Florida Cops Tell Conflicting Stories After Fatally Shooting Unarmed Ex-Football Star in the Back

By the time Demarcus Semer's headlights flashed through the living-room window of the Fort Pierce house, the rest of the guys were already inside. Most nights, the group of childhood friends got together to rap and play videogames at 20-year-old Rhashaad Owens' North 19th Street home, a three-bedroom ranch with chipped beige paint. Saturday night April 23, 2016, was no different. A few minutes before midnight, the crew was just waiting on Semer, whom they called Tyco.

Owens was keeping an eye out from the couch while playing NBA 2K with Rodney Walker. "There go Tyco," he said, seeing him pass the window. But then: "Hold up, wait." Why was Semer running?

Suddenly, the neighborhood of patchy lawns and one-story homes was rocked by a burst of bullets. Boom-boom. The group of guys dropped to the floor. Boom-boom-boom-boom-boom. They ran to the back of the house. Through the window, they saw Semer lying still in the grass.

Then they saw the police officer.

As a legion of patrol cars lit the night sky blue and Fort Pierce Police Sgt. Brian MacNaught pumped at Semer's chest in a futile attempt at CPR, Semer's friends spilled out of the house screaming.

"You killed our boy!" they yelled, not knowing what else to do. "You killed our boy!" The cops told them to go back inside. "Shut the fuck up!" one officer bellowed, according to one of Semer's friends. Eventually, they relented and huddled inside crying.

Semer was pronounced dead there in his best friend's backyard. He was 21 years old, a Sunday-school leader and former football star at Fort Pierce Central High — "somebody you could be proud of," says Elijah Smith, his grandfather. The paramedics recorded his time of death as 12:07 a.m. — 12 minutes after he'd been pulled over for allegedly speeding. He was unarmed. The police shot him in the back as he ran for the house.

"You killed our boy!" they yelled, not knowing what else to do. "You killed our boy!"

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Almost two years later, Semer's family and friends still don't understand why the cops gunned him down — or why the two, MacNaught and Officer Ralph Keith Holmes, were cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury. Authorities said that Semer clipped one of the cops when he tried to drive off and that he was shot after the other officer mistook the young man's cell phone for a gun. Yet the cops' missteps that night were so egregious that their own chief fired them for creating "a dangerous situation that led them to use deadly force."

Semer's death came a year after a police officer shot Walter Scott in the back in South Carolina and six months after Corey Jones was shot in the back on the side of I-95 by a Palm Beach Gardens cop. But at a time when police shootings of unarmed black men are drawing national scrutiny, Semer's death barely registered outside his small hometown on Florida's Treasure Coast.

Yet a review of thousands of pages of interviews, police reports, and other department records suggest Semer's death is exactly the kind of killing that has given rise to Black Lives Matter. The officers' accounts of what happened that night are marked with so many inconsistencies and conflicting statements that even the prosecutor who concluded the shooting was legally justified was troubled. And one of the cops had killed another motorist four years before Semer's death.

Now Semer's family members are fighting for justice in a new lawsuit in Miami's federal courthouse, where their attorneys argue that, faced with two aggressive cops who had already broken multiple rules, Semer believed his only option was to run.

"When you think about this case, it was just a routine traffic stop — a young man with no criminal record, nothing whatsoever, driving a car, just speeding," says Lorenzo Williams, the family's lawyer. "And the question is, how does something like this escalate into the young man losing his life, being shot in the back, when he was never in possession of any weapons or firearms whatsoever?"

The morning before Demarcus Semer died, LaTrecia Middleton was slicing meat at the deli counter where she works when she heard "What's up, Mommy?" She wrapped the meat and turned around to see her only son.

"How you doing, my lovely?" she asked, beaming. Demarcus introduced his mother to his girlfriend, Janay Hunter. Middleton said not to act shy, and the girl laughed.

