Police Commissioner Gary Griffith has come out swinging in defence of Special Operations Response Team (SORT) officers who have been accused of opening fire and killing at least two people in Santa Cruz on Friday night.
And while the friends of Rochyon King Ashterman, 19, want to see justice served in this instance, Griffith is calling for the public to be fair to his officers, who are also fighting for their lives every time they encounter criminal elements.
The deadly shooting, which occurred just opposite the Empire Bar along La Canoa Road around 9 pm, left Ashterman and a female friend dead.
The two reportedly died inside the car Ashterman had been driving. A third civilian who was liming outside the bar and was injured during the incident was hospitalised up to last evening. The fourth person injured during the shooting was a police officer, who was shot in the leg an treated at hospital and discharged.
The woman’s identity has not yet been released by police and residents of La Canoa yesterday reported she was not from the area.
Ashterman, of Arouca, was the son of popular DJ Rodney “Fireball” King.
Denying claims by police that they returned fire after Ashterman and the occupants of the car opened fire on them, close friends of the deceased yesterday accused masked officers of committing the latest police killings.
The young businessman was yesterday described by friends as a creative individual who was aspiring to make money and help others on the way to the top.
Declining to provide his name, one of Ashterman’s friends who was with him before the incident, said, “I didn’t know when he left and by the time I walk outside, I missed him. I asked for him and they say he went for a drive to come back and within that time…he reaching right by the corner, eye-witnesses say the police pull in front of him and ordered them to wind down the glass and put their hands outside, and when they do that…police start shooting the car.”
He claimed the masked officers had been driving a black unmarked X-Trail, but a photo released by the TTPS last evening showed a white vehicle with a broken front light and scratches on the right corner of the bumper and hood.
Unable to say who the woman in the car was and where she was from, the visibly upset man said Ashterman had come to meet with him and several others regarding their business outfit called “Money City.”
Described as an up and coming t-shirt entrepreneur who was focused on attracting younger persons wanting hip and fresh designs, Ashterman’s friend continued, “He went to take the person to get something to eat when this happened. He was always full of joy and trying to make people laugh.”
When Guardian Media Limited visited the area yesterday, residents remained tight-lipped about the incident.
The only visible signs of the shooting remained bullet holes in the external walls of the Empire Bar and the chipped concrete tables and benches.
A second friend of deceased man said when they attempted to identify Ashterman’s body at the Port-of-Spain General Hospital on Friday night, they were prevented by police who directed them to go to the Forensic Sciences Centre, St. Clair, tomorrow.
He said Ashterman’s mother was also not allowed to see the body as a police investigation had to be done.
Demanding justice for the victim, who left behind two younger sisters, the upset friend added, “He had no criminal history, no record, nothing.
“He was a graphic designer and we had our own personal company. He wasn’t on no crime and was always trying to motivate people around him. It real hard knowing police kill one of our brothers and we can’t do anything about it. We can’t write a report or go by anyone to fight for justice for him. He was always hardworking and helping others.”
Officers shot at first—CoP
In an official release yesterday, CoP Gary Griffith said the SORT team was conducting an exercise in the area when they attempted to stop a vehicle with two occupants as “they had reason to and the officers were fired upon.
Griffith added, “It is amazing that residents always have bionic eyes when the police are defending their lives against imminent threats, but of the 340-plus persons killed this year, for some in that same area, with the same bionic eyes, they conveniently wear blinkers and see nothing nor do they seem to be concerned, because you never hear their voices when gang members kill innocent persons.”
Griffith also showed a picture of part of a vehicle with bullet holes.
“These are the “imaginary bullets” that hit the police vehicle that was shot at in the police-involved shooting in Santa Cruz,” he said.
Griffith urged these persons to find a new story to tell.
He added, “A police officer got shot and the pathetic excuses by these convenient sympathisers, in areas where police are fired upon and respond by returning fire to defend themselves, are boring now. What would they claim? Did the officer shoot himself to find an excuse to fire back? No! The officer was shot at. They tried to kill him. For those who refer to the victims as “innocent” people, this says a lot about these sympathizers’ character.”
The release said the injured persons were taken to the Port of Spain General Hospital to seek medical attention but were pronounced dead on arrival. It said the injured police officer was treated and later discharged, adding a loaded firearm and ammunition were recovered in the vehicle.
However, this bit of information contradicted what officers of the North Eastern Division had to say. Police sources said no firearm was recovered in the vehicle, but a magazine was recovered in an abandoned vehicle that was close to where the other vehicle was parked. Officers in the division said they were also yet to receive a report from the SORT.
SORT members are part of an elite unit who answer directly to Griffith. The unit was formed to gather intelligence and conduct covert operations.