Sister of driver killed in 2012 police chase, shooting testifies

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CLEVELAND- The trial of Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo, who is charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter, continued Tuesday morning.

Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo sits next to his attorney Fernando Mack on April 13, 2015.

Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo sits next to his attorney Fernando Mack on April 13, 2015.

Prosecutors said Brelo, 31, used unnecessary force during a November 2012 police chase and shooting that took the lives of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

Brelo's attorneys allege their client believed he was in a dangerous situation, and was trying to protect himself and the community.

On Monday, prosecutors called five Cleveland police supervisors to the stand and they all took the Fifth Amendment. They are codefedants in the case and are charged with dereliction of duty.

Other members of the Cleveland Division of Police, including Det. Roland Mitchell, did testify. He told the judge he was involved in parts of the chase in an unmarked car, but did not see the shooting. Mitchell also recalled talking to Officer Brelo the night of the shooting. He said Brelo had two rounds left in his gun.

Cuyahoga County prosecutors also presented evidence from phones belonging to three Cleveland police officers. BCI Agent Natasha Branam said there were photos of the shooting scene and the victims on the phones, as well as notes about that night.

On Tuesday, Curtiss Jones with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office trace evidence unit continued to review the clothing removed from Williams and Russell after the shooting. Williams, who was homeless, was wearing several layers of clothes, including two jackets and a couple T-shirts. Many of the items were marked with yellow tags to note bullet holes. Russell's clothes were also riddled with bullet holes and stained with blood.

Jones said he tested Russell's hands and Williams' gloves for metal, which came back negative. However, the defense pointed out that not everyone reacts to the trace metal detection test.

Forensic mechanic H. Lyn Smith testified that Russell's 1979 Chevrolet Malibu was more likely to backfire because of its carburetor and a hole in the muffler indicated previous backfires. Officers originally reported hearing shots from the car, leading to the chase, but prosecutors said Williams and Russell were unarmed.

"If you were going to build a car that would backfire, this would be the poster child," Smith said.

In the afternoon, Officer Brian Sabolik was called to the scene. At the time of the Nov. 29, 2012 shooting, Sabolik was a rookie and in the fifth month of his six-month probation period.

Officer Brian Sabolik was a rookie Cleveland police officer at the time of the Nov. 29, 2012 shooting.

Officer Brian Sabolik was a rookie Cleveland police officer at the time of the Nov. 29, 2012 shooting.

"The scaredest I have ever been in my life," Sabolik said, describing when he and his field training officer pulled into the parking lot at Heritage Middle School

The officer said he fired his weapon during the shooting and saw an officer standing on the hood of the Malibu, firing down. Sabolik said Officer Brelo told him that he was the one who was on the hood of the car.

Timothy Russell's sister, Michelle Russell, also testified on Tuesday. She described her brother as happy, funny and a hard worker, adding she didn't know him to carry a weapon. According to Michelle Russell, Timothy fled from police once before and crashed his car. While at a nursing home recovering, Timothy Russell met Williams.

"He was probably harder on himself than anyone else because he was a Christian and he was trying to get his life together," Michelle Russell said, as tears streamed down her face.

Michelle and Timothy's brother, David Russell, said he wished he had a time machine so he could change things and his brother might still be alive.

"Maybe not give him that car," David Russell said about the Chevrolet Malibu. He sold Timothy Russell the car for $600, but warned him that it leaked gas.

The trial will resume Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.

For continuing coverage, click here. 

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:19 am

It appears we’re running a little late this morning. Curtiss Jones with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office will be back on the stand.

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:23 am

Assistant prosecutor Sherrie Royster is presenting trace evidence specialist Curtiss Jones with the clothes that were removed from Malissa Williams’ body after the Nov. 29, 2012 shooting. Yesterday, they focused on the clothes on her upper body, many of which had bullet holes and blood. Today, they are reviewing the pants she was wearing.

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:27 am

Malissa Williams, who was homeless, was wearing several layers, including two jackets the night of the shooting. She was also wearing multiple pairs of pants.

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:32 am

Malissa Williams was wearing gloves during the chase and shooting. They were tested for metal, which came back negative, and there were bullet holes in each glove.

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:33 am

Williams was also wearing a wave cap, which was marked with yellow tabs for three bullet holes.

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:42 am

Prosecuting attorney Sherrie Royster holds a pair of pants worn by Timothy Russell the night of the shooting. Jones said they are stained with apparent blood and marked with yellow tabs for bullet holes.

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:48 am

Photos of Timothy Russell’s face are now being shown. There is a ruler along his face to measure the evidence, which includes white fibers that were sticking out of a wound.

