BUFORD -- Faced with questions from neighbors and family, Gwinnett police officials on Tuesday vigorously defended two officers who opened fire on a mentally unstable, machete-weilding teenager and struck him five times, including a fatal shot to the chest.
Dawntree Williams, 15, was a familiar face to neighbors on Windward Gate Lane in Buford. He was remembered Tuesday as generally pleasant and trustworthy though prone to angry fits. Frequently, he bounced with neighborhood kids on a trampoline, dueled with Nerf swords and dabbled with Spy Gear gadgets.
That picture of Williams starkly contrasts the inconsolable teen who reportedly jumped down all eight steps of his grandmother's porch and ran screaming at police with a blade more than a foot long. Two responding officers -- unidentified men who've each been with the department about two or three years -- made a split-second decision to open fire, which Gwinnett police Cpl. Edwin Ritter called the right decision.
"When we got there, (Williams) saw our officers as something other than friendly, and he was willing to fight to the end," Ritter said. "They could barely get out the words 'stop and drop the weapon' .... it was that fast."
The officer nearest to Williams fired nine shots, in addition to three fired by his cohort. Williams was shot twice in the right leg, once in the left, once in his right arm and once to the chest, Ritter said, citing autopsy findings. Williams was transported to Northeast Georgia Medical Center where he later died.
The two-story home's yard borders Hall County. A moveable basketball goal stands in the driveway, which reeked of bleach Tuesday. By noon, neighbors had built a memorial of helium balloons, flowers and Christmas ornaments at the driveway's end.
Williams lived at the home with his grandmother, Anita Harris, and two younger siblings. She was staying with church members on Tuesday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. She had expressed to other media concerns that Williams had dropped the weapon prior to shots ringing out.
Ritter said those concerns were unfounded. Williams succumbed to his wounds and fell about 10 feet from the officers, he said.
"The only time (Williams) dropped the machete is after he was shot," Ritter said.
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said a preliminary investigation by his office would support police claims that Williams never relinquished the machete.
Both officers have been placed on routine administrative leave pending an internal investigation, though Ritter feels strongly they acted within protocol. Others who knew Williams felt wronged by the situation.
Neighbor Camille Sweeney, a mother of two, described Williams as "a sweet, well-mannered boy" who addressed adults as "sir" and "ma'am." She'd broken up fights between Williams and other boys and said he generally could be soothed with video games, in addition to medication. His parents reside in Tennessee, she said.
"He was really sweet, and it shouldn't have happened," Sweeney said. "I still don't understand how a small boy with a machete can be scary to two grown men wearing bullet-proof vests."
Communications between dispatchers and police and a 911 call paint a harrowing scene as police responded to the home at 3:18 p.m. Monday.
A therapist visiting the home, Harris and the two younger siblings locked themselves in a upstairs bedroom as Williams "destroyed" the home with the machete and hacked at the bedroom door. "He is banging on the door desperately trying to get inside," a dispatcher told responding police. At 3:33 p.m., a "shots fired" dispatch went out. Thirty four minutes later a chaplain was requested.
Williams was enrolled at The Hooper Renwick School in Lawrenceville for students with special needs, Gwinnett Public Schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said. He was described in the 911 call as suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Police believe Williams had found the machete in piles of junk removed from a foreclosed home next door -- the source of a pool que and fire-poker that Williams had found and threatened family members with on two previous occasions, Ritter said.
Authorities had responded to the home three times since early October for domestic violence calls involving Williams. A caller reported a juvenile runaway there on Nov. 26 but called back to say the matter was resolved before officers arrived, Ritter said.
"There's definitely an alleged history of juvenile violence coming out of that house that led to (the shooting)," Ritter said.
Sweeney, the neighbor, said her husband was home at the time and heard what "sounded like fireworks." She pointed to two punctures in the home's second story siding that appeared to be bullet holes. As a favor, she and another neighbor scrubbed the driveway of blood Tuesday morning and cleansed it with peroxide and bleach.
She was considering an offering of home-cooked lasagna to help ease the grandmother's grief.