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One Bullet. A Paralyzed Teen. Dissecting A Disputed Shot In Chicago

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last year the city of Chicago saw its highest number of homicides in about two decades. This year is on pace to be just as violent.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We're going to hear stories throughout this summer that take a nuanced look at the city's gun violence. They're part of a series from WBEZ in Chicago called Every Other Hour. That's about how often there was a shooting in the city last year.

SHAPIRO: Very few of these shootings result in arrests and prosecution. Today Miles Bryan reports on a single case that shows just how confounding a gun crime can be.

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: I first met Josue at the Chicago hospital where his son Leo was undergoing rehab. Leo is 15 years old and one of thousands of people shot in the city over the last year. We're not going to use the family's last name because Leo is a juvenile, and it hasn't been publicly released. While Leo didn't want to talk to me for this story, his family did.

Josue?

JOSUE: Yes.

BRYAN: Nice to meet you.

JOSUE: Nice to meet you.

BRYAN: Last February a few hours after Leo was shot, doctors told the family he was paralyzed from the chest down, and most likely he would never walk again. Josue says growing up, Leo was bright and sweet, though in recent years he's gotten into trouble with the law. Police say Leo was shot after he robbed Jonathan Ramos, who he was meeting to buy some pot from. Ramos says the shooting was accidental, that the gun went off in a struggle. We'll get to his story in a bit. But Leo's whole family is convinced that the shooting was not an accident and that Ramos should be held responsible. Here's Josue.

JOSUE: I cry sometimes because I see my son running, walking. And now it's just a hope, just a hope.

BRYAN: Walking is just a hope, Josue says. He says that over and over. Jonathan Ramos was arrested, which is uncommon in Chicago. According to a report from the University of Chicago, the city's police department only arrested a suspect in 5 percent of all city shootings last year. Chicago police said that Ramos was, quote, "positively identified as beating and shooting Leo."

Ramos was charged with felony aggravated battery for firing a gun. He also faced a misdemeanor for the marijuana. But in court a few weeks after Ramos was arrested, the county state's attorney dropped all charges in the case, citing, quote, "insufficient evidence." Law enforcement officials say it can be difficult to get charges to stick. Eyewitness accounts can differ, sometimes dramatically. So even when police make an arrest, a gun crime may still go unpunished.

Can I get you to say your name and how to spell it?

JONATHAN RAMOS: OK. I'm Jonathan Ramos. J-O-N...

BRYAN: Now we'll get a different perspective from Jonathan Ramos. That February afternoon, he says he was driving around as a delivery guy. At the time, he was supporting his fiance and two young daughters. He got a Facebook message from an acquaintance asking for a favor. Could Ramos sell this guy's friend a small amount of pot?

RAMOS: At the moment, you know, I was, you know, in need for that little bit of cash. And you know, I figured I could've made a couple little extra dollars, you know?

BRYAN: Jonathan Ramos is 22. He wears thin-framed glasses and a nose ring. Instead of saying cool about something he likes, he says smooth. He says he was in his minivan with his fiance, Ashley Toro. Ramos called the guy who wanted to buy the pot and said, sure, I can help you out. He then drove to an alley on Chicago's Northwest side to wait.

RAMOS: He came to the car. We sent him around to my window, and that's when, you know, I showed him. And he pulled his gun out at me as soon as, you know, as soon as he seen it.

BRYAN: According to Ramos, Leo pointed a gun at him and said, give me your money and the drugs. Ramos handed everything over. Later he said he thinks he may have been set up. Then Leo took off running. Ramos and his fiance drove after him, but they crashed the van, so they got out and pursued him on foot.

RAMOS: And I tackled him. I flipped him over. And I started hitting him some more to keep him down. From there, he was, like, struggling, looking at his gun or whatever, struggling to, you know, try to, you know, I guess to get towards it.

BRYAN: Ramos says he grabbed the gun instead. He and his fiance say they struck Leo repeatedly and then realized their mugger was bleeding. He'd been shot in the neck. Ramos says the gun must have gone off accidentally sometime during the tackle. The police arrived, and Ramos and Toro were arrested. Leo was transported to the hospital, and he was never charged. But the case against Ramos and Toro was eventually dropped, something that Leo's 21-year-old brother, Josh, just couldn't believe.

JOSH: The guy was beating on him, and so was his girlfriend. And as soon as he was done beating on my brother, he picked up the gun, and my brother was on the floor, and he shot at him.

BRYAN: From the beginning, I knew there was another third-party account of the shooting - private security camera footage collected by police from the scene and given to the county state's attorney. After I filed a Freedom of Information Act request, the state's attorney turned over the footage to me. The videos have no sound. You see a figure identified as Leo by his family walking up to Ramos's minivan. Leo leans over the driver's side window. Then you see Leo backing away, pointing a gun. He takes off running, and the van follows. A minute later, Leo runs into a busy intersection. You see Ramos leap toward him and tackle him to the curb. Toro is there, too. The pair punch Leo over and over. The gun is just a few feet away. Ramos grabs it and stands over Leo. Then, abruptly, he walks away.

The footage is graphic, but it's really grainy. You can't tell when the gun is fired, if it went off accidentally or if Ramos pulled the trigger. In the weeks after the shooting, both sides stuck to their polar opposite stories - Jonathan Ramos saying he was mugged and the shooting was an accident, Leo's family saying that Ramos intentionally shot Leo. But neither side saw what I had just watched.

Leo's dad, Josue, and his brother, Josh, met me in a parking lot of a Dunkin' Donuts to watch the footage. We sat in my car. They didn't want me to record while we watched, but I turned on my tape recorder right after.

JOSUE: I just can't believe it. I just see what my son told me that what happened. He just told me the truth. They tried to kill him. Everything is clear right there.

BRYAN: Leo's older brother, Josh...

JOSH: I just think it's really, really unfair about - that they're not charging that guy with attempted murder because clearly we see him picking up the gun.

BRYAN: But you don't see a flash - I mean did you see a flash? I've watched it a couple times, and I just felt like it was too blurry to see a flash at all.

JOSUE: All right, we never see the flash. All right, we never see the flash. But we know my son gets shot from that moment.

RAMOS: Is it possible to cut the recorder now? I'd rather talk about that without the recorder now.

BRYAN: That's Jonathan Ramos speaking. He and Ashley Toro are also sitting in my car, watching the same video.

RAMOS: Honestly, it's really heartbreaking, terrifying and...

BRYAN: Do you feel, like, proven right, proven wrong, proven in the middle?

RAMOS: I actually feel proven right there actually seeing the camera, and the camera clearly shows that, you know, I had nothing, you know, nothing to hide and nothing to run for, you know? That actually makes me, you know - it brings me back to that whole situation, and the feeling is, you know, very uncomfortable.

BRYAN: Last time I reached Ramos, he said he was restocking vending machines and trying to move on with his life. Leo's brother said Leo was in a nursing home while they looked for a suitable apartment. Here's the thing. When Ramos and Leo's family saw the footage, they both saw vindication for their stories, stories that can't possibly both be true. When something this bad happens, we want to know whose fault it is. We draw bright lines between the shooter and the victim. But few gun crimes in Chicago end in arrest, much less prosecution. With this shooting and so many others in Chicago, you have to accept that sometimes those bright lines just aren't there. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAGABON SONG, "FEAR AND FORCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.