The cold and dreary day that marked the end of 2008 marked a different kind of end as well. Hours before the new year was rung in, Officer Mason Samborski was laid to rest before nearly a thousand police officers from around Michigan and across the country.
The new year would begin with a new type of life for his wife and one year old daughter, a life that would not include the presence of a loving husband and father. A devastated police department would begin 2009 still reeling from the shock, Officer Samborski's empty locker a stark reminder of what they had lost, and of the ever present danger that could change or end any one of their lives in the blink of an eye.
Having prosecuted two separate cases where a police officer was murdered in the line of duty, I am once struck by the senseless nature of this type of case. I am also once again reminded of the daily sacrifices that police officers make to keep our families and communities safe and secure.
It began with a traffic stop, it ended with a fight to the death. What happened in between is still being sorted out.
On December 28th, 2008 around 12:30 am, Officer Samborski stopped 16 year old Jonathan Belton in Oak Park Michigan for an equipment violation. Belton reportedly had a criminal history for an assault on a public school's officer as well as illegally carrying a concealed gun. During the traffic stop Samborski discovered that the teen was driving without a drivers license. Belton told Samborski that he had a parent or guardian at a nearby apartment complex.
It is believed that Samborski wanted to give the teen a break and return him to his guardian rather than arrest him. Belton was placed in the back of Samborski's police car and transported to the apartment complex where something would go very wrong and Samborski would lose his life.
As it turns out Belton apparently had lied to Samborski and given him the address of a 15 year old female friend that he had met a few days before. It is believed that when Samborski discovered the fraud he tried to take Belton into custody and a struggle ensued in the hallway of the apartment complex.. During the struggle Samborski was shot once in the head. Although the police have not disclosed specific details it is widely believed that Samborski was shot with his own gun. Belton then fled in the jeep that he was originally stopped in.
After a wide ranging manhunt, Belton, accompanied by his father and pastor turned himself in to police authorities in nearby Detroit later that afternoon. He was later charged by prosecutors as an adult on the charges of First Degree Murder.
Some questions about the incident may never be answered. We may never know what motivated the teen to shoot an officer who was trying to help him. The prosecution does not have to prove motivation to prove the elements of the crime of First Degree Murder. But the issue of motivation begs a more obvious question. Can life be so cheap to a sixteen year old that he would shoot an officer to death over a relatively minor infraction?
In a prior blog I discussed the differences between the juvenile and the adult brain. However, differences in brain maturity cannot be used as a free pass for violent acts that show an utter disregard for human life and authority.
At officer Samborski's funeral, Oak Park Public Safety Director John McNeilance said:
"It is a sad reality that an officer will go out and risk harm and death with adult offenders and now have to confront a subculture of juvenile violence often with those who have a disregard for authority to the point of taking a life."
There are many question still to be answered about the details relating to the end of Officer Samborski's life. The answers to those questions will not shed any light on the more troubling questions surrounding why Officer Samborski ever crossed paths with Belton in the first place.
Why was this teenager who already had a juvenile criminal history allowed to be out alone and unsupervised at 12:30 am? Where were his parents or guardians? Did he have a curfew?
It has been reported that Belton was driving his mothers car. There have been no reports that he took the vehicle without permission. Did his mother know that he was out driving around in the middle of the night? If yes, she had to know that he was an unlicensed driver. Why would she allow an unlicensed juvenile to drive around in the middle of the night?
The questions are endless, the answers are elusive. In the final analysis a dedicated police officer paid the ultimate price.
Rest in Peace Officer Mason Samborski! Your honor, courage and sacrifice will be remembered forever.
END OF WATCH
DECEMBER 28th, 2008
Statements made in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinions or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General Tweet