“They got him in the darkness.” This is the poetry of trauma parents like Antoine and Tammy Bufford have learned to speak. They are describing how their son was gunned down in the narrow gangway between a red-brick cottage and a weathered farmhouse in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis on December 12, 2019.
“He waited until Cortez got in the darkness,” Antoine Bufford said. “You couldn’t see nothing there. Nothing.”
The 4-foot-9-inch space between 535 and 533 Bates Avenue is remarkably dark. Like a black hole, or a tunnel with no light at the end of it, the narrow grassy space runs about 32 feet before it dead-ends into a wood fence. That is where 24-year-old Cortez Bufford, chased by a man with a gun, couldn’t run any farther on that Thursday night around 9:30 p.m.
Eight shots were fired. Five, possibly six, of them hit Bufford’s body, front and back, from his left fingertip to the right thigh and upper back. Three shots to his face and head, one in each cheek, and the fatal shot to the upper left forehead.
“It was like he was target practice,” his father recalled thinking, as he looked over his son’s body at the family’s funeral home to “see everything that they had did to him.”
Wearing a yellow Missouri Tigers T-shirt, Bufford had been out that night with a good friend from his neighborhood, Terell Phillips. “Just a regular day,” Phillips said. “We was just chilling.”
“It was like he was target practice.”
In the course of the evening, they stopped at a BP gas station in the rental car his friend was driving for gas, a juice drink, and cigarettes.
The BP sits across the street from a vacant lot, close to the Mississippi River, right by a highway overpass. Threatened with closure by the city, it had been hanging on two years after being hit with a public nuisance notice for its high number of 911 calls, more than 800 calls for service in the last five years alone. Just two nights before Bufford’s death, a 14-year-old boy had been shot there multiple times during an argument.
When danger came, Bufford was standing behind the store, perhaps to smoke a cigarette away from flammables. He wouldn’t have wanted to stink up his friend’s nice rental car, his mother Tammy Bufford speculated. Or maybe he was taking a leak, as reports suggest, though no evidence of public urination was found.
Credit: Photos: Michael B. Thomas for The Intercept
“Hey man, stop pissing in public,” said a man in a white Chevy Tahoe. He was riding with another man. They pulled up alongside Bufford, according to reports. “Put your junk away.”
Bufford grinned and adjusted his gray sweatpants, but when one of the men opened the door of the Tahoe to approach him, his eyes widened and fear spread across his face, according to a video statement by one of the men.
That’s when Bufford fled.
Within seconds, the man chasing him pulled out a gun, video outside the gas station shows. Bufford, running for his life, collided at one point with the Tahoe driven by the other man. Bufford fell to the ground.
“They hit him with the truck. He got up and kept running,” Phillips said.
Bufford ran in between two homes on Bates but couldn’t clear the fence. He scuffled with the man who was after him, scratching him in the process, and broke free again. He ran across the street into another gangway until, unable to jump the fence, he couldn’t run anymore.
“I heard the first shot. It was a pause,” Phillips said in an interview. “Then after that, it was like Boom! Pause. Then it was boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom … they just killed him.”
The medical examiner who performed Bufford’s autopsy ruled the manner of his death a homicide. That’s what forensic pathologists write, as a matter of course, when one human being dies at the hands of another human being. That part is no mystery. Bufford’s shooter has always been known to police. Because he is the police. Or, as reports refer to him, Officer #1.
In those reports, Bufford is “the suspect,” and what began as a “pedestrian check” swiftly turned deadly.
Two people, a white police officer and a Black man, each carrying a strong internal narrative about the other, are both reportedly, and legally, carrying guns.
They both carry something else, too: trauma.
“How do you fear for your life if he’s running away from you?”
In the blackness of the gangway, their fears collide. As space and focus narrow, it is hard to discern who, exactly, is in control of their actions anymore and who is captive of a neurological train of events with lethal momentum — an incident mired in political and sociological implications, where perspective dictates who plays the roles of the victim and the offender.
Law enforcement officers like Officer #1 are taught to preempt. To shoot first. To make it out alive in a society flooded with guns. In the close space between the two houses, there was no cover for either of them.
“They call it the old fatal tunnel, basically,” Officer #1 said in a video interview with force investigators about a month after the shooting. He fidgeted his fingers, as though uncomfortable about what he had just said. Experts in close-quarter combat often refer to such situations as the “fatal funnel.”
What happened in the gangway was also a kind of perceptual tunnel. Despite the implausibility of Officer #1’s ability to see within this space, his “tunnel vision” certainly took over, distorting reality by making him believe that Bufford was shooting at him, he would later claim. And within our current mode of aggressive policing, this space between perception and reality can produce, and will continue to produce, tragic, absurd — and avoidable — outcomes.
“How do you fear for your life if he’s running away from you?” Tammy Bufford, Cortez’s mother, asks. “At what point was there a threat? At what point was there a threat?”
For a year and a half, the Bufford case has been suspended in the purgatory of unresolved police shooting cases. No charges filed. No determination made. Left in darkness, in a city with the highest rate of police killings in the country.