Jen Steer April 14, 20159:50 am

There are a few members of the Russell family in court today. One woman is dabbing tears from her checks as the photos of the victims are shown on a screen in the courtroom.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:00 am

Prosecution is done with direct examination of trace evidence specialist with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office Curtiss Jones. The defense attorney starts asking about trace metal detection testing, which was performed on Russell’s hands and Williams’ gloves. Those tests came back negative. There was a C-clamp holding the passenger’s side door shut on Russell’s Malibu. Defense is insinuating that Williams did not touch the C-clamp to try to get out of the car.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:02 am

Jones says not all people would react to the trace metal detection test, so that does not mean that Russell and Williams did not touch a metal before their deaths.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:06 am

Jones says that some firearms do not contain exposed metals that would react to the test. He adds that a positive reaction to the trace metal detection test carries more weight and the pattern of the reaction could match a particular object. That’s when it’s the most useful.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:14 am

We’re taking a brief break. More trace evidence testimony in 15 minutes.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:19 am

We’re expecting to hear from a ballistics expert later today.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:34 am

The defense’s line of questioning for Curtiss Jones with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office trace evidence unit is now focused on gunshot residue.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:36 am

Jones says he did not find gunshot residue on the clothes worn by Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell the night of the shooting.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:54 am

Jones says he participated in a reenactment of the shooting at Heritage Middle School, where they brought out mannequins.

Jen Steer April 14, 201510:55 am

Jones says they used two female mannequins of the same size to represent Williams and Russell during the reenactment. They did not represent the size and shape of the victims.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:03 am

Judge John O’Donnell asks Jones if a gun was fired in the car a day earlier, a week earlier, a year earlier, and the headliner was not clean, would the gunshot residue remain. He says yes, that’s possible. He cannot speculate on the history of Russell’s 1979 Chevrolet Malibu.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:07 am

H. Lyn Smith is called next. He says spent 47 years in the mechanics business, he’s taught classes and is a certified a master of heavy-duty tuck technician.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:11 am

Smith was asked to examine Russell’s car, a 1979 Chevy Malibu, to see if it backfired and the height of the windows. A backfire happens when unburned fuel gets into the exhaust and another source ignites it, Smith says.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:14 am

Smith says backfires occurred more often in older cars because they had carburetors. He says there are people who have likely never heard a car backfire because of the changes.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:16 am

H. Lyn Smith says he made cars backfire as a “youngin” on purpose because it was too much fun not to. Often it is a mechanical problem with the engine that causes the backfire.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:19 am

Forensic mechanic Smith says he can sometimes tell if a car backfired. One sign is ballooning of the muffler. Sometimes with certain exhaust systems you could see flames coming out the tailpipe.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:26 am

Smith points out where the spark plugs are in Russell’s Malibu.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:32 am

As Smith, a forensic mechanic, goes through photos of Russell’s car, he points several parts that would increase the likelihood of it backfiring.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:34 am

Smith says he found the car’s muffler interesting. There is a hole with blackening around the edge, indicating the car has been running rich with fuel and is more likely to backfire.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:39 am

“If you were going to build a car that would backfire, this would be the poster child.” -forensic mechanic H. Lyn Smith

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:43 am

We’re now moving onto the height of the windows, whether they were rolled up or down. Even though the windows were shot out, they were electric so Smith could find the specifications for that model and determine how open the window was.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:47 am

Smith says he measured from the regulator in the window to determine the heights of the window. The tape measure indicates where the window was when it was shot out. First is the passenger’s side and the second is the driver’s side.

Jen Steer April 14, 201511:49 am

Defense asks just a few short questions, whether Smith can tell the number of times the car backfired and when the car backfired. Smith answers no to both. Defense attorney Patrick D’Angelo says it was a pleasure listening to Smith’s testimony. It was the most light-hearted we’ve heard in this trial.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:30 pm

Prosecutors calls Cleveland Police Officer Brian Sabolik. He was hired January 2011 and laid off. Rehired in 2012.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:31 pm

Sabolik was at the end of his fifth month of his six-month probation in November 2012.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:34 pm

Sabolik was eating his lunch at the second district and listening to the chase. His field training officer asked if he wanted to join the chase, Sabolik says he declined because it would be called off before they got there. When his FTO, Officer Farley, asked again, Sabolik says he agreed and they went out to the car.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:37 pm

Sabolik says they decided to follow a third district car because they would know where they were going. They were on the freeway and trying to catch up with the chase.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:39 pm

