New York

Anguish in an Immigrant Community After a Sheriff’s Deputy Kills 2 Teens

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — They buried them both on Saturday: a pair of identical gray coffins, wheeled out of a hillside church and into the adopted hometown of many of the mourners.

The two dead — Dhal Apet, 17, and Lueth Mo, 15 — were part of the South Sudanese community here in Syracuse, second-generation émigrés whose parents and friends had fled violence in their home country to come to the seeming safety of upstate New York.

For many, however, that sense of security was shaken early on the morning of Sept. 6, when the two teenagers were shot and killed by a Onondaga County’s sheriff’s deputy responding to a call of suspicious activity at a parking lot in neighboring DeWitt, N.Y. The authorities had been investigating reports of two stolen cars and a burglary at a local smoke shop in the hours before the shooting.

The Onondaga County sheriff, Tobias Shelley, said in a news conference that the deputy — identified as John Rosello, 34 — had been investigating the burglary and believed the car to be the one involved in that crime. After receiving the call of suspicious activity, the deputy arrived at the parking lot and shot into the car three times as it sped away, with the teenagers inside, after it drove toward him.

The two teenagers were later found nearby, one already dead, the other dying. The car’s driver had disappeared, but Sheriff Shelley referred to both of the deceased teenagers as suspects in the burglary, saying that things had happened “very quickly and hectically.”

He has justified the shooting, saying that Deputy Rosello had acted in self-defense. He was trapped between the vehicle and a heavy metal-and-wood workbench sitting in the parking lot, Sheriff Shelley said. “He had nowhere to flee to,” the sheriff said, adding, “The deputies have a right to defend themselves by whatever means necessary.”

But that narrative was punctured, in part, when the state attorney general, Letitia James, released security footage on Tuesday showing the deputy ramming the car and easily evading it before shooting. The deputy was uninjured.

Sheriff Shelley did not respond to a request for comment after the attorney general’s report, but Ms. James’s Office of Special Investigation is conducting an investigation into the incident. The Onondaga County district attorney, William Fitzpatrick, has said he is deferring to Ms. James. “The truth and facts will eventually be known,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

Friends of the teenagers wore shirts with photos of them.Credit…Benjamin Cleeton for The New York Times

The impact of the deaths has already reverberated through the community of African-born residents and their descendants in Syracuse, which — like many upstate cities — has welcomed thousands of refugees and other émigrés in recent decades.

Chol Majok, a member of the Syracuse Common Council who is a former refugee from South Sudan, said his focus at the moment was not to cast blame but to hold his community together.

“When we came to this country, we were looking for second chances in life,” he said, adding, “There is tremendous faith, in our community, in this country. And everything it has to offer.”

He added: “We have been just trying to tell to the community, especially as people that are in a position of leadership that are South Sudanese, is that we keep the faith, the faith that helped us cross the oceans and brought us to this land, that that faith still shines and still burns. And that’s what we lean on.”

Still, the pain of the deaths is palpable. Reached by phone, Pothwei Bangoshoth, the father of Dhal, the 17-year-old who died, said he was too grief-stricken to speak about his son. But his anger seemed clear on Facebook, where he posted a pointed message along with the video released by Ms. James’s office.

“It’s one of the ways that police use to murder teenagers in America,” he wrote. “So, watch out for your child. My child has already passed. Let’s stop this police brutality in our society.”

Walt Dixie, a prominent local activist, said he was appalled and bewildered by the deputy’s actions before backup arrived. “Why are you trying to take this on all by yourself?” Mr. Dixie said, adding, “To ram a car in like that? I know that’s not how you do it.”

The sense of outrage extends beyond the African population, said H. Bernard Alex, the president of the Syracuse Chapter of the National Action Network, noting what he called a sometimes adversarial relationship between the sheriff’s department and the city’s broader Black community.

Video showed an encounter between a deputy sheriff and the car in which the two teenagers were riding.Credit…New York Attorney General

“They are angry because — as one young man said to me — he said, ‘I knew that this was coming, but I didn’t think it would be kids,’” Mr. Alex said.

Mr. Alex and others in his organization were particularly troubled by the fact that the deputy had not turned on his body-cam, saying in a statement last week that the actions of the sheriff’s office have “diminished the public trust” between “the African and African American communities who call Syracuse and Onondaga County home.”

Mr. Alex — who is also pastor of Victory Temple Fellowship Church, a Baptist church in Syracuse — acknowledged that there are sometimes divisions between traditional Black communities and newly arrived African residents in Syracuse.

“They have to try to fit in somehow with African Americans, in school and neighborhoods ,” said Mr. Alex, whose wife is Liberian. He said that “African Americans are not always kind to Africans.”

Others in the African community say that the challenges of living in a new environment — with daily stresses like money — can be steep.

“What happens is that most of these kids, they don’t have the support that they need,” said Hanson Goeso, a Liberian who is the founder of a local semiprofessional soccer team. “Family working, dad is working, and so now you have kids raising themselves with the influence of the outside world. And you get situations like this.”

At the site of the shooting, in a downtrodden mobile home park, some said that they felt sympathy for both the teenagers and the deputy. William Marvin, who lives about 300 feet from the shooting site, says he heard the gunshots that morning, which alarmed his dog, Bear.

“I don’t like how it’s being spinned that the cop is a kid killer,” said Mr. Marvin, 50, a driver who is a volunteer firefighter, adding, “When someone is behind the wheel of a vehicle, you got a split second to think, you don’t realize how old they are, it doesn’t cross your mind.”

He added: “For everybody to paint this sheriff out to be some bad guy, he’s not. He was doing his job to be protecting the community he’s serving.”

The shootings have led to protests in Syracuse, which has welcomed thousands of refugees and immigrants in recent years.Credit…Benjamin Cleeton for The New York Times

The funeral services on Saturday, held at a Catholic church on Syracuse’s north side, drew several hundred mourners, who listened as the pastor, Severine Yagaza, a Tanzanian, spoke of the pain of the family and the deaths of two “sons of Sudan,” whose oversized portraits sat on easels nearby.

As the coffins were wheeled away, several of the mourners broke down, weeping into each other’s arms as the procession to the burial began. Two of those standing outside the church were Riny Ayol, 39, and Lueth Yak, 46, both of whom were from South Sudan and know the families.

Mr. Yak said that the South Sudanese community “never thought they would go through this” in Syracuse, considered one of the “best places to live.”

“We never thought that it would hit the South Sudanese in Syracuse,” Mr. Yak said. “The Syracuse community has been a welcoming community, we feel at home here,” adding that some Sudanese who move elsewhere end up moving back.

Mr. Ayol echoed that, expressing both sorrow at the boys’ deaths and the circumstances, still murky, of that morning.

“The crime that happened, it’s not worth taking someone’s life,” he said.

Susan Beachy contributed research.

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