It was just like Semer to show up and surprise his mom at work. Close with his family, he was also uncommonly warm and friendly. When he was announced as a member of the 2013 football recruiting class for Chicago's Elmhurst College, he was the only player whose personality got a mention. Alongside comments that Semer "ran the show" as quarterback and had a "great touch on his passes," a news release quoted coach Joe Adams as calling Semer's personality "infectious."

After the shooting, baffled community members struggled to square Semer's violent death with his kind demeanor. They brought it up again and again in interviews with investigators. "He was the nicest person I ever met," Hunter told officials with the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office, "besides my mother."

Demarcus Cornelius Semer was born September 19, 1994, in Tampa, the second of three children for Middleton. She and his father, Beneche Semer, split within two weeks of Demarcus' birth. The elder Semer was extradited to Haiti after serving time on drug charges but kept in touch with his son, Middleton told investigators.

From the time he was a toddler, Demarcus was raised by his maternal grandparents in Fort Pierce, a city of 45,000 that saw its glory days in the '20s as a stop on Henry Flagler's railroad. Nicknamed "Sunrise City," it's known now for a revived Main Street and as the burial place of author Zora Neale Hurston. The town has long been racially diverse, but also segregated: In 1970, almost 17 years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the court-ordered desegregation of Fort Pierce Central High sparked cross burnings, student walkouts, and a near-riot that prompted police to declare a state of emergency.

"He was the nicest person I ever met," Hunter told officials, "besides my mother."

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Even today, most of the city's black residents live on the north side of town, where Semer grew up. His grandparents raised him in a pink house across from a park, providing the kind of stability that his mother, who served time in prison in the '90s, could not. Yet she remained important in his life. His grandfather, Cleon Middleton, was a respected teacher and principal whose 2002 death made the front page of the Fort Pierce newspaper's local section. He and wife Cleo were active at First Bethel Baptist Church. They brought their grandson to services every week, and he later became the junior superintendent of the Sunday-school program. A few years after Cleon's death, when Demarcus was about 10, Cleo remarried church member Elijah Smith. He saw Demarcus as a son and called him "a model young man."

"He was just the kind of person that you would love to brag on," he says.

Demarcus' skills on the football field became apparent at the peewee level, when he began making news as a "key player." At Fort Pierce Central High, he spent three years on the varsity team, for which he played quarterback and receiver in 2012 and 2013. Then-coach Josh Shaffer told Treasure Coast Newspapers he was "a brilliant young man who was so personable... He was a real leader who could make a connection with about anyone."

After graduating from high school in 2013, Semer went to Elmhurst, a liberal-arts school in suburban Chicago. But hundreds of miles from home, he changed his mind and left the team. He took a few business classes before returning to the Sunshine State and moving back in with his grandparents in 2014.

Semer found work at Head Start and then at a bank inside the same Walmart where his mom worked. Sometimes they'd carpool or eat lunch together. "He was real friendly with everybody regardless of anything," said Anthony Lewis, a co-worker who'd known Semer since they were young.

Semer left that job for another call center in Vero Beach and tried to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He took a military entrance exam and passed, his mother said, and she encouraged him to join the Army. He was also saving money and thinking of taking classes at Indian River State College in the fall.

But he'd also begun to dream of a career as a rapper. Owens had a studio in the house where all of his friends hung out, and the group often wrote lyrics and recorded together. In a photo for one CD, Semer wore a grill and held a .22-caliber pistol, but his older sister Bianca Bowe, who called her brother and his friends "all sweethearts," told investigators it was a fake picture made in Photoshop.

"I used to tell my brother all the time: 'Stop flexing,'" she said. "They're not no thugs — none of them."

Hunter, Semer's girlfriend, was used to him rapping every day, so she wasn't surprised when he said he was heading to Owens' house April 23, 2016. The couple had spent much of the day together, with Semer taking Hunter to Walmart to meet his mother. He stopped at his grandparents' place and told his grandma he'd see her the next day at church, and then drove Hunter to her apartment in Vero Beach and asked if she'd take him to church in the morning.

