Will County deputies shot a grandfather in the back and never told the public. Five months later, officials still won't show the body camera video.
JOLIET, Ill. (CBS) -- Rhonda Wells hasn't gotten headstones yet for her son, Jabbar Muhammad, and her father, Eldred Wells Sr. It would make their deaths too real, she said, at a time when the family is still struggling to find closure.
On a recent cool, sunny day in Joliet, Rhonda visited the Elmhurst Cemetery. That's where Jabbar and Eldred are buried as they once lived: together.
"I was always told that the children should bury the parents, not the parents bury the children," Rhonda said. "In this case, I had to bury a parent and a child."
That's because on Nov. 6, 2021, Will County Sheriff's Office (WCSO) deputies shot and killed 21-year-old Jabbar in his home in Joliet Township, in what police initially called a "domestic disturbance." The family's patriarch, 70-year-old Eldred, also died.
"He meant a lot to me," said his sister, Sadie. "...Our phone calls, talking hours on the phone. I miss that so much."
But those memories are all the family hangs on to, they said in their first interview since the shooting. They don't believe they're any closer to the truth than they were on Nov. 6.
The Will-Grundy County Task Force, the agency investigating the incident, as well as the WCSO, only released an initial news release the day after it happened and a recent email to CBS 2 mostly reiterating the past statement. Five months after the shooting, officials have denied multiple requests by the family to see body worn camera video and other documents.
While the agencies said releasing information would impede the open investigation, CBS 2's reporting raises questions about how transparent they've been with the public. Key documents reveal officials left out important details from the start – not only about Jabbar's history of mental health, but also how Eldred was shot, too.
"We buried a brother, a son," said Sadie Mitchell, Eldred's sister. "We're waiting for the answers, and we have already waited too long."
'Peas in a Pod'
Sadie remembers Eldred as the rock of the family.
Born and raised in Mississippi, he was one of 11 children and the only one to graduate from college. He worked for 36 years as a quality control manager at a chemical company before retiring.
"We used to call him the brainiac of the family. We always looked to him for the answers. He would never give them," she laughed. "He'd always have you try to figure it out first."
His work ethic trickled down to his siblings and grandchildren, who looked up to him.
"Most everyone he met, [he told them], go for your dreams. You can do it," she said.
Rhonda said her father was her "go to" anytime she or her children needed support. That includes her oldest, Jabbar, who was "always inquisitive."
"He was the oldest one in the family, but he was playful, joyous," she said. "We would actually talk – talk about politics a little bit…I mean, he was in fourth or fifth grade reading at a ninth-grade level, like he was always ahead."
Jabbar moved to Virginia for high school. When the pandemic hit, he moved back to the Joliet area and stayed with his grandfather. Sadie described them as "peas in a pod."
"I think they were protective of each other," Sadie said. "He wouldn't let anything happen to his grandfather, and his grandfather wouldn't let anything happen to him."
She said that's why their deaths on Nov. 6 sent shockwaves through the family – and sparked a months-long fight for transparency.
More to the story
The deaths of Jabbar and Eldred made headlines across Chicagoland. News outlets reported the facts based on information Will County officials provided in a press release.
Since then, multiple agencies involved in the investigation – the offices of the sheriff, state's attorney and the coroner – refused to release records to the family or CBS 2 that could show what happened. That includes the 911 calls, autopsy reports and body camera video.
To better understand how the events unfolded, CBS 2 pieced together the only materials it could obtain at this time. That includes paramedic reports, hospital reports and publicly available dispatch audio. Together, they demonstrate how officials chose not to disclose critical details to the public after the shooting.
It was around 4 p.m. when a 911 call came in from 300 Middle Tree Road from Jabbar's younger brother, the Task Force said. CBS 2 was able to determine from dispatch audio how dispatchers communicated a potential crisis around that time.
"Units responding to Middle Tree…it's going to be a Jabbar Muhammad," the dispatcher told deputies. "…He has no shirt, unknown color sweatpants. He still has a knife, arguing with the grandfather."
