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State police: Teen killed by cops had steak knife

Published: Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 9:27 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Stephon Edward Watts' parents say they wish they hadn't called police the morning of Feb. 1, when their 15-year-old son refused to go to school and got into a fight with his father.

If they hadn't called police, they say, their son — who had autism — would still be alive.

Instead, two Calumet City police officers who responded to Stephon's father's call for help shot and killed Stephon in the family's basement as he charged at them with a knife, according to police reports.

Newly released records of an Illinois State Police investigation into the shooting show that Stephon's parents and police largely agree on what happened in the moments before Stephon was shot.

But Stephon's parents continue to insist their son was armed with a butter knife when officers shot him, even though the state police investigation determined that Stephon was clutching a steak knife that he used to slash one of the officers.

They also question whether the officers — who had dealt with Stephon before — had to use deadly force, said Stephon's mother, Danelene Powell-Watts. She said she and her husband are haunted by their son's death, replaying it in their minds while they're awake and having nightmares about it while they're asleep.

"It's really hard," she said in a recent interview, struggling to speak through her tears. "I can't understand that he's dead."

The officers who shot Stephon were cleared of wrongdoing by the Cook County state's attorney's office in April, after prosecutors reviewed the state police investigation. The records of the investigation, obtained by the Tribune through a Freedom of Information Act request, give the most comprehensive summary yet of the events that led to Stephon's death.

Stephon was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was 9 and was familiar to Calumet City officers — police said they had been called to subdue him 10 times in less than two years before he was killed.

Officers had used Tasers at least once on the teen, who the Lake County, Ind., coroner's office said was 5 feet 7 inches tall and 205 pounds.

About two months before Stephon died, police used Tasers on him after he punched his mother in the face and ran from the house with a knife, police and his family said. On another occasion, Stephon locked himself in a bathroom with a knife, forcing police to call in a hostage negotiator.

On the morning of Feb. 1, Stephon's father, Steven Watts, called police because he and his son had gotten into a fight after his son refused to go to school, according to the state police investigation.

Extra officers were sent to the house in the 500 block of Forsythe Avenue because of Stephon's history of fighting with police, according to the investigation.

Stephon's father met officers Robert Hynek, William Coffey and Jeff McBrayer when they arrived at the front door. He told them his son had left the house and that everything was under control, according to the investigation.

All three officers had been at the house when Stephon locked himself in the bathroom, and they told his father they needed to check the house to make sure everyone was OK, according to the investigation. When they entered the house, Stephon's father told them his son was actually in the basement.

Steven Watts told his son to come upstairs, but he refused. Stephon's father then led the three officers down the basement stairs.

As they neared the bottom of the stairs, Stephon came around a corner holding a steak knife, ran past his father and charged the officers, who tried to go back up the stairs, according to the investigation. Stephon cut Hynek on the left forearm with the knife just before Hynek and Coffey fired one shot each, according to interviews with the officers included in the investigation.

Autopsy reports and photos included in the state police investigation show Stephon was shot behind the right shoulder and below the right arm.

Steven Watts told police his son "lunged" past him toward Hynek just before he was shot, but he told investigators his son was holding a butter knife.

However, police and paramedics found a steak knife near Stephon's legs on the bottom stair after he was shot, according to the state police investigation.

The agency's 266 pages of reports on the case include several photos of the steak knife — with a silver blade and black handle — on the bottom stair, as well as photos of the small cut on Hynek's forearm.

But the evidence has not swayed Stephon's parents. In a recent interview, his mother — who did not see the shooting — accused police of planting a steak knife at the scene to justify their actions.

"They lied," she said, calling the police "liars and killers."

"He did not have a steak knife," she said.

Danelene Powell-Watts also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Hynek, Coffey and Calumet City in Cook County Circuit Court in April. The lawsuit does not address the type of knife Stephon was holding.

Calumet City's police chief, Edward Gilmore, declined to comment for this article because of the pending lawsuit.

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