After they said good night, Semer made the half-hour trip south to his friend's house on North 19th Street. At 11:49 p.m., he texted Owens to tell him he was almost there.

But he would never make it inside.

When Semer's Chrysler 200 zoomed down Avenue G minutes before midnight, Officer Holmes was in his patrol car, parked with its headlights off, on North 23rd Street. A former Marine Corps sergeant in his 12th year with the Fort Pierce Police Department, he was nearing the end of an 11-and-a-half-hour shift.

He'd gotten in trouble a few times during his tenure. The most serious incident involved breaking department policy when he chased someone wanted on nonviolent charges. And in 2004, he was ordered to take sexual harassment training. (It's not clear why; his personnel file doesn't detail the complaint, and a department spokesperson declined to comment.) Holmes had also received praise, including a 2015 Governor's Medal of Heroism for rescuing teenage swimmers stranded on the Fort Pierce beach jetty.

But he also won plaudits for a deadly incident. In 2012, Holmes was among the officers chasing 47-year-old John Donald Austgen Jr.'s Ford F-150 after he was reportedly seen dealing drugs. As the truck sped toward a group of cops, Holmes fired multiple shots, killing Austgen. Police later said Austgen had told his passenger he didn't want to go back to prison, where he had served five years for assaulting a cop. But it turned out the drug deal was for a Viagra pill, according to a Tampa Bay Times database of officer-involved shootings. Holmes was later cleared by a grand jury, and his supervisor nominated him for an award.

The night of April 23, 2016, Holmes had made a couple of arrests before parking on Avenue G, where he rolled down his windows to listen for gunfire, which had recently been a problem in the area.

But tonight, Holmes and his partner would be the only ones firing shots. Here's how the two cops later described what happened that night to the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office and county prosecutors, who conducted parallel investigations into the shooting:

Holmes saw Semer's maroon Chrysler pass at what he estimated was about 45 mph — 20 over the limit. When he pulled the car over, he saw it rocking and thought the driver was hiding something. And then, he said, Semer was slow to hand over his license. "I was very suspicious," Holmes later told investigators.

The routine stop went completely off the rails after Semer gave Holmes his license. The cop told Semer he smelled marijuana and saw flakes on the dashboard.

That's when MacNaught, an Air Force veteran with 12 virtually unblemished years on the police force, walked up to the passenger side and, though he didn't smell pot, tried to open the door to "peek" inside. "I knew either we were gonna arrest this guy or we were gonna detain him," MacNaught later said.

Holmes had already decided he would arrest Semer for misdemeanor marijuana possession and ordered him out of the car.

Semer refused, so Holmes reached through the window, unlocked the door, opened it, and tried to pull him out. Just then, MacNaught said he saw Semer's hand moving toward the gear shift. Worried he might be hit by the fleeing car, he jumped into the passenger seat.

Amid that chaos, Semer hit the gas, and MacNaught said the young man punched him and tried to push him out of the car. Meanwhile, Holmes said he was clipped by the driver's-side door and fell to the ground.

Then, although MacNaught was sitting in the passenger seat, Holmes said he thought his partner was getting dragged. So Holmes decided to open fire.

"I draw my weapon and I fire two — what I thought was two — rounds where I thought the defendant's head and neck were gonna be, to stop the vehicle," Holmes said.

"Now I'm thinking, I just — I just shot someone that didn't have a gun."

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Inside the car, MacNaught heard the gunshots and assumed Semer was shooting. He couldn't believe his partner would be so reckless to fire at the car with him inside. "At this point I'm freaking out," the sergeant said. "It's 'Oh shit' now." He yelled at Semer to stop the car and then fired his Taser at him. The car skidded to a stop 600 feet from where it had originally pulled over. Semer leapt out and ran. MacNaught gave chase while pulling out his gun.

