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Family Of Man Killed By East Cleveland Police Releases Body Cam Footage

East Cleveland Police Sgt. Larry McDonald immediately after the Jan. 5, 2021, killing of Vincent Belmonte. McDonald says Belmonte was reaching for or pulling a gun on him when McDonald shot him. [East Cleveland Police Department]
East Cleveland Police Sgt. Larry McDonald paces around a lawn after shooting Vincent Belmonte.

Newly released body camera video and an autopsy from the medical examiner’s office raise questions about the Jan. 5, 2021, killing of 19-year-old Vincent Belmonte by East Cleveland police Sgt. Larry McDonald.

According to the autopsy performed by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office, Belmonte was shot three or four times – in the back of the head, back, forearm and chest. According to the report, it’s possible the bullet that hit him in the forearm travelled through his arm and hit him in the chest. The medical examiner found remnants of three bullets.

Body camera footage obtained by ideastream from the family’s attorney, Tiana Bohanon of the Cleveland firm Friedman & Nemecek, raises questions about where the gun found on Belmonte was at the time of the shooting.

Bohanon released three videos to ideastream, one with new information captured immediately after the shooting. ideastream has chosen not to post the video publicly because it is extremely graphic and potentially traumatizing.

“There’s more questions than anything,” Bohanon said. “Especially with the narrative that East Cleveland has portrayed from the beginning since Vincent was shot.”

A police report from East Cleveland Police says there was a short pursuit of the vehicle Belmonte was driving followed by a foot pursuit. A police report from the city says, “The fleeing suspect produced a handgun from his waistband and pointed it at Sgt. McDonald.”

East Cleveland Police Chief Scott Gardner said the city believes the gunshot wound in the chest was the first one that hit Belmonte.

“Which would mean he had to be facing the officer, contrary to what the family is purporting,” Gardner said.

McDonald turned off his camera shortly before the shooting, but the available videos appear to contradict the claim that Belmonte pointed a gun at McDonald.

One is from the first East Cleveland officer arriving at the scene after the shooting. He approaches on the opposite side of Belmonte’s body from where McDonald was when he shot him. Belmonte is laying face down in a field behind the Apex Academy charter school in East Cleveland. The video clearly shows there is no gun in his hand or on the ground nearby.

The officer is heard saying, “Where’s the gun, sarge?” to McDonald as he arrives. McDonald responds, inaccurately, “In his hand.” Then says, “He went to grab it out of his pocket.” McDonald is then brought away from the scene and back out to his patrol car.

The officer then begins to turn Belmonte over and says, “Affirmed,” presumably referring to a gun that was found under Belmonte’s body. He goes to his vehicle to get plastic gloves then comes back and finishes turning him over. A handgun can be seen in the video for the first time, appearing to fall out of the front pocket of Belmonte’s hooded sweatshirt. At 7:53 in the video, the officer clearly says, “The gun was in his front hoodie pocket.”

“We think it’s very unlikely that Vincent put the gun back in his pocket after being shot,” Bohanon said.

At that point, minimal first aid is provided. Officers remove Belmonte’s sweatshirt, revealing the gunshot wound in his chest. No pressure is applied to the wound and no CPR is administered, despite finding a pulse. The officers at the scene monitor Belmonte’s pulse until paramedics arrive at about the 10:00 mark of the video.

“Some people want to assert that they should not have run or they should not have done whatever it was they did to gain the police attention in the first place,” Bohanon said. “But that’s what courts are for.”

According to Bohanon, the previously unreleased footage comes from a city of East Cleveland employee and was not released to the media until now because Belmonte’s family did not want it released.

Another video is a longer version of bodycam footage previously released by the city. It’s from the bodycam of the officer who was in the car with McDonald. He joins the foot chase after a short vehicle pursuit, but is not present when the shooting occurs.

On that camera, McDonald can be clearly heard saying, “Police. Stop. Don’t Move. Don’t Move.” Then there are three shots. The recording picks up another voice, possibly Belmonte’s, but it is unclear what is said.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations investigated the shooting and has completed a report. That report was shared with the city of East Cleveland but has not been released publicly or shared with Belmonte’s family.

“I think moving forward, the main thing this family wants to see is accountability,” Bohanon said. “Larry McDonald is still serving as a police officer for the city of East Cleveland. He has not received any sanctions or repercussions for his actions, mainly for turning off his body camera, because if we had that we would know what happened.”

McDonald is back at work with East Cleveland police on modified duty.

"Normal procedure is for the officer to be on paid administrative leave while they go through the City Psychiatric services. If the officer is cleared they are brought back on modified duty," Chief Gardner said in an e-mail. "I continue to state that I believe this will be ruled a justified shooting."

The investigation remains open and is now with the attorney general’s Office of Special Prosecutions.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.