When a police officer shoots and kills someone — and there aren’t any witnesses — can we trust the police to investigate themselves?

This week on Intercepted: Antoine and Tammy Bufford’s son, Cortez Bufford, was shot and killed by a St. Louis police officer in 2019. Nearly two years later, the city is still investigating Cortez’s case. No charges have been filed. And the Bufford family is still looking for answers. The police kill more people per capita in St. Louis than in any other American city. Seventy-two percent of these people are Black, like Cortez.

The Chicago-based Invisible Institute recently partnered with The Intercept to examine the circumstances of Cortez’s death. Their resulting investigation, reported by Alison Flowers and Sam Stecklow, sheds new light in the search for truth about this police killing.

 

Jack D’Isidoro: A warning to our listeners: This episode contains audio of graphic violence and police brutality. Listener discretion is advised.

[Theme music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

JD: I’m Jack D’Isidoro, lead producer for Intercepted. 

When a police officer shoots and kills someone, and we don’t see it happen, can we trust the police to investigate themselves? 

That is what Antoine and Tammy Bufford were asked to do. Their son, Cortez, was shot and killed by the St. Louis Police in 2019. 

The police kill more people per capita in St. Louis than in any other American city; 72 percent of these people are Black, like Cortez. 

Nearly two years later, the city is still investigating Cortez’s case. No charges have been filed, and the Bufford family is still looking for answers.

The Chicago-based Invisible Institute recently partnered with The Intercept to examine the circumstances of Cortez Bufford’s death. The resulting investigation, reported by Alison Flowers and Sam Stecklow, is called “The Fatal Tunnel: Police Killing in St. Louis Remains Shrouded in Darkness.” Here’s the story.

Police Officer: This is a recording of an incident occurring on the evening of December 12, 2019 in the area of 535 Bates. The first portion of this recording, we’re going to be monitoring the radio transmissions on the mobile reserve canine channel. The time is 21:14. 

Police Officer: Hey guys. Where you at? 

Police Officer: North. North. North. He got a gun. 

Police Officer: Where you at? 

Police Officer: We’re on Bates. He’s running North. He’s got a handgun. Sorry, he’s running South. 

Police Officer: Agent Grants? 

Police Officer: Where are you? 

Police Officer: North of Vermont. 

Police Officer: We got shots fired. 

Police Officer: Shots fired, shots fired. 

Police Officer: Where are you, where are you? 

Police Officer: Over [indistinct] and Bates. 

Dispatcher: [indistinct name] is expediting, do we have a description? Are my officers accounted for? 

Police Officer: We need an EMS, urgent. 

Dispatcher: For an officer or a suspect? 

Police Officer: For the suspect! For the suspect! The officer is OK.

Dispatcher: EMS is responding. District 1 is en route. Are all mobile officers accounted for? [Fades out.]

Alison Flowers: 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. 

The medical examiner who performed Bufford’s autopsy ruled the manner of his death a homicide. That part is no mystery. Bufford’s shooter has always been known to police, because he is the police. Or, as reports referred to him, Officer #1.

Lt. John Green: OK, Officer #1. My name is Lt. John Green. This is Sgt Troy Robinson. We’re members of the Force Investigative Unit and we’re here relative to the incident that occurred at 535 Bates on December 12, 2019 around 9:22 p.m. [fades out].

AF: 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. 

In the blackness of the gangway their fears collide. As space and focus narrow, it’s hard to discern who exactly is in control of their actions anymore and who is captive on a neurological train of events with lethal momentum, an incident mired in political and sociological implications, where perspective dictates who plays the role of the victim and the offender.

JG: Officer #1, if you could just start from where the beginning is, and then go all the way through it. I will not interrupt you. And I will ask some follow-up questions afterwards. OK?

Lucas Roethlisberger: First off, I’m assigned to a specialized unit called the Mobile Reserve Unit. We patrol the whole city of St. Louis. That particular day, we were trawling close to an area of the Dutchtown neighborhood, focusing as [there was] a recent shooting two days before this incident, where a 14-year-old was shot at the Bates gas station. 

AF: 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. 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. 

JD: I’ll just have you start with introducing yourself.

AF: My name is Alison Flowers. I’m the director of investigations at the Invisible Institute.

JD: Can you describe to me the circumstances which led Cortez Bufford and who I’ll identify as Officer #1 — what were the circumstances that led these two people to converge?

