Portrait of James by Kelly Bjork
“James was my youngest son. I loved him so much. The police killed him. It’s just been bothering me the way they killed him. They didn’t know how many bullets was in him, they shot him so many times. At the funeral they couldn’t even show one side of his face because they shot it off. They said it was one policeman. The police must’ve just went crazy,” said Dave as we spoke on the phone. The sentences kept pouring out of him. “I’m just so sad. He was only 32 years old. He was smart too. He wasn’t a bad kid. He was a good kid. He wasn’t a perfect kid. None of us are perfect people. But he was a good kid, and in fact, he was studying while he was working. He thought about becoming a policeman himself. Until this happened. He was working out at the gym. He’d got buffed up. Big arms and stuff. The way they killed him, it was so dirty.”
“I’ve been having dreams. Stress from that. The way they killed him. If a person is not surrendering, why can’t they shoot them in the leg to bring them down or something,” said Dave. “I’ve always respected the law. Whatever the law is, that’s what I’m gonna do. But some of these cops. Most black people are afraid to call the cops. They just kill, kill, kill, you know. You hear about all this stuff on TV about them shooting people. Maybe there’s a few that deserve it, but most of the time the cops don’t have to kill people like that. They could use beams or something in their guns to bring people down. I don’t know. I asked the policeman that. I was so confused. He said when they’re training at the police academy, they teach them to shoot for the largest part of the body. The head, the chest, the stomach. In other words, not to wound people, but to kill people, period. I don’t think it’s right,” said Dave. “My son probably would’ve done some time. This would’ve been his first offense. At least I would’ve had my son alive.”
“My son didn’t have no violent record or anything. He did have parking tickets. He liked fast cars, the same as me when I was young. He was so much like me, you wouldn’t believe. We had so much we was gonna do in the future. He was a carpenter, and I’m a retired electrician. We were gonna buy some bank-repo houses, and fix them, and sell them, and make some money,” he said, then continued. “I know you don’t have to have a bad record to commit a crime. But I know my son. You know your kids. I know my son wasn’t violent. He must’ve been having a nervous breakdown. He wasn’t himself. I just wish he’d called me. I would’ve begged the cops, please let me go in. I would’ve reached over there so fast. I would’ve took the gun away from him. Don’t do this. Don’t let the girl drive you crazy. She was the one that drove him crazy. I’ve heard so many stories. I don’t know what to believe. One person said James was asking Whitney, ‘Why, why, why are you doing this to me?’ That’s when he shot her in the knee or something. Shot her again in the other knee, from what I heard.”
“I don’t know how the police could think he was shooting people when he was letting people out the door. He told everybody when he walked in that everybody who wants to leave can leave, that he’s not here to hurt anybody. From what I hear. When the police came, James had the gun up in the air with both hands, like he was surrendering it. Like I said, I’ve heard so many stories. I don’t know what to believe,” said Dave. “I don’t have peace of mind.”
I tell Dave what I’d read in the case’s discovery file. Inside the Twilight Exit, authorities found three empty shell casings along the back bar, which they determined consistent with James shooting at Whitney twice and the officers once. Yet investigators never found the bullet James was said to have fired at the officers. A search along the alley wall turned up nothing, but as a detective offered in court, evidence often gets shuffled or lost altogether in chaotic circumstances. Perhaps the fired bullet was kicked away by the multiple witnesses, cops, and medics who’d been sprinting about, or maybe the bullet struck an item that was later removed from the scene, the detective said. As far as the exchange between James and the cops, I told Dave that no civilian witnesses had been in a position to watch it. Also, according to the Twilight’s owner, no video of the incident existed, due to a broken DVD player.
Returning to his son, said Dave, “he wanted a family so bad. He wanted to have a good wife. I told him, ‘You guys gotta get some counseling. You both gotta work on it. It’s possible for people to change, it’s possible for her to change.’ I told them, ‘God is good, God can heal you if you’re doing good. Go to church.’ They did go, and it was happy for a while. That didn’t last long,” Dave said. As time passed, the relationship worsened. “Had they not had the baby, they would’ve broken up. He used to call me when he had problems. He’d say, ‘This girl is driving me crazy, Dad.’ I said, ‘Get away from her. You don’t need her.’ She was messing around with all kinds of guys. I wouldn’t have thought. She was really cute, she was quiet. How could anybody that cute be this way. At least I thought she was quiet. James would say, ‘Dad, you just don’t know,’” said Dave.
“He didn’t understand Whitney. He would buy her everything she wanted. He had her so spoiled. I told him, ‘James, sometimes that’s not good enough. Material things are only a temporary thing. They get used to that, and they want something even bigger and bigger. Material things don’t make you happy.’ They didn’t make Whitney happy.” Dave mentioned his former business, a restaurant and sports bar in the suburbs. “It was doing pretty well up until this happened, and Whitney and James started having problems, really serious problems. The money wasn’t right. I knew Whitney was stealing. She had a cocaine habit, real bad. I’d never known James to be on drugs, but you know, you never know. I know he loved his weed though,” said Dave.
The assistant medical examiner had gone over James’s toxicology results during the court inquest, I tell Dave. The night of the shooting, James’s blood-alcohol level was about .15, or twice the legal limit. Every individual is different, said the examiner, but the effects might include slurred speech, impaired judgement, and some motor instability. No drugs were detected in James’s system.
