A Missouri police sniper killed a 2-year-old girl. Why did he take the shot?

25 de Marzo de 2024 a las 05:00 ·

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KCUR and the Midwest Newsroom spent eight months investigating the events that led to the killing of Clesslyn Crawford, age 2, by a Joplin, Missouri, police sniper. Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3

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A KCUR and Midwest Newsroom investigation reveals the chain of events that ended in the death of Clesslynn Crawford almost exactly two years ago.

Content warning: This report involves details that may be upsetting to readers.

It turned tragic almost immediately. And then only got worse.

At 7:17 p.m. on March 26, 2022, Taylor Shutte called the Baxter Springs, Kansas Police Department and “whispered she needed help,” according to dispatch logs. There were two cars with four officers on patrol that night in Baxter Springs, a tiny town 150 miles south of Kansas City. Both headed to the scene. The dispatcher told them the incident “sounded like a verbal fight in the background.”

Verbal fights were common between Shutte, 27, and Eli Crawford, 38. They weren’t married but shared a daughter and a troubled relationship.

Officer Seth Brown knocked on the door of the small camper and asked Crawford to step outside. Instead, Brown told investigators, Crawford retreated, and “a few moments later, the door was opened by a little girl.” Then, as Shutte walked out, she was shot in the face and head by Crawford.

Just seven minutes after her initial call to police, Shutte was dead.

Here’s what happened next, according to reports from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI).

Crawford began firing at officers from inside the camper.

“Nobody returned fire because there was a child inside the camper trailer,” Baxter Springs Officer Jimmy Hamilton told the KBI.

Two hours later that child, two-year-old Clesslynn Crawford, was also dead: Shot through the head by a police sniper — known only in court documents as Sniper 1.

Clessyn Crawford
Clessyln Crawford, age 2, was known by her loved ones as Clessie. (Nichols Family / Provided)

KCUR and the Midwest Newsroom have spent eight months investigating the events that led to the killing of Clessie — that’s what her family called her — by a Joplin, Missouri police sniper.

The investigation included a review of the 800-page investigation by the KBI, a 37-page report by the Cherokee County, Kansas prosecutor, and the FBI sniper manual. A reporter also interviewed two former federal law enforcement snipers.

All to answer this question: Should Sniper 1 have taken the shot that killed Clessie?

First, there are some things to know about being a police sniper.

A sniper rarely pulls the trigger. The FBI refers to the role as “Observer/Sniper.” A former federal law enforcement sniper, whose name KCUR is withholding because he now works in the private sector, said “99.9 percent of the time” snipers are relaying information to commanders, not firing their weapons.

The most important rule for a sniper is they “must be absolutely sure of the identity” of any target. That directive is on page one of the FBI’s Advance Rifle Training manual.

Here is what the Joplin Police Department’s own training curriculum says: “Is the suspect in plain view? Extreme caution must be used at night, as darkness may obscure the officer’s vision and adversely affect accuracy.”

This directive will become particularly important.

Snipers train, train, and then train some more. They may fire thousands of practice rounds and never shoot at a live target.

The shot that killed Clessie

The first back-up officer arrived on the scene in Baxter Springs at 7:37 p.m. The law enforcement response was massive for the town of 3,800 people. Off-duty officers from Baxter Springs responded.

So did on-duty and off-duty deputies from the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office. Four Kansas Highway Patrol troopers were there.

Many of the cops were pinned down by constant fire from Crawford in his camper.

Bullet holes on Cherokee vehicle
Eli Crawford fired at law enforcement at the scene, hitting this Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office vehicle, among others. (Cherokee County Sheriff / Provided)

The KBI investigation showed that Crawford had a half dozen guns and fired almost 100 rounds, peppering police vehicles with gunfire.

Baxter Springs Police Chief Brian Henderson and Cherokee County Sheriff David Groves arrived and made two crucial decisions: They needed a SWAT team immediately. Knowing it would take the Highway Patrol or KBI teams at least three hours to arrive, they called the closest one, in Joplin — about 20 minutes away across the state line. There was an existing agreement for mutual aid between Joplin and Cherokee County.

