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Criminal Justice

A Broken Justice System Is Only Deepening the Grief of Sinzae Reed’s Family

Community members are demanding the same treatment from elected leaders, police, and media as others communities when tragedy strikes.

Megan Reed says she’s in the process of getting a series of tattoos to memorialize her son Sinzae Reed as “Forever 13.” Sinzae was killed in October 2022 by a man who invoked a stand-your-ground defense; prosecutors have decided not to bring homicide-related charges. (Emanuel Wallace)

Megan Reed was in the middle of cooking dinner when she was startled by someone repeatedly banging on the front door of her Columbus, Ohio, apartment. A neighbor alerted her that her youngest son, Sinzae Reed, was shot. 

Reed rushed out of their second-floor apartment in the Wedgewood Village Apartments complex with food still cooking on the stove. She ran across an open grassy field toward the complex’s main street, where she found her sister, Brandy Bentley, screaming and crying in between pleas for help. 

Several people immediately told Reed that Krieg Allen Butler shot Sinzae. Butler claimed it was self-defense and in May, prosecutors announced that he wouldn’t face murder charges for the October 2022 shooting in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood on Columbus’ westside. 

Sinzae’s case is a part of a pattern of gun violence that plagues the neighborhood and is one of the first cases in Franklin County where the controversial stand-your-ground law was evoked as a defense. Reed, Bentley and other residents remain frustrated with prosecutors, elected officials, and local news outlets. Their neighborhood is only discussed as a talking point about violence and is ignored by law enforcement because of their socioeconomic status, they say.

“Sinzae is our Trayvon Martin,” says Karla White Carey, the president of the organizing committee for the Ohio Families Unite Against Police Brutality.

On a brisk June afternoon, Reed sits with her sister in the living room of her new apartment. She often glances over at the life-size cardboard cutout of Sinzae that stands alongside a shrine of candles, religious crosses, and photographs. In February, Reed says she moved 5 miles away to the South Franklinton neighborhood to escape the violence in Hilltop — but she has regrets.  

“I’m trying to go back to Wedgewood. … I feel closer to Sinzae there; it’s like a comfort thing,” Reed, 38, told Capital B exactly eight months after his death.

Reed says she has not received condolences from any elected officials and believes that if she lived in a different neighborhood — or her son was white or if Butler was Black — the entire investigation would have gone differently. She also questions why news headlines rely on prosecutors’ depiction of Sinzae as the aggressor Butler needed him to be to avoid homicide-related charges. 

The mother of three wears a necklace with a small amount of his ashes inside a pendant that lies near her heart. She points out her tattoos and says she’s in the process of getting a series of tattoos to memorialize Sinzae as “Forever 13.”

Megan Reed moved from Wedgewood Village Apartments after the shooting, but says she’s trying to move back. “I feel closer to Sinzae there; it’s like a comfort thing,” she says. (Emanuel Wallace)

Sinzae’s aunt tries to fight back tears as she remembers hearing gunshots coming from the area where she saw her nephew walking toward to meet his friends that fateful day last year on Oct. 12.

“I heard someone say ‘Sinzae got shot’ so I dropped everything and took off running,” says Bentley, 27, as she wipes away the tears rolling down her cheeks. She says when she got around to the building, she saw her nephew laying in the middle of the street alone.

“I was just standing over him screaming and crying, asking for somebody to help.”

Eleven 911 calls were made, including one where a distraught caller identified Butler as the shooter. That call also captured Bentley’s cries in the background. 

Two bullets struck Sinzae in his right hand and chest. Within minutes, Bentley says the paramedics arrived and took Sinzae to a nearby hospital, where he died less than an hour later. 

Bentley still drives around with Sinzae’s funeral program in her car’s front window and has “RIP ZAE” spray-painted in white letters on the left side of the car.

