ON MAY 25, 2020 — the day Minneapolis police killed George Floyd — officers shot and killed at least five other men across the country.
The wailing sirens and whoosh of police cruisers coming down the quiet Houston street — just 10 miles from where Floyd grew up — were exactly what Joelaunda Castillanos didn’t want when she called 911.
Her husband, Joe Louis Castillanos, 38, had served one combat tour as a Marine in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, which left him with PTSD. He’d been struggling for years — but that night, Joe was out walking the streets alone and Joelaunda was scared about what he might do to himself. She needed help talking him down, she explained to the police dispatcher.
Hours earlier, Joe, Joelaunda, and their two daughters, ages 7 and 11, had spent the evening at a family barbecue. Joelaunda wanted to leave. Joe didn’t. “Let’s go,” she pleaded. They were the last couple there. But leaving meant Joe would have to face the clock inching closer to midnight, closer to Memorial Day, and closer to the memory he just couldn’t shake.
For Joe, Memorial Day wasn’t for empty platitudes about America’s fallen heroes. It was a reminder of Cpl. Payne. An improvised explosive device had struck their vehicle, leaving them sitting ducks. Desert winds blew. Dust jammed their guns. Payne didn’t stand a chance.
Joe couldn’t forgive himself for not being able to save him.
Most days, the shrinks he saw, the medication he took, and the workouts he endured dulled his pain. For the last 13 years, he’d worked as a mail carrier in the rough-and-tumble city of Richmond, Texas, southwest of Houston. He’d befriended kids along his route, and every August he made special deliveries of school supplies to those who might not have any. At Christmas time, his mail truck doubled as Santa’s sleigh, doling out gifts. He’d even timed his route so that his 5 p.m. break meant he could have dinner each night with Mister Cortez, an elderly man who he worried received few visitors.
But this Memorial Day seemed to affect Joe more than any other. Joelaunda, who’d loved him since she spotted his dimples when they were both teenage store clerks, could see how he badly was struggling.
“Why didn’t I die from the IED?” he asked until the day he no longer wanted to wonder.
When the family returned home from the barbecue, Joe tucked the girls into bed and kissed them on their foreheads. Then he told his wife of 13 years that he intended to kill himself. He grabbed a gun on his way out the door.
After Joelaunda explained Joe’s state of mind to the dispatcher, she loaded their girls into the car to go looking for him. The Houston Police Department boasts one of the nation’s most progressive police chiefs and a crisis response team that’s regarded as one the country’s best. Yet from April 21 through Memorial Day, Houston police had killed six people.
Joelaunda spotted her husband walking along their street, and she rolled down the window to encourage him to come home. But just then, at least two police cars rushed into the neighborhood. One officer jumped out of the car, his gun extended in Joe’s direction.
“Drop the weapon,” the officer said to Joe. “Drop the weapon. Drop the weapon. Drop the weapon, bro. Don’t do it.”
Joe turned to face them, walking backward and away from the arriving officers.
Another officer emerged from the second arriving police car.
“Drop it, dawg,” the second officer yelled. “I don’t want to shoot you.”
In an instant and for no obvious reason, the commands escalated.
“Get on the fucking ground,” one shouted. “On the ground.”
Three officers kept advancing, guns drawn, as Joe paced backward away from them, holding the gun down by his side.
“Don’t shoot,” Joelaunda cried out, watching with her daughters as the police advanced toward her husband. “Don’t shoot.”
At a time when anger over the police killings of Black people convulses the country, brown lives aren’t faring much better. Latinos are 77% more likely to be killed by the police than white people are. In the week of May 25, at least four other brown men died in law enforcement encounters. Fatal outcomes are higher for military veterans, too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found military veterans and active-duty soldiers were 1.4 times more likely to die in law enforcement encounters than civilians were.
“Put the fucking gun down,” the officer shouted at Joe one last time.
Joelaunda and the girls heard the bullets whiz by their heads.
Seconds later, Joe was on the ground.
The Castillanos’ family attorney, Tanika J. Solomon, would later say the police had shot him multiple times in the back.
