DENVER — "I felt like I got hit with a baseball at 100 mph," Yekalo Weldehiwet said Wednesday, his casted arm — with a bullet still embedded in his skin — hanging across his chest.
Weldehiwet, a data analyst who was born in Ethiopia and moved to Colorado from Eritrea, was one of six bystanders, not including a suspect, injured in a police shooting early Sunday morning in lower downtown Denver.
"Friday night was my fiance's little brother's birthday, so we went out trying to enjoy and have a good night for him. It was his 23rd birthday," he said. "The night was going well and we were having fun."
They said goodbye to some friends at the Larimer Beer Hall, located at 2012 Larimer St., and left the building.
"And literally in a snap of a finger, it all went sideways," he said.
They heard the first gunshot.
"We ducked and started running," he said. "As we were entering the parking lot in the back of Beer Hall, I heard a second gunshot."
He immediately felt the pain in his arm.
That evening, around the same time Weldehiwet left Beer Hall, Denver police officers spotted a man who had a firearm in his hoodie pocket and then refused to comply with police demands, according to a department spokesperson. The man struggled to remove the gun from his pocket and while holding the gun, pointed the muzzle at officers, police said during a press conference Wednesday. While he did not have his finger on the trigger, police believed their lives, and possibly others', were in danger and opened fire on the suspect a total of seven times between three officers, DPD Commander Matt Clark said.
The suspect, who was later identified as Jordan Waddy, 21, was hit multiple times and remains in the hospital. Weldehiwet and five others were also injured by either officers' gunfire, ricochets, or other debris.
Just after the shooting, Weldehiwet hid between a couple cars. There, he realized he had been hit by a bullet.
He was escorted to police nearby, who ripped his shirt to expose the wound. He was transported to a hospital emergency room via ambulance, which was carrying other injured people.
At the hospital, it wasn't immediately clear if he would need surgery or not. One doctor told him the bone could likely heal on its own. But Weldehiwet sought a second opinion, where a doctor said he would need surgery because his humerus bone was shattered.
"The bullet is still in there," he said. "Hopefully when I have my surgery on Thursday, they'll be able to take it out."
During his stay in the ER, an officer with the Denver Police Department interviewed him and told him they had found the suspect. The officer also "made it out that it was the suspect who did the shooting," he said. Later that morning after he went home, he learned that the gunfire was actually from police.
"That's when a rise of questions came up," Weldehiwet said. "Why would they do this? Why would they shoot into crowded places? Are they even trained to do what they did? Why wouldn't they care for the public rather than only care for themselves? Isn't that their job?"
Weldehiwet acknowledged that being a police officer is a difficult job, but it needs to be done correctly. Nobody died in the police shooting, but somebody could have, he said.
"It could have been the end for me, and that’s what’s mind-blowing to me," he said. "If I was a second from turning, that could have been my lungs, that could have been my head, that could have been my spine. So I'm definitely grateful to just go out with a broken humerus bone. But I'm grateful to be alive today."
Weldehiwet said he's focusing on healing both mentally and physically, and trying to sleep through the night and process what happened. He said he's not sure he'll ever visit the LoDo area again because of how traumatized he feels.
He said he's thankful to have friends and family through the process. He'd usually rely on playing sports to relieve stress, so recovering without physical exercise will take a toll, he said.
"I came to America for safety and better education," he said. "And this happened and I feel unsafe now.... In the day and age that we are in, we want to feel safe. And we think that we’re safe, but situations like this makes you feel like you’ll never be safe again."
"My life definitely did change forever," he continued.
Around the same time Weldehiwet left Beer Hall, Bailey Alexander, a Colorado native who lives in the Denver area, and a couple friends also headed outside to a nearby food truck for gyros — a traditional end-of-the night meal for the women.
Alexander said she saw two men verbally fighting near the entrance, but ignored them.
"We were there for maybe a minute or two just deciding what we were going to do," she said. "My boyfriend, very clearly, was paying attention to what was going on around us (and) saw that things weren’t going the right direction. He kinda grabbed me and started to move me toward the parking lot. That's when I heard the first gunshot."
Alexander said she knew quickly — within just a few seconds — that she had been hit. She looked down to see blood running down her arm.
Her boyfriend picked her up and hurried down an alleyway behind the Beer Hall.