AF: Cortez was out with a friend, just hanging out, riding, as 24-year-olds like to do. And he and his friends stopped at a BP gas station in the southeast part of St. Louis. [Gas station interior noises.] On his way out of the station, Cortez went to the back of the store — maybe he was smoking a cigarette, maybe he was taking a leak, we don’t really know. 

So that’s when two men in a Tahoe who were across the street in a vacant lot, pulled up to Cortez and confronted him.

LR: While we were stationary or stopped, I observed the suspect. He was standing in the front of the store. Once he recognized our vehicle was there, he walked from the front of the store, and as he decided to walk around the corner, where there would be what I would call an alley, that was kind of suspicious to me and my partner, that’s Officer #2, and that’s when I saw the suspect with his legs spread open, like he was peeing in public, in position.

I rolled down the window, and then, at that time, I said “Hey! Stop peeing.” He looked over back at me, adjusted his — I guess — the waist area, and that’s when he turned around, he’s looking right at me. And now I can see him a lot better. I can see what he was wearing. And I see that he has a bag that is underneath, a jacket over it. That, right there, kind of indicated in my mind that he might be carrying something. Because in my training experience, I’ve made several, several arrests with guns and narcotics, with these types of man-bag satchels. I said to myself, well, I’m going to go out and talk to this guy. 

At the time I got out, he immediately started running.

AF: Cortez was afraid of the police. He was a trauma survivor of police violence. When one of the men got out of the car, he immediately took off running. The officer almost immediately draws his weapon.

LR: He’s running briskly, fast. He’s holding to the front of them, which is another indicator in a sense that he was carrying something heavier. My partner, Officer #2, drove to cut him off, he didn’t see him, and he ran into the patrol car.

AF: Cortez and the Tahoe collide. There are different accounts of what happened, either the Tahoe hit him or he hit the Tahoe, but then Cortez gets up and keeps running.

LR: And that is when I can see the extended magazine that is hanging out, pointing out of the bag. So as I’m chasing him, he ran towards, there was a tall fence, the fence was taller than him, he could not get over the fence. 

AF: So he runs into one gangway. He can’t clear the fence. He scuffles with the officer.

LR: Normally if there’s a firearm there, I quickly grab ahold of his shoulder to try to take him down on the ground. He resists and grabs onto my arm, and swings me off. 

AF: And then he runs across to the other gangway, and presumably couldn’t clear the fence again.

LR: He stopped, turns around, grabs a hold of — to — the firearm and that now he’s facing me like this, in this stance, with his left arm out like that.

AF: And that’s when the officer, without a flashlight, in a completely dark gangway said he saw Cortez, who had no record of violence, point a gun at him. 

LR: And then before I know it, I’m backing up, I see him pulling the firearm from the bag, and then turning over towards me. 

AF: And the officer said he feared for his life, that this man he had chased down into the gangway and pointed his gun at was threatening him. And so he shot him. 

LR: And then — and then at the time [voice breaking, and he pauses.]

JG: Take a moment to conduct yourself. It’s OK. 

LR: I’m sorry. I know he’s pointing a gun at me, and the first thing, I pull my gun out, I’m left-handed, 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 then just backing up, shooting, backing up, backing up. Because there was no cover at all. No cover, two houses right there, and I got all the way to the corner of the house. 

And then I have my gun still withdrawn, and I’m still pointing it at him as he fell on the ground, and I look out of the corner of my eye, and I see Marty in the patrol vehicle, and I yell at him, “Get EMS! Get EMS!” I don’t know how long, but we decided, “We gotta put handcuffs on him.” And then I decided, “I’m going to put cuffs on him.” And then, at the time, Nash said, “No no, back up, back up.” And that’s when they pushed me away from where he was at.

JD: What were the police doing at this BP gas station in the first place?

AF: At that particular BP, two days prior, there had been a shooting. 

Newscaster: Overnight in South St. Louis, police now say a teenager who was shot is 14-years-old, not 15 as first reported. The teenager was shot in the neck near a gas station on Bates near Virginia. Police say he is in critical but stable condition. 

AF: And so these police officers were patrolling the area for that reason. Both officers belong to this unit called the Mobile Reserve Unit. MRU is a crew of roving tactical officers that responds to crime hotspots. They’re not assigned to any district, they can go anywhere they want in the city, and this unit has been around for more than 60 years. These guys are known as the cowboys of the police department, the jump-out squad. 

They have a history of unconstitutional police practices, so lots of complaints over the years of descending on people, harassing people, holding guns to people’s heads, heavy-handed tactics that operates like a blunt tool on violent crime in St. Louis. 

