By Brendan McDermid and Stephen Maturen
KENOSHA, Wis. (Reuters) – Investigators of a shooting by a white police officer that left a Black man, Jacob Blake Jr., paralyzed and the town of Kenosha, Wisconsin, torn by civil strife found a knife belonging to Blake at the scene of the confrontation, the state attorney general said on Wednesday.
The incident sparked three nights of civil unrest that has included a wave of arson, widespread vandalism and a separate shooting that claimed two lives in Kenosha, a city of about 100,000 residents on Lake Michigan, 40 miles (60 km) south of Milwaukee.
In the first official details of Sunday’s shooting released by the Wisconsin Justice Department, which is probing the incident, Attorney General Josh Kaul said the knife was recovered from the driver-side front floorboard of the car Blake was leaning into when he was shot in the back.
Kaul also told a news conference that Blake, during the course of the investigation, had “admitted that he had a knife in his possession.”
Blake’s lawyer responded in a statement that his client posed no threat to police and disputed that he was in possession of a knife.
Kaul did not describe the knife or say whether it had anything to do with why the officer, a seven-year veteran of the Kenosha police department identified as Rusten Sheskey, had opened fire on Blake.
Kaul’s briefing came shortly before the U.S. Justice Department announced it had opened a federal civil rights inquiry into the shooting, to be conducted by the FBI in cooperation with Wisconsin authorities.
In a separate development hours earlier, a teenager was arrested and charged with shooting three people, two of whom died, during Tuesday night’s protests in Kenosha.
Video footage from that incident showed a white gunman, armed with an assault-style rifle, firing at protesters who tried to subdue him, and then calmly walking away from the scene, hands in the air – his rifle hanging in front of him – as several police vehicles drive by without stopping him.
Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes said on MSNBC the suspect, later identified as Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Antioch, Illinois, was apparently a militia group member who “decided to be a vigilante and take the law into his own hands and mow down innocent protesters.”
Bracing for a fourth night of possible upheavals on Wednesday, Governor Tony Evers said he was doubling the National Guard force he had ordered deployed to 500 troops, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed an hour earlier.
About 200 protesters defied the curfew for hours after dark as they marched peacefully through city streets, chanting, “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace,” while law enforcement kept a low profile. No counter-demonstrators or armed militia figures were present.
National Guard soldiers were seen taking a dinner break behind the county courthouse, surrounded by barricades and heavy fencing erected around several downtown public buildings the previous day.
PREAMBLE TO SHOOTING
By Kaul’s account of events leading to the Blake shooting, city police confronted Blake when they were called to the home of a woman who reported that her boyfriend was present “and was not supposed to be on the premises.”
The location he gave for the residence corresponds with the address of the woman identified in media reports as Blake’s fiance, Laquisha Booker.
During the incident, Kaul said, police tried to arrest Blake, using a Taser stun gun in a failed attempt to subdue him.
Blake, according to the attorney general, then walked around his vehicle, opened the driver-side door and leaned forward, as officer Sheskey, clutching Blake’s shirt, fired his weapon seven times at Blake’s back.
Kaul said no other police officers fired their weapons. The officers involved have been placed on administrative leave.
Bystanders captured the encounter in video footage that has since gone viral, unleashing public outrage at the latest in a long series of instances in which police have been accused of using indiscriminate lethal force against African Americans.
Kaul said police in Kenosha are not equipped with body cameras.
A lawyer for Blake’s family, civil rights attorney Ben Crump, issued a statement late Wednesday saying Blake “did nothing to provoke police” and was “only intending to get his children out of a volatile situation” at the time.
“Witnesses confirm that he was not in possession of a knife and didn’t threaten officers in any way,” he added.
Three of Blake’s young sons – aged 3, 5 and 8 – were in the vehicle at the time and witnessed their father being gunned down, Crump said. Blake has a total of six children.
Neither Crump nor law enforcement officials have mentioned court records showing that an arrest warrant was filed against Blake in July by Kenosha’s district attorney for three domestic abuse-related charges – criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and third-degree sexual assault, a felony.
Crump has declined to respond to Reuters queries about those records, which list Blake’s address as the same street number where Booker is reported to reside.
According to Crump, Blake was struck by four of the seven gunshot rounds fired at him on Sunday. Bullets shattered some of his vertebrae, leaving Blake paralyzed from the waist down, possibly permanently, his lawyers said. He also suffered wounds to his stomach, intestines, kidney and liver and will require multiple operations to recover, they said.
Kaul said his department’s division of criminal investigations plans to issue a full report on the incident to prosecutors in 30 days, and that no other details were immediately available.
Blake’s family and protesters have demanded the officers involved in the shooting be immediately fired and prosecuted.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne, Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bill Berkrot, Aurora Ellis, Lincoln Feast and William Mallard)