“That police officer needs to go to jail,” said Tammy Bufford. “You took an oath to protect and serve the community. You did not take an oath to be judge, jury, and executioner.”
Many fatal police shooting investigations around the country can take years to conclude, but the Bufford case is joined by more than 20 others in St. Louis — including seven in 2019 alone, Bufford’s among them — that have yet to receive a determination on filing criminal charges from Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner or, as the Riverfront Times and The Trace reported earlier this year, a review of any kind from the Civilian Oversight Board.
This inaction comes nearly seven years after a system was established to probe these cases, following the killings of Michael Brown by nearby Ferguson police and Kajieme Powell and VonDerritt Myers Jr. by St. Louis police. A byproduct of this flurry of reforms is a convoluted process, in which added layers of review can leave a case to crumble in the pipeline of investigations.
In 2014, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department created the Force Investigation Unit, or FIU, tasked with focusing solely on criminal investigations of police shootings. (Previously, there was just a review by Internal Affairs for policy violations.) Shortly thereafter, the Circuit Attorney’s Office entered into an agreement with the police department to review these investigations for criminal charges. After a ruling, the cases are supposed to head back to Internal Affairs and another internal board for policy and training review and, finally, to the police chief. Then, and only then, can the Civilian Oversight Board, established as the third prong of review for police shootings in 2015, receive the investigation.
This stands in contrast to how police shootings are investigated in many other large cities, as well as best practices from organizations like the Police Executive Research Forum, which recommends that the administrative and criminal reviews of shootings happen simultaneously.
“If you ask one entity, they’ll say it’s the other entity,” said Civilian Oversight Board Commissioner Kimberley Taylor-Riley, who reports that she has yet to receive a single police shooting case, not even shootings that are unquestionably closed.
This bureaucratic limbo is compounded by the fact that the Deadly Force Review Board, which reviews cases before they go to the oversight board, has not been convened in over two years. A new report released by Taylor-Riley this month points to Gardner’s office as the bottleneck.
Since taking office in 2017, Gardner has charged officers in at least three shootings: a nonfatal case from 2018 in which an officer shot an unarmed carjacking suspect in the back, a nonfatal 2019 case in which off-duty officers got into an altercation with a man at a bar, and another 2019 shooting in which an officer killed another officer in a game of Russian roulette.
“I don’t believe police can investigate themselves, and I have prosecuted police officers during my tenure and will hold them accountable just like anyone else,” Gardner said while campaigning for reelection in 2020. Otherwise put, as she told the Missouri Independent and Reveal, she cannot rely on investigations conducted by an officer’s “friends.”
Yet Gardner’s reluctance to make determinations in cases brings the investigative process to a standstill. Most cases remain indefinitely open when charges are not brought against an officer. This results in a backlog of cases. Despite there being an attorney and investigator within Gardner’s office to review these cases, there is no timeline to conclude them.
In a post-George Floyd reality (Bufford’s police killing preceded Floyd’s by five months), St. Louis elected Mayor Tishaura Jones, a progressive figure who quickly issued an executive order directing the SLMPD to share years of Internal Affairs data and other records with the oversight board. But ensuring civilian review of fatal police shootings, which activists have been calling for since the 1980s, may not be so simple. New legislation to streamline the review process would need to be passed by the Board of Aldermen. Despite a swing to the left, the board is still led by Lewis Reed, who has been criticized for proposing “stunt” police reforms that have done little to enact structural change. (Recently released records show that Gardner is facing state Supreme Court disciplinary proceedings for her handling of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’s criminal investigation.)
And so the vast majority of these cases, like Bufford’s, remain in the dark, unable to move forward.
“We look at the news, and it’s constantly still happening to young Black kids and brown kids,” said Antoine Bufford, who protests with family members in marches for Black lives. “It’s just not going to stop.”
With the city silent on the Bufford case, police investigators have not reached out to the family with updates. Not since they were first called in.
That’s when they sat across from Lt. John Green, the commander of the FIU, a veteran homicide investigator. They remember the lieutenant telling them something rather peculiar for someone in his position, something that would constitute a rupture in the code of silence: Your son was murdered.
“I don’t know if he would agree with it again, but he said it,” Antoine Bufford insisted in an interview for this story last December, on the anniversary of his son’s death. Tammy Bufford, who was present during the police meeting, heard the same thing.
In fact, today, Green does not agree with it. He denies making the utterance at all: “I didn’t say that their son was murdered. I said he was killed. I said he was shot. … No, I don’t know where they got that from.”
Green declined to address any specific questions about the Bufford case, deferring to Gardner: “It’s her shop. She can do whatever she wants to do. … We’re not going to surpass her. That’s not good business.”
But, Green mentioned, he has inquired about the status of the Bufford case since delivering his findings to Gardner’s office.
“We’ve asked several times,” he said. “The ball is in her court. I can’t push her to do anything. She doesn’t work for the police department. She’s an elected official. We just have to wait.”
The youngest in a tight-knit family, Cortez Bufford spent all 24 years of his life in South City St. Louis, where he loved playing basketball in the backyard. They had a full court.
