Insidious cover-ups in the Milwaukee Police Department : The sad death of Joel Acevedo by Juan Miguel Martinez

A cloud of sadness looms over a small ranch style home on the north side of Milwaukee. It is the home of Jose and Maribel Acevedo, and the former residence of 25 year old Joel Acevedo. He was a man whose life was cut short by a police officer in the early morning hours of April 19, 2020. The 911 call was placed by a person identified as Christopher “Chris” Peters. The call was approximately 3 minutes and 35 seconds in length, where the last gasps of Joel can be heard. The choking last breaths are met with “Fuck you, motherfucker” by the man applying the rear naked chokehold, Michael Mattioli, aged 32. Joel manages to get out his last words, which now appear on protest signs and in chants of people marching all over the city of Milwaukee – “just let me go home…” Responding officers Robert Roach and Mark Sheremeta arrive on the scene at 7:38 AM. Mattioli says he will explain everything. He prefaces his story with identifying himself as a police officer. He claims he saw Joel going through Mattioli’s pockets and tells him to leave. Joel allegedly makes his way downstairs where he supposedly punches Chris, falling to the ground in the process. Mattioli gets on top of him and proceeds to apply a chokehold, which is illegal to use as a restraint technique. Joel Acevedo dies six days later from “Anoxic Encephalopathy due to traumatic Asphyxia” at St. Luke’s Hospital, and the doctor treating him rules it a homicide. Mattioli is not arrested, has not even been fired from the MPD, but faces a charge of reckless homicide. Later, as the case progresses, Mayor of Milwaukee Tom Barrett will call on Chief of police Alfonso Morales to fire Mattioli, which as of 07/05/20, has not happened.  

I arrive at the home of Jose and Maribel Acevedo, Joel’s parents. Julissa Acevedo, Joel’s older sister joins us so we can talk, and I can gain further insight about who Joel Acevedo was. The energy is both melancholy and hopeful. Joel Acevedo was an outgoing, caring individual who worked at MADACC finding homes for animals. He had aspirations of one day becoming a police officer, and had a friend on the force. His friend encouraged him to work out and get in shape for the physical demands required to serve as a law enforcement officer. “He would ask me what I thought about him becoming a police officer”, Maribel tells me. “I was happy for him and told him to just be careful.” Joel worked as a security officer at Northwestern Mutual, where Mattioli also worked. “I just want to say Mattioli was nothing more than a casual acquaintance to Joel,” says Jose. “Joel had police officers as friends, and he looked up to them for all the service they provided in our community,” added Maribel. “Casual hangouts were common, but not with Mattiloli,” Julissa tells me. She adds, “Mattioli and Joel were not close friends, as many of the news outlets try to portray.”

In the morning hours of April 19, 2020, Maribel and Jose were watching church service on TV, still under the stay at home order recently implemented by the government. “We were sitting here, and when I saw my son hadn’t arrived home, I started calling and texting him over and over. When he did not respond, I called family members and no one had heard from him. Something told me to start calling hospitals, and that is what I did. They confirmed for me at St. Luke’s hospital at 3:00 in the afternoon that he was there…” Jose recounts. No one from the police department had notified the Acevedos about their son, and they found out for themselves in this manner.

The family rushed over to St. Luke’s, where visitation was not allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions. “We were told that a detective was at the hospital, but we should go to the crime scene to see what was happening.” They drove to the house on 4502 W Cleveland. Upon their arrival, a detective assigned to the case approached Jose and told him – “I promise you they are all going to pay”. The same detective (who is the lead detective at MPD, and has worked on the force for more than 20 years) Robert Stelter, later tells them, “We will make sure they get charged, but we have to remember these are good people”.  No names were being released, and no one was being arrested because according to Milwaukee County district attorney, John Chisolm, the other people were “not involved”. The family learned that the other two involved in their son’s murder were Christopher Peters, and Andrew “AJ” Janowski.  Janowski resigned from his position as a parole officer on June 29, 2020. “My son is dead, how are these two individuals not involved?!” Maribel shouts. Mattioli applied the chokehold, while AJ laid on his legs to restrain him, and Christopher watched while placing the 911 call. It is being reported that a fight preceded Joel’s strangulation, but there is nothing to support this argument, except for Mattioli’s word.  “If there was a fight, there would have been signs of a struggle in the house – stuff would have been in disarray, but there was absolutely nothing that showed that,” Julissa says. Darryl Morton, a lawyer who represents Latino/a/x rights, wanted to take on their case. When the family became more vocal about their dissatisfaction with the way the case was being handled, Morton simply fell off the radar.

