'A safe place for him'
McDonald, by most accounts, was a troubled kid. At the time of his death, he was a ward of the state, and although he had no adult criminal record, authorities said he had racked up numerous juvenile arrests. Autopsy results obtained by the Tribune show McDonald had PCP in his system at the time of his death.
Still, faculty at the Sullivan House alternative high school he had been attending in the weeks before his shooting remembered a gentle side to the teen, a jokester who gave hugs and liked to make people laugh.
"He would come up every morning and hug me, and he would do that with a lot of teachers," said Beverly Ashley, one of his teachers. "He really liked being here. ... (It) was a safe place for him."
Principal Thomas Gattuso said McDonald, one of about 20 wards of the state in the school of 340 students, was likely on track to graduate when he turned 19.
At the time of his death, McDonald was in the temporary custody of his 25-year-old uncle. But the teen's mother had initiated a petition to regain custody of McDonald in May. Up until the shooting, McDonald's mother had been allowed supervised visits by a Cook County Juvenile Court judge in anticipation of granting her custody petition.
Through her lawyers, McDonald's mother declined to be interviewed for this story. His uncle also did not want to be interviewed.
On the night he was killed, McDonald was allegedly trying to break into vehicles in a trucking yard at 41st Street and Kildare Avenue in the city's Archer Heights neighborhood.
The first two officers to respond tailed McDonald, one on foot and the other in a marked police SUV, as he walked several blocks along 40th Street, refusing to drop the knife. Near the intersection with Pulaski Road, McDonald punctured one of the tires of the SUV with his knife before striking the windshield with the weapon and then walking or jogging away from the officers through a nearby Burger King parking lot, about half a mile from where he was first spotted by police.
At that point, the squad car equipped with the dashboard camera arrived at the scene, and officers continued to follow McDonald as he walked down Pulaski.
The dash camera video has not been made public by city officials. Lawyers for McDonald's mother, Michael Robbins and Jeffrey Neslund, also have declined to release the video in part because of the ongoing criminal investigation.
But the attorneys gave a detailed account of the video, saying it first showed McDonald jogging south on Pulaski in the middle of the street as Van Dyke's marked police SUV stopped in front of him.
The teen then veered away from Van Dyke and his partner, walking to the middle of the two southbound lanes. Both officers then got out of their vehicle and were standing about 12 to 15 feet away from the teen when Van Dyke opened fire.
The first shots caused McDonald to spin and fall to the ground. A puff of smoke then rose from his body as he was lying in a fetal position, followed by another and another, Neslund said.
"There's jerking consistent with him getting shot," Neslund said.
About 16 seconds elapsed from the time McDonald hit the ground to the time the last puff of smoke was visible. Another officer then emerged into the view of the camera and kicked an object — possibly the knife — out of McDonald's hand. At no point on the video was McDonald seen lunging at anyone, according to the attorneys.
Robbins offered a stark summary of the incident: "It starts out as an unjustified shooting, and it turns into some kind of sadistic execution."