He was still living at home when he died.
“This is our baby child,” Antoine Bufford said of his son. “Can’t get rid of that last one.”
Cortez always loved fast cars. “I don’t think he knew how to drive slow,” said Monisha Merrill, his sister. His last car was a 1994 Firebird, which Antoine is trying to fix.
A “dork” with glasses who got teased in grade school, Cortez took his first job — apart from his neighborhood lemonade and hot dog stand operation — as a dishwasher at the Old Spaghetti Factory. He loved working there, his parents remember, and was upset with them when he had to quit to take a big family vacation to New Orleans. Photo ops with alligators during a swamp tour cheered him up, but it was a sore spot for years.
He would eat ice cream and watch movies with his nieces and nephews and house-sit for his sister, Ericka Freeman, who described him as her sidekick who “always went for what was right.”
Cortez later took warehouse jobs at FedEx and UPS, earning employee accolades for his forklift operation skills. But he lost his job of several years after failing a drug test for smoking weed, his father said.
One of his last jobs was working at Henry’s Funeral and Cremation Service, a business his cousin Brandon opened in late 2017. It was there that his parents would view his body for the first time and his homegoing service would be held.
The Buffords, like many Black families, had “the talk” with Cortez when he was young — the one about the police, what his rights were, and the potential dangers ahead. He didn’t have any trouble with law enforcement until April 2014, four months before Michael Brown’s police killing in Ferguson. Driving the speed limit, and after making a legal U-turn, Bufford was pulled over. One officer demanded that he get out of the car. After Bufford protested and asked why he was being detained, two officers pulled him out of the car using an “armbar” technique, a painful attack on the elbow joint. Eventually nine officers came to the scene.
The encounter received national attention due to a viral dashcam video of his beating and arrest. The video shows two of the officers kicking, stomping, and tasing Bufford as he screams. Then, almost two minutes into the beating, an officer says, “Hold up, hold up y’all, hold up, hold up. Everybody hold up. We’re red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait,” before shutting off the video.
Only after the officers subdued him did they realize that Cortez had a gun. He wasn’t old enough to be carrying it. He was arrested and charged, but after the public fallout, the case was dropped.
The Buffords were in Chicago visiting family when they got the call that their son was hurt. When they returned to St. Louis, he was in bad shape. They observed gashes across his head and taser marks on his body. They took Cortez back to the doctor to get his hand recast. Physically, he survived, but “mentally, he was crushed,” Tammy Bufford said.
In 2015, Bufford filed a lawsuit against several officers, earning a $20,000 settlement. He had won, but, the family remembers, his lawyer warned him that he would be a target in the future.
In the four years that followed, Bufford was pulled over, stopped while walking, and harassed, his parents say. While there are no publicly accessible records or complaints documenting these events, there are reports of two arrests, one in 2017 for apparently not leaving a MetroLink station when asked and “pulling his arms back” (resisting arrest, trespassing, and marijuana possession) and one about three weeks before his death.
In that case, police reported that Bufford was driving a stolen car, an allegation not supported by the charges. When they tried to apprehend him, “the defendant began to flee on foot,” court records show. The officers caught up with him and made the arrest, putting a felony drug charge on his record.
Credit: Photos: Michael B. Thomas for The Intercept
Dr. C.C. Cassell, a licensed clinical psychologist in California who specializes in trauma, has worked extensively with survivors of community violence, sexual violence, and combat veterans who have experienced war-related trauma.
Cassell is acquainted with the Bufford family, though she never knew Cortez. In 2020, she helped the Buffords file a sunshine law request with the SLMPD. Then she brought the case to the Invisible Institute and The Intercept for further investigation.
Cassell recalls how the hypervigilance of her veteran patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often manifests itself by carrying guns. Not one gun, but multiple guns hidden throughout their homes, with at least one on their person at all times.
“Having these weapons made them feel safe,” Cassell remembers. “They felt naked without them. For me, the surprising part was how familiar this behavior was.”
It reminded her of the Black men she knew, who did not carry weapons with an intent or desire to harm anyone, but simply because they never felt safe anywhere: “Even in their own homes. … Having a weapon was the only way they could regain a sense of safety, albeit a fragile one.”
Undoubtedly, Bufford was a trauma survivor. According to Cassell, the way he reportedly turned away from the police vehicle when he first saw it, which Officer #1 later described as “kind of suspicious” — that action alone, from a psychological standpoint, foregrounds his desire to avoid police interaction.
“What protections do we as U.S. citizens have when the very individuals who are employed to protect us pose a threat to our lives?”
Phillips had seen Bufford’s fear of the police play out before. “Every time he seen them, I mean, like, every time he seen them, he just wanted to get away.”
Cassell says Bufford’s flight from police is “quite possibly a survival instinct driven by quite rational fear.” This leaves her to wonder: “What protections do we as U.S. citizens have when the very individuals who are employed to protect us pose a threat to our lives?”
Building on her deep experience working with trauma survivors, Cassell now focuses on helping people of color cope with race-related trauma.
