The Zion Grove Baptist Church was packed for Ryan’s funeral. Others stood outside in the August heat, listening through the church’s open windows. Family members and friends remembered Ryan as a good man and an old soul. He was a responsible father to his 18-month-old daughter Neriah. He worked full-time at a Thriftway dry-cleaning business owned by his father, Clarence. He was a basketball fanatic who went crazy during March Madness.
Friends recalled that “Fatback,” the nickname for the boy who loved his mother’s cooking, was the one to call if you ran out of gas and needed a ride. They remembered that he had a frugal streak – he kept his flip phone so friends would call instead of sending texts, and the ringtone was “My Last Two Dollars,” an old blues song.
Ryan’s mother and father were divorced. He lived with his mother and two older sisters near the Mary L. Kelly Center, a neighborhood center at 51st and Chestnut. He was still friends with people from his days at Southeast High School. He hoped to open a second dry cleaning store.
“We had him under our wing of goodness and trying to make sure he stayed out of trouble,” Narene says. “I prayed for him every time he went out the door. We never really said good-bye. We said, ‘See you later.’”
Photo (right): Ryan Stokes always wore a wooden cross around his neck. He is shown here with a friend, Stanley Taylor, in 2013, the year Stokes was killed. (Courtesy of the Stokes family)
July 27, 2013, was a Saturday. Ryan worked all day, had dinner at home with his family, and played computer games with his eight-year-old nephew. He then hooked up with a couple of high school buddies and went down to Power & Light, riding in his friend Ollie Outley’s 2004 red Monte Carlo. Their friend Kenny Cann drove to the district in his own car.
Besides the ever-present wooden cross on a string around his neck, Ryan was wearing a large white T-shirt and baggy shorts and high-tops. As always, his hair was in braids. The trio stayed at the outskirts of the Power & Light, knowing they wouldn’t pass the district’s controversial dress code, which prohibited baggy clothes, sweat shirts or athletic wear. They also knew the drinks were expensive and Ryan was trying to save up for a family vacation in Florida.
It was a busy weekend in Kansas City, with lots of national attention centered at the Power & Light District, where a five-day festival was underway to celebrate the Major League Soccer All Star Game at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas, later that week. The build-up started Wednesday, July 24, with a line-up of free concerts, “chalk talks,” a watch party for Sporting KC on Saturday night and a 5K run on Sunday morning.
There was a heavy police presence at Power & Light that night, part of then-Chief Darryl Forte’s hot-spot strategy. First implemented in Kansas City in 2012, the deployments flooded small geographic areas known to be high-crime locations.
While Ryan hung out at the edges of the district, meeting and talking with old friends, a group of young men from Johnson County was inside PBR Big Sky. Among them was 21-year-old Jordan Miller, who came rolling out of the country bar about five minutes before 3 a.m.
Follow the foot chase
Miller and his cousin, Brett Budke, 31, had taken a cab downtown around midnight with a couple of friends. An off-duty officer would later describe Miller as “extremely intoxicated.” Budke, talking to police later, put it more simply: “hammered.”
As they left the bar, Miller and his friends joined the stream of others pouring out of the bars at closing time. They landed on the corner of 13th St. and Grand Ave.
After dropping and losing his black iPhone 4S, records show, Miller told officers that he saw “a black guy” who “got personal with it.”
“Hey, that guy took my phone,” Miller cried, pointing at Outley, who immediately denied taking the phone. Tempers flared and Ryan jumped in, trying to stop the fight.
Witnesses shot a 24-second cell-phone video of pushing and shoving before police pepper-sprayed the growing crowd and people scattered. The end of the video shows Ryan ducking away from the pepper spray. It was 2:56 a.m.
Ryan and his friend Kenny Cann, who was also wearing a baggy white T-shirt, headed up 13th St., seeking the shelter of Outley’s red Monte Carlo parked in a lot behind the Zoo Bar at 12th and McGee. They were ahead of Outley, who was having trouble moving because of pepper spray in his eyes.
Miller and Budke pointed officers in the direction of the black men and followed on foot.
Officer William Thompson was parked in a patrol car with his partner, Officer Tamara Jones, across the street from the lot at 12th and McGee. Both officers had desk jobs in the KCPD Research and Development Department, but were working a required shift in the hot spot. They were in the second of a double shift that day.
When he heard a dispatch about a foot chase involving two black males in white T-shirts suspected of “a stealing,” Thompson jumped from the patrol car. He took a few steps and saw Ryan come around a corner and into the lot.
Running up to Outley’s car, Ryan used a key fob to open it, triggering the car lights. He was at the driver’s side. Thompson later reported that he “immediately saw the handgun in his right hand at waist level.”
“DROP THE GUN! DROP THE GUN! DROP THE GUN!” Thompson said in his loudest command voice.
Thompson pulled his own gun, fearing for the safety of other cops running into the lot from the south.
“So I assumed it was going to be one of those suicide by cops, he was going to start getting into a shootout with these guys,” Thompson would later say in a deposition. “So that is when I fired my weapon.”
Thompson shot three times. Ryan was hit twice, falling forward. It was not yet 3 a.m.
Who had guns?
“Shots fired, shots fired! Watch the crossfire, man!”
Officer Albert Villafain, who had been patrolling Power & Light on a bike, was once again on the police radio.
Villafain was the officer who had pepper sprayed the crowd, after which Miller complained to him, which he later said got his attention.
“He said, ‘You sprayed me. I was just trying to get back my phone, they took my phone,’” Villafain later remembered. “At that point he started pointing at a group of men walking away.”
Villafain, who also later said he didn’t think Miller was drunk, followed Miller and Budke up 13th St., initiating a foot pursuit and broadcasting on the radio that two black males were “suspects in a stealing.”
Miller added to his earlier accusation, saying the stolen phone had been passed by Outley to Ryan.
Ryan Stokes would have been 30 this October. His daughter, Neriah, now almost seven, lives with her mother, Brittany Lee, and spends time with Stokes’ family. The lawsuit names Neriah, Lee, and Narene as plaintiffs.
In addition to monetary damages, the federal civil rights lawsuit asks that the police department change two policies, those dealing with foot pursuits and notifying next of kin. The lawsuit also asks KCPD to rescind the commendation made to the officer who killed Ryan; that the officer apologize to the family; and that the department give an accurate recounting of what happened that night.
Narene is sometimes invited to tell her story at community events and does so every time, though she describes herself as a shy person who would rather not be in the limelight.
“That’s my baby. They’re talking about my son.”
She’s devastated that her son’s name isn’t recognized in the litany of others that inspired the #BlackLivesMatter movement and that he was instead depicted as a thief and a thug. She fought to get her son’s wooden cross back from police and he was buried wearing it. And she wonders why everyone, including Mayor Sly James, says Kansas City doesn’t have a problem with officer-involved shootings.
“In Kansas City, Sly James the mayor says, ‘Well, it don’t happen here.’ I’m like, really? What does he see that we don’t see? What’s he hearing that we’re not hearing?”
Narene says she hopes that the lawsuit will at least give Ryan back his good name.
“I buried him. I had his funeral. Now my son, to me, lives in a file. I got papers and papers.”
Photo (right): The wooden cross Ryan Stokes always wore around his neck was stained with blood; it’s shown here on the evidence tray at the Kansas City Medical Examiner’s Office. Stokes was later buried with it. (Kansas City Police Department photo)