Man shot by Milwaukee cop beat gun rap after allegedly pressuring witness

The 23-year-old black man whose killing Saturday by a Milwaukee police officer sparked protests and violence was charged just last year with pressuring a victim not to testify against him in a retaliation shooting, criminal complaints show.

The complaints obtained by describe how Sylville K. Smith, while jailed in the July 2014 shooting, enlisted his girlfriend to tell the victim to sign a letter recanting his story, commanding her by phone to “stay on dude” and to “call [expletive] and tell him to fill out that form!”

The victim eventually did recant his story, and both the shooting case and the witness intimidation case were dismissed later in 2015.

Sylville K. Smith was allegedly holding a stolen gun when he was shot by a police officer.

Sylville K. Smith was allegedly holding a stolen gun when he was shot by a police officer. (Milwaukee County Sheriff's Office)

Smith was killed Saturday afternoon after police said he was seen with a handgun while fleeing officers during a traffic stop. Milwaukee police initially identified the officer who shot and killed Smith as a 24-year-old man with six years with the department, three as an officer, and it was later revealed that the officer also is black.

The weekend shooting set off days of unrest in a city where racial tensions already were running high, particularly in the wake of the 2014 killing by police of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill black man. The officer in that shooting was fired by the Milwaukee police chief for not following department procedures, but later was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.

The two years that led up to Smith’s killing Saturday by police were marked by his own propensity for violence, retaliation and intimidation, court records show.

Milwaukee police noted Smith had a “lengthy arrest record,” and the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office released a detailed list of alleged crimes dating back to 2011, from a marijuana citation to allegations of robbery, cocaine possession and heroin dealing. But the case that stands out was a shooting on Aug. 24, 2014, that started as a fight between girls at a party.

The criminal complaint in that case quotes the victim as telling police that the party and the fight was a month or two earlier, and Smith was looking to retaliate. It wasn’t clear how Smith or the shooting victim were connected to the girls.

The victim told police that on the evening of the shooting he was smoking marijuana while driving a friend’s Taurus through the Sherman Park neighborhood -- the same neighborhood that over the weekend became the focal point for unrest in the city. Suddenly, an Infiniti pulled up next to him, and he recognized Smith as the driver.

Fearing that Smith was going to shoot him, the man sped off and was chased by Smith from street to street, at one point stopping the Taurus to get out and run, the complaint says. When the Infiniti pulled up next to the Taurus, Smith got out and started running after the other driver, the court records say, while a passenger in Smith’s car got out and shot up the unoccupied Taurus. Smith then started shooting at the other driver, who later told police he suffered a minor injury in the incident, though it was later determined to be an abrasion instead of a gunshot wound.

Smith and his passenger took off in the Infiniti, and their victim was able to drive his bullet-riddled car to a police station to report the incident, the complaint says. Officers later recovered 20 bullet casings from the scene of the shooting.

Smith was arrested in January 2015 and charged in Milwaukee County court with first-degree reckless endangerment, a felony with a maximum potential sentence of 12 years and six months.

But that charge never stuck because of what prosecutors later alleged was a witness intimidation plot, as detailed in a second complaint against Smith. In that case, Smith was accused of calling his girlfriend from jail numerous times in June and July 2015 and coaching her on how to get his victim to sign an affidavit saying that Smith wasn’t tied to the shooting.

“These calls are representative, and not exhaustive, of the calls made by Smith to (his girlfriend) in efforts to dissuade (the victim) from cooperating with the prosecution,” prosecutors said in the complaint. “This is clearly evident by the recantation … that reached the State and has been filed with the Court.”

Online court records indicate that the reckless endangerment charge was dismissed in November because of the recantation.

“State is not prepared to proceed to trial as essential witnesses are not present. The state informs the Court that the victim contacted the state and indicated that he would not be present,” the records state.

The witness intimidation charge could have landed Smith in prison for up to 10 years, but that case, too, was dismissed, in September.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in an email that the witness intimidation case was dismissed because, although the victim reversed himself, he was not intimidated into changing his story. The victim had told the court he was unsure who shot at him, the Journal Sentinel reported.

Despite Smith’s good fortune in court, it apparently didn’t end his ties to crime. Milwaukee police say when he was shot and killed Saturday while fleeing officers he was armed with a gun that had been taken in a burglary in March in Waukesha. The victim in that crime reported 500 rounds of ammunition also were stolen.