Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
A Honolulu cop fatally shot a 16-year-old boy eight times, including once in the back of the head, after a vehicle pursuit. The officer had claimed, among other things, that the car the teen was driving had reversed toward him and “rammed” his car. But body camera footage from the April 5 incident didn’t back that up, according to local prosecutors.
Now, that officer and two of his colleagues are facing murder charges, prosecutors said in an announcement Tuesday.
Geoffrey H.L. Thom, a five-year veteran of the Honolulu Police Department, was charged with second-degree murder for allegedly shooting the teen driver, Iremamber Sykap, once in the back of the head, twice in the back of the neck, four times in the back, and once in his arm, according to prosecutors’ complaint. Officers Zackary K. Ah Nee and Christopher J. Fredeluces are also accused of second-degree attempted murder for their actions that day.
“The evidence supports the conclusion that the defendants’ use of deadly force in this case was unnecessary, unreasonable, and unjustified under the law,” prosecutors said.
If convicted, any of the three officers could face life sentences with the possibility for parole and at least 20 years behind bars without a chance at parole “due to their use of semi-automatic firearms in connection with the alleged offenses,” the department of Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steven Alm said in a statement Tuesday. In the meantime, the Honolulu police department said the cops will be placed on desk duty, according to the Washington Post.
The incident began after the three officers, who were all in patrol vehicles, were called to the area of Kawaikui Beach Park in the afternoon when someone spotted a white Honda Civic that had been reported stolen two days earlier. The vehicle was also allegedly connected to crimes including an armed robbery, a theft, and a purse-snatching, prosecutors said in a criminal complaint.
Police have said that Sykap was driving the vehicle, though he and other young people in the car have not yet been identified as being involved in any of those alleged offenses, prosecutors said. (That doesn’t mean they were not involved, they noted in their complaint.)
After officers arrived, the Honda Civic drove out of the park and accelerated when the cops attempted to conduct a traffic stop, according to the complaint. A high-speed pursuit ensued for about 10 minutes until cops were able to corner the Honda at an intersection.
As Thom and Fredeluces, who were in the same patrol car, got out of their vehicle, two passengers of the Honda fled. Ah Nee also hopped out of his patrol vehicle to confront the car’s occupants.
Fredeluces, a 10-year-veteran of the police department, went to the driver’s side of the Honda and demanded that the remaining four passengers, including Sykap, get out, while holding them at gunpoint, according to the complaint. Ah Nee ran around to the passenger’s side, tried to open the door, and pointed his gun at the interior of the car.
At this time, the Honda was blocked from moving forward by one of the patrol cars. It had come to a complete stop, an attorney for Sykap’s family told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Yet Thom fired 10 rounds into the rear window, while Fredeluces also fired a single round just above the driver’s door handle, though it apparently did not hit Sykap.
As the officers were shooting at the vehicle, which was still in drive, it moved forward and struck Ah Nee’s empty squad car before rolling over an empty sidewalk and falling into a canal. Ah Nee fired four shots, striking the Honda’s front-seat passenger and the driver’s brother, Mark Sykap, twice, according to the complaint.
One officer later wrote in a report that the Honda had “rammed” his car, reversed toward him, and accelerated toward another officer, although these claims weren’t supported by bodycam footage, prosecutors wrote. That officer also said in a report that after he heard gunshots, he believed they were coming from the vehicle. But he fired his weapon before confirming that belief, prosecutors said.
The third officer also wrote in a report that he saw what he thought was the butt of a firearm in the lap of the front-seat passenger. That’s also not supported by bodycam video, prosecutors said: The passenger had a “thin square object” on his lap, which didn’t resemble a gun.
The police chief seemed rattled by prosecutors' decision to pursue charges. The prosecuting attorney had already presented evidence to an Oahu grand jury on June 9, according to KHON-TV, and jurors declined to indict the three cops.
“We are surprised by the prosecuting attorney’s announcement to seek charges against the officers after a grand jury composed of citizens decided not to indict them,” Interim HPD Chief Rade Vanic said in a statement Tuesday, according to Hawaii News Now.
“This is highly unusual, and we are not aware of a similar action having been taken in the past. While we await the court’s decision, we will continue to protect and serve the community as we have always done,” he added.
The Honolulu Police Department did not immediately return VICE News’ request for comment. The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers also did not respond to a request for comment.