In Joe’s case, Houston police would maintain that the Marine veteran fired into the ground before he “raised the gun” toward officers. BuzzFeed News has reviewed footage of the shooting provided by the Castillanos’ family attorney, which does not show Joe pointing his weapon at officers.
In the middle of the street, Joelaunda and her daughters watched it all unfold.
“Mommy,” Joelaunda said her daughters told her as police blocked off the scene and surrounded Joe’s body, “you told them not to shoot.”
Thirty miles southeast of the Castillanos’ home, an officer in League City followed up on a tip about a suspicious truck parked outside the Scottish Inn. Michael Guzman, a five-year veteran on the force, noticed the white truck in the parking lot appeared to have a fake tag. Inside the truck, 33-year-old Justin Mink sat alongside Sophia Thompson, 27.
The police car pulling up alongside Justin wasn’t his first interaction with law enforcement. In 2004, he and his partner, April, married, and they had a son a year later. But a combination of drugs and alcohol consumed him and eroded his relationships with his wife, and their son. By 2007, he bottomed out when the couple’s 6-and-a-half-month-old daughter died.
Justin and April separated. He lost his job at a chemical plant after showing up drunk. Another gig at a coffee shop lasted less than a week after the employer learned he had lied on his job application. A neighbor had shot him when he tried breaking into the home he used to share with an ex-girlfriend and her mother. He drove a lawnmower through the glass storefront of an Aaron’s furniture showroom.
Then Justin robbed a bank.
He’d served nearly eight years in a federal prison when he was transferred to a halfway house last August.
“He was doing really good,” April said. “He was working on goals. He was learning new things.”
Justin found work on a farm. Through that, he developed an interest in genetic engineering and spent his free time reading about it online.
“He was trying to change,” April said. “Then something snapped.”
Justin vanished from his son’s life suddenly. He ditched the halfway house on April 29, nearly a month before the police car rolled up alongside the white truck in the motel parking lot.
But the officer didn’t initially pay much mind to Justin. Guzman noticed Sophia had an outstanding warrant and moved to arrest her.
That’s when police say Justin pulled a knife, slashing through Guzman's shirt and bulletproof vest.
Guzman opened fire. Justin would be the city’s fifth man killed by police since 2018. Between 2009 and 2018, of the 1,582 officers who have died on duty, 11 were stabbed.
Justin was shot at least twice.
His death started like so many other fatal encounters with the police: after a stop for a minor infraction. A BuzzFeed News review of police killings during the month of May found that 15 of them began with anything from a broken taillight to a call for police to break up an outdoor barbecue to a plea for help from a man who told the police he was starving.
April and her son didn’t find out about Justin’s death for over a week. It was more time wondering if he’d been living on the streets.
When April finally learned the news after police tracked down his parents, she had to tell their 15-year-old son.
“I was expecting that call,” he told her.
“The Talk” about police encounters that Erma Johnson had with her son, Dion, almost always included this advice: Record the interaction.
That’s why Erma said her 28-year-old son had to have been in a deep sleep when an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper approached Dion's rental car parked between Phoenix’s Loop 101 and the Tatum Boulevard on-ramp. He didn’t record anything.
Instead, Erma is left to piece together a story that she said doesn’t make sense to her: Police said the trooper found her son asleep in the car and beer cans scattered across the floorboards. That the trooper managed to remove a gun from the passenger seat without waking Dion. And that after the trooper woke up her son, Dion reached for the officer’s gun, prompting him to shoot.
Nearly 10 hours after Dion had been shot, Erma heard a loud knock on her door. She and her daughter had tried reaching him all morning. She exhaled, figuring it was her son. Instead, she opened the door to find two officers who had come to tell her her son was dead.
“It’s hard to believe because [Dion] was not confrontational with the law, anybody of authority, or anything like that,” Erma said of the trooper’s story. “He gives you the utmost respect, always.”
Her suspicion of the police narrative isn’t just grounded in a mother’s love; it’s rooted in a far deeper mistrust between communities of color and the police. Footage from incidents across the country has undermined police accounts of shootings. In 2015, the release of dashcam footage in Chicago unraveled a police tale that 17-year-old Laquan McDonald lunged toward Jason Van Dyke, prompting the officer to fire 16 shots. McDonald had not made any threatening movement toward the officer.
