Narene Stokes couldn’t help but notice the only white woman in the crowd. Sheila Albers had come to grieve. Like Narene, like all the mothers gathered for the meeting, her teenage son had been shot and killed by police.
“On July 28, 2013,” Narene began, “in Kansas City, Missouri, my life changed forever.” Her voice was soft, a piece of silk ribboned on the wind. “A police officer shot my only son, Ryan Lee Stokes, in the back.”
On 20 January 2018, a policeman had shot Sheila’s 17-year-old son in the back of the head.
Sheila had come to meet other mothers who’d lost children to police violence. She worried if the moms would accept her, a white woman from the suburbs. She feared her presence might exacerbate their grief, might even insult mothers whose suffering was the brutal culmination of centuries of racism she could never understand.
But Sheila was lonely, and in following the mothers’ stories, she found Narene.
“Ryan never saw the officer who shot him,” Narene said. Sheila’s son John never saw the officer who shot him.
“Ryan had no drugs or alcohol in his system, and he was unarmed.” So was John.
“I watched my son walk out our front door for the last time,” Narene continued. She gestured to the crowd. “Now I’m the mama of all these mamas.”
Sheila broke down.
Before the event, Narene had coached the other mothers: “Sheila’s white, but she’s been through what we’ve all been through. She’s paddling upstream just as hard as any of us.”
In grief, the two mothers found an unmovable friendship. They also uncovered a powerful and unequal system of injustice that buried the truth and nearly destroyed their families.
Part one: life and death
Ryan Stokes had a soul-light. Narene saw it when her 24-year-old son cared for his daughter Neriah, then 18 months old, the greatest love he’d ever known. She saw it when he rose at 5am every morning to work at the family dry cleaners. He planned to take over the business when his father Clarence retired.
“He was the glue guy,” his best friend Ollie Outley said. “When he got it, we all got it. If no one else had any money, Ryan bought the pizza. The last piece? It’s yours.”
On 27 July 2013, Ryan confirmed the rental vans his family would take to Disney World. In 10 days, his uncles, aunts and cousins would caravan with them to Florida – 30 people in all. Ryan had paid for his two sisters’ families who couldn’t afford to go. He’d been saving for years.
That night, Ryan, Ollie and other friends planned to meet up in the Kansas City Power & Light District, a downtown touristy area with restaurants and live music. Narene worried. The bars would be packed. A divorced mother who’d worked for 25 years as a patient access representative at Truman medical center, Narene had seen too many young Black men hauled in on a gurney after being shot or stabbed in racial confrontations.
Ryan assured her they would stay along the perimeter. He didn’t want to spend money on cover charges anyway.
Around 11pm, he and his friends headed downtown.
The soccer field was John Albers’s sanctuary. At 17, he excelled as a player and referee. Parents and coaches wanted him to ref their games. He had plans to become a social worker and soccer coach for at-risk kids.
One foolish teenage move put it all in jeopardy. John got caught trying to steal clothing from a sporting goods store during his referee re-certification training. As punishment, his parents, Sheila and Steve, took away his car keys. Disgrace engulfed their son, told him ugly lies he already believed about himself.
John was born Valery Alexandrovich Zhemchugov in Minsk, Belarus, in 2000. He had spent his first 18 months in an orphanage, and the loss of his biological mother preyed on him. “I wouldn’t be here if my real mom hadn’t dumped me,” he once told his mom.
At 13, he started seeing a counselor. He struggled with HD. He’d had run-ins with police, lost friends over his reckless behavior. Sheila, a middle school principal at the time, suspected he might be suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder, a common condition in adoptive children who didn’t receive the love and care they needed as babies. Many bear a deep shame that their birth mothers didn’t want them and see themselves as bad or defective.
Still, John loved his friends, parents and two younger brothers.
Sheila had grand plans for his high school graduation party. She never imagined she’d have to plan his funeral.
That night, Kansas City’s Power & Light District was hopping. Around 2.30am, last call, the sidewalks filled with drunken revelers. Dashcam, cellphone video and witness testimony captured what happened next.
An inebriated white man, 21-year-old Jordan Miller, approached Ryan’s friend Ollie. “Hey, man,” Miller said. “You stole my phone.”
