By Phil Trexler
Beacon Journal staff writer
A University of Akron police officer acted within the law when he fatally shot a motorist during a traffic stop in May, prosecutors ruled.
An investigative report released by Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh on Wednesday found that Officer Aaron Burnette acted appropriately when he shot and killed James Genda, 64, during a traffic stop on Wolf Ledges Parkway.
The findings reveal Genda did not want to return to jail and forced the officer to shoot by intentionally pulling out a realistic-looking BB gun. The “suicide by cop” scenario is supported by a witness statement that Genda had planned such a move weeks before the shooting.
“After reviewing the reports of investigation by officers from the University of Akron Police Department and the Akron Police Department, recorded interviews with witnesses and family members of James Genda, Bureau of Criminal Investigation lab reports and video and audio recordings of the shooting, my office has determined that Officer Burnette was justified in believing Mr. Genda posed a significant threat,” Walsh said in a prepared statement. “I’m sure this has been a very difficult, emotional time for both Officer Burnette and Mr. Genda’s family. My thoughts are with all of them.”
Walsh’s ruling was based on her review of the facts as gathered by a UA police investigation of the shooting and forwarded to prosecutors in late May.
Authorities said Burnette fired into Genda’s car after the Akron man pulled out what appeared to be a .45-caliber pistol. The weapon was actually a BB gun that resembled a semiautomatic pistol.
Burnette was on patrol when he encountered Genda on Wolf Ledges Parkway and stopped him for driving with improper plates.
Genda and police had dozens of encounters over the past 23 years, nearly all of them related to traffic or vehicle licensing issues. Court records show Genda had 81 charges filed against him since 1990.
In early 2013, after his last arrest and just weeks before the shooting, Genda told a friend he never would return to jail.
During that talk, he contemplated assuming a deceased man’s identity or committing suicide, the report shows. Genda also said he had a BB gun that looked real and that he would use it to prompt police to shoot him if necessary.
“Mr. Genda mentioned this scenario multiple times during their conversation,” Walsh wrote.
According to Walsh’s report, Genda was on the phone with his sister and told her, “I’m not going back to jail” and “I’m not letting them take me.” He also mentioned having the BB gun.
A close friend of Genda gave a taped statement to investigators in which she confirmed his scheme. She said Genda complained of his previous stays in jail as well as his own declining health.
Genda, she said, told her that he would rather “die than go to jail.”
Prosecutors released the recording Wednesday.
“He said, ‘I got a gun that looks real,’ and he said, ‘If for some reason I get pulled over or stopped or whatever,’ he said, ‘I’m going to pull out that gun and make them think they’re in danger so that they kill me,’ ” the friend recounted to investigators.
The woman told investigators that she reached out to spare Burnette any trauma for shooting Genda.
“That’s the first thought that went to my mind ... ‘that officer can’t take [the burden] ... because that would be terrible for him to have to live with him shooting.’ I wasn’t thinking of any charges, I was thinking of sleeping at night.
“I don’t want that cop to think he can’t sleep at night because of that, because [the shooting was] what Jimmy wanted.”
Authorities said Burnette made the traffic stop May 16 and approached the car that Genda had parked in a side driveway entrance of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles office at 688 Wolf Ledges.
Burnette then returned to his patrol car to check further on the vehicle’s plates, police said, and found the license plates did not match the car.
When the officer left his cruiser and approached Genda’s car a second time, the driver produced the handgun, and the officer fired several shots in response, police said.
According to a video recording of the shooting captured from Burnette’s personal recorder, Genda said, “I hate to have to do all this,” then pulled out his BB gun. The barrel was pointed outward, toward the officer, and Genda’s finger was on the trigger, Walsh wrote.
It was only afterward that Burnette learned the weapon was not a firearm, but rather a black, metal BB gun that resembles a .45-caliber pistol. The BB gun was not tipped with an orange safety cap, police said.
Burnette, a 15-year veteran of the UA police force, has returned to active duty, according to a university spokeswoman.
“It is tragic that a man lost his life that day as a result of circumstances that led to the use of deadly force by a university police officer,” UA said in a news release Wednesday. “We are also grateful for the professionalism and cooperation of the Akron Police Department and other law enforcement authorities in contributing to this investigation.”
UA and the city of Akron have a mutual-aid agreement that says UA may conduct routine patrols around the campus.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.