“The concept of PTSD is meant to capture the aftereffects of trauma, hence the name ‘post’-traumatic stress disorder,” Cassell notes. “However, Black people in this country are facing continuous traumatic stress.”
Both Bufford and Phillips experienced such trauma. For Phillips, disturbingly, Bufford isn’t the first friend of his who has died from police gunfire after running down a St. Louis gangway: “When it’s constantly happening, I’m not going to say you get immune to it, but you don’t go through what you would go through if this was your first childhood friend.”
Cassell says it is “a sad reality” that Black men are often not given the opportunity to learn how to understand their ongoing trauma, “despite how pervasive this problem is.”
In Bufford’s case, Cassell could not diagnose him, but she does have a deep knowledge of his history and is struck by a pattern: He had no record of violence. Even during his previously documented police encounters, including one in which he was severely injured, he never attempted to use a weapon.
Also, notably, during his struggle to escape Officer #1 in the first gangway, when the officer pointed his gun at him “to protect myself,” Bufford did not pull the weapon then either, according to reports.
“What he wanted to do was get away,” said Phillips, who has his own problematic history with law enforcement, from a resisting arrest charge to drug and weapon convictions. Phillips insists that Bufford would not have pulled a gun on an officer: “He wanted to go home.”
Officer #1 and his partner that night, Officer #2, were part of the Mobile Reserve Unit, a crew of roving tactical officers that responds to hotspots. “Looking for trouble,” as one news article described it.
The unit has been around for more than 60 years. When MRU debuted in 1959, a writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat described it as “the new shock-unit troop organized to back up district officers in the ceaseless war against crime.” Reports from its early years suggest a history of unconstitutional practices: In its first five months of existence, MRU officers questioned more than 28,000 people, the Associated Press reported. Over the years, the unit has worked alongside the SWAT team.
“They’re sort of the cowboys of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department,” said Rich McNelley, a former public defender whose cases at times involved MRU officers in the early 2000s.
The MRU has “historically been known as the jump-out squad,” said activist John Chasnoff, who has worked on policing issues in St. Louis for more than two decades. “There’s been many complaints over the years of them suddenly descending on people, harassing people, holding guns to their head, and other heavy-handed tactics.”
The fact that the unit has for decades also functioned as the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s SWAT team — for which they receive highly militarized training — is, “structurally, a big mistake,” Chasnoff said. An analysis by his group, the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression, found that in at least eight shootings between 2013 and 2018, the officers involved were either current or future members of the MRU and SWAT teams.
The mobile officers are not assigned to a district. They can go anywhere in the city, a style of hotspot policing that appears to have changed little over the years. A review by a risk assessment firm published last December found that the SLMPD lacks a coordinated crime plan, as the targeting of crime hotspots results in officers flooding already overpoliced and under-resourced neighborhoods. Operating like a blunt tool on violent crime, SLMPD’s “broken windows”-style policing within the MRU creates “significant blind spots,” according to the risk assessment report.
When mobile officers roamed the area near the BP the night Bufford was killed, several of their in-car video cameras were rolling. For Officer #1 and Officer #2, their car video was never pulled. Investigative reports do not say whether it ever existed.
The only police shooting video saved on December 12, 2019, came from a different part of the city earlier in the day where a white man was robbing a White Castle. He pointed a gun at officers before running away, the video shows. Police then shot the man. In the knee. He survived.
In Bufford’s case, investigators retrieved scraps of dispatch tape that depict the killing and its aftermath. The audio quickly escalates into chaos, after the police-citizen encounter has already turned into a pursuit.
Within about a minute: “Got shots fired! Shots fired, shots fired!”
The dispatcher asks if it’s the officer or suspect who is down.
“We need EMS urgent!” an officer says.
“For an officer or suspect?”
“For the suspect. The officer’s OK,” one of them says.
“EMS is responding. District One’s en route. Are all mobile officers accounted for?”
“Everybody is OK.”
“That’s good,” the dispatcher responds.
But what happened in the gangway, in between these frantic dispatches, only Officer #1 survived to say.
While there are no known eyewitnesses, there are earwitness accounts from people in nearby homes and businesses. Their accounts of the verbal commands they heard Officer #1 give differ. Where they align, however, is that at no point did Officer #1 identify himself as a police officer, tell Bufford he was under arrest, or tell him that he had committed a crime.
Even if there had been eyewitnesses, the gangway was too dark to see anything, according to Officer #2.
“How was the lighting in the gangway?” police investigators asked.
“It was very dark,” Officer #2 said in a video interview.
“Did you have to use your flashlight to see down?”
“Yes, I did.”
“When you first got to the gangway, did you have your flashlight on?
“No, I did not.”
“How far could you see?”
“I could not see in the gangway” Officer #2 said. “It was very dark.”
The investigators asked Officer #1 the same.
“It was dark back there,” Green, the lieutenant, said. “Did you have any light or anything?”
“No, I did not have a chance to retrieve my flashlight … because the fact that he had a firearm was more important for me to have control with both my hands free,” Officer #1 answered.
