On a January evening back in 2012, Willis Morgan, a retired pressroom supervisor at the Miami Herald, was trying to get a few winks in at his Hallandale Beach home before heading to his part-time concierge job. But the 64-year-old was jolted awake when he heard the startling screams of someone begging not to get shot.
“I heard somebody screaming, 'Don't shoot! Don't shoot!'” recalls Morgan. “I thought it was a woman begging for her life and her husband was gonna kill her.”
Morgan jumped out of bed and called 911. He told the dispatcher that there was a confrontation outside and it sounded like a woman was begging for her life and a man with a gun was about to kill her.
Morgan says he thought it was a domestic dispute between a couple that was about to turn deadly. Turns out, Morgan was witnessing a confrontation between Hallandale Beach police officer Edward McGovern and shoplifting suspect Gregory Ehlers Jr., a 34-year-old Tampa native who had fled police after swiping some electronic items from a Best Buy. Ehlers tried to hide on top of a one-story roof in the tiny beachside city but was found and then surrounded by police.
His story follows a now-too-familiar arc: a scared, aggressive police officer kills an unarmed man for a minor offense. In this case, police investigators' efforts to track down a witness were too little too late, and in a subsequent legal battle, city officials sounded more eager to be absolved of responsibility than to determine the truth.
At some point during the standoff, Ehlers was shot to death. In a video deposition after the killing, McGovern claimed he saw Ehlers reaching toward what he assumed was a gun and verbally warned Ehlers several times not to reach for it. No gun, however, was found on the scene, and the shiny object must have been either a cell phone or a mini laptop computer.
Morgan, who lived next door to where the shooting took place, watched the video deposition of McGovern giving his account of the shooting, which was obtained by New Times. And Morgan says McGovern's story doesn't match up with what he heard that night.
““As far as [McGovern's] verbal account goes, everything he says is exactly what a police officer should say, but none of what he says is correct,” says Morgan. “In the minute that led up to the shooting, never did I hear anyone say, 'Get your hands up, get your hands up.' Nor did I hear anyone say, 'Do not reach, do not reach down, don't reach.' Had I heard an exchange like this, I would have never thought this was a domestic dispute with a very angry male.”
There were several calls from the immediate area of the shooting that were similar to Morgan's that night, according to 911 dispatch logs. Morgan's 911 call is summarized as: “HEARS SOMEONE SCREAMING FOR THEIR LIFE.” However, the actual call recordings have since been destroyed. BSO's policy is to hold call recordings for only 30 days unless they're requested for evidence by police. A homicide investigation is one reason why a call would be saved, according to BSO public information officer Keyla Concepcion.
But Hallandale Beach Police didn't bother following up until it was too late.
Ehlers family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city in 2012, which was eventually settled for $150,000 in October 2014. About one month prior to the settlement, the city council held a meeting to discuss the case, which was being handled by Hallandale Beach City Attorney Lynn Whitfield.
Whitfield claimed that after the shooting, police internal affairs investigators had tried to obtain the 911 calls in a timely fashion but couldn't because the Broward Sheriff's Office had made a mistake in logging the calls under the wrong case number.
“Once we found out there was a mistake, it went back. Of course, the 90 days had passed,” she said, apparently unaware that BSO 911 call policy is to keep them for 30 days.
Whitfield explained to the city council that a probable witness' 911 call had been noted in a log but that investigators initially thought it was unrelated to Ehler's death because it mentioned a woman, not a man, begging for life, even though the call records matched the location and time of the shooting.
Morgan says that a private detective hired by Ehlers' father managed to track him down to be interviewed about six weeks after the shooting. He wasn't approached by Hallandale Beach Police detectives until at least six months after the shooting.
Officer McGovern claimed he shot Ehlers because he feared that Ehlers had a gun and could have shot him or fellow officer Miguel Mirabal, who was on the side of the house facing Ehlers' right side. But in a deposition, Mirabal said he had eye contact with Ehlers for nearly the entire 20 seconds between the time McGovern confronted Ehlers and shots were fired – yet Mirabal never drew his weapon (although he claimed in the deposition that he was in fear for his life when he saw Ehlers' head).
“So although you just testified that you were in fear for your life as you stared at his head, you never drew your firearm?” asked the Ehlers family attorney, David Heffernan.
“That is correct,” answered Mirabal.
In the city council meeting, Mayor Joy Cooper asked Whitfield if an outside department should be hired to investigate the shooting.
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“Even though it's our internal investigation, would it behoove us to do another?” Cooper asked.
“No, no, it would not,” answered Whitfield. “I would leave it alone at this point. Because you don't want them saying, 'Oh, look, they're trying to, you know...'”
Cooper interrupted Whitfield and said: “Yeah, [they've] already gone through the process in terms of it's not required. I never asked that question.”
The shooting investigation by the State Attorney's Office is still pending. Morgan says he hasn't been contacted by anybody in that office.