As he crossed toward his friend's house, Semer turned and raised his arms in "a way not typical for someone running away from the police," MacNaught said.

The cop saw something "white and black" in his hands. "I thought, This is it. I'm not going to see my wife; I'm not going to see my kids anymore," he said. He began firing.

Only after rounding the house and coming face-to-face with a dying Semer did MacNaught realize the young man had been holding only a cell phone.

"Now I'm thinking, OK, this guy just had a, had a, had a cell phone," he said, struggling to speak. "And it started just — it started — not freaking me out, but I started getting a little upset because now I'm thinking, I just — I just shot someone that didn't have a gun."

Shortly after midnight, Semer's mom raced toward North 19th Street, where a crowd was already forming, after hearing her son had been shot. But authorities wouldn't let her near Demarcus. His body had become evidence and had to be preserved.

"I wanted to hold him," Middleton later told investigators, "blood and all."

She stayed at the scene until 4 in the morning. Even if she couldn't touch her child, she didn't want to leave him there alone. So she waited until she saw his body loaded into a van and driven away. Days later, she returned and lowered her face to the grassy spot where he had fallen. The ground still smelled like blood.

Semer's family asked his friends to wear black shirts and red bow ties to the funeral. Walker decided he couldn't bear to go. "I feel it's so sad because I lost a friend," he said, "and he ain't did nothing wrong." Hunter kept texting Semer's phone to tell him she missed him.

Outrage built swiftly in the community. There was a protest at the police department and a call for peace and patience from local religious leaders. Fort Pierce Commissioner Reggie Sessions called an emergency meeting to demand that the Department of Justice lead an investigation. The meeting was standing room only. "I just couldn't understand why he was shot like that," Sessions says.

His motion failed, but the other commissioners changed their minds days later amid growing anger from locals. The DOJ promised to review the results of the local probe for civil rights violations.

But Sessions' push didn't come without local backlash. Sheriff Ken Mascara sent a letter blasting him for comments and actions that "divide us at this most difficult and trying time." And Fort Pierce Police Chief Diane Hobley-Burney might have gone even further: She was suspended in July 2016 after commissioners were told she had ordered a criminal investigation into Sessions, in what the commissioner believed was retaliation.

For four months, investigators from the sheriff's and state attorney's offices compiled evidence, which they presented to a grand jury from August 30 through September 2, 2016. Jurors heard testimony from 28 witnesses, including Holmes and MacNaught.

And on September 20, they reached a decision: The cops wouldn't be indicted. The jurors had accepted the officers' accounts and decided Semer had given the two cops reasonable belief that their lives were in danger.

Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl said the jury had made the right call. The shooting was "lawful but awful," he said, and an "unmitigated tragedy" — but Bakkedahl said he'd have to prove MacNaught didn't think Semer had a gun before firing to get a conviction. He added Semer wasn't blameless. "All he had to do was step out of the car, and Mr. Semer would be here with us today."

Middleton left the courthouse in tears. Sessions was shocked. Reading the grand jury report, he thought the officers' actions were grossly negligent enough to warrant "criminal consequences." Smith, Semer's grandfather, believed the case should have gone to public trial instead of a secretive grand jury. But he wasn't surprised by the result.

"When they interviewed us, to me they was trying to put Demarcus on trial," he says. "For me, it was like they were trying to find a way out, trying to find out that he was a bad fellow, that it was justifiable that they did what they did."

MacNaught and Holmes weren't totally in the clear. Fort Pierce Police officials ruled the two had broken multiple policies before killing Semer. In May 2017, Chief Hobley-Burney fired both men and laid out a series of tactical errors they'd made: Neither asked Semer to turn off his car; MacNaught put his own safety in jeopardy by opening the passenger door and sticking his head inside; Holmes fired his weapon at a fleeing car, "endangering the life of Sgt. MacNaught, Mr. Semer, and our community"; Holmes ignored orders to have his malfunctioning dash cam repaired.

