Fatal Judgment

updated 10/11/1999 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/11/1999 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The afternoon sun is unforgiving in Riverside, Calif., as those who loved Tyisha Miller try to soothe one another's pain. "Now let's hold hands and pray for her," Rev. Bernell Butler, Miller's cousin, tells a small group of Tyisha's friends and relatives gathered this August day in the grassy front yard of Gwenda Butler, Miller's aunt. "She's gone, but we can pray for justice." Then Tyisha's mother, Delmer, 44, addresses the group in a halting voice that, nearly eight months after her 19-year-old daughter was shot and killed by four police officers last Dec. 28, still trembles with grief. "When she went to the party that night, she gave me a kiss, and that was the last time I saw her alive," Delmer says. "I haven't been the same since my baby died."

It is clear the healing process is not going well—not for the family of Tyisha Shenee Miller and not for Riverside, an economically struggling, racially mixed city of 250,000, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, that has been polarized by heated demonstrations, protest marches and a continuing dispute over the facts of Miller's killing. A gifted athlete and high school dropout who was "still trying to decide what to do with her life," according to a former teacher, Miller was on her way to a party when a flat tire on her aunt's 1987 Nissan Sentra forced her to pull into a gas station in downtown Riverside. Left alone in the car by a cousin, who went to get help, Miller, who had been drinking, apparently passed out with the doors locked and a Lorcin semiautomatic handgun on her lap.

Called to the scene a few minutes later, four Riverside police officers, all of them white, tried to rouse Miller but failed. They then smashed the driver's side window and—after at least one of the officers thought he saw Miller reach for the gun—shot her 12 times. "I believe it was a hate crime," says Gwenda Butler, 39, expressing the suspicions of many of Riverside's minority residents. "If Tyisha were white, she wouldn't be dead."

Inevitably, the incident is reminiscent of other questionable police shootings recently—perhaps the most prominent being the killing of Guinean-born Amadou Diallo, 23, an unarmed street vendor shot at 41 times by four white New York City officers who reportedly thought he resembled a rapist and believed he was reaching for a gun. "This is a time when police reputations should be great, because crime has been going down nationally for years," says Joseph McNamara, a former police chief in Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif., and now a scholar in criminal justice at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "But when you hear about these shootings, you have to be concerned about the training and leadership of police departments."

In Riverside, where crime has dropped 15 percent since 1998 and where the police force, according to city officials, is considered progressive and racially sensitive, the shooting prompted angry protests and heated accusations. "At best it was excessive force," said Rev. Jesse Jackson, who marched in several Riverside rallies. "At worst, it was cold-blooded murder." On Sept. 1, a black Riverside police officer, who arrived at the scene of Miller's death after the shooting, filed a civil rights complaint alleging pervasive racism on the police force. The four officers who shot Miller, all in their 20s with good work records and no involvement in any prior shootings, were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Riverside district attorney but were fired from their jobs in July (they are appealing the terminations). "I believe their motivation was not racist," says Riverside Police Chief Jerry Carroll. "But I feel very strongly that their actions were not reasonable."

The four policemen—Michael Alagna, then 27, Paul Bugar, 28, Wayne Stewart, 25, and Daniel Hotard, 23—all declined to be interviewed by PEOPLE and have yet to speak publicly about the shooting (the FBI is currently investigating the Riverside police department's handling of such incidents). But there is lingering bitterness among many rank-and-file cops in Riverside, not only over the officers' dismissals and continued calls for their prosecution by the black community, but also about a civil suit that Miller's family filed against the city, the four officers and their supervisor, Sgt. Gregory Preece, 38. "There was nothing racial about what happened," says Skip Miller, the L.A. attorney hired by Riverside to defend the city against the lawsuit filed by Miller's parents. "The intent here was to save her."

One of two sisters born in Riverside to Delmer Miller and her husband, David, Tyisha was raised primarily by her aunt Gwenda and her grandmother Joan, since her mother was debilitated by arthritis and epileptic seizures. "She was like a tomboy," remembers her aunt Minerva Butler, "except we always called her Tom Girl." An avid dancer who liked to teach relatives the latest steps, she dropped out of Rubidoux High School a few credits shy of graduating but was pursuing her diploma in evening classes. "Tyisha was always the last to leave class," says John Hill, who taught her world history twice a week. "And she was respectful. They taught her well at home."