Joplin SWAT arrived at 8:43 p.m., and by that time there were 30 cops and three armored vehicles from four agencies on scene. It was already dark.

Sniper 1 arrived before most of his teammates and was already in position. He was just 42 minutes away from killing Clessie, with “A gunshot wound entrance in the left eye,” according to her autopsy.

She was wearing pink pants, a gray shirt, and a blue tutu.

‘Just perfect’

Clessie loved swimming and watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Her favorite food?

“Avocados, believe it or not, avocados and bubble fruit,” her aunt, Tedra Nichols said. “That little girl was everything to all of us. She was the closest thing to heaven I’ve ever seen. She was just perfect.”

Clesslynn Crawford
Clesslynn Crawford, age 2, was the daughter of Taylor Shutte and Eli Crawford. Nichols Family/Provided

Nichols and Shutte are sisters. Because of the tempestuous relationship between Shutte and Crawford, Nichols spent an enormous amount of time with Clessie. Nichols’ daughter Brooklyn Shutte, 18, also spent many hours with Clessie.

“I was one of the first people to hold her when she was born,” she said. Brooklyn, who lives in Joplin with her mother, babysat Clessie and she would often spend the night. “She was kinda like my mini best friend.”

Richard Anderson, Clessie’s grandfather, told KCUR he had an “instant nervous breakdown” after hearing the news of Clessie’s death. He started drinking again, he said. He was five years sober, but after Clessie was killed, “I hit the bottle every single day for about two months.

He stopped drinking again with the help of church members in Joplin and his own faith.

“I believe that they’re safe up in heaven with God, and that’s the only thing that gets me by everything,” Anderson said.

Because it was a police officer who killed Clessie, Brooklyn Schutte finds it hard to even look at a Joplin cop.

“I’d like be driving to work or school and there was a cop behind me, or even like a couple cars down in the other lane next to me and I would like shake really bad, and I’d have panic attacks and I just wouldn’t be able to talk, my mouth would get dry,” she said. “I’m still that way sometimes.”

Clesslynn Crawford’s cousin Brooklyn Schutte
Clesslynn Crawford’s cousin Brooklyn Schutte spent hours with her niece, often babysitting. (Nichols Family / Provided)

Clessie’s family settled a lawsuit against the City of Joplin and Cherokee County in November for $1.5 million. Joplin paid $1.4 million of that. Sniper 1 was dismissed as a defendant in August 2023.

“How do you explain to your children going forward, the rights and wrongs of life?” asked Nichols. “And just because it was a police officer, they're supposed to get away with it? That makes no sense. And it's my understanding as of right now, this officer's not had no consequences. It's been a nightmare.”

Who is Sniper 1?

The identity of Sniper 1 is a mystery, because he sued the City of Joplin, forcing it to redact his name from the KBI report before KCUR and the Midwest Newsroom received a copy through the Missouri Sunshine Law. KCUR, the Midwest Newsroom, the City of Joplin and Sniper 1 are fighting over that redaction in Jasper County Court.

But we do know a few things about Sniper 1 gleaned from those KBI documents. He is a white male who is now 32 years old. When he shot Clessie in 2022, he had been an officer for six years, all with the Joplin Police Department. Sniper 1 was on the Joplin SWAT team for five years, and “had served as the sniper team leader for two years,” according to his interview with the KBI.

From other sources we also know that he is still a Joplin police officer making $50,000 a year. He is, however, no longer on the SWAT team.

When asked why Sniper 1 was still in the department despite the tragic mistake, Joplin Police Chief Richard Pearson, who took over as chief in December, provided a statement:

“As this matter is closed, this agency has no further comment other than what has previously been provided by our department. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the family.”

Sniper 1 was off duty when he got a “SWAT page” on that March night in 2022. He headed home to get his sniper rifle and other gear. On his way to Baxter Springs, Sniper 1 got a phone call from Sgt. Andrew Blair, the SWAT team commander.

