Jason Van Dyke speaks with the Chicago Tribune on Aug. 28, 2018, at his lawyer’s office. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)
By: Christy Gutowski and Stacy St. Clair | Contact Reporters
In the hours after fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke returned to his Southwest Side home and headed for the shower.
As he stood under the spray, Van Dyke could not have known all that would happen over the next 13 months — that video of the shooting would be released publicly, that protests and firings and a Justice Department investigation would ensue, that he would be the first Chicago police officer in decades charged with murder for an on-duty shooting.
In that moment, the married father of two school-age daughters just knew that he killed a 17-year-old boy who had been walking down the street with a knife. The weight of that act was not lost.
“I remember coming home and … just sitting down in the shower until the water went cold, and even then I couldn’t get out,” Van Dyke told the Chicago Tribune.
In his first interview in the nearly four years since the shooting, Van Dyke spoke with the Tribune for about 40 minutes Tuesday at his lawyer’s downtown offices. Occasionally looking at handwritten notes, he would not discuss the shooting or its aftermath.
Instead, he brought copies of his commendations, suggested he was a political scapegoat and decried “the bandwagon of hatred” on social media.
With jury selection set to begin next week, he acknowledged a newsing desire to challenge the image many paint of him as a racist, trigger-happy cop who was indifferent to taking the life of a troubled 17-year-old.
“I pray every day” for McDonald’s family, said Van Dyke, who is Catholic. “I offer up a rosary every day.”
Van Dyke appeared uncomfortable in the spotlight, often pausing for long periods and struggling for his words in an interview that was tightly controlled by his attorneys and the public relations strategist hired by his defense team. His lawyers requested questions to be submitted in advance, would not allow the conversation to be recorded on video and interrupted some questions to instruct Van Dyke not to answer.
On several occasions, including as he described his fear of a lengthy prison sentence, he stopped to wipe away tears.
“Of course, I’m extremely nervous,” he said. “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”
He then stopped to collect himself.
“Being away from family,” he said tearfully. “Every day.”
Van Dyke told the Tribune that he has watched the video showing him shoot McDonald 16 times, but his attorney stopped him from discussing his reaction.
McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, has repeatedly declined to comment on her son’s death, but on Tuesday, his great-uncle questioned both the sincerity of Van Dyke’s words and the timing of his interview.
“I don’t know the man,” the Rev. Marvin Hunter said in a telephone interview. “Is he really praying or is he just saying what he thinks you want to hear? They’re trying to write a narrative. They’re trying to influence the jury. I’m not mad or surprised because it’s just legal maneuvers.
“If I were writing the script for him, I would have him say exactly what he’s saying,” Hunter said.
Jason Van Dyke at his lawyer’s office Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Never before fired his gun
Laquan McDonald’s and Jason Van Dyke’s lives intersected shortly before 10 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2014.
Several police officers had been trailing McDonald, who was on foot and under the influence of PCP, after receiving a call that he had been breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard on the Southwest Side. The officers, who had requested backup units equipped with Tasers to assist them, tried to corral McDonald with their vehicles to keep him at bay. At one point, McDonald allegedly slashed the front tire of a police squad with a knife and scratched the windshield.
Van Dyke heard the radio dispatches capturing the police activity as he and his partner drove to the scene. Six seconds after exiting his squad car, prosecutors say, Van Dyke opened fire.
He emptied the gun within 15 seconds, according to prosecutors, and was reloading when his partner told him to hold fire. McDonald lay on the street for 13 of those 15 seconds, prosecutors said.
Though he declined Tuesday to talk about the shooting, Van Dyke submitted a written report after the shooting stating he believed McDonald was attacking him with the knife. In the report, Van Dyke wrote that McDonald raised the knife across his chest and over his shoulder, a statement that was belied by the police dashboard camera video that was released to the public on the same day he was charged with murder.
Other officers backed up Van Dyke’s account, portraying McDonald as far more menacing than the footage showed. Three officers, including Van Dyke’s partner that night, await a trial of their own in November on obstruction of justice and other charges.
The shooting, according to McDonald’s family, was “an assassination,” with Van Dyke acting as the teen’s “judge, jury and executioner.”
Van Dyke’s attorneys have argued the dashcam video — which does not contain sound — does not show the officer’s vantage point when he pulled the trigger.
Under Illinois law, police officers can use any force necessary to “defend (themselves) or another from bodily harm.” Van Dyke’s explanation for the shooting is in keeping with state statute and will likely be the foundation of his self-defense claim at trial.
