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Lawsuit over National Guard killing of David McAtee in 2020 is set for trial

Chef David McAtee, preparing food for homeless families at the Volunteers of America family shelter in Louisville.
Courtesy Jerry McBroom
Chef David McAtee, preparing food for homeless families at the Volunteers of America family shelter in Louisville.

A lawsuit against Louisville Metro and the Kentucky National Guard for the shooting death of popular West End restaurant owner David McAtee is set to go to trial next April. 

McAtee was shot and killed by National Guard members at his restaurant, YaYa’s BBQ, during the 2020 racial justice protests. The lawsuit has moved slowly over the past two years because of criminal investigations into the police officers and Guard members involved. But Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Jessica Green agreed Monday to get a trial date on the books. 

Attorney Steve Romines is representing McAtee’s mother, Odessa Riley, and his niece, Machelle McAtee, in the lawsuit alleging wrongful death. Romines accused the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office and the Louisville Metro Police Department of intentionally delaying the case.

“The stonewalling aspect of it is what’s so frustrating,” he said. “There are pitfalls to going forward on the case without as much discovery as we would like, but Ms. Riley is 86 years old. I can’t litigate this case 10 years from now, and I’m ready to try it now.”

Romines said in court that McAtee’s family has been denied evidence by the city, citing ongoing investigations. Despite that, he said there’s enough publicly available video evidence and statements about the shooting to go ahead with a trial. 

Kristie Walker, a lawyer with the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office who is representing the LMPD officers, did not directly address Romines’ claims, but said there is still an ongoing FBI investigation. She unsuccessfully argued the civil trial should be put on hold until that investigation is complete.

One of the LMPD officers named in the lawsuit is already facing federal charges. Katie Crews was indicted in March for using unreasonable force when she fired pepper balls at a crowd gathered in the parking lot of McAtee’s restaurant. They were there socializing blocks away from the protests, but it was after a citywide curfew put into effect by Mayor Greg Fischer that weekend. One of the people hit by the pepper balls was Machelle McAtee. 

Crews’ actions, the family argues, led directly to David McAtee’s death. An investigation by Kentucky officials found that Machelle ran inside her uncle’s restaurant after being hit. David McAtee then stepped out of the front door and fired two shots. LMPD officers and Kentucky National Guard members returned fire. The investigation concluded that it was a shot from a Guard member that killed David McAtee.

Romines said Crews’ federal indictment shows the merit of the family’s arguments in the lawsuit: that officers and Guard members used excessive force and showed a “reckless disregard” for McAtee’s rights, which ultimately led to his death.

“They clearly violated multiple LMPD policies regarding use of force, dispersal of crowds, which is why she got indicted,” he said. “You don’t charge somebody criminally if they’re following policies. You just don’t.”

At Monday’s hearing, Judge Green set the trial date for next April with the caveat that Crews’ federal trial must be over before then. Green agreed with Crews’ lawyers that it would be detrimental for the ex-LMPD officer to testify in civil court while facing criminal charges in federal court. 

Romines, who is also representing Machelle as a victim in the federal case, said he recently got word that Crews is expected to plead guilty some time in the next month. 

Green also ruled that Louisville police must keep possession of the rifles used to kill McAtee until lawyers for the family are able to inspect them. The Kentucky National Guard had requested them back earlier this month, but Romines argued that using the guns would destroy any potential evidence.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.