“It was a hostage situation,” Sniper 1 recalled to the KBI. “I needed to get my head right and we were…. I need to respond to the scene to help remedy the situation.”

When Sniper 1 arrived on the scene, Blair deployed him south of the camper. One of the Joplin snipers was unavailable, so Sniper 1 would work alone. This is unusual because snipers ideally work in pairs: One on the rifle and the other an observer with a more powerful scope. The Sniper 2 team was assigned to the other side of the camper.

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Most sniper shots are made from about 60 yards away. Sniper 1 was more than 100 yards from the camper in Baxter Springs, Kansas. (Kansas Bureau of Investigation / Report)

Sniper 1 settled into a position 109 yards from the camper with a small window in what’s called the slide-out in his sights, according to the KBI crime scene analysis.

American Sniper Association data shows the average sniper shot is about 60 yards, but 100 yards is not uncommon. Sniper 1 was in a prone position next to a house with trees on either side of his line of sight. Even before observing the target, he had gotten the green light to shoot. Blair’s orders were clear.

“If we have a clear line of sight to end it with (Crawford), then we have to end it. We have to stop it,” Blair told KBI agents. After he was in position, Sniper 1 reconfirmed he had the green light in a phone call with his boss.

“Yes. We are not going to give him a chance to leave the trailer,” Sniper 1 remembered Blair saying.

“That implies a ‘shoot on sight’ directive, and such a thing violates every legal standard, and every policy, training and practical understanding of justifiable, and thus permissible, use of deadly force,” said Urey Patrick, who wrote the FBI sniper manual and is a use of force expert who has testified at many trials.

Sniper 1 then made a critical decision.

Suicide threat

The scene was changing rapidly by this time: It was about 8:43 p.m. Crawford continued to fire out of the camper. Cops were hunkered down behind their cars.

The rest of the Joplin SWAT team arrived with two armored personnel carriers. The KBI also arrived with its armored vehicle. Cherokee County Sheriff David Groves told investigators that “the first priority of the JPD SWAT team” was to get other officers to a safer location.

Weighing which agency to ask for SWAT assistance, the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office decided to contact the closest police department in Joplin, Missouri. (Cherokee County Sheriff / Provided)

At about this time, Joplin SWAT crisis negotiators made contact with Crawford’s sister at the Red Ball Bar and Grill about a block away. Sasqua Crawford told KBI agents that, “Eli called her and said he needed her to come get the baby, he just shot Shutte.”

Eli Crawford told police negotiators that as soon as his sister got Clessie from the camper, “then he would kill himself.” Joplin PD’s lead negotiator, Sgt. Thomas Bowin said he couldn’t allow Crawford’s sister to go to the camper. “He won’t kill me,” Sasqua Crawford told Baxter Springs police Cpl. Christopher Forsythe.

Eli Crawford became more agitated. He told Forsythe in a phone call that “he had 5000 rounds of shotgun shells and a fully automatic that he was getting ready to break out,” Forsythe wrote in his report. (Later, investigators learned Crawford had neither).

While he talked to police, Crawford was also talking to his best friend on another cell phone. That’s when, for the first time, he threatened to kill Clessie and then himself.

Another SWAT negotiator, Det. Laken Rawlins, was listening to all of this and made one thing clear to the commanders.

“(Rawlins) believed the child would be close to Eli Crawford because they could hear the child through the telephone,” KBI investigators wrote.

It’s unclear how much of this was relayed to Sniper 1.

In body cam footage from that night at least two SWAT team members complain their police radios periodically cut out.

“Our radios are messing up,” an unidentified officer is heard to say on the body cam of Officer Arthur Brophy. One of those officers who said he had radio issues was Officer Jacob Wright, who was designated Sniper 2 that night.

A shot in the dark

On the evening of March 26, 2022, it was 57 degrees with an eight mile-an-hour wind out of the northeast. Weather would not be a major factor for Sniper 1.

