For Leroy Martinez, the night of August 8, 2011 was one of the worst of his life. It began innocently enough. He’d been sitting on his uncle’s porch, smoking cigarettes with his mother. It was a warm night in Minneapolis and the 23-year-old was in a good mood. He decided to stop near Little Earth housing complex on his way home, just to see who was around. He took his nine-year-old nephew, who wanted to tag along.
“We're walking around there and the next thing you know we're standing there talking with these dudes,” he told VICE News over the phone.
Martinez said he knew some of them. They began passing around his family’s .22 revolver. For many this might seem like cause for alarm, but Martinez later told law enforcement he had the gun that night to keep it away from family members.
He said they were all just joking around. In his telling, Martinez noticed that someone had cocked the gun’s hammer.
“I don't know which one of them boys had the gun last, but they’d pulled the hammer back,” Martinez recalled. Figuring a cocked gun was dangerous, Martinez went to lower it and said he accidentally fired off a round. The bullet ricocheted off the ground and grazed one of the men in the stomach.
Martinez’s first instinct was to run.
“I had a gun so I ain't gonna stay there and… you know, I ain't got no license to carry,” he said.
A gunshot in the area was likely to attract law enforcement—and as a Native American man, Martinez knew that police intervention usually meant trouble. So he ran, but quickly realised he’d left his nephew behind. Martinez looked around, but everyone had scattered, so he went up to a woman outside of the public housing complex and asked if she had seen his nephew. She hadn’t.
The next thing Martinez remembered was someone shouting, “Put your hands up!” He said he complied immediately. The police officer, who Martinez would later come to know as Officer Terry Nutter, then began screaming at him to throw down his gun.
According to the department, four other law enforcement personnel responded. They were Lt. Gwen Gunter, and officers Steven Herron and Brandon Brugger. The fourth officer was Derek Chauvin, who in June this year was charged with the second-degree murder of George Floyd. The killing of Floyd—a Black man who died after Chauvin kneeled on his neck—has spurred international protests against police brutality.
“So I grabbed the gun out of my pocket and I threw it,” Martinez said. “I put my hands back in the air.”
At that point he assumed he might be safe: he’d followed the officer’s orders, thrown away the gun, and was no longer a threat. Multiple witnesses echoed this account.
Margarita Ortega, who still lives in the complex and works for the resident association, remembers that night very clearly. She said that she and her husband saw the entire event from their balcony, and recalled Martinez dropping his gun to the ground moments before Nutter shot him.
When VICE News spoke with her on the phone, Ortega said Nutter had no reason to shoot Martinez, and that those who live in the complex and saw what happened are still upset. She herself still holds angst from that day, though she was not interviewed at the time of the incident.
How the Minneapolis Police Department handled the situation, Ortega said, “told us residents what we needed to know.”
Another resident, Delora Iceman, said she also saw the entire interaction from her balcony. Iceman told The Minneapolis Star Tribune at the time that she saw Martinez toss the gun to the ground and throw his hands in the air. “[Nutter] had no reason to shoot that little boy,” she said.
In response to Iceman’s account, a Minneapolis police spokesman told the paper her testimony had been contradicted by other eyewitnesses. VICE News obtained the police report from the incident, however, and can confirm that some of the other witnesses later interviewed by Minneapolis Police also said Martinez was not threatening any of the officers.
In the same report, other officers who later arrived at the scene echoed elements of Nutter’s story during their supplemental accounts. Contessa Ortley recalled seeing a gun in Martinez’s hand when he turned around to face Nutter. She said that Nutter had screamed “I’m going to shoot you” and Martinez responded by surrendering. She said it all happened quickly, and remembered Martinez saying “I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding.”
Notably, during the investigation, the officers said “The bad guy with the gun turned around?” Ortley had not referred to Martinez as “the bad guy with the gun” once throughout the interview.
During a taped meeting, longtime resident Einar Bad Moccasin said he saw the scene from his balcony after going outside to get some fresh air before bed.
“When I got out there I seen them officers, three officers hollering at the boy,” he said.
