January 18, 2022
A trio of Sharon Hill police officers who opened fire outside a high school football stadium, killing 8-year-old Fanta Bility and wounding three others last August, have been charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment after a grand jury investigation into the high-profile case in Delaware County, prosecutors said.
District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer approved the charges against Officers Devon Smith, 34; Sean Dolan, 25; and Brian Devaney, 41.
Stollsteimer also withdrew murder charges against two teenagers, 16-year-old Angelo "AJ" Ford and 18-year-old Hasein Strand, who were charged with multiple crimes for their roles in the initial gun fight that prompted police to return fire.
"I fully realize that the tragic death of Fanta and the trauma inflicted on her family, the other victims, and community members involved, has been emotionally draining to all, including the investigators and prosecutors assigned," Stollsteimer said. "No one touched by this incident will ever be the same. I hope that today’s announcement will help the community begin to heal through the knowledge that all the individuals who fired guns that night are being held accountable for their actions under our laws."
The two-month grand jury investigation analyzed evidence in the chain of events that led the three officers to fire their weapons outside Knight Park, where fans were exiting the stadium following an Aug. 27 game between Academy Park High School and visiting Pennsbury High School.
Bility, who had attended the football game with her family, was struck in the back and died at the scene in her mother's arms just before 9 p.m. Her 13-year-old sister and two other people also suffered injuries from gunfire that prosecutors determined came from police officers.
One other person, a 13-year-old boy, was injured in the initial gunfight between Ford and Strand, which occurred on Coates Street a block away from the stadium exit on Calcon Hook Road. Police had been stationed nearby the exit to secure the stadium area as spectators left the football game.
In a pair of criminal affidavits for Ford and Strand, police had said the two teens got into a verbal dispute toward the end of the football game as they each left the stadium with a group of friends.
One witness told investigators that Ford had flashed a handgun in his waist band while leaving the stadium and made verbal threats against others on the street, including Strand.
Another witness told investigators that Strand allegedly admitted he had gone to his vehicle with his brothers in order to retrieve his own weapon before returning to confront Ford.
Strand pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of aggravated assault for his wounding of a child bystander and illegal possession of a firearm, the D.A.'s office said. Strand will spend between 32-64 months at a state correctional institute and will remain under court supervision until 2030.
Ford remains charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault for allegedly firing at Strand.
The grand jury was empaneled in November to determine whether the evidence in the case provided grounds to hold the three officers criminally responsible for Bility's death and the injuries to the other victims, given the totality of the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
Detectives in Sharon Hill claimed the initial dispute between Ford and Strand stemmed from gang-related differences connected to a standing rivalry between groups in Sharon Hill and Collingdale.
The decision to pursue charges against the police officers came after a review of witness testimony, photos from the scene and ballistics evidence that clearly linked Bility's death and the other injuries to the way police responded to the initial shooting.
Other circumstantial evidence also led to the grand jury's recommendation to charge the officers.
After the initial shooting involving Ford and Strand, the three Sharon Hill police officers drew their weapons and opened fire in the direction of a dark Chevy Impala as it turned onto Coates Street.
Investigators determined that this vehicle was occupied by two young women who had attended the football game and had nothing to do with the dispute between Ford and Strand.
"As spectators were exiting the game, gunshots rang out in two distinct bursts," the grand jury wrote in its presentment.
A 13-year-old shooting victim who was injured in the initial gunfire told investigators he had passed the Sharon Hill police officers while leaving the stadium. As he stood on Coates Street, the boy said he first heard "no more than five" gunshots and attempted to run away, until he realized he had been injured. The boy collapsed near a snack stand and was treated at the scene, investigators said.
As he ran from the initial gunfire, the same boy described hearing 20 to 30 additional gunshots and said he noticed the Chevy Impala that police had been targeting as it turned onto Coates Street.
The occupants of the vehicle gave testimony describing the harrowing moments and chaos around them as police gunfire riddled the car. One of the women told investigators that the shots continued for what seemed "like forever" and that she suddenly felt shattered glass strike her in the eye and arm.
A total of 25 bullets traced to the service weapons of the three charged officers were recovered from the scene, investigators said.
Another Sharon Hill detective who arrived at the scene after the shooting described encountering the three officers and speaking with Officer Devaney, who was "bright red" and "sweating profusely" in an "agitated state," according to the grand jury report.
Devaney allegedly told the detective that the three officers "were getting shot at from down the street," investigators said.
"They were shooting at us ... I heard the shots coming past us, you know, and the next thing I know is this car pulls up," Devaney allegedly said.
Officer Devaney was not wearing a body camera on the night of the shooting. The body cameras worn by officers Smith and Dolan were recovered by detectives, but did not include any footage of either of the two bursts of gunfire that night.
Body cameras worn by Sharon Hill police are manually activated by officers.
As part of an ongoing investigation, Sharon Hill Borough Council hired former Philadelphia District Attorney Kelly Hodge to conduct an administrative probe of the police department's policies and procedures.
Based on the findings of the grand jury investigation and criminal charges filed by the D.A.'s office, Council plans to vote Thursday to fire Officers Devaney, Smith and Dolan, the Borough said Tuesday afternoon.
"Sharon Hill's heart is still broken. The entire Borough grieves for Fanta Bility and we again convey our deepest sympathies to her family and everyone affected by the shooting," Sharon Hill Borough Council President Tanya Allen said. "Today’s indictment of our police officers brings us to another solemn moment. Today we must reflect on our safety, and on those who are sworn to protect and serve."
The grand jury presentment painted a frantic scene outside the football stadium in the moments before Bility was shot.
Ballistics evidence found that all three officers fired north in the direction of the stadium just as spectators were leaving the facility, investigators determined.
Bility and her sister, along with other spectators, had actually turned to run back into the stadium along a footpath as the police gunfire erupted. The other two victims struck by police also had been part of the panicked throng trying to get back into Knight Park. They suffered injuries to their lower extremities.
Other Sharon Hill police officers at the scene likewise described hearing bullets "whizzing" and "whooshing" past them as they stood in an area near the top of the pathway entering the stadium, investigators said.
The reckless endangerment charges against Smith, Dolan and Devaney include the names of the three Sharon Hill officers who stood in the path of the shots police fired.
Smith, Dolan and Devaney all are charged with one count each of voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter, as well as 10 counts each of recklessly endangering another person. Their preliminary hearings are scheduled for Jan. 27.
"The Bility family thanks District Attorney Stollsteimer and his staff of investigators and prosecutors for following the evidence and the law in bringing forth these charges today," said attorney Bruce Castor, who is representing the family in a federal lawsuit against the Sharon Hill Borough, the police chief and the three officers in the incident.
"The family appreciates that the District Attorney has kept (them) informed at every stage of this investigation," Castor continued. "From the beginning he assured them that he would seek justice for Fanta, and today’s charges indicate that he’s done exactly that. They made the right call."