Overall, the chief said, their actions were needlessly aggressive. They could have simply let Semer go that night.

"From our investigation, it is clear that Officer Holmes had obtained Mr. Semer's driver's license," Hobley-Burney said. "At that point, it was not necessary to pursue the vehicle. He could have later arrested Mr. Semer for the charges of marijuana possession."

The jury's findings relied in large part on MacNaught's and Holmes' statements on what led up to Semer's shooting. But a review of documents compiled during the investigation reveals some striking contradictions in their official story.

In the hours after the shooting, MacNaught and Holmes gave details that later changed and clashed with what cops on the scene described. And Semer's autopsy showed that the bullet that killed him entered through his back, though MacNaught claimed Semer had turned toward him in a threatening way when the sergeant shot.

Taken as a whole, Semer's family members and their attorney argue those details suggest that MacNaught and Holmes lied and that authorities led a sloppy investigation.

"There's more to the story, I keep saying," says Stephen Ostrow, one of the lawyers. "That I'm sure of."

The first odd detail came in MacNaught's first interview shortly after the shooting. Fort Pierce Police Det. Jesse Streeter told investigators that MacNaught never said anything about fearing for his safety while in the car with Semer. He also told investigators he was positive that MacNaught had said it was Holmes who fired his Taser.

The Taser wires were later found on the driver's side of the car, where Holmes was standing, while the device was on the passenger seat. Bakkedahl said the Taser's serial number matched MacNaught's device. But Williams, the lawyer for Semer's grandparents, says Streeter's statements cannot simply be dismissed.

"That's a statement given by one of the officers to a fellow officer," he says, "so you just can't toss that into a pond and say that statement he gave to Streeter was bogus."

In another discrepancy, an officer who pulled up while Holmes was firing at Semer's fleeing car says Holmes was standing, not lying on the ground as he claimed. Holmes' position matters because he said that he was knocked over by Semer's car and that his bad vantage point from the ground led him to think MacNaught was being dragged by the car — giving him the authority to shoot. "I could only see his head because I was on — as the vehicle is speeding off, I'm still on the ground," Holmes told investigators. "So I can't see the full passenger side of the vehicle."

But Officer Justin Gullett, who was the first to arrive on the scene, wrote in his report that Holmes fell only after he began shooting. Gullett gave the same account in a sworn interview in which he told investigators: "Once he stops firing, I see Officer Holmes start to go down."

Then there are the autopsy results. MacNaught said Semer turned toward him with an object in his hands when the sergeant began shooting. So how could Semer have been shot through the back?

Bakkedahl said during a news conference about the grand jury decision there was "nothing to be drawn from that" because people are constantly in motion during a shooting.

The family's attorneys believe those contradictions could point to a coverup.

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Yet even he was seemingly baffled by some parts of the cops' stories. MacNaught had said that after Holmes began shooting, he thought Semer was actually firing. But the prosecutor pointed out that by his own account, Semer was driving with his left hand and simultaneously trying to push MacNaught out of the car with his right — leaving no free hand to shoot.

"I cannot visualize how you could have perceived him shooting if you're engaged in this — basically this combat with him," Bakkedahl said during the sworn interview.

The prosecutor also struggled to understand why MacNaught would have gone for his Taser rather than his handgun during the scuffle in the car.

"I'm not clear why you would pull a Taser when you think somebody's shooting at you," he said. And if he believed he was in that life-or-death situation, why yell at Semer to stop before firing the Taser? Finally, Bakkedahl asked, "Is it possible that at this stage, you weren't completely convinced that he had a firearm?"

Still, MacNaught insisted he was "100 percent sure."