Media reports of Dion’s death were quick to mention his previous encounters with the law, including a no-contest plea to a 2008 armed robbery charge and a guilty plea in 2012 to another armed robbery. But the arresting officer couldn’t have known that since the car Dion was driving was a rental.
Such reports can shift the focus from the officer’s actions to the deceased’s character, even when it's not relevant. “Every time a person has a record, it’s implicit, that person was killed for a reason,” said Jocquese Blackwell, the Johnson family attorney. “It’s the Black tax. Why did Dion have to die? That he had a past didn’t matter.”
And Erma insisted those media reports did an injustice to her son’s life. “He’s not the type of person they’ve made him out to be,” she said.
The man she raised carried groceries for an older neighbor, she said. He spent Sundays in the winter cheering on his Arizona Cardinals, and in the summer he morphed into a human jungle gym at family functions, with children climbing along his limbs. Most days, he worked in a warehouse. Most nights, though, he sat hour after hour writing rhymes and beats and planned on returning to school to study music.
“I’m going to be famous one day,” he’d tell Erma when she’d convince him to take a break and come out of his room.
The death of a Black man asleep in his car after a night of drinking only to encounter law enforcement shares the storyline of Atlanta’s Rayshard Brooks. Atlanta police fatally shot him 17 days after Dion died. Yet his death led to a felony murder charge against the officer, sparked the resignation of Atlanta’s police chief, and moved Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to enact new use-of-force restrictions.
Dion’s family has yet to even learn the name of the officer who shot him.
Though the cases are strikingly similar, they differ in at least one regard: Brooks’s shooting was captured on video. Dion’s was not.
Erma said she wants her son’s death to force all officers to use body cameras. The Arizona Department of Public Safety does not outfit all its troopers with bodycams, and the motorcycle driven by the trooper who shot Dion did not have a dashcam. A bill pending in Arizona’s statehouse would provide over $4 million to outfit Department of Public Safety officers with bodycams. Johnson’s death, Blackwell said, could spur that bipartisan bill forward.
There was one sliver of video capturing her son’s final moments.
A TV station managed to record a video feed from traffic cameras installed around the city. The video doesn’t show the shooting but it captured Erma’s son, writhing on the highway. Two troopers appeared to hold him to the ground. In view of the camera, an ambulance idled just yards away. Nearly six minutes passed — as Dion bled on the road — before the ambulance approached and medics tended to him.
“The last moments just tear me up,” Erma said of the paramedics on the sidelines. Her voice, just days after she buried her son, rasped with exhaustion.
Dion had promised her he’d be famous, she remembered. Later that week, protesters around Phoenix scribbled his name on posters and chanted it through the streets.
As Derek Chauvin pushed his knee on George Floyd’s neck, the 46-year-old called out for his dead mother. And all this because Floyd, who’d been out of work since the coronavirus lockdown, had allegedly tried floating a fake $20 bill.
“I can’t breathe,” he cried out.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Department received a call about a man armed with a large knife who had threatened to hurt himself and a loved one. When deputies arrived at the Jonesborough house off a rural, two-lane road cutting through fields of green, they found 44-year-old Gary “Pat” Dorton on his mother’s porch. He’d already scared his mother away.
Friends and neighbors in the town of 5,400 knew him as the guy who could do pretty much anything. Stall a car? Pat could fix it. Place some drums in front of him? He’d find a new rhythm. Worried your garden soil is too dry? He’d won awards for his horticultural skills.
But those close to him knew the other parts of him, too. The Pat who’d lost his father as a child and the Pat who had mental health issues.
No body camera footage has been made available of the incident that night, leaving only the police’s version of the events. Pat charged a deputy with a knife before trying to cut himself, a statement read. Deputies fired both Tasers and their guns. He died at the scene.
Yet his obituary listed a different cause of death: “a lifelong broken heart.”
Pat’s friend, Micah Roberts, wondered if his friend had to die that night.