Today is the third anniversary of the brutal and unnecessary killing of a nephew, Shawn, who was shot to death by police.
He had encountered the law previously for misdemeanors but nothing more serious. On this day, three years ago, he placed himself in the company of someone who had previously committed at least one fatal crime. They planned the armed robbery of a man with a car load of cellphones so they could sell the stash of technology that would most likely later be sold again for use in other crimes.
The theft went terribly wrong. It appears to this day that the police had staked out the affair. How else could they have been in pursuit in so little time? Shawn and his shithead companion ran over something that caused a flat tire, then ran from the car.
The police gunners could have targeted him in the legs and then stopped when he fell. Instead, they shot him multiple times in the back and legs. When a Flight-For-Life helicopter was called for, the police said no and asked for an ambulance, which had to make it there in afternoon traffic. Shawn bled to death. His shithead companion was wounded and captured and is now serving time. I wasn’t there, but that’s the story as I understand it to this day.
Even within the space of seconds, there’s time for reason. There’s a clear need for law enforcement, but there was no reason for the multiple kill shots. Sure, he was involved in a crime that involved a gun, someone else’s gun. I won’t justify the crime. What he did was wrong, and I believe in the absolutes of right and wrong. Excess force leading to the overkill of a twenty-three-year-old is also wrong.
Maybe it’s just that he was family. Maybe I’m hopelessly naïve to still believe in the virtue of reason, even within the space of seconds, especially among those who are trained to react in seconds.
At Columbine High School in April, 1999, it was just the opposite. SWAT team members were afraid to enter the school. I lived a handful of blocks from Columbine High at the time, and I walked to that memorial service, the sorrow of which will never leave me — the doves being released for each of the victims and hair-raising fighter jets thundering in and out of low-hanging rain clouds, almost close enough to touch. Those elite were trained to go in under those circumstances — and they stalled. In Shawn’s case, the police rushed to a quick and messy kill. Things are just so wrong so often.
All of us have stories, good and bad. I have plenty of stories. Stories are important. They have to be told, sometimes over and over. Sometimes they stick, sometimes not. Sometimes they proliferate, most times not. There are storytellers of their own stories, and there are storytellers on behalf of those who have passed.
I’ve used up at least a handful of my “nine lives.” Once, I was with friends on a road trip to Austin, Texas. We were in a “beater” of a car on our way back north to Amarillo with cases of Budweiser in the trunk. We would down the beers and then relieve ourselves into the empty cans, throwing the full cans out of the windows. Even pigs showed more brains. I was about twenty years old then, sometime in 1975.
The driver began to swerve, at something like 70 MPH. He swerved to the left, then the right, overcompensating each time until landing in a side ditch and sliding forward with the car sideways. I was in the passenger-side back seat with a steel culvert coming at me on the other side of my window. We hit the culvert, which I was sure would flip our car over it. Instead, somehow, we bounced over and slid to rest on the other side.
Once upon another time, when I was eighteen, just two months out of High School, I was driving my brother’s early-1970s, BMW Bavaria that he had purchased while in the U.S. Army in Germany. He had it imported back to the U.S. and let me drive it on occasion. He trusted me.
I had been in the habit at that time of driving to Liberal, Kansas, where beer could be purchased at age eighteen. In Texas, you had to be twenty-one. I had two younger friends with me, and we were on our return trip to Texas from Liberal with a case of Budweiser “Tallboys.”
It was common to drink and drive back then in Texas, not near as enforced as today. My brother’s BMW would easily do 120 MPH on the straight, seemingly forever highways on the Texas plains. Fortunately, I was just accelerating as I left a small town for the open road. An older couple, in their seventies or eighties, pulled up to a side farm-road and braked at a stop sign. I saw them and continued forward. They looked at me, it seemed, but then they pulled forward.
I smacked them dead-center into the rear axle of their Cadillac at about 30-40 MPH. There were cuts and bruises to go around, but luckily that was all. I spent my one and only night in jail, and my brother’s BMW was totaled, its front end like a metal accordian. I’ve made lots of mistakes in life, none quite as eyeopening for me as those two. We’ve all made mistakes, and will continue to do so.
Here are my three “morals” to this story, which I’ve told to younger members of my family, and which I consider at the pinnacle of the list of “wisdom” I’ve somehow managed to pick up in life.
1. There are three kinds of accidents: Those that go away almost immediately; those that go away after some time has passed; and those that never go away.