Time would be.

Sunset came at 7:35 p.m., so by the time Sniper 1 was in position it was dark. His rifle had a night vision attachment on the scope. Even though night had fallen, he removed it and “placed the device in his cargo pocket,” the KBI wrote. He told investigators he thought his target was “fairly well illuminated.”

This was a mistake, according to the former federal law enforcement sniper interviewed for this article.

“You can discern objects, you can discern features, you can discern faces."

"Why you would not use that night vision capability is beyond me.”

—Former federal law enforcement sniper

Pretty soon, Sniper 1 said, he heard bullets pass overhead and hit the trees behind him. Snipers are rarely in danger, the former federal sniper said, because they are concealed so they can carry out their observation duty. If a sniper fires, it is almost always in the defense of others and not themselves, the retired sniper said.

As Sniper 1 watched the small window in the camper slide-out, he suddenly saw “a white male walk left to right from that window, and it probably lasted about a second,” according to the transcript of his KBI interview.

Then the camper briefly went dark. When the lights came back on, Sniper 1 told investigators he saw his target on the left side of the window and he was “presented with his (Crawford’s) upper torso and his arm,” the transcript said. “The lights that were in the trailer were behind him, so it was a silhouette.”

At 9:25 p.m., Sniper 1 fired one round through the camper window. The crime scene analysis said it hit exactly where he aimed.

He thought he shot Eli Crawford in the chest.

Instead, he shot two-year-old Clessie in the head.

Crawford was on the phone with negotiators when Sniper 1 fired. Det. Rawlins heard Crawford say, “you just shot my kid in the head through the window.” Rawlins then heard him say “I love you.”

Then multiple officers said they heard a shot from inside the camper. Joplin SWAT Officer Logan Bowline told investigators he heard a “mass of weight” hit the floor.

Crawford died from a “contact gunshot wound of the head,” according to his autopsy.

‘He was careless’

How could Sniper 1 mistake the center mass of a grown man for the head of a two-year-old?

That may always be a mystery. The Cherokee County attorney’s report that exonerated Sniper 1 only said, “evidence suggests Clesslynn was standing on the couch at the time of Sniper 1’s shot.”

But the former federal sniper is clear about firing at a silhouette.

“I would never take a shot blindly at a silhouette without being able to identify what that silhouette is. How do you know that the silhouette doesn’t have a little kid in front of him?”

The man who wrote the book for FBI snipers went further.

“My impression at this point is that this officer’s decision to shoot would be difficult to justify under the standards for use for deadly force."

—Urey Patrick, FBI sniper manual author

Every police officer is taught to hold their fire if they don’t know what is behind their target. In his interview with the KBI, Joplin Sgt. Michael Gauss said Sniper 1 told him “he never saw the little ‘person’ and never saw anyone else but that male suspect,” in the camper.

“The fact he confused the silhouette of a man's body with that of a child's head, means he clearly had not identified his target and ipso facto, means he was careless,” KCUR’s sniper source said.

Patrick also said he was troubled by Sniper 1’s failure to identify his target.

“The officer was sure that he saw an adult male, but I do not think his certainty holds up to an objective analysis of the total circumstances, and his subjective certainty is not enough,” he told The Midwest Newsroom and KCUR in an email exchange.

The bullet from the sniper’s high-powered rifle was designed to penetrate windows intact. Even if he shot Crawford, Sniper 1 had no idea where Clessie was in the camper, and the round could have gone through an adult man and hit anything behind him, the former sniper said.

Indeed, the KBI crime scene analysis discovered the bullet that killed Clessie passed through her, through the refrigerator, out the back of the camper and ricocheted off two trees. That bullet was never found.

‘I’m screwed’

After he took the shot, Sniper 1 told investigators he was summoned to the command post with his rifle. There he met a Cherokee County detective who took custody of the weapon.

“I asked what was going on, what he could tell me, and he told me I shot the kid,” according to the KBI transcript. “I probably was distraught and I kept on saying that I’m screwed.”

There is more.

Sniper 1 told investigators he did not see blinds that covered part of the window.

As part of its investigation, the KBI reviewed the Joplin PD’s curriculum for its Basic Sniper Course.

“Several items stood out in this training document directly related to the incident on March 26, 2022,” agents wrote.

Sniper 1 fired through the camper window despite the presence of blinds. (Kansas Bureau of Investigation / Report)

Among them the three requirements for firing through a barrier, like window blinds: “a) must be able to see clearly enough to identify the threat, b) needs to be able to determine the type of material to be shot through, and c) know how the intermediate barrier will affect the projectile.”

KBI agents asked Sniper 1 if he could tell what color shirt Crawford was wearing. All he could tell was it was a dark shirt.

“I’m not sure what color. It was, it wasn’t a super bright lit trailer,” the interview transcript shows.

KBI crime scene investigators also wrote:

“There is no physical evidence that would indicate Eli Crawford was in close proximity to Clesslynn Crawford when she received her fatal wound.”

Sniper 1 also had a rangefinder which he didn’t use that night. Perhaps a minor point, according to the former sniper, but it still begs the question: Why not?

Joplin SWAT Officer Jacob Wright, part of the Sniper 2 team, said he also saw Crawford moving around the camper. Asked by investigators if he considered firing his sniper rifle, he said no, because “Crawford’s movements in the front door were too fast.”

Body cam still image
This still image from body cam video shows Joplin SWAT members preparing to enter the camper where Clesslynn and Eli Crawford died. The toddler’s big wheel is in the yard with the Kansas Highway Patrol helicopter above. (Body Camera / Joplin Police Department)

Sniper 1’s lawyer, Sean McCauley from Kansas City, spoke for his client.

“My client’s heart goes out to the family. My client was, and remains, utterly dismayed at the loss of Clessie,” he said in an emailed statement. “If there was anything that could be done to change things, my client would do it in an instant. Although it does not compare, my client continues to cope in the aftermath of this terrible event.”

Immune from prosecution

The KBI’s 800-page report is the culmination of the criminal investigation into what happened on March 26, 2022.

It’s unclear exactly when the report was turned over to Cherokee County Attorney Nathan Coleman, but the last bit of evidence collected by the KBI was in May 2023.

On September 1, 2023 — some 17 months after Clessie was killed — Coleman decided against charging Sniper 1.

“If the Officer reasonably perceived Clesslynn to be the attacker when the shot was fired, it is this office’s opinion that statutory immunity would apply and the Officer would be immune from prosecution.”

Coleman’s report dwelled on the danger to police.

“Given the imminent danger presented by Crawford and the split-second judgment required, a reasonable officer on the scene could have perceived Clesslynn in the window as the aggressor appearing again to fire on law enforcement.”

Right after deciding to forego charging Sniper 1, Coleman resigned as Cherokee County Attorney. He was replaced by Kurt Benecke, who could have reversed that decision, but chose not to. Benecke “reviewed the matter and provides his signature below approving the same,” the last line in the county attorney’s report reads. Benecke did not return calls seeking comment so we don’t know whether he read the entire KBI investigation or just the summary from his predecessor.

The Crawford family’s lawyer, Tom Porto from Kansas City, vehemently disagreed with the decision not to charge Sniper 1.

“This is not a forgettable one. This is one of the worst cases I've ever been involved in,” he said. “This was a completely and totally innocent two-year-old girl who had her life taken from her in an extremely reckless action by law enforcement.”

Crawford's grave
Clesslynn Crawford and her mother Taylor Schutte are buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery, Webb City, Missouri. (Nichols Family / Provided)

Clessie’s aunt, Tedra Nichols, lost her sister Taylor and her niece Clessie that night. Those losses, she said, are with her always.

We talked about raising the kids together,” she said. “I was hopeful for her and our future plans.”


This story is a collaboration between KCUR 89.3 and the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.