Ga. shooting suspect 'thought cop was criminal'

Atlanta Police Officer Steve Roach was shot three times while in full uniform

By Steve Visser
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — This defendant's case is not typical, but officer says his guilt is obvious.

On a day where almost everything went wrong, Atibi Thomas and Keith Roach were lucky about one thing when they met nearly two years ago: Roach wore his bulletproof vest.

If Roach had removed the vest when he ended his shift as an Atlanta police officer at 3 p.m. on May 29, 2010, he would be dead and Thomas would be facing a life sentence in prison — if not the death penalty — instead of the 25 years he faces this week.

Thomas shot Roach three times when the officer was in full uniform, fracturing Roach's rib, piercing both arms and shattering a cellphone in a pocket above the officer's heart. Why? He said he thought the officer was a crook.

Thomas, a DeKalb County merchant who at that moment was a victim of crime, said he believed the officer to be part of a robbing crew with which he had just exchanged gunfire. Roach, who had just left work in his Chevy Tahoe, heard the gunfire and drew his .40-caliber Smith & Wesson on a fleeing Thomas, the only man he saw with a gun.

It was a moment that altered the lives of two longtime solid citizens. This week, both are looking for closure in Fulton Superior Court, where the case is scheduled to be heard. Thomas, who has refused all plea bargains, wants his record cleared. Roach believes Thomas needs substantial time in prison.

"This guy was shooting in broad daylight, and all I could do was react," Roach said. "I was in full uniform. There is no way he could look at me and not believe I was a police officer."

Thomas had steered clear of trouble for his 31 years and held a bachelor's degree in mathematics with hopes of becoming an actuary. He contends he only sought to protect himself but made a horrible mistake prompted by fear, confusion and adrenaline.

"I hope the jury can understand that I am not a criminal," he said.

District Attorney Paul Howard said Thomas originally started to surrender to Roach before shooting him. That doesn't warrant a free pass, the prosecutor said.

"He says, 'I shot him, let me apologize and go,' " Howard said. "He needs to accept responsibility."

'You got rims?'
According to interviews, court documents and police records, the case began when Leland Cortez Sims and Darrlin Vernard Warner walked into the Autotron in Lithonia on the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekened. They wanted to buy four tires with 26-inch rims, which Thomas, a manager at the store, had advertised on Craigslist.

The deal was quickly clinched. The men paid Thomas $2,000 in cash, which included a fee to deliver the wheels to the West End in Atlanta.

Thomas loaded the tires into a truck, but before leaving to follow the customers to their residence, he handed the $2,000 to his father.

He became nervous when he saw the men's Honda Accord peel off I-20 at Flat Shoals Road, seven exits before West End. But instead of turning around, Thomas exited at Lee Street in West End and pulled into the Shell station to phone Sims and Warner. They told him they had to stop for gas and they would be there soon.

Thomas didn't like it. His instinct was right. Sims and Warner had already called Dontavious Marquess Berry, a then 21-year-old with a long arrest record who three weeks earlier he had gotten out of prison. Unaware the $2,000 was in Lithonia, Sims said Thomas represented "an easy lick for you." Sims and Warner quickly picked up Berry and dropped him at the West End Mall behind the Shell station.

When Sims and Warner arrived at the station, Thomas prepared for trouble. He put his Glock .357 semi-automatic pistol, which he was licensed to carry, into his side pocket. He balked at their request to make the trade-off on a side street and instructed them to unload the rims. In moments, he said he was confronted by Berry's revolver.

Thomas fired first, hitting Berry in the leg. He then fled toward a Popeye's restaurant across Oak Street, firing back at the men he feared were pursuing him.

Sims drove Berry to Grady Memorial Hospital, where he left the Honda, according to the police investigation. The car was quickly connected to Warner, who then contacted police and confirmed the robbery attempt.

Sims and Berry were charged with attempted armed robbery. Thomas and Warner, who faces no charges, are the key witnesses against them.

'He is the police.'
But the situation quickly deteriorated at Popeye's. Keith Roach, then 31, was sitting in his black Tahoe at an Oak Street stoplight when he heard the gunfire and saw Thomas, gun in hand, running toward the fast food restaurant. The officer got out of the SUV.

Thomas said he heard Roach tell him to halt, but despite the officer's uniform and pointed gun, he ignored the command and ran up to the clerk at the restaurant's window.

"I said, 'Ma'am, I've been robbed. Call the police,' " Thomas said.

Roach again shouted for Thomas to get down on the ground, and while Thomas this time got on his stomach, he said he kept squirming to watch Roach approach, still not sure he was a lawman. He had noted Roach got out of a Tahoe with tinted windows, not a squad car.

Suddenly he felt Roach's knee in his back, and when the officer grabbed his wrist to handcuff him, Thomas saw tattoos on the officer's forearms.

"I'm like, this is not an officer. And that is when the struggle ensued," Thomas said.

Who fired first is a matter of contention, but Roach's pistol malfunctioned after one shot and ejected the clip. Thomas emptied his final three shots into Roach, who was able to hit Thomas with his pistol and wrestle him back to the ground.

"I was just fighting for my life, and I was just struggling to get his gun," Roach said. "An officer's worst nightmare is to draw a weapon and it doesn't fire."

The larger Thomas soon was atop Roach, who was trying to turn the muzzle of Thomas' gun away from his face.

"I said, 'Don't move or I will kill you,' " Thomas said.

Donald Melvin, a 64-year-old Decatur contractor, and his wife watched the struggle from their car across the street. He feared that Roach was about to be killed and thought of his own son, a DeKalb County police officer.

A Vietnam War veteran, Melvin stepped on the gas and drove his Pathfinder's bumper into Thomas' back. But not even that could stop the struggle. Melvin said he next tried to pull Thomas off the officer.

"He started telling me [Roach] is not a police officer, and I told him he was a police officer ... don't you see that shirt?" Melvin said.

While Melvin's wife, Paulette, called 911 — the dispatcher placed her on hold — it was Melvin who reacted. He recovered Roach's pistol, pointed it at Thomas and pulled the trigger.

Misfire. He cocked the gun and pulled the trigger again. Again nothing. He then began pistol-whipping Thomas.

As more people joined in to help, Melvin saw the pistol's magazine was ejected. He slammed it in tight and chambered a round.

"I told [Thomas] you need to get down this time because I will kill you," Melvin said.

A small crowd helped Roach get Thomas handcuffed, and the wounded officer lay across him until patrol cars arrived minutes later. Thomas was quickly placed under arrest, even as he explained that he was the victim.

"Once I saw the police cars pull up, I felt safe," Thomas said.

Sending a message
Thomas, who is out on bail, believes he has a 50-50 chance of staying a free man. For that to happen, the jury will have to believe he made an honest mistake while acting in self-defense.

Howard, the district attorney, said he believes that Thomas shot Roach out of anger, not error. "For whatever reason, his emotions got the best of him and he almost killed a good man," Howard said.

Melvin said the case is a no-win situation. He said letting Thomas walk free would send the message to thugs that they can escape prison if they shoot a cop. He understands Thomas had a clean record and was on the verge of starting a second profession when his world turned upside down.

"It is a hard case for that young man, and I hate to see it be that way," Melvin said. "You can't say how scared he was or why he couldn't understand the guy was a police officer. But if he doesn't go to jail, it will look like he can shoot a police officer and get away with it."

Copyright 2012 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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