ST. PETERSBURG — A 17-year-old Gibbs High School student who was killed outside a chaotic graduation party Saturday night was trying to flee when he pointed his revolver at a police officer, who then shot him dead, police said Monday.
Police also released a photograph of the snub-nosed revolver they said they found near Javon Dawson's body after the shooting. The black .38-caliber Smith & Wesson had three spent shell casings.
Police said Dawson had turned sideways, with his right shoulder toward Officer Terrence Nemeth, and tried to run away as he pointed the gun at the officer, who fired twice. The first shot hit Dawson's back right shoulder, and the second struck the back of his left kidney, police said.
None of the new details appeased critics of the shooting, including Dawson's mother, Yolanda Baker, who joined members of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement in a protest outside police headquarters Monday morning.
Citing witnesses they refused to name, they said Dawson was unarmed and was shot in the back while trying to run away with his hands up.
"There were no statements that he had a gun, fired a gun or pointed a gun," Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela said Monday morning. "The Police Department is the only one who's said anything about a gun."
Police said they were still looking for witnesses to the shooting but said the physical evidence supports Nemeth's account of the incident. They said the investigation was still new and cautioned that they were basing their statement on initial reports and evidence.
Nemeth, a Northeast High School graduate and Iraq war veteran, told investigators he approached Dawson after hearing gunshots and saw Dawson fire several rounds into the air, police spokesman Bill Proffitt said. Nemeth, 24, is on paid administrative leave during the investigation, which is standard procedure.
Nemeth and Dawson were in the roadway on Freemont Terrace S, separated by less than the width of the roadway.
Nemeth shouted several commands at Dawson. Instead of complying, Dawson turned sideways, with his right shoulder toward Nemeth, and tried to run away while pointing his gun at Nemeth, Proffitt said.
Dawson staggered and collapsed on a nearby lawn in the 3100 block of Freemont Terrace S.
Proffitt said police are still investigating and searching for people who may have seen the shooting because so many of them scurried away afterward. It is unclear whether anyone else saw what happened.
"We are having a hard time locating and talking to witnesses," Proffitt said.
Baker, Dawson's mother, said she was still grieving.
"I'm hurt and sad," Baker, 38, said.
Nemeth has received good evaluations in the year and a half he has been with the department. He is a former Marine who received citations for serving in Iraq.
Nemeth went to Freemont Terrace S on Saturday night with other members of the Operation Safe Summer unit to break up a raucous graduation party at the Shining Light Masonic Lodge. It was an assignment that seemed tailor-made for the squad, which targets juvenile crime every year after school gets out.
At least five or six officers went to the party after getting a call about 10:45 p.m. Saturday. One person who called 911 estimated there were 250 kids at the party, which spilled out onto the roadway.
Just minutes after arriving, Nemeth radioed for help.
"I got subject shot," Nemeth said. "He had a gun. I need rescue 10-18!"
The crowd quickly scattered, police said.
Briana Campbell, 17, a St. Petersburg High student who said she was at the party, said she didn't see Dawson fire a gun but saw two other young men firing guns. When she turned and ran the other way, she saw Dawson lying dead on the lawn.
Campbell said a crowd gathered around the body at first, and people tried to see who it was. But police kept people back even as some tried to shove through, and the crowd dispersed after the body was taken away.
"Everybody kept trying to figure out who it was that was dead," she said.
Nemeth is white and Dawson is black, facts that were not lost on political leaders concerned about racial tension at the start of summer.
For the most part, local leaders said they wanted to wait for the end of the investigation before making judgments. Still, many questioned why a 17-year-old would have a gun at a graduation party.
"It's horrible, horrible when anyone gets shot," said City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett. "But we need to ask, why does a sophomore have a gun?"
City Council member Wengay Newton said he wanted to wait for the facts.
"I heard 20 different versions of what happened," he said.
Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis said the incident underscores the need to keep guns out of the hands of kids.
"I don't know what we can do, but there needs to be ways to explore that," he said.
At a previously scheduled town hall meeting Monday night, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, urged witnesses to come forward and assured residents that justice would be served.
"If that officer is wrong, I want him punished to the fullest extent of the law," said Rouson, a former head of the local NAACP.
Dawson had just completed his sophomore year at Gibbs High. He had no adult criminal record, and principal Antelia Campbell has described him as a "good kid."
Baker, Dawson's mom, echoed that sentiment.
"He never got in trouble," she said. "I never seen him with a gun, but you don't know about your kids."
Dawson's friends described him as a class clown who liked to joke around. They could always count on him to lighten up a situation.
Mikasha Whitehead, 15, a lifelong friend, said she broke down crying and couldn't sleep after learning that he was dead. He used to always ask her how she was doing and whether she was happy.
"He was a good friend," she said. "I can't believe he's gone."
Uniquekwa Burrowes, 15, Dawson's girlfriend, said he was a class clown who never did anything more than kid around.
"He was sweet," she said. "He was like a best friend to everybody."
She spoke to him just minutes before his death. He told her he was at a party.
"I told him to be careful," she said. "He said, 'Okay.' "
Times researcher John Martin and reporter Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.