Brandy Bentley, Sinzae’s aunt, has “RIP ZAE” spray-painted in white letters on the left side of her car. (Emanuel Wallace)

‘There’s no real place to be safe’

The Wedgewood Village Apartments complex has over 800 units in more than a dozen red-brick three-story buildings that are spread within a two-block radius. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment can go for $1,200 unless a renter is on public assistance. A silver chain-linked fence divides the land that one half of the complex shares with a middle school where an 11-year-old was grazed by a bullet in May. 

The buildings along Wedgewood Drive are littered with possible building and health code violations because of broken glass windows, front doors that don’t lock, and mold inside apartments, as well as dead rats, feces, and garbage found all over the grass. 

“If you’re a child in that area, and that’s all you see, where’s the hope?” says Carey, the community activist and veteran mail carrier. “And that’s what’s so devastating to me, it isn’t just the drug-ridden part of it. People are raising their families because that’s the best that they can do. And there’s absolutely no hope over there for them. There’s no programs.”

Litter is strewn outside the front entrance of Sinzae’s building in Wedgewood Village Apartments. (Emanuel Wallace)

Since April 2022 in the Hilltop, there have been at least a dozen people under 25 who have been injured or killed because of gun violence. Those shootings mostly include unsolved homicides such as the death of 15-year-old Issa Jeylani who was a rising soccer player, and Jamika Ann Tashawna Summerville, 25, a special education instructional assistant. 

Whether it’s Butler claiming self-defense — which most residents don’t believe — unsolved murders or officer-involved shootings, the messaging residents say they are getting is that the lives of young Black people in Columbus aren’t valued. 

“There’s no real place to be safe,” Carey says. “Laws have changed to make it that much easier to do what he did to Sinzae; we’ve gotten lighter on gun laws and everybody carries with them now.”

At least once a year the past three years, Columbus has made national headlines because a Black person has been killed by a police officer. Last year, 20-year-old Donovan Lewis was killed; in 2021, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was killed: and in 2020 was 23-year-old Casey Goodson Jr. as well as 47-year-old Andre Hill. Charges were filed against the officers in connection to the deaths of Goodson and Hill, but not for Bryant. The investigation into Lewis’ death is still ongoing.

Read More: A 13-Year-Old Black Boy Was Killed. Will Stand-Your-Ground Protect the Shooter?

Throughout the years, Carey says, residents rarely see an officer criminally charged for killing a Black person. But in 2018 there was short-lived hope when former vice cop Andrew Mitchell went on trial after he said he killed Donna Castleberry in self-defense. However, after his first trial ended with a hung jury last year, he was acquitted in April of all charges.

As a sign that reform within Columbus’ police department is on the horizon, a new police chief was hired, the City Council implemented an incentive program that offers buyouts to veteran officers, a Civilian Police Review Board was created, and after a request from Mayor Andrew Ginther and community leaders, the U.S. Justice Department launched in 2021 a review of the police department’s records.

Karla White Carey, 62, is president of the organizing committee for the Ohio Families Unite Against Police Brutality. (Christina Carrega/Capital B)

However, when it comes to addressing and solving everyday gun violence on Columbus’ westside, especially in Wedgewood, it has always been treated like a disgraced relative who is expected to fail, activists and residents told Capital B.

In 2021, there was a $2 million pledge to address the safety concerns and to do some renovations, but those plans didn’t materialize. Since Sinzae’s death, ShotSpotter detectors and surveillance cameras have been installed around the complex, including right outside of Sinzae’s bedroom. 

“We don’t want to hear gunshots. We don’t want to have to use our backs to shield our children when there’s gunshots going off. We don’t want to do none of that,” Hilltop resident Michael Knight, 40, says on a rainy afternoon in June as EMS arrived to tend to an overdose in a nearby building. 

Residents feel that those additions came a little too late and wish they’d receive resources to rid themselves of violence and drugs just as fast as other communities such as Short North Arts District that do not experience the same level of gun violence. For two years in a row, the City Council approved $500,000 to improve safety in the Short North Arts District, which is a hub for tourists and businesses. 