Later in the interview, another investigator returned to the point.
“I noticed it was pretty dark,” he said. “How was your vision in that?”
Officer #1, along with his attorney, seemed to register the point of emphasis.
“I could see,” he said, nodding. “I could see.”
The FIU report documents the lighting conditions as being “during the hours of darkness” yet notes that “commercial grade streetlamps” were on at the time of the shooting. The report also mentions the existence of a neighbor’s doorbell camera that captured video of the gangway just after the shooting for several minutes. The video was turned over to the Circuit Attorney’s Office, according to the FIU investigation. The footage is reportedly not “very good quality,” which itself might testify to the poor lighting conditions. In response to records requests, the SLMPD said it didn’t have a copy of the video, and the Circuit Attorney’s Office denied the request, saying it is still investigating the case.
Whatever Officer #1 claims to have seen in the darkness, including Bufford looking at him “eye to eye,” what he says he thought happened in the gangway did not, in fact, occur.
He remembers Bufford shooting at him. He didn’t.
“To my mind, I thought he did shoot at me,” Officer #1 told investigators. “In my mind, I thought he was shooting at me too.”
The sequence of it was weird, he said: “I remember pop-pop [pause] pop-pop. … It wasn’t a smooth pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.” Then, he reiterated: “I do, I believe that he was shooting at me.”
“Do you think he fired first, or did you fire first?” the investigator asked.
“I think we were both about the same time,” Officer #1 chuckled.
Bufford’s six gunshot wounds, front and back, tell their own story, though it is nearly impossible to determine the sequence of shots.
“Most of the time you can’t reliably order the sequence of the gunshot wounds based on medical evidence,” said Dr. James Filkins, a forensic pathologist who reviewed the autopsy in this case. With respect to the question of whether Bufford was facing or had his back to the officer, based on the medical evidence, according to Filkins, “either scenario is possible.”
The first gunshot identified in the medical examiner’s report was the fatal one to the head. Some of the other wounds, the one in the right thigh and the two in his face, are consistent with Officer #1’s account. But it’s the gunshot to Bufford’s back that complicates his story. Based on the resting position of Bufford’s body — according to interviews and handwritten renderings of the scene, he was on his stomach, meaning that he would have fallen forward — a shot to the back complicates Officer #1’s statement that Bufford was facing him when he fired his police weapon at him.
Another complication to Officer #1’s narrative is the shell casings from his gun. While Officer #1 reports shooting from the mouth of the gangway, many of the casings were found toward the middle of the pathway, indicating that he may have been closer than he claimed.
When Officer #1 attempted to stop Bufford behind the gas station, he noticed his “manbag” under his jacket.
“That right there kind of indicated in my mind that he might be carrying something,” Officer #1 said.
Video shows that Officer #1 pulled out his gun and pointed it at Bufford, after Bufford took off running. But he told investigators that he didn’t pull his gun out until after he saw Bufford’s weapon, an account contradicted by the footage. When Bufford and the Tahoe collided, on the front right passenger side of the vehicle, both Officer #1 and Officer #2 say in their video interviews, they first saw an extended magazine of a gun protruding from Bufford’s shoulder bag.
The two officers were only officially interviewed about a month after the incident, allowing ample opportunity to collect themselves, as well as potentially align and inoculate their accounts from criminal implications. And, due to Fifth Amendment protections, officers cannot be compelled to make any statements in the criminal investigation, or else their testimony is off-limits in court. In cities such as Philadelphia and Phoenix, however, officers have to give statements in an administrative investigation within hours of a shooting to determine if it was within policy, which happens alongside the criminal investigation.
But not in St. Louis: “Whenever he’s ready to be interviewed, that’s when I can interview him,” Green said. “There’s nothing you can do about that. I have to wait until he makes a statement.”
Officer #2’s statement is nearly identical to Officer #1’s account, but it is doubtful that he could have seen Bufford’s gun, on the opposite side of the Tahoe from the driver’s seat, when it — if it — became visible from his bag when he fell to the ground. Video from inside the BP station, which reportedly shows Bufford making a purchase, does not indicate that a gun was visible at any point. Also, two other officers who pulled up as Bufford ran away and collided with the vehicle did not say they saw a gun in statements made to investigators less than 24 hours later.
After the shooting, Officer #2 approached the gangway and rolled Bufford over, allegedly finding a gun underneath his torso, according to his interview. Officer #2 either threw or kicked it out of the way, he can’t remember.
The crime scene evaluation does not indicate how Bufford’s arms were lying when he hit the ground. It is not documented whether the satchel was already opened or if investigators had to unzip it themselves. It is also unknown whether Bufford was holding the gun as he fell, if he dropped the gun, or if the gun was still in his shoulder bag when he was shot.
Photos show a grisly scene, with unexplained blood smears on Bufford’s box of cigarettes, the reported gun he was carrying, and ambiguous blood impressions on Officer #2’s police uniform shirt and shoe. Prescription drugs appear sprinkled about the ground. According to Filkins, the forensic pathologist who reviewed Bufford’s autopsy for this story, Bufford had a “therapeutic level” of prescription Tylenol and codeine in his system, as well as marijuana, but “not a significantly high level.”