Ollie didn’t have it.
Brett Budke, Miller’s 32-year-old cousin, grabbed Ollie’s arm. “Give him his phone back.”
Ryan tried to break up the scuffle. Police officer Albert Villafain was on foot patrol nearby and responded by pepper-spraying the mostly Black crowd. The smoke torched Ollie’s eyes. He couldn’t see. His lungs burned. Ryan took his friend’s keys and said he’d bring the car around.
Miller and Budke sought out Officer Villafain. The three of them took off after Ryan. Three more officers joined the chase.
Ryan was about 25 seconds ahead of them. No one told him to stop.
The four policemen followed Ryan into the car park, while Officer William Thompson and another officer entered the park from the north side. Not one of the six officers announced their presence. Ryan neared Ollie’s car, then began to walk toward Officer Daniel Straub in surrender, his hands open and visible.
Ten feet behind Ryan, Thompson opened fire. Two bullets ripped through Ryan’s back. He crashed face down on the pavement.
“He’s not armed!” Officer Straub shouted.
Another officer called dispatch. “Can I get a case report number for aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer?”
Witnesses saw Officer Thompson open the driver’s door of Ollie’s car. As he rifled through it, Thompson found a Glock .22 pistol. Ollie testified he’d stored his legally purchased, registered gun barrel-down between the driver’s seat and middle console. The gun never left the vehicle. Thompson later testified he believed Ryan had opened the driver’s side door and dropped the gun on the driver’s seat.
Two minutes into the investigation, Ryan was the suspect. Thompson, the victim.
Around 3.10am, a loud banging, frantic and relentless, startled Narene awake.
She recognized the voice of Ryan’s friend, Laverle “Lover” Johnson. Half asleep, she unlocked the front door.
“Tell me he’s here,” Lover said. “Tell me you heard from Ryan.” She hadn’t. Lover said his sister had called him from Power & Light. “Something bad’s happened to Ryan,” he cried.
Narene and her daughter Natasha raced downtown. Narene tried not to think what she was thinking.
“He’s hurt,” she told Natasha. “He’s not dead.”
The questions came rapid fire, Narene recalled.
“Why are you here?” the officer asked.
“Did your son own a gun?” No.
“Did he do drugs?” No.
“Go home,” the officer said. He gave her his card.
At 5am, Narene’s niece called the police station.
“Watch the news,” the officer said and hung up.
TV anchors reported Ryan had stolen a phone and died in a standoff with police after refusing to drop his weapon.
Narene collapsed. All the serenity she’d built in her home, the precious bond between mother and child wafted out the windows, as insubstantial as smoke. A perdition ripped through her body as she – helpless, hopeless – watched a numb, gray dawn break.
Outside Narene’s ranch home in South Kansas City, family and friends held vigil. The tight-knit neighborhood of diverse, mostly blue-collar workers from Ford Motors and the surrounding K-12 schools gathered on her corner lot in prayer and support. Dozens of Ryan’s friends hovered near Narene; they all called her “Momma”.
Around 6pm, a caravan of police officers arrived with a Swat team. Armed men swarmed into defensive positions. A detective, flanked by officers in bullet-proof vests, said, “Our investigation has concluded your son pointed the gun at the officers. He refused to drop it. We were forced to shoot him five times in the chest.”
It made no sense. Ryan was a law-abiding citizen.
At the funeral home, Ryan’s father Clarence followed the director into the back room where Ryan lay. After seeing his son, he returned, weeping.
“They never shot him in the chest,” Clarence cried. He held Narene. “Baby, they shot him in the back.”
Narene’s knees buckled. She sank to the floor, breath burning, strangled in the shock. Her son hadn’t died. He’d been killed.
Blame seeped in and affixed itself to her heart like a tumor. The sight of Ryan’s brokenness, the fact he couldn’t answer her desperate pleas oxygenated her belief that this was her fault. For not knowing everything. For not telling him to stay home. For not being with him in his final moments, hurt and alone. Mothers don’t heal.
“What was he doing down there anyway?” Instagrammers wrote. “Out that late, he’s just asking for trouble.”
“Why’d he have a gun?” Facebook posts read, even after Narene said he didn’t. “Of course his mother’s going to lie for him.”
