On Tuesday, Buffalo’s Common Council authorized one of the largest lawsuit settlements in the city’s history: $4.5 million to Wilson Morales, who was shot by Buffalo police officers in the early morning of June 24, 2012, after a car chase on the city’s East Side.
The bullet that struck Morales, then a 17-year-old student at WNY Maritime Charter School, instantly paralyzed him from the chest down.
“It’s been hard,” Morales told Investigative Post in the offices of Dolce Panepinto, the law firm that handled the lawsuit, after the Council approved the settlement.
“Mostly depression, loss of friends, and pain,” he said. “I’ve been in a few homes that haven’t been wheelchair accessible, so it’s been really really difficult — for me, for my mom. She’s the one who really helps me a lot.”
Geoff Kelly discusses the story on WBFO
Sean Cooney, a partner at Dolce Panepinto, said his firm picked up the case because he and his partners were struck by the stark difference between Morales’s version of the events that led to his being shot and the official police narrative.
“What Wilson told us was different than what was being reported,” Cooney said. “That gave us the belief that there was more to the story than what the police were telling the media.”
The night of the incident, Morales went out for pizza at a corner store, according to court documents. He took his sister’s minivan — without asking her, and despite the fact that he didn’t have a driver’s license. On the way home, driving down Fillmore Avenue, Morales passed an unmarked police car driven by two C District police officers assigned to gang detail, Jason Whitenight and Karl Schultz.
The officers claimed that Morales was driving erratically and dangerously. Despite having a prisoner in the back seat, who they were taking downtown for booking, Schultz and Morales decided to chase Morales’s minivan.
In his deposition, Morales said he didn’t realize at first the unmarked cruiser was a police car, only that it was following him aggressively. So he tried to speed away. At French and Moselle streets, he lost control of the minivan and jumped the curb. The officers pulled up behind and exited their car, guns drawn. When Morales began to pull backward off the curb, they started shooting.
The officers claimed they believed Morales was trying to run them down, that they feared for their lives. The physical evidence and testimony accumulated by Morales’s lawyers indicated that was not true — that Morales did not back the van toward the officers — and that the officers’ actions were unwarranted and violated police procedure.
One of the officers, Schultz, continued shooting after Morales put the car in drive and began pulling away. It was one of those bullets, according to experts Dolce Panepinto hired to reconstruct the event, that struck and paralyzed Morales.
“There was a media campaign early on by the Buffalo Police Department to get out in front and ahead of the story and get the police officers version of events out there, to help shape the public perception of what happened,” said Jonathan Gorski, a partner at Dolce Panepinto who did much of the work on the case.
“What we are proving through this settlement is that what happened on June 24, 2012, was unlawful,” Gorski added. “We don’t want to see this happen to anyone else ever again. If the police need to invest in training, or to do something else, that’s what we want to happen.”