Sabolik remembers turning onto Wymore Avenue, which is near Heritage Middle School in East Cleveland. He says he heard the initial broadcast over the radio was that shots were fired downtown. That broadcast came from Officer Nan.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:41 pm

Sabolik says he was very nervous during the chase, but his field training officer didn’t try to calm him down. He says he was involved two other brief chases, 10-15 seconds because the suspect bailed out of the car or the supervisor called it off.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:42 pm

On Wymore, near Heritage Middle School, it was dark and dusk was kicked up so Sabolik says the only thing he could see was the police car in front of him. They turned into the school, but at the time he didn’t know it was a school. When they pulled in the parking lot, Sabolik says he heard gunshots.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:44 pm

Officer Sabolik says when they heard gunshots his FTO Officer Farley stopped the car. Sabolik ducked down behind the engine block because of his training. Then he remembered that in training they said the car was a coffin so he exited the police car. He says he believed he was being shot at.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:47 pm

Officer Sabolik explains where his FTO, Officer Farley parked the car.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:48 pm

Officer Sabolik says he fired two shots and noticed someone standing on the hood of the Malibu. He says he stopped shooting because that person was in the way. He was still behind the engine block of a zone car.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:53 pm

Sabolik says the person standing on the car was firing down into the hood. At that time, he didn’t know how it was, but knew it was a police officer.

Jen Steer April 14, 20151:59 pm

Sabolik says he doesn’t remember anyone yelling “cease fire.” He spoke to another officer, who would be his field training officer for his final probation month. Sabolik says he told the other officer that he’s sorry they wouldn’t be working together. The officer asked why he was shaking and Sabolik asked if he was there, “We’d just been involved in a shootout.”

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:03 pm

Sabolik says he was nervous, it hadn’t set in yet what had happened, while he stood with other officers after the shooting.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:08 pm

After the shooting, the supervisors separated the officers at the scene into two groups: shooters and non-shooters. Sabolik says he was asked if he fired his weapon and he did, so he went with the shooters. They were moved into Heritage Middle School.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:10 pm

Officer Sabolik says he didn’t leave the middle school until around 5 a.m. He says he didn’t talk to anyone from East Cleveland police, BCI or his supervisors that night. He says they were quiet in the middle school.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:12 pm

The Nov. 29, 2012 shooting was the first time Officer Sabolik discharged his weapon as a Cleveland police officer. He says he hoped he hit his target, he was aiming at the driver.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:14 pm

The assistant prosecuting attorney presents Officer Sabolik with state’s exhibit 5: a Glock 17 semi-automatic handgun. Sabolik identifies it as his gun based on the serial number. The guns were turned over to the homicide unit after the shooting. He says his photo was taken while at the middle school.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:16 pm

Officer Sabolik says his zone car was outside of the area that was blocked off by investigators so he was able to move it after the shooting.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:21 pm

Officer Sabolik says a group of officers went to the union hall after the shooting to calm down. That’s where he spoke to Officer Brelo, who said he was the one on the hood of the Malibu.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:24 pm

Before leaving the middle school, Sabolik was able to get his cell phone from his zone car. He says he had several missed texts from other officers who heard he was involved in the shooting. They were asking if he was OK. Sabolik says he went to his parents’ house to explain what occurred.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:26 pm

Officer Sabolik was placed on administrative leave for three days following the shooting. He says he disagreed with his field training officer, Officer Farley, saw during the shooting, but they still get along.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:37 pm

Sabolik says his FTO Farley placed Brelo on the hood or trunk of a zone car, while he saw him on the suspect’s car.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:39 pm

Prosecuting attorney asks if Sabolik had any conversations with other officers where he admitted he nearly shot Officer Brelo because he was standing on the car. Officer Sabolik says he doesn’t recall, not that those conversations didn’t happen, but he does remember them.

Jen Steer April 14, 20152:58 pm

After a break, defense attorney questions Officer Brian Sabolik, who was a rookie officer with the Cleveland Division of Police when the November 2012 shooting happened. Defense asks if this is a situation that could be recreated in the academy, in training, on the range. Sabolik says no.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:01 pm

Defense attorney asks if the call of shots fired is the most dangerous situation police deal with, Officer Sabolik agrees.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:06 pm

Officer Sabolik says he joined the chase on I-90, followed it into residential areas. He says as they were driving down Wymore, he couldn’t see much, just the red and blue lights on the zone car in front of them. Dust was being kicked up.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:08 pm

“The scaredest I have ever been in my life.” -Officer Brian Sabolik describes how he felt when they pulled into the parking lot of Heritage Middle School on Nov. 29, 2012.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:11 pm

