What really happened the night Michael Bell’s son died?

Father’s appeals for a new investigation have been relentless. Authorities have rejected him at every turn.

By: - Thursday August 11, 2022 7:00 am

What really happened the night Michael Bell’s son died?

Father’s appeals for a new investigation have been relentless. Authorities have rejected him at every turn.

By: - 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 page.)

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 page.)

Over the course of a dozen years, Michael M. Bell has been campaigning for local and state officials to take a new look at the 2004 killing of his son by a Kenosha police officer.

In the last year, that campaign has escalated — culminating with public allegations that Bell has directed at the Kenosha city administrator, a former Kenosha police chief.

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

So far, Bell’s campaign has generated full-page newspaper ads and TV spots, but otherwise nothing but roadblocks. 

Two lawsuits that Bell filed — one demanding that the city release the bullet that killed his son, the other accusing the officer who killed his son of libel — have been dismissed; those rulings are on appeal.

Bell’s most recent sally is his public accusation that the Kenosha city administrator, John Morrissey, when he was a Kenosha police officer, provided false information when he submitted a transcript for a college degree that he had received.

Morrissey denied that accusation when he spoke with an investigator who Bell hired in an effort to verify whether the transcript was accurate. So far, however, the administration of Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian has ignored Bell’s claim and not responded to inquiries about it from the Wisconsin Examiner.

Bell’s repeated attempts to interest the city, the Kenosha County District Attorney’s office, the courts and the Wisconsin Department of Justice in re-examining his son’s death  have all hit dead-ends. 

None of those institutions or agencies have directly addressed the core issue Bell raises: that a key discrepancy between police and eyewitness accounts on the night his son died calls into question whether the fatal shooting was justified.

“I could not get anybody in the state of Wisconsin to listen,” Bell said in a recent interview. 

The Wisconsin Examiner has several times sought an interview with Antaramian about Bell’s claims and accusations. The Kenosha mayor’s only response was to send the Examiner a four-page table of investigations, reports and public statements, with summaries for each item that concluded there were no grounds for reopening the matter.

Campaign for new investigation

A Kenosha police officer shot and killed Michael E. Bell in the driveway of his mother’s home in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 2004. 

According to the police department’s official account, Kenosha Police officer Erich Strausbaugh pulled the younger Bell over into the driveway of his home after pursuing him. Bell got out of the car he was driving and a scuffle ensued, with Bell at one point breaking away and running toward the house after the officer used a taser on him.

Strausbaugh grabbed Bell and brought him back toward the driveway, helped by a second officer, Erich Weidner. A third officer, Lt. David Krueger, arrived and also used a taser on Bell, then grabbed him from behind in a bear hug. At this point, Bell was up against the hood of a car parked in the driveway.

A fourth officer, Albert Gonzalez, arrived  on the scene. Strausbaugh shouted several times that Bell had his gun. At that point, Gonzalez was at point-blank range from Bell, and on Krueger’s order, he shot Bell. 

The shooting was investigated internally by the department, which concluded after two days that there was no police wrongdoing in Michael E. Bell’s death. 

Michael Bell's photo 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 E. Bell’s photo 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 M. Bell subsequently sued the city. During pretrial depositions, Bell and his lawyers questioned inconsistencies in the official account that contradicted physical evidence and accounts from eyewitnesses outside the police department. The city subsequently agreed to settle the lawsuit, paying Bell $1.75 million in 2010. 

Skeptical of the speed with which the police department investigated and cleared its own officers, Bell began campaigning for a new state law requiring investigations of deaths at the hands of police to be conducted by outside agencies — a law that was enacted in 2014.

While it’s not unusual for a civil lawsuit settlement to restrict the parties from discussing the matter as a condition of the deal, Bell’s settlement had no such condition. And in the years since the settlement, he has continued to challenge the original account of his son’s death, enlisting private investigators to dig into the details and publicly airing his criticisms of the investigation, the police department and the Kenosha city government. 

Bell charges that the official account of how his son died has distorted key details to justify the shooting and avoid accountability for the police department, the officers involved and the city. He has created a website and Facebook page and commissioned a documentary video that is posted on YouTube, highlighting elements of that official account that other evidence appears to contradict.