If you trip over something, then right yourself and quickly look around, seeing that nobody observed what happened, then you brush yourself off, walk away and no one but you knows.
The two accidents that I described above, I consider somewhere between the second and third kinds of accidents. Most of those involved are either dead now or have forgotten the whole thing, but both incidents left an indelible mark on my psyche that stays with me always when I’m either driving or placing myself into a car with another driver. I could easily have died in either accident, along with one or more of all the others.
My nephew Shawn, as good as his heart was, made the third kind of mistake, which will forever affect him, his family, his friends and anyone whose eyes happened to be on the horrible scene that day, three years ago, when he was “overkilled” by the police, lying there, no doubt wishing that he had chosen instead not to run, not to have placed himself in the car with his shithead friend, not to have wanted money so bad as to break the law for it until his short life was over and he could wish no more.
His two children will no doubt forever wish the same things that can never ever be. “Why didn’t you just stop and put your hands up, Shawn?” How many times have I asked myself that question?
2. Always think BEFORE you find yourself in the company of people you don’t know.
I remember once, back in the “hazy daze” of the 1970s, when a very good friend of mine drove me to a little house way out along dirt roads in the farmlands of Texas in order for him to acquire some exotic Mexican weed from someone that he knew but I didn’t. We arrived there, and I found myself in this “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-style dump with pounds of pungent grass on a table, various well-used tools for weighing it, cutting it and bagging it, along with a visible variety of firearms. I remember being in a serious conversation with myself, basically asking “WTF was I thinking?”
The journey began with me climbing into a familiar car with a familiar good friend and ended with me in a dump of a lonely farmhouse somewhere out in the sprawling shadows of Texas. Luckily, my friend and I walked out of it, but not without wisdom that I’ve somehow carried with me to this day.
A co-worker of mine told me a story once about her and some girlfriends who had traveled down to Mexico for a vacation. They were on the beach in bikinis and saw some hot guys in swimsuits motioning to them from a small yacht just offshore. The guys wanted them to swim out and join them to party. They did. After arriving there, it didn’t take long for my friend to realize that even though things went well, and they lived to tell about it, it was an incredibly pig-stupid thing for them to have done, to have placed themselves into the confines of that boat with total strangers.
Shawn, to my understanding, had just met his shithead friend days before their attempted theft. The guy was a friend of Shawn’s girlfriend, and he placed himself in the guy’s company with blind trust. “I know about climbing into cars out of blind trust, Shawn, but with the intent of armed robbery? Why?”
Think of this in a political way, as well. When you pull the ballot crank in a voting booth, you’re essentially placing yourself in the backseat of a very big car with someone driving that you really don’t know much about at all. Pulling the crank is blind trust, even when you think you know who you’re placing in the driver’s seat. You can’t go through a whole life without placing yourself in some kind of backseat at some point. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. In this political sense, you have to pull the crank for some driver. Blind trust, though, is never one’s friend. Reason is the only equalizer.
3. When working at a coal mine in Wyoming back in 1979-80, I had to take an OSHA safety class since I would be working around trucks the size of small houses with tires twice as high as a Chevy van, as well as other hazards. I learned something in that class that I still keep in mind thirty-two years later.
If you place a roller skate on a living room floor and leave it there, it’s an accident even though it hasn’t happened yet. If you pick it up when you first notice it, you’ve eliminated the accident from happening. It works the same way with a car tire that’s becoming bald. If you leave it, it’s bound to go flat when you least expect it – like when you’re on the highway doing 70, or 120 in a BMW. But if you fix it asap, then you’ve prevented it from happening.
The Nature of Accidents: An accident is not something that has already happened, but something that has potential for happening. If you nail it in its potential stage, then you’ve nailed it from happening.
The last time I saw Shawn was Christmas of 2008, three months before his killing. He was twenty-three, having been born three days before Thanksgiving of 2008. Shawn was someone to be thankful for, 100%. We have all made mistakes, and all of us have known terrible accidents.
I can’t say why I’ve come close to death in the past but lived, and Shawn didn’t. I don’t have that answer and never will. I was so shocked after the phone call came early the next morning, before sunrise. His death was so uncharacteristic of the young man that I knew.
He worked in a health food store at one time as a manager. I remember him telling me all about the benefits of certain vitamins and supplements. “I know what would be great for you, Uncle Steve,” he would say, concerned for my health, writing down some names. “Why don’t you try some of these for awhile?” There are lots of answers I just don’t have and never will.