Witnesses rebut police

CORRECTION -- 04/12/08 -- A story in Thursday’s Review-Journal on witness accounts of the Henderson police shooting of ice cream truck driver Deshira Selimaj gave an incorrect age for one of the two sons present when she was killed. Selimaj’s 5-year-old and 11-year-old sons were present during the Feb. 12 shooting.

Unjustified. Pathetic. Mistake.

Those are words used by some witnesses to describe the controversial Feb. 12 shooting by a Henderson police officer that left 42-year-old ice cream truck driver Deshira Selimaj dead.

Three witnesses who spoke with the Review-Journal dispute police accounts of the shooting. They are among the more than 25 witnesses subpoenaed to testify in the coroner's inquest that begins today and is expected to continue Friday.

The inquest will determine whether 23-year-old Henderson police officer Luke Morrison was justified when he shot the Albanian immigrant in front of two of her children and her 65-year-old husband, Zyber Selimaj, during a daytime traffic stop near Coronado High School.

Deshira Selimaj had come to the aid of her husband, also an ice cream truck driver, after he was pulled over by police for speeding and running a stop sign. She arrived with two of their sons, ages 7 and 11.

Police said the husband and wife were combative and made suicidal statements. They also say that Deshira Selimaj held a knife to her son's throat and later -- after police secured the boy -- made an aggressive move toward an officer with the weapon.

Police say they first attempted to subdue Deshira Selimaj with a Taser and then shot her. Police have said she was standing when she was shot.

During a news conference nine days after the shooting, Henderson Police Chief Richard Perkins said Morrison saved the life of a fellow officer when he shot Deshira Selimaj, preventing an attack on Morrison's partner. Perkins called Morrison a hero.

The three witnesses, however, said police could have subdued the diminutive Deshira Selimaj without shooting her.

The witnesses claim that Deshira Selimaj didn't have a knife and never lunged toward an officer when Morrison pulled the fatal trigger. The witnesses said Deshira Selimaj was attempting to stand up, after being hit by the Taser, when she was shot once in the torso.

"I have to honestly say the shooting was not justified," said Astrid Bean, who was in her car about 30 yards from Deshira Selimaj at the time of the shooting.

Bean first arrived at the intersection of Sunridge Heights and Pecos Ridge parkways that day at about 3:05 p.m., approximately six minutes before Deshira Selimaj was shot by police.

When she first saw Deshira Selimaj, Bean said, Selimaj was sitting on the ground south of the intersection, unrestrained. As police approached Selimaj, she got up and ran toward her ice cream truck, which was parked nearby, Bean said.

Selimaj was, according to Bean, a safe distance from four police officers who were behind the ice cream truck in a semi-circle with their guns drawn on her.

As she ran, Selimaj was hit by a Taser and fell to the ground, Bean said.

Selimaj was shot as she attempted to get up, Bean said.

"I did not see a knife. She was running with her hands waving and flailing," said Bean, who viewed the incident through the passenger-side window of her mini-van.

"I saw her get tased. She went down. As she was getting up, I heard a definite shot and then she went down for good," Bean said. "I thought they were shooting at the ground. I thought they were trying to scare her because she wasn't a threat at all."

Witness Maria Saltonstall, who also is expected to give her account during the inquest, called the shooting "unjustified."

"I hope he (Morrison) walks the plank because he deserves it," she said.

Saltonstall said she also was about 30 yards from Deshira Selimaj, standing outside her car at the northwest corner of Sunridge Heights Parkway, when she saw four officers with guns drawn on Selimaj.

She recalls Selimaj standing, with her arms in the air, and speaking with the officers. She didn't have a knife, Saltonstall said.

Police were several feet away from Selimaj when they hit her with the Taser, she said.

Unlike Bean's account, Saltonstall said Selimaj wasn't running when she was hit with the Taser.

After Selimaj was hit with the Taser she landed against her ice cream truck and slid to the ground, Saltonstall said. She was trying to get up when she was shot by police, Saltonstall said.

"To shoot an unarmed woman is pathetic, absolutely pathetic," Saltonstall said. "I had nightmares after this. I still, to this day, have goose bumps every time I think of those children screaming and running up and down that sidewalk after their mother was shot."

A third witness, who did not want his name used out of fear of retribution, said he stopped his pickup and got out of the vehicle to watch the incident, and Selimaj was in a heated conversation with police. The witness said the scene was chaotic, with police officers continuously arriving.

Four officers approached Selimaj, while a fifth used a Taser on her, he said. The man said he didn't see a knife.

Selimaj was shot while she was on the ground, the man said.

Afterward, her 7-year-old son became hysterical and started running toward her, but a police officer yelled at him and told him to stop, he said. Zyber Selimaj became enraged and several officers restrained him on the hood of a police car, he said.

Henderson police spokesman Keith Paul said the department will have no further comment on details of the incident until after the inquest.

Paul said he expects Morrison's actions will be deemed appropriate after all the testimony is heard.

During the inquest a jury will hear testimony and then determine whether Morrison's actions were justifiable, excusable or criminal.

"We fully anticipate after thoughtful review of all evidence presented at the coroner's inquest that our officer's actions will be viewed as justified," Paul said.

Christopher Laurent, a chief deputy in the district attorney's office, said 10 or 11 police officers are on the list of 25 witnesses for the inquest.

Laurent wouldn't say how many of the 25 witnesses corroborate the police version of the incident.

The inquest will be an impartial process, Laurent said.

Some, however, contend that it's inappropriate to use lawyers with the district attorney's office to question witnesses because they work closely with police to prosecute criminals.

Laurent takes exception to that notion.

"I took an oath to uphold the Nevada and U.S. Constitution," he said. "I hold that very seriously and will fulfill my oath."

Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4638.