The detail that Bufford had a gun beneath him, however, corroborated by another responding officer, cements Bufford as a suspect in the police version of events, the “guy with a gun,” the “bad guy,” described in dispatch audio. Woven into the tight choreography of codes and signals, this narrative begins to take shape.
That Bufford was a “bad guy” is certainly the impression police left with lifelong Bates Avenue resident Randy Prater, former owner of the Tin Cup bar across the street from the incident. Prater is listed as a witness, though he didn’t see or hear anything take place. In an interview for this story, Prater said he heard that Bufford was “robbing a place.”
But when someone’s body has been riddled with bullets, it can be hard not to recognize their victimhood. The communications supervisor almost slipped up on the police radio herself: “If you guys didn’t hear, the victim — er, oh, not a victim — suspect is remaining on the scene,” she said.
Later, when Police Commissioner John Hayden came to the scene, where the TV news had set up, he sidestepped the Buffords, who were pleading to see their son, they say. Hayden wouldn’t stop to talk to them.
“The officer fired,” Hayden told reporters, and the people of St. Louis, on the news that night. “The officer’s not sure whether or not the suspect fired.”
By the time paramedics took Bufford’s body away, the winter grass was soaked with blood.
Officer #1 has a name: Lucas Roethlisberger. He is in his mid-30s, married with kids, originally from Nashville. A strong runner, Roethlisberger was a cross-country and track standout in high school and college, and he is a Saint Louis University alum.
A 13-year veteran of the SLMPD force, he holds the department’s highest honor, the Medal of Valor, and colleagues picked him as their Officer of the Year in 2010.
“We have a great department,” Roethlisberger told the St. Louis Fox affiliate in 2012. “Leadership, integrity … you live with it right in your chest, where your badge is.”
Roethlisberger earned these distinctions only a few years into his career after nearly dying from an on-duty shooting. A bullet ripped through the carotid artery in his neck. He was in a coma, had two strokes, and went through nine months of rehabilitation.
“He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t write, couldn’t feed himself,” his wife Courtney told the TV news. For weeks, she slept by his side on a cot in his hospital room.
In 2010, Roethlisberger and a partner stopped a car for traveling with its headlights off. When Roethlisberger tried to search Kim Cobb, a Black driver, he pulled a gun on the officers, shooting Roethlisberger in the neck. He fired again, hitting Roethlisberger’s bullet-resistant vest and his right arm. Roethlisberger’s partner was hit in the leg and returned fire, shooting Cobb in the back.
Cobb had no record, other than a marijuana possession arrest, and he was under the influence of marijuana the night he shot the officers, his attorney said.
Both officers survived. Cobb pleaded guilty to the assaults. His attorney proposed a sentence of 18 years. Cobb got four life sentences instead.
Circuit Court Judge Dennis Schaumann, in explaining his decision to the court, had his own theory for why Cobb shot his gun. “The officers were wearing blue, and no other reason,” Schaumann said. “This is happening too much in society. It’s got to stop.”
During his victim impact statement, a “palpably angry” Roethlisberger spoke with “clipped words,” a journalist reported.
“You are a coward,” Roethlisberger told Cobb. “I have kids, for God’s sakes. You could have killed me.”
Schaumann had more to say, scolding Cobb: “In this life, Mr. Cobb, we all have to make choices, and you made a horrible choice, first of all, by carrying a gun and second of all, for using it.”
Staring down Cobb, Courtney Roethlisberger asked him: “Was it worth it?”
After the hearing, Roethlisberger told reporters: “We got justice.”
In the years since Cobb’s sentencing, Roethlisberger has stayed out of the news, despite shooting at another Black man on St. Louis’s North Side.
A separate FIU investigation from January 2018 indicates that Roethlisberger fired at — and missed — Tremayne Silas after he allegedly pointed an assault rifle at him, according to Roethlisberger. After Silas fled his car during an attempted traffic stop, admittedly carrying a gun, Roethlisberger alone chased him on foot as other officers chased the car’s passenger and tried to cut Silas off. Roethlisberger told investigators that Silas pointed the gun at him before jumping a backyard fence. In an interview with investigators, Silas denied ever pointing his gun at officers and said that officers tased and “kicked the shit out of” him after he had surrendered. Civilian video footage obtained by investigators, which captured only part of the incident, shows Silas running away from Roethlisberger. The incident, which also took place at night in a residential area, was never publicly reported.
Even after Roethlisberger killed Bufford almost two years later, local reporters didn’t pick up on the fact that he was the shooter. His name appears in public records about the case, but he wasn’t otherwise identified as Bufford’s killer.
His public-facing reputation still intact, Roethlisberger’s interactions with Black citizens have remained fraught. He is one of 343 officers named in an ongoing federal lawsuit for “kettling” — a controversial law enforcement tactic that prevents people from dispersing — during the 2017 protests that followed SLMPD officer Jason Stockley’s acquittal for the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black man.
