Video released in fatal shooting of black man by N.J. state trooper

A friend of Maurice Gordon, 28, called 911 a day before his death to say he was concerned about Gordon, who had recently left his home and was acting "a little weird."

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

New Jersey's state attorney general on Monday released audio and video recordings related to a state trooper's fatal shooting of a black motorist who had been pulled over for speeding.

Maurice Gordon, 28, of Poughkeepsie, New York, died at the scene of the May 23 traffic stop after being shot by state police Sgt. Randall Wetzel on the Garden State Parkway in Bass River, about 24 miles north of Atlantic City, according to a press release by the attorney general's office.

Gordon was stopped for allegedly driving 110 mph on the parkway.

Dashcam video from the trooper's vehicle shows that during the stop, Wetzel asks Gordon to move his car because he pulled over in the fast lane rather than on the shoulder, but Gordon says it has died. Wetzel calls for a tow and asks Gordon, "Where do you want to go?"

Gordon says he is headed to a car dealership, and the trooper tells him he can sit in the back seat of his patrol car, as can be heard on the video. Gordon accepts.

“I can give you a ride wherever you’re trying to go,” Wetzel tells Gordon in the video.

Wetzel returned to Gordon after about 20 minutes, opened the back door and offered him a mask, at which point Wetzel "exited the vehicle" and "attempted to enter the driver seat of Sgt. Wetzel’s vehicle on two occasions," according to the attorney general's release.

After the first attempt, Wetzel pepper-sprayed Gordon, the release says.

"After the second occasion, Sgt. Wetzel removed Mr. Gordon from the vehicle and, after a physical struggle on the left shoulder of the southbound Parkway, Sgt. Wetzel shot and killed Mr. Gordon with his service weapon," the attorney general's office said. "Sgt. Wetzel fired six times and then placed handcuffs on Mr. Gordon."

A state trooper who arrived after the shooting tried to provide aid to Gordon but did not detect a pulse. He was pronounced dead at 7:28 a.m., according to the attorney general's release.

The state medical examiner's office has not completed Gordon's autopsy, according to the attorney general's office.

Gordon was unarmed, according to a report on the initial phase of the investigation by the attorney general's office. The report alleged that Gordon attempted to take Wetzel's handgun and drive away with the police car.

The more than a dozen files of recordings released by the attorney general cover about 30 hours, including interactions that Gordon had with law enforcement before Wetzel pulled him over.

Gordon was first approached by an off-duty officer in Red Bank, New Jersey, at 3:13 a.m. when he ran out of gas and was stopped in the middle lane of the southbound Garden State Parkway. The officer called a tow truck and an off-duty state trooper and on-duty state trooper also assisted.

At 4:54 a.m., another state trooper pulled up behind Gordon's car because it was stopped in the left lane of the southbound Garden State Parkway. The trooper called a tow truck and left before a civilian brought Gordon to a Wawa convenience store to get gas, which was recorded on video.

Gordon got back in his car and kept driving. He is then pulled over at 6:13 a.m. by a state trooper who gives him a ticket for allegedly driving 101 mph.

Ten minutes later, he is pulled over again, this time by Wetzel, for allegedly driving 110 mph, according to the attorney general's release.

Two additional recordings released by the attorney general's office are from a 911 call made by a friend of Gordon's in Poughkeepsie the day before his death. The friend said Gordon had recently left his home and he was concerned about his well-being. He said Gordon was acting "a little weird" and had "said something about a paranormal experience.”

The recordings were released by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal's office in accordance with a policy to make videos and audio related to use-of-force incidents public after the first phase of the investigation is complete, usually within 20 days.

When the entire investigation is complete, the case will be handed over to a grand jury, which will decide whether criminal charges will be filed, according to Grewal's office, which cited a directive issued Grewal in December 2019. The directive "outlines a 10-step process for conducting independent investigations of use-of-force and death-in-custody incidents" and "establishes clear procedures governing such investigations to ensure that they are done fully, fairly, and independently of any potential bias."

Wetzel is currently on paid administrative leave, which is standard protocol, a New Jersey State Police spokesman told NBC News Tuesday.

Gordon's mother, Racquel Barrett said Tuesday on MSNBC that she is not happy with that decision. "I think the police need to be charged. I don't think he should be on leave, getting paid, because it's just distasteful and everything, you know. I have no words; it's just distasteful," she said.

Before Monday's release of the audio and video files, Barrett said on MSNBC that she and her family in the U.K. where she lives, and in Jamaica where they are from, were desperate for answers.

"My son was the most amazing, amazing person. He’s a wonderful son," she said. "My life will never ever ever be the same again. I lost a piece of me — that’s my son."

She said she had worried about his living in the U.S. as a black man, but "I never have deep concern about him ... He’s just a loving kind person and he’s respectful as well to his elders, and I always think if somebody stop him, like a police officer, he’d be nice and smile."

The family's lawyer, William Wagstaff, said on MSNBC Tuesday that he was not happy with how the attorney general's office released the video and audio files all at once so that the public ended up seeing and hearing them before Gordon's family, who were in the process of preparing for his funeral when the files were posted.

"They learned that it's released to the public because they're getting text messages while planning for the funeral from family members telling them that it's on YouTube no less. So you have millions of people that were able to see Maurice's last moments before his family," Wagstaff said.

Wagstaff said both Monday and Tuesday that he was concerned about potential bias in the investigation.

"In this situation, you have the state lawyers investigating state police," Wagstaff said Monday. "So for me, what would be fair in this circumstance is if there was a separate independent prosecutor to make sure consistent with New Jersey law, when this goes to the grand jury, that it's going to be presented in a way that they can get an indictment."

Asked for a response to Wagstaff's remarks, a spokesperson for Grewal told NBC News that "the Attorney General is required by law to conduct the criminal investigation into the death of any person during an encounter with a law enforcement officer."

The "investigation is being conducted by a team of career prosecutors and investigators within the Attorney General’s Office of Public Integrity & Accountability (OPIA), which operates independently of the command structure of the New Jersey State Police," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also said that Gordon's family was invited to the public integrity office to view the footage before it was released to the public. Wagstaff refused, and so the office sent the family the videos Monday morning before making them public Monday afternoon around 3 p.m., the spokesperson said.

The president of the union that represents Wetzel said his "use of force was reasonable under the circumstances."

"It is important to look at the videotape of the stop, to consider the Trooper’s courtesy and multiple attempts to safeguard Mr. Gordon, using verbal commands, physical resistance, and then pepper spray, escalating to lethal force only when Mr. Gordon tried to grab the Trooper’s gun," said Det. Sgt. First Class Pete Stilianessis, president of the State Troopers Non-Commissioned Officers Association, in a statement. "This incident occurred not because of police aggression, but despite every attempt to deescalate the situation."