Narene became their receptacle, there to absorb the opinions and interpretations of the righteous around her. Ryan was a hundred different things, but to police, reporters, the public, he was only one.
John Albers fell into a mental health crisis. On 20 January 2018, he posted his despair on social media: “I don’t want to be alive anymore. It’s going to be better when I’m gone.” Friends called 911.
At 5.43pm, a dispatcher radioed to officers about an attempted suicide. Police dashcams show Officer Clayton Jenison move toward the driveway. To his left, the garage door opened. He drew his weapon.
John began to back out in his mom’s minivan. Jenison pointed his gun at the driver.
“Stop!” he said. “Stop! Stop!”
The last “stop” was still in his mouth when he pulled the trigger. His first shot ripped through the back of John’s skull. The second tore through his neck. The minivan continued backward into a reverse U-turn. Jenison shot 11 more times. One bullet blasted through John’s head. Three penetrated his shoulders and torso.
He was probably dead after the first shot.
Frantic texts and calls from John’s friends started coming in. Sheila and Steve raced home.
“I want to see my son,” Sheila cried when an officer stopped her.
“Your son has passed,” the officer said.
“We can’t say.”
For two hours, police made them wait on their neighbor’s front steps. Finally, Steve approached a different officer.
“Why can’t we see our son?”
“It’s protocol in an officer-involved shooting.”
“Someone shot him?”
“We can’t say.” The officer walked away.
The next evening, two detectives bombarded the couple with questions, Sheila recalled.
“Was John on drugs?” No.
“Bad news,” one replied. “He had amphetamines in his system.”
Sheila confirmed John took Adderall for HD.
“Did he have anger issues? Violent tendencies?” Then, the dagger to the heart. “What did you do before you left him?”
Sheila couldn’t take it any longer. All she could do for her son was everything, and do it perfectly. It wasn’t enough.
Steve hugged his wife and held on for the fall, his strength slipping, a father, a husband grasping for purchase before they both plunged into darkness.
Police told the public John had drugs in his system. The “drugs” turned out to be the exact dosage of Adderall Sheila had given him that morning.
“He was probably drunk or high,” someone later commented on Instagram.
“… that little brat was trying to kill the officers!!!!” a Facebook post read.
When Sheila returned home, an inky hollow greeted her. She could feel the rhythms John had left behind, hear the echo of his voice coming down the stairs. When a child dies, it never stops being the mother’s fault.
On 20 February 2018 Steve Howe, the district attorney, held a press conference. The shooting was justified, Howe said. He released two of three dashcam videos. Sheila and Steve had no choice but to watch Jenison kill their son on live TV.
According to court documents, forensic experts determined the minivan backed out at 2.5mph. It never accelerated.
Police Chief Frank Donchez concluded Jenison followed department policy, which in 2018 allowed for an officer to shoot into a moving vehicle “in self-defense or defense of another and when the suspect is using deadly force”. That policy has since been updated.
“The teen drove the vehicle in an extremely aggressive manner,” Howe said in his press release, “accelerating and steering to where the van once again drove right at the officer.”
In his interview with investigators after the shooting, Officer Jenison said he shot into the minivan without even knowing who was in the vehicle. “I couldn’t see anybody in the vehicle,” he said, “until the reverse lights came on and I knew someone was in there. I didn’t … I didn’t know.”
Forensic analysis showed the story to be flawed: at Jenison’s first shot, he was 6ft to the right of the van. By the 13th shot, he was 19ft away. All three passenger-side windows were shattered, yet the rear window and front windshield remained intact. Jenison was never standing behind the van.
On 29 April 2021, three years after John’s death, the DA released the 498-page investigative report from 2018. No Overland Park police officer participated on the investigative team.
Details about the shooting take up 94 pages.
References to John’s past – his run-ins with police, arguments with his parents and girlfriend, personal journal entries – take up 172 pages.
Another 500+ pages, not released to the public, include John’s private medical records, subpoenaed from six different providers.
Officer Jenison’s past – his performance reviews, 200 combat missions in Afghanistan, mental stability – is never mentioned.
