Sister of man killed by Cleveland police officers says he was trying to rebuild his life

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CLEVELAND — A man killed in a hail of police gunfire after a high-speed chase 2½ years ago struggled with addictions and mental illness but was trying to fix his life, his sister testified Tuesday at the voluntary manslaughter trial of a Cleveland police officer.

Michelle Russell said Timothy Russell, who was 43 when he was killed along with 30-year-old Malissa Williams, had battled a drug addiction since he was a teenager. He would manage to stay sober for long stretches before relapsing and was trying to build a business refinishing bath tubs, his sister said.

Prosecutors on Tuesday tried to give the judge who is deciding charges against patrolman Michael Brelo a look into Russell's life. Brelo was indicted last year based on prosecutors' allegations that he stood on the hood of Russell's beat-up Chevy Malibu in November 2012 and fired "kill shots" into the windshield at Russell and Williams when the pair was no longer a threat.

Thirteen officers fired a total of 137 rounds into the Malibu that night after a high-speed chase, but only Brelo, 31, was charged criminally.

The chase began in downtown Cleveland when officers and other witnesses thought they'd heard gunfire coming from Russell's car. An expert testified Tuesday that he examined the car and found that it was prone to backfiring. Despite radio traffic about Williams pointing a gun out the window during the chase, an exhaustive search of the chase route failed to turn up a gun. More than 60 Cleveland police cars and 100 officers were involved in the chase.

Michelle Russell said her brother was a friendly "people person" who would not be armed.

"He was a Christian, and he was trying to get his life together," she said.

Russell's brother, David, testified Tuesday that the only thing his brother carried was a Bible.

"He knew that book from start to finish," David Russell said.

Prosecutors have said Williams, like Russell, was homeless, mentally ill and addicted to drugs. Investigators found a crack pipe in the Malibu. Michelle Russell said her brother and Williams met at a skilled nursing facility where Timothy Russell was rehabilitating a broken leg after he was injured in a crash while fleeing from police.

A Cleveland police officer testified Tuesday that he stopped firing at the Malibu when he saw someone he later learned was Brelo firing from the hood. Patrolman Brian Sabolik, then a rookie, was the only Cleveland police officer to tell investigators it was Brelo on the Malibu's hood.

Brelo told investigators about a week after the shooting that he could not remember standing on the hood. His attorneys have maintained that the threat to officers' lives didn't end until Brelo removed the keys from the Malibu's ignition.

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