Key cop witness endures rough cross, stands firm about ‘lie’ in McDonald report
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Chicago Police Officer Dora Fontaine said her fellow officers called her a rat, a snitch and a traitor after she came forward to say that a detective put a false statement in a police report while investigating the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald.
But Fontaine apparently had a few choice words of her own when she saw that she’d been quoted as saying McDonald had raised his arm “as if attacking” Officer Jason Van Dyke before Van Dyke fatally shot McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
“I started cursing,” Fontaine testified Wednesday. “I said, ‘What the f—?'”
Then, as the second day of a conspiracy trial revolving around McDonald’s shooting went late into Wednesday evening — Fontaine took the stand after 5 p.m. — the bad-mouthing continued. The detective’s defense attorney accused Fontaine of being a lazy cop who lied under oath to keep a job she desperately needed, contrasting her current $90,000 salary with her previous job as a fast-food cashier.
The unprecedented conspiracy trial of officers David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Wednesday featured two key witnesses who also took the stand in Van Dyke’s murder trial two months ago. The three officers are charged with trying to cover up for Van Dyke.
Along with Fontaine, another crucial Van Dyke trial witness to appear Wednesday was Officer Joseph McElligott, whose testimony seemed to draw visible reactions from his one-time partner, Gaffney.
Fontaine’s testimony that March’s reports falsely stated that she saw McDonald move “as if to attack Van Dyke” before Van Dyke opened fire is key to the conspiracy case brought by Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes.
Fontaine and her partner arrived at 41st and Pulaski seconds before Van Dyke shot McDonald. She said she “saw a male black now known as Laquan McDonald walking southbound, swaying a knife, twisting and falling.” She said she did not see him try to lunge at anyone. And once McDonald was on the ground, she only saw him “twitch.”
Then, she described what happened next. After first trying to block traffic and later attempting to follow the ambulance to the hospital, she said she and her partner were called back to prepare paperwork. While in her police vehicle, March approached to ask for a case number. And that’s when she told him she had seen the shooting.
She said March seemed surprised and asked to see her outside the vehicle.
“He just asked me what did I see,” Fontaine said. And she said she told him, “male black walking southbound swaying the knife.”
Later, March prepared a report that said Fontaine had seen McDonald ignore police commands and raise his right arm toward Van Dyke “as if attacking.” Fontaine said she first learned about it when the quote appeared in a news article.
That’s when she said she started cursing. She called her lawyer.
“It was a lie,” Fontaine said.
March’s attorney, James McKay, quickly tore into Fontaine by accusing her of having her police radio turned down before the shooting that night so she could make a personal call. He also got her to admit she told Holmes she expected to be stripped of her police powers over the McDonald shooting.
That didn’t happen, and Fontaine testified that she doesn’t know why. McKay implied she changed her statement to save her job.
And McKay suggested she was desperate to hang on to her job with its excellent pension and premium health insurance: “What kind of job would you get at your age, with your skill set, if you got fired from the Chicago Police Department?”
Fontaine replied, “I can go back to school and I can get another degree.”
Earlier, McElligott took the stand and testified about the encounter he and Gaffney had with McDonald before the shooting. He explained how he had been following McDonald on foot that night while Gaffney followed in their Chevy Tahoe. He testified he felt Gaffney was protected when McDonald swung his knife at its windshield.
Gaffney’s lawyer has said Gaffney considered using deadly force.
On Wednesday, McElligott said he did not feel like McDonald had threatened his life. And then, a prosecutor asked McElligott if he would have shot McDonald if he felt McDonald had threatened Gaffney’s life.
“Yes,” McElligott said.
In the well of the courtroom, Gaffney shook his head.