Fifteen-year-old Kelvin Rodolph picked the wrong person to rob.
The emotionally disturbed teen walked up to off-duty Buffalo Police Officer Lamar McCulley and demanded his valuables in the predawn hours of Friday outside an East Side gas station-minimart.
When the officer failed to respond quickly enough, Rodolph raised what appeared to be a semi-automatic handgun inches from McCulley's face and again said, "Give me everything you have."
"At that point, the officer did give him everything he had at the end of a 9 mm Glock," PBA attorney Thomas Burton said late Friday in providing details of why he believes McCulley acted in self-defense. It turned out the weapon Rodolph pointed at the officer was a BB gun, but Burton said, "At the moment it happened, it might as well have been a cannon."
McCulley told a close friend he was not trying to kill the teenager, but only protecting himself.
Burton said, "As the officer discharged a fusillade of shots," he backed away and tripped over garbage cans, regained his footing and saw that Rodolph was still pointing the gun at him "and so the officer fired again."
One of the shots struck Rodolph in the face and killed him, according to the teen's maternal aunt, who viewed his body at the Erie County Medical Examiner's office late Friday morning.
"I know he was doing wrong, but did the officer have to use lethal force?" Debbie Rodolph, the aunt and a nurse, said of the thwarted robbery at East Delavan Avenue and Grider Street.
It is unknown if Rodolph, who dropped to the ground when the gunfire started, was struck more than once, or if he fired his BB gun at the officer.
McCulley had completed his night shift in the South District at 1:30 a.m. and had gone out to purchase food. He was wearing a jacket over his uniform when the teenager walked up to him, police said.
Rodolph was the subject of a front page Buffalo News story earlier this year about people with disabilities in need of assistance through Supplemental Security Income benefits from the federal government.
He had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which made it hard for him to concentrate, and oppositional defiant disorder, which caused him to defy all authority figures, his mother told The News in May.
McCulley, a 26-year-old probationary police officer, ran away from Rodolph, took cover behind a Dumpster and called 911 on his cell phone at about 2:40 a.m. seeking backup assistance. Within minutes, the area was swarming with on-duty police.
Detectives obtained fingerprints from the young man to help in identifying him, but when daylight broke and the neighborhood began to stir, word of the fatal shooting spread.
By late morning, a few of Rodolph's friends appeared at the home of his mother and stepfather on Wyoming Avenue, several blocks from the shooting, and asked if the teenager was home.
The teens said they had heard a light-skinned black teenager had been fatally shot.
Jay Burnett, the stepfather, who is engaged to marry Rodolph's mother, Karen Rodolph, said he had not seen the teen that morning and hurried over to the shooting scene, where a friend of the family approached him.
The friend told The News that he suggested Burnett ask the officers there for a description of the youth who had been shot. As it became clear that the youth matched the description of his stepson, Burnett started screaming "that's my son" and headed home to break the news to his family.
"Kelvin had problems, but he was basically a good kid," said Leslie Furman, the maternal grandfather of the youth.
He and other family members made a plea to investigators in the Professional Standards Division and the Erie County District Attorney's office to conduct a thorough investigation and not rush to judgment.
>Don't rush to judgment
They were concerned that the police department had already released a preliminary determination that McCulley had acted in a justifiable manner. Burton said at least five shots were fired by McCulley and possibly more. The clip in the Glock holds 17 rounds and one in the chamber.
"No shooting should be decided that fast. The family is pressing for a thorough investigation. I want to know why the officer had to shoot to kill? Why not shoot to maim," the grandfather asked.
"It was a BB gun. My nephew could have fired all he wanted and it wouldn't have hurt the cop," said Debbie Rodolph.
"We are at the very preliminary stages of the investigation. Homicide detectives conduct the initial investigation and Professional Standards conducts a parallel investigation," said Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards, who offered assurances that all aspects of the case would be thoroughly investigated.
Richards said McCulley faced an extreme situation with a gun pointed at his head. "In situations like this, there are no winners," the chief said.
McCulley, a Buffalo State College criminal justice graduate, has been placed on paid administrative leave, a standard departmental step, pending the outcome of the investigations.
Burton, who serves as counsel to the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, said state law is very clear on individuals being permitted to defend themselves in a robbery.
"You have no duty to turn tail and run when someone is trying to rob you with a weapon. That goes for a citizen or, obviously, a police officer," Burton said. "It turns out it was a BB gun, but that's of no account because the victim of a robbery doesn't have to learn to his disagreeable surprise that it is a real weapon."
Rodolph was wearing a knit cap covering the top half of his face and a bandanna pulled up over his mouth and nose, Burton said.
>Tragedy for all
He said the incident is a tragedy for all involved. "As long as the officer lives, the image of this will be burned into his mind, and there's a dead kid over a botched robbery. I'd trade all the lawyering skills on earth if we could disengage the mechanics of this senseless type of violence," he said.
Issuing a statement through relatives, Rodolph's grief-stricken mother said her son was recently discharged from the residential unit at Hopevale, a Hamburg facility for troubled young people, and was supposed to receive follow-up care for his conditions, which also included a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which causes extreme mood swings.
"He was supposed to receive mentoring assistance. We were supposed to get the help in the last two weeks and they never came here or called," said Furman, her father, in making the statement on her behalf.
Debbie Rodolph, the older sister of the mother, said her nephew was in dire need of help from the system.
"He needed the system to work for him and it didn't. Now he's dead. My sister fought so hard to get him help," the aunt said of the mother's battle with the government to gain benefits.
Judy Rafalski, associate executive director of Hopevale, confirmed that Rodolph had been released from the facility on Aug. 15.
"When we discharge a youth, they can go home or be hooked up with other types of services, but because of the confidentiality for the youth and family, we can't talk about cases specifically," Rafalski said.
She expressed compassion for the youth's family.
"It's a horrible thing, and we definitely extend our condolences to the family. That is just a tragedy," Rafalski said.
Rodolph, who was 5-foot, 6-inches, weighed about 160 pounds and was of biracial background, was the middle child in a family of five siblings.
Halloween decorations festooned the front of his family's home and a steady flow of friends showed up throughout the day to offer support and hugs as the family tried to make sense of the nightmare.
Funeral arrangements, which are incomplete, will be handled by the Brian K. Lewis Funeral Home on Sycamore Street.
News Staff Reporter Gene Warner contributed to this report.