Friends of man shot and killed by police say he had trouble hearing

Sadie Gurman and Corina Curry

Vaughn “Curly” Fitzgerald was a man who loved to play poker. He played often, friends said, and with many people.

Fellow cardplayers and police, who arrested him in the past on gambling charges, also said Friday that Fitzgerald was hard of hearing. This has raised questions about whether the 80-year-old heard police officers when they repeatedly told him to drop his rifle Tuesday night.

When Fitzgerald didn’t drop the gun — and shot another man while police looked on, officials say — two officers opened fire, killing Fitzgerald.

“You could sit two seats away from him at a poker game, and he couldn’t hear what you were saying,” said Bill Ongenars, who said he first met Fitzgerald about 13 years ago playing cards. “This man was a deaf man.”

First Deputy States Attorney Chuck Prorok, asked whether Fitzgerald’s hearing loss could be a factor in a grand jury investigation, said he has received no police report on the case. He said that normally in deadly force cases, a police officer “has to act upon the information he or she had at the time he or she takes action.”

Arrest record

Fitzgerald had been arrested several times — but never convicted — on gambling-related charges. Police raided his Linden Road home in 2002 as part of an investigation into illegal gambling.

Police said they are investigating whether gambling was taking place Tuesday night before the shooting. Fitzgerald was shot just outside the building he owned at 3307 Kishwaukee St.

Police Chief Chet Epperson on Friday declined to say anything about the shooting or the circumstances leading up to it, referring questions to Winnebago County State Attorney Philip J. Nicolosi, who said he hasn’t received police reports.

Officials have said Fitzgerald was shot after police responded to reports of a robbery at the Kishwaukee Street property. Fitzgerald, they say, shot Byron Starks, 34, after police spotted Starks running from the parking lot with a handgun and ordered him to the ground.

Officers Cheryl Buntjer and Jeffrey Oberts saw Fitzgerald pointing a gun in their direction after he shot Starks and, officials say, they told him more than once to drop the weapon. When he did not, they opened fire, killing Fitzgerald.

FBI assistance

Federal agents assisted the Rockford Police Department at the scene of the shooting Tuesday night, but the agency’s role from that point is unclear.

Rockford police called the Rockford FBI office Tuesday night, said G.B. Jones, supervisory senior agent of the FBI.

Based on information provided to agents about what was going on at the scene, the FBI sent agents to the scene to investigate potential violations of federal law, Jones said.

“It could have been a number of things … organized crime, firearms violations, gambling,” he said. “(Local police) look at it from a state crime perspective. They call us and ask ‘Can you come and look at it from a federal perspective.’ ”

The Rockford Police Department remains the lead investigating agency on the case, Jones said.

“I can’t comment on any federal investigations that are pending,” he said.

‘Everyone’s just sick’

Days after the shooting, Fitzgerald’s friends are frustrated and still searching for answers about the circumstances of his death, Ongenars said.

“Everyone’s just sick to his stomach,” Ongenars said. “Everyone that knows Curly is upset.”

Ongenars recalled fond memories of “casual” card games with Fitzgerald. He said the games were usually low-stakes and held among good friends.

“It was just a good time,” said Ongenars, who said he last saw Fitzgerald weeks ago.

Fitzgerald’s family declined to comment.

Nicolosi said his office has yet to receive any information from the Rockford Police Department regarding its investigation.

Once that information — typically police reports and physical evidence — is received, Nicolosi said, his office will review the information and determine what the appropriate charges are.

“It’s still in the hands of the Rockford Police Department at this point. They are still in the fact-finding aspect of their investigation,” Nicolosi said. “I don’t expect to get any information from them until late next week.”

Rockford Register Star staff writer Sadie Gurman can be reached at 815-987-1389 or at sgurman@rrstar.com. Staff writer Corina Curry can be reached at 815-987-1395 or at ccurry@rrstar.com.