CHICAGO (CBS) — A former Ford employee says he acted in self-defense when he fired his gun at work, and he’s still trying to clear his name.
He says he was tried in the court of public opinion before he ever stepped in a courtroom. But surveillance video helped shed some light on what actually happened.
From the headlines it seemed pretty cut and dry.
Then 50-year-old Ford employee Billy Cowart was charged with attempted murder for shooting off his gun in the United Auto Workers 551 parking lot in June 2016. He struck two fellow union members, both in the leg.
And within a matter of days Cowart was suspended and then terminated from his job with Ford, where he had worked for nearly two decades.
But Cowart, a veteran with extensive combat training and a licensed CCW holder, said he pleaded with Ford and the union to understand that this was a clear case of self-defense.
The union here basically said, ‘You got what you deserved. Deal with it,’” he said. “I was crucified before the trial. I was the villain. I was the mad employee.”
It took more than a year to get a trial date. During that time his attorney Dave McDermott presented an extended version of the surveillance video showing one of the victims making a beeline towards Cowart and then sucker punching him so forcefully that Cowart staggered backward several feet. He says that’s when he shot towards the ground to stop the threat.
“He retreated,” Cowart said. “I holstered my gun.”
But days before Cook County Judge Joseph Claps was set to give a decision, Cowart got surprising news.
“I get a call from my attorney Dave and he says, ‘Turn the TV on. You’re not going to believe this,’” Cowart said.
Claps was accused of bringing a handgun and dropping it on the floor in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. The case was transferred to a new judge, delaying it another three months. The second judge reviewed the case and said the victim was clearly the aggressor and Cowart was legally defending himself.
He was found not guilty on all counts.
“I was actually numb,” Cowart said. “You can say innocent until proven guilty, but it’s guilty until proven innocent.”
But the battle is not over.
Last week Cowart sat through a 10-hour arbitration hearing to try to get his job back and get back pay for the 2.5 years he lost. He said Ford and the union put up a serious fight at the hearing. He’ll have to wait another 30 days on that decision. He hopes then his nightmare will finally be over.
“I’d like to get my name back, basically,” he said.
A spokesperson for Ford said she could not comment, saying as a policy they do not make statements on individual circumstances of current or former employees. CBS 2 also reached out to the union for comment but did not receive a response.