Files provide insight into deadly Md. standoff documented on social media
Police ultimately took the step of asking Facebook and Instagram to deactivate the armed woman's accounts, believing they were distracting her from negotiations
By Alison Knezevich and Kevin Rector
The Baltimore Sun
RANDALLSTOWN, Md. — Korryn Gaines stared into her cellphone camera.
"This is for anybody who wanna know what I'm doing," she said, panning down to a shotgun perched in her lap. She turned the camera toward her pajama-footed 5-year-old son, who smiled and waved. Then back to herself.
"I'm m— f— tired, but the devil at my door, and he's refusing to leave," said Gaines, 23, with a cartoon blanket wrapped around her shoulders. "I'm at peace. I'm in my home. I ain't trying to hurt nobody. ... They been quiet a while so they plotting to come in here and disturb the peace. ... I am not a criminal."
Outside Gaines' Randallstown apartment, Baltimore County police were in the midst of a tactical operation aimed at coaxing Gaines out. Minutes later, they would secure a warrant for her arrest on charges of assault and resisting arrest, alleging she pointed her shotgun at an officer after police kicked in the door to serve pre-existing warrants on her and her fiance that morning.
Eight family members gathered at a church nearby, desperately waiting for answers.
The Baltimore Sun obtained the video through a public records request for the evidence that prosecutors reviewed to determine that the fatal police shooting of Gaines and the wounding of her son Kodi — at the end of a six-hour standoff on Aug. 1 — were legally justified.
The evidence includes the contents of Gaines' mobile phone, hours of police radio chatter never before heard by the public, hundreds of photos and documents, and statements from the officers involved. It provides a rare look at the buildup to a deadly police encounter, at a time when such incidents are under intense national scrutiny.
While most of the case file presents the police version of events, Gaines' voice is present through extensive recordings she made while police staged outside her home. She used her phone to communicate with the outside world through an array of platforms, including text messages, FaceTime, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
The department ultimately took the unprecedented step of asking Facebook and Instagram to temporarily deactivate her accounts, believing social media was distracting her from negotiations with police.
Key points in the encounter — including when officers entered the apartment and fatal shots were fired — were not recorded, either by Gaines or police. The officers involved were not wearing body cameras.
Gaines' killing has spurred intense controversy in the months since. Gaines' family has filed a lawsuit against the county and some of the officers involved. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has called for an independent review of Gaines' death and Police Department policies.
Police declined to comment for this article, citing pending litigation in the case. An administrative review of the incident remains open. A separate review of the tactical response, standard after any barricade situation, also remains open.
The evidence does not answer all of the questions. What it shows is an emotionally charged standoff that played out in fits and starts — and then ended in a sudden burst of violence.
At the door
It was already 80 degrees outside when Officers Allen Griffin and John Dowell arrived at the three-story Carriage Hill apartment complex that Monday morning, looking for Apartment T4.
Police had two warrants: one for Gaines and another for her fiance, Kareem Courtney, 39. Gaines was wanted for failing to appear in court on charges related to a March traffic stop. Courtney was wanted on an assault charge related to domestic violence allegations filed by Gaines.
Griffin knocked on the door about 9 a.m., announcing they were police. No one answered, but the officers said they could hear coughs and a crying child.
They called for another officer from the Woodlawn precinct, who went to the apartment building's rental office and got a key for the apartment. Officers tried to open the door with the key but found that it was also chain-locked.
Dowell kicked in the door, and Griffin went inside, according to documents filed in Baltimore County District Court. Gaines, seated on the floor, allegedly pointed a black shotgun at Griffin and told the officers to leave.
Gaines had bought the weapon 11 months before, for $429 at a store called The Cop Shop near downtown Baltimore. According to her family, she bought it after someone broke into her home.
At 9:41 a.m., tactical officers and members of the department's Hostage Negotiation Team were paged to the apartment. Police were now describing the incident as a barricade situation.
At the start, there were four people in the apartment: Gaines, Courtney, Gaines' son Kodi and the couple's 1-year-old daughter. But Courtney left apartment with the 1-year-old and surrendered to officers. He told police that he had tried to bring Kodi out as well, but the child went back to his mother.
Now, it was only Gaines and Kodi in the apartment on Sulky Court, and an increasing number — eventually dozens — of tactical, hostage negotiation and patrol officers outside.
Gaines remained connected to her family and friends on social media.
"She is texting and Facebooking her father," police noted in a timeline of events at 10:54 a.m.
But Gaines' mother, Rhonda Dormeus, believes her daughter never knew that family members, including her parents, grandmother and cousins, were gathered nearby at the Colonial Baptist Church, where police set up a staging area. The relatives spent the day in a day care classroom at the church.
