Jamaal Simpson was shot at least 18 times. His family still does not know why.
In the early morning hours of August 1, 2019, two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies shot and killed 21-year-old Jamaal Michael Simpson without attempting to speak with or detain him. He was a passenger in a car that deputies pursued through a neighborhood at speeds that did not exceed 30 miles per hour, according to witnesses. When he attempted to get out of the car, Simpson was shot at least 18 times. The bullets left gaping holes in his legs and groin, shredded his arms, and blew off the tip of one of his fingers. The fatal shot went through his neck, tearing through his mouth and dislodging his teeth. For one of the deputies, it was the second time he killed someone in just over a year. He still appears to be working in the neighborhood, according to residents.
A friend of Simpson’s, who we will refer to as “James” to protect his identity, was there that night. He was a close companion of Simpson’s for most of his young, short life. James remembers Simpson as a popular guy who was beloved by his community and had a deep love for music. “Everywhere we go, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, what’s up bro?’ It was like, he’s a superstar in his own right… that was a big blow, he was a very central part in our community.”
Simpson’s mother had always longed for a son, say her two daughters, Jovani and Jade Elliston. When he was born, Jade says he immediately brought joy into the house. “Jamaal anchored us and made us feel like a family instead of the dysfunction,” Jovani agrees. He was by far the most spoiled child during their time growing up together in the Crenshaw area. The two girls say their mother and Simpson were the best of friends, spending every possible moment with each other. “She was everything to his world.”
Sadly, Simpson’s mother died suddenly on the same day of his graduation ceremony from elementary school in 2009. She had been planning to be there. “That was his main problem,” his father Michael Simpson says. “He was really a mama’s baby, every time you saw him you saw her.” Despite losing his mother, Simpson grew into a man that those who knew him describe as a “warm soul.” Simpson was one to make those close to him feel loved, too. His father says that his son would call him to check up regularly and ask if he needed anything. “I don’t get that call no more.”
The night of Simpson’s death started out like many others. James and Simpson were at a friend’s house, smoking and having casual conversation. Simpson wanted to run an errand to cash a check, and asked James for a ride. James says he hesitated. It was late, and he makes a point not to drive at night because of harassment from law enforcement. “The police are the most treacherous at night under the cover of darkness,” he says. Eventually, he relented and agreed to drive Simpson. It was the last ride they took together.
James says that the two young men first headed to La Brea Avenue and Century Boulevard to PLS Check Cashers. When they left, James pulled off onto Century and drove east to the left hand turn lane on Prairie Avenue and an LASD vehicle with two deputies inside pulled up next to them and turned on their high beams. The street sits inside the border of the city of Inglewood, where the Inglewood Police Department has jurisdiction, not the LASD. James says he and Simpson were immediately uneasy.
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, they had both seen friends and family regularly harassed by law enforcement, and had frequently been targets themselves. They were afraid that they were about to be pulled over. As James began to drive, he watched the police maneuver through traffic to get behind his car. James drove north on Prairie further into Inglewood, but the vehicle continued behind them. James says the vehicle’s siren lights remained off. Simpson began to panic in the car, as he had a prior criminal record. James says Simpson asked him to continue driving, and implied that he had a gun. The sheriff’s vehicle continued to speed behind them, even driving against traffic in an attempt to run them off of the road. “He was so close I could see them through the window on my side of the door.”
As James approached Florence Avenue, he and Simpson planned to drive to a friend’s home nearby. When they crossed West Boulevard, they exited the jurisdiction of the Inglewood Police Department and into that of the Los Angeles Police Department, still without an explanation as to why the County Sheriff’s deputies were pursuing them. As the two of them approached the intersection of 67th Street and West Boulevard, he says that Simpson attempted to quickly exit the car, but the deputies in pursuit maneuvered their vehicle so close to his that it forced Simpson to shut the door. James continued to drive in search of a safe place for his friend to exit. He made a right on South Victoria Avenue, then made a right on 71st Street. As James turned the car going about 20 miles per hour, he says the deputies attempted to hit him again. James continued on and approached a one-way road with a street block, telling Simpson to jump out at the point where the road ended. He says he initially planned to jump out of the car as well, but his foot became trapped under the brake pedal. Simpson exited and began to run. Once James righted himself, he drove back east on 71st Street. He called a friend in the area and told him to immediately track down Simpson.
