ST. PETERSBURG — The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement said it has found eyewitnesses to Saturday's police shooting of a teenager but will not refer them to police.
Instead, it is sending the witnesses to a lawyer who will refer them to prosecutors.
"Most of the people we are talking about are children, young people who are traumatized by this experience, from seeing their friend gunned down before them," said Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela. "I know they are afraid of the police."
Police, frustrated that none of the more than 250 teens at a chaotic graduation party have stepped forward, issued a plea Wednesday for witnesses to cooperate in their investigation into the shooting of Javon Dawson.
Maj. Michael Puetz, who is overseeing the department's criminal investigation, said police would prefer to talk to witnesses but do not mind if witnesses want to speak directly with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which also reviews shootings involving police.
"I don't have any issues if witnesses feel better talking directly to the prosecutors," Puetz said. "Of course, we would like for them to talk to us because we're part of the investigative process."
Police began distributing hundreds of fliers to recreation centers near the Palmetto Park neighborhood where the shooting took place. The fliers ask "Were you there?" and ask anyone with information about the shooting to contact authorities.
Yeshitela said witnesses contend that 17-year-old Dawson was unarmed and running away when officer Terrence Nemeth shot him, contradicting police accounts that Dawson fired several shots in the air before pointing the gun at Nemeth. But Yeshitela has refused to identify the witnesses.
Witnesses will be funneled to St. Petersburg defense attorney Maura Kiefer, who will provide them to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office for supervised questioning, Yeshitela said.
Kiefer was not available for comment.
"It's not a question of somebody trying to keep witnesses from the police," Yeshitela said, "it's a question of youngsters having been traumatized by this experience and the same forces are now chasing them, looking at them."
Yeshitela also criticized news coverage of the shooting, saying reports have been too quick to lionize the officer and criticize Dawson.
He wondered why a teenager with no previous brushes with the law "would choose to engage himself … at an after-graduation party where he would pull a gun and shoot at the police. It's absolutely absurd."
Police found a revolver at the scene near Dawson's body with three spent shell casings inside.
Yeshitela also called for the arrest and conviction of Nemeth, the 24-year-old police officer at the center of the investigation. He called Nemeth, who has been with the department about 18 months, a "battle-scarred" Iraq war veteran.
Times staff writer Abhi Raghunathan contributed to this report. Casey Cora can be reached at (727) 580-1542 or [email protected]