Tina Gissendanner’s shift working the cash register at a White Castle hamburger joint is just about to end.
It’s an hour before midnight on Friday, July 23, 1999. The moon is half-full, the night clear.
Tina can see her 31-year-old husband Billy through the window, waiting behind the wheel of their car in the parking lot. Laid off from his job as a forklift driver at an auto parts supplier, he’s spent the day caring for their baby son. Tina, 28, knows the time off work has him stressed.
After punching the clock, she hurries out with a treat for her husband — a few pieces of fried chicken and some jalapeño peppers.
They stop to get their baby, Darrell; Billy had dropped him off a few minutes earlier at the home of Tina’s aunt, Shirley Foreman. She lives just across from their small rental place in a rundown neighborhood on Detroit’s west side.
Shirley pours them all a glass of beer from a 40-ounce bottle of Schlitz Ice as they chat for 20 minutes or so. Billy gets the baby, and the couple head back across the street.
Darrell’s first birthday is coming to an end. It will be the last one spent with his father.
Like much of this report, Tina’s recollection of the hours preceding her husband’s death is drawn from the court records of a wrongful death lawsuit the Gissendanner estate has filed against the City of Detroit and two of its police officers. Using depositions, sworn affidavits, police reports, court filings and interviews with witnesses, the Metro Times has spent the past two months investigating allegations that police shot an unarmed Billy Gissendanner and then attempted to cover it up by planting a weapon and altering critical evidence.
This is what we found.
Once home, Tina puts the baby in his crib. The clock ticks past midnight and into Saturday morning. Tina changes into her nightshirt. The subject of money soon comes up. With Billy off work, cash is tight and frustrations are running high. The car’s been having problems; bills are coming due. There are support payments for Billy’s two other sons living in Saginaw, children conceived during a 10-year relationship with his high school sweetheart.
Soon Billy and Tina get to arguing. According to her deposition testimony, Tina decides to leave before saying something that will be regretted later. But Billy wants her to stay and talk things out. The exchange gets more heated. Her asthma starts acting up, making it difficult to breathe. She heads for the front door. He blocks the way. Tina tries pushing him aside. They both weigh about 160 pounds, but at 6-foot-2, he’s nearly a foot taller than she is.
He pushes back.
That’s when Tina calls 911. The time is 12:41. Her voice, recorded on tape, sounds frantic.
"My husband jumped on me," she says, gasping for air. "I’m pressing charges. Please help me."
The emergency operator is having a hard time getting information. She repeatedly tells Tina to take a deep breath and slow down.
"What did he hit with you with?"
"He hit me with his hand. He told me he took my money. I have receipts."
"Did he hit you with anything besides his hands?"
"No," she gasps.
Tina says she’s bleeding from the mouth, but isn’t sure she needs an ambulance.
At 12:45 a patrol car from the 8th Precinct is dispatched to 15491 Dolphin St. Officers Eric Ewing and George O’Gorman respond to the domestic violence call, husband assaulting wife.
Until this point, Billy has never had much trouble with the law. The only mark on his record is a misdemeanor conviction for leaving the scene of an injury accident.
At the scene
It is only the second time the two cops have worked together. With four years on the job, the 27-year-old Ewing is the senior man that night, a field training officer overseeing rookie O’Gorman.
Ewing isn’t a big guy, just 5-foot-9, but he’s 137 pounds of solid muscle — an expert Greco-Roman wrestler who once placed fourth in world competition against other police officers and firefighters.
A former partner would later describe him as "a very sweet, good-hearted person who really wants to try hard to do his best."
Working out of the 8th Precinct since coming on the job, he knows the neighborhood well — a high-crime area with more than its share of crack houses and prostitutes.
Instead of knocking and announcing themselves, the two officers split up and walk to the sides of the bungalow. Ewing takes the right, along the side of the house facing north; O’Gorman goes left, to the south side of the home.
Four people would provide accounts of what happened during the next few minutes, each offering different views of events that would culminate with Billy Gissendanner slumped in his front yard, bleeding to death from a single .40-caliber bullet that passed through his stomach and out his back.