Roethlisberger has also received two citizen complaints that the department released. The first came from Colette Taylor-Moore in 2016, who said Roethlisberger called her teenage son off her mother’s front porch, harassing and threatening him with tasing if he didn’t come to him.
“He had a chip on his shoulder, an arrogance, like, ‘You can’t tell me anything.'”
“He was just on a mission,” Taylor-Moore remembers. “He had a chip on his shoulder, an arrogance, like, ‘You can’t tell me anything.’ He was brash, if you will. I would have understood his attitude more if he were being taunted or disrespected, but there was no need for any of that.”
The SLMPD would not release the outcome of Taylor-Moore’s complaint, but she reports that nothing happened in the case, except a call from someone who sounded high-ranking and explained that Roethlisberger had been investigating a disturbance on the block.
“That was not the truth,” Taylor-Moore said. “There was no one else there.”
In the complaint, Taylor-Moore says that Roethlisberger also harassed three other young men walking down that block, as her son later observed.
In a second citizen complaint filed by LaVictor Wallace in 2017, Roethlisberger was one of several officers accused of ripping out dreadlocks from the man’s head, after kicking in his girlfriend’s front door and forcing him to dress in her clothing.
“I was called a ‘bitch,’ so they said they’re going to dress me like one and gave me my girlfriend clothes,” Wallace wrote in the complaint. “I was beat and charged with a gun and drugs and they knew that I was innocent.”
The criminal charges stemming from Wallace’s arrest did not hold up in court. His complaint against Roethlisberger was withdrawn pending resolution of his criminal case, according to Civilian Oversight Board records. It does not appear that it was refiled. Roethlisberger did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Wallace did not respond to requests for comment.
The morning before Bufford died, his dad made him breakfast. Oatmeal, turkey sausage, cream of wheat, toast.
“I’m up every morning fixing him breakfast,” Antoine Bufford says, speaking in the present tense, as though Cortez is still there beside him. “That’s what I do every morning for him, seven days a week, make sure he has his breakfast.”
They ate together. Antoine Bufford was leaving that day to visit Cortez’s brother in Texas. He tried one last time to get his son to come with him, to leave town.
“You should go,” he pushed. A fresh start, he said. It’s not safe here, he warned.
“I’ve just got some things I need to do,” Cortez told him.
His son didn’t want to leave home. But when Bufford gets to thinking about it, he feels that he should have made him leave.
“You’re his father,” he tells himself. “Don’t let him make those kinds of decisions, even though he’s grown.”
But Cortez didn’t want to be forced out. He would try to reason with his parents. “Why do I have to uproot my life?” he said. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”
“Please stop! PLEASE stop!”
That’s what Roethlisberger said he remembers shouting as he chased Bufford into the gangway. Bufford turned around and faced him, Roethlisberger told investigators.
“At that time, I’m making a quick reaction in my mind that I need a back-up. I need the back-up. And then before I know it, that I’m backing up, I see him pulling the firearm from the bag and then turning over towards me and then at — ” Roethlisberger’s voice cracks with emotion in his police video interview.
He tries to start again: “And then at that time — ”
Another voice crack. Roethlisberger sits in silence with investigators for more than 30 seconds as he tries to regain his composure.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
Then another 15 seconds or so pass before he resumes.
“So, I know he’s pointing the gun at me. The first thing, I pull out my gun. I’m left-handed, grab hold of the gun. I run. I’m aiming with my sights, and I’m backing up, and I said, ‘Drop the gun! Drop the gun!’ as loud as I could. And then, fearing for my life, shot a round, and I’m just backin’ up, shooting, backing up, backing up, because there was no cover at all.”
The fatal tunnel.
Roethlisberger backed up all the way to the corner of one of the Bates houses, but he still had his gun pointing at Bufford when he saw his partner in the Tahoe pull up. He kept holding down the position “because he could start shooting at us,” Roethlisberger said.
Officer #2 — his name is Martinous Walls — was the first to come to the gangway. Other officers soon followed. He had originally tried to cut off Bufford’s path by driving close to the other side of the wood fence. After hearing the shots fired, he looped back around to Bates.
“Luke, where are you?” Walls called into the darkness from the Tahoe.
“I’m over here,” Roethlisberger said.
When Walls hopped out and walked the length of the gangway, all the way to the end, he found Bufford’s lifeless body. He could tell he wasn’t breathing and figured there wasn’t anything he could do to render aid other than call EMS, Walls later told investigators in a video interview. Walls did not respond to requests for comment.
Two other responding officers showed up to the gangway.
“What should I do?” Walls asked.
“Just put him in handcuffs,” one of the officers said.
Roethlisberger offered to do it himself: “If you’re going to put handcuffs on him, then I’m going to put handcuffs on him.”
“No, no, no,” the officer told him, pushing him away, according to Roethlisberger’s video interview. “Back up.”
Shortly after his lieutenant came to the scene, Roethlisberger retreated to the Tahoe. Then, when EMS arrived, he was shepherded to the ambulance so the paramedics could take his vitals. To make sure he was OK, Roethlisberger remembers. He took off his duty belt and uniform shirt. And his bulletproof vest.