The LASD claimed in a Transparency Report that only one deputy attempted to stop an SUV with expired registration at Prairie Avenue and Century Boulevard. The LASD goes on to allege that the deputy followed the SUV from a distance until the vehicle briefly yielded near 71st Street and Brynhurst Avenue. Simpson ran west on 71st Street as the vehicle traveled eastbound on 71st Street and “out of view.” The deputy charged that when he chased Simpson on foot, Simpson turned and attempted to shoot him. That contradicts an account provided by LASD Homicide Detective Steve Blagg, who is investigating the case. Simpson’s autopsy report, obtained by Knock LA, states that Blagg reported multiple deputies were in the county vehicle and participated in the incident, and their gunfire damaged at least two vehicles parked on the street. No bullets were recovered from where Simpson’s alleged fire would have landed. Simpson was struck at least 18 times by deputy gunfire. Sworn LASD personnel carry either a .38 revolver with 12 rounds in the magazine or a Beretta 9mm gun with 15. To strike Simpson 18 times with gunfire, a single deputy would have had to reload his weapon or two would have had to fire at once.
Four witnesses who spoke with Knock LA, whose identities are being protected for their safety, say that Simpson did not have a weapon in his hands. One woman who observed the entire encounter said that she never saw the deputies attempt CPR. Three people stated that they saw deputies pick up Simpson’s body and drag it several feet.
“I feel like he was murdered mainly because there were bullet casings as far as 30 feet from his body and as close as five feet, which indicates to me they stood over him and shot him,” says Jaaye Person-Lynn, an attorney for Simpson’s father. He also stated that LASD has not provided the reason why Simpson was targeted. At the time of his death, Simpson was out on bail for a pending robbery charge and had been cooperating fully with the court. It’s unclear and unlikely that this had anything to do with the pursuit. “If you are attempting to stop the driver for a vehicle code violation, the passenger has nothing to do with that. It’s between the officers and the driver,” Person-Lynn says. The LASD declined to comment on this story.
The LASD Transparency Report named one of the deputies who was involved in the shooting as Gregory Van Hoesen. On February 4, 2018, just over one year prior to Simpson’s death, Van Hoesen shot and killed 16-year-old Anthony “AJ” Weber in a shooting that rocked the Westmont neighborhood. Van Hoesen fired at least 13 times and claimed that Weber had a gun. No weapon was ever recovered, but the Sheriff’s Department did insist on pushing the unfounded notion that a gun was taken from Weber’s body by a bystander while deputies stood by and allowed them to disappear into a gathering crowd. “The Anthony Weber case is one of the most disturbing cases I worked on,” says Eric Valenzuela, an attorney for Weber’s family. “Because of the sheer amount of how many times he was shot, but then this cover-up that they did after.” He says that after Weber’s death, the LASD personnel reviewed Weber’s Facebook page and found an old photo of a friend of his holding a gun. The gun in the photo was then described as the same weapon Deputy Van Hoesen claimed to have seen in Weber’s waistband. “I’ve always found that to just be mind boggling.”
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a payment of $3.75 million on May 14, 2019, to settle a lawsuit brought by Weber’s family. Just a little over two months later, Deputy Van Hoesen killed again. Before being contacted for this article, Simpson’s sister had no idea that Deputy Van Hoesen had killed their brother, or that he had killed before. It doesn’t appear as though Van Hoesen has been disciplined for either shooting. No criminal charges have been filed by Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon, who declined to comment for this story.
Eleonora Ericastilla was in her bed early on the morning of August 1, 2019, when she heard a burst of gunfire. She spoke to Knock LA in Spanish while her grandson translated. The two of them live in a home near Simpson’s shooting with other family members. Ericastilla says very quickly after she heard the shots, deputies came into her home without a warrant, threatening to deport the family if they did not cooperate. Ericastilla is an American citizen. They ordered her and her family out of the kitchen, where a monitor for the cameras of their elaborate home security system was set up. Several cameras on the outside of the house pointed into the street, and three of them had picked up the pursuit and fatal shooting. Ericastilla says within an hour a department specialist arrived at her home and began working, forbidding the family from watching them. Some family members went back to sleep, but Ericastilla stayed awake to keep an eye on what was happening both in and outside her home. “It was an abuse of power with a uniform and a badge.” When the LASD personnel left hours later, they took all of the footage with them. Ericastilla says the cameras have not worked since.
