CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) – Champaign County State’s Attorney, Julia Rietz released a preliminary report regarding the officer-involved shooting on Feb. 6 in Rantoul, indicating that the officer’s actions were “legally justifiable”.
In the statement, she said she had “reviewed the evidence gathered in the preliminary investigation conducted by the Illinois State Police.” Upon reviewing all the information, she offered her preliminary opinion.
Reitz said, “Azaan Lee was in violation of Illinois criminal law in that he illegally possessed a firearm, and that he died due to a gunshot from that illegally possessed firearm sustained during a struggle with police over the gun.”
With regard to Officer Jose Aceves, Reitz summarized his interactions with Lee and stated that his actions, including the search of Lee and use of deadly force in firing his weapon in the direction of Lee, were justifiable “given the totality of the circumstances.”
“This was a situation that could’ve been lethal for the officers involved or the greater Rantoul public,” Rietz added.
Timeline of events
Rietz provided more details on the timeline of events and said the situation started with Rantoul Officers Haley Mennega and Rikki McComas responding to a report of a stolen vehicle near West Belle Ave. and North Penfield St. at 10:43 p.m. The person who made the report claimed to have left the car running while going inside a house. When they returned, they said someone was driving off with the car.
Lee approached officers while they were speaking with the reporting person. At the time, it was unclear if Lee was involved in the theft of the vehicle. He told officers that he was there to see a friend living in the area. He then left the area.
The car was found 20 minutes later at Scott and Campbell. Officer Jose Aceves was at Belle Ave. and Tanner St. when he noticed Lee. Not knowing Lee had talked with the other officers, Aceves engaged with Lee.
“He [Aceves] didn’t know why he [Lee] was there, so he called him over to see if he was somehow involved with the stolen car,” Rietz said.
Officer McComas arrived soon afterward as well and asked Lee if had the keys to the stolen vehicle. Lee emptied his pants pockets revealing loose change, a lighter and a headphone case.
“Mr. Lee then puts his own hands in his pockets which is a safety issue,” Rietz added.
Officer McComas then asked Lee to empty the pocket of his hoodie that he wore under a jacket. Officer Aceves grabbed Lee’s right wrist when he noticed a rectangular object with a circular hole in the sweatshirt pocket.
Lee managed to pull away from Aceves with his hand in the sweatshirt pocket. Aceves reached into the pocket as well and grabbed the object. That’s when Aceves and Lee struggled over the possession of the handgun. During the struggle, Aceves’ body cam fell onto the ground.
At this point, Officer McComas also attempted to apprehend Lee and the three of them ended up on the ground. Officer Aceves continued to fight over the gun when Lee got back up.
“He tried to flee, he fought with the officers, he struggled over the gun and during the course of that, the gun discharged,” Rietz said.
They struggled for nearly 20 seconds when the gun went off. The bullet hit Lee in the inner left thigh and he took off running.
Lee then ran away and Aceves fired his gun three times. Lee dropped his gun. None of Aceves’ shots hit Lee.
“Here we have an individual who is fleeing, he has potentially a weapon, he poses a danger to the public based on his previous actions,” Rietz said.
She said because of that, she believes it was legally appropriate for Aceves to fire his weapon in the direction of Lee when he fled.
Officers found Lee unresponsive in the backyard of a nearby home on East Campbell Ave. They applied a tourniquet and attempted medical aid until EMS arrived. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
The Champaign coroner identified the cause of death to be the gunshot wound to the left femoral artery. No other injuries were found on his body.
Lee had been convicted of domestic battery before, and as a convicted felon, he couldn’t legally have a gun.
Rietz said illegal possession of guns is a big problem in the community. In fact, she said there were eight cases involving illegal possession of a firearm last weekend in Champaign County.
She said authorities are trying to work proactively to get more illegal weapons off of the street.
Reitz emphasized that the Illinois State Police investigation is ongoing. However, she felt she had enough evidence to offer a preliminary opinion.
In a summary, Reitz stated:
“At this time, I have received and reviewed sufficient evidence to present a preliminary opinion on the above outlined issues. I have reviewed reports and body camera video from all Rantoul Officers and Champaign County Sheriff’s Deputies involved with the incident on February 6. I have reviewed preliminary autopsy information and reports from the Illinois State Police. I expect final autopsy results, including toxicology results, and Illinois State Police laboratory analysis of the firearms, shell casings, and bullets to be completed and available in the future. It is also possible, as in any investigation, that additional witnesses could come forward and provide relevant information. However, I do not expect any additional evidence or information to affect or alter my preliminary opinions.”Julia Reitz, Champaign County State’s Attorney