Sabolik says he heard radio traffic that the suspects in the car were reloading and that they rammed a police car. When they arrived in the school parking lot, he says there were a lot of expletives that came to mind about the situation. He got out of the car because he was trapped and needed to get out of there, Sabolik says.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:13 pm

Officer Sabolik says he knew in his heart of hearts, at that time, that either the passenger or driver of the light blue Chevrolet Malibu was firing. He says he was feeling fear, anxiety, nervousness.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:14 pm

“I’m in the line of fire,” Sabolik says. “I need to get the hell out of here.” Sabolik is describing getting out of his car, which he was trained to do. He says he knew he needed to take cover.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:17 pm

Once he got behind the engine block, Sabolik says he felt like he was in a safer area. He could see bullet holes in the front of the Malibu. He says he believed the suspects were firing from the inside out of the car.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:20 pm

Sabolik fired four shots total to “stop my threat.” He intended to fire again, but when he came up from behind a car, he saw an officer on the roof of the car. He moved to a better tactical position.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:34 pm

Sabolik told a BCI agent that it felt like the gunfire lasted for two hours, like it went on forever.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:46 pm

Prosecuting attorney asks Sabolik if he still perceived a threat as a person was standing on the hood of the suspect’s car. “You didn’t think they were dead yet?” attorney asks. Sabolik says he didn’t stop shooting because he thought the threat was over, it was because he didn’t have a clear shot with Officer Brelo standing on the car.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:48 pm

Officer Brian Sabolik steps down from the stand. Prosecutors call Michelle Russell.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:50 pm

Michelle Russell is Timothy Russell’s sister. He was one of six siblings. Michelle is the only girl. Her mother passed away in 1997.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:52 pm

The last time Michelle Russell spoke to her brother was on Thanksgiving Day. Timothy Russell bought the car from a brother, it was registered to Michelle Russell’s house. Timothy lived with Michelle on and off until 2010, Michelle says.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:54 pm

Michelle Russell says her brother had a problem with drugs and was diagnosed as bipolar. “He was young when he first started. He got cleaned up,” Michelle says. “He would be clean for years at a time.” She says changes in his life caused him to return to drug use. Timothy got divorced and started using again. Michelle says Timothy’s son is now 18 years old. She describes her brother as funny, happy, jolly, a people person.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:57 pm

Michelle Russell says her brother fled from police on another occasion and was in a nursing home while he recovered. That’s where he met Malissa Williams. Michelle never met Malissa.

Jen Steer April 14, 20153:58 pm

Michelle Russell says she never knew her brother to carry a weapon. She says she’s 100 percent confident in that.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:07 pm

“He was probably harder on himself than anyone else because he was a Christian and he was trying to get his life together.” -Michelle Russell says. She says her brother used to ask the church to pray for him to help with his addiction. She says she was closer to Timothy than her other brothers because they graduated high school the same year and used to pray together. She cries as she talks about Timothy.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:11 pm

We’re on a short break.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:22 pm

Prosecutors call one of Timothy Russell’s brothers, David.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:26 pm

David Russell owned the Chevrolet Malibu for about a year because Timothy had it. Davis Russell says he’s the one who put the C-clamp on the passenger’s side door because it wouldn’t stay shut.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:28 pm

David Russell says he made a lot of repairs to the Malibu. “The muffler? We were going to get around to that.” Replaced the starter, it would leak gas.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:31 pm

David Russell says he saw Timothy at his house the night of the shooting. At the time, Timothy was living at the emergency men’s shelter at 2100 Lakeside in Cleveland.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:36 pm

David Russell says he didn’t know about Timothy’s mental problems. He says his brother bought a van and didn’t even have it a month before he wrecked it. That’s the first car chase Timothy was involved in. David Russell says he wishes he had a time machine and do a few things differently. “Maybe not give him that car.”

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:39 pm

David Russell describes his brother as a giving person who would give money to strangers. He says one day Timothy was broke and the next he would be on top. Assistant prosecuting attorney Sherrie Royster asks if Timothy carried a gun, “The only thing he liked to carry was that Bible.”

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:42 pm

David Russell says he went on vacations, to Florida and Georgia, with his brother that they were able to afford because of Timothy’s bath tub business and work at the Radison Hotel.

Jen Steer April 14, 20154:45 pm

Defense attorney Fernando Mack cross examines David Russell. “He’s not a violent person. He has a few issues like everyone else, I recon,” David Russell says about his brother. Mack asks if Timothy Russell was the type of person to kidnap Malissa Williams. David Russell says no.