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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Family Doubts Police Story of Killing

ST. LOUIS (CN) - Police in Florissant, Mo. shot a man to death and made it look like a suicide, the man's family claims in court.

The survivors of Afolabi Abayomi sued the City of Florissant, St. Louis County, Florissant police Officers Andrew Gerwitz and Joshua Smith and four St. Louis County detectives in Federal Court Wednesday.

Gerwitz and Smith went to Abayomi's home on Oct. 20, 2013 while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Police told media at the time that the officers opened fire when Abayomi brandished a gun at them. Police said the officers' shots hit Abayomi in the side and arm, but that he died of an self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

James W. Schottel, an attorney representing Abayomi's family, said the police report and investigation raised numerous red flags.

"Based on the evidence and based on what he did and what he didn't do, we strongly feel that he didn't shoot himself," Schottel told Courthouse News.

Schottel said an eyewitness claimed there were more shots fired than what was in the police report.

To discredit the witness, Schottel says, investigators claimed he had changed his story several times.

"I talked to him twice and he said the exact same thing," Schottel told Courthouse News. "He never wavered in what he saw."

Schottel said relatives also found additional bullet casings on the property. He said that certain aspects of the investigation don't add up.

"Their version is that he shot himself with a gun with his right hand," Schottel told Courthouse News. "They bagged the hands, but didn't test for gun residue. If you know anything about investigations, that is a huge red flag."

Schottel claims investigators prompted Gerwitz to change his story.

Schottel said that according to the police report, Gerwitz originally said he was on the passenger side of the vehicle, which would have put him on the same side as the fatal wound to the head.

According to the police report, an investigator called Gerwitz after he made that statement and asked him if he was sure about being on that side. At that point, Schottel says, Gerwitz changed his statement and claimed he was on the driver's side of the vehicle.

"That's a non-subtle slip of the tongue," Schottel said. "He knows what side of the vehicle he was on. At that point I think it was clear they were trying to piece together whatever they could to absolve the officers of any wrongdoing."

The lawsuit does not mention suicide. It notes that Gerwitz and Smith are white police officers and that Afolabi was black and that the officers "used excessive and unreasonable force."

It also claims that St. Louis County investigators illegally searched Abayomi's property.

Abayomi's family seems punitive damages.

Florissant attorney John Hessel told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he did not know the facts of the case and had no comment.

Florissant borders Ferguson, which has been the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice regarding its policing practices.

Gerwitz was a defendant in another civil rights lawsuit against the Florissant Police Department, filed in May 2010. That complaint, filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court but removed to Federal Court, claimed Gerwitz conducted an illegal search of that plaintiff's property. That suit resulted in a judgment against Florissant and Gerwitz for $5,500.

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