The shooter’s version
Walking along the north side of the house, Officer Eric Ewing hears a loud thump, as if something has just been thrown against the wall inside. Then he hears a woman say, "So, you’re going to break our window?"
A male voice responds, "It’s my window."
It is quiet a few moments, then he hears the male voice again, this time saying, "They’re going to have to shoot me."
His keen ears also detect the sound of a drawer being slid open.
He quickly heads back toward the front of the house. As he comes around the corner, he sees a black woman exit the front door and into the yard, yelling, "He has a knife." Following close behind is a black male, about 30 years old. In his left hand is a kitchen steak knife with a four-inch blade.
Ewing draws his Glock semiautomatic, orders the man to drop the knife. He says, "No."
Ewing, now standing on the walkway leading to the house, is within four or five feet of the man, who is in the front doorway of an enclosed porch, about to step onto a cement stoop.
The woman is off the stoop and on Ewing’s left. He’s not sure where his partner is. Ewing is the only one issuing orders to the suspect.
Ewing again tells the man to "drop the knife." The black female turns back toward the man.
Ewing and the man lock eyes. The man raises the knife up to shoulder level and takes a step toward Ewing, preparing to come off the stoop at him. The officer wears a bullet-proof vest and carries Mace, but decides not to use it.
"At this time," reported Ewing, "fearing for my safety as well as the safety of the black female, I fired one shot."
A .40-caliber bullet hits Billy Gissendanner in the right side of his stomach, piercing the pancreas and abdominal aorta before coming out the left side of his back. He drops the knife and falls off the stoop to the ground.
The woman charges toward Ewing. He dodges her once, then again. She takes off across the street.
Ewing radios the dispatcher at 12:53 and calmly informs him: "We’re going to need a supervisor and an EMS to our location." A woman’s voice can be heard screaming in the background. Soon after that Ewing is back on the radio saying, "We have a man shot here, officer discharged weapon."
The widow’s version.
Minutes after making the 911 call, Tina Gissendanner again attempts to go across the street to the home of her aunt. As she steps onto the front stoop, she sees a white police officer she estimates to be 25 or 30 years old. Standing about five feet away on the walkway leading to the front stoop, he tells her he’s heard everything going on inside.
"I said everything all right," recalls Tina. "You all can just leave."
Billy comes to the door of the enclosed porch, saying, "What, what?" The officer addresses him as sir and asks that he step outside. There is no porch light on, but lights from the living room are bright enough to illuminate the scene.
Billy continues to stand behind the door, telling the officer, "Didn’t we just say every damn thing all right?"
Tina is getting scared at this point. She looks at the officer, sees his right hand gripping the gun in his holster and begins to fear the worst. She comes forward, standing on one of the steps leading up to the cement stoop.
She tells Billy to stay put, then hears the officer say, "Sir, didn’t we just say for you to step outside?"
The officer begins stepping backward until he’s standing 14 or 15 feet from the porch. Billy follows the order and steps onto the stoop. Tina hears the door open and turns to tell Billy to remain inside. In the instant that she’s turning, she sees a flash from the gun’s barrel, hears the shot, feels the bullet whiz past. Billy’s raised and empty hands drop as he clutches his side and falls to the ground.
As Billy hits the ground, a second officer comes around the south corner of the house. He looks to his partners and asks, "What did you just do?"
Billy, crumpled on the ground moaning, begins to shake violently.
Tina screams and runs toward her aunt’s house across the street. Ewing chases after her, grabbing hold at the base of her neck so hard it leaves bruises. Her nightshirt rips and she breaks free.
The partner’s version
Officer George O’Gorman, 28, separates from his partner to walk around the south side of the home on Dolphin Street. A longtime security guard at several stores in the metro area, he’d graduated from the Detroit Police Department Academy the previous December.
Approaching the home he hears an argument going on inside but can’t make out the words. He continues walking toward the back of the house, a distance of about 50 feet, then returns to the front where he sees a woman standing at the front door, shouting, "He’s got a knife. He attacked me, help." His partner comes around from the north side of the house at the same moment.
