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Deputies in Athens fatal shooting mistook victim's cellphone for a handgun

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies found a phone but no gun near the body of a man they thought had been threatening them. The agency is now involved in an investigation of the incident.

July 14, 2009|Richard Winton

Two deputies apparently mistook a cellphone for a gun when they fatally shot an unarmed 22-year-old man in Athens, authorities said Monday.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman said Woodrow Player Jr. twice pointed a "dark object" at deputies during a foot chase Friday, causing them to believe that he was armed with a handgun. The second time he pointed the object at deputies, they opened fire.

When investigators searched the alley where the shooting occurred, they recovered a cellphone next to Player, not a gun, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.

"It appears the dark object was a cellphone," Whitmore said.

Investigators found a loaded gun in a car from which Player had fled, but it was several hundred feet from where he was shot.

The incident began about 9 p.m. when deputies pulled up to Player's parked vehicle because he matched the physical and clothing description of a man who had threatened some people in the area with a gun. But when deputies approached the car, he ran across the Imperial Highway and into an alley, Whitmore said.

Whitmore said sheriff's internal affairs detectives interviewed witnesses who said they too believed Player had pointed a gun at the deputies before he was shot. "We had a witness who said they saw a muzzle flash," Whitmore said.

But Shendall Duncan, 35, of Athens told the Times it appeared to her that Player was unarmed. She said she saw deputies shoot Player three times in the back before he fell. He attempted to keep running and was shot again, she said.

Whitmore said the incident was being investigated by the department, the county's Office of Independent Review and the L.A. County district attorney's office. Sheriff's officials refused to identify the deputies involved in the shooting.

Player's family, along with Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, and Eddie Jones of the L.A. Civil Rights Assn., said they wanted a federal inquiry.

"We have no confidence in the Sheriff's Department to investigate itself," Hutchinson said.

Player had been affiliated with the East Coast Crips, had served time in prison on a drug charge and was on parole at the time he was shot, according to relatives. He was acquitted of a murder charge last year and had since been trying to turn his life around, attending church and studying to get his high school diploma, they said.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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