Conflicting incident descriptions

An illustration included in a brochure that Michael Bell’s team has prepared showing the Kenosha police version of how officers and his son were positioned at the scene when police shot and killed Bell’s son. (Image provided courtesy of Michael Bell)

The police account of the incident has depicted Gonzalez, the officer who fired the fatal shot, standing at Michael E. Bell’s left with his gun drawn when he pulled the trigger. That account also has placed Strausbaugh, the officer who had shouted that his gun had been seized, standing at Bell’s immediate right.

But Michael M. Bell points to several specific pieces of evidence indicating that Gonzalez stood on his son’s right side when the shot was fired, not his left side.

That’s important, the elder Bell says, because it calls into question the assumption that the officers at the scene were in danger. He believes that what happened was the result of an avoidable error in judgment — an error that should be recognized and from which police and prosecutors might learn so that it’s less likely to happen again.

“I would like to see a proper investigation conducted,” Bell said in one of several interviews with the Wisconsin Examiner over the last two years about the case. “It was a flawed investigation from the beginning.”

An image of the car in the driveway of Michael E. Bell’s home, showing blood spattered on the hood of the car. Michael M. Bell says the patterns supports his understanding of where the officer who fired the fatal shot was positioned. It’s part of a brochure that the Bell team has created in their campaign for a new investigation. (Image provided courtesy of Michael Bell)

After the younger Bell’s death, the autopsy report identified the bullet entrance wound on the right side of his head, with the exit wound toward the back of his head on the left side.

Pictures from the scene showed blood on the hood of the car, and Michael M. Bell’s

documentary video says the pattern of the blood also supports the conclusion that his son was shot on the right side rather than the left. 

In addition, according to the video, Michael E. Bell’s sister as well as his mother — the elder Bell’s former wife — saw the struggle. They gave statements that Gonzalez was on the younger Bell’s right side, not his left side as the police account has claimed, and that Strausbaugh was immediately behind Gonzalez. 

The elder Bell says that the scenario placing Gonzalez on the right side is supported by the autopsy evidence, the blood pattern on the car hood and the eyewitness testimony. And if that is accurate, he argues, Michael E. Bell could not have had his hand on Strausbaugh’s gun as the officer claimed. 

Michael M. Bell says he is not accusing Strausbaugh, who took his own life in 2010, of deliberately lying in his description of the incident. 

A second illustration, also in the Bell team’s brochure, showing how Bell and investigators working with him believe officers and his son were positioned. (Image provided courtesy of Michael Bell)

A retired Kenosha police detective, Russell Beckman, who has been aiding Bell as a volunteer since 2012, developed a theory about what happened that has become part of Bell’s argument.

Beckman and Bell believe that Strausbaugh’s holster might have been snagged on the car’s side view mirror. In the heat of the moment, they reason, the tugging sensation of his holster on the mirror could have caused Strausbaugh to mistakenly believe that his gun was being seized, leading him to panic.

That response is understandable, they say. But the other officers who were on the scene were in a position to understand that Strausbaugh was mistaken, Bell and Beckman believe. If Gonzalez was standing between Strausbaugh and Bell’s son, then he should have realized that the younger Bell could not have grabbed Strausbaugh’s weapon, they contend — and so there was no need for Gonzalez to shoot. 

Michael M. Bell believes that scenario would undermine the official justification for the shooting: to prevent Strausbaugh’s gun from being turned on the officers. Bell charges that is why the city, the police department and the Kenosha County district attorney have all rejected his calls to reexamine the incident. 

DNA evidence dispute

Bell offers another detail to support his contention that his son never touched Strausbaugh’s gun: In a 2005 State Crime Lab report on the shooting, investigators stated they found no evidence of the younger Bell’s DNA on the weapon. 

In 2017, Bell met with Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley and asked for a new investigation. The absence of DNA as well as the other discrepancies in the account would warrant a second look, he told the prosecutor. 

Graveley denied the request. In a letter to Bell, the prosecutor asserted the lack of DNA on the gun proved nothing, and that in brief contact with a firearm or holster, “you would almost never see a positive test result for the presence of that person’s DNA.” He also stated that DNA analysts at the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) State Crime Lab had told him “that there would be no expectation of DNA results under the facts and circumstances described in your son’s death.”

Bell again cited the lack of DNA on the gun when he petitioned the Kenosha County circuit court in 2018 to appoint a special prosecutor and launch a John Doe investigation of his son’s death. In 2019, Racine County Circuit Judge Timothy Boyle rejected Bell’s petition. While Boyle’s order noted that there had been contradictory descriptions of the incident, the judge minimized the significance of the absence of DNA. 

