Barbara Shelly

Honoring Ryan Stokes and questioning his death at the hands of Kansas City police

Ryan Stokes with his daughter, Neriah, shortly before he was killed by Kansas City police.
Ryan Stokes with his daughter, Neriah, shortly before he was killed by Kansas City police. Family photo

Just about two years ago, as the Power & Light District was wrapping up a weekend night of revelry, a Kansas City police officer fatally shot 24-year-old Ryan Stokes as he stood by a red Monte Carlo in a downtown parking lot.

Police said Stokes had been fleeing officers, pointed a handgun in their direction and refused commands to drop the weapon and show his hands.

That scenario needs to be re-examined. So does the image presented in the days after the shooting of Ryan Stokes as a gun-toting troublemaker. That wasn’t him.

No gun was found on Stokes when he fell to the asphalt near 12th and McGee streets, fatally wounded by two bullets just above his left hip. Police said he had tossed the weapon into the front seat of the Monte Carlo immediately before he was shot.

But Stokes’ family members don’t think he ever touched a gun on July 28, 2013. Neither does Cynthia Short, a highly regarded attorney who has spent hundreds of hours reviewing what happened.

“Police created a narrative,” Short told me this week. “That narrative is false.”

Regardless of who is right about the gun, there are serious questions about whether Stokes heard commands to raise his hands and had time to obey them.

A police spokeswoman this week said the department would have no comment. When asked in the past about questions surrounding Stokes’ death, a department official pointed out that a Jackson County grand jury had determined the shooting to be justified.

Stokes’ family and Short have organized events this weekend in Stokes’ memory: a candlelight vigil Friday at 8 p.m. in front of City Hall; a basketball tournament at noon Saturday at the Mary L. Kelly Community Center; and a memorial service Sunday at 3 p.m. at Zion Grove Baptist Church.

“The purpose is to reclaim Ryan’s identity and make him part of the national conversation,” Short said.

Stokes was shot just before 3 a.m. after a short run from the sidewalk at 13th Street and Grand Boulevard to the parking lot near 12th and McGee. There had been a scuffle between his friends and another group over a dubious accusation that one of Stokes’ friends had stolen a cellphone. Police hit the group with pepper spray and told them to disperse. Stokes was running for his friend’s car, the red Monte Carlo, and had just reached it when he was shot.

He had no criminal record and an autopsy found no signs of drugs or alcohol.

Hundreds of mourners packed Zion Grove church for Stokes’ funeral. It was an outpouring of grief and respect for a young man who worked six days a week, mentored young relatives and checked in daily with older ones, and had plans to marry the mother of his baby daughter and start a business with her.

Stokes graduated in 2007 from Southeast High School, where he played on the basketball team. Though stocky enough to earn the nickname “Fatback,” he was fast and smart on the court.

He thought about college but opted to work in his father’s dry cleaning business. He lived at home with his mother and stepfather, two sisters and a several nieces and nephews. He was saving money and had begun looking at houses.

After high school Stokes met Brittany Lee, a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and convinced her to go to Dairy Queen with him. Eventually they fell in love, she said. Their daughter, Neriah, was born in January 2012. Stokes continued to live at his mother’s home, but he saw Lee and their daughter almost daily.

On his final Saturday, Stokes worked for a while, played basketball with his 8-year-old nephew and visited his baby and her mother. Then he went to hang out with friends and never made it back.

Two years later, his loved ones are still trying to process what happened.

“I have sleepless nights,” said Stokes’ mother, Narene Stokes-James. “I can’t let them sweep this under the rug. I just can’t.”

Next week in this space I will have more about the night Stokes was killed.

Reach Barbara Shelly at 816-234-4594 or Twitter: @bshelly.