A father’s plea: ‘If nothing went wrong, why is my son dead?’
The dream comes again and John is there, his blond hair aflame. The lean body of a teenaged wrestler turns to his mother.
“Not an ounce of fat on him,” Sheila Albers says.
And she throws her arms around him in a burst of love. The bullet holes by the Overland Park policeman’s gun are gone.
Of course he’s embarrassed by his mother’s hug. Let go, Mom. But in that moment, the mother’s hope is alive. All his problems are conquerable. Everything that the Blue Valley Northwest High School student could become is possible again.
Waking comes hard — with anger. In a wisp, she said, “he’s gone.”
It’s been a year since John Albers was killed in his family’s van in their driveway by Officer Clayton Jenison, who had responded to a 911 call to check on the welfare of a suicidal teen.
Steve and Sheila Albers are ready now to talk about their anger at a police department and county prosecutor’s office that they believe have been more concerned with protecting the officer who fired 13 times on John — unarmed at the wheel of the van — rather than accounting for John’s death in the twilight Jan. 20, 2018.
They are encouraged by the support of community members rallying with them in pursuit of better mental health services, government transparency and justice.
They recently settled a wrongful death suit with Overland Park for $2.3 million. And with that, a public crusade to wrangle with the city over what happened and why — and how to keep it from happening again — is on.
“At my heart I am two things,” Sheila Albers said. “A mom and a public servant. Those things have not changed.”
Overland Park has made changes in its deadly force policy since the shooting, and both Police Chief Frank Donchez and Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe told The Star this week they are eager to work together with the Albers family addressing widespread shortages in mental health services.
But the investigative reports into the police shooting and any information on Jenison — whose name the Albers family attorney had to discover on his own — remain closed from the family and the public.
“I don’t know how many people have told us they expected us to leave town,” Steve Albers said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Stand Your Ground
An ice storm had descended on the Kansas City area the morning of Feb. 20, 2018 — one month after the shooting — when Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe summoned Steve and Sheila Albers to his office.
Howe sat at one end of the long table, the family’s attorney at the other, Steve and Sheila sat across from each other in between, and three law enforcement officers who’d been part of the multi-jurisdictional investigation of the police shooting stood together along the wall as witnesses.
In an hour, Howe said, he would release his statement of facts to gathering media and announce his finding that no criminal charges would be filed against the officer.
And, because he felt public interest warranted it in the face of what he said was widespread misinformation, he was releasing police dash camera video of the shooting.
The family’s attorney spirited the stunned and angry parents from the court complex before reporters arrived. There was no time, Steve Albers said, to get the word out to friends and the Blue Valley school community — where Sheila Albers was a middle school principal — of what was about to happen.
The ice had closed schools. The video went out over media websites into their homes, Steve Albers said, “and parents and friends told me they heard kids shrieking” at the sight.
“There was a lot of emotion,” Howe told The Star this week, “and rightfully so.”
“There is no easy or right way. . . to mitigate that situation,” Howe said. “You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. We did the best we could to be transparent.”
But the prosecutor and police department’s struggle with much of the community was just beginning.
The Alberses and the authorities saw the same video. But they interpreted the officer’s actions very differently.
What’s clear is that John Albers was in distress the day he died.
“My son had emotional difficulties and he went to a dark place,” Sheila Albers said.
He’d been caught shoplifting earlier in the day and was grounded. Still, his parents invited him to go with them and his little brothers to dinner, but he wanted to stay home.
Soon, a friend interacting with John on social media was worried that he might be suicidal and called 911. Officers were dispatched to the home, with one of them radioing back, “I’m familiar with this kid.”
Police had gone to the home several times during John’s high school years as his family struggled with behavioral difficulties. Part of his turmoil, his parents said, was a growing feeling of detachment over the fact that as a newborn he was left by his 18-year-old birth mother at an orphanage in Belarus.
He was an 18-month-old toddler when Steve and Sheila adopted him. But along the way in his early teens he began to “really struggle with it,” Sheila said.
He triumphed at sports of any kind, joyously. And he was becoming a strong student, with a 3.0 GPA and scoring a 25 out of 36 on the ACT college entrance exam, Sheila said. Counselors at his school and in private practice were helping him, she believed.
Just two weeks before he died, John had opened up to his mother about his idea that he could be a social worker, reaching kids through the sports he loved. They planned a visit to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“I knew we had a lot of work ahead of us,” Sheila Albers said. “But when you’re a mom, and an educator,” she said, catching her breath with tears, “you always have hope.”
Jenison was one of two officers arriving first at the Albers home. Video shows him standing behind a tree and then moving toward the garage as the other officer spoke to a neighbor who had pulled along the front of the house. Neither of the officers had made any contact with John when the garage door opened and the minivan began backing out.
Howe said the law enforcement investigation and video footage showed that Albers backed the van “directly toward the officer in an aggressive manner” as the officer shouted, “STOP THE CAR!”
Sheila Albers’ lawsuit, backed by a private investigation, said the video showed a van merely backing out — at 2.5 mph.
Howe said it was reasonable for the officer to conclude his life was at risk and it was necessary to fire the first two shots.
