CINCINNATI (AP) — A 911 caller who reported a man waving a gun in a Wal-Mart before police fatally shot him and found he had an air rifle he took from a shelf could be charged with making a false alarm, a judge ruled.
Fairborn Municipal Court Judge Beth Root ruled this week that there was sufficient evidence to show Ronald Ritchie could be prosecuted for the misdemeanor stemming from the Aug. 5 police shooting of John Crawford III in the Dayton suburb of Beavercreek.
Several citizens used an obscure state law to petition a judge to file charges against Ritchie. They submitted a copy of Wal-Mart surveillance video synchronized to the 911 call and alleged Ritchie violated several laws. The judge leaves it up to the Beavercreek city prosecutor to decide whether to charge Ritchie.
Calls to Fairborn City Solicitor Betsy Deeds, who prosecutes for Beavercreek, weren’t immediately returned Thursday.
Ritchie, of Riverside, couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. No current phone listing could be found for him.
Ritchie, the only person to call 911 from Wal-Mart before shots were fired, told police in his call that a man was walking around the store with what appeared to be a rifle, “pointing it at people” and “waving it back and forth.” In an interview the next day, Ritchie told authorities the man actually didn’t point the gun at others but swung it around and flashed the muzzle at children.
Ritchie and his wife told investigators the gun looked like an assault rifle he owned and said they believed it was real because they didn’t see an orange tip to indicate it was an air rifle.
Police have also said they believed Crawford, 22, had a real rifle and said he didn’t respond to commands to put it down.
Root noted the poor quality of the video that she said showed about four minutes of Ritchie’s call with accompanying footage of Crawford before police arrive. The video shows Crawford “swinging or waving an item in a casual manner while looking at a shelf at the time of the call,” the judge said.
“The court does note that at the time that Ronald Ritchie is relaying to dispatch that Mr. Crawford is pointing the gun at two children, the video does not depict this event,” the judge wrote.
She also notes that the sworn statements don’t indicate the citizens filing them have any personal knowledge of the “sequence of events” other than a review of the video.
The judge wrote that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to issue a criminal complaint against Ritchie for inciting violence, inducing panic, involuntary manslaughter or reckless homicide.
Crawford’s relatives and their attorneys have said Crawford posed no threat and have disputed Ritchie’s description of Crawford’s actions. A grand jury concluded the shooting by police was justified, and the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the case.
Crawford was black, and the officers are white.
An attorney for Crawford’s immediate family said Ritchie was “gravely mistaken,” but they hold the police responsible for what happened.
“It’s the police’s duty to show up and assess the situation prior to taking any type of action,” attorney Michael Wright said Thursday.
Crawford’s family has sued the police and Wal-Mart, but Ritchie isn’t named as a defendant.
Legal experts say the law allows private citizens to make complaints, and a judge can review them and make a recommendation.
“But the prosecutor is under no obligation to bring charges,” said Ric Simmons, an Ohio State University criminal law professor. “It would have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the caller knew what he was calling in hadn’t occurred.”
Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a criminal law professor at the University of Dayton, said it would be difficult to prove Ritchie “knowingly caused a false alarm.”
Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus contributed to this report.