Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

January 24, 2013

Texas Rangers investigate death of man shot by Alto police officer

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

ALTO —

A man believed to be an ACCESS patient off his medication was shot and killed by an Alto police officer Wednesday evening after he apparently displayed a machete tucked in his waistband to a convenience store clerk as he stole a pack of cigarettes.

James Eric Griffin, 48, was a patient with Anderson Cherokee Community Enrichment Services, according to Alto resident Ironda Jenkins. The officer, Brandon Michael Smith, is on administrative leave with pay, based on Alto Police Department standard operating procedure, said Trooper Jean Dark, Texas Department of Public Safety public information officer.

At the conclusion of a Texas Ranger investigation, the report will be presented to the District Attorney, Dark said.

Jenkins said Griffin has lived in Alto all his life and used the machete for work. She said she managed to review the videotape of the incident at the Pick N Go at 100 S. Marcus Street before it was seized by authorities.

Additionally, Jenkins recorded her own interview about the incident with the store clerk on her HTC Windows Phone 8X cell phone. She shared that recording with reporters Thursday.

Jenkins said the videotape has no sound but shows Jenkins displaying the machete, taking the cigarettes and backing out of the store. She said it also shows another customer laying a $10 bill on the counter to cover the cost of the stolen cigarettes.

The other customer told Jenkins he asked the clerk to excuse the behavior of Griffin, who was acting strangely because he was off his meds, she said.

During the recorded interview, the clerk told Jenkins the victim was a regular at his store — someone he was fairly used to seeing every day. Sometimes, when the man lacked money for cigarettes, he would even let him have a pack and come back the next day with the money, the clerk told Jenkins.

However, after Griffin departed the store, the clerk called 911 about 4:40 p.m. Wednesday. The call went out to officers as an aggravated robbery, according to reports.

After leaving the store with the cigarettes, Griffin started walking along 69 south sidewalk until he reached a donut shop in the 200 block of US Highway 69 South. There, an officer stopped him, some type of confrontation ensued, and at least one fatal shot was fired.

Neighbors across the street from the donut shop said they heard about the shooting but did not witness anything. A man who owns a trailer parked adjacent to the donut shop said he arrived there at 7:30 Wednesday to find the investigation by authorities still in full swing.

"There were lights flashing, crime scene tape everywhere and the man's body still laying in the street," said Sonny Skeeters, 80, an Alto native. "There was maybe 150 people across the street, watching."

The shooting specifically will be investigated by Texas Ranger Sgt. W.R. "Rudy" Flores, who could not be reached to comment Thursday. A call to the Texas DPS was deferred to Dark, who sent out a press release with some basic information about the incident that did not specify how many shots were fired.

The man's body was sent to the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas County for an autopsy.

At a press conference held at city hall Wednesday afternoon, Alto Police Chief Jeremy Jackson said he did not speak to Officer Smith or debrief him about what happened before turning the case over to the Texas Rangers. As a result, the chief said there is little information he can provide about the incident or the investigation to reporters.

"As soon as I arrived on the scene, he was placed in safety," Jackson said. "I placed him in his patrol car."

Jackson said to his knowledge, this was the first officer-related shooting in Alto in at least a decade.

The police force was only reinstated about 13 months ago after having been sent on a six-month furlough, then fired and replaced in 2011.