The family's attorneys believe those contradictions could point to a coverup. They find it suspicious that Streeter was removed from the case after two days of investigation, and they criticize an experiment the investigators carried out to determine whether MacNaught could have believed Semer was firing inside the car. The Indian River County Sheriff's Office had one deputy sit in Semer's car while another fired shots from behind. The deputy inside the car said he might think the shots were coming from inside the car. The grand jury considered that odd experiment in deciding whether MacNaught could reasonably have thought Semer, not Holmes, was the shooter.

Williams called that entire exercise "an illusion" that made little real-world sense.

"If a gun had gone off in the car, it probably would have blown both of their eardrums out," he says. "You would have seen the muzzle flash, smelled the gunpowder, and, quite frankly, you would have changed your method. You would have shot him right then and there."

There's one other troublesome detail: Even though Fort Pierce Police policy requires traffic stops to be filmed, there's no footage of the shooting or its aftermath. MacNaught's car wasn't equipped with a dash cam, but Holmes' was. He said his camera rarely worked, claiming in his sworn interview that his car was "a piece of shit." The police chief faulted him for not having the camera repaired despite being ordered to fix it.

During the news conference where he announced the grand jury's decision, the prosecutor said he too was frustrated by the lack of video. "Fort Pierce Police Department said, 'We're going to have video cameras in our cars,' so you and I as citizens... should expect that we would have video evidence of this," Bakkedahl said. "But we don't. So that's a big deal to me."

In a conference room with walls covered in framed newspaper clippings, Elijah and Cleo Smith sit quietly as their lawyers flip through a binder of documents. Elijah's mustache has gone white, and Cleo has begun using a cane to get around. Both are now in their 80s.

Since their grandson died, their lives have grown quieter. At their dinner table, he was the lively one. They had a kind of tradition of watching Miami Dolphins games together, and Elijah would rag on Demarcus about the team. People still stop them at Walmart to talk about their grandson.

"We just miss him," Elijah says. "We'll never know what he could have been."

They're also frustrated about the lack of justice in the case — a feeling that only intensified in April, when an arbitrator ruled that MacNaught should not have been fired over his role in the shooting. He's expected to return to the job soon, though Commissioner Sessions is pushing for the force to buy him out instead.

"Like it never even happened," Elijah Smith says.

Holmes is still awaiting a decision on whether he'll be reinstated. In a May interview with Treasure Coast Newspapers, he insisted he didn't break any rules during the traffic stop — and said he wouldn't do anything differently. He also said he wished there was video footage.

"Not every traffic stop goes according to plan," he said. "No one can be properly trained for any instance of what happened. It's an unfortunate incident that did happen."

The DOJ never took any action in Semer's shooting. The feds agreed to review the agency and to suggest reforms, but with President Donald Trump now in office, even that plan has been diminished amid changing priorities at the DOJ.

"We just miss him," Elijah Smith says. "We'll never know what he could have been."

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On the city commission, Sessions is pushing for an independent board of citizens that could review police shootings and complaints.

"I just hope this is not something that's going to be forgotten about," he says. "But criminally, there's nothing that can be done. Civilly, maybe so. But internally, we can do something to stop it from happening again, and that's what I'm concerned about."

The police chief says some changes have already been made. Officers have received de-escalation, traffic-stop, and dash-cam training as well as body cameras — all recommendations made by the grand jury after Semer's death.

"The tragic situation on April 23 is embedded — it is a part of this department and the department's history," the chief told WPBF-TV. "We've learned and we've trained our officers in response to this situation to do everything in our power to assure a tragic situation like that would never occur again."

But those reforms are small comfort to Semer's family. In Miami's federal courthouse, they plan to argue that Semer ran from the two cops that night only because their needlessly aggressive actions made him fear for his life. The facts show he was gunned down despite posing no threat as he ran away, they say.

Whatever happens, their day in court won't be easy for Semer's grandparents, who still struggle to talk about his violent death.

"But you think about it all the time, that he didn't deserve it," Elijah Smith says. "One thing about it, he didn't deserve what he got."

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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas