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 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.
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.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2011/08/family-interrupted/