Sheila called Narene, who knew the torture of watching police tear her son’s character to shreds. “You’ll get stronger,” Narene said. “You have to. You’re the only one who can take John’s name back.”
“Narene was my rock,” Sheila said. “She gave me strength, and I knew after talking to her, this will not break me.”
Part two: very different police interrogations
A typical homicide investigation lasts at least six months. John’s investigation lasted six days. Ryan’s lasted one.
After the shooting, during his 10-minute, 40-second police interrogation, Jordan Miller described the thief as African American, skinny, about 5ft 11in or 6ft tall. Ryan was 5ft 8in, 240lb.
“Did you see him with your phone?” the detective asked.
“Not saw him,” Miller said, “but knew he had our phone, he had it in his pocket, and denied everything about it.”
The detective gave Miller a document with pictures of six men and asked him to identify the man who stole his phone. It’s not clear from the video who was in the lineup. After many sighs and stutters, Miller pointed to #3.
Brett Budke entered the room as Jordan left. “We were pretty drunk at the time,” he said. “These guys just came flinging through … They weren’t up to any good.”
The detective asked if Budke had seen anyone take Jordan’s phone. “No,” Budke said, but he affirmed he could pick the guy out of a lineup.
“It looks like one of these two,” Budke said, pointing to pictures one and six. “I had a lot of drinks. I don’t remember it all. Number one looks like him. But it might’ve been number six. One, two, or six. I don’t know.” The interrogation lasted five minutes, 45 seconds.
Ollie Outley had a completely different experience. Two detectives tag-teamed the young Black man’s interrogation.
The first detective asked Ollie if he could read and write. He recited Ollie’s Miranda rights and asked 32 questions about his family, education and employment. He then asked if Ollie was a member of a gang, on probation or parole, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, if he had all his teeth, how many tattoos he had, and if he was “stealing them cars”. Finally he asked Ollie about the cellphone.
“Sir, I didn’t take anything,” Ollie said. “I didn’t steal nothing.”
“You realize I know that’s bullshit, right?” The detective insisted they’d seen videos that proved Ollie stole the phone.
Facebook Twitter Sheila Albers: ‘If we can’t get justice for Ryan, we can’t get justice for anybody.’ Photograph: Barrett Emke/The Guardian
“I don’t have no phone.” Ollie repeated that simple fact over and over. “I didn’t take anything or throw anything. Y’all got me on tape. Show me some tape.”
The videos didn’t exist.
In the one-hour, 15-minute interrogation, the detectives grilled Ollie about stealing the phone 47 times. Then they arrested him for stealing. He spent the next 24 hours in jail.
“Had Ollie admitted to taking Jordan’s phone,” Narene’s attorney, Cynthia Short, said, “they could’ve charged him with felony murder, the implication being his theft caused police to shoot Ryan.”
Jean Peters Baker, the prosecuting attorney, followed Missouri standard procedure and called for a grand jury to determine whether or not a criminal trial could proceed. No witnesses were called to testify. Investigators had taken DNA samples from Ollie’s gun but never ran tests to verify if Ryan’s fingerprints were on it. Thus, no one questioned Thompson’s story, even though depositions revealed every other officer on scene believed Ryan was unarmed. The jury refused to indict Thompson.
When asked for comment, Kansas City police department responded: “The result of the events is terribly tragic for the family members and all involved. We are sorry for the pain that Mr Stokes’ family experienced. This case is currently still in civil litigation process, and generally we do not comment on details of cases under civil litigation to ensure fairness for all sides involved.”
While their grief is shared, Sheila knows police violence disproportionately affects Black Americans. She realizes Narene’s frustration and sorrow come from a different, deeper place than hers.
“Narene’s pain,” Sheila said, “goes back centuries. I can’t begin to know how she really feels.
“Unlike John, the white kid,” Sheila added, “Ryan had no criminal background, no altercations, nothing. All he did was go out with his friends.”
That fact preys heavily on Sheila’s heart. “If we can’t get justice for Ryan, we can’t get justice for anybody.”
Many residents in Narene’s and Sheila’s communities argued the officers were simply trying to keep people safe.
“If you haven’t experienced law enforcement as a source of terror,” said the Rev Dr Vernon Howard, president of Kansas City’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “how could you empathize? If the police have always been your protection, how could you feel compassion for people who’ve suffered and died at their hands?”