From his vantage point Bad Moccasin couldn’t see all of Martinez, and recalled seeing something in his hands at one point but could not tell if it was a gun. He also explained throughout the interview that Martinez tried to communicate that he would do what they said.
“Before the gun went off, I seen the boy at the time looked like he was letting the officers know he was in no threatening position to be shot,” Bad Mocassin said. “It looked like a surrendering position he was in.”
Dawn Abraham, who had been out looking for a cigarette when she saw the interaction between Martinez and Nutter, said “the boy gave up.”
Abraham said she was beginning to open the door for Martinez to come inside and inquire about his nephew when several officers yelled at her to shut the door. She told investigators that Martinez threw his hands in the air and then the next thing she heard was a boom.
Once several more officers arrived at the scene, she ran to tell her friend what happened. “Them cops shot a little boy down there,” she told the friend. “I don’t know if he had a gun. I don’t know what. I don’t know. But to me, he was [putting his hands in the air]. He didn’t have anything in his hands.”
They all said that Officer Nutter shot Martinez in the chest at roughly 10 feet away.
Martinez vividly recalled the moment. “When he shot me, I took two steps back and looked at my side—my upper torso area by my underpit—and when I looked down, I ain't see no blood or nothing. So I put my hands back up in the air and that's when the blood just started squirting out.”
Nine years before Chauvin made headlines around the world, he was present in a police operation in which another suspect’s life was threatened.
Chauvin had received 18 complaints over his 19-year-career at the Minneapolis Police Department. The incident with Martinez was not included, but it nonetheless illustrates how Chauvin, and the Minneapolis Police Department, may have behaved for years—and why there was so much pent up rage in the city when George Floyd died on May 25.
The police record also includes an official statement from Chauvin, in which he describes Martinez lying on the ground bleeding, and claims he told Martinez to show his hands, one of which was tending to his wound. Chauvin admitted he assumed it was Martinez who had fired the shot.
“I then heard a single gunshot. At first I thought that [Nutter] had been fired upon but then observed the suspect later identified as [Martinez] drop to the ground,” Chauvin told investigators. “I continued to cover [Martinez] with my weapon and issued verbal commands myself to [Martinez] telling him, ‘Show me your hands.’ I had said this at least twice to [Martinez].”
He said he later realized that the gun was not with Martinez following the shooting.
“I saw that [Martinez] was holding his side with one hand and bracing his body away from the sidewalk with his other hand,” he added, and that he saw “a gun approximately four feet away from [Martinez]'s position just sitting off the sidewalk in some grass.” Then, as Martinez lay on the ground bleeding, Chauvin said he asked for his birth date and phone number.
Martinez doesn’t remember Chauvin’s face, but he remembers lying there, bleeding and afraid he would die.
“He didn't try to help or anything, like when I got shot,” Martinez said. The police report backs up this claim, yet mentions that other officers were already providing some aid.
Then, things moved very quickly.
After being hit, Martinez said he yelled, “What the fuck you shoot me for?” Nutter ran over, grabbed him, threw him on the ground, cuffed him, yelled “get down” and “quit resisting”—and then called for an ambulance.
Martinez said an officer, who he recalled was a woman, eventually ran up to him while he was on the ground. She attempted to stop the flow of blood by putting pressure on his bullet wound. The official police record confirms this detail.
Supplemental testimonies in the police report mentioned Nutter applying pressure to Martinez’s wounds after flipping Martinez onto his stomach, handcuffing him, and putting on protective latex gloves.
The Minneapolis Police Department let all their officers off the hook. In Nutter’s statement, he claimed that after a foot chase, Martinez ignored his commands and attempted to hide the gun. But out of dozens of officers and witnesses who were interviewed about the event, he was the only one to describe Martinez as physically combative, saying he took a “bladed stance.”
Also in direct opposition to some witnesses’ accounts of Martinez throwing the gun, having his hands in the air, or some combination of both, Nutter maintained that he shot Martinez while he was still armed. In his story, “the gun flew out of his hand” after being shot.
