On a cool winter evening on January 8, 2012, 34-year-old Gregory Ehlers Jr. exited a Best Buy in Aventura with a few items he didn't pay for. Aventura cops chased him at first, but that store is located just a few blocks from the line that divides Miami-Dade from Broward County, and Ehlers soon found himself in Hallandale Beach. Aventura cops didn't bother pursuing an iPad thief across county lines, so they let their Hallandale Beach counterparts know that there's a white male in their town with some electronics he shouldn't have. They also said on the APB that Ehlers didn't have a gun.
Hallandale Beach Police, eager for action in the tiny city, brought out several squad cars and at least one dog to pursue the shoplifting suspect. Ehlers, a Tampa man with a history of drug problems, ran through alleyways and hopped fences to elude the police. Eventually, he decided to climb on the roof of a one-story home in the city's northeast section, about 1.5 miles from the Best Buy.
Officer Edward McGovern, a corpulent, ex-Miami Beach bouncer from Philly with 12 years on the force, drove up to the house. Twenty seconds later, he shot Ehlers three times, missing once. But the two bullets that hit Ehlers' arms were enough to bleed him to death. It took at least ten minutes for paramedics to get on the roof. By the time Ehlers was taken to the hospital, he was pronounced dead.
McGovern says he saw an object in Ehlers' hands and told the suspect to put it down. Ehlers obeyed at first but then reached back down, according to the cop's story. That's when McGovern says he fired. The only object found near Ehlers' body was a cell phone.
The case is still being reviewed by the State Attorney's Office. But in October of last year, the City of Hallandale Beach paid out $150,000 to the Ehlers family in a wrongful-death lawsuit. New Times obtained copies of the civil case documents to find out why.
On August 20, 2014, the city leaders of Hallandale Beach met to decide what to do about the Ehlers case, which by then was more than 2 years old and apparently not very important on their agenda.
City Manager Renee Miller thought the State Attorney's Office had already cleared McGovern, but that wasn't true, and City Attorney Lynn Whitfield had to correct her.
“[The State Attorney's Office] had a crowded grand jury when they were going to take it, and our four witnesses are in Canada,” Whitfield explained.
“You've got to be kidding me,” Miller replied.
“No. So they have not gone to the grand jury,” said Whitfield. “The State Attorney's Office here is terrible, as far as I'm concerned.”
“I can't believe this has gone on since 2012,” chimed in City Commissioner Michele Lazarow.
But it had, and Whitfield described the case. McGovern shot an unarmed man, she said. But the city had prepared a defense: Although Ehlers didn't have a gun, it's possible he could have found one in the bushes, which makes the shooting justifiable.
“Our theory of defense is that the suspect was a fleeing felon who fled from the police more than once,” Whitfield said. “Hid from the police and then got on the rooftop, which gave him the advantage if he was armed. Although the BOLO [be on the lookout] did not go out that he was armed, he could have gotten a weapon while he was hiding in the bushes or anywhere else along the way.”
Whitfield explained that the Ehlers family was not only arguing that shooting an unarmed man on a rooftop was excessive force but that several 911 calls indicate that Ehlers was screaming for help and urging police not to shoot.
However, Whitfield said those 911 calls are irrelevant because they no longer exist. When Mayor Joy Cooper asked what happened to them, Whitfield explained there was a mix-up at BSO and because Hallandale Beach Police waited more than three months to get the calls, they were destroyed.
“Well, we asked for the 911 calls from BSO when our detective was getting all the evidence. BSO gave us the dispatch calls and gave us our radio transmissions but did not give us the 911 calls of the people calling in because they had logged them on under a different case number. So once we found out there was a mistake, it went back. Of course, the 90 days had passed, and those calls had been – we do have the CAD report. The printout of the call. We have contacted the individuals who called in. They do not substantiate that they heard him asking for – calling for help.”
Whitfield doesn't say who didn't substantiate the calls, but the printout of a call log indicate that at least two people called 911 and described hearing somebody plea for help.
Although Whitfield told city leaders their defense case was strong, they should be prepared to settle for at least $75,000 out of a $200,000 state maximum for excessive force cases, especially because a trial would happen around Christmastime.
“I don't like Christmas cases. People like to give on Christmas. I don't like it, though,” Whitfield said.
Furthermore, offering a low settlement would be a good idea because she knows the judge and mediator involved with the case.
"Our mediator is former Judge Norman Gerstein, who I know very well,” Whitfield said. “Also, our judge is Robert Scola, who I know very well too. We actually started in the State Attorney's Office together. I think he is a very fair judge. I think he is going to really do what he can.”
Whitfield was asked if Ehlers had ever had any violent criminal charges or weapons charges, and she said no — just drug and theft charges. Miller asked if Ehlers had ever been a registered gun owner, and Whitfield's answer again was "no."
The city leaders authorized a minimum of $75,000 to pay. But after mediation, the final settlement was for $150,000.
Gregory Ehlers Sr. tells New Times that he would have gone to trial for the $200,000 but was convinced to accept the $150,000 after attorneys for the city and police union warned that they would fight if he didn't settle.
"They said there wouldn't be anything left of the settlement if I went to trial because of attorneys' fees and that it wouldn't be worth it," Ehlers Sr. said from his home near Atlanta. The elder Ehlers is still very angry about his son's death. But the 68-year-old retired computer engineer explained he wanted to secure some financial stability for his grandson.
Although the civil case is over, the criminal investigation is ongoing — a rarity, says Ehlers family attorney David Heffernan.
"Oftentimes, the criminal end is resolved before the civil end, but we were able to develop some things from the civil end and gave the state attorney everything we obtained in hopes of assisting them in the criminal process," says Heffernan. "The family is still very perplexed that the criminal investigation is still ongoing, and there hasn't been a conclusion there."
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