Police detective Charles Kleinert indicted in fatal shooting

The actions of Detective Charles “Trey” Kleinert — who on Monday became the first Austin police officer to be indicted for an on-duty shooting in more than a decade — drew questions from the start.

Why did he chase a man suspected of a forgery attempt at a Central Austin bank? Did he depart from police procedure in using a resident’s car during that pursuit? And what happened under a bridge — out of view of witnesses — that led to the fatal shooting of Larry Eugene Jackson Jr., an action Kleinert later said was accidental?

The lack of answers to those questions persisted Monday after a Travis County grand jury, which spent weeks reviewing Kleinert’s actions, indicted him on a charge of manslaughter, paving the way for the veteran officer to possibly go to trial and be held criminally responsible for Jackson’s death.

For Jackson’s family and some in the African-American community, the indictment was a relief. But Randy Leavitt, Kleinert’s lawyer, said he was disappointed by the decision, though not surprised because of the level of publicity surrounding the shooting. He expects to take the case to trial.

“We look forward to the day that we get to participate in the proceedings,” Leavitt said. “I’m not going to let Trey Kleinert go to jail for doing his job in protecting the citizens of Austin, Texas.”

Kleinert, who retired from the department amid an internal affairs investigation, surrendered himself Monday to officers at the Travis County Jail, where he was booked, fingerprinted and released on bail. It was unclear how quickly the case could go to court. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on the second-degree felony charge.

According to the indictment, Kleinert “recklessly” caused Jackson’s death by hitting him with the same hand that held a loaded gun, and by grabbing and trying to physically control Jackson without keeping enough distance between them so that Kleinert could put his gun in its holster.

Grand jurors did not comment publicly about the indictment. But despite their decision, their action brought no new details about the chain of events that day, including the identity of a bystander whose car Kleinert used in the pursuit or the former detective’s detailed account of what happened under a bridge near Lamar Boulevard and West 35th Street.

Also unclear was how the city of Austin will handle civil claims brought by Jackson’s family, but Council Member Sheryl Cole said that the city can now continue that legal process.

In February, council members considered awarding Jackson’s three minor children an undisclosed financial settlement but decided to refrain from doing so until the grand jurors had finished their review. Separately, Jackson’s parents have filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city, and that matter is pending. Speaking to reporters Monday, Jackson’s mother, Billie Mercer, said the indictment was the best Mother’s Day gift she could ask for.

Meanwhile, the decision to indict Kleinert brought widespread support from many in the community, who have for years felt police shooting cases were not properly reviewed or prosecuted.

Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, said the indictment is further proof the Police Department needs to address its use of force.

“This is a recurring pattern,” he said. “We need to protect human beings, not use force in a reckless manner.”

Travis County grand jurors last indicted an Austin police officer for using deadly force in October 2003. Officer Scott Glasgow was charged with criminally negligent homicide in the shooting death of Jesse Lee Owens after he became caught in a car Owens was driving when Owens started speeding away, dragging Glasgow.

Grand jurors in that case said Glasgow’s conduct leading up to the shooting subjected him to criminal liability, but a judge dismissed the case several months later after prosecutors did not object to Glasgow’s lawyer’s contention that the indictment failed to support a criminal offense.

Since then, grand jurors have reviewed dozens of police shooting cases — 25 in the past five years — and returned no indictments.

Police officials declined to comment Monday but have said that Kleinert was investigating a robbery at the Benchmark Bank on West 35th Street in Central Austin when Jackson tried to open the bank’s locked door around 4 p.m.

Jackson, who was not suspected in the robbery, walked away but returned a minute later and tried to open the door again, drawing the attention of a bank manager. After speaking to Jackson, police have said, the manager told Kleinert that Jackson had attempted to use the name of a bank customer who employees knew wasn’t Jackson.

Sources have told the American-Statesman that Jackson had the identification of at least one person that didn’t belong to him, and police have said that Jackson was at the bank to try to commit a fraud but have provided no other details.

Kleinert then tried to question Jackson, who fled. Kleinert chased after Jackson and got a ride from a passing driver in his effort to find him. Kleinert and Jackson then got into a struggle under a nearby bridge — out of the view of witnesses — where Jackson was fatally shot in the back of the neck.

No weapon was found on Jackson.

Sources confirmed to the American-Statesman the week after the shooting that Kleinert told internal affairs investigators that he unintentionally fired the shot. His weapon was drawn as part of his effort to subdue Jackson, according to the sources, and Kleinert said a single round accidentally went off when he lost his balance and fell over.

The content of such interviews is confidential under state law, and the sources, who had been informed of Kleinert’s responses, asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to speak.

The shooting stayed in the public forefront in the following weeks as Police Chief Art Acevedo announced that criminal and internal affairs investigations into the incident were going to be “fast-tracked,” and as the Texas Civil Rights Project sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking the federal agency to investigate the Police Department. City Manager Marc Ott also asked the Justice Department to review the department’s tactics and community relations practices, though he cautioned that the request was not an indication of a lack of faith in the police force.

Federal officials declined the request, saying that they had conducted a similar review several years earlier.

By the fall, Jackson’s parents had filed their lawsuit in federal court, and Kleinert retired from the department in October, a decision that led police officials to close their internal affairs investigation. Because that investigation led to no discipline against Kleinert, state law prohibits the city from releasing the internal affairs files related to the shooting and any disciplinary action recommended by a citizen panel that reviews deadly use of force cases.

Personnel records obtained by the American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act include annual performance evaluations that were generally glowing, describing Kleinert as a “go-to guy” for important cases and someone who sacrificed his personal time for the department. In the past several years, his supervisor had urged him to take the test required for a promotion, saying the detective would make an excellent supervisor. He had been with the department for nearly 20 years when he retired.

The city’s civil service office had no record of any disciplinary memos about Kleinert, meaning no complaints against him, if there were any, were found to be true.

In a statement released Monday, Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said the statewide union is confident Kleinert’s name will be cleared.

“This case is complex and may very well take some time to ferret out the truth,” Wilkison said. “CLEAT welcomes that opportunity for Detective Kleinert, his family and all Austin police officers.”

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