Did Thurman Blevins have a gun? A closer look at witness accounts from two key moments

"Just before I came out, I distinctly heard, ‘Drop the gun,’ in a loud, commanding voice."

Jared Goyette
July 16, 2018 - 1:09 am
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The discussion around the police shooting of Thurman Blevins has focused on two key moments — when officers first confronted Blevins on the corner, and after a foot chase, what happened in the alley where two officers with the Minneapolis Police Department shot him.

The witness accounts for both of those moments that are public so far differ in one key regard: several people who saw the initial confrontation between Blevins, 31, and two Minneapolis Police Department officers on the corner of 48th and Camden told reporters that Blevins didn’t have a gun. But Robert Lang, the man who lives by the spot in the alley where Blevins died, has said he saw a gun next to the body in the moments after the shooting.

The distance between these two points — from the initial point of contact between Blevins and the officers to where Blevins died — is roughly 200 meters.

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At WCCO Radio, we’ve reported what one of those initial witnesses, James Lark, told us he saw when officers confronted Blevins. This piece will look closer at what Lang says he saw — he tells his story in the above video.

First, to reiterate: the agency investigating the case, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, has said that at 5:26 pm on Saturday, June 23, officers responded to a 911 call about a man who had shot a handgun in the air and in the ground. The discription of the man matched Blevins. When officers arrived, the BCA says there was a foot chase, and the officers fired their guns, killing Blevins in the alley.  The BCA says officers recovered a 9 mm handgun from the scene. 

Lark, a 54, has lived in Minneapolis for 37 years. On the night of the shooting, he told WCCO he was walking west down Camden Avenue and saw Blevins sitting on the corner of 48th and Camden, drinking with his girlfriend, when a squad car arrived speeding with lights on. Lark said officers jumped out with guns raised and yelled for Blevins to drop the gun. Blevins and his girlfriend raised their hands, according to Lark, and that at some point, officers attempted to tase Blevins before he took off running. Then officers followed in a foot pursuit down 48th street, before Lark said he heard gunshots. Lark said he never saw Blevins with a gun.  

Last week, in a community meeting at Jerry Lind Elementary School attended by the Blevins family, Lang and Lark happened to sit next to each other and had a civil exchange about what each had seen before the event started. Lark referenced the conversation when he spoke to the gathering.

“I don't know why the video hasn't been released, but if that video is being released, it's going to show that man and that baby was actually sitting on the curb, and it’s bothering me that someone suggesting that he had a gun when he stood up. All these suggestions... that he had a gun in the alley when he was shot in this gentlemen's yard,” he said, gesturing toward Lang. “I can't tell you that part. But I know this: the guy didn't have no gun when he put his hands up.”

Members of the Blevins family have raised concerns about the initial confrontation between Blevins and the officers, suggesting that, whether Blevins had a gun or not, officers unnecessarily escalated the situation.  Vanessa Anderson, the mother of Blevins’ two oldest children, spoke to the Minneapolis City Council at the end of June.

“What my concern is, even for my children, is the approach. Did you de-escalate something, or did you escalate something?” she said.

The question of how officers approached that scenario is one we’ll return to once the police body cam videos have been released. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has said that the city will release the videos once the BCA has finished interviewing witnesses and the family has given permission.

But, for his part, Lang says he can’t speak for what happened when officers first found Blevins — all he knows is what he saw in the alley.

Lang, 66, is a retired machinist and US Air Force veteran who has lived in the same house in the Camden neighbor for his entire life — he grew up there and eventually purchased the home from his father. The night of the shooting, he was outside with his dog after mowing the lawn when he saw a police car speed down Bryant Avenue. Lang said the squad's lights weren’t on, but it was moving fast as it turned on 48th Avenue and headed east.

“Right then, that kind of alerted me. I figured something was up when a police car goes by that fast,” Lang says.

A few minutes later, Lang heard commotion coming from behind his house, and went outside to investigate

“So I went out my gate, and was along the side of my garage, and just before I came out, I distinctly heard, ‘Drop the gun,’ in a loud, commanding voice. And  I heard that probably three times — ‘Drop the gun,’ and when I heard that, I thought, well, maybe I shouldn’t go out in the alley.”

Lang says he stood by the side of his garage. At this point, he couldn’t see further up the alley, where the voices were coming from. That’s when he heard the gunshots — they came in two groups, one after another in quick succession. At first, he heard a few shots, and then a volley with several more.  

“I never heard any response from anybody when they said ‘drop the gun,’ but then, probably real quick, probably within a few seconds, I heard maybe two or three gunshots, and maybe a fraction of a second or two delay, and then a probably nine or 10 shots more, very rapidly,” he said.

A few seconds after the gunfire stopped, Lang says he stepped into the alley and saw Blevins' body on the ground. He couldn’t remember what Blevins was wearing, but he said Blevins was laying on his back, slanted across the alley, with his feet to the northeast and his head facing southwest, near Lang’s driveway. A pool of blood was coming from his left side.  

That’s when Lang says he saw the gun, laying on the right side of the body.

“And then I looked over to this right and probably about an arm’s length away, I saw a black automatic handgun,” he said.

Lang said an officer walked down the alley with his gun raised, stepped around the body and kicked the gun on the ground off to the side. Then, Lang says the officer saw him and said, “Get back in your yard.’”

That night, Lang was interviewed twice — first by Minneapolis Police investigators and then by the BCA. A few days later, BCA investigators returned to ask about a bullet that neighbors had said they found.

Lang has spoken to TV news reporters before and afterward, he said some neighbors had told him that some people were saying he was lying or had been paid off.

“I thought about whether I should speak to any of the media, but I figured I should at least tell what I saw. I'm not trying to take sides in this issue. My parents brought me up to tell the truth, regardless of whose side you’re on or not on. I just figured I had to tell what I saw,” he said.  

The stories of the two witnesses in this story don’t necessarily contradict. They saw different moments of the incident, in different places. The body cam video may likely help us understand both moments — the one seen by James Clark and the one seen by Robert Lang.