Ewing and O’Gorman quickly climb onto the cement stoop, which measures five feet by five feet. The woman also stands on the stoop, to O’Gorman’s right. O’Gorman sees the man with the knife in the doorway leading from the main house to the enclosed porch. Both officers order the man to drop the knife and stop where he is.
The man ignores the commands, charging forward across the enclosed porch. Ewing and O’Gorman retreat a few steps, so that Ewing is at the edge of the stoop and O’Gorman is on one of the steps behind his partner. At this point, both officers have their guns drawn, arms extended.
The "perp" reaches the doorway between the enclosed porch and the front stoop.
Both officers again order Gissendanner to halt and "drop the knife."
Instead, he raises the weapon to shoulder level as he "lunges" at Ewing. He is within two feet of Ewing when the officer fires.
Gissendanner takes a "partial step backward," drops the knife, then falls off the stoop onto the ground, making a thud as he hits the hard dirt.
Tina Gissendanner screams and runs into the street, but neither O’Gorman nor Ewing make a move to restrain her.
O’Gorman holsters his gun and begins to secure the scene to make sure no evidence is disturbed. Ewing calls for an ambulance.
Billy Gissendanner remains on the ground, unattended while he bleeds from holes in his stomach and back.
Within minutes, other officers begin to arrive. After about 10 minutes, when it becomes apparent an ambulance is not immediately available, Gissendanner is loaded into a patrol car and taken to Sinai-Grace Hospital.
The neighbor’s view
Lisa Cornwell, at the time a 35-year-old waitress, sits in her dining room, wearing pajamas as she folds the day’s wash. Her TV is on.
Cornwell and her husband, James, rent the home immediately to the south of the Gissendanners. She doesn’t really know the couple that has been living next door for about five months.
"Just hi neighbor and that," she would explain later in a deposition. She never socialized with them, never went inside their home to visit, never baby-sat Darrell.
Sometime between 12:30 and 1 o’clock on the morning of July 24, Cornwell catches sight of a flashlight beam outside her window in the narrow space between her home and the Gissendanner’s. She walks across to the living room, peeks out the window and sees a uniformed police officer. He is moving toward the back of the house. Looking down at him, it is difficult to get a good look at his face; she sees mostly the top of his head. She can tell that he’s white.
As he continues toward the back of the house, she follows, going to her rear bedroom window to keep a close eye on him. Her windows are open, and she hears no noise coming from next door.
As the officer begins returning to the front of the house, Cornwell does the same, going to the dining room window, which looks out toward the street. Because of the angle, she is unable to see the cement stoop at the front of the Gissendanner home. The officer she’d been watching is still at the side of the house. Suddenly she sees a second officer stepping backward on the walkway in front of the Gissendanner home, retreating two or three steps after he enters her field of vision.
Cornwell hears the second officer say "Stop, drop that."
It is the first and only time she hears such an order from either officer. She does not hear Tina’s alleged shout: "He has a knife."
As the officer stepping backward issues the command, he almost simultaneously draws his gun and fires. Lisa Cornwell thinks to herself, "That man shot too fast."
An instant after the shot is fired, the officer Cornwell had been watching walk next to her house steps around front. He shines the flashlight briefly in the direction of the body lying on the ground, then looks to his partner and asks, "What happened?"
Tina Gissendanner is yelling hysterically.
Cornwell hears the officer who did the shooting make a radio call reporting the incident. Tina runs into the street, screaming, "They shot Billy!" She makes it as far as the gate in front of her Aunt Shirley’s house before the officers catch her.
"She was holding onto the gate and they was trying to pull her back across the street," recalled Cornwell later.
The neighbor’s husband
James Cornwell is on the way home from his job as a warehouse worker at DHL Airways. He sees several police cars, lights flashing, racing in the direction of his house. Afraid something may have happened to his family, he speeds up. When he arrives home, he learns from his wife that Billy has been shot.
The news is particularly disturbing because he and Billy had begun to develop a friendship over the previous six weeks.
"I walked outside and I seen Billy laying on the ground, and at that time I walked back and forth through the house because I was very upset. …"
Then: "I stepped on the inside of my little area of my house by the front door and I kept looking out. I stood on the porch for a long while."