While paramedics evaluated him, his lawyer had quickly arrived to counsel him, beating force investigators to the scene. Then he had to go back to police headquarters to take a drug test and breathalyzer, before being relieved of his duties, Roethlisberger says.
“I went back home,” he concluded his statement.
It was time to take the investigators’ questions.
“When he pulled out the gun, was that something you were expecting?”
Roethlisberger told them he was hoping it wasn’t going to happen like that, but the situation was getting serious. Worse and worse, he said, and Bufford just wouldn’t give up.
In response to a request for comment, the SLMPD emailed the following statement: “As to your request regarding the case involving the two officers mentioned, the department does not speak on prior or pending litigation.”
“We all carry out our prejudices,” said Alexa James, a police trauma specialist and CEO of Chicago’s chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness. “Fear is protective in many ways. It keeps us from things that have harmed us historically. But fear also reduces our opportunities to grow and expand and be uncomfortable.”
James has served on the Police Accountability Task Force in Chicago, created in 2015, in the wake of the dashcam video release of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times front and back by former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted for murder in 2018. In an interview for this story, James spoke in general terms about police mental health issues and trauma, though she did not review the Bufford case specifically.
Trauma changes the way we relate to other people. “Every single interaction you have and every experience you have, it colors the way that your lens of the world is. Period. End of story. It changes your perspective,” James said.
But trauma does not equal traumatized, nor does it lead to violence or reactivity, James explains. Individuals have different capacities for resilience: “We never know the trigger point of somebody, right? What is going to harm somebody and what is going to build resilience.”
Historically, police mental health services have not been well funded, but late in 2020, James became the new “senior advisor of wellness” to the Chicago Police Department, where she had previously provided trainings of officers for more than a decade. She also helped change the department’s policy for its Traumatic Incident Stress Management Program, where on-duty cops are referred after certain incidents.
“When you put two groups of people together that both feel really impacted by not having ownership and power and control, it gets really messy.”
“That cumulative trauma without any space in between to really debrief and process is not going to allow their brains to operate effectively because they’re in crisis mode,” James said. “They’re in fight or flight.”
A public safety issue itself, unaddressed trauma in officers is dangerous for both the individuals they engage with and themselves. Moreover, the collective trauma of officers interacts with that of communities they police, or overpolice.
“When you put two groups of people together that both feel really impacted by not having ownership and power and control, it gets really messy,” James said, noting also the significant equity issues for communities of color. “One group is starting with a deficit.”
In St. Louis, the police chief and then-mayor put out a joint statement in mid-2020, expressing support for the hiring of mental and behavioral health specialists to assist their officers. They added that de-escalation training, implicit bias training, and racial equity training had been mandatory since 2014 at the SLMPD and that officers are taught to use the least amount of force possible to bring an incident under control while protecting life. The use of deadly force, they wrote, is a last resort.
“The reverence of human life is paramount,” the statement reads. “The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department strives to serve the community by protecting life, preventing crime, and maintaining a peaceful culture through respecting the humanity, dignity and constitutional rights of every person.”
To that end, the department mandates that whenever possible, officers must identify themselves as police and state their intention to shoot — neither of which happened in the Bufford case.
In his video interview with investigators, Roethlisberger indicated that he had undergone some type of counseling after the shooting, saying that he had spoken to his “shrink” about what happened.
Today, there is one streetlight near the gangway where Bufford was slain, but it only sheds light on the pavement directly below it, not on the space between the two houses on Bates. At night, that space remains inky black and impenetrable to the eye.
“Can I see him? Let me identify him. Let me make sure that’s my son,” Tammy Bufford pleaded with officers on the night of December 12, 2019. She tried to cross over the police tape. They kept her away.
No one confirmed to the Buffords that the man killed by police was indeed Cortez until inadvertently, a day later, a detective called her, seeking information: “Do you have any witnesses? he asked. Do you have anything?”
“First of all, I don’t have anything because you haven’t even verified whether or not it’s my son,” she told them. “So, you’re calling me on the phone talking about ‘let me verify some information,’ instead of saying, ‘Is that my son? Can I see him?’”
It wasn’t until Lt. John Green stepped in and asked Antoine Bufford to come to the station that police confirmed that Cortez was dead. The Buffords weren’t allowed to identify him at the morgue, they say. Instead, they had to wait even longer for the morgue to transport the body to the family funeral home. But Tammy and Antoine Bufford didn’t have to see their son to know what had happened to him.
Right after the shooting, Phillips came to their door. He told them: “The police just killed Cortez.”
Investigators never spoke to him on scene, even though they interviewed other earwitnesses. No one, not the police, not the Circuit Attorney’s Office, has ever reached out to Phillips, he said.
When he saw Roethlisberger, gun drawn, chasing a Black man, he didn’t realize at first that it was Cortez. Nonetheless, Phillips yelled out to try to stop what was about to happen: “Don’t shoot him!”
The last thing he saw was the two men disappearing into the darkness.