Man shot by Minn. police aimed airsoft gun at officers
Three friends said Khaleel Thompson was acting erratically and threatening to kill himself hours before he was shot
By Andy Mannix and Paul Walsh
CRYSTAL, Minn. — The teenager shot and critically wounded by Crystal police in a park allegedly pointed a pellet gun at the officers after being told to put down the weapon, state investigators said Thursday.
Meanwhile, three friends said 18-year-old Khaleel Thompson was acting erratically and threatening to kill himself hours before he was shot Wednesday morning.
Around 10 p.m. Tuesday, the friends called police and said Thompson had been recently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had attempted suicide months earlier. He was sending troubling text messages and they worried he might try something again. The officer spent “maybe two minutes” checking on Thompson and left, said Bella Heidenreich.
Less than 12 hours later, around 9 a.m., just a few blocks away at Bassett Creek Park, Crystal police officers shot more than a dozen rounds at Thompson, hitting him in the brain and spinal cord. The friends believe it was an attempted suicide-by-cop, they said.
“He’s just an 18-year-old kid who really needed help,” said Heidenreich. “And we were doing the best we could. But when it got over our heads we tried to contact police and they didn’t do anything and then this happened.”
As of Thursday, Thompson was in critical condition, according to friends and family. He was still in and out of surgeries, including getting his damaged kidney removed, one bullet taken out of his head and another from his spine.
“I went last night and I couldn’t see him like that,” Naomi Thompson, his mother, said through tears. Thompson was struck with two bullets, she said.
“They said if he makes it through, his recovery’s going to be difficult,” she said. “So much for graduating high school. So much for going to college.”
In its first detailed account of the incident, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) said that officers confronted Thompson and “demanded he drop the weapon. ... Thompson then pointed the weapon at the officers.”
One of the officers fired “nonlethal rounds,” the BCA statement read, not specifying what type of rounds they were.
“When Thompson continued to point the weapon at the officers,” the statement continued, “they discharged their weapons, striking Thompson.”
BCA agents determined Thompson was holding a “black, handgun-style airsoft gun with a black-tipped barrel.” This type of gun routinely has an orange tip, allowing it to be visually differentiated from a lethal firearm.
The BCA identified the four officers involved Thursday afternoon and their tenure with Crystal police: They are Mason Barland (nine years), Brian Elfstrom (four years), Kathleen Gomez (20 years) and Txheng Vang (three months). Barland is the officer who fired a nonlethal weapon at the teenager, the BCA added. All four are on standard administrative leave.
Khaleel struggled so severely with depression and mood disorder that his family had to temporarily pull him out of high school recently, Naomi Thompson said. He’s been hospitalized more than 10 times for psychological issues. He’d attempted suicide many times, including threatening to kill himself with a knife he bought at the dollar store earlier this year in St. Louis Park. The incident led to a standoff in which police brought in a negotiator to help talk him out of ending his own life. Naomi Thompson said Crystal police had also responded to wellness calls and knew Khaleel.
Earlier this month, Khaleel sold his belongings and spontaneously moved to California, offering no explanation as to why, said his friend, Tommy Bunkers. He got back this weekend with hospital records saying he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and has been staying with friends since.
Thompson and Bunkers had been together at Bunkers’ house Wednesday morning. Around 7:20 a.m., Bunkers left for school and Thompson was in the shower. The next time he saw his friend he was in critical condition at the hospital.
“I guess he went for a walk at Bassett Creek Park,” said Bunkers. “He liked to go to walk there.”
Police were called to the park after a neighbor reported seeing a man with a handgun. Crystal Police Chief Stephanie Revering said Wednesday the officers told the man to put the gun away, but the man refused.
“Our officers, believing they were in imminent danger, discharged their firearms toward the suspect and immediately provided first aid,” Revering said.
Friends say they don’t know exactly what happened in the roughly hour and a half between Bunkers leaving and the incident, but say they don’t believe he intended to hurt anyone else.
“The only reason he would have had the BB gun is to commit suicide,” Heidenreich said. “He’s literally the nicest person. The night before he literally wouldn’t kill a spider.”
Bunkers said a special agent for the BCA showed up at his house later that evening and showed him a picture of the black-tipped airsoft gun on his phone and asked if he’d seen it before. Bunkers and Heidenreich have been with Thompson in the hospital. They said he’s unconscious and has shown only minor movement in his legs.
Naomi Thompson has not yet been able to speak to police regarding the shooting. She said her son didn’t comply with police orders because he was afraid. She said police were familiar with her son’s mental illness history.
“The Crystal Police Department knows that -- they’ve come out a few times,” she said.
The St. Paul chapter of Black Lives Matter demanded answers from police about the shooting of an “18-year-old black boy sitting in a park” with a nonlethal gun.
“As ALWAYS,” the statement posted Thursday on Facebook read, “they claim they feared for their lives. And therefore that was the justification for the BRUTAL discharge of so many rounds.”
Khaleel grew up in Crystal and regularly spent time at Bassett Creek Park, his mother said. He was a talented musician who taught himself how to play guitar. She said he was on multiple medications and had started taking classes at a community college and was close to finishing his high school degree.
Naomi Thompson said she has called police several times but they will not give her any information about the incident. “They shot my son and they’re not telling me anything,” she said.
A plea for change
On Thursday night, about 50 people gathered at the Wellstone Center in St. Paul, where the Governors Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations was holding a listening session.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, former president of the Minneapolis NAACP and a Minneapolis mayoral candidate, told the council that there needs to be a stronger emphasis on how police respond to calls regarding mental health.
“We have too many people in our community afraid to call the police when someone is having an episode of psychosis or has a mental health background because they are afraid they are going to end up dead,” she said. “We have a young man right now in critical condition because of mental health issues, and police not knowing how to respond properly.”
©2017 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)