Michael Simpson saw his son for the last time a few hours before he was killed. He says that his son and James dropped him off at a motel where he was staying, just south of the shooting. Around 1 AM he received a frantic phone call from his son’s girlfriend who told him that Jamaal had been followed by police. Michael Simpson walked over to a perimeter set up by the LAPD at the intersection of Florence Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard. “The police when he saw me, he knew who I was because he could tell who my son was. He said, ‘You’re his father, huh?’… I ain’t been right since.”
When Jade Elliston arrived a few hours later, she saw the streets taped off and deputies “huddled in a circle like a gang.” She says that she had experience with street gangs in her younger years, and recognized the behavior. Jovani agrees, and says that she heard about deputy gang members in the nearby Lynwood area. Community members gathering at the scene told the two of them about the deputy gangs at the Lennox station. “It gave me the chills because I knew that they had murdered my brother. I felt it.” As she stood by waiting for information, news reporters badgered her asking what her brother had done to provoke the deputies. LASD personnel began to harass her, asking her if her brother had any gang affiliations and refusing to allow her to speak to the person in charge of the scene. “You can kill someone and it’s nothing because they’re the police,” Jade says. “It’s something that’s hard to cope with, I haven’t been the same Jade since. For my brother to have been killed like that and then nothing after. We haven’t learned anything until this day.”
A few blocks away, James had driven to his home, leaving his car parked on the street in plain sight. He called Jamaal again and again as he heard sirens drive past the building and helicopters hover overhead. When he couldn’t get an answer, he called back the friend he had instructed to check in on Simpson. “He called me back and he said, ‘Bro, he’s gone. He’s laid out on the street right now.’” A document obtained by Knock LA prepared by LASD Detectives Blagg and Lawler states that Simpson was handcuffed, despite the fact that he was dead when they arrived at the scene, at 9:45 AM, over eight hours after the shooting had occurred. Witnesses say his body remained in the street until noon.
Jamaal Michael Simpson is very missed by his friends and family. They question whether the peace officers who cut his life short will ever face any punishment. Person-Lynn believes that an independent investigation of the shooting is necessary. Michael Simpson says he has not heard from the Sheriff’s Department or investigators from the District Attorney’s office. He did receive a letter from former DA Jackie Lacey offering condolences a few weeks after the shooting. However when he tried to recover his son’s body and belongings, the coroner’s office refused to release them for nearly one month. Even after the family was able to get the body released for burial, Simpson says that the coroner attempted to see the body again. Michael shared that he has struggled with drinking since his son’s death. “I’m going through it. Every day, I think about my son.”
James says he and his family were hounded by law enforcement following the shooting. He received a call from a private investigator hired by the Simpson family who advised him that the Sheriff’s Department was threatening to charge him with involuntary manslaughter in Jamaal Simpson’s death. James sat for a 90-minute deposition with two detectives from LASD’s Homicide Bureau. Afterwards, the detectives told James they would be in touch. As of publishing he has not been charged, but lives in fear every day.
“If they come, who’s gonna stop them? Who polices the police? What do I do? I’ve already come to terms for me, sad to say, it’s only two ways out: gang violence or the police kill me.” He also feels incredibly guilty. “I came out unscathed from the situation basically, and he was murdered. Should I have been killed with him? I feel like I really cheated.”
Simpson’s family has spent the last two years waiting for answers as to why Jamaal was killed. “It’s happening every day for us because we never got closure,” says Jovani Elliston. The sisters and their young sons have each struggled with bouts of depression since the shooting. “We don’t have a dad, we don’t have a mom, we don’t have a brother,” says Elliston. “I want Gregory Van Hoesen to serve time in prison for shooting Jamaal Simpson and AJ Weber.” Jovani agrees. “We didn’t get enough time with him, we didn’t get any closure… we have tried letting the justice system work. We want justice for Jamaal.”
Correction 10/18/21: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that James agreed to a 90-minute interview with LASD Homicide Detectives. In fact, James sat for a deposition.
The Press Freedom clinic at UC Irvine’s School of Law convinced the County of LA to produce some of the materials used in this article by reporter Cerise Castle. Law student Thomasin Bernhardt lead the way on the case. The Press Freedom clinic (“Putting the Bite Back in the Public Records Act”) is part of the school’s Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic.