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?
Dan and Angella quickly realized that the press wasn’t going away. And it seemed that only one side of the story was getting out — especially since Mount Pleasant police were implying that DJ was responsible for the sequence of events that led to him being shot.
So the Henrys decided it was time for the public to hear another version of what had happened. One day, Dan picked up a tray of cookies and walked outside to speak with the reporters standing in his front yard. Soon both he and Angella were appearing regularly on TV and radio, fighting back tears as they questioned police accounts of that night. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton both offered to get involved, but the family quietly declined, preferring to keep race out of their campaign to learn the truth about DJ’s shooting.
What they did do was hire a New York civil rights attorney, Michael Sussman, to help them fight for access to video footage of that night from surveillance cameras, as well as audio recordings of 911 calls. They also wanted to know why DJ’s cell phone had been used twice without their permission after his death for what the phone company termed a “data download.”
Their frustrations were mounting. According to the Henrys and their attorney, their request to have a representative present at DJ’s autopsy was ignored. They also say the ballistics expert they hired to examine the gunpowder residue on their son’s car arrived to find that the Altima had already been wiped down. Then someone leaked the news that DJ’s autopsy revealed a blood-alcohol level of .13, well above the .08 limit to drive. Dan and Angella dispute that finding — insisting that witnesses had DJ drinking just half a cocktail the entire night — but the damage was done. Some commentators characterized DJ as a drunk driver.
The Westchester County District Attorney’s Office had been investigating the incident, and in February, four months after the shooting, a Westchester grand jury decided against indicting officers Aaron Hess and Ronald Beckley. Hours later, the U.S. Department of Justice took on the case as a possible civil rights violation.
Charges against the four Pace University football players arrested the night of DJ’s death were later dropped. The players are now pursuing a civil case against the officers involved in their arrest.
In April, the Pleasantville Police Benevolent Association honored Hess with its Officer of the Year award.
On a chilly April morning, six months after their son was killed, Dan and Angella Henry prepare to speak to reporters once again. TV trucks and cars line their street, and camera and sound guys are setting up equipment.
Dan is in the kitchen, wearing a dark gray button-down shirt and crisp dark-wash jeans. He takes a phone call, and returns to tell Angella that Amalia Barreda from Channel 5 is stuck in traffic.
“Can we wait?” he asks.
“It’s just so cold outside,” Angella says. “I feel bad for everyone waiting out there.”
They decide to give Barreda a few extra minutes, then get going.
The Henrys have become increasingly comfortable with the press as they’ve sought to combat negative portrayals of DJ in the media and in online commentary. That afternoon, they will appear on NECN’s Broadside: The News with Jim Braude and then The Emily Rooney Show on WGBH. They’ve also been on CNN and the Oprah Winfrey Network, and all the local media outlets have already been out to the house.
“It’s very hard,” Dan says with a tired look when asked what it’s like to grieve so publicly. “But it’s necessary. Even on the first morning, my inclination was not to say anything. But we couldn’t allow them to disparage our son’s character.”
Amber and Kyle appear from upstairs. The four stand together for a moment in the kitchen, then move to the front door. Percy, the family’s Welsh terrier, thinks this means he’s going for a walk and starts leaping at the door. Angella picks him up and carries him to a back room. Then the Henrys file out to meet the cameras.
The scene is not the circus it was in the first weeks after DJ died. This is a smaller affair, attended by local news and radio. Dan walks up to the microphone and begins speaking. “This has been a hard six months for us,” he says, his family huddled behind him, arms entwined. He tells the reporters that the family has officially begun the process of suing Officer Aaron Hess and the Village of Pleasantville for $120 million. “This opens up to subpoena evidence the audio, video, and personnel files,” he says. “The one thing we want most we can’t have. We will never have our son back. But this gives us subpoena power to gain access to information we have been denied.”
Channel 5’s Barreda soon strides in, wearing a long, dark coat and full makeup. “How do you get through the day?” she asks.
“Through prayer and through our faith,” Angella replies.
The talk returns to the lawsuit, which Amber explains this way: “We can’t have Danny back, so we need something to conclude it. We need the truth.”
Kyle, who is tall with a deep voice and an easygoing demeanor, adds, “These people murdered an innocent, great person. I’ve dedicated my life to knowing the truth, to gaining some sort of peace.”
The press conference ends and Dan and Angella speak to a few stragglers, then go inside. In the dining room, an Associated Press photographer is snapping shots of the framed pictures of DJ that Angella has assembled on the table.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Angella says of all the media appearances. “If what we have to do is stand up in front of the world, we will do whatever we have to. What can you do but keep fighting?”
A month later, on a sunny afternoon in May, Angella answers the door in jeans and a polo shirt. She has just returned from Staples with plastic bins for the DJ Henry T-shirts that were designed by Boston’s Johnny Cupcakes. The shirts will be sold to raise money for the DJ Dream Fund, a nonprofit the family created to provide sporting equip-ment, summer-camp scholarships, even health-club memberships to children in need.
On the kitchen table is a wicker basket filled with unread mail. Beside it is a vase of fresh irises and daffodils, sent anonymously that morning. “We get things every day from people all over the country,” Angella says. Amber receives teddy bears with DJ’s number 12 on them. On Easter morning, Angella’s aunt and uncle found a bunch of yellow tulips beside the post bearing DJ’s photo that they keep on their front lawn.
Strangers often show up on their doorstep or park outside their house. Sometimes it’s a reporter coming to get their reaction to some turn of events — like Hess being named Officer of the Year. Other times it’s someone who’s experienced a similar loss. The Henrys have found it increasingly difficult to balance their need to keep public attention on DJ’s shooting with their need for privacy. Plus, some of the offerings they get are disturbing. Dan now opens the mail and tosses out the “bad ones,” which he doesn’t let Angella read. The family is considering security cameras for the house.
Amber is sitting at the table when her mother comes to stand over her and, in that universal habit of mothers everywhere, starts picking at her forehead. Amber shoos her away. “He was the only one of my kids who would let me groom him and pick at him,” Angella says of DJ. “He loved it.”
Amber playfully rolls her eyes, and Angella begins to talk about her frustration with the Westchester County district attorney, who is still refusing to give up the surveillance tapes, even with the family’s civil trial looming.
Upstairs in her bedroom later, Amber walks over to the Pace jersey that hangs on her wall. She leans into it and inhales, saying, “It still smells like him.”
The room has pink curtains, a keyboard, and an unmade bed with two teddy bears on it. Amber keeps a few of DJ’s belongings that she salvaged and now displays: framed photographs, his cross, a bracelet with tiny portraits of religious figures set in ovals, rosary beads. (DJ was devoutly religious; he and Brandon had gotten baptized together before leaving for college.)
Amber then leads the way to DJ’s room. There’s a TV with a video-game console set low just beyond the foot of the double bed, framed sports posters, a Michael Jordan jersey, Celtics paraphernalia. In one corner, two white garbage bags filled with clothes slump beside a chest of drawers. After DJ died, Amber says, “We all came in here. We took his stuff in and kind of just sat here.”
Amber has two more years to go at Oliver Ames High School. She likes to write, bake, sing, and act. She says she and Kyle, who’ll be attending college this fall, are going to make a song together. For now, though, she’s settled into a routine. Each night before bed, she walks down the carpeted hallway to DJ’s room and lowers his blinds — “Just to keep his room his private space,” she says. “Just to take care of him.”
The room, with those posters and jerseys, video games and clothing, goes dark. In the morning, she walks back down the hall and raises them up.