Beckman, the retired detective working with Bell, disputes Graveley’s claim about the so-called “touch DNA.”  In 2021, Beckman filed a grievance against Graveley with the state Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR). His grievance claimed that a strong scientific consensus contradicts Graveley’s statement, and the prosecutor’s claim was “dishonest, fraudulent, deceitful and a misrepresentation of the facts.” 

OLR has rejected Beckman’s grievance as well as subsequent appeals. Beckman, who lives in Brown County, is now suing the agency in circuit court there; he is representing himself. He has filed documents seeking to question not just OLR officials but also state DOJ personnel, questioning statements that the DA had made about his communication with the crime lab analysts. 

Both DOJ and OLR have asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. In late July, Beckman filed a brief opposing the dismissal motion. The brief includes an affidavit from a forensic DNA expert who also contradicted Graveley’s assertion about the likelihood of recovering DNA evidence from the gun. 

Bullet lawsuit, complaint to governor

Michael M. Bell’s son was killed in the driveway of his mother’s home — the elder Bell’s ex-wife. In 2019, Bell found a dent in siding flashing on the garage. Bell believes the dent was made by a bullet, and a ballistics expert he hired reported that the dent had traces of lead.

If that dent could be linked to the bullet that killed his son, Bell says, it would support his scenario for the shooting: that the bullet was fired in the direction of the garage. Based on the police account, the bullet would have been fired away from the garage.

Bell meets governor's aide
Michael M. Bell passes a letter and related materials to an aide to Gov. Tony Evers in October 2021. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)

Bell asked the city to release the bullet so his ballistic expert could examine it and compare it with the dent. The city denied his request, citing reports from the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department and the state Division of Criminal Investigation in DOJ that they found no indication of the dent in reports or photos taken at the time of the shooting in 2004.  

Bell filed a lawsuit in September 2021 demanding the bullet. Kenosha County Circuit Judge Chad Kerkman dismissed the lawsuit Feb. 7, 2022; Bell has appealed the dismissal. 

In October 2021, Bell filed a formal complaint with Gov. Tony Evers, charging that Attorney General Josh Kaul and the DOJ had ignored his repeated requests for the agency to take a new look at his son’s death. The next month, he took out a national newspaper ad to put additional pressure on the governor and the attorney general. 

Bell timed the ads to run when the eyes of much of the world were on Kenosha because of the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people and wounded a third in August 2020 during the unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Evers’ lawyer subsequently told Bell that the governor lacked the authority to investigate the attorney general.

In April 2022, after Bell’s lawsuit for the bullet was dismissed, he issued a statement that if city officials would release the bullet by June 1, he would absolve the city of financial liability for the results of the subsequent investigation.

Bell told the Wisconsin Examiner that his intent with the offer had been to publicly forgo the option of suing the city if the release of the bullet produced evidence that could lead to the city being “financially exposed.” 

Appealing to city council

In 2020, Gonzalez, the officer who shot Bell’s son, self-published a book giving his own account of the shooting. The book uses partial names and sometimes fictionalized ones. 

Bell — who is called “Mitchell Smith” in the book — sued Gonzalez for libel for inventing a quote attributed to “Smith” that implied he was seeking vengeance against Gonzalez. That case also has been dismissed. 

(Gonzalez was one of four people who ran in the August 9 Republican primary for Kenosha County sheriff. He finished a distant third in the contest Tuesday night.)

Before the libel suit was dismissed, another detail in the book caught Bell’s attention: the mention that Gonzalez makes in the narrative of a fifth officer among the witnesses to the incident — in contrast to the four that had been identified in official police reports. 

newspaper ad images
In November 2021, Michael M. Bell purchased a two-page ad in the New York Times to publicize his call for a new investigation into the police shooting of his son in 2004. (Wisconsin Examiner photo illustration)

In a January deposition for the libel lawsuit, Gonzalez told Bell’s lawyer the fifth officer’s full name. Months later, at the city council’s May 2 meeting, Bell spoke during the citizen comments about the fifth officer. Because of the discrepancy with the original reports, he told council members, “This council can no longer accept the Kenosha Police Department’s version of events, as the evidence does not support it.”

Bell addressed Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian and John Morrissey, the city administrator: “I have offered you financial indemnification to the city if you release the bullet … You must do the right thing and release the bullet for outside expert analysis by June 1.”