He spends those minutes carefully surveying the entire scene. Then he crosses the street to check up on Tina.
Within two or three minutes of the shooting, more police start arriving. The first supervisor to show is Sgt. Douglas Muston, a tall, burly department veteran with slicked-back hair. According to the first of three reports he was required to produce that day, he determines within a matter of minutes — certainly no more than 10 — that Officer Ewing acted in self-defense.
That conclusion would remain unaltered — for both Muston and the department as a whole.
After securing the scene, Muston helps load Billy Gissendanner into a patrol car that takes him to Sinai-Grace Hospital.
Other officers from the 8th Precinct arrive, including Lt. Gary Hund. According to most accounts, Hund adheres to procedure and immediately confiscates Ewing’s pistol and then, after about two minutes, takes him downtown to the Homicide Section.
On the way they stop at the 8th Precinct to pick up Ewing’s union representative, who instructs the officer "not to say nothing." At homicide headquarters Ewing meets in private with a lawyer from the police officers’ association. Ewing writes down a statement, which the lawyer then types out. It is signed by Ewing and dated. The time is 3 a.m. Ewing is asked no questions by any investigators. He is temporarily assigned to desk duty. Nearly six months later he goes before a police board of review that clears him of any wrongdoing.
Back at the scene
Muston, after securing the scene and waiting for backup to arrive, begins canvassing the area, looking for witnesses.
He starts with the Cornwells.
In his reports, none of which contain a signed witness statement like those produced by other investigators at the scene, Muston writes that Lisa Cornwell saw Billy Gissendanner "lunge toward" officer Ewing. In the first report he produces, Muston quotes her as saying she heard Ewing say, "Stop, put that down." In the second report, the command is changed to "drop knife." The third report claims Cornwell observed the shooting, "verifying self-defense."
More than one hour after the shooting, investigators from the Homicide Unit, including Officer Michael Dailey, begin to arrive.
Dailey interviews Lisa Cornwell at 2:30 a.m., obtaining a signed witness statement that offers a much different account than the one contained in Muston’s report.
She states: "I saw the younger, dark hair (sic) officer pull his gun out, say, ‘Stop, drop that,’ then I heard a gunshot, then I saw Tina run into the middle of the street saying the police shot Billy." Asked how far Billy was from the officer, she replied: "I don’t know because I didn’t see Billy. If the officer hadn’t stepped back, I wouldn’t have seen anything."
The document is remarkable for its brevity. Dailey, a newcomer to the homicide squad, is investigating his first police shooting. Assigned to interview the only eyewitness to the shooting, he appears to ask a total of only eight questions, just three of which relate directly to what Cornwell saw that night. During a deposition later, Dailey affirms that he indeed asked only eight questions; only one witness statement was produced, he testifies.
The interview takes place in the Cornwell’s dining room. James sits next to his wife. She is asked no questions regarding O’Gorman’s actions during the incident. She is not specifically asked about what she heard. Dailey does query her about previous arguments the Gissendanners may have had, and whether Billy had ever been violent. She says there was an argument once among guests at a party at the Gissendanners’, but it didn’t involve them, and she had never known Billy to be violent.
And that was that. At least according to Dailey.
A different story
The Cornwells describe an encounter much more intense than the quick eight questions-and-out scenario related by Dailey.
First off, they say, Lisa Cornwell refused to sign the initial statement written out by Dailey.
Both say he kept repeating certain things again and again, making assertions that Lisa kept correcting. Finally, he handed over a statement that she refused to sign because she considered it inaccurate.
"He left, went outside about 10 minutes, came back in and said we got to do it over again," Lisa Cornwell said during her deposition.
The second time around, she agreed to everything in the statement, but on seeing the question "Do you have anything else you want to add to this statement?" she told Dailey she wanted to include her opinion that Ewing "shot that man too fast."
Although she eventually signed the statement, that observation was not included.
"I did add something, but he didn’t write it on there," testified Lisa Cornwell during her deposition. "I told him, I said, you didn’t write what I said, you know, but I signed the statement."
(During a deposition, James Cornwell confirmed his wife’s account.)
