Bell takes fight for new look at son’s death to DOJ, governor

Kenosha man complains Kaul has ignored him, wants Evers to intervene

By: - October 30, 2021 10:42 am
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The Kenosha man who has been crusading for a new investigation of his son’s death at the hands of police 17 years ago has launched a new complaint, this one directed at Attorney General Josh Kaul and the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

Bell meets governor's aide
Michael M. Bell passes a letter and related materials to an aide to Gov. Tony Evers on Friday. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Michael M. Bell’s complaint, delivered Friday morning to an aide for Gov. Tony Evers, charges that Kaul has ignored repeated requests to meet with him to discuss new information about the police shooting of his son, Michael E. Bell, in November 2004.

Bell also charges that the attorney general has “failed to respond” to or investigate a previous complaint that Bell has made against a state crime lab DNA analyst. The earlier complaint grows out of an attempt Bell previously made to seek a new investigation of his son’s death.

In addition, Bell accuses Kaul of letting two unrelated Kenosha investigations, one of police misconduct and the other of allegations against two city officials, “die on the vine” by not promptly moving them forward.

Bell delivered a cover letter along with more than 700 pages of material to the governor’s office, meeting briefly with an aide to Evers to hand over the material.

An Evers spokeswoman referred a request for comment to the Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Seeking a new investigation

Bell’s complaint against Kaul is the latest in a series of attempts he and a retired Kenosha police officer have made to pressure authorities to take a new look at the details in the fatal shooting of Bell’s son by Kenosha police.

“I’m seeking either to be able to present our evidence to Department of Justice and get further assistance, because the information that’s out there now doesn’t add up, or to speak with the governor, and allow him to make a decision on how he wants to handle the Department of Justice,” Bell said in an interview Friday after handing over the material to Evers’ aide.

Bell settled a lawsuit over his son’s killing with the city of Kenosha in 2010 for $1.75 million. As part of the settlement, “we refused to accept a nondisclosure confidentiality agreement,” he said.

In the years since, Bell has campaigned for a new, full investigation of the events the night his son was killed. He has frequently noted that the Kenosha Police Department conducted the two-day investigation of its own officers, clearing them of wrongdoing. Bell has created a website on which he argues that serious discrepancies in the police accounts of the incident warrant a full re-investigation.

In the course of his efforts, Bell pushed the Wisconsin Legislature to enact a 2014 state law requiring deaths involving police officers to be investigated by an outside agency rather than their own departments.

Bell’s complaint to Evers states that he first wrote to Kaul asking to meet with the attorney general in December 2018, following Kaul’s election, and has requested meetings in writing 10 times. “Neither Kaul nor his subordinates, with only two exceptions, has failed to even acknowledge or respond to any of  these ten written requests for a meeting,” the complaint states.

The second point of Bell’s complaint raises issues unrelated to his son’s death. It blames Kaul for the alleged lack of progress on two Kenosha investigations.

One involved how police and prosecutors handled the revelation of a police officer planting evidence in a homicide case; the other involved allegations that city officials tampered with and destroyed city digital records.

Kaul “failed to properly supervise some of his subordinate assistant attorney generals and agents,” the complaint states. “This has resulted in two very important cases involving corruption and criminal misconduct by high ranking city of Kenosha police and city officials to ‘die on the vine.’”

The third point of Bell’s complaint has its beginnings when Bell sought a John Doe investigation in 2018 to reexamine his son’s death.

One of several reasons Bell gave for seeking the review was to challenge the allegation that his son was shot after having put his hand on the service pistol of one of the officers involved in the incident. Crime lab analysis found no evidence of the younger Bell’s DNA on the holster or the handle of that officer’s gun.

Bell has argued the absence of DNA evidence should call into question other details in the police account of the shooting incident. He raised that issue in a meeting with Graveley in 2017.

The prosecutor subsequently wrote to Bell that “there would be no expectation of DNA results under the facts and circumstances described in your son’s death.” Graveley said he based that assessment on information he had received from DOJ crime lab analysts.

A year later the prosecutor included that letter in submissions to the judge hearing Bell’s petition for a new John Doe investigation. The judge rejected Bell’s petition in March 2019, thwarting the father’s attempt to get a new look at the circumstances of his son’s death.

Questions over ‘touch DNA’

Earlier this year, Russell Beckman, a retired Kenosha police detective who has been volunteering on Bell’s behalf, filed a complaint with the state Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) against Graveley. Beckman’s OLR complaint charged that Graveley had mischaracterized the science surrounding whether useful DNA information could be recovered from the officer’s gun and holster.

OLR rejected Beckman’s complaint; Beckman appealed and included his rebuttal to Graveley’s response to his complaint. That appeal was denied, and Beckman is appealing again.

In his 2017 letter, Graveley stated that a telephone conversation with “the DNA analysts at the State Crime Lab” supported his assertion that, under the circumstances that had been described in police accounts, DNA evidence would not have been found on the gun.

In his OLR complaint, Beckman accused the prosecutor of misrepresenting the facts and science of that “touch DNA” evidence.

On March 30, 2021, Bell filed a complaint with DOJ seeking an investigation of the unnamed crime lab analyst to whom Graveley had referred. His complaint Friday charges that Kaul’s office has not responded.

By failing to do so, the attorney general “has obstructed the Bell Family’s quest to obtain a legitimate investigation into the 2004 death of their son at the hands of the Kenosha police,” Bell’s complaint states.

Pending lawsuits

Bell has two court cases pending connected with his son’s death. One is a libel lawsuit against the officer who killed his son and who has written a self-published book about the incident using fictionalized names.

Bell's notebooks
Bell’s complaint and related documents fill two loose-leaf binders. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

The other is a lawsuit demanding that the city of Kenosha turn over the bullet that police say was the fatal projectile. Bell and an investigator he has hired believe it could demonstrate that the shot was fired in the opposite direction from the way police described in their reports.

The documents included with Bell’s complaint take up two large loose-leaf binders, but Bell said that he has given the material on flash drives to the governor’s office as well as to five state legislators whose districts include parts of Kenosha County.

The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel said he met briefly with the chief of staff of each of the five lawmakers Friday: Reps. Samantha Kerkman (R-Salem), Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha) and Tod Ohnstad (D-Kenosha), and state Sens. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) and Bob Wirch (D-Somers).

“I’m waiting for everyone to take a look at the complaint, and then respond back to me in a written form so that we can understand what’s going on,” he said.

Does Bell worry whether his complaint will get a fair hearing from lawmakers in the  polarized political environment in the Capitol?

“All I know is that I, as a father of someone killed by a police officer, found new evidence and approached the attorney general 10 different times,” he replied. “And nobody within the Department of Justice, except for one person, ever bothered to respond for anything.

“What happens between lawmakers is beyond my control,” Bell continued. “If it’s an item of contention, well, then it might be good because it might go under a microscope, and further changes and recommendations might come out of it.”

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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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