Grand jury declines to indict E. Cleveland cop who killed Vincent Belmonte

East Cleveland police car on a residential street
East Cleveland police Sgt. Larry McDonald shot and killed 19-year-old Vincent Belmonte in January. [East Cleveland Police Facebook]

Updated: 6:11 p.m., Friday, Oct. 22, 2021

A grand jury has declined to indict East Cleveland police Sgt. Larry McDonald after he shot and killed a 19-year-old in January.

The Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) found that Vincent Belmonte reached for a gun prior to being shot, said Attorney General Dave Yost. The officer’s use of deadly force was based on his understanding of the situation and was within the bounds of the law, Yost said.

“When the life of other people or the law enforcement officer or other law enforcement is in danger, the officer is justified in using – on society’s behalf – deadly force,” Yost said.

The loss of any life is a tragedy, Yost said, and Belmonte deserved to live beyond 19 years. But law enforcement exists to protect the rest of society, and the law takes that into account, he said.

Evidence revealed Belmonte did have a gun on his person at the scene, Yost said, and McDonald saw the weapon while in pursuit on the scene. Radioed messages during the pursuit near Apex Academy charter school confirm Sgt. McDonald’s statement of seeing the weapon, Yost said, and that McDonald saw Belmonte reaching for the weapon prior to shooting.

“Bullets don’t stop if you miss what you’re shooting at. Mr. Belmonte, with his gun, presented a danger to innocent people in this neighborhood, potentially in the school,” Yost said.

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.

At a Friday afternoon press conference, Belmonte’s mother SheaRon Daniels said she was devastated by the grand jury’s decision not to indict McDonald for her son’s death.

“I am infuriated right now. You took my baby away from me, and you did it on purpose. That’s how I feel,” Daniels said. “We will never stop this fight, not just for my son but all the young men across the United States who are being put in the exact same situation.”

Yost’s office has released online the results of the investigation, including details on who was interviewed and what evidence was gathered.

McDonald initially pulled Belmonte over for a loud muffler on his vehicle. A vehicular pursuit through the city of East Cleveland followed, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Anthony Pierson. Belmonte then got out of the vehicle and fled on foot, Pierson said, at which point law enforcement followed on foot.

“An individual fleeing, who has demonstrated an unwillingness to comply with police officers, a reasonable officer may feel that their flight with a weapon poses a great danger to the community and to society,” Pierson said.

But the investigation’s findings don’t add up, Daniels said.

“You basically told me this morning that my son was killed because of a loud muffler. A loud muffler,” Daniels said. “Your story changed several times, the evidence is not adding up to the result that I received today.”

Video from another officer’s body camera confirms McDonald called for Belmonte to stop running and not to reach for his weapon prior to McDonald firing, Pierson said. McDonald’s bodycam only turned on for two seconds during the pursuit. It was turned off prior to the shooting.

According to a BCI document reviewing the body cam footage, “Sgt. McDonald stated in his interview that he inadvertently turned off his body worn camera as he was chasing Vincent Belmonte.”

The grand jury’s decision is not surprising, said attorney Tiana Bohanon, who represents the family. But it is still hurtful, Bohanon said, and choosing not to sanction McDonald is the wrong decision.

“Accountability is lacking in this criminal system. Accountability is lacking as it relates to Black men being killed by police officers,” Bohanon said. “And families deserve more than what is given to them.”

Questions as to the policies for hot pursuit and alternative methods for responding need to be directed to local police departments, Yost said. But there are ongoing discussions about how to properly handle traffic stops, he said, in light of their contribution to officer-involved shootings and deaths.

“There’s a good question as to whether those things are worth the risk,” Yost said. “On the other hand, it’s an indisputable fact that many fugitive felons, violent felons are apprehended out of a police stop, traffic stop. Getting those fugitive, violent felons off the street is an important factor here.”

Belmonte’s family has pushed for disciplinary action against McDonald, particularly for the act of turning off his body camera before the shooting took place. Family members have also pushed back against claims that Belmonte was a risk or a danger.

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