Loading

KCUR Investigates: Ryan Stokes Was Killed By A Kansas City Cop. His Family Wants Police To Tell The Truth.

By Peggy Lowe

Photo (above): Narene Stokes stands in front of the Kansas City Police Department. Seeking “restorative justice,” the Stokes family has sued the Board of Police Commissioners and the officer who shot her son, 24-year-old Ryan Stokes. Narene now wears a wooden cross much like the one her son always wore. (Photo by Brandon Parigo/For KCUR 89.3)

______________________

Narene Stokes had the talk with her only son early on.

It was the same conversation that generations of black parents have had with their children: When you’re out in the world, be on your guard, protect yourself. If the police stop you, stay calm, do what they say.

Stay alive.

Ryan Stokes listened to his mom. The 24-year-old and his friends were hanging out downtown that night, staying at the edges of the Power & Light District. They didn’t want to venture in to what some Kansas Citians call “Power & White,” due to its history of dress codes that discouraged black visitors and other allegations of discrimination.

But Ryan’s caution that night didn’t matter. When a group of young white men poured out of the bars at closing time and accused someone in Ryan’s crowd of stealing an iPhone, Kansas City Police officers pursued the black men.

An officer fired two bullets at Ryan, hitting him in the back. He died on July 28, 2013.

“I prayed for him every time he went out the door. We never really said good-bye. We said, ‘See you later.’”

In the five years since Ryan was killed, some things have changed in Kansas City. Swarms of police are no longer deployed to “hot spots” like they were that night. The Jackson County Prosecutor, who refused to indict the officer who killed Ryan, has since revamped the grand jury process. Power & Light has backed away from some policies that critics said targeted black citizens.

One thing has not changed. The Stokes family is still waiting for justice.

Seeking “restorative justice,” Narene has filed a federal lawsuit against the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners and William Thompson, the 21-year-veteran officer who killed Ryan.

While Narene waits for the lawsuit to make its slow journey through the court system, a KCUR investigation reveals a different story from the one police told the public five years ago.

According to Kansas City Police Department records obtained through a Missouri Sunshine Law request and evidence gathered by the Stokes family’s lawyer, KCUR found that Ryan was not armed. He did not force a standoff. He was not threatening officers when one shot him.

A police officer chose to trust an intoxicated white man’s accusations against a group of black men.

Ryan was killed after Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012 and before Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, but his name hasn’t resonated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

“I just want to know why Ryan’s name hasn’t traveled like all the others,” his mother says.

Meet Ryan Stokes

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.

These two photos show a KCPD officer interviewing the two Johnson County men who had been drinking at the Power & Light District and got into a scuffle with Ryan Stokes’ friends on July 28, 2013. Jordan Miller (left), then 21, accused one of Ryan’s friends of stealing his iPhone. Millers cousin, Brett Budke (right), told police that they had been drinking a lot. (Kansas City Police Department photos)

Villafain called over another bike officer, Daniel Straub, and told him to talk to the two black men in white T-shirts, and Straub took off on foot for the parking lot. As he was ordering Ryan and Cann to stop and show their hands, Thompson shot Ryan.

Straub was the first one to get to Ryan, who was face down on the pavement. Straub turned him over on his back and handcuffed him.

“Did he have a gun?” Straub asked Thompson, who said yes.

Straub frisked Ryan, finding no weapon.

“Oh shit, where did he put it?” Thompson said.

Officers then opened the driver’s side door to Outley’s car and, they would later say, they found a gun on the front seat. They left it there.

“When he got shot, I was surprised and I didn't know what was going on,” Villafain later said. “And my next thing was like, OK, make sure everything gets preserved, the crime scene doesn't get contaminated so it doesn't make me look bad.”

Within minutes, a police officer was asking a dispatcher where to put news reporters who were beginning to show up. An officer coded the incident as “assault on law enforcement.” In the police records, Ryan became Suspect No. 1, Kenny Cann was Suspect No. 2, Ollie Outley was Suspect No. 3. Jordan Miller was Victim No. 1 until he was replaced with Officer William Thompson as Victim No. 1.

“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. So that is when I fired my weapon.”

