A longtime suspect was charged with murder Monday in the drive-by shooting of a 2-year-old whose death came to symbolize the indiscriminate gun violence plaguing parts of Minneapolis.
Detectives have long believed that Chris Welch fired the bullet that mortally wounded Le'Vonte King Jason Jones on July 8, 2016, as he rode in a van with his 15-month-old sister and their father, Melvonte Peterson. Welch, 34, who was charged Monday with second-degree murder in Jones' death, is serving a federal prison term on unrelated gun charges. No attorney was listed in his most recent case.
At an afternoon news conference at police headquarters, officials said the charges had been a long time coming.
"We know that violence in any community affects everyone," Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said. "This case, however, involved the most vulnerable of our community, and that's our children. When children are shot and killed, our entire city mourns."
County Attorney Mike Freeman, making his first public appearance since going on medical leave in May, credited the lead detective, Sgt. James Jensen, for closing the case.
"If you ask about cases in which we in law enforcement take the extra step, the extra concern in investigation and consideration of charging, this is one of them," Freeman said.
Le'Vonte's mother, LeShae Jones, looked on with her daughter as authorities announced the charges Monday afternoon.
In an earlier interview, she said that while it won't bring her son back, she was "relieved" that the man accused of killing him would have to answer for his actions.
'What justice could look like'
Speaking to reporters, the Rev. Danny Givens, Le'Vonte's first cousin, said Monday's announcement helped heal some of the family's wounds.
"Today feels like the beginning of what justice could look like," he said. "I'm thankful for the persistency of the Minneapolis Police Department and the County Attorney's Office for not giving up and for staying committed to LeShae and our family during his time."
A criminal complaint filed Monday in Hennepin County District Court described for the first time a motive for the shooting, saying that Welch had confided in someone that he was angry at Peterson for stealing from him.
That person told police that Welch had previously threatened to kill Peterson, the complaint said.
Almost immediately after the shooting, Welch's name surfaced in court documents as the prime suspect in Le'Vonte's death. In separate interviews at the time, both Mike Freeman and Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said that they knew who pulled the trigger.
And, on at least one occasion, police presented the case to prosecutors, who declined to bring charges, citing a lack of corroborating evidence.
The Star Tribune, in keeping with newsroom policy, has not named Welch until now because he hadn't been charged in the murder.
According to a search warrant filed in the case, in the months after the shooting Peterson repeatedly declined to say who shot at him.
Only later did he name Welch as the shooter, but by then detectives were skeptical of his story, the warrant said. Court filings show that witnesses and Peterson gave contradictory statements to police about who was involved in the shooting.
For months, the case remained open.
The first major breakthrough came last year after investigators re-interviewed several witnesses who had been with Welch on the day of the shooting, court filings say.
One of the witnesses, who had been with Welch before the shooting, told investigators that Welch was driving an Impala and, after recognizing the van as Peterson's, leaned over the front seat passenger and fired through the open passenger's-side window.
Another man who saw Welch afterward claimed to have overheard him admit that he'd just been involved in a shooting.
The case took another turn in January when homicide detectives got back cellphone records that put Welch in the area around the time of the shooting, court filings say.
In March, Welch was summoned to appear before a grand jury investigating the shooting after detectives uncovered new cellphone evidence placing him near the scene.
The panel decided not to indict Welch on first-degree premeditated murder. But more witnesses were interviewed after the grand jury, allowing prosecutors to charge Welch, officials said.
Sa'Lesha "Bunny" Beeks, a local activist who became interested in violence prevention after her mother, Birdell Beeks, was gunned down in a shooting in 2016, said she understood the emotions LeShae Jones was feeling after hearing news of the charges.
"I think it's bittersweet for her; of course she'd like to have her son back," she said, while adding that the initial psychological wounds will likely be compounded if the case goes to trial. "It's going to take the process of a jury deciding whether or not he's guilty and then a judge deciding how much time he's going to get."
Vigil on 3-year anniversary
A previously planned vigil next Monday, on the 3-year anniversary of LeVonte's death, will go on as scheduled, she said.
Welch is serving a 17-year federal prison sentence in Illinois for illegally possessing a firearm, after authorities raided a house that he frequented and recovered four guns, synthetic marijuana and drug paraphernalia. Lab tests found his DNA on one of the weapons, authorities said.
In an appeal, he accused the arresting officer of setting him up in retaliation for his supposed involvement in Le'Vonte's death.
Welch has long maintained his innocence, telling a TV news crew as he walked out of the county jail after his release shortly after the shooting that he hoped authorities "catch whoever did it."
Freeman said Monday that there is no timetable for his return to Minnesota in the case.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 Twitter: @StribJany