“When we made that announcement about the Short North, we also made an announcement about $21 million that we invested in out-of-school support and summer programming for our youth throughout the entire community. No one neighborhood is the same,” Councilmember Nick Bankston told Capital B. Between the ShotSpotter to the Safe Streets programs, Ginther’s budget also included implementing an Office of Violence Prevention that will be a citywide effort. 

“There are investments being made. But again, no two neighborhoods are the same,” Bankston says.

Ramon Obey, II, co-founder of J.U.S.T. (Justice, Unity, and Social Transformation), says that first responders don’t investigate crime scenes on the westside as they would in more-affluent neighborhoods such as Short North Art District. 

Sinzae was a victim of his circumstances, guilty by association and a Black adolescent growing up during a time when the word of an adult white person — despite their socioeconomic status — still trumps physical and scientific evidence.

“This is just another dead Black kid. This is in Wedgewood. This is what happens here, so let’s move on from here,” Obey said about why he thinks Sinzae’s case hasn’t been properly investigated. 

A ‘botched’ investigation and lingering questions  

Sinzae lived more than half of his life at Wedgewood with his older brother, Sincere, and little sister, Sinmeiauna. Sinzae, who was affectionately known as “Zae,” had a reputation in the community as a skinny kid who always wore a balaclava (a knitted ski mask) despite the temperature and wouldn’t back down from a fist fight, if one was warranted. 

Reed says Sinzae wasn’t feeling well the day he was shot, but when a friend asked him to meet him on Wedgewood Drive, he couldn’t resist. Reed says she didn’t know he left the house. Usually after being cooped up inside all day, Sinzae enjoyed hanging out with his friends, but he mostly spent time with his older brother playing video games and binge-watching TV series.

Unbeknownst to Sinzae on that fateful day, he was walking into the aftermath of tension between Butler and a neighbor, an adult white male, that had reached a boiling point. Hours before Sinzae stepped onto Wedgewood Drive from his Doulton Court building, Butler left the area with a public declaration to have his arch nemesis killed. 

Butler is a 36-year-old white man who earns a living as a mechanic, has a 10th grade education and 13 children. Prosecutors said at Butler’s arraignment in May that he threatened to kill a neighbor with whom he had an ongoing beef over the way Butler treats the mother of his children.

The day after Sinzae was killed, Butler was charged with murder and a parole violation. While in custody, Butler told investigators that in an attempt to avoid the man he threatened, he took an alternate route to his vehicle and aimed to exit the complex through a different street. Butler, who at the time of the shooting was on parole for a 2019 domestic violence conviction, repeatedly lied to investigators that he had a gun or shot someone that day. Possessing a firearm while on parole is an immediate violation that could have landed Butler in jail for the remainder of his sentence that ended in January. 

Eventually, Butler said he was acting in self-defense when he got out of his car to return fire at a person who he couldn’t identify because they were wearing a hoodie and a mask. Butler went on to provide cryptic descriptions of people who he said he didn’t know but could corroborate his account, prosecutors said. As Butler sat in jail, investigators found Butler’s witnesses, who added that an unidentified person was seen grabbing an object that appeared to be a gun nearby Sinzae’s body when he fell to the ground. Sinzae’s family and those who knew him dispute this account.

Those accounts led to Butler’s release from jail and the case being dropped just one week after the shooting. Police were put to task by Franklin County prosecutors to reinvestigate Sinzae’s death to prove that Butler wasn’t in fear for his life. The Columbus Police Department said that they turned over their case investigation file to prosecutors at the end of February. 

Dejuan Sharp, a founder and former president of Columbus Downtownerz, is critical of how investigators handled Sinzae’s death, as well as media depictions of the case. (Stephen Zenner/Getty Images)

Obey says the Columbus Police Department “really did a botched job” on Sinzae’s case and the fact that they miraculously found three of Butler’s poorly described witnesses when local journalists couldn’t find them, is questionable. 

“There’s so many inconsistencies that anybody who just breaks it down step by step by step would immediately see or immediately have questions,” he says.

