No charge against pawn shop owner who shot and killed a man during May riot

"Everything in the shop was gone, including the security cameras and the DVR which would have recorded the fatal shooting and the moments just before and after."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. (Hennepin County Attorney's Office/Facebook)

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office announced this week that it lacks evidence to charge a Minneapolis pawn shop owner accused of fatally shooting a man because looters destroyed all the video evidence.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said that after an exhaustive six-month investigation by the Minneapolis Police Department, with guidance from county prosecutors, there was insufficient evidence to overcome a self-defense argument in court by the shooter, John Rieple.

The shooting took place on May 27 during the riots, arson and looting that followed the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day while in police custody.

Freeman said in the statement that only one witness cooperated, numerous other witnesses refused to come forward, and a second identified witness to the shooting refused to be interviewed.

The announcement summarized the police response and aftermath:

“Around dusk on May 27, Minneapolis Police officers responded to an incident at 1538 E. Lake Street and found the 43-year-old Horton, a Minneapolis resident, lying on the sidewalk outside of Cadillac Pawn & Jewelry. Horton had been shot and officers began administering first aid. However, the officers were physically and verbally assaulted, so they had to move Horton into a nearby business while they tried to keep him alive. When an ambulance arrived, the scene was so chaotic that they could not reach Horton and police had to deliver the victim to the ambulance. 

Horton died at 9:39 p.m. in the emergency room of Hennepin Healthcare.

Back at the scene, a large group of people continued to attack and threatened to kill the officers, so they arrested Rieple but determined it was unsafe to stay and process the crime scene. As a result, the firearm was not recovered that night and later attempts to find it were unsuccessful.

Due to the widespread violence in the area, police crime lab personnel and detectives were unable to return to the crime scene until the following morning. By then, the pawn shop had been ransacked and looted. Everything in the shop was gone, including the security cameras and the DVR which would have recorded the fatal shooting and the moments just before and after. None of that equipment was ever found.”

The statement by Freeman said that the Hennepin County medical examiner’s autopsy determined that Horton was killed by a shotgun blast with four pellets entering his left side and three towards the back of his left side. That indicates Horton was turned sideways when the gun was fired, but without the video or other witnesses, it is impossible to determine how far apart the two men were and when Horton turned sideways.

Police tracked down and interviewed one witness from that night who said that a large group of people, including Horton, had broken into the store and at least one of them, although not Horton, was carrying a handgun. Further, the witness said Horton had moved toward Rieple and was within seven feet when the shot was fired.

Freeman’s office asked police to canvass the neighborhood for additional witnesses to the shooting and any other surveillance cameras which might have captured the shooting, but no other cameras were found. However, police tracked down and interviewed some people who had posted video following the events. Their video showed Horton and the pawn shop after the shooting and the witnesses could only testify to the chaos at the time, but not the actual shooting.

Freeman’s statement said that a review of police officers’ body-worn cameras did turn up two other witnesses. One was a close friend of Horton’s and the other was a woman who was with her that night. However, Horton’s friend hired a lawyer, who informed the county attorney’s office that she would not talk to police, nor would she identify the woman who was with her.

Freeman said that Rieple invoked his constitutional rights and declined to speak with investigators. Later in the summer, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office put out a plea for any witnesses to come forward. Although numerous witnesses were present and witnessed the shooting, none of them came forward to cooperate with the investigation.

Freeman explained that under Minnesota law, if a defendant claims he acted in self-defense to prevent great bodily harm or death of himself or another, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense and his actions were unreasonable.

Based upon the facts and available evidence, Freeman said that the state could not prove it was not self-defense and prosecutors are ethically prohibited from filing charges against someone knowing it would not be possible to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

If additional evidence becomes available, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said it could reconsider the decision not to bring a charge.

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Minnesota Crime Watch & Information publishes news, info and commentary about crime, public safety and livability issues in Minneapolis, the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota.