In paid speeches and high-profile public appearances, Newark mayor and New Jersey senatorial candidate Cory Booker has often invoked the name of Wazn Miller, the 19-year-old gunned down between a set of housing projects in Newark nine years ago.
I got interested in the 2004 case after reporting on “T-Bone,” the Newark drug pusher and alleged Booker friend whom the mayor often mentioned on the stump; but Booker had told Rutgers University professor Clement Price that T-Bone was, in reality, a composite character. It wasn’t the bare outlines of Booker’s account of the shooting’s aftermath that piqued my curiosity — that Booker was nearby when it happened and helped on the scene — but the cinematic details. Booker has told several audiences that Miller fell into his arms after being shot and bled to death as they waited for an ambulance to arrive on the scene.
It is worth quoting Booker at length. Here he is speaking at Yale in 2007:
It was during this time that I felt I probably reached one of the lowest points of my life, the nadir, when I was growing frustrated, when I was having a tough time holding on to that which has sustained our nation, our ideal for ourselves and the love which I’ve talked about. I was walking around, it was actually the week of my birthday, and I was walking around my neighborhood and gunshots rang out and I turned around towards the gunfire. It was echoing like cannon fire between a set of projects, and a whole bunch of children were running down a hill, and I sprinted through the kids towards the gunfire that seemed to be still ringing in my ears, and I got there. There was another young man who was stumbling backwards off some steps, and he fell into my arms, and I looked over his shoulder and his chest was filling up with this red blood. And I looked down and sort of held him, tried to hold the blood into his chest to stop it, he’s sort of coughing and gagging, and foamy red blood just started pouring out of his mouth. I’m screaming at people to please call an ambulance, please call an ambulance. I also screamed to somebody to please tell me who he was, what was his name. I sat there in probably one of the more uncomfortable moments of my life just whispering in Wazn’s ears — his name was Wazn Miller — whispering in his ears, saying, ‘Stay with me, stay with me,’ not knowing anything, what to do, just holding my hands in this boy’s bloody chest. It seemed like a whirlwind was going on around me, so much was flashing through my mind as I sat there just trying to hold this child as his breathing stopped, as I reached into his mouth not knowing what I was reaching for, trying to clear the foamy blood out of his mouth, clear the foamy blood out of his mouth, hoping that he would just start breathing again, just start breathing again. And, um, the ambulance finally came, pushed me out of the way, ripped open his shirt where I now saw three gunshot wounds in his front, one in his side, and he was dead. I just stood there as cops asked me questions. I tried to articulate what I had witnessed to them.
Hoping to verify Booker’s story, National Review Online requested the police report pertaining to the murder of Wazn Miller. After repeated delays, we sued Cory Booker and the city of Newark on Tuesday. I received a copy of both the incident report and the “continuation” police report on Thursday, although mysteriously the liberal outlet ThinkProgress received them first. Missing is the preliminary investigation report filed by the detectives who responded to the scene. We have requested this from the city, but Newark officials informed us they are “under no further obligation” to provide the documents. The report we received picks up the following day.
The reports in our possession confirm that Booker, who at the time did not hold public office but was a former city councilman and high-profile Newark resident, responded to the scene of the crime and admirably rendered aid to the victim. This has also been confirmed by the chief of investigators for the Essex County prosecutor’s office, Anthony Ambrose, a former director of the Newark Police Department. But the report contradicts Booker’s most dramatic claims about the incident, which have added emotional punch to the story in his retellings: that Miller fell back into his arms and that the mayor held him until he died.
It wasn’t just at Yale where Booker said he caught the falling Miller. In October 2010 at NYU, he said, “I lunged forward to catch him, looked over his shoulder to see his chest filling up with red blood.” He maintains that he caught Miller after hearing the shots and running to the scene. Again, at NYU: “I heard gunshots ring out, and I spun around to see screaming kids sort of running down from a hill between two buildings, and I ran through the kids and got there, and I saw this young man on some steps sort of falling backward.”
And he has repeatedly said that he held Miller in his arms until the end. “The first time I actually held somebody as they died waiting in vain for an ambulance to come was a young boy, a teenager, who should have been an American hero, who should have been in chemistry class, who should have been a poet,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2008.
But it is impossible to square these two claims with the police report, which cites a woman who had been sitting on steps close to Miller. She says nothing about someone catching Miller after he was shot and says that she was the one who held the wounded teenager.
The report says:
She stated she had been sitting on the steps in close proximity to the victim when the suspect approached through the courtyard coming from the Muhammad Ali Ave side of the complex. She described suspect as a black male, appx 5′7″ to 5′9″ tall wearing a black and gray shirt and a mask on his face. She said that she heard the gunshots and started to run but then returned to the victim after the shots stopped and she held the victim in her arms until the police and ambulance arrived.
A second witness corroborated her account. The report notes, “Her account of holding the victim in her arms was consistent with the statement of [redacted] in which she described the victim laying [sic] in a girl’s arms bleeding.”
Also contradicting Booker, the police report indicates that in fact Miller “expired from his injuries at University Hospital,” not on the scene of the crime, and that he sustained one gunshot wound to the chest (and a bullet nicked his finger), not four, as Booker has repeatedly said.
Booker does figure in the police report when, days after the shooting, the police re-canvass the area and learn that Booker had been at the scene. The report says:
It was learned that former Newark city councilman Cory Booker had been in the area when the incident occurred and had rendered aid to the victim. The undersigned contacted Mr. Booker and conducted an interview with him. He advised me that he had been in the area when he heard the gunshots. He stated that he did not witness the shooting nor did he observe the suspect. After hearing the gunshots, he responded to the victim and rendered aid and assisted in securing the scene until the arrival of officers. He could not provide any further information at this time.
None of this is dispositive. Perhaps Booker caught Miller and no one bothered to mention it to the police or the police didn’t think it was worthy of inclusion in the report. Perhaps the female witness exaggerated in her statement to the police when she said she held Miller until the ambulance arrived. Perhaps in the initial confusion, the police failed to interview the man who caught the victim and held him for the duration. When Booker was interviewed by the police days later — despite saying at Yale, “I just stood there as cops asked me questions, and I tried to articulate what I had witnessed” — perhaps he was too modest to mention that he caught the victim and held him until he died or, again, the police didn’t consider it important information. The actual police interviews might shed further light on all this. We’ve asked the City of Newark for them. It is resisting.
The Booker campaign tells National Review Online that it stands by the mayor’s version of events. Deriding inquiries as “partisan, Swiftboat journalism at its worst,” the campaign’s communications director Kevin Griffis tells me, “It’s clear from the police report, as well as the statements of police who were on the scene, that the mayor’s description of the incident is accurate.” Booker spokesman James Allen says, “The police reports make clear that Mayor Booker acted courageously, taking action and aiding the victim at the shooting scene until officers and EMTs arrived.”
Pressed specifically on whether Booker caught Miller and held him until he died, Griffis declined to provide an on-the-record response, and Allen did not respond to the inquiry.
UPDATE: Booker spokesman James Allen writes, “When Mayor Booker arrived at the scene, there were a few individuals trying to hold Mr. Miller up on some steps. The mayor grabbed the victim from behind and with the help of others, carried him to the grass. Another individual was supporting Mr. Miller’s head while Mayor Booker was positioned near the victim’s torso, applying pressure to his chest to try to stop the bleeding and working to clear blood from his mouth. When paramedics arrived, the mayor was still holding the victim and no longer felt a pulse. Sadly, Mr. Miller was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.”
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.