Once the ambulance arrived, Martinez was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center. His memory cuts out for the rest of the night, but he was later told by his mother that he flatlined and needed to be resuscitated more than once.
“They put me in the ambulance and brought me to the hospital, but I don't remember anything else after they put me in the ambulance, until I woke up the next day and I was handcuffed to the bed,” Martinez said. He woke up in the hospital with a police officer in the room.
Because Martinez was shot in the chest, he suffered a range of medical complications and remembered the doctor asking law enforcement why they were taking him to jail when they knew he wasn't fit to go.
“[Officers] threw the clothes on the bed and were like ‘get dressed,’” Martinez said. “And I was like ‘I can't.’ I couldn't move my arm or my leg on my right side because the bullet was that close to my spine.”
The police report does not include this detail.
Following an internal investigation, Tom Dolan, the Minneapolis police chief at the time, said that Nutter and the other officers “acted appropriately and courageously” and allowed all five to return to work after a standard three-day administrative leave. Meanwhile, the department's internal affairs unit conducted separate investigations in a manner that is common to cop-involved shootings.
At the time there was little public outcry. The story made its way into three regional papers, but all of them repeated the officers’ narration of events.
The Minneapolis Police Department’s media office was unable to provide comment on Martinez’s preemptive discharge from the hospital by time of publication. They were asked for a general statement on Martinez’s case multiple times and did not produce one.
VICE News did, however, speak with Andrew Hawkins, the current chief of staff for The Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights overseeing the Office of Police Conduct Review. He leads the team responsible for receiving and analyzing civilian complaints.
Hawkins wasn’t at the department in 2011, so he can’t speak directly to Martinez’s case, but he said that one of the committee’s biggest goals to avoiding these kinds of incidents is ensuring 100 percent body camera usage—which, he added, saw a noticeable uptick in 2012, the year following Martinez’s shooting. While body cameras aren’t a catch-all answer, Hawkins said they’re a step towards transparency.
Martinez never made an official complaint, but Hawkins said that he would have been sympathetic if he had. “I would be very understanding of the fact that he was upset, and if he had a complaint to file we would accept his case just like anyone else.”
According to Hawkins, his office has received over 60,000 messages in the form of calls or emails since Floyd’s death. Hawkins said that if he and his team had been around in 2011, things may have looked differently for Martinez.
Since the protests began, Minneapolis public schools have terminated their relationship with the police department and the city council is considering removing the requirement to maintain a police force.
Martinez was in jail for 98 days, before being released on bail after a close family friend posted his $2,500 bond. He took the plea deal at trial—afraid of going up against the system, losing, and being away from his children for years—and was charged with two counts of second degree assault. The plea entailed five years probation and one year in the workhouse, with a potential six years in jail for probation violations.
According to his case file, Martinez has spent most of the last decade in and out of prison—all of it stemming from this event. He also lives with the long-term effects of being shot in the chest at close range.
After all this time, Martinez has come to a conclusion about why his case was handled so severely.
“I think it was mostly racial profiling me,” he said.
And historical evidence supports his claim. According to data compiled by CNN between 1999 and 2015, Native Americans were more likely to be killed by law enforcement than other racial or ethnic groups. The study also found that the available data likely did not capture the whole scope of violence against native communities at the hands of law enforcement, citing a comparably large homeless population and other societal factors.
Martinez is someone who has been on the other end of law enforcement’s bullet and almost died because of it. Today, he considers himself a supporter of the fight against police brutality and the current Black Lives Matter protests—but has not participated in the demonstrations around his city because, as he explained, “I don't like being around police.”
Martinez sees racial discrimination by the Minneapolis Police Department as the glaring similarity between his and George Floyd’s case, in addition to Derek Chauvin was present for both instances.
“If it was a white guy they were arresting and stuff they wouldn't have did that to [George Floyd], they wouldn’t have put [their] knees on his neck or anything like that,” Martinez said. And in his case, he continued, “They wouldn't have shot me.”
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