"My baby felt like she was alone," Dormeus said. "She had no idea that we were there."
Dormeus said police took her phone and used it to send messages to her daughter, pretending to be her. But she said police did not use the same language she would have.
"She knew it wasn't me," Dormeus said.
Gaines' communications and social media activity became central to the standoff.
Police believed that they were a significant distraction from negotiations, documents and audio files in the case file show. Gaines turned to her devices throughout the day to document her interactions with police — something she had done before.
In March, Gaines was arrested by county police for disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and other charges after being pulled over on traffic violations not far from her home. In videos she recorded of that encounter, she discussed incidents of police brutality and killings of black people across the country.
She told an officer that she didn't "participate" in laws governing the state's roadways, and a police report from the incident said a cardboard sign on the back of her car read: "Any Government official who compromises this pursuit to happiness and right to travel will be held criminally responsible and fined, as this is a natural right or freedom."
Gaines also told an officer during the stop that she believed Baltimore County police would kill her.
"I'm not going to murder you, I promise you that," an officer says in one video.
"Oh, OK, well one of you will," she said. "One of you will. I promise you, you will."
In the days after her March traffic stop, she wrote in an Instagram post that all she could think about was Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old woman who died in a Texas jail days after her arrest during a contentious traffic stop.
J. Wyndal Gordon, a lawyer for the Gaines family and for Courtney, believes that Gaines, like other black Americans, was psychologically affected by seeing images of police killings across the country.
"It impacts us," he said. "It's like a collective trauma that we all feel."
Gaines had also suffered from anxiety and depression, her mother said in an interview. In the summer of 2014, she had a "breakdown" and was hospitalized. At the time, her mother said, Gaines was filled with anxiety about how to handle a large monetary settlement related to a lawsuit over her exposure to lead paint as a child.
Throughout the Aug. 1 standoff, officers discussed what mobile devices Gaines was using and how they could open a direct line of contact with her. One officer wondered about Gaines posting messages on social media, and whether they could jam her phone service and disrupt her access.
"It's a phone that the number's already dead," an officer responded. "She's just using the Wi-Fi portion. We can't control that phone."
Police commandeered the apartment of Gaines' next-door neighbor, Ramone Coleman, drilling holes in his living room, bedroom and bathroom walls to monitor Gaines' movements with surveillance equipment connected to TV-like monitors.
At one point, police noted Kodi brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the kitchen to his mother. Over the course of the day, she used her phone to record police, at times posting videos to social media.
"Ain't nobody getting hurt today, I promise you," an officer in the hall tells Gaines in one exchange she filmed. "You, me, the baby, can go sit, we talk, I get you something to drink, something to eat, whatever you want. But I'm telling you, OK, I promise you — that gun you have, that is not a solution, dear."
Gaines also recorded phone conversations with a police negotiator, Sgt. Kathy Greenbeck.
"So right now, all we're really looking for is for you to come out without any weapons, and for your son to come out, so that we can talk with you," Greenbeck said.
"OK, well, what you just said is just not what I got from these people who are standing outside my door," Gaines replied. "I'm sure that they are going to tell you the best story to make me look like I'm the criminal, or I'm doing something wrong. But I already explained to you that the only thing that I'm doing right now is keeping my peace."
Gaines recounted to the negotiator her traffic stop arrest in March, when she said she was "kidnapped" by police and suffered a miscarriage of twins during hours of mistreatment starting at the Police Department's Woodlawn precinct.
"Goodness. So that was a bad experience," Greenbeck said.
Gaines said she believed the officers at her door were trying to take her back to the precinct. According to police, Gaines was taken to Northwest Hospital after scuffling with officers during the traffic stop, treated, and then processed at the precinct and released.
"Well, I can hear how upset you are about that. And I am so sorry that you —" the negotiator began, before Gaines interrupted.
She sounded like she was crying. She said she was not a criminal.
"I believe that you're not looking to hurt anybody," Greenbeck said.
"And I don't need anybody here to hurt me, either," Gaines said. Police, she said, could never convince her that "50 guns surrounding my home" were necessary.
Gaines also told the negotiator about Courtney spending time in prison in the past — he has a criminal record in Baltimore, including for attempted murder — and its effect on the family.
"Those are moments that you can never get back," she said.
In documents, police say Gaines repeatedly hung up on Greenbeck during their conversations.
Gordon, the Gaines' family attorney, described the footage as "chilling."
"What I saw is a very frightened person, a person who's filled with anxiety and a lot of distrust," he said. "At the end of the day, she just wanted to feel safe."