The lawsuit describes an officer standing off the van’s right rear flank, clearly with plenty of time and space to step out of the way and with no cause to open fire. There was no reason, the lawsuit said, for Jenison to have unholstered his weapon at all.
The van then made a rapid “J” turn, whipping back up the yard on the grass by the driveway, and Jenison fired 11 more times.
Howe said that John Albers, for an unknown reason, was driving in “an extremely aggressive manner.”
The lawsuit said that Albers had already been mortally incapacitated by the first two bullets, leaving the van out of anyone’s control — at that point presenting a danger created by Jenison.
While at dinner that night, Sheila Albers saw her phone filling with texts. Something was terribly wrong, they said. Police and ambulance and fire vehicles had swarmed around their house.
Steve Albers drove them back and they got as close as the T intersection at the end of their block. And there began what Sheila and Steve Albers said would be a maddening cycle of not being able to get the information they wanted from police and prosecutors.
The prosecutor’s role, Howe said, was solely to determine if he thought a crime had been committed under Kansas law. Stand Your Ground law in Kansas applies the same to a police officer as it does a citizen, he said.
And since he believes the officer’s decision to shoot came out of reasonable fear for his life, no charges were filed. And just as he would with a citizen not charged, he declined to release the officer’s name.
Not everyone in their situation could have done what John Albers’ parents did, they said. Over the next several months they hired an attorney who put an investigator to work reconstructing the scene, analyzing multiple videos frame by frame.
“The disgusting part,” Sheila Albers said, “is my son lost his life and no one would have been held to account if we had not hired an attorney who hired an expert.”
‘I am sorry’
Chief Donchez had the revised Overland Park police policy on the use of deadly force at his fingertips when he sat to meet with The Star this week, as well as documents about the training of officers for situations of mental health crises.
But his first words were, “I wish Jonathan Albers was still alive.”
The officer who shot Albers, Donchez revealed during the press conference with Howe a year ago, resigned for personal reasons after the shooting.
“I am sorry,” Donchez said this week.
The Kansas Open Records Act gives public agencies the discretion to keep secret documents that they contend are personnel records — and Overland Park is denying the Alberses and JOCO United its internal investigation on those grounds.
The city is protecting the privacy of the officer — who received death threats, Donchez said. And, the chief added, withholding the report from the public protects the Albers family’s privacy as well.
That statement would draw Steve and Sheila’s ire. The city, in filing its answer in open court to the allegations in Sheila Albers’ lawsuit, included a detailed list of John Albers’ contacts with police and juvenile court.
“They are way more concerned to protect the officer and his right to privacy than my son,” Sheila Albers said. “Do they serve themselves? Or the public?”
This is what Donchez said he can show about their own investigation into the shooting:
Previously, police policy prohibited officers from firing into a moving vehicle with certain exceptions, including if the officer had reasonable belief that the vehicle was being driven deliberately to hit an officer or citizen and lives were in danger.
The policy now clarifies that lethal force is allowed in such a circumstance only after other means of defense — “including moving out of the path of the vehicle” — have been exhausted or are not possible.
They’ve reviewed what happened, Donchez said. They’ve made this change in the policy and officers are being trained accordingly.
“If you can get out of the way,” Donchez said, “get out of the way.”
“But,” he added, “things happen fast. I’m not going to second-guess the guy in the moment because I’m not the guy standing there.”
Hope comes back
Mental health crisis calls, like the one summoning police to John Albers the day he died, happen on average seven times a day in Overland Park, Donchez said.
A shortage of statewide funding and secure crisis beds too often leaves families in distress without safe options, and police officers have to stand in the gaps.
This is where JOCO United, Steve and Sheila Albers, and the police and prosecutors begin on common ground — sharing a desire to work together with community mental health providers to sharpen public awareness and bend state resources toward the problem.
Police departments across the Kansas City area already are growing their ranks of officers who are trained in specialized Crisis Intervention Team skills. They’ve collaborated with mental health programs to put crisis counselors with officers in the field as co-responders.
“Anything I can do to help get resources for this family and other families so this never happens again — I’m all in,” Donchez said.
Steve and Sheila Albers welcome that collaboration, they said, but they also point out that none of John’s past difficulties were a factor at that moment when the van backed up and the officer drew his weapon.
The family still wants to know the details of what police know of that night, to explore the training the officer involved had or didn’t have, and to know what can be learned to help keep such violence from happening again.
This is the legacy they crave. This is the ground that JOCO United stands on.
This is the example, JOCO United member Christi Bright said, that they mean to show to the teenagers and young adults who mourn John and carry their own questions.
“They saw the video and some were enraged,” Bright said. But they are joining in the work, she said. “Young people are seeing they can make something good from something bad. They are doing it peacefully, intellectually, in a positive way — taking time to read and write and think carefully about what you say.”
A friend of the Albers family collected the many sports team jerseys John wore over the years, from kindergarten soccer through baseball, football and up to high school wrestling, and crafted them all into a quilt.
The last jersey was one Sheila Albers got John — a Belarusian soccer jersey, in honor of his birthplace.
Her hopes of what could have come from a journey back to his unknown birthplace is lost. But hope comes back to her in a new jersey that John’s Blue Valley friends made for themselves that they wear in his honor.
It sports no team name, but words they say John lived by and drives the work still to be done: