Officers cleared in Cheeks shooting

Authored by Sean Rossman on September 8, 2014, and originally published on the website for the Tallahassee Democrat (

A special investigation by the Tallahassee Police Department cleared three officers in the May 29 shooting death of 18-year-old Duane Strong outside of Cheeks Sports Bar and Lounge.

Tallahassee Police Chief Michael DeLeo, at the recommendation of Investigator Maria Mercurio, found the use of deadly force by officers Clay Fallis, Derek Hawthorne and Kirk Watson was justified under the department’s policies and procedures. Fallis, the report said, fired nine rounds at Strong and Hawthorne fired three more. Watson used his police car to ram Strong’s car off the side of the road and into a ditch on White Drive near West Tennessee Street.

“In review of all eye-witness testimony, along with the physical evidence collected on scene and the post-Miranda statements made by officers Fallis, Hawthorne and Watson, each officer acted according to their training and were justified in using deadly force,” the report said.

The officers were cleared by any criminal wrongdoing June 23, when a Leon County grand jury found they all acted justifiably.

It’s also the first of the special investigations related to the four officer-involved shootings that occurred within a span of six weeks from early May to mid June. The Tallahassee Police officers involved in the three other shootings were cleared by Leon County grand juries this summer. All have gone or will go before an internal TPD review.

The final 42-page internal report was released to the Tallahassee Democrat. It shows investigators conducted interviews with the three officers as well as two other TPD officers and two Leon County Sheriff’s Office deputies who were on scene the morning Strong was shot. Twelve other witnesses, including club-goers and neighbors of the former Cheeks Sports Bar and Lounge, were interviewed as well.

Strong died from a single gunshot wound to the chest, according to the autopsy report completed by the District Two Medical Examiner’s Office in Tallahassee. The cause of death, according to the IA report, was a single gunshot wound to his upper left back that hit both of his lungs, causing him to bleed internally. Strong, of Tallahassee, died at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare.

The toxicology report shows that Strong’s blood and bile tested positive for ethylone, a designer drug very similar to MDMA and ecstasy, said Dr. Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology in the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Goldberger said he hadn’t heard of the drug up until a few months ago, but has seen it in the systems of seven people who’ve died of various causes.

“I can’t tell you what its effects are since it’s so new,” he said. “We know that the ingestion of this drug can be fatal.”

Strong’s urine also tested positive for marijuana.

Fallis shot at Strong’s black Dodge Charger as he pulled out of the Cheeks parking lot and onto White Drive.

“He felt he had no place to escape from the vehicle,” said Inv. Scott Cherry. “He felt the driver was going to run him over if he did not react.”

Officer Derek Hawthorne was in the middle of a traffic stop when he heard multiple gunshots come from nearby Cheeks. He went to the back parking lot where he believed the shots came from. Strong’s car was in the area so he decided to take a look.

“All of a sudden, the Charger revved its engine and took off toward the entrance/exit of Cheeks,” Hawthorne told investigators.

Hawthorne saw Fallis standing in front of Strong’s car and heard a “pop” sound. Thinking his colleague was in danger, he fired three shots at Strong’s car as well.

It could not be determined whether or not the bullet that killed Strong was shot from Fallis or Hawthorne.

The report determined that Strong did not fire any shots at officers.

“Given the circumstances the use of deadly force would stop the threat on Officer Fallis’ life,” the report said.