Asked by the attorney representing the city why she would do that, Lisa Cornwell replied, "I just wanted him out of my house."
"I was tired," she explained. "We had been up like three or four hours."
Immediately after the shooting, Tina Gissendanner seeks refuge at her Aunt Shirley’s. Tina’s mother, Joyce Foreman, is summoned to also provide comfort.
After a period of time — it is not known for certain how long — she is placed in a police car and the questioning begins. According to police reports, she is interrogated once by a sergeant from Homicide. Again, the encounter is brief.
The signed statement shows 13 questions.
She describes the argument she and Billy had, and what provoked it. She also describes the encounter with Ewing, saying at one point he pushed her out of the way just before firing.
When asked if she phoned 911, Tina inexplicably lies and says no. Asked who did call, she says it was probably a neighbor named Lavenia Thomas that she’d been quarreling with.
During her sworn deposition later, Tina contradicts her witness statement and talks extensively about making the 911 call.
The night of the shooting, she is also queried about the knife Billy allegedly used to attack the officers. The Homicide Unit’s Sgt. Reginald Harvel asks: "Where does that knife belong that is on your porch?"
"We used it to cut the plastic on the window on the house," she replies. "The last time I saw it, it was by the paint buckets on the porch."
(None of the 24 photos taken that night by the police evidence squad show the inside of the enclosed porch. Subsequent photos from a photographer hired by Tina’s lawyer show paint cans on the porch.)
At the very end of her witness statement, following questions about how long they’d lived in the house and her landlord’s name, Tina is asked: "When you turned around did you see a weapon in Billy’s hand?"
"No," she replies.
And the interview is over.
"In cold blood"
Like the Cornwells, Tina Gissendanner claimed during her deposition that the actual questioning is much more extensive than what is reflected in the signed statement. First of all, she claims she was interviewed by two different police officers that night, not just one.
Tina’s mother, Joyce Foreman, sat in the squad car with her.
Tina stated in her deposition: "One police officer came and got me, putting me in the car. I said I don’t want to get in there. I wanted to go see what’s wrong with my husband. They would not let me go. So they put me in the car, talked to me for like, what was it, 20, 30 minutes. And then another police officer came and asked me the same thing … kept on asking me over and over and over about a weapon. And I kept on telling him he [Billy] did not have a weapon. …
"I said the police just killed my husband. And they’re talking about, well, how you know that, how you know that, kept on … did he have a weapon? I kept telling them no, no. …. They going to make me say something — [but] he didn’t have no weapon. And he just … shot him in cold blood, and that’s not right."
Finally, about 3 a.m., Tina is allowed to go to the hospital to be with her husband. By the time she arrives he is dead.
That morning and later in the afternoon of the 24th, police officers obtained witness statements from four other people — Tina’s aunt, Shirley Foreman, her mother, Joyce Foreman, and two neighbors, Nancy Kelly and Lavenia Thomas.
None saw the shooting.
Although the couple had arguments — mostly about money problems — neither the aunt nor Tina’s mother knew of Billy ever getting "physical" with his wife. They’d known him to drink beer, but never to use drugs.
Kelly told police, "Billy was a nice guy. He read his Bible every night." A police crime scene photo shows a Bible on the nightstand in the bedroom.
Thomas, who had lived with the couple for a while at a previous address, said the couple quarreled "all the time," and that both were heavy drinkers.
Police crime scene photos showed a bottle of scotch on the floor of the bedroom.
And with those interviews, the Detroit Police Department’s investigation was largely complete.
Like Ewing, Officer O’Gorman would also provide a written statement at the Homicide Unit that morning. He, too, was allowed to write it out in private with the assistance of counsel.
For Detroit Police officers involved in shootings, that is standard operating procedure.
With the exception of laboratory tests of the evidence and the medical examiner’s report (see side story) investigators had all the information they needed to reach a conclusion.
