In the last seconds of his life, Winston Smith Jr. started filming.
From the driver’s seat of a parked Maserati, 32-year-old Smith recorded on his cellphone as members of a U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force surrounded his car at an Uptown Minneapolis parking ramp and thumped on the windows, according to sources familiar with the video’s contents.
Smith ignored his passenger as she pleaded for him to go with the agents. “Just shoot,” he said, according to sources, and after a brief pause he pulled a handgun from the vehicle’s center console and began to raise it. Then gunfire and broken glass filled the car.
The 35-second video of the fatal June 3, 2021, encounter — which would remain undiscovered for more than two years — could have been a critical piece of evidence in the direct aftermath, as conflicting accounts of what precipitated the shooting fueled claims from protesters that Smith was “assassinated.” Did Smith pull a gun, or was he just raising his phone? Did the undercover task force announce itself? There was no bodycam or dash-camera footage to answer these questions.
The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the agency in charge of investigating law enforcement shootings in Minnesota, said it “wasn’t aware” of any video, and instead turned to the public for help finding footage. Though the BCA took possession of Smith’s phone after his death — and the government has possessed it since — sources say the state agency never found the video Smith had recorded.
Now, two years after the BCA closed its investigation, sources say Mark Lanterman, a private forensic expert hired as part of a civil case, has recovered the footage. Lanterman declined to comment. The video has still not been released to the public — or even acknowledged. The Star Tribune has not seen the footage, but sources who weren’t authorized to speak publicly described its contents.
The BCA did not immediately agree to a request for an interview Thursday, but in a statement, spokesperson Bonney Bowman said of the disclosure: “If … someone has additional evidence relevant to our investigation, we would appreciate it if they could contact us directly to provide us with that evidence.”
Reached for comment Thursday, Jeff Storms, an attorney representing the trustee for Smith’s family, declined to discuss the video.
“I’m not going to address the contents of any video that is the subject of this article, but what I will say is that transparency is so critical to justice, accountability and the healing of families,” he said.
Storms reiterated his disappointment that the task force agents were not wearing body cameras to capture the encounter. “We aggressively pursued all possible video evidence that could exist that would shed light on the killing of Winston Smith,” he said.
An attorney for Norhan Askar, the passenger in Smith’s car, declined to comment.
Wanted on a warrant
Smith’s death came at a turbulent moment in Minneapolis.
Seven weeks earlier, a jury had found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd. As Chauvin’s trial was streamed live across the world, a Brooklyn Center officer shot and killed Daunte Wright, another Black man, in a traffic stop, reigniting unrest that went on for a week and led state leaders to call in the National Guard.
It was just a week after the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s killing when the agents shot Smith in the middle of the afternoon.
Smith was wanted on a warrant for skipping a sentencing hearing after he pleaded guilty to illegal firearm possession. On May 24, the mother of his then-7-year-old daughter reported his location to Minneapolis police and said he was armed. She later told the Star Tribune that she exaggerated the danger Smith posed to get police to show up faster, but that they never arrived.
On June 3, a sheriff’s deputy monitoring Smith’s social media account saw him post from a lunch date at Stella’s Fish Cafe on Lake Street. The U.S. Marshals Service’s North Star Violent Offender Task Force agents surveilled Smith as he finished his meal and rode the elevator to the top of the parking ramp.
When he got into the Maserati, the agents boxed him in with their vehicles. The confrontation lasted only a few moments. When it was over, Smith was pronounced dead on the scene.
No body cameras in use
That there was no video of the shooting quickly created problems for the marshals.
The two agents who fired the fatal shots were deputies for the Ramsey County and Hennepin County sheriff’s departments, but the federal task force didn’t permit the use of body cameras. Sheriffs in Ramsey, Hennepin and Anoka counties all temporarily pulled their agents from the task force until the Marshals Service updated its policy.
Some protesters said they didn’t believe the marshals’ claim that Smith had a gun, pointing out that a Minneapolis police spokesman had initially called Floyd’s killing a “medical incident” before bystander video showed Chauvin pinning him by the neck. Skeptics of law enforcement’s version closed Uptown streets during rush hour and rallied outside the home of Ramona Dohman, then head of the U.S. Marshals Service in Minnesota, demanding her resignation. Rioters set dumpsters ablaze and looted shops, leading to dozens of arrests, as civil rights leaders called for the release of any video that could offer an objective view of the shooting. A drunk driver crashed into a crowd of protesters and killed a woman.
In July 2021, Smith’s passenger, Askar, said in a news conference that the agents never identified themselves as law enforcement. Though investigators recovered a handgun and cartridges fired by Smith, Askar said she only saw Smith holding a phone, which she presumed he was using to record the agents. Askar filed a lawsuit claiming the task force agents violated her civil rights by placing her in unneeded danger.
Crow Wing County Attorney Donald F. Ryan, who evaluated the BCA’s case file, ruled in October 2021 that the shooting was justified and that his office would not file charges against any of the agents. Smith’s family hired civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and asked for an independent investigation of the case.
This summer, the lawyers for Smith’s family and Askar requested that a private analyst examine the phone one more time to try to find evidence, leading to the video’s discovery.