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In the nearly 17 years since 21-year-old Michael E. Bell was shot and killed by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police in front of his home, his father, Michael M. Bell Sr. has made it his life’s work to get to the bottom of what happened.
He’s hired independent investigators and forensic experts, purchased thousands of dollars in billboards and advertising publicly critiquing law enforcement, and even successfully advocated for the passage of a state law mandating investigations of all deaths in police custody.
But with all that he’s been able to do since that fateful day in November 2004, he’s never gotten the justice he feels his family deserves. Now, he’s suing the city of Kenosha for evidence that may finally prove the police unjustly killed his son.
Bell filed a federal lawsuit against the city on Monday seeking a court order that would force the Kenosha Police Department to release the bullet that killed his son. Police said the 21-year-old had tugged on an officer’s gun and that they shot him in the head in fear of their lives. Within three days of the killing, the officers had been cleared of any wrongdoing, despite no DNA evidence that Michael Bell had touched the gun.
Then, two years ago, Bell Sr. found what he believed was the impact point of the bullet that hit his son. Bell Sr. says that having a ballistics expert review the bullet could reveal the officers aren’t being truthful about their account of what happened.
“I want the truth to come out, and we’re not getting the truth,” Bell Sr. told VICE News. “If there’s enough media pressure and evidence to show this, the truth will come out and the public will understand exactly what the Kenosha Police Department is all about.”
The night of the shooting, Kenosha police pulled Bell Jr. over for speeding as he was driving home. During the first few moments of the stop, which were caught on police dashboard camera, Bell got out of the car, prompting officers to rush toward him. Police asked that he take a breathalyzer test as they moved out of view of the camera, but Bell refused. A toxicology report would later confirm that Bell had been drinking sometime before he was on the road.
When he refused, insisting he’d done nothing wrong, officers tackled him to the ground. But Bell managed to escape, and the officers chased after him, allegedly tasing him as he fled toward his home just a few feet away.
Police cornered Bell, and Lt. David Krueger grabbed him in a bearhug against the car parked outside the home's garage. Officer Erich Strausbaugh stood immediately to his right, according to Kenosha Police Department. A third officer, Albert Gonzalez, joined the struggle with his gun drawn and pointed it at Bell’s head after Strausbaugh claimed he was reaching for his gun.
Krueger then told the officer to shoot Bell, still in his grasp, in the head. Gonzalez pulled the trigger, killing Bell as his sister and mother stood just feet away.
The brief police investigation concluded Bell posed a lethal threat to the officers and cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Since then, Bell has been busy trying to work the case on his own.
In 2010, he began purchasing billboard spaces in the state to publicize the investigation. He also hired two former police officers turned private detectives to investigate the case. They quickly found several issues with what the police concluded.
One concluded that the family car’s side mirror was likely what Strausbaugh felt tugging at his gun, not Bell. Additionally, four eyewitnesses have also said that Gonzalez was standing between Strausbaugh and Krueger when he shot Bell, which should have allowed him to see that it wasn’t Bell pulling on Strausbaugh’s gun.
Even the county medical examiner determined what police reported about their positioning left several aspects of Bell’s death unexplained, like issues with the trajectory of the bullet casing expelled after the gun went off and where blood splattered afterward. Lastly, forensic evidence examined by an expert retained by Bell also found no fingerprints or DNA belonging to Bell on the weapon.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that the police weren’t thorough in their investigation, the case has never been reopened.
Bell Sr. hopes that a forensics expert can match the lead found in the bullet fired that night to the lead found in the dent he believes to be the point where the bullet careened into garage-door siding. If there’s a match, it would prove that the trajectory of the bullet matches eyewitness accounts of what happened that night, and not what cops reported in their police reports.
Bell requested to obtain the bullet from Kenosha police in late 2020. After numerous requests to former Kenosha Chief Daniel Miskinis went unanswered and both the Kenosha City Attorney and District Attorney’s office declined, Bell moved forward with his lawsuit.
In addition to having the bullet released to the ballistic expert, Bell’s lawsuit is asking the city to cover damages related to the case as well as the costs of his attorney and legal fees.
A Kenosha city government spokesperson declined to provide a comment when reached by VICE News.
This wouldn’t be the first time the Kenosha Police department has come under scrutiny. In August 2020, police shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, seven times in the back during an encounter. The shooting left Blake paralyzed from the waist down and incurred protests from residents and local sports teams. Even though his son is white and Jacob Blake was Black, there is a major parallel in the two stories: None of the officers involved were ultimately charged with their use of force.
Bell told VICE News a year ago that he was appalled by video footage of Blake’s shooting last September.
“I get pretty upset when I have a lot of friends and families and neighbors that still have these blinders on and say that uniform can’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I’ve experienced it first hand.”