The family of Christopher Deon Tonsel said they just want to know what happened when a St. Petersburg police officer shot the 17-year-old last week.
They’ve spoken with the police, listened to audio recorded during the shooting by a neighbor’s Ring camera and advocated for access to the teen, who is hospitalized while he recovers. Authorities had been barring Tonsel from having visitors because he is in police custody, but he was allowed to have a video call with his family on Saturday, according to his mother, Catherine Jones.
Tonsel was shot by St. Petersburg Police Officer Leighton Williams on Oct. 20. Authorities say the teen fled from the scene of a domestic violence incident, and when Williams found him, the officer saw a gun in Tonsel’s waistband and ordered him to drop it. Tonsel instead pulled out the gun and pointed it at Williams, according to Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He spoke on behalf of the Pinellas County use-of-force task force, which is investigating the shooting.
While the officer’s body camera captured video of the shooting, Gualtieri said he does not plan to release it now because it is evidence in an active criminal investigation against Tonsel.
Tonsel’s condition is improving, Gualtieri said. Deputies arrested and remotely booked him into jail on charges of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, carrying a concealed firearm and being a minor in possession of a firearm, according to authorities. He also faces armed robbery charges in a St. Petersburg police case involving 10- and 15-year-old victims and a dating violence battery charge, Gualtieri said.
Withholding the video until it’s entered as evidence is done out of fairness to a defendant and his attorney, who will receive the video as part of the standard discovery process, Gualtieri said.
”Even though this guy tried to shoot a cop, he’s still entitled to fairness and due process,” he said.
Jones, 46, and Tonsel’s grandmother, 63-year-old Patricia Mays, said they want to see the video. Mays said police initially told her that she’d be able to see it, but that hasn’t happened. When asked if the family would have access to the footage, Sgt. Jessica Mackesy, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, reiterated that the video would be available to the public once the shooting investigation is closed.
“If it’s what you say it is, why not release the video?” Jones said. “That’s part of evidence.”
Mays and Jones said they’ve heard different stories about what happened last Wednesday — piecing together information from police, media reports and a neighbor’s Ring doorbell camera that captured audio of the shooting but was not in view of the incident. In the audio, the officer can be heard shouting at Tonsel to get on the ground and put down the gun, followed by the sound of a gunshot.
Mays said police initially told her that Tonsel had his hands up when the officer told the teen to take the gun out of his waistband. Jones questioned why they would shoot her son after telling him to reach for the gun.
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“If you told him to take it out of his waist, and he reached to pull it out of his waist, why would you shoot?” she asked.
Mays said she thought Tonsel’s gun was unloaded because she had thrown out all of his bullets, but Gualtieri said there was one round in the chamber of the teen’s gun and five to seven rounds in the magazine.
Mays said Tonsel is a smart kid who regularly gets A’s on his school assignments, loves math and is good with computers. He’s played football since he was 10 years old, now playing defense as a high schooler. He moved from Bradenton to St. Petersburg to live with his grandmother and attend high school there. His mother said he was a bright kid who fell in with the wrong crowd after a couple of years in St. Petersburg.
“He’s a bright and happy child,” Jones said. “Peer pressure is real.”