“I’m old fashioned. I’m against everything. I remember back in the hippie days, they’d all be smoking weed. I knew a couple guys that did cocaine. My Vietnam friend. He got messed up over there. Not using it as an excuse, but he did. I was always his designated driver. Anytime we had to go out I would have to drive, see, because I didn’t do none of that stuff,” said Dave, and then for a while we skipped around in his past. I asked whether he too had served in the war. “My right foot was messed up. For that reason, they wouldn’t accept me. It was nobody’s fault but mine. When I was a kid, I had these Space Adams shoes, and I wore ‘em. We was so poor. We’d got to the dollar store and get shoes for three dollars. I wore these shoes even though it was hurting my foot. It made my big toe grow on top of my second toe. My foot had growed that way. It’s still that way. If you got into that situation where you had to run or whatever you wouldn’t be able to keep up,” he said.
Dave grew up in Arkansas. He remembers being in the fields when he was three or four years old. “We did everything. Raised corn, beans, potatoes. People lived off the land then. We worked about twelve hours a day, for three dollars a day. We picked cotton. Most black people are ashamed to tell you that. But old guys like me, we tell you the truth,” he said. “I lived in those times. When we went anywhere, we always had to go around to the back door. At the movies, we always gotta sit way, way back and up high. I don’t know, that was years and years ago. When I came here, I found out I could be treated like a human instead of treated like a slave. I decided I just wanted to be treated ok, so I came here,” he said.
Dave moved to Washington in 1966 and got a job at Boeing a week later. “I was operating a hammer machine. These big hammers go down and come up and they make big parts for the airplane. I was always working, always staying busy,” he said. Later, and for nearly a decade, Dave did electrical maintenance for the shipping cranes parked along the waterfront. His first marriage lasted ten years, brought two daughters, and ended in divorce. Dave had two sons, including James, with his second wife. “She was a caucasian lady. She worked for an insurance agency. We were married about 15 years. She passed away in 2010. She had diabetes. She had a weight problem you know. I always liked big women. I accept a person for what they are as long as they got a good heart and are very honest. She was a beautiful wife. I lost my wife. That was a big strain too,” he said. “Sometimes you think life is unfair because you don’t understand it, because God’s saying when it’s time. I got on my knees and prayed to God, please don’t take my wife, but he did anyway. I guess it was just meant to be. Two years later my son was gone. I thought, God, what’s gonna happen next. I thought, what is this world coming to. It’s probably good in a way that his mom passed because she wouldn’t have been able to take this, the way they killed him.”
“I think I think I think I really believe that the policeman that shot him, I think he came out to my restaurant. I’m not 100% sure. I think. I had James’s picture there, and James was holding his baby. I got a feeling. I don’t even know what the cop looked like. I really don’t wanna know what he looked like,” said Dave, and then he returned again to Whitney. “At one point James said he was leaving her, and they broke up for a while. He was gonna go back where his friend was in Idaho. His grandma’s got a farm out there not too far from the university. Him and the baby were gonna move out there. I was so happy, I was so happy. Anything to get away from Whitney and meet a nice girl. Not somebody that’s gonna cheat, cheat, cheat on him. Then Whitney popped back up at the house. She’s trouble, she’s trouble, she’s trouble, I said. She’s gonna get you to jail or she’s gonna get you killed. Sure enough, that happened,” he said. “I don’t want to talk to her ever. I don’t hate anybody, but I just don’t want to talk to her. My daughter is contact with her. My daughter is raising James’s son. He’s so bright, he’s so smart. He’s part of a big family now. Seven kids. They’re a very religious family. A muslim family. Very strict. Very private and strict.”
Dave said he’d owned the place James had been sharing with Whitney. It was located about two blocks from the Twilight. “James had a German Shepherd, and it was very protective of the house. It was a big one. A guard dog. I don’t remember its name. It was probably six feet tall on two foot. It was huge. James had the dog for protection for Whitney and the baby. I was kind of afraid of the dog. I didn’t go there that regular. I knew James and Whitney was having problems. I didn’t like to interfere with my kids. As long as they’re not hurting each other,” he said. In the days following the shooting, Dave returned to his property and let himself inside. “My house was destroyed. Everything was broken. The TV James had on the wall was broken. All his computers was broken. He had a bunch of cds, they was all broken. It was just a mess. It was really a mess,” he said. “I sold the house. I almost gave it away. So much damage. They tore it up,” he said. “We thought Whitney did all that damage. She led people in there, people that she knew. I think it was a number of people that did it. James had a medical card for marijuana. I think he had fourteen plants downstairs. Somebody broke into that house and went in there and robbed him. They busted a door to get in. They busted out my window. When James came home he was just pissed. She knew that James would go looking for her. I think Whitney set him up. I think she set him up for the cops to kill him. I really do,” said Dave.
I asked Dave if he’d discovered the German Shepherd’s body in the wreckage, since multiple witnesses heard James claiming his dog had been killed. As it turned out, that’s not what happened. “Maybe the dog had gotten out for a while, but he came back. I had to go feed him and give him water and all that. He wasn’t used to me. He acted like he wanted to attack me. He was mean. He was growling at me. I put some food down, and I opened the back door. I finally got him outside. I sure didn’t want to let him come in again. I had to call the Humane Society. I still feel guilty about that. I didn’t know what else to do. They had a helluva time trying to pick him up, from what the neighbors said. That dog was huge. He got bloody around his mouth. Wherever they were taking him, he didn’t want to go.”
Dave backs up to the night of the shooting. In the hours just after, “I remember going down to the hospital. The police come out. We didn’t know who was dead at that time. All they’d said was there were three people involved. We was hoping it wasn’t James. Two policeman said it was. My daughters freaked out. I said, ‘Babe, you know what you was taught when you was young. Never show emotion.’ I had a stroke not long after that, and I think that’s why. It’s because I don’t let things out. All this stuff has been in me for years,” he said. “I’m sorry he shot Whitney. Even if she was running him around. He didn’t need to shoot her. I’m sorry he shot the security man too.”