By Christy Gutowski, Jason Meisner and Stacy St. Clair Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Chicago Police Officer Dora Fontaine says she was horrified on seeing statements that the detective investigating Laquan McDonald’s death had attributed to her.
She maintains she never told him the 17-year-old McDonald raised his arm, moving to attack Officer Jason Van Dyke with a knife.
That denial contradicted the shooting’s long-held narrative and eventually helped prosecutors build a case against three officers accused of conspiring to cover up the circumstances of the knife-wielding McDonald’s fatal shooting by Van Dyke.
It also made her an outcast among her colleagues, Fontaine said Wednesday as her testimony at the trial of three former or current colleagues went until almost 8 p.m.
Some called her a rat, a traitor and a snitch, she said, and implied they wouldn’t back her up on the street. The situation became so fraught, her supervisors pulled her from patrol and assigned her to paid desk duty.
“If I was at a call and I needed assistance, some officers felt strong enough to say that I didn’t deserve to be helped,” she testified.
Wearing her police uniform and occasionally speaking in a defiant voice, Fontaine testified that Detective David March attributed fabricated statements to her in police reports that justified Van Dyke shooting the black teen 16 times.
Fontaine then underwent a withering, 1 1/2-hour cross-examination by March’s lawyer in which she acknowledged her beef with the detective concerned a single sentence in a police report.
March’s attorney, James McKay, also went on at length about the conflicting accounts given by Fontaine to various investigators.
March is charged with official misconduct, obstruction of justice and conspiracy for allegedly lying to exaggerate the threat posed by McDonald. Former Officer Joseph Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner, and Officer Thomas Gaffney, who was among the first to encounter McDonald that night, are also on trial on the same charges.
Prosecutors allege the three defendants conspired to conceal what happened the night of the shooting in order to shield Van Dyke from scrutiny.
Fontaine, one of 10 officers at the scene, was assigned to write up the initial paperwork — a simple document laying out the basic facts about the incident and establishing which officers were there. But prosecutors allege the document contains key falsehoods that help prove officers conspired to hide the truth.
The report wrongly claimed, for example, that McDonald injured Van Dyke during the incident. It also listed Van Dyke, Walsh and Gaffney as “victims.”
Fontaine testified that March told her to include those details in her report.
“It had to come from Detective March because I hadn’t talked to Van Dyke, so I didn’t know he was hurt,” she testified.
While the prosecution considers Fontaine crucial to its case, the officers’ attorneys accused her of being a liar and attacked her character.
The city inspector general’s office recommended Fontaine be fired two years ago for making false statements in the McDonald case. Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, however, rejected the recommendation, citing insufficient evidence to support her dismissal.
March’s attorney suggested Fontaine kept her $90,000-a-year job and the benefits that come with it by turning against her colleagues. The 17-year department veteran, 51, needs about three more years on the job in order to receive a pension.
McKay noted Fontaine worked as a Popeye’s cashier and for a student loan service before becoming a police officer. She does not have a four-year college degree but has about 60 credit hours from Robert Morris University.
“What kind of job would you get at your age with your job and your skill set?” McKay asked.
Fontaine appeared taken aback by McKay’s line of questioning and composed herself before answering.
“I’m not dumb. I can go back to school, and I can get another degree,” she replied. “I do feel I have skills, and I have an education.”
Fontaine and her partner, Ricardo Viramontes, were at a Dunkin’ Donuts more than a mile away when Viramontes heard a call over the police radio for a Taser and officer assistance. Fontaine testified she did not hear the initial call because she had turned her radio down so she could have a telephone conversation with her husband about their sick child.
McKay attacked her for making a personal phone call while on duty.
“That is the kind of police officer you are,” McKay said dismissively.
Neither Fontaine nor Viramontes had the requested equipment — at that time the department didn’t have enough Tasers for every patrol officer — but they headed to the scene anyway.
As Fontaine and Viramontes approached the scene near 41st Street and Pulaski Road, both have said they saw McDonald walking down the street holding a knife. Van Dyke and Walsh were already out of their marked squad car when the pair pulled up at 9:57:33 p.m.
Three seconds later, Van Dyke opened fire, emptying his 16-shot service weapon in about 14 seconds.
Fontaine testified she heard Van Dyke order McDonald to drop the knife but that the teen ignored him. Instead, McDonald continued to walk down the street “swaying” the knife back and forth.