He got no reaction from them.

Later in May, Bell took out national newspaper ads again, this time accusing the police department of having “concealed” the presence of the fifth officer as a witness, and asserting that the same officer also collected evidence at the scene despite having been a witness. The ad reiterated his June 1 deadline for the bullet’s release in return for his offer to waive the city’s financial liability.

City officials showed no interest in the proposed deal.

Transcript investigation

Bell was back in front of the city council in July with another citizen comment — this time directed at the city administrator, John Morrissey. 

Morrissey was hired as administrator in June 2020, four years after retiring as Kenosha Police Chief, a position he was appointed to in 2008. He had been a Kenosha police officer for two decades before being promoted to chief. 

In 2001, according to his city personnel file, Morrissey received a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice through Kaplan Colleges, a for-profit college. According to documents in his city personnel file, Morrissey fulfilled requirements for his degree by taking correspondence courses.

Bell and Beckman had obtained the contents of Morrissey’s personnel file with the city from an open records request, but details in a copy of his college transcript that was part of the file raised questions, Bell says. The document appears to indicate that Morrissey completed the 40 courses for his degree over a 16-month period — a pace that both Beckman and Bell found unbelievable.

Bell hired a private investigator to authenticate Morrissey’s degree and transcript. The investigator, Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent, spent months and produced a 258-page report.

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Morrissey had Kaplan, now part of Purdue University, send Ezell an official transcript. That computer-generated document lists the same courses and grades as the version that is in Morrissey’s personnel file, but does not indicate when the courses were taken. 

Still, Ezell’s report concludes  that Morrissey did appear on paper to be a graduate of the program. But the investigator questions the pace at which Morrissey completed the curriculum for his degree — 40 courses, each 72 hours, in 16 months. Noting that Morrissey worked full time as a Kenosha Police shift sergeant and had a family, Ezell calls that pace “impossible.”

The university, citing privacy laws, refused to discuss Morrisey’s transcript with the Wisconsin Examiner.

Ezell interviewed Morrissey twice for the report, and writes that Morrissey stood by his claim at having completed the program in the reported time.

Ezell’s report also notes that Morrissey was unable to recall any of the people who proctored his exams, although the college’s practice was for students to enlist exam proctors in their community or among people they knew.

Michael M. Bell speaks on Jan. 4, 2021, leading up to the decision on whether there would be charges in the police shooting of Jacob Blake. (Isiah Holmes | Wisconsin Examiner)

While the report views the details of Morrissey’s degree and transcript with skepticism, it doesn’t offer any hypotheses for how such a record could be falsified. 

Nevertheless, in an email message that Bell sent June 30 to dozens of Kenosha-area elected officials, Bell stated, “I strongly believe, based on the findings of Allen Ezell’s report, that former Chief of Police John Morrissey fraudulently obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice.”

Bell raised the subject again during the public comment period before the city council’s July 6 meeting, and got no response.

Morrissey did not reply Wednesday to an email message from the Wisconsin Examiner asking for his comment about Bell’s claims.

In the mass email message that Bell sent on June 30 and in an interview, Bell said he believes Morrissey was involved in blocking the release of the bullet. He said his suspicions about the degree’s authenticity fit into a pattern of deception he believes is tied to a cover-up of the circumstances of his son’s death at the hands of police nearly 18 years ago.

“This is nothing more than a case of somebody pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes,” Bell said in a recent interview.

In an earlier interview, in March 2021, Bell said that understanding exactly what happened — and what did not happen — when his son was killed is important to ensure that there is full accountability for the people involved.

Under his scenario that night, it is still possible that the shooting was the result of a misunderstanding, Bell said. He doesn’t dispute that the incident itself was tense and heated and emotions were running high. 

In such situations, “you do the best you can in the moment,” he said. “Sometimes you misinterpret something. You do the best you can, even with that misinterpretation.”

But that misinterpretation needs to be unpacked, he argues — not simply dismissed as somehow unavoidable. 

If there had been a thorough and independent investigation of the shooting, he says, and if it had verified his scenario or something like it, the resulting report “would have come back and said it was an error,” Bell said. “They could have come back and said, ‘Why did that error occur?’”

Because that’s never happened, he said, “There’s an ongoing lie that’s still going on regarding my child.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor 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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