Cortez Bufford himself is a survivor of police violence. He was tased, and beaten, and kicked by officers during a traffic stop where he made a legal U-turn.

Newscaster: Watch as a group of St. Louis Police drag a young man from his car during an arrest. And then later one of them walks back to the camera and turns it off. 

Officer: Everybody hold up. We’re red right now, so if you guys are worried about cameras, just wait.

Newscaster: Red, police slang for rolling camera, and just like that the video ends. It’s only coming to light tonight because the suspect in the car is suing police. The police were responding to reports of gunfire and 18-year-old Cortez Bufford was refusing to get out of the car. He’s kicked and shot twice with a stun gun. Bufford’s lawyers are suing for an unspecified amount, alleging excessive force.

AF: That was just four months before Michael Brown’s death. And he earned a small settlement against the police department, about $20,000, I believe. But his lawyer warned him that he would be a target in the future. 

JD: So tell me who shot and killed Cortez?

AF: Cortez Bufford’s killer is Officer Lucas Roethlisberger and his identity as the shooter was not publicly known until our reporting. 

Lucas Roethlisberger is in his mid-30s. He’s married with kids. He’s been on the force for about 13 years. 

What’s unusual about this case is that officer Roethlisberger has his own very traumatic backstory. In 2010, he was shot by a citizen during a traffic stop and he almost died. He was in a coma, had strokes, he could have been paralyzed. It was a very traumatic event for him and his family. 

After the shooting, he received the superintendent’s Medal of Valor. He was named Officer of the Year by his colleagues. He’s actually stayed out of the news, despite having a troubling record of complaints alleging abusive interactions with Black citizens. 

So in one 2016 complaint, he’s accused of threatening a teenage boy who was standing on his porch. And he threatened him with tasing if he didn’t come down and talk to them. 

In another complaint from 2017, Roethlisberger was among a group of officers accused of ripping dreadlocks out of a man’s head, and kicking in his girlfriend’s door, and then forcing this man to dress in her clothing, presumably to humiliate him. 

So Roethlisberger certainly has this very troubling track record with Black citizens, despite his own traumatic backstory, and being a celebrated police officer in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. 

The two officers in this case were interviewed about a month after Cortez’s killing. What happens in St. Louis is when the officer is ready to talk, that’s when force investigators can interview him. And so the two officers were interviewed separately, but on the same date, a month after the shooting.

JG: Start from the beginning, and go all the way through to the end. 

Officer #2: On that evening, me and Officer #1 were just assisting, we had just finished assisting [fades out] —

AF: And you know, that really allows ample time to potentially align and inoculate their accounts from criminal implications. And so the two accounts are actually strikingly similar in detail, particularly around establishing that Cortez had a gun, and that the two officers both saw the extended magazine of his gun. 

O2: I believe Officer #1 told me that he had a satchel at that time under his jacket or coat, and it appeared to be heavy, like it had a weighty object in it, possibly a firearm. When he gets out, his bag is kind of open, his arms are up, and I could see what I thought at the time was the extended magazine of a handgun sticking out the top of his bag. So I immediately got on the radio and I started telling them, “Hey, he’s got a handgun, guys. He’s worth chasing. He’s got a pistol.” 

AF: What happened between Cortez Bufford and Officer Lucas Roethlisberger, only the officer lived to tell. But even if there had been eyewitnesses, the gangway was too dark to see anything, which is what his partner says.

Investigator: How was the lighting in that gangway?

O2: It was very dark. 

Investigator: Did you have to use a flashlight to see down it? 

O2: Yes, I did. 

Investigator: OK. When you first got to it, the gangway, did you have your flashlight on?

O2: No. I did not. 

Investigator: How far could you see? 

O2: I could not see in the gangway. It was very dark. I can’t recall. I remember dropping my flashlight as I got out of the car, to go run to Officer #1. I don’t remember how far I could see down. I can definitely tell it was somebody laying down, though.

AF: And, to an extent with what Roethlisberger says before force investigators kind of circle back, point out that he said it was really dark and that he didn’t have a flashlight.

JG: It was dark back there. Did you have any light or anything?

LR: No, I did not have a chance to retrieve my flashlight from my pants.

JG: OK. 

LR: Because the fact that he had a firearm was more important for me, that I had control with both my hands free.