The day after Memorial day, news outlets and social media was showing a video of a black man in Minnesota who was murdered by the three police officers. George Floyd died from asphyxiation after an officer held his knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Maribel saw this and it echoed, reminding her of what happened to her son, who was also murdered by a police officer through asphyxiation. The pain was all too real, and the actions of the officers all too familiar and unfortunately common. In the coming weeks, the family would join protests taking place around the city, frustrated with an unresponsive district attorney and police department. Alfonso Morales, chief of police of the Milwaukee Police department, reached out to the Acevedos and told them to “trust the word of the police officers and the process”.

Jose Acevedo and Maribel Acevedo.

It is hard for the Acevedo family to trust the process when quite simply, the police shouldn’t be involved at all, except to charge and indict the three individuals involved in the murder of Joel Acevedo.

There are reports from neighbors that say Michael Mattioli had duffel bags full of something coming in and out of the house at all hours of the night.  It is reported that there were consistently all night parties at the home of Officer Mattioli. Based on reports from others who have lived near this officer, there have been previous complaints about the noise level coming from Mattioli’s home, one involving a firearm being brandished. 

Based upon the body camera recording, 58 seconds elapsed between Roach and Shermeta’s arrival at Mattioli’s home, and when they stopped outside the house. 22 seconds elapsed from the time they entered the home to when Mattioli disengaged the hold on Joel. From the time the struggle started and the 911 call was made, until the officers arrived, it appears that Joel was in a chokehold for more than 10 minutes. Mattioli gave a general recollection of events and was placed in a squad car. Shortly after noon, Investigator David Dalland met with him to get a full story, explaining he needed a blood sample because alcohol was involved. Mattioli’s response – “Why? Is the fucker dead?” Dalland responds “No”, and he tells Mattioli that Joel is not in good shape. “Well fuck him, he was stealing from me, I don’t give a fuck what shape he is in”. This response is not one the public should hear from someone who refers to himself as law enforcement.

Family attorney B’Ivory LaMarr was hired to take on the case and is making it known that the family intends to see justice served. LaMarr and the family are hopeful that the demands they have laid out will result in justice for Joel Acevedo. They have requested that the body cam footage from the responding officers be released, as well as the 911 call recordings. LaMarr begs the question “At what point do we call a police officer’s integrity into question? Do we wait until that officer kills another human being or do we enact laws and procedures that ensure that those who are sworn to protect and serve remain honest?” This is where civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump has experience. Crump has been widely referred to as Black America’s Attorney General, and he is known for working many of the nation’s top high profile police brutality and murder cases, including that of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.  The Rallies and protests that have led to the Milwaukee county courthouse steps have shown the passion of the Acevedos, their legal team, and community supporters.  Their list of demands includes a murder conviction of Michael Mattioli and the other two individuals who are responsible for Joel Acevedo’s death, the resignation of police chief Alfonso Morales, continued internal investigations into corruption and brutality in the Milwaukee Police Department, and for officers to undergo regular psychological exams and drug testing.  This family and activists from in and around Milwaukee want to believe that Joel’s death will not be in vain. 

The family, along with their attorneys, believe that in order for change to occur, it is necessary to fight for what is right.  As Joel’s mother wipes away tears, she says “I want those who killed my son to feel remorse. Being locked up and off the streets would be a relief, but more than anything,  I want them to realize that they stole my baby from me;  I want them to feel remorse for what they did to my son.”  

2020 has seen a record number of black and brown people killed by police officers.  The numbers are staggering, and they continue to rise.  The Acevedo family believes the release of body cam footage and 911 tapes will shed light on an issue that is becoming far too familiar – police cover-ups and corruption.

“It is very simple, yet complex – murderers usually don’t feel remorse, especially when they are protected by a government agency,” says Maribel.  This family believes that the laws need to change, and it is their hope that Joel’s murder will perhaps be a catalyst for change. 

Joel lives on in different ways. In the energy of the black and brown unity marches, and in calls for justice. He was also an organ donor, and recently, his donated heart was successfully used as a transplant, giving someone a new lease on life. On July 5, 2020, a mural of Joel was painted on the outside of the corner barbershop on 6th and Greenfield. It is of Joel’s smiling face, with a power fist colored like the Puerto Rican flag held high behind him. It breathes a new life into the neighborhood and immortalizes him.  

Photo Credit: Julissa Acevedo

Meanwhile, as the Acevedo family prepares for the next hearing involving their son’s murderer, which is scheduled for July 13, 2020, the Fire and Police Commissioner Griselda Aldrete has announced her resignation.  This is the person who is overseeing the investigation of Michael Mattioli, and in the midst of all this, she is resigning? It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.  

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