Just five hours later, at 8:02 a.m., an article on the Kansas City Star’s website recounted the official police story, quoting KCPD Capt. Tye Grant, then the media contact. Ryan and another man were being pursued after the theft of a cell phone, the story said, they were armed, and Ryan was fatally shot because he had refused to drop his weapon.

The following Tuesday, the Star ran another story headlined: “Man shot by police had just tossed his gun away.” The story quoted police saying Ryan “ignored an officer’s repeated demands to show his hands” and that Ryan was running with a gun toward other officers.

Ryan’s friends told the Star that they didn’t hear any commands for Ryan to stop, but that they saw him drop a gun just before he was shot. Yet they were surprised that Ryan would have a gun.

“There are some people we hang around that we’d be like, ‘He lives that lifestyle,’” then 23-year-old Lashawnda Johnson told the Star. “But with him, it’s a totally different case.”

Ryan had no pulse when he arrived at Truman Medical Center. He was pronounced dead at 3:27 a.m.

Photo (above): As dawn breaks on July 28, 2013, Kansas City Police gather evidence at the scene of Ryan Stokes’ killing, in the shadow of the Sprint Center and the Power & Light District. He was shot standing in front of the 2004 red Monte Carlo parked in the No. 12 spot in a lot at 12th and McGee streets. (Kansas City Police Department photo)

a mother learns the truth

Asleep at home, Narene was roused by a loud knock on the front door. It was another of Ryan’s friends, telling her he was “down” and handcuffed at Power & Light.

Along with her oldest daughter, Narene rushed to Truman Medical Center, where she works as a surgery utilization specialist. Figuring that’s where the ambulance would take her son, she asked in the ER for a John Doe, but no one had been brought in. So they headed to Power & Light. At the crime scene, they saw a body lying on the ground, covered with a tarp.

“I was thinking ‘It’s Ryan. That’s Ryan. That was Ryan,’” Narene remembers. “But I couldn’t say it.”

Police asked them questions and told them to go home, where they would be contacted later. They said to watch the news for more information.

“’They didn’t shoot him five times in the chest. They shot him in the back, Na.’”

Back at the house, family and friends were bringing food, paying respects. Word had spread on Facebook, but Narene hadn’t received confirmation from the police.

The first reports on TV that Sunday morning said only that a 24-year-old man had been killed by police. Hours later, Narene heard his name on the news: Ryan Stokes.

“That’s my baby,” Narene said. “They’re talking about my son.”

Narene could not believe her blessed only son wouldn’t come home. He was a good, hard-working guy with a clean record.

She thought she’d already survived the seeming inevitability of her son being shot: When Ryan was a teenager, he’d been working as an official at a high school football game when a bullet from a drive-by hit him in the mouth. All he needed were some new teeth.

He always picked up the phone when his mom called. He always came home.

Police finally called late that Sunday afternoon. Narene was sitting in her front yard surrounded by a crowd of people — family members, her children’s friends, Ryan’s father, Clarence.

A police commander asked her to meet with them somewhere “so we can tell you about the welfare of Ryan.”

“No,” Narene said. “You can come to my home.”

The police had apparently called from nearby, because they arrived in minutes, about a dozen officers, all with “POLICE” emblazoned across their bullet-proof vests. They blocked both ends of the street with patrol cars.

Narene stood up as officers walked up the long sidewalk and addressed her. Officers told the family they had ten witnesses.

“They came to the house with their story: That he had a gun, there was a standoff, they asked him to put it down, and he wouldn’t put it down so they had to shoot him five times in the chest.”

Narene collapsed. Some family members tried to argue with the police, asking if they’d interviewed the many other witnesses. Some of Ryan’s friends started crying, yelling and saying the police were wrong. The family asked when they could see Ryan, and the police said they couldn’t because the matter was still under investigation.

Officers left after just a few minutes.

William Thompson, a 21-year veteran of the Kansas City Police Department who shot and killed Ryan Stokes on July 28, 2013, testifies during a deposition for a lawsuit filed by the Stokes family. (Photo courtesy of Cyndy Short, attorney for the Stokes family.)