According to Mapping Police Violence, a data project tracking police killings, unarmed Black people in America are four times more likely than unarmed white people to be killed by police. Hispanics are twice as likely.
Data now shows another group disproportionately affected. Nearly a quarter of all people killed by police since 2015 had a known mental illness. A 2018 study published in International Journal of Law and Psychiatry found that people with mental health issues are seven times more likely to be killed by police.
The death of John Albers has provoked some local change. The Overland Park police department increased crisis intervention training for police officers and plans to create a full-time mental health unit within the department to respond to anyone experiencing a crisis.
When people see Narene and Sheila together in a coffee shop or at the park, too many see what police want them to see. The mothers of that Black kid, that suicidal kid: the adjectives provide explanation.
“John couldn’t just be a soccer player,” Attorney Short said. “The police had to show, ‘he’s not like your son.’ Something was wrong with him. So they didn’t investigate the shooting; they investigated John.
“With Ryan,” Ms Short added, “there was no investigation. Being Black was enough.”
In Kansas City, from 2005 to 2015, 42 police-involved shootings led to deaths. Only one case made it to trial.
Part three: no justice, no peace
To Narene, Sheila is a warrior. Her emotional struggle fuels Narene’s empathy and courage.
To Sheila, Narene’s quiet fortitude inspires. “I love you much,” Narene recently texted. “Keep believing and call out on faith.”
They’re David against a hundred Goliaths.
In 2014, Officer Thompson and his partner received official commendations and medals for killing Ryan. Darryl Forte, the police chief, said Thompson’s actions saved the lives of all officers involved.
Facebook Twitter Both mothers filed a civil suit. Photograph: Barrett Emke/The Guardian
Later that year, after Narene’s relentless campaign to reclaim her son’s integrity and amid protests against police violence erupting across the country, the Kansas City board of police commissioners rescinded the officers’ commendations. Nathan Garrett, the board president, stated the awards included “inaccurate information”. He refused to specify the inaccuracies.
The two mothers had only one option left. They each filed a civil lawsuit, Narene in 2016, Sheila in 2018.
In Ryan’s case, the district judge ruled in Narene’s favor, meaning her case could proceed to trial. But the board of police commissioners appealed. The case was sent back down to district court, where the same judge then dismissed it based on Officer Thompson’s claim he feared for his life and the lives of others.
Now Narene’s case is back at the court of appeals, where it has sat since 10 September 2020. That’s only to decide if she can have a trial.
In John’s case, Overland Park settled for $2.3m in January 2019. Officer Jenison received a severance package of $70,000 and is still licensed as an officer. Now Overland Park is embroiled in a federal civil rights investigation.
When asked about Sheila’s settlement, Narene was adamant: “No way. I’m not jealous. Sheila and I feel the same pain. One times one equals one. John and Ryan are one. They were both killed in cold blood. Money can’t bring them back.”
The sentencing of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer, struck a fresh blow. “I cry for all the mothers,” Narene said. “Chauvin’s sentence was nothing but a slap on the hand. Every mother who’s lost a child to police violence is grieving all over again.”
To Sheila, Chauvin’s sentence proved the justice system is biased toward officers and against everyone being treated equally under the law.
And yet, the attacks keep coming to Sheila’s home. “You blame everyone and never yourself,” one person wrote in a hate letter. “When your son died, you became the talk of the town. You won the lottery. Get some help. You need it.”
Recently, the two mothers met in downtown Kansas City at the Liberty Memorial, home to the National WWI Museum. A year ago, they had spoken there in front of thousands for the 2020 March for Peace and Justice.
Inside the museum, mosaic tiles depict a night sky strewn with gold stars. Each star represents the sacrifice of a first world war Gold Star mother.
From the rails of the tower, the two friends gazed over the city skyline. They held each other. The ghosts of the Gold Star mothers whispered.
When Sheila cries she can’t go on, Narene lifts her up and says, “You can.”
When Narene wants to give up, Sheila hoists her alongside and says, “We go on.”
Susan Berardi is a writer based in St Louis. She’s writing a book on the two mothers’ fight for justice