Grief is still fresh for mother of man shot by Kansas City police

08/28/2014 8:04 AM

08/29/2014 9:33 PM

The first reports from Ferguson, Mo. — a police officer had shot a young African-American man under troubling circumstances — made Narene Stokes-James uncomfortable.

Images of Michael Brown’s grieving mother pleading for information and answers reopened a wound in Stokes-James’ heart.

In July 2013, a Kansas City police officer shot Stokes-James’ son during a 3 a.m. altercation near the Power & Light District.

“I immediately felt her hurt,” Stokes-James said recently. “The way he was shot down, I thought, ‘Why? What? Here we go again.’”

For more than a year, Stokes-James also has struggled for answers about her son’s death.

Ryan L. Stokes, 24, died July 28, 2013, after being hit twice by police gunfire.

According to a police account, Stokes and others were at 13th Street and Grand Boulevard when one of his companions reportedly grabbed an iPhone out of another man’s hand.

A disturbance erupted when the owner demanded his phone back. Officers doused the group with pepper spray and everyone fled.

Police said that they had seen Stokes with a gun and that Stokes ignored an officer’s repeated demands to show his hands. An officer said he saw Stokes running with a gun toward other officers and believed Stokes still had the gun. The officer fired three shots.

Police concluded later that Stokes had thrown his gun into a friend’s car before he was shot.

Friends of Stokes told The Kansas City Star they saw Stokes discard a weapon before the gunshots, but they said it was possible police may not have realized he had gotten rid of the gun.

More than 10 hours after the shooting, police notified Stokes-James that her son was dead, she said.

“They told me it was a standoff, that he had a gun and he wouldn’t put it down,” she recalled. “They had a shootout.”

Police spokesman Tye Grant said authorities investigated the case thoroughly and submitted it to prosecutors.

“It went to a grand jury, which determined it to be a justified or reasonable shooting,” Grant said.

Stokes-James said this week that she never has believed the Police Department’s account of her son’s death and maintains he was not armed that night. But she has had no other communication with police about her son’s death, other than to retrieve a wooden cross than he wore around his neck.

A community has asked questions in Ferguson, she said, and the same should be true here.

“I don’t condone the violence and don’t want it here, but I would like answers,” Stokes-James said. “These were two young lives with something to look forward to.”

Her son, a 2007 graduate of Southeast High School, was the father of a 1-year-old girl at the time of his death. He was devoted to his family and worked in his father’s dry cleaning business, Stokes-James said.

Grant acknowledged Stokes-James’ grief. But he noted that no officer ever wants to face the choice to be made at the instant he or she believes that a threat to life and limb is real.

“That’s not a comfortable position to be in and live with,” Grant said. “There’s a very high percentage of officers who don’t return after something like this.”

An admission from the Police Department that her son was not armed that night and was not a dangerous person would bring her some peace, Stokes-James said.

But those images of Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, remain at the front of Stokes-James’ mind, she said. She said she prays for McSpadden and grieves with her every day.

Even a year from now, McSpadden still will hurt. Stokes-James knows that road too well.

“She’ll feel the loss,” she said. “You can’t describe it sometimes.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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