Prosecutors convened a grand jury for two days in May. Because of the secrecy of the grand jury, the public will never know what charges, evidence, or witness testimony were presented to the jurors for them not to indict Butler with homicide-related charges. They instead filed a two-count indictment for improper handling of firearms in a motor vehicle and tampering with evidence with a one-year firearm specification.

For the past eight months, Reed has found herself at her wits end trying to understand how and why an admitted killer with a felony record, who repeatedly lied to the police, can evade charges for killing her son by claiming self-defense.

Reed was distraught when local media went from compassionate to disparaging. For nearly seven months residents and activists say that news outlets such as 10TV, ABC6 and NBC4i went from reporting police accounts that didn’t explain why Butler says he was in fear for his life to instantly switching to attribute their reports to what Butler’s witnesses told prosecutors. 

“That’s why we don’t have any trust in the media because as you see they will twist and turn any type of words to make it fit their narrative, for clicks,” says Dejuan Sharp, a founder and former president of the Columbus Downtownerz.

No shell casings were recovered nearby Sinzae’s body, no bullet holes were found in Butler’s vehicle from the alleged gunfire he says went in his direction as he drove, the alleged gun Sinzae fired from was never found, and the person Butler’s witnesses said they saw pick up Sinzae’s alleged firearm was also never found.

Read More: Sinzae Reed Was Killed Six Months Ago. His Admitted Killer Remains Free.

The Franklin County coroner’s report revealed that “there is no discernible soot deposition or stippling on the adjacent intact skin” on Sinzae’s dominant hand and there’s no evidence to prove that he wore a mask at the time of his death because one wasn’t accounted for in the report. 

Sharp says that even if someone standing near Sinzae did shoot at Butler, that evidence would have been detected by the medical examiner, “but it’s clear that’s not what happened.”

Only one gun was recovered and a bullet from that gun was found lodged in Sinzae’s hand — they both belonged to Butler, prosecutors said.

With all the headlines about teenagers committing armed offenses across the country plus the history of negative news coverage about Wedgewood, it’s not shocking to residents that the evidence presented to the grand jury may not have included the information in the coroner’s report or the lack of physical evidence and leaned on the word of Butler and his own witness list.

“Instead of Kreig fighting a grown man, he shot a kid to prove a point,” Sharp says while shaking his head in disgust. 

Butler posted a $100,000 surety bond on May 31. He has to wear an ankle-monitoring bracelet and stay away from Sinzae’s family. 

Ramon Obey II, 25, is co-founder of J.U.S.T. (Justice, Unity, and Social Transformation) He is standing next to a mural of victims of police brutality and hate crimes in Franklinton, Ohio. (Christina Carrega/Capital B)

Sinzae may have been at the wrong place at the wrong time — but now is the time for residents to exercise their right to vote and vote out Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney Gary Tyack for how his office handled his case, Sharp says. 

Activists and Reed are calling for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate. Capital B has reached out to U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker’s office for comment. 

Prior to Sinzae’s death, Reed was aware of how the criminal justice system revictimized Black victims and their families, but to experience it firsthand was a true disappointment. When Butler was initially arrested, Reed says she had hope in the system and fair media coverage, but as soon as the case detective accused her of allowing Sinzae to have a gun and after the grand jury’s findings were announced, everything changed. 

“The media takes everything that the police and prosecutors say and run with it. They’re not even bothering to look at anything because this happened in Wedgewood and my son is Black,” Reed says. 

Her frustrations with the criminal legal system have turned her into an investigator of sorts. She combs through public documents and tries to find former neighbors who witnessed Sinzae’s shooting. She also has a legal adviser. 

“It’s hard, but I’m willing to do whatever I have to do to make sure he gets justice, one way or another. It’s a shame that I have to go through all this, like I gotta be a detective now.” 

Correction: The U.S. Department of Justice launched a review of the Columbus Police Department’s records in 2021. An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the focus of the investigation.
Correction: Dejuan Sharp is a founder and former president of Columbus Downtownerz. An earlier version of this story misidentified his affiliation.