Man fatally shot by Austin police officer is identified

28December 2021

Authorities on Tuesday identified the man who was fatally shot last week by an officer on a street in Austin, Minn., after a multiday encounter with police near his home.

Kokou Christopher Fiafonou, 38, was shot multiple times Thursday, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). Police said in a statement soon after the shooting that Fiafonou was armed with a machete and a knife, and had threatened to harm other people. The BCA said Tuesday that a knife was recovered near Fiafonou’s body.

Austin police do not use body-worn cameras. Squad video captured portions of the incident, according to the BCA.

The BCA said that when the investigation is complete, it will forward its findings to the Mower County Attorney’s Office for review of whether Gast’s actions were legally justified.

However, County Attorney Kristen Nelsen said Tuesday that she is in the process of having another county’s prosecutors handle the case.

“There is absolutely no way that I would keep it for myself,” Nelsen told the Star Tribune. “I believe it’s a conflict of interest to keep it.”

Nelsen said that multiple county attorney offices “have been receptive to our request” to take over the case, and it’s just a matter of whose workload can handle the additional responsibilities before it’s transferred.

She said that the county attorneys in her Third Judicial District have always taken up each others’ police use of force cases at least since she was elected in 2006.

The officer who shot Fiafonou, Zachary Gast, has been placed on standard administrative leave as the investigation in the shooting by the BCA continues. Gast has been with the Austin Police Department for about two years, the state agency said.

According to the police statement:

On the afternoon of Dec. 22, officers were called to a report of a man walking in traffic and holding a knife. They located Fiafonou, who they say was armed with a machete, and attempted to gain compliance from him. Fiafonou then retreated to an Austin apartment building, where he threatened to hurt other people. Police followed him to the residence and deployed several Tasers, which were not effective.

Over the next 24-plus hours, officers attempted to negotiate with Fiafonou while he was in the apartment building in the 1200 block of NW. 4th Avenue. On several occasions, they used pepper gas and less-lethal munitions, but the devices were ineffective.

At about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Fiafonou walked to a Kwik Trip gas station as officers followed. According to police, Fiafonou, armed with a knife, confronted the officers in the gas station parking lot and Gast shot Fiafonou, who was declared dead at the scene.

Michelle Gross, president of Minneapolis-based Communities United Against Police Brutality, said Monday that members of her group went to Austin on Christmas Day and met with Kossi Adayi, a cousin of Fiafonou’s and his guardian. She said her group gave the family $2,200 from an online fundraising effort to help with living expenses.

Gross said police actions left the home uninhabitable after they blew out windows and turned off the heat and other utilities.

Based on information from the family, Gross said Fiafonou was “a gentle soul who was having a mental health crisis. … He posed a threat to no one. He was praying and minding his own business. He prays all the time. He’s a man who’s a little bit different.”

She said that Fiafonou was the only person in the home, along with the family dog.

She said the family disputes that Fiafonou had any weapons on him at the time he was shot.

Adayi, in his own online financial campaign, said that as Fiafonou “walked to store and purchased his items, he walked out and they instantly shot him multiple times in the chest because they thought his grocery bags were a gun or a weapon.”

In a statement posted Tuesday on Facebook, Police Chief David McKichan said, “We all want an independent, unbiased, and thorough investigation. To that end, as an agency, we will cooperate fully with the BCA.”

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