Throughout the day, police were gathering information from Gaines' family. Courtney told them that she had mental health issues and had been off her medication.
At one point, they learned that Kodi's father was a former county police officer. They considered having him contact her, but learned they were no longer close.
Gaines' father recorded a message that police planned to play for her over the phone, but Gaines never got it. Police wrote in documents detailing the incident that negotiations broke down before they could deliver the message. It's unclear what the message said.
Police said they wanted to avoid talking about the March traffic stop, believing it was "one of her triggers" to becoming emotional.
About 2 p.m., police asked Facebook to shut down Gaines' account but didn't immediately hear back. They also asked the company to shut down her Instagram account. Police officers consulted with a psychologist about their decision to make the request, according to their notes.
"We've never done it before," an officer said on the radio. The decision would prove controversial among activists who say it prevented Gaines from posting video of police at a time when citizen videos of law enforcement have sparked a national dialogue about police brutality and misconduct.
About 2:40 p.m., Gaines recorded another video of herself. She was holding the shotgun up near her chest, pointed forward. She checked behind her, cleared her throat and looked down at the gun's trigger. Her shoulders shook.
"Hey Mommy, I don't want my milk," Kodi said, asking if he could put his glass in the kitchen.
"No, I want you to stay right there for a second," Gaines said, still holding up the gun.
At 2:45 p.m., police confirmed they had shut down power to Gaines' apartment. They discussed bringing in cooling stations for other residents who would be affected.
As the afternoon wore on, police believed their negotiations were breaking down.
"Is she still somewhat calm?" an officer asked over the radio at one point.
"No, she is now mostly rambling, still about the previous arrest and the previous contact with us," another responded.
"She knows we're not leaving, right?"
According to Robert W. Taylor, a criminology professor at University of Texas at Dallas and former police negotiator, Gaines' access to social media added "just another complexity to an already difficult situation."
"When you have this outside line to Facebook and social media, it's just a compounding factor," he said. "You're only going to be able to control the media to a certain degree."
Because of Kodi's presence, police had no choice but to remain at the apartment, he said.
"The police are damned if they do and damned if they don't," he said.
At 3:21 p.m., Gaines had entered the kitchen of her apartment, according to a police timeline.
Three minutes later, police noted that Gaines was "highly agitated" and "screaming at officers to get back."
A minute later, they noted it appeared Gaines' Facebook and Instagram were down.
Then, at 3:26 p.m., a voice came across the SWAT tactical channel: "Shots fired. Shots fired."
Officer Royce Ruby Jr., who fired the fatal shots, said in a statement that the shooting happened after Gaines, who had been sitting on the floor within view of the officers through much of the day, suddenly ran into her kitchen.
"This was a huge tactical advantage to her, giving the suspect a good angle to shoot at" officers stationed just outside of her open front door, Ruby wrote in the written statement given to police investigators the day after the shooting.
The statement has not been made public before.
Ruby, who also was outside Gaines' front door, wrote that he could see the muzzle of the shotgun and a piece of her hair at the entrance to the kitchen. Police commanded her to drop the gun.
Then Ruby saw her gun "raising up and sticking further into the hallway," pointed at the officers positioned next to him, he wrote.
Fearing for their lives, he fired "through the drywall at her head," he wrote. She then fired her shotgun for the first time, he wrote, but did not strike any officers.
Ruby and the other officers then rushed in, trying to reach Gaines before she could pump the shotgun and fire again, he wrote.
But Gaines did shoot again toward the officers approaching through the other kitchen entrance. Officers said they hoped to pull Kodi to safety.
As Ruby rushed to Gaines, he wrote, he saw her turning the shotgun toward him. Ruby wrote that he was in fear for his life and the boy's life when he fired three more rounds at Gaines' "center mass," as Kodi "was moving from her side, to behind her and away."
No other officers fired a weapon.
Gordon, the Gaines family's attorney, said police should have waited Gaines out longer. Ruby should not have shot into the apartment, Gordon said — especially through a wall, when Kodi was there, next to his mother.
According to her autopsy, Gaines was shot in the left chest, the left back, the right arm, and the left wrist and forearm, with an additional graze wound to the right thigh. Her son suffered a gunshot wound to the face that wasn't life-threatening.
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said investigators believe the bullet that hit Kodi first passed through his mother.
After the shooting, an officer asked over police radio whether Kodi could be brought to the family members waiting outside. Instead, he would be rushed to the hospital.
Editor's note: To see more footage and audio from the standoff, click here.
©2016 The Baltimore Sun