Narene Stokes already knew police weren’t telling her the truth.

That morning, desperate for news of her son, she’d called a friend who worked at the city morgue. He said he’d heard about Ryan’s death on the news, too.

He called Narene by her nickname, Na (pronounced “Nay”).

“He said, ‘They lied to you. He didn’t have a gun. He didn’t have a standoff with them. They didn’t shoot him five times in the chest. They shot him in the back, Na.’”

The family was finally shown his body at the funeral home several days later. There had been an autopsy. There were no drugs or alcohol in his system. His braids had been cut off. There was a hole in the lower left part of his back and another in his left side.

“Shoot to kill,” Narene says. “That’s what they did.”

justifiable homicide?

The missing iPhone, which was described in a police report as having a cracked screen and worth $100, has never been found.

Thompson was placed on leave and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office put the matter before a grand jury, which happens in many cases when police officers shoot people. The grand jury heard from Thompson, his partner, Tamara Jones, and their supervising sergeant, according to KCPD records. Key witnesses, such as Officer Daniel Straub or Ryan’s friends Ollie Outley and Kenny Cann, were not called.

The grand jury refused to indict Thompson and the case was cleared by police as a “justifiable homicide.”

Ryan was the first and only person Thompson ever shot. A year later, the Board of Police Commissioners awarded Thompson and Jones commendations for “ending the threat to all officers involved.”

Three days after Ryan was killed, Ollie Outley called the police department, hoping to get his car back. He went to the station, where what he thought would be a conversation quickly turned into an interrogation. Detectives were investigating Outley for felony murder, falsely believing that he had stolen the cell phone, which triggered the events that led to Ryan’s homicide.

Detectives pressured Outley some 34 times to admit lifting the phone, falsely saying that they had him on video. But Outley kept denying that, and at the end of the interview he was handcuffed and held for 24 hours, and his phone was downloaded and searched. No charges were ever filed.

The family and Ryan’s friends, along with activists from a group called One Struggle KC, have tried to generate interest in his case over the years, including a raucous meeting with the Board of Police Commissioners in August 2016. The activists asked the board to revoke the commendation to Thompson, but it refused, saying the grand jury had refused to indict him.

“The department is not hiding facts,” the board wrote in an extended response to the August 2016 meeting. “The Stokes file was timely provided to the Stokes family pursuant to a request made under the Missouri Sunshine Law.”

“Hey, that guy took my phone!”

Four years after the shooting, Jordan Miller swore in a deposition that he brought his phone out of the bar and dropped it and that it was picked up by certain “individuals.” He admitted he had “quite a bit to drink” and that he blacked out “maybe a little bit.” He didn’t remember much of it, including accusing anyone of passing the phone to Ryan.

Asked how he felt when he was told that someone was shot and killed that night, he said:

“Just like any other feeling, like obviously awful.”

Miller did not respond to KCUR’s multiple requests for comment. In the deposition, he said he didn’t remember anyone having a gun.

Nor do the 16 others who were there that night, including Thompson’s partner, the bike cops and Ryan’s friends, as an addendum to the lawsuit points out.

In fact, Ryan was unarmed and surrendering to a police officer when he was shot and killed.

Officer Daniel Straub, the bike cop who had been following Ryan and Cann up 13th St., recalled that he was yelling at them, “Hey, come here, let’s talk.” At first Ryan and Cann started running, but then slowed down to talk to the officer.

Ryan was standing at the driver’s side of the red Monte Carlo, facing south. Straub, coming from the south into the lot, was facing him. Straub saw no gun in Ryan’s hand. Ryan moved to the front of the car and “looked like he was starting to give up and obey my commands as I was telling him to put his hands up,” Straub said.

Thompson, coming into the lot from the north, was behind Ryan, who probably never knew the officer was there before he was shot.

In fact, Ryan was not in a standoff with police, but was obeying orders.

Officer Tamara Jones, Thompson’s partner, did not remember him saying “drop the gun,” or announce himself as “police” She heard only, “Get on the ground!”