AF: And then they say, “Well, how was your vision in that?” And now he seems to register that point of emphasis in the interview. His lawyer certainly did. His eyes kind of dart up to see what Roethlisberger was going to say and do. And Roethlisberger says, “I could see, I could see.”

JG: I know it was pretty dark. How was your vision in that?

LR: I could see. I could see. 

JG: OK. You sure? 

LR: I’m sure. 

JG: OK. Which hand was he holding the gun in? 

LR: It was his right hand. His right hand. 

[Somber music.]

JG: What were you thinking at that time? 

LR: I believed that he was going to pull out a firearm and point it at me?

JG: It was something you were expecting?

LR: I was hoping that it was not going to happen like that. I thought back there, at Virginia, he would have given up there. I thought back there at the other two houses, that he would have gave [sic] up there. But it was just getting more serious, and it was getting worse and worse. The fact that he kept squaring up at me, that when you’re pulling what I know was a firearm coming from the bag, that he was going to point a firearm at me and shoot at me.

AF: Officer Roethlisberger says he saw Cortez turn and pull his gun out of his shoulder bag and point it at him. 

JG: Did he fire any shots? 

LR: That, to my mind, I thought he did shoot at me. In my mind, I thought he was shooting at me too. 

JG: OK.

LR: Because it was weird, the sequences of it. I remember “Pop. Pop. [Small pause.] Pop. Pop.” It wasn’t a smooth “pop, pop, pop, pop.” But I was also backing up, retreating for cover. So I believe that he was shooting at me. 

AF: And he didn’t know how many shots he fired at the time. He also thought that Cortez was shooting at him.

JG: Do you think he fired first or did you fire first? 

LR: I think we were both about the same time [laughs]. At the same time. 

JG: OK. Alright. And you didn’t have any cover? 

AF: So his testimony is already unreliable because we know that Cortez did not fire at him. But we’re supposed to believe that Cortez pointed his gun at him and that he could have seen that in the very dark gangway without a flashlight. When his partner looped around after the shooting and called to him, got out of the Tahoe and approached the gangway and called to him, he said, “Luke! Where are you? Where are you?” Because he couldn’t see him. It was so dark.

O2: I’m driving on Bates. And I got all of my windows down. And I’m yelling out the window, just as loud as I can, “Where are you? Where are you guys?” And he says, “I’m over here. I’m over here. Get EMS now.” It was dark, so I ran to him, and I asked him if he was OK and if he needed an EMS or an ambulance, and he said, “No.” He was fine. He said, “Call for him ASAP.”

AF: And furthermore, there were two other officers at that point alongside the Tahoe when Cortez fell on the ground. They were interviewed within 24 hours of the shooting. And so it’s interesting that neither of those officers noted a gun protruding from Cortez’s bag at that point. It’s only the shooter, Officer Roethlisberger, and his partner — who were interviewed a month later — who noted the presence of Cortez’s gun.

Let’s keep in mind that these investigations start out with the police investigating themselves with the Force Investigation Unit inside the police department, and they’re basically tasked with investigating their colleagues and their peers. 

Meanwhile, we conducted our own investigation from September 2020 to publishing this story. The officer’s account of Bufford facing him when he was shot is really complicated by Bufford’s position on the ground that we see in sketches and photos, after having fallen forward onto his stomach. Officers disrupted the scene, they said that they rolled him over from being on his stomach and, at that point, that’s when they saw the gun beneath him, they reported, and they kicked it out of the way. And then they handcuffed him. 

So when force investigators get to the scene, they don’t really have a clear picture of how the scene originally was. But according to the officers who came to the gangway after Roethlisberger shot Cortez, Cortez had fallen forward onto his stomach. That detail is important because Cortez was shot front and back by the officer. That indicates that he may have been originally running away and shot in his back when the officer shot him.

We reached out to the police department to give the officers every opportunity to respond to this story. And the police department said that, “As to your request regarding the case involving the two officers mentioned, the department does not speak on prior or pending litigation.” They were not going to avail the officers to speak to us. We, you know, reached out to the officers, and their associates, and their shared lawyer, and we were not able to get any sort of response.

St. Louis has the highest rate of police killings in the country. That’s per capita. And that means that there is a backlog of police shooting investigations. 

There’s been no resolution in this case. Cortez’s case is sitting in a pipeline of investigations. The family is in this purgatory of unsolved cases. Everything is in bureaucratic limbo. And Cortez’s case isn’t alone. More than 20 other police shooting investigations have yet to receive a ruling and since then, it’s just been sitting. 

