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Officer Who Fatally Shot Teen in 1994 Won't be Charged After Case Reopened

By Murray Weiss | November 4, 2016 4:39pm | Updated on November 7, 2016 8:24am
 About two dozen protesters stood outside the Brooklyn DA's Office demanding progress in the investigation of the shooting death of Nicholas Heyward, Jr. by the NYPD in 1994.
About two dozen protesters stood outside the Brooklyn DA's Office demanding progress in the investigation of the shooting death of Nicholas Heyward, Jr. by the NYPD in 1994.
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DNAinfo/Trevor Kapp

DOWNTOWN BROOKYN— A year-long investigation into the 1994 shooting of a 13-year-old boy who pointed a “realistic looking” toy rifle at a police officer has concluded that the shot was legally "justified," DNAinfo New York has learned.

The Brooklyn District Attorney office will not prosecute the case, it said.

The findings of the probe — ordered by the late DA Kenneth Thompson and concluded six weeks before his death from cancer last month — reached the same decision as former DA Charles Hynes did 22 years ago.

Hynes had ruled that Officer Brian George fired a single shot in self-defense during a "tragic" encounter with Nicholas Heyward Jr. in a Gowanus Houses stairwell.

Nicholas and several friends were playing “cops and robbers” with authentic looking toy weapons they purchased a week earlier. 

"Based on the totality of the evidence, we have concluded that the shooting did not rise to the level of a criminal act," a spokeswoman for the Brooklyn DA's office said in a statement.

"Officer George reasonably believed that his life was in danger when faced with a realistic-looking gun aimed at him," the spokeswoman added.

"It is our hope that the Heyward family finds some small measure of solace knowing that there was a thorough and fair reinvestigation led by the late District Attorney Ken Thompson," she said.

The District Attorney considered only if a murder charge could be leveled against George because murder counts have no statute of limitations, and because George admitted he fired with the intent to harm Nicholas, thereby eliminating lesser offenses such as criminally negligent homicide.

Sources said that before his death, Thompson “reviewed” the final report, which was conducted by his Civil Rights Bureau and was issued on August 22.

He concurred with its findings and hoped to present the findings personally to Nicholas' family since he had re-opened it at their urging, promising a “thorough and just” outcome.

A spokeswoman for the DA’s office confirmed that acting DA Eric Gonzalez, who succeeded Thompson, met with Mr. Heyward, his wife and his attorney.

“It was a good meeting," the spokeswoman said. "We answered all of their questions. Mr. Heyward was of course disappointed, but understood our limitations."

"(But) he was pleased that DA Thompson kept his word and did a thorough and fair investigation,” the spokeswoman added.

According to authorities, on September 27, 1994, Officer George, an African American officer with just two years on the force, was working in the Housing Bureau conducting a solo vertical patrol around 7 p.m. when he responded to report of a “man with a gun” at 417 Baltic St.

George, who was known in the neighborhood as “Robocop,” rode an elevator to the roof and found no one there, but he spotted the figures of two "adult-sized" young men on an adjoining roof at 423 Baltic.

One appeared to have "an object" in his hand.

George went into  that building and took the elevator to the top floor.

 This is the toy rifle carried by Nicholas Heyward Jr., 13, when he was shot and killed by a police officer in 1994 in a housing stairwell.
This is the toy rifle carried by Nicholas Heyward Jr., 13, when he was shot and killed by a police officer in 1994 in a housing stairwell.
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Suddenly, Nicholas came through the rooftop door bounding down a short staircase to the landing, where he allegedly pointed his 18-inch, brown and black double-barreled toy rifle at George, who was eight feet away.

George fired a single shot, hitting Nicholas in the stomach. The teen immediately clutched his stomach and repeatedly uttered, “We were only playing."

George quickly realized the gun was a toy. He called 911 and then cradled the mortally wounded boy, trying to comfort him and provide medical attention, witnesses told the DA’s office, according to sources.

Hynes said at the time, and George later insisted at a civil deposition, that he fired when he heard two clicks of what he believed were the hammers of Nicholas’ rifle.

Investigators also determined that  “an orange tip that had originally been on the rifle” — that held a clasp with a string attached to a small cork-like projective — “had been broken off,” apparently to allow the projective to travel a greater distance, according to sources.

In the aftermath of Nicholas' death, then-DA Hynes led a campaign to force stores to stop selling toy guns that closely resembled real weapons.

Nicholas’ grieving father, Nicholas Heyward Sr., meanwhile, launched a foundation in his son’s name, holding an annual memorial candlelight vigil on his death along Baltic St. where a mural of the fallen teen still stands in his memory.

In 2001, Gowanus Park was also renamed in his son’s honor.

And the senior Heyward repeatedly called for a re-opening of his son’s case, claiming Hynes did not do a thorough investigation.

Joined by local activists and people aligned with the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the elder Heyward caught Thompson's attention. He launched his probe in September 2015.

Over the past year, a team of prosecutors and investigators examined all the old crime scene photos, detective interviews, interviews taken in 1994, and they had George’s lengthy statement taken in the wake of the killing by his family’s lawyer.

Items such as Nicholas' clothing and the toy gun, however, were eventually destroyed after seven years, in accordance with NYPD protocol.

But sources say photographs of them along with pertinent records filled in any blanks.

And investigators tracked down a dozen witnesses, including five of Nicholas' friends from that evening —  including one in the super-max federal prison in Colorado — along with residents who are still alive.

One of Nicholas' friends said he had come to sympathize with George, who worked in a crime-riddled neighborhood where the sound of gunfire was common and was likely legitimately concerned for his safety, sources said.

Sources say the DA’s office followed any leads and conducted interviews of people suggested by the family and their lawyers, whom they kept in the loop of the investigation as much as possible under the law.

Officer George, meanwhile, went on to serve another 21 years on the NYPD, retiring last year.

Calls to the Heyward family lawyers were not immediately returned.