In a document titled Investigator’s Report — which represents the department’s official position on the incident and was used by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office to help determine whether charges should be brought against the officers involved — the department concluded:
"Officer Ewing fearing for his safety as well as that of witness Tina Gissendanner and his partner Officer O’Gorman drew his department issued weapon, and again ordered Complainant Gissendanner to stop and drop his weapon. Complainant Gissendanner still refusing to comply approached Officer Ewing with knife in hand. Officer Ewing then fired one shot from his department issued weapon, striking Complainant Gissendanner in the abdomen."
There is no mention of Tina Gissendanner’s repeated claims her husband was unarmed. Nor is there reference to Lisa Cornwell’s claim that Ewing shot after issuing only one warning, and that he fired too quickly.
The unsigned report is dated July 24, 1999.
Within days of the shooting, Tina and a relative of Billy’s seek out an attorney. They choose Nathan French, a young civil rights attorney who specializes in sexual harassment cases. He had represented one of Billy’s family previously, and the family liked his work.
There isn’t a lot of enticement for French to take on the challenge of a case like this. All he had to go on was Tina’s claim that Billy was indeed unarmed when police gunned him down.
"Just go and talk to the neighbors," she urges.
Almost immediately he begins uncovering information missed by the police. Especially helpful are the Cornwells.
Lisa and James Cornwell both claim that they had clear views of the Gissendanner front stoop shortly after the shooting, and both insist there was no knife where police claimed. They each sign sworn affidavits claiming the knife did not appear on the stoop until nearly an hour after the shooting. They repeat their claims in sworn depositions.
"I’m the kind of person who looks at everything," James Cornwell said in an interview with the Metro Times. He insisted he has no doubts about the knife.
"I am confident about that," he said. "And I have no reason to lie about something like that. Everything I told was the truth. If I didn’t see anything, I’ll tell you I didn’t see anything."
Asked during her deposition why she didn’t tell investigators about the knife and its sudden appearance, Lisa Cornwell replied, "Because no one asked me."
James Cornwell made a similar observation, saying the police showed no interest in even interviewing him.
The Cornwells also had a lingering fear that police might retaliate against them in some way if they attempted to reveal that an officer had indeed shot an unarmed man.
"I always had that in the back of my mind," said James Cornwell. "I was not sure how the police would respond."
After they did make their claims, patrol cars came at least twice and parked directly across the street from their home.
"They didn’t do anything. They just sat there for a long time," said James Cornwell. "Nothing like that ever happened before."
Additionally, within hours of Lisa Cornwell giving her deposition in this case, officers from the 8th Precinct pulled James Cornwell over for having a cracked windshield.
"I’m turning the corner, and they’re at the light and several cars were speeding by and I get all the way down heading to the freeway and all of a sudden they come speeding up behind me," he said when asked about the incident during his deposition a few weeks later. "They had to put a whole lot of effort to catch up with me."
The officers made no threats, and didn’t even issue a ticket. But he remains suspicious.
"Were they trying to intimidate me? I can’t say for sure. But I do know I don’t like it," said James Cornwell.
The attorney representing the City of Detroit and officers Ewing and O’Gorman in the civil case filed against them, Krystal Crittendon, remains unimpressed by the Cornwells’ claims.
"It is clear," she argued in court documents, "based upon the Cornwells’ testimony that they possess no information equivalent to a ‘smoking gun’ which refutes Defendants’ claim that Mr. Gissendanner was armed and threatening with a knife at the time that he was shot."
But the Cornwells aren’t the only ones swearing that the knife didn’t appear on the front stoop until long after the shooting. The 16-year-old son of Tina’s aunt Shirley Foreman made the same claim in a sworn affidavit.
In that document, Alan Foreman, who has yet to be deposed for the case, claims that he kept a close eye on the Gissendanner home following the shooting, watching as police arrived at the scene.
"I had a clear view of the Gissendanner’s outside porch," he claims. "There was no knife or any object on the Gissendanner’s outside porch for a period of time after Billy Gissendanner was shot."
He watched as officers went in and out of the house.
"Approximately one hour after the shooting a police officer exited the house and kneeled down on the outside porch … at this time the officer had a knife in his hand that had not been on the outside porch earlier."
Alan and his family moved out of the Dolphin Street neighborhood a few days after the shooting.
"I am in fear of the Detroit Police," he stated.
