Cherokee County teen shot by police sniper, parents speak out
(CBS ATLANTA) The parents of a 16-year-old suicidal boy spoke only with CBS Atlanta News’ Wendy Saltzman after their son was gunned down by a police sniper in Cherokee County in May.
Lisa and Nick Messina said their son was killed at the hands of the officers they called for help.
According to his parents, Andrew Messina had a bad day at school and the pressure was so overwhelming, he grabbed a gun and threatened to kill himself.
Lisa Messina called the cops in desperation, hoping an officer would come talk to him. But what arrived was an army of deputies, an armored tank and a sniper.
“We would still be sitting there today if it weren’t for that very, very aggressive act that he made of ramming the gun and a pistol straight through a glass door at our officers,” said Cherokee County Sheriff Roger Garrison, on the day after the shooting.
Garrison painted a picture of a dangerous gunman taking aim at his officers, and defended his sniper’s fire.
“Had that officer not taken the action, there is a good chance one of those negotiators that was there who also has a family, also would not be going home today,” Garrison said.
But the other side of this story has never been told before, a story about a boy described as a pacifist who some say was needlessly killed.
“Would you have ever called the police if you had known this could have happened?” Chief Investigative Reporter Wendy Saltzman asked Lisa Messina.
“That’s the one thing I would have done different today. I would not have called 911,” she said.
Andrew Messina’s parents are speaking out for the first time to tell what they say really happened to their son on May 1, 2012. They say their son had just gotten a bad grade at school.
“He just got sad and kind of down on himself and talked about running away. And that discussion turned to ending his life. And I wasn’t home,” Nick Messina said.
“It just happened so fast, and then he went upstairs. He has the gun in his hand, and he had bullets in the other hand,” Lisa Messina continued.
Andrew Messina picked up the phone and called 911.
“I need you to get away from him if you think he is going to shoot you,” the 911 operator said on the call.
“I think he is going to shoot himself,” Lisa Messina replied.
The operator told her to get out of the home, and Lisa Messina asked, “How many cars are coming? Just one, right?”
“I’m not sure,” the operator replied.
But next thing they knew a slew of officers arrived.
“They brought an army to take out a 16-year-old boy. To kill a 16-year-old boy,” Nick Messina said.
The teen was inside his home alone with no hostages. He had a 357 Magnum in his hand and was drinking and threatening to kill himself. He took a video of the events inside the home, including this conversation speaking to his father on the phone just minutes before he died.
“You can’t find anything worth living for with me?” Nick Messina asked his son.
“I don’t know,” Andrew Messina replied.
“Really?” Nick Messina asked.
“I do know personally I really don’t want to live. So you should just let this happen if you really love me,” his son said.
Law enforcement negotiators soon cut off that call and put their negotiator on the phone with the teen.
“They are still standing out there,” Andrew said. “Go away or do something, the tension is killing me.”
Deputies in combat gear surrounded the home, with the frightened teen inside.
“We thought that they would (be) experts in being able to diffuse the situation. And that was not what happened. Instead of the fire being put out, they brought gasoline,” Nick Messina said.
On the negotiation call, Andrew Messina said he wasn’t involved in a riot, rather he was angry.
“Is that a riot shield? Yeah, that’s a riot shield,” he said. “This isn’t a riot, this is one person who is pissed off.”
On the call, Andrew Messina also begged negotiators several times to speak with his father.
“Hey, where’s my dad? Isn’t he supposed to be here?” he said.
At the time, Lisa and Nick Messina were down the street, just a few feet away.
“That just bothers me more to think that my son was in here, by himself, minutes before his death, asking for me,” Nick Messina said, crying.
About 15 minutes before the fatal shot, Andrew Messina’s parents saw sniper Jason Yarbrough walk past them in camouflage, with his riffle over his shoulder.
“I couldn’t believe the gun he had,” Lisa Messina said. “I said, ‘Whoa, where is he going with that gun?'”
Yarbrough set up across the street in a neighbor’s yard, which he estimated to be 65 yards from his target. The sniper scope, focused on the front door, helped him to see clearly as if he was holding a gun from just five feet away.
“A minute later we heard this horrendous cannon shot and he was dead,” Nick Messina said.
“It was absolute shock and numbness, like no, there is no way they shot him. But they did,” Lisa Messina continued.
The sheriff said the teen made an “aggressive gesture” that caused a sniper to fire his weapon to protect law enforcement officers.
But new evidence presented only to CBS Atlanta News by the Nick and Lisa Messina’s attorney may tell a different story.
“We have not been able to find any justification whatsoever for that Cherokee County Sheriff sniper to shoot Andrew Messina. Zero,” said attorney Chuck Pekor.
Pekor is a former federal prosecutor and a former cop who has been scouring through the case to uncover evidence that Andrew Messina didn’t need to die.
“There is nobody in there with him. There is nobody at risk except himself. You just give it time, just wait,” Pekor said.
The standoff had gone on a little more than an hour when Andrew Messina was killed. The sheriff justified the fatal shot, saying the teen threatened his officers.
Andrew Messina was inside the house holding the gun, and hit the top pane of glass with the gun. Negotiators were standing outside the house behind a wall around the corner from the door.
In the Georgia Bureau of Investigation report, Yarbrough said he heard a “pop” that sounded like a gunshot and he observed Messina through his riffle scope pointing the pistol at deputies.
“Not a single officer out there, not a one, ever saw the gun come through the hole where the break was,” Pekor said, citing the GBI report.
Pekor argues that any trained law enforcement officer would know the difference between breaking glass and a 357 Magnum being fired. And not a single shot was ever fired from Andrew Messina’s weapon.
And Pekor says there’s another problem.
“He pretty much had his back to the negotiation team when he was shot. How could he possibly have been threatening them?” Pekor questioned.
The bullet came through the door while Andrew Messina was inside the home. The autopsy report says Andrew was shot in the right side of his abdomen, and the bullet exited the left side. According to that description, the teen was facing the opposite direction from where negotiators were outside the home.
Yarbrough was on the scene less than 20 minutes before he pulled the trigger and admitted he didn’t even know if there was a hostage inside.
Pekor and others are concerned the sniper acted in haste, without being properly briefed that Andrew Messina was a suicidal teen, not a hardened criminal.
“Obviously it was an act of aggression against him. And my perception of the situation was that he was not, himself, being aggressive,” said Susan Ehtesham, one of Andrew Messina’s former teachers.
“Would this make you hesitate to call the police?” Saltzman asked neighbor Leeanna Tucker.
“I would never call them for help now,” she replied.
An internal investigation by the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office and the district attorney both found there was no criminal wrongdoing by Yarbrough.
Saltzman made numerous attempts to interview the sheriff, the sniper and the commander on the scene, but the sheriff’s office refused, saying “The case is closed.”
But it’s far from closed for the family who has filed notice of their intent to file a lawsuit against the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office.