Bell sues Kenosha for release of police bullet that killed his son

Father says new examination of projectile could help resolve major dispute about the 2004 shooting

By: - September 14, 2021 7:00 am
Michael Bell on one of the many billboards his father 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 Bell on one of the many billboards his father 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.)

The father of a man shot by Kenosha Police in 2004 is suing the city of Kenosha for withholding the bullet that was used to kill his son.

Michael M. Bell says he wants an independent ballistics analysis of the bullet to help ascertain whether the police description of the shooting was wrong in a key detail: where the officer who killed his son was standing when that shot was fired.

If the police account was wrong, that could have implications for the Kenosha Police Department’s claim that the fatal shooting was justified.

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

“Every citizen is entitled to an accurate account when a police shooting occurs,” Bell said in an interview Monday. “After 17 years, why not release the bullet in a police shooting?”

Bell’s lawsuit was filed Monday in Kenosha County Circuit Court. It seeks a court order requiring the bullet to be released to a ballistics expert that Bell has retained.

Bell “seeks an accurate accounting of the events surrounding his death,” the lawsuit states. It cites “conflicting evidence” about how the officers at the scene and Bell’s son, Michael E. Bell,  were positioned at the time of the shooting.

There is “a compelling interest in monitoring and examining the use of deadly force by police,” it argues. “The interests of justice demand and require that Mr. Bell be allowed to have the bullet at issue tested.”

The Wisconsin Examiner sent an email message Monday to the city of Kenosha’s public relations office seeking comment on the lawsuit, which was filed late in the day on Monday. In response Tuesday afternoon, the city’s spokeswoman, Kris Kochman, emailed to say that the city “does not have a comment on active lawsuits.” 

Conflicting accounts

After the city paid Michael M. Bell $1.75 million in 2010 to settle his original wrongful death lawsuit with the city, he has mounted a continuing campaign for a new, independent investigation of the incident. Part of his campaign has focused on a key discrepancy: where the officer who fired the fatal shot was standing when he pulled the trigger.

On Nov. 9, 2004, police followed Michael E. Bell to the house where he lived. A confrontation followed in which the younger Bell was grabbed by police. In the moments before the shooting, a Kenosha police lieutenant was holding Bell from behind as both stood on the driver’s side of the vehicle; Bell was bent over the front hood.

According to police accounts, Officer Albert Gonzalez was standing on Bell’s left, with the barrel of his service weapon at Bell’s left temple, when Gonzalez fired.

Michael M. Bell, however, believes that Gonzalez was standing on his son’s right side when he fired the shot — facing in the same direction as the front of the car, instead of facing back toward the windshield.

The autopsy report placed the bullet entrance wound at the right side of Bell’s head, with the exit wound toward the back of the left side. Eyewitnesses also reported that they saw Gonzalez on Bell’s right side. Michael M. Bell commissioned a video report, which is posted on YouTube, that details his reasons for  contending the police account of his son’s shooting is inaccurate.

In several interviews with the Wisconsin Examiner, Michael M. Bell has said that establishing where Gonzalez was standing would shed light on the circumstances immediately before the shot was fired.

Another officer at the scene, Erich Strausbaugh, who was standing to the right of Michael E. Bell, shouted that Bell had grabbed his gun. Gonzalez then fired the fatal shot.

No DNA evidence was found on Strausbaugh’s gun. After re-examining the circumstances along with Russell Beckman, a retired Kenosha police officer who has been helping him, Michael M. Bell says that he believes his son never went for the officer’s  weapon.

Instead, Bell suggests that Strausbaugh hooked his gun and holster on the driver’s side mirror of the vehicle and probably mistakenly believed in the heat of the moment that his gun had been seized.

Furthermore, Bell contends that if Gonzalez also was to Michael E. Bell’s right — as suggested by the autopsy report and the eyewitness testimony — he would have been standing between Bell and Strausbaugh. In that case, Bell and Beckman have suggested, Gonzalez should have realized that Michael E. Bell could not have seized Strausbaugh’s gun, regardless of what the other officer might have thought at the time.

Strausbaugh took his own life in 2010.

Dented siding

In October 2019, Michael M. Bell visited his former wife’s house, where his son had been living at the time of his death and where the confrontation with police took place.

Bell’s lawsuit states that he inspected siding flashing on the garage and found a dent that he believes was made by the impact of a bullet. A subsequent examination by the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) Forensic Sciences Division stated that the cause of the dent “cannot be determined.”

The lawsuit quotes Kenosha Sheriff David Beth from a January 2020 letter to Bell summarizing the DOJ report. Beth wrote that in his own examination of photos of the area taken the day of the shooting, “I saw no evidence of a dent in the trim,” and he asserted that the dent “was caused by an undetermined object after the date of the incident in 2004.”

The sheriff granted Bell’s request for the dented siding flashing, which had been sealed to preserve its condition. Bell hired a ballistics expert, Michael G. Haag, to examine it, according to the lawsuit.

After an initial test, the lawsuit states, Haag “concluded that there were traces of lead of unknown origin in the circular dent.” Haag, the lawsuit states, “proposes an independent examination broader in scope” that might enable the cause of the dent to be identified.

Starting in October 2020, Bell made a series of requests for the bullet itself to be released.

Physical evidence as well as records in criminal cases are retained by Kenosha Joint Services, an agency that provides support for both the Kenosha Police Department and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department. The lawsuit names Kenosha Joint Services as a defendant in addition to the city of Kenosha.

Kenosha Joint Services policies state that it will release evidence only with the approval of either the Kenosha city attorney or the Kenosha County District Attorney’s office.

Those requests began with the police department, then went to the city attorney’s office and the DA’s office. Kenosha County DA Michael Graveley replied in a June 1 letter that his office “was not the appropriate agency” to address the request, according to the lawsuit. In a June 8 letter, the Kenosha city attorney denied the request for the bullet.

According to the lawsuit, the city attorney’s office wrote that “the bullet was not a ‘record’” as defined by state public records laws, “but did not describe a reason for denial of a request for inspection of evidence.”

If the dent is indeed from a bullet, Bell said Monday, “it perfectly aligns with the forensics and the eyewitness statements, but it is in direct opposition to the police version” of the shooting.

Spurred by the handling of his son’s death and the brief Kenosha police investigation that exonerated the officers, Bell was active in persuading state lawmakers to enact the Wisconsin law in 2014 that requires outside agencies to investigate police shootings.

Until then, “police shot [people] and investigated themselves,” Bell said Monday. “Michael’s death was never investigated by an outside agency.”

Updated Sept. 14, 1:12 p.m., with the city’s response to a request for comment.

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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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