There is one detail that highlights the difference between the investigation French is attempting to conduct on behalf of his clients and the one performed by the Detroit Police Department.
It has to do with how far away Officer Eric Ewing was from Billy Gissendanner when the shot was fired.
According to Ewing and O’Gorman, the space between the men was only two to five feet. The information is important, because it helps justify the speed with which Ewing fired. A distance that short puts him in immediate danger.
Yet, according to court documents, the officers investigating the case never produced a single diagram indicating where those involved were standing that night. And there were no attempts to resolve the drastically conflicting statements made by Ewing, O’Gorman, Tina Gissendanner and Lisa Cornwell.
French, on the other hand, tried to establish with some certainty where Ewing stood. It wasn’t difficult.
Lisa Cornwell has consistently stated that she could not see the Gissendanner’s front stoop as she looked out her front window. The entranceway to her home blocks the view, which is why she could only see Ewing once he started to back up.
French took a tape measure to the house and had Cornwell look out her front window while he stood in front of the Gissendanner home and began stepping backward. Cornwell told him when he entered her line of vision. He marked the spot and made a measurement: 14 feet from the stoop to the spot where Cornwell saw Ewing standing when he shot Billy.
From the questions officers asked witnesses that night to the testimony from the police department evidence technician who stated he never even attempted to find the bullet that passed through Billy Gissendanner’s body, the department’s investigation was flawed from start to finish, claims French.
"I’m doing what trained professionals should have done, and I’m doing it without their money and without their resources," he says. "What they did was not an investigation. It was a cover-up."
Darrell Gissendanner isn’t the only boy who will grow up without a father as a result of this shooting. There are Gissendanner’s other two sons in Saginaw. The older of the two, 13-year-old Billy, described his relationship with his father this way:
"He teached me how to play football. He teached me to do the right things and not the bad things, he taught me how to fish. … He wanted me to go to school and finish school, and do what I got to do to get my education and get a good job."
Asked how the circumstances of his father’s death made him feel, Billy replied, "Sad and hurt."
And sometimes angry.
For Tina Gissendanner, life has been a struggle since her husband was killed. Unable to hold on to her job and forced to live on just $420 a month in Social Security benefits, she and Darrell lost their home and their car.
She spends her time now bouncing between family members and homeless shelters. Her mother cares for the boy.
A psychiatric report conducted at the request of attorney French concluded that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
Over the course of three interviews last December, a psychologist examining her observed: " … she appeared to be exceedingly anxious. Her voice trembled. She appeared at times to be disorganized and under the sway of heavy emotions. At other times she cried, became manifestly depressed and was despondent."
The psychiatric report also refers to Tina’s recurring dreams about the accident, flashbacks where she sees her husband being shot and falling. Other dreams are more surreal, with Billy standing at the foot of her bed.
Tina told the psychologist that before the shooting she was a moderate drinker, but has been drinking heavily since.
Twice she had to be hospitalized as a result of her drinking.
"I drink a lot now," she said in an October interview with the Metro Times. "It seems like it takes the pain away when I pass out."
There’s been plenty of pain since that day. Earlier this year, she says, while staying at a shelter, she was hit in the head with a brick and robbed of $5. She never reported the incident.
"I was scared to call the police," she explained.
Asked what life was like before, when it was just her and Billy and the baby living in the little house on Dolphin Street, she said, "We used to have a lot of fun together. We would wrestle and play with the baby.
"Billy was a good husband. He wanted something out of life. He wanted a family that he could care for and call his own," according to attorney French.
In October, a three-member panel of mediators recommended Tina Gissendanner and the estate of Billy Gissendanner be awarded $700,000.
The city rejected the settlement. To fight the suit it has now hired the high-powered firm of Plunkett & Cooney.
"They can go ahead and change attorneys," says French. "It doesn’t matter, because what they can’t change are the facts of this case."
At a hearing scheduled for later this month, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge will consider a motion from the city requesting that the suit be dismissed.Read "Points of doubt," the results of Metro Times' two-month investigation of the Billy Gissendanner shooting. Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. Send comments to [email protected] or call