This was the second time in 10 days deputies were called to that Middle Tree house. Records show deputies responded to a suicide attempt by Jabbar on Oct. 27. He was admitted to the hospital and treated for more than a week before he was released, the family said.
Now, days later on Nov. 6, a dispatcher communicated this information to deputies as they responded to the home again.
"…You have a previous for a psych, suicidal," the dispatcher said.
The Task Force's initial statement said deputies arrived to find Jabbar "armed with a knife and threatening his grandfather." It also said deputies attempted to de-escalate the situation, but when Jabbar stabbed Eldred in the neck, police fired shots several times "in defense of Eldred's life."
"County, shots fired, shots fired!" deputies can be heard shouting in the dispatch audio. "…We need multiple ambulances…we have a stab victim, and a gunshot victim."
Many law enforcement agencies across the country have embedded mental crisis teams and experts. It's unclear how the WCSO is required to handle situations where a person is experiencing a mental health crisis like the one that potentially happened on Nov. 6. While state law mandates some mental health awareness training for law enforcement agencies, the WCSO's website doesn't appear to outline its policies, procedures, or training. The agency also has not yet answered CBS 2's questions about them.
However, an email response from a Task Force spokesperson on April 6 said deputies attempted to "calm Jabbar down and ordered him to put the knife down." It's not clear how long that interaction lasted because that same statement said deputies got to the home at 4:07 p.m., but a paramedic report said one minute later, at 4:08 p.m., Jabbar was dead.
"Called at the scene" – or dead on arrival – were the words Rhonda can't forget hearing.
"The way I learned that he was gone, 'Oh the 21-year-old, it was called at the scene,'" she said. "…It crushed me. It's very crushing the way it was said. It just hurt. That's the best way to say it."
Paramedic reports obtained by the family, and reviewed by CBS 2, detail a chaotic scene. One report said when paramedics arrived, officers found Jabbar and Eldred "laying on the ground in a pool of blood, with two officers doing compressions on both patients."
Another paramedic report said Jabbar had 15 gunshot wounds – three in the head and 12 in other parts of his body. Paramedics also found stab wounds to Eldred's neck and shoulder. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
But there was something else in the reports the family didn't know until they got the patient care report for Eldred around a month after the incident. While paramedics reviewed Eldred's body, they noticed a gunshot wound to his back and to his left hand – information the Task Force never disclosed in any of their public statements about the incident.
"I just want to know what happened. Why?" Rhonda asked. "Don't leave us just with our thoughts. Just let us know…we have nothing. We just want to know the facts."
The family's attorney, Ian Barney, said the agency's exclusion of these details in its news release led the public to believe Eldred was fatally stabbed. But it's still unclear how exactly he died because the coroner's office won't release the autopsy reports.
"I'm not sure if that was intentional the way it was worded, but it certainly concealed the fact that he was actually shot in the back and shot in his hands," Barney said. "And obviously that press release led to multiple news reports that Eldred Sr. had been fatally stabbed by his grandson, which has been the narrative that has been in the news since this happened on Nov. 6. We don't believe that's the case, or at least, we think that's still an open question."
Also in question, the family wonders, is the thoroughness of the investigation. On March 17, reporters from CBS 2 visited the home where the shooting happened to conduct interviews with the Wells family. During that time, CBS 2 found a bullet casing on a table, just feet from where Eldred and Jabbar were found by paramedics.
On April 10 a spokesperson for the Task Force investigating the shooting told CBS 2 the casing has now been collected, and officials have "significant doubt" it was involved in the initial crime scene. It has not yet been tested, the spokesperson said.
At the same time, multiple spokespeople would not answer CBS 2's questions about why Eldred was shot, and why that information was not included in the original news release.
In an updated statement sent to CBS 2 on April 6, one spokesperson said the investigation is still open, in part, because officials are waiting on ballistic testing to be completed by the state police crime lab.
