CRAIG COUNTY, Okla. (KFOR) – A district attorney has found that an Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper was justified when he shot and killed an armed vehicle passenger on the Will Rogers Turnpike.
Trooper Caleb Cole shot and killed 34-year-old Robet D’Lon Harris shortly before 9 a.m. on Thursday, June 25.
“It is my determination that Trooper Cole acted appropriately under the circumstances and that the shooting was justified under the facts and law,” District Attorney Matthew Ballard said in a letter to Commissioner John Scully with the Oklahoma Department of Safety.
Ballard wrote in the letter a summary of the fatal shooting and what led up to it.
Cole, according to Ballard, was working traffic enforcement in a marked patrol vehicle on Will Rogers Turnpike in rural Craig County, near the turnpike toll plaza.
Cole noticed that a gray Chevy Impala entering the toll plaza had a temporary vehicle tag. He tried to read the tag, but couldn’t because the vehicle was in motion, according to Ballard’s summary.
The Impala came to a stop at the toll gate, and Cole noticed that the writing on the tag was faded and not visible. He then pulled over the vehicle, the summary states.
The traffic stop was recorded by the dashboard camera in Cole’s patrol vehicle. However, his body microphone was not operating because the battery ran down and was recharging. The dash cam also did not pick up sound from the incident, according to the summary.
After the Impala pulled over to the shoulder of the highway, Cole saw the front seat passenger “making movements and reaching around the vehicle,” the summary states.
“The driver later reported that she also noticed the passenger’s movements and asked him if he was ‘good’ and he responded that he was.
“The driver said that this question was in reference to whether the passenger was carrying drugs or a gun and was prompted by the movements observed by the driver,” the summary states.
Cole approached the Impala on the passenger side “to be on the same side as the person moving around.” He noticed items in the rear floorboard, including what he believed was a diaper or diaper bag.
Cole made contact with the driver, Shunta Chatman. Harris was in the front passenger seat.
The trooper smelled what he believed to be raw marijuana. He saw Harris holding a cell phone and other items against his chest while staring straight ahead, the summary states.
“Trooper Cole noticed Mr. Harris’ chest rising and falling rapidly and could see his pulse racing from the veins in his neck,” the summary states. “As Trooper Cole spoke with Ms. Chatman and explained the issue with the tag, he noticed that Mr. Harris appeared very nervous. Based on his observations, Trooper Cole believed that Mr. Harris could be preparing to run from the vehicle.”
Cole allowed Chatman to step out of the vehicle to get some paperwork from the trunk. He escorted Chatman to his patrol vehicle, where she sat in the passenger seat. She admitted to smoking a “blunt” with Harris, but denied the marijuana smell, according to the summary.
“Trooper Cole asked Ms. Chatman if there were any guns in the vehicle and Ms. Chatman replied,
‘Not that I know of. Well, for me, no. For me, no,'” the summary states. “Based on his experience with criminal interdiction stops, Trooper Cole took her qualified answer to mean that there was likely a weapon in the vehicle or on Mr. Harris.”
Cole put on a pair of gloves to pat down Harris and search the vehicle. Chatman remained inside Cole’s patrol vehicle while Cole made contact with Harris.
Cole, standing at the passenger side of the Impala, instructed Harris to step out of the vehicle. Harris complied, and Cole noticed Harris was holding a phone, pack of cigars and maybe a wallet. Cole instructed Harris to put the items down on the passenger seat and turn around so he could be patted down for weapons, according to the summary.
Harris, instead, sat back down in the Impala with his feet out of the vehicle, the summary states.
“Trooper Cole told Mr. Harris that he had not asked him to re-enter the vehicle. Mr. Harris then placed his hands behind his back and began moving his hands, appearing to attempt to manipulate some object out of Trooper Cole’s view,” the summary states.
Cole drew his service weapon and ordered Harris to show his hands.
“As Trooper Cole pointed his gun at Mr. Harris, Mr. Harris rapidly brought his right hand out from
behind his back. Trooper Cole observed a black object in Mr. Harris’ right hand as Mr. Harris
brought his hand out, past his hip. Trooper Cole began retreating from the vehicle and fired his
handgun one time,” the summary states.
Cole shot Harris in the lower part of his face.
“Trooper Cole described Mr. Harris’ falling back into the vehicle, and seeing a gun fly over Mr. Harris’ head and hitting the armrest and then disappearing from sight,” the summary states.
Cole immediately called for assistance. Harris continued to move. Harris searched for the handgun, but could not find it. He assumed it landed between the driver seat and door, according to the summary.
Cole gave Harris emergency aid until other first responders arrived and took over.
Harris was rushed to Saint Francis Hospital Vinita where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy determined that he died from a gunshot wound to his head and neck.
Investigators searched the Impala and found a black Smith and Wesson 9mm handgun partially on top of a diaper in the area of the car where Cole noticed a “diaper bag” or “diaper” when he first approached the vehicle, according to the summary.
“Significantly, Trooper Cole did not see a handgun in the floorboard at that time,” the summary states.
Chatman told investigators that Harris previously mentioned a gun, the summary states.
“Chatman later acknowledged to investigators that Mr. Harris had spoken about a gun, but denied ever seeing it. Ms. Chatman also reported that she asked Mr. Harris at the beginning of the trip if he was ‘good’, by which she was inquiring whether he had guns or drugs on him, which Mr. Harris denied. Ms. Chatman denied ever seeing a gun in her vehicle,” the summary states.
Chatman said she saw the shooting and the actions that led to it. She said Harris slumped in his seat and leaned back, and that the way he was sitting “didn’t look right.” She said she saw Harris twitch before Cole fired his weapon, according to the summary.
The summary quotes Chatman as saying to investigators, “He (Trooper Cole) did nothing wrong. All the officer did was ask him to get out of the car,” and “The trooper, he was not in the wrong. I was literally sitting in his passenger seat and watched it.”
Ballard said Cole acted professionally.
“Trooper Cole does not pull his firearm until Mr. Harris sits back down in the vehicle and his hands drop from view. Trooper Cole does not fire his handgun until Mr. Harris begins rapidly moving his arms up. Even upon firing his handgun, Trooper Cole fires a single shot,” Ballard said in the summary. “He immediately checks the area for weapons and then renders aid to Mr. Harris. Trooper Cole’s actions during the entirety of the encounter were controlled and professional. There are no facts contrary to Trooper Cole’s assertion that he acted solely to eliminate a threat to his safety.”
Investigators spoke with individuals who said they saw a gun in Harris’ waistband the day before the shooting, according to the summary.
Ballard also said in the summary that investigators learned that Harris was a certified gang member with a felony history, and that he had a large amount of cocaine in his pocket at the time he was shot.
Toxicology showed that Harris had phencyclidine (PCP) in his blood at the time of his death, according to the summary.
“Trooper Cole’s observation that Mr. Harris was nervous (an observation also made by Ms. Chatman) is entirely plausible, given that a certified gang member with felony convictions and in the possession of drugs faces a high likelihood of prison time had the handgun been discovered,” Ballard said in the summary.