Last January, however, police arrested Tyisha after she and several other teenagers attacked an 18-year-old girl. (Miller pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace and was put on probation for two years.) But her family bristles at suggestions by police that Tyisha may have been involved with the notorious West Side Crips street gang. So far, there is no evidence to support the claim beyond the fact that when she died Miller was wearing a plaid Pendleton wool jacket favored by gang members. "Tyisha wasn't a gangbanger," insists her aunt Gwenda. "She was just out partying with her friends."

On the day she died, Miller drove four friends to a Riverside amusement park, where she filled out a job application. On the way there one of the girls expressed concern about two pistols she noticed under a seat of the Sentra that Miller had borrowed from her aunt. Miller, who reportedly had agreed to stash the unlicensed guns for a male friend, drove to her mother's house and apparently pretended to leave the guns there. Later, the girls went to a supermarket to buy orange juice and a bottle of gin, some of which Miller drank that night.

Around midnight, after three of her friends had gone home, Miller took off for a party with the fourth, Taneisha Nicole Holley, 15. When the car's right front tire went flat, Miller pulled into a 7-Eleven store on the corner of Jarupa and Magnolia streets. There, a customer, medical-supplies salesman Michael Ho-ran, 36, helped Miller change the tire. The spare was flat as well, so all three drove to a closed but well-lit 24-hour Unocal 76 gas station and snack store nearby, where they tried and failed to inflate the spare.

At that point, Horan, who is white, offered to drive Holley to get help while Miller waited in the car. As he pulled away from the station, Horan noticed a man the girls had seen earlier in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven approach the Sentra and begin talking to Miller. Horan drove back and shooed the man away, then left Miller alone in the locked car parked some distance away from the station pumps and store. Around 1:30 a.m., he and Holley returned to the Unocal and found an unresponsive Miller in the reclined driver's seat while the car's engine idled and the radio blared at full volume. "She looked like she was sleeping," says Horan, and toxicology reports later revealed that Miller was legally drunk and had used marijuana. The loaded Lorcin gun—missing a part of its firing mechanism and unable to discharge—was in her lap. "I think the guy probably came back and was irritating her," says Horan. "That's probably why she had the gun in her lap."

Horan and Holley banged on the car's windows but couldn't wake her. Meanwhile, Holley contacted Miller's cousin Antonette Joiner, 18, who soon appeared at the Unocal. Afraid that Miller, if startled, might shoot at someone, Joiner dialed 911 at 1:50 a.m. Within minutes the four Riverside police officers arrived in two cars and began banging on the Sentra with their hands and their batons. "Police! Police!" Officer Stewart yelled. "Get your hands away from the gun! Unlock the door!" When Miller didn't stir, the officers, who later told police investigators that they were worried about Miller's safety, decided to shatter the driver's-side window and grab her gun. "They used bad judgment in carrying out a bad plan," says Police Chief Carroll. "They shouldn't have forced her to jump for the gun reflexively. They should have pulled back and come up with a more reasonable plan." What's more, he says, "they never got on the radio to call for medical help."

Stewart struck the Sentra's window with his baton, but the glass didn't break. Next, Officer Hotard took a swing, and this time the window shattered. Hotard leaned into the car to grab the pistol, but immediately heard a gunshot near his head. He pulled away, fell backward and opened fire from the ground as the other officers started shooting. Investigators later determined that either Stewart or Alagna believed Miller had reached for her gun and had fired the shot that startled Hotard. "When somebody goes for their gun," says Riverside's lawyer Skip Miller, "it's a standard response to do what they did."

A few seconds after the first volley of bullets, the car revved up as if the gas pedal were being depressed, and the four officers fired another round at Miller. All told, she was struck 12 times and died at the scene of multiple wounds. "She has culpability," says Carroll. "She was wrong to be under the influence of alcohol and have a gun with her." Still, he adds, "each officer is accountable for every bullet that he fired that night." Though witnesses at the crime scene later claimed that the shooters used racial slurs, investigators found no evidence that they had, and Bill Hadden, the attorney for Alagna and Stewart, denies that race played any part in their actions. "Why would someone with a racial bias risk their lives to save that person?" he asks. "What if they didn't do anything, and Tyisha Miller died? People would say it was because she was black."

The bottom line, say those who loved Tyisha Miller, is that an innocent woman will never get the chance to straighten out her life. But just as her relatives vow to fight for as long as it takes to right a wrong, so too do the four officers and their families—who feel the police were scapegoated in the case—believe that justice has yet to be served in Riverside. "It's a lose-lose situation all around," says the city's attorney Skip Miller. "We cannot undo Tyisha Miller's death. In the end, no one really wins."

Alex Tresniowski
Ron Arias in Riverside

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