Nearly 20 members of the Task Force from 10 different agencies responded to the scene to investigate the shooting, and "on numerous occasions" the agency has met with the Will County State's Attorney's Office, which is investigating the deputies who fired the shots.
The Task Force stated it plans to release the body camera video to the family and the public after all investigations are complete. But the spokesperson did not provide a timeline and said, on average, the agency's investigations into police shootings have taken more than a year in some cases.
(You can read their full statement, as well as responses from the coroner, sheriff and SAO, here).
"That's the whole point of the body cam," Rhonda said. "So there's no speculation, there's transparency, you can actually see with your own eyes."
Fight for Transparency
In late 2020, more than $1.2 million in tax dollars were budgeted for a body camera program for WCSO deputies, the WCSO said. Deputies began wearing body cameras on Nov. 1, 2021 -- five days before the shooting.
The Wells family filed multiple FOIA requests with the WCSO for many records related to the shooting, including the body camera video, a week after the shooting on Nov. 15, 2021, and again on Feb. 28, 2022. The agency denied their requests. It also denied CBS 2's requests for similar records, as well as requests for an interview for this report.
In a statement to CBS 2, a Task Force said the agency would release the records eventually, and that the videos will "clarify any questions you still have." It has maintained releasing the video now would affect the open investigation, even when the family asked if they could view it privately, Barney said.
"We have asked many, many times, can the family be given that opportunity in a private setting?" Barney said. "We didn't ask that it be released publicly. We didn't ask that it be put on the news. We simply asked the family be given the chance to see the body camera video so they could see the truth about what happened to their loved ones."
Body cameras provide video evidence that could show how an event unfolded between police and members of the public. Gov. JB Pritzker made the technology a priority as part of a sweeping criminal justice reform bill he signed into law in 2021. Now all law enforcement agencies in the state must acquire body cameras by 2025.
CBS 2 previously reported how agencies across Illinois often cite a statute that allows them to withhold the video during ongoing investigations. Some police departments have chosen to release the video despite an open investigation in some instances, or after pressure from the public.
For example, as a result of CBS 2's reporting on the case of Anjanette Young, Chicago residents alleging police misconduct can now obtain body camera video directly from the city without having to file a FOIA request.
In addition, just last week the Illinois State Police released video from a police shooting in Collinsville despite an ongoing investigation.
Barney believes Will County can do the same.
"First off these are public records, and they belong to the public, and they're only supposed to be kept from the public in very specific circumstances," Barney said. "We don't think that any of those circumstances fit here.
"Second, we're in 2022 now," he continued. "This [incident] happened at the end of 2021. People want to know the truth. We have the technology with body camera video to let people know the truth."
He said the family filed a FOIA lawsuit Monday against the sheriff's and coroner's offices to force them to release the autopsy reports and video.
"It is our view that the family here deserves to see the body camera so that they can know the truth, so they can start that grieving process and move toward having some closure," Barney said. "So they can know what happened to their loved ones. And the public deserves to see the body camera video because it's a matter of public trust."
EJ Wells, Jabbar's uncle and Eldred's son, said five months later his questions about what happened on Nov. 6 continue to keep him up at night. Not only because he's grieving the loss of his father and nephew, but also because of the way the agencies have handled transparency.
He believes the body camera video could show the facts, no matter what they might be. But that lack of information, he said, has left him and his family spending countless hours speculating.
"We can handle the truth," EJ said. "Just tell us what the truth is."
"It's ripping us all apart," Sadie added. "This happened in November. Here is March. We don't have answers."
The lack of answers is also preventing them from healing, she said. On a cool, sunny day in March, Sadie, EJ and Rhonda visited Elmhurst Cemetery together. As they stood over the graves of Eldred and Jabbar, it wasn't just the good memories that pushed them to tears that day – but also what they still don't know.
"I never knew it would be taking so long for us to get answers," Sadie said. "We need those answers. We deserve them. We deserve every one of those answers."
If you or someone you know is concerned about suicide, you can contact the 24/7, confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or go here to online chat. More helpful resources can be found here.
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