Tammy Bufford: I’m Tammy. It’s T-A-M-M-Y. My husband is Antoine, A-N-T-O-I-N-E B-U-F-F-O-R-D. 

AF: I first talked to the Bufford family on the anniversary of Cortez’s death. It was December 12, 2020.

Antoine Bufford: We are extremely close, me and Cortez. I fix his breakfast every morning, make sure he eats, make sure he goes back and forth to work when he wrecked his car, those are the things that I look forward to spend that kind of time with him. It’s just hard. It’s just a hard thing to deal with processing every day.

TB: We would always sit down and let them know that although they’ve taken an oath to protect and serve, there’s still some police officers out there that just look at you by the color of your skin. We kind of informed him of what his rights was.

AB: We’d have to have these talks with our kids to try to get them home safe. Why do we have to have these talks? It still don’t protect them, even though we give them these thoughts, no matter what they do, they’re still shooting our kids, whether they got a gun, they don’t have a gun, no matter where they are coming from. 

TB: It’s simply because of the color of their skin. My son was at the gas station, he had just went in and made a purchase. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. But he feared for his life because the police constantly harassed him. So he ran. And the officer’s first thing is he pulls the gun and say, “Oh, I fear for my life.” How do you fear for your life if he’s running away from you? At what point was there a threat? At what point was there a threat?

AB: ‘Cause it was like, he was target practice. They were just doing it, did it like target practice, the way he was shot. That’s how you can tell, the way he was shot. 

But if you just shot a man in the leg and shot his finger off, and then shot him twice in the cheek, why are you still shooting this man? What is the point that you’re still shooting this man? So that tells you something real fishy about that. 

It’s heartbreaking. It hurts. How are you handcuffing a man you shot eight times? Eight times! You know? It’s terrible. 

TB: That police officer needs to go to jail. He does not need to be on the force. You took an oath to protect and serve the community. You did not take an oath to be judge, jury, and executioner.

AF: We really need to scrutinize this account from the officer who said that Cortez pulled a weapon in the second gangway. And that’s why he had to shoot him front and back and fire eight times because he feared for his life. We have to scrutinize this account, given that he wasn’t using his flashlight to see, and his partner who later joined him said it was too dark to see anything. And the other reason to scrutinize this is the officer thought things happened that did not happen. He thought Cortez fired at him. And he didn’t.

You have two people who have two different lived experiences and very strong internal narratives about the other. This is not just another police-shooting investigation. This is also an exploration of a larger theme, which is the interaction of these parallel traumas of officers and those they police — or rather, overpolice. And in this case, you have two deeply traumatized individuals. They’re both reportedly and legally carrying guns. One of them chases the other down, and they end up in the darkness of a narrow gangway with catastrophic results. 

JG: OK. Alright. And you didn’t have any cover? 

LR: I had no cover. Just the two houses right there, it was open. You know, they called the old fatal tunnel, basically. 

AF: Actually, the term for it is, in law enforcement lingo and close-combat training is “fatal funnel,” but the officer, in his interview, says “fatal tunnel.” Tunnel vision is such a precise way of thinking of what happened, because Cortez is fleeing for his life and, to the extent that the officer did, in fact, fear for his life, if he believes he saw Cortez point the weapon at him or, as he reports, he believed that Cortez even fired at him — and we know that that didn’t happen. But in that sort of tunnel vision, who really is in control of their actions anymore?

It was really an absurd law enforcement occasion. That, you know, this was not a police encounter that needed to happen. Bufford was maybe urinating behind a gas station. Police themselves are sometimes a threat to public safety — especially if you are a Black citizen like Cortez Bufford. And if they had never stopped, the world would have kept on turning, even if he was urinating behind the gas station. The world would have kept on turning; Cortez would still be alive if the police had just left him alone. 

It’s just common sense to reduce these trivial interactions with law enforcement, because they produce deadly outcomes again and again. And that’s what happened with this pedestrian check on December 12, 2019. This pedestrian check swiftly turned deadly.

JD: That was Alison Flowers of the Invisible Institute. The story, which she reported with Sam Stecklow, is called “The Fatal Tunnel: Police Killing in St. Louis Remains Shrouded in Darkness.”

And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.

On June 30, at 6 p.m., The Intercept and the Invisible Institute are hosting a live virtual event featuring Alison Flowers and the host of the podcast Somebody, Shapearl Wells. 

You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is me, Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. 

Until next time, I’m Jack D’Isidoro.