A federal lawsuit filed Monday claims the last words that 19-year-old Zachary Hammond heard were from a Seneca, South Carolina, police officer shouting, "I'll blow your fucking head off." Seconds later, the officer unloaded two bullets into the unarmed teen, killing him as he sat in his car in the parking lot of a Hardee's on July 26.
Hammond's parents are now alleging in U.S. District Court that Lt. Mark Tiller unjustifiably killed their son during an undercover police drug sting gone wrong.
The Seneca Police Department, Tiller and police chief John Covington are all named as defendants. The suit, filed in the Anderson division district court for the District of South Carolina, seeks unspecified damages.
The complaint makes a series of deeply troubling accusations against Tiller and other officers who responded to the fatal shooting.
After Hammond's body was placed on the ground, Tiller was allegedly observed walking to the trunk of his own patrol car and removing "something from the vehicle that fit into the palm of his hand." He then placed that item on or near Hammond's body, the suit claims, before rolling the body back to its original position.
The suit claims Hammond's body would remain there for almost 90 minutes, "uncovered and unprotected" and "ravaged by ants" while the police processed the crime scene.
Other officers were then seen consoling or celebrating with Tiller, the suit alleges. Another officer on the scene, former Seneca officer Anthony Moon, who resigned shortly after the shooting and is not a defendant in the lawsuit, purportedly raised Hammond's lifeless hand and gave it a "celebratory high-five."
The suit also addresses the Seneca Police Department's contention that Hammond was in possession of cocaine at the time of this death.
"At worst, and assuming that [it] was not placed on his person, Zachary was in simple possession of drugs," the complaint reads. "For his offense, he was tried, convicted and executed by Lt. Mark Tiller, a misguided and improperly trained Seneca Police Department law enforcement officer."
The Seneca Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the allegations put forth by the lawsuit. Previously, due to the prospect of litigation and an ongoing investigation into the incident, Covington said the department would not be addressing any further allegations publicly. He did offer condolences to the Hammond family.
"I would reiterate that our hearts and prayers go out to the Hammond family during this extremely difficult time," Covington said in July.
According to the police department's version of events, at around 8:20 p.m. on July 26, Hammond drove 23-year-old Toni Morton to the parking lot of a local Hardee's restaurant, where an undercover officer had arranged to buy marijuana from her. Morton was charged with simple possession of the drug after the shooting and was later released. She was not injured in the incident.
Hammond's family and lawyer have maintained that the teen was on a date and not aware of Morton's plans to sell marijuana.
While an initial police report did not mention any shots being fired, the department later claimed Tiller was a victim of an "attempted murder" and had shot Hammond in self-defense after the teen caused him to fear for his life. According to police, Tiller approached Hammond and asked him to put his hands up, when the teen suddenly put his car in reverse and rapidly accelerated.
The lawsuit disputes the police account, saying Hammond did not reverse his car into Tiller.
"Zachary took no action that could reasonably be perceived as threatening toward Lt. Tiller," the suit reads. "Because the Seneca PD had the reckless and unsafe policy for its officers to come with guns drawn, Lt. Tiller escalated a routine drug stop into an officer involved shooting."
An independent autopsy released by Hammond's family found that Zachary had been shot twice. The family's attorney Eric Bland argues that the injuries the teen sustained indicate that Hammond was shot from behind and that his car was not moving at the time. The original autopsy from Oconee County Coroner's Office indicated Hammond was shot in the shoulder and chest, but did not note the direction the bullets came from nor if they indicated the car was moving. The chest wound, the coroner said, was the fatal strike to Hammond.
Hammond's death was officially ruled a homicide. It followed a narrative similar to a number of officer-involved shootings that have grabbed national attention recently and included differences in police and witness account. But for nearly a week after his death, Hammond's case went largely unnoticed, both by the national media and the mostly white town of Seneca. The initial silence led many, including his family and their attorneys, to openly wonder if the shooting had been treated differently from recent police killings of black males because both Hammond and the officer are white.
After supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement began calling attention to Hammond's death on social media, the story began to attract attention from national outlets, including The New York Times, CNN and The Washington Post.
The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into his death.
"The lawsuit," Bland said in an emailed statement, "will help get answers for the Hammonds and help them to begin the healing process."