Jones did not see Ryan as aggressive. She said she saw him crouch down into the Monte Carlo briefly, but then move to the front of the car toward the officers who were entering the parking lot from the south. She wouldn’t have fired her weapon towards Ryan, Jones said, because other officers were heading into what would have been her line of fire. Ryan was not in a standoff with police, Jones said.

“A standoff would be where he is refusing to do what you say but he isn’t surrendering,” she said.

In fact, there were two guns connected to the black men that night, but Ryan didn’t have one.

The gun found in the car, a .40-caliber Glock 22, was legally owned by Outley, who said he left it tucked into a “makeshift holster” between the driver’s seat and the center console and didn’t take it into Power & Light. After police found the gun, it was not fingerprinted, but it was swabbed for DNA, though results were never given to the grand jury, said Cyndy Short, the Stokes’ attorney.

The other gun belonged to Ryan but it was not in his possession. Cann had borrowed the .40-caliber Smith & Wesson before they left the Stokes’ home that night. It was in his waistband, and he tried to hide it after being stopped by Straub, the bike cop. He later pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon.

As for what Miller and Villafain said was a stolen cell phone being handed off from Outley to Ryan, the family’s attorney, Cyndy Short, says it was probably the key fob so Ryan could get the car and come back to pick up Outley, who was suffering from the pepper spray.

“The fact that both parties now agree on is that Ryan did not have a gun,” Short says, “and he didn’t have a gun when he approached the vehicle and he didn’t have a gun when he was shot and killed.” (Police would not discuss the lawsuit with KCUR.)

Narene Stokes, right, Ryan Stokes’ mother, during a march in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Kansas City on April 13. Narene describes herself as shy and unaccustomed to the limelight, but says she has learned to advocate in public for her son’s memory. (Photo by Peggy Lowe/KCUR 89.3)

what has, and hasn't, changed

Unlike other police shootings that have drawn national attention around the country, it wasn’t a white officer who killed Ryan. On the incident report, Thompson listed his race as “black or African American.”

Neither he nor Jones wanted the commendation.

“We asked, please, to not get the award,” Jones said during her deposition for the lawsuit. “We didn’t want the award. We were doing our jobs.”

KCUR requested an interview with Thompson, but KCPD denied it, citing the Stokes lawsuit. Capt. Lionel Colón, a KCPD spokesman, said Thompson, 44, is still working in the Professional Development and Research Bureau.

But Thompson’s partner, Jones, said in a June 2017 deposition that he was “distraught” after the shooting, that she had seen his hands shaking.

The morning after the shooting, Thompson insisted to police investigators that he had to shoot because Ryan had a weapon, was running in the direction of officers and wasn’t following his verbal commands.

“If only he had listened to my verbal commands we would not be sitting right here,” he told them.

Officer William Thompson (left) and Officer Tamara Jones on August 26, 2014, when they were awarded a commendation by the Board of Police Commissioners, an honor neither said they wanted. “One of the suspects refused to drop his weapon and Officer Thompson was forced to fire his weapon at the suspect, fatally injuring him and ending the threat to all officers involved,” the commendation reads. (Kansas City Police Department photo)

The Kansas City Police Department changed its hot spot strategy after Chief Darryl Forte retired in May 2017. Under new Chief Richard Smith, each geographic patrol division holds crime intelligence meetings, and teams include a community interaction officer and a social worker.

“We asked, please, to not get the award. We didn’t want the award. We were doing our jobs.”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker refused to talk to KCUR about the case, citing the grand jury secrecy rule. But since the Stokes case, her office has changed its procedure for use-of-force incidents, creating a committee that reviews the event and then determines on a case-by-case basis whether it will go to a grand jury, said Michael Mansur, Baker’s spokesman. A letter is sent to the police chief and a family member and a redacted version is posted on their website, he said. Baker met with the Stokes family, but Narene doesn’t see any good coming from it.

The Power & Light District, owned by Baltimore-based Cordish Companies Inc., has denied claims of discrimination and settled a complaint filed by the Kansas City Human Relations Department about the dress code in 2010. At least two lawsuits claiming discrimination are pending.

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; its 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)

Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter at KCUR. She’s on Twitter @peggyllowe.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.