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The Mother and the Officer

Years after a fatal police shooting, one of the cops responsible is helping the victim's mom seek answers.



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To her, Bellusa's account wasn't a revelation, but it reinforced her quest to continue raising questions, even though all the investigations concluded in 2011, and her lawsuit against the school district settled in 2013. Davis said Bellusa was also able to explain to her why the district had been, in his words, so eager to absolve itself.

"They wanted to avoid another Oscar Grant-type situation," Bellusa said in a recent interview, referring to the 2009 fatal shooting of a young unarmed Black man by a white BART cop that sparked massive protests in Oakland. "That's why they didn't do a proper investigation."

The record corroborates some of Bellusa's assertions.

According to Bellusa, it started with OPD's homicide interviews the night of the shooting. According to OPD reports, Bellusa was in one interview room and Bhatt was in another. Per policy, detectives sequestered the two to ensure they didn't influence each other's statements.

But while they were waiting, then-OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith arrived with Peter Sarna, the then-Oakland schools police chief, and with the district's then-general counsel Jacqueline Minor. According to Bellusa, Smith and Sarna walked into his interview room and Smith began asking questions.

In a deposition recorded in 2013, Bellusa said Smith asked him: "Tell me everything you can remember about the gun and what it looked like."

Bellusa said he complied, telling Smith he'd seen a revolver in the passenger door's pocket.

Smith and Sarna left the room, and then, according to Bellusa, they went to talk to Bhatt.

In 2013, then-OUSD spokesman Troy Flint confirmed to the Oakland Tribune that Smith and Sarna had talked to Bellusa and Bhatt that night, but he said the chief and superintendent "in no way tried to influence their statements."

That's not what Bellusa thinks. He maintains that this was the beginning of a cover-up.

Bellusa believes that Smith and Sarna told Bhatt where OPD investigators had found the gun — in the passenger's side door pocket where Bellusa had said he saw it — and what it looked like, before he was interviewed by OPD detectives in order to shore up the officer's justification for using deadly force.

Bhatt told OPD that night that he also saw the butt of the gun in the passenger's side door pocket before he fired, and that it was one of several factors leading to his decision to shoot.

Smith, who left OUSD in 2013 and is now the Illinois State Superintendent of Schools, didn't respond to two interview requests regarding Bellusa's claims.

Bellusa said that just after Smith and Sarna left his interview room that night, he was interviewed by OPD homicide investigators Rachael Van Sloten and Sean Fleming. They went over his version of the shooting — once. To Bellusa, it felt like a preliminary interview. He thought they'd have follow-up questions, especially after talking to Bhatt. He also assumed they would conduct a reenactment.

And of course, he thought, OPD's internal affairs investigators would handle the administrative side of the case, once the criminal probe was completed, to see if he or Bhatt had violated any policies. After all, OUSD's police department had no internal affairs bureau capable of doing an investigation.

But that isn't what happened.

According to Bellusa, at the end of his interview, Sarna intervened and told OPD's investigators that his officers wouldn't participate in any more interviews or a reenactment for a criminal probe.

Sarna, who was forced to leave OUSD not long after the shooting because he made racist slurs, didn't respond to two requests to be interviewed for this report.

Van Sloten and Fleming, who both still work for OPD, didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

OPD records confirm that Van Sloten and Fleming didn't interview Bellusa or Bhatt a second time, and there was no reenactment.

Bellusa thinks that if he had been extensively interviewed that night, it would have been obvious that Bhatt couldn't have seen the gun, because Bellusa said it was deep in the door pocket, visible only if you were right above it.

Furthermore, Bellusa later said during the civil lawsuits that followed that it didn't appear Bhatt heard him when he yelled "gun" a split second before the shooting. According to police reports, after Bhatt killed Brown, he trained his gun on Stewart. Bellusa said he had to tell his partner to continue covering Brown instead because there was a gun in the pocket near him, whereas Stewart wasn't armed. Bellusa said that Bhatt only then appeared to have heard him say there was a gun — all after the shooting.

"My gut feeling is that OPD wasn't trying to cover it up," Bellusa said. "They were taking it very seriously, but they let OUSD convince them not to fully investigate it."

District Attorney Nancy O'Malley closed the case later that year, deciding there was no reason to charge Bhatt with a crime.

Bhatt, who later became OUSD's chief of police but is now a private security guard, declined a request to be interviewed. But he wrote in an email, "There are multiple reports, investigations, and records from various public agencies — all of which are a matter of public record — that accurately depicts my previous statements about that incident."

After OPD's criminal investigation closed, OUSD hired Pete Peterson, a former OPD lieutenant, to conduct the internal affairs investigation that would determine if Bhatt or Bellusa violated policy. Peterson, a licensed private investigator, examined OPD's reports and interviewed Bellusa and Bhatt again.


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