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November 10, 2022

Three former Sharon Hill cops plead guilty in fatal shooting of 8-year-old Fanta Bility

The police shooting in Delaware County prompted outrage over the officers' use of force in response to gunfire after an Academy Park football game

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Fanta Bility Cops Guilty Plea Source/GoFundMe

Fanta Bility, 8, left, was killed by police gunfire after attending a high school football game in Sharon Hill on Aug. 27, 2021, investigators say. Three former police officers charged in the shooting have pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment. Manslaughter charges were dismissed as part of the deal with the Delaware County District Attorney's Office.

Three former Sharon Hill police officers pleaded guilty Thursday to charges stemming from the fatal shooting of 8-year-old Fanta Bility, who was killed by police gunfire as she left a high school football game with her family in August 2021. 

Brian Devaney, 42; Sean Dolan, 26; and Devon Smith, 35, negotiated a plea deal with the Delaware County District Attorney's Office. They pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment charges in exchange for prosecutors dropping manslaughter charges.

The agreement had the support of Bility's family, District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said. 

"Fanta's death was a tragedy for her family, her friends and for the entire community — and nothing that happened in the courtroom today can lessen the grief that we have all felt since that terrible night," Stollsteimer said. "As we have endeavored to achieve justice in the midst of such a tragedy, my office has remained in close communication with the family to ensure that their feelings were heard and respected. Led by the family's wishes, we have arrived at today's result."

Bility was killed Aug. 27, 2021 after attending an Academy Park High School football game with her family at Knight Park.

The three officers, responding to gunshots they heard near the stadium after the game, opened fire on a vehicle as it passed a crowd of people exiting Knight Park, mistakenly believing it had been connected to the initial gunfire, investigators said. 

Bility, a third grader at the Sharon Hill School, was struck in the back and died at the scene in her mother's arms. Her 13-year-old sister and two other people also suffered injuries from gunfire that prosecutors determined came from police officers.

The officers were fired in January, days after being charged in the shootings. In August, their attorneys filed a motion for the manslaughter charges to be dismissed, but the motion was denied by a judge in September. The officers were awaiting trial when they reached the plea deal. 

The first shots fired outside Knight Park stemmed from a dispute between two teenagers who also had attended the game. That gunfire wounded a 13-year-old boy.

The teens involved in the gunfight, 16-year-old Angelo "AJ" Ford and 18-year-old Hasein Strand, initially had been charged with murder and other crimes, but Stollsteimer withdrew the murder charges in January after a grand jury concluded its two-month investigation into the police officers' use of force. 

Strand later pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for allegedly wounding the 13-year-old and illegal possession of a firearm, the D.A.'s office said. Ford, who was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault for allegedly firing at Strand, escaped from a youth facility earlier this year, prompting authorities to issue a bench warrant for his arrest. He was taken back into custody.

Bility's death prompted outrage in the Sharon Hill community. Borough officials promised a thorough evaluation of the department's use of force policies.

An investigative report spearheaded by former Philadelphia District Attorney Kelley Hodge was released in a heavily redacted form in early August, providing little insight into the changes recommended for the police department. Sharon Hill Borough Council said the 55-page report's key findings were kept from the public to avoid interfering with the judicial process in the case involving the three former officers.

It's not yet clear whether the council plans to release the report in its entirety in the wake of Thursday's guilty pleas. Protesters marched in Sharon Hill in August to demand more transparency in the borough's investigation of the shooting. 

The decision to pursue charges against the officers came after a review of witness testimony, photos from the scene and ballistics evidence clearly linking Bility's death and the other injuries to the way police responded to the initial shooting, prosecutors said.

Bility Sharon Hill Cops PanelSource/Delaware County DAO

Former Sharon Hill police officers, from left, Devon Smith, Sean Dolan and Brian Devaney have pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment charges in the fatal shooting of Fanta Bility, 8, at the Academy Park High School stadium after a football game on Aug. 27, 2021. Three others also were allegedly wounded by gunfire from the officers.

The investigation found that the bullet that fatally struck Bility exited her body and was recovered from the track inside Knight Park. Ballistics evidence confirmed that the bullet came from a Glock 17 service weapon used by Sharon Hill police, though investigators were unable to determine which of the three officers fired the deadly shot.

Other circumstantial evidence also led to the grand jury's recommendation to charge the officers.

After the initial shooting involving Ford and Strand, the officers opened fire in the direction of a dark Chevy Impala as it turned onto Coates Street, near the stadium exit. 

Investigators determined 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.

The 13-year-old who was injured in the initial gunfire told investigators that he had passed the 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.

The boy described hearing 20 to 30 additional gunshots as he ran from the initial gunfire and noticed the Chevy Impala that police had been targeting, investigators said. 

The occupants of that 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.

Twenty-five bullets traced to the weapons of the 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 Devaney, who was "bright red" and "sweating profusely" in an "agitated state," the grand jury report 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 told the detective.

Devaney was not wearing a body camera on the night of the shooting. The body cameras worn by Smith and Dolan were recovered by detectives, but did not include any footage of the two bursts of gunfire that night.

Body cameras worn by Sharon Hill police are manually activated by officers.

Ballistics evidence found that all three officers fired north in the direction of the stadium, just as spectators were leaving the facility, investigators said.

Bility and her sister, along with other spectators, had turned to run back into the stadium along a footpath as the police gunfire erupted, authorities said. The other two people 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, investigators said.

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, according to the grand jury report.

The reckless endangerment charges against Smith, Dolan and Devaney included the names of three Sharon Hill officers who stood in the path of the shots that they fired.

The Bility family also filed a federal lawsuit against Sharon Hill Borough, the police chief and the three officers who pleaded guilty. The family is being represented by prominent lawyer and former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor.