Family, Interrupted

When DJ Henry was shot to death by police last year, it made national headlines—a black college football player from a comfortable Boston suburb killed by white cops in Westchester County, New York. The media coverage focused on what had gone wrong and who was to blame. For DJ’s family, though, there was another important question: How do you grieve on a public stage?

dpt_djhenry1(3124)

Photograph by Dana Smith

Dan and Angella Henry, awakened last October by the ringing of their doorbell at 3 a.m., opened the front door of their Easton home to find two police officers on their step. The officers told them that their son had been in an accident. Angella was confused. Her 18-year-old, Kyle, was asleep upstairs in his room. How could he have been in an accident?

One of the cops handed her a piece of paper with the phone number for the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York. She immediately understood that it was her other son, Danroy, the gracefully athletic 20-year-old football player in his junior year at Pace University, that they were talking about. But the Henrys had just seen Danroy — known as DJ — that day, having driven to Pleasantville, New York, to watch him play. Now he was in the hospital? It didn’t make sense.

Angella called the hospital. A woman told her that DJ had been shot. Stunned, Angella kept saying, “Who would shoot him?”

Dan took the phone. “We’re about to take a three-hour drive,” he said to the woman on the other end of the line. “I need to know how serious this is. I need to know if he’s alive.”

At that point, the attending physician came to the phone. DJ was dead, he told Dan. When Dan asked why he’d been shot, the doctor said, “They say he was trying to run over police officers, and they shot him.”

The Henrys were dumbfounded. All through childhood, high school, and now college, DJ had been known as a good-hearted, friendly kid, the kind of person who looked out for others. He was probably trying to help someone, Angella thought in her shock. Maybe Brandon.

Brandon Cox was DJ’s best friend from high school. They’d been teammates on the Oliver Ames High School football team, and had each gone on to play college ball, DJ at Pace and Brandon at Stonehill College. In fact, the game that the Henrys had gone to that day, Pace’s homecoming, was against Stonehill. Brandon’s family, close friends of the Henrys, had come along, and after the game — a 27–0 drubbing by Stonehill — everyone went out for pizza in Pleasantville. Angella and Amber, DJ’s 15-year-old sister, were proudly wearing Pace T-shirts.

DJ had been in high spirits at the restaurant. He teased Amber and boasted about Stonehill’s scouting report for the game, which had called DJ a player to watch out for.

After dinner, Dan and Angella hugged their son goodbye and headed back to Easton. Amber got in the car with Brandon’s mother, stepfather, and twin sisters, fellow sophomores at Oliver Ames and her best friends. The group was going to stay overnight at a hotel in New York. DJ and Brandon then set out for a night with friends.

Something had obviously gone wrong after that, but what? Dan hung up the phone. He and Angella woke Kyle, and the three of them rushed out to their gray Acura SUV and headed back to New York. Kyle wasn’t even wearing shoes.

As they drove, devastated by their private heartbreak, the family had no way of knowing how public their loss was about to become.

 

Exactly what transpired in the hours after the Henrys said goodbye to their son at that pizza place has already been the subject of inquiries by Mount Pleasant, New York, police and Westchester County prosecutors, and is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. As yet, there has been no definitive account, but what everyone can agree on is that around 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, DJ, Brandon Cox, and a third friend, all of them African American, were parked in a fire lane outside Finnegan’s Grill in the Thornwood Town Center shopping plaza, not far from Pace. They were waiting for two more friends to come out of the bar.

Inside Finnegan’s, the owner had just called the police to report a fight and ask for help clearing the place. Soon, six police officers arrived from two different departments, Mount Pleasant and the nearby village of Pleasantville.

In the parking lot, Mount Pleasant Officer Ronald Gagnon pulled up behind DJ’s Nissan Altima and sounded his horn twice to get DJ to move from the fire lane. When he got no response, Gagnon left his patrol car and walked over to tap on DJ’s tinted window. DJ moved the car. This is where the stories diverge.

According to the police, DJ sped up and hit Pleasantville Officer Aaron Hess, who was standing in his way and was thrown onto the hood of the car. At that point, Hess, fearing for his safety, drew his weapon, a .40-caliber Glock, and fired four bullets into the windshield. Mount Pleasant Officer Ronald Beckley, who was up the road a bit, says the car veered toward him, so he jumped out of the way as the Nissan crashed into his cruiser, his gun discharging into the hood of DJ’s car.

Bystanders and DJ’s passengers tell a very different story. They say DJ moved his car from the fire lane at a reasonable speed, and that Hess jumped in front of him, his gun already drawn, and started firing. Some witnesses say Beckley then intentionally shot into the car as well. Both Hess and Beckley declined to comment for this story.

DJ was hit twice in the chest and once in the upper arm. “They shot me,” he said as he was pulled from the car by police. “They shot me.” He was handcuffed and left bleeding on the curb for at least 10 minutes. Police officers later said they didn’t know the extent of his injuries because there was not a lot of blood.

Cox, who’d been sitting in the front passenger’s seat, was shot once in the upper arm. He got out of the car and was soon handcuffed. Desmond Hinds, a wide receiver for Pace who’d been in the back seat, was shoved to the ground by a police officer and says he sustained a concussion. Young women exited Finnegan’s screaming, and other officers drew their guns and Tasers to fend off the friends who were rushing to DJ’s aid. One of them, DJ’s teammate Daniel Parker, held up his American Red Cross CPR card, but a police officer told him to stay back. Parker claims he looked helplessly into DJ’s eyes as he watched him dying. Parker and three other football players who tried to help DJ were arrested.

Afterward, when police searched the trunk of DJ’s car, they found a soccer ball, a basketball, and a new football jersey, a gift for his brother, Kyle.

Arriving at the Westchester Medical Center, the Henrys were led to a curtained area where DJ’s body lay covered in a hospital gown. His eyes had been taped shut, and a tube came out of his mouth. On his wrists were two tattoos: “Family” on one and “First” on the other. Dan, Angella, and Kyle stood over him, crying and praying.

At that moment, Cox’s family was on the way from the hotel to the hospital. They had Amber in the car with them. Angella had called Cox’s mother, Donna Parks, during the drive from Massachusetts to tell her DJ had died. “What happened to Danny?” Amber kept asking everyone in the car. “Is Danny okay?” Parks didn’t speak, feeling the answers had to come from the girl’s mother.

When they got to the hospital, Angella walked toward Amber in the waiting area and explained what had happened. “We need to say goodbye to Danny now,” she told her daughter. She led her to him, saying, “He doesn’t look the same.”

“My mom said, ‘Tell him something; tell him you love him,’” recalls Amber. “I was so confused. I took his hand lightly and I said, ‘I love you.’ That was it.”

Before leaving the hospital, the Henrys spoke with an injured Cox, who had also been taken to Westchester Medical Center. The story he told them about the shooting didn’t fit with the early police reports they’d heard. The family then drove to the Pace campus. In DJ’s dorm room, friends repeated what Cox had said: that DJ hadn’t done anything wrong. As the Henrys were getting ready to depart, the university’s dean of students informed them that the Mount Pleasant chief of police, Louis Alagno, was holding a press conference that morning. Dan and Angella were astonished. The chief had yet to even speak to them. They drove to the police station, where Alagno promised a full investigation. When one of the officers held out his hand to Kyle and asked the teenager to trust him, Kyle refused to take it. The Henrys drove home in silence.

When they pulled into their driveway, they were surrounded by reporters taking pictures and shouting questions. The news that DJ, an African American, had been shot to death by a white police officer had set off a national media frenzy. But to the family, the grief was intensely personal. “Do we have to do this now?” Kyle yelled at a cameraman.

For the next two weeks, reporters and camera crews showed up outside the Henry home before dawn and didn’t leave until close to midnight. The family huddled inside, sleeping together for the first few nights on their living room couches.

When Amber later tried to resume staying in her own room, it would get so bright with TV lights by 4 a.m. that she took to sleeping on Kyle’s bedroom floor.

ADVERTISMENT

  • maureen

    Thank you Katherine Ozment for this wonderful piece, you did a fabulous job of capturing the essence of this family.

  • Snowmama

    My heart continues to break for this family, and shocking turn of events in the lives of DJ and the wonderful young college students and patrons trying to save his life. I am furious that the actions of one cop can so alter the lives of so many kids. It’s disgraceful also how the state of NY has treated this grieving family, absolutely disgraceful!

  • J

    …but I pray you find peace in knowing that this was not just about DJ but for all the families you have experienced loss of their children in the hands of that silent “blue” wall.

  • Patricia

    This was a great article and portrayal of the Henry family. Our prayers continue to go out for them as they heal from this tragedy. I pray God grants them the peace they desire in knowing the absolute truth. Blessings all of them.

  • nora

    Dan and Angella Henry have shown remarkable strength, grace and restraint during this tragedy. It is difficult to grieve privately yet keep this story in the public eye in an effort to find the truth

  • Lori

    Thank you Boston Magazine for this piece. So well done, and so important. The horrible wrong can’t be undone, but major media staying focused on this story may lead to justice and some degree of peace and closure for the Henry family. They need our help. Thank you for this story.