.

Complaint about DA

Beckman’s OLR grievance focuses on those statements. In a series of attachments that include numerous citations, he argues that there is a strong scientific consensus contradicting what Graveley said about the value of so-called “touch DNA” samples. The document includes a discussion of cases that Graveley has prosecuted, using DNA evidence from objects that were touched only briefly, in circumstances that Beckman argues are comparable to the contact that police claimed Michael E. Bell had with Strausbaugh’s gun.

In light of those contradictions, Beckman’s grievance charges that when Graveley asserted that retrieving touch DNA from the weapon would have been unlikely, his statement was “dishonest, fraudulent, deceitful and a misrepresentation of the facts.”

The grievance also questions whether Graveley was truthful in his letter’s account of consulting with State Crime Lab analysts about the reliability of touch DNA evidence in the Bell case.

In an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Bell says that while he believes the evidence shows his son didn’t ever touch Straussbaugh’s gun, he also accepts that Straussbaugh might have sincerely thought otherwise in the heat of the moment.

Bell likens the situation to “combat scenarios.” “You do the best that you can in the moment, and sometimes you misinterpret something,” he says “I feel that Eric Straussbaugh misinterpreted something snagging his gun as my son.”

He adds: “The problem is, there was never a proper investigation.”

In his letter to the Department of Justice, Bell states that he’s making a complaint against “two or more unidentified State Crime Lab DNA analysts for their alleged actions of providing incorrect consultations” to Graveley on touch DNA, and refers to Beckman’s OLR grievance.  Bell also asks to meet with Attorney General Josh Kaul to discuss the other discrepancies that he has sought to highlight in the case.

Michael Graveley, Kenosha County District Attorney

Graveley, in his statement to the Wisconsin Examiner, says that Bell has sent him the documents that Beckman included with his OLR grievance. “I have received no contact from OLR and would expect them to find no factual basis” for the allegations, he states.

The prosecutor adds that he met with Bell in 2017 although “I was under no statutory or other obligation to do so” in the younger Bell’s death, which he describes as “a closed case.”

Graveley states: “I then reviewed all the materials he provided and attempted to offer him my best legal opinion in a letter back in September 2017. That letter is apparently now the subject of this grievance after 3½ years. Mr. Bell disagrees with the opinion expressed which is his absolute right. I regret that the state crime lab, who also simply offered me guidance, is now facing attack as well.”

The statement adds that the DA’s office is “guided by” Boyle’s 2019 decision against authorizing a John Doe investigation.

In Bell’s view, however, what’s at stake is more than a simple disagreement with the police or the prosecution.

“This is not a cold case,” says Bell. The lingering doubts about his son’s death in police custody “is ultimately hurting law enforcement, because it’s building distrust,” he declares. “And that’s why the system needs to move in a different direction. And they need to make the Bell shooting right.”

After the shooting by a Kenosha police officer left Jacob Blake, a Black man, paralyzed for life in August 2020 and sparked days and nights of protests in the city, Bell stood in support of Black people and other people of color about their treatment by law enforcement.

Bell, who is white and wealthy, says the case of his son’s death underscores those complaints.

“If a retired lieutenant colonel, with resources that we have and the education that we have, cannot get proper justice in a police shooting, there’s no way that minority families or low-income families are getting a fair shake,” Bell says. “Because if I can’t get it done, being in a privileged class in society, then who is getting it done? Nobody.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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