In the interview, Van Dyke, 40, signaled what will likely be another key part of his defense, repeating several times that he had never before fired his gun while working mostly nights in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods during more than a dozen years on the job.
“Any loss of life was extremely difficult. It’s something you try to mentally prepare yourself for just in case. … You don’t ever want to shoot your gun. It doesn’t matter if it’s to put down a stray animal or something like that. Nobody wants to shoot their gun,” he told the Tribune. “I never would have fired my gun if I didn’t think my life was in jeopardy or another citizen’s life was. It’s something you have to live with forever.”
He described the shooting as the worst day of his career. His attorney, Daniel Herbert, however, interrupted before Van Dyke could complete his thought.
“Obviously my darkest day was the night of the shooting,” he told the Tribune. “Just overwhelming amounts of everything at once: emotions, adrenaline — ”
“Don’t get into any pre-shooting,” Herbert said.
Jason Van Dyke at his lawyer’s office on Aug. 28, 2018. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
Safety a concern
McDonald’s great-uncle didn’t accept Van Dyke’s explanations after the shooting and doesn’t accept them now. He has seen the video, which contains images so troubling the City Council approved a $5 million settlement with the family without a lawsuit being filed.
“It surprises me that he could say he is a good Catholic and stands on moral ground but also said that he was justified and was in fear for his life,” Hunter said. “No one else drew their gun. The tape clearly shows this young man walking down the street. He wasn’t a threat to anyone.”
Van Dyke received 53 commendations during his career. He also had at least 20 complaints, with more than half of those including allegations of excessive force.
He has been accused of using racial slurs on two different occasions, according to his personnel file. The allegations — which were deemed unfounded — have contributed to the portrait of Van Dyke as a prejudiced officer, an image he largely blames on social media.
“Everyone wants to be part of the bandwagon of hatred. Anyone who knows me, knows me personally, knows … that I’m not a racist,” he said. “That’s a great false narrative. … It’s just slander.”
He has been sued three times, twice successfully. In the most serious incident of the two, a federal jury in October 2009 awarded a black motorist $350,000 for injuries he suffered in a traffic stop. The man, who did not have a criminal record, complained that Van Dyke handcuffed him so violently that he needed medical intervention to repair tendons in his shoulder and rotator cuff.
Van Dyke was not punished after any complaint, though the department routinely has been criticized for failing to discipline its officers. But the investigation into McDonald’s shooting — which ultimately led to police Superintendent Garry McCarthy’s firing and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s re-election defeat — seemed different from the start, Van Dyke said.
“I think there’s been a lot of external political newsures,” he said. “It just seems like politics has been involved with this since the beginning.”
Van Dyke has been suspended without pay or benefits since he was charged in November 2015. He has been working as a janitor at the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police lodge, which has backed the officer financially and vocally.
“I think I was a great police officer,” he said. “I always made efforts to treat everybody fairly and with respect and the way I wanted my own family to be treated.”
With the trial slated to begin next week, it appears a jury will decide whether Van Dyke’s 16 shots were justified. His attorneys have asked for the trial to be held outside Cook County, arguing a fair jury can’t be found because of the extensive pretrial publicity. But Judge Vincent Gaughan has deferred any decision until after jury selection begins at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
Van Dyke’s attorneys, who would not allow him to discuss trial strategy, said they have not decided whether Van Dyke will take the witness stand. Sources said no discussions of a plea deal have taken place with prosecutors.
As he has done for all pretrial proceedings, Van Dyke will wear a bullet-proof vest as he enters and exits Cook County’s main criminal courthouse. A few early protests were so chaotic outside the courthouse that off-duty officers have been protecting Van Dyke and his father, Owen, for every court date.
Van Dyke said he worries the verdict could lead to riots.
“I’m very scared for it,” he said. “It obviously weighs heavily upon my mind.”
He also exnewsed concern about his family’s safety. Van Dyke said he conceals his identity when he goes out with his daughters. The family has moved to an undisclosed location in advance of the trial.
Van Dyke also said he and his wife sat down with both girls before he turned himself in and explained the seriousness of the charges.
“I just told them truthfully about what was going to happen,” he said. “I just tried to tell them, ‘Hey, I might be gone for a little bit, but I’m still going to be there for you.’ ”
His wife, Tiffany, who was also interviewed Tuesday, said the family has “closed ranks” in the years after he was charged with murder.
“We are trying to pack in as many memories as we possibly can in case the worst outcome happens,” she said of her husband’s possible conviction and imprisonment. “… He could miss out on so much, and it’s a sad thing to see. We just keep telling them to stay strong, keep their heads up and that their dad loves them. And that’s all that matters.”