"Two other women that were complete strangers were there," she said. "They helped me with the wounds."
One applied pressure to the wound while the other made a makeshift tourniquet out of her boyfriend's shirt while they waited for an ambulance. She remembers that they asked questions to keep her awake.
At the hospital, Alexander learned the bullet had entered her upper right back near her scapula, went through just above her armpit and out the backside of her right shoulder. Some fragments of the bullet are still inside her arm.
"It just kind of burns from the inside out," she said. "Even sleeping, you wake up from pain and you’re just up for hours because you can’t fall asleep because you're just thinking about everything. Your mind is running a mile a minute."
Since the shooting, Alexander, who is an anesthesia and surgery assistant for an oral surgeon, said her emotions have been all over the board, especially as new information was released over the subsequent days. More and more questions popped up, she said: Why were innocent bystanders hit? Why wasn't the situation de-escalated?
"Lots of frustration toward learning about the situation and learning you’ve been shot by a Denver police officer," she said. "I would really just like to hear from them. Taking accountability, taking responsibility for their actions. And an apology, which I know will probably never come. And I honestly wouldn’t like to talk to them at all. But just how disappointed I am with the people who are supposed to be keeping us safe in situations like that."
Like Weldehiwet, Alexander said her next focus is on healing her body and mind.
"Just trying to take it day by day and living our daily lives as close to what we were," she said. "I am still young and I don’t want something like this necessarily to keep me from enjoying my life. It will definitely alter the way that I do it. I have no idea what I feel about going downtown again, but it will probably take a little while for me to get to that point and experiencing it again."
Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC will represent both Weldehiwet and Alexander as they navigate their futures in relation to the shooting. Crist Whitney, an attorney at the firm, said officers could have handled the situation, "much, much differently." With more than three people injured, this is considered a mass shooting, he said.
"I would have hoped they would have tried to diffuse the situation as opposed to firing into a crowd," he said. "They could have shot into the air. They could have ran for cover. They could have done a number of things. They could have done a number of things. Anything they would have done would have been more prudent than firing into a crowd."
Ultimately, Weldehiwet and Alexander want answers and are seeking justice, Whitney said.
"I would be astonished if the Denver Police Department would find their officers did anything wrong here," he said. "The Denver Police Department shouldn't be investigating themselves and I find it interesting that the officers went to the hospital, they spoke to the victims but they didn't provide any pertinent information. They didn't take any pictures of their injuries. And when they asked who shot them, police just pretended like they didn't know. My clients found out on the news they were shot by police."
The shooting is being investigated by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Colorado State Patrol, the Denver District Attorney’s Office, and DPD, with oversight from the Office of the Independent Monitor.
"In this situation of officers firing into a crowd, it clearly violates the law. Colorado law allows for deadly force but only when it's reasonable and only when there's not a substantial risk of injury to others," Whitney said. "The DPD manual, their own policy, says officers cannot discharge their weapon if there's a likelihood it's going to injure someone they're not trying to apprehend."
With more than three people injured, this is considered a mass shooting, he said.
"It seems in my opinion that when the Denver police officers, they feel that their own lives are in danger, then the only people they feel they need to serve and protect are themselves," Whitney said. "No matter what kind of collateral damage they may cause to the community. And Denver citizens do not want to be collateral damage."
The Denver Police Department held a press conference on Wednesday morning to provide more details on the shooting and the officers' actions.
The three officers who fired their guns did not notify the people in the area they were going to do so, nor tell them to clear the area beforehand as they did not have time to, DPD Cmdr. Clark said at the news conference Wednesday morning.
“Did something go wrong? Yeah, six people who additionally got injured shouldn’t have gotten injured that night,” Clark said, adding that the shooting justifies a review of the department’s tactics during the shooting.
During the press conference, Clark explained the suspect's movements moment by moment and how officers reacted to the threat. In the end, one officer fired four shots at Waddy, another fired two shots, and a third officer fired one shot at Waddy. Clark said investigators have not found any evidence that Waddy ever fired the weapon they say he pulled.
Clark said the six bystanders not including Waddy who were injured in the shooting were all adults: a man with a serious arm injury, a woman with a serious shoulder and arm injury, a woman with a graze wound to her leg, a man with a graze wound to his foot, and a man with a “burn” to his chest.
Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen said the department “will continue to provide outreach and support, financial and emotional.”