In the shooting’s aftermath, Fontaine and Viramontes were tapped to write the initial police report from the scene. She said she spoke with March for about 15 minutes at the scene but does not recall if he took any notes.
Fontaine submitted the report at 4:32 a.m., and her supervisor signed off on it less than an hour later, records show. She testified she then went to the Area Central police headquarters, where she sat in an office with other officers who had been at the shooting scene and waited to talk to their union representative.
All of this was standard procedure following an officer-involved shooting, she said. No one discussed trying to protect Van Dyke.
At some point that morning, March pulled her into another room and showed her the now-infamous video of the shooting, Fontaine testified. March walked her through the video, pointing out instances in which he thought McDonald looked to be attacking Van Dyke, she said.
Fontaine testified she does not recall March taking any notes during their meeting or asking her any questions after watching the video.
Fontaine said she never saw the statements attributed to her until March’s report appeared in the newspaper amid all the turmoil following the video’s release in late 2015.
“I started cursing …,” Fontaine said. “I was upset because I had not said that.”
Fontaine testified she immediately contacted her lawyer about the statements attributed to her.
“Why did this matter to you?” special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes asked.
“Because it was a lie,” she said.
McKay noted inconsistencies in Fontaine’s previous statements to prosecutors, a federal grand jury, the city’s inspector general’s office and as a witness during Van Dyke’s criminal trial in September.
Fontaine testified Wednesday, for example, that McDonald never attacked the officers while “swaying” the knife. But she told investigators for the city’s inspector general’s office in March 2016 that the swaying of the knife was an “attacking movement.”
“Do you know what perjury is?” McKay asked Fontaine at one point, somewhat rhetorically.
McKay also questioned why she never filed a supplemental report correcting any inaccuracies attributed to her — something prosecutors have faulted the defendants for not doing. He also criticized her for not informing her supervisors about her concerns with March’s report.
At the end of his cross-examination, McKay asked Fontaine if it was possible she was simply not fully remembering what she told March that night.
Fontaine held firm.
“That statement, I did not say,” she said.
After word got around to her fellow officers that she was disputing the official accounts of the shooting, Fontaine said she was blackballed.
“Other officers were calling me a rat, a snitch, a traitor,” Fontaine said. “They wouldn’t back me up. If I was at a call and I needed assistance, some officers felt strong enough to say that I didn’t deserve to be helped.”
Under cross-examination, Fontaine acknowledged no one has made derogatory comments directly to her.
However, she testified that her “wonderful” supervisors recognized the strain she was under and pulled her off the street. She now works a day shift, reviewing police reports.
She said she is grateful for the new assignment.
“It is a safety issue,” Fontaine testified. “If I am on the street, I am on a call, I wouldn’t know who to trust or if anybody would come to help me.”
In other testimony Wednesday, an expert witness for the prosecution praised Gaffney for how he handled his interaction with McDonald.
Gaffney prompted the call for a Taser and tried to bide time until it arrived. He urged his partner to remain calm and attempted to use his squad car to corral the teen instead of using his gun.
“He handled the job the way any great police officer would have,” testified Chicago Police Sgt. Larry Snelling, a law enforcement training expert.
Despite Gaffney’s widely praised response that night, he was indicted on charges that he falsely described himself as a victim of both an aggravated assault and a battery in two reports he completed in the hours after the shooting.
About 15 minutes into Snelling’s testimony, prosecutors for the first time in the trial played the dashcam video showing Van Dyke repeatedly shoot McDonald.
While Snelling praised Gaffney’s role, he criticized Van Dyke’s decision to shoot the teen as he walked away from officers on Pulaski Road.
When Gaffney tried to corral McDonald with his squad car, the teen, high on PCP, popped the tire and slashed the windshield. Gaffney stayed inside the car and did not physically confront the teen.
He later filed paperwork stating that McDonald committed a battery against him with a weapon and “used force likely to cause death or great bodily harm.”
When asked if McDonald used force “likely to cause death or great bodily harm,” Gaffney’s partner, Joseph McElligott, testified Wednesday that he wasn’t sure whether the teen had done so.
“He used force,” McElligott said, “but it was (against) our car.”
The defense contends that if errors were made on the reports, they were innocent mistakes, not crimes.