New Revelations in the DJ Henry Case Are Explosive

The morning after DJ Henry, a Pace University football player from Easton, was killed by police officer Aaron Hess in Mount Pleasant, New York, police chief Louis Alagno held a press conference. Standing before reporters, he said that Hess “ended up on the the hood” of Henry’s car as it accelerated from a fire lane and that Hess drew his gun and shot into the vehicle. He said that the other officer who shot at the car, Ronald Beckley, was in the vehicle’s path when he fired. He also said that a third officer, Carl Castagna, sustained injuries when he was hit by Henry’s car.

It’s been almost two years to the day since Alagno’s press conference clouded the night’s events just enough that the ensuing press was of the he-said, she-said variety. The public quickly took sides, with some questioning the police action and others saying DJ Henry’s actions brought about his own death. And now, Beckley has come forward to say that Alagno’s statement was not true.

Ronald Beckley’s midnight shift on October 17, 2010, started out like any other night of his 30 years with the Mount Pleasant, N.Y., police department. He reported to headquarters, put on his uniform, got into his patrol car, and drove on a routine survey of the main landmarks of the night’s post. Around 1:20 a.m., a dispatcher reported a fight at Finnegan’s, a popular bar and restaurant in the Thornwood shopping center. As Beckley made his way to Finnegan’s, he had no way of knowing that a young man would soon be dead—and by night’s end, his gun, uniform, and car surrendered to the police chief.

When he arrived at Finnegan’s, Beckley parked his car behind a row of police vehicles and walked toward the crowd of students leaving the bar. He didn’t see a fight, but he soon heard gunfire and saw a dark figure shooting at a Nissan Altima leaving a fire lane. Within seconds, the dark figure mounted the hood of the car, still shooting into the windshield. Beckley drew his gun, and, for the first time in his 30-year career, discharged it at the “center mass” of the figure, or, in police-speak, he shot with intent to kill. The Altima came to a stop, and the figure rolled onto the pavement and landed in a fetal position, clutching his knee. It wasn’t until Beckley approached the vehicle that he realized the figure was Aaron Hess, a police officer he’d never met. He says Hess told him he’d been shot in the knee, and Beckley had the sickening realization that he was the one who fired the bullet.

The crowd in the parking lot erupted, and police pulled their guns and tasers to quell them. Meanwhile, the driver of the car, DJ Henry, had taken a shot to the arm and one to the chest but was handcuffed and placed face-down on the sidewalk, where he died.

Hours after the scene cleared, eyewitnesses packed the police headquarters to give their accounts of what happened, and Beckley and two other officers squeezed into the only space available, a small supply room, with their lieutenant, Brian Fanelli. Beckley told Fanelli he shot Hess because he thought Hess was an aggressor. Beckley wasn’t sure why Hess “had placed himself in front of that car.” Fanelli told him not to worry because he didn’t shot Hess, but rather, Hess’s knee was injured when DJ Henry sped into him with his car, which is why Hess had to shoot into the car in the first place.

No, Beckley said, that’s not what happened. Fanelli then told Beckley he’d call the hospital to check. He stepped out in the hall, spoke on his cell phone for a few minutes, and returned to again tell Beckley that he hadn’t shot Hess. Relieved, Beckley left the room, changed into civilian clothes, and turned in his weapon. Meanwhile, Fanelli wrote a statement saying that Beckley believed he was going to be killed by the car moving toward him. That statement would inform Police Chief Louis Alagno’s press conference several hours later.

Later that morning, Alagno told reporters that DJ Henry had been driving recklessly through the parking lot and had hit the officers with his car. When Beckley called Chief Alagno on Monday morning, Alagno said he couldn’t talk to him and that Beckley should find a lawyer. Beckley never returned to work. In December, he submitted his papers for retirement and officially left the force a month later.

Michael Sussman, attorney for DJ Henry’s parents in their $120-million wrongful death suit, said in a conference call to reporters last week that Hess’s uniform “… seems to me to totally vindicate the testimony we’ve heard.” He continued: “You can look at the knee, and you can see what appears to me to be a tear with a center that might well be a gunshot. While I can’t be definitive, I can also tell you that the rest of the uniform does not bear the marks of someone who was struck by a car at 30 miles an hour.” Sussman also said that Hess’s medical records have been acquired but are deemed confidential by his attorney.

Even with Beckley’s deposition and the uniform evidence possibly backing up his version of the story, Peter Manning, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University, says it’s very difficult to successfully sue the police. “The courts are very sympathetic to the fact that police are doing a very risky job. They are risking their lives on our behalf,” he says. He adds that police officers must maintain the ability to make split-second decisions without fear: “The reasoning of the courts is that you do not want to suppress the active willingness of the police to defend citizens and themselves.”

Another finding from the lawsuit’s discovery process is that Beckley and Hess weren’t interviewed by District Attorney Janet DiFiore. Manning says this type of case is “explosive” for prosecutors, district attorneys, and politicians for two reasons: “First, the public gets very involved, as with the Trayvon Martin case, and second, it’s a morale issue for the police. They’re angry, they’re upset, they feel not supported, and that has a lot of consequences.”

Hess’s lawyer has yet to depose Beckley in full, and with the discovery process set to continue through at least February and a trial not likely until 2014, more revelations are to be expected. Meanwhile, Beckley is still adjusting to life outside the police force he called home for 30 years.

During the deposition, when asked why he’d never attempted to put into writing the events of that night, Beckley answered, “I’ve been meaning to.”

“For how many years have you been meaning to?” the attorney asked.

“Almost two.”

“And what’s prevented you from doing it for the past year and 11 months?”

“I live it every day,” he said.

Speaking out against other officers is rare, and Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says Beckley deserves some credit. “Assuming he is being truthful, the cop speaking up needs lots of praise,” Kenney says. “Though it’s the right thing to do, it’s still very difficult.”

Angella Henry, the mother of DJ Henry, had a similar response. When her attorney called in the middle of Beckley’s deposition to tell her what he’d said, she says, “I was just appreciative that someone had finally come forward and told the truth about that night, coming from a police officer I think I was a bit overwhelmed, to say the least, and just thankful that someone had the courage to come forward and shed light on that night.”