BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — There are "significant questions" over whether a man pulled over for a traffic stop shot a policeman before being killed by the officer's partner, a prosecutor said Wednesday as state authorities took over the investigation into the deadly encounter.
Buffalo Officer Joseph Acquino told investigators that he thought his ear was hit by a bullet during a struggle with Jose Hernandez-Rossy, Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said. Acquino's partner then shot Hernandez-Rossy. The bleeding 26-year-old father of three ran away but was found a short distance away and later died at hospital.
Police searched the residential neighborhood where the encounter unfolded, but they haven't found any weapon, raising the possibility that Hernandez-Rossy was unarmed. And authorities now aren't sure Acquino was shot at all.
Police officials have said the officers pulled over Hernandez-Rossy's vehicle Sunday for a traffic violation and that a struggle ensued when he became combative. Buffalo police have said Hernandez-Rossy fired once, and the bullet nearly tore off Acquino's ear. Surgeons reattached it Sunday night.
Police initially had no reason to doubt Acquino's account, Flynn said.
"After the course of our investigation over the past 48 hours, significant questions now exist" over whether it's true, Flynn said.
It's unclear how Acquino's ear was torn off. Tom Burton, an attorney for Buffalo's police union, told WBKW-TV that Acquino was not hit by friendly fire or struck by a bullet from his own weapon. He said no one is sure what caused the ear injury.
Local media reported that during the traffic stop Acquino leaned through the driver's-side window as Hernandez-Rossy attempted to drive away. The officer hung on as the car jumped a sidewalk, went through a hedge and hit the side of the house, the reports said. Messages left with the police department in an attempt to confirm those details weren't returned Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced it had taken over the investigation. A 2015 state law allows the attorney general to act as a special prosecutor when unarmed civilians are killed by police or if there are questions about whether a civilian was armed.
"We're committed to conducting an independent, comprehensive, and fair investigation," said office spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick.
Hernandez-Rossy's relatives placed balloons at a corner near where he was shot. His cousin Katherine Garcia told WKBW : "We do not know. We do not know what led to the stop and subsequent shooting."
Another cousin, Jessica Rossy, told WGRZ that relatives didn't think he Hernandez-Rossy was armed. "Only God knows the truth, and Jose isn't here to tell his side of the story," she said.