Cop who accidentally shot budding teen musician won’t face criminal charges

A lawyer who represents the Wilder family in a civil lawsuit said he’s outraged that he only learned Tuesday of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s decision not to charge the Des Plaines officer.

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Rylan Wilder, then a 15-year-old budding guitarist, was shot in the arm and abdomen Nov. 19, 2019, while working as an intern at a music school on the Northwest Side. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office filed a memo on her web site this week outlining why the Des Plaines police officer who accidentally shot Wilder won’t face criminal charges.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has declined to criminally charge a Des Plaines police officer in the November 2019 shooting that wounded teen musician Rylan Wilder.

Sun-Times file photo

A police officer who accidentally shot a budding teenage musician in 2019 while pursuing a bank robber on the Northwest Side won’t face criminal charges, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office has decided.

Des Plaines Police Officer James Armstrong was “justified in using deadly force” against the bank robber, Christopher Willis, on Nov. 19, 2019, Foxx’s office concluded.

And even though Armstrong also struck 15-year-old Rylan Wilder, it was unintentional and the officer acted “reasonably,” the state’s attorney’s office stated in a memo dated Oct. 19, 2020.

The decision came to light after Foxx’s office recently posted a letter on her website in support of her actions from a state prosecutors’ agency that reviews counties’ charging decisions. Foxx’s memo was attached to the letter.

“A criminal prosecution for either first- or second-degree murder would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the involved officer was not legally justified in using deadly force against Christopher Willis,” the memo states. “In other words, a judge or a jury would have to find that Officer Armstrong’s belief that he or others were in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death — was not reasonable. In this case, however, the uncontroverted evidence shows that Officer Armstrong did have a reasonable belief that Christopher Willis put Officer Armstrong and others in imminent danger of great bodily harm or death.”

Patrick J. Delfino, director of the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, backed up that decision in a letter to Foxx dated July 7, 2021.

“Based upon a comprehensive and independent evaluation of the information provided, we find that the decision by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office to decline prosecution is consistent with the evidence,” Delfino wrote. “This finding is strictly limited to the conclusion as to criminal charges and makes no determination regarding the existence of any administrative violations or the potentiality of civil liability.”

A lawyer who represents the Wilder family in a civil lawsuit said he’s outraged that he only learned Tuesday of Foxx’s decision not to charge Armstrong.

“Rylan’s life was changed through no fault of his own due to the reckless actions of the Des Plaines police officer. Yesterday afternoon, we downloaded the report from the state’s attorney’s website. The family was not notified of the decision in advance, which was devastating to them,” Tim Cavanagh, the Wilder family attorney, said in a statement. “Why did a Des Plaines officer pursue a suspect into the City of Chicago and why did he use his personal gun – a military-style assault rifle? The wound to Rylan’s arm inflicted damage commensurate with a war victim. His life will never be the same. We are lucky more kids were not shot as a result of the officer’s reckless actions.”

A spokesperson from Foxx’s office said in an email Wednesday that the family’s attorney was notified of the decision Tuesday before the memo was posted on the office’s website.

Foxx’s office issued a statement Wednesday afternoon: “After a thorough review of the evidence, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office determined the evidence is insufficient to support the filing of criminal charges in this case. Pursuant to policies and law enacted at the urging of State’s Attorney Foxx, after making its declination determination, the state’s attorney’s office referred the case to the Office of the State Appellate Prosecutor for an additional review. The Office of the State Appellate Prosecutor has completed its review and has concurred that no criminal charges are appropriate. The parties involved have been notified of this decision.”

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Before the shooting, Willis had robbed a bank in Des Plaines and then fled in a stolen car to Chicago, pursued by Armstrong and officers from multiple police agencies. After ditching the car, Willis ran into Upbeat Music and Arts, a music school on the Northwest Side where Wilder was an intern.

Surveillance video from inside the school shows a man holding a handgun running in through the front entrance. Moments later, Armstrong, with a rifle at his shoulder, yells, “Drop it!” Wilder is seen in the video, ducking and running for cover just as Armstrong squeezes the trigger. Wilder suffered catastrophic injuries to his left arm and is still undergoing treatment for those injuries.

In April of this year, the Des Plaines Police Department’s new chief, David Anderson, told the Chicago Sun-Times that after viewing the UpBeat surveillance video multiple times, he is uncertain whether Armstrong actually struck Wilder. He said it might have been the bank robber.

“If you listen to the video, what I hear is the potential of a shot being fired just prior to Officer Armstrong firing his weapon,” Anderson said.

Anderson also said Armstrong was trying to stop “a very violent, active shooter” and that he did the best he could under quickly changing circumstances.

Chicago police spokesman Tom Ahern told the Sun-Times in April: “We did confirm that the 15-year-old victim and the offender were shot by Des Plaines police.”

Cavanagh has said the suggestion that anyone other than a Des Plaines police officer shot Wilder is “nonsense.”

In a lawsuit filed in Cook County, the Wilders claim that Armstrong’s use of force was “excessive” and that it constituted “reckless, willful and wanton conduct.”

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