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One minute. That’s all it took for Courtney Copeland’s life, filled with promise and optimism, to be cut short and ignite a years-long quest by his mother to find the truth.
Copeland had been on social media happily joking with his friends at 1:15 a.m. on March 4, 2016 in his hometown of Chicago. One minute later, he called 911 reporting that he had been shot.
“It was like less than a minute that his life changed so drastically,” Copeland’s mother, Shapearl Wells, told Oxygen.com.
What happened during that one minute—and how her successful 22-year-old son ended up shot in the back outside a Chicago police station—continues to haunt the grieving mother and inspired her to launch her own investigation into her son’s death with the help of the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based journalism nonprofit.
The investigation is documented in the new seven-part podcast “Somebody,” which takes an in-depth look into the intricacies of Copeland’s case, examines what Wells has called “an abysmally low murder clearance rate” in the city of Chicago and investigates possible racial bias by the police.
The podcast is a co-production of the Invisible Institute, Topic Studios, and The Intercept, in association with Tenderfoot TV.
Copeland had been on his way to visit his friend—who he planned to stay the night with—in the early morning hours of March 4, 2016 when police said a bullet struck the driver’s side window of his BMW and hit him in the back, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Police said Copeland got out of his car and was able to flag down a nearby police officer outside the 25th District police station before he collapsed.
But Wells told Oxygen.com she's always been “suspicious” about the explanations given about her son’s final moments.
“From the moment they told me that my son was shot, I became suspicious,” she said.
To her, it was “unfathomable” that her son—who had always gone out of his way to avoid violence and confrontation—was involved in a violent altercation.
“I just could not understand how this happened to my son,” she said.
A Best Friend To Many
The night Copeland died, he had been hanging out with friends at a local pizzeria, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The 22-year-old was already finding success in business, even earning a BMW convertible from his company where he worked as a travel agent in the months before his death.
“He was actually someone who was working so hard, I mean like literally day and night, I would tell him ‘You know, you need to relax’ and he’s like ‘No, I need to achieve these goals,'" Wells told Oxygen.com.
His goal, she said, was to earn enough money so that his whole family could retire.
“He was the type of person who had big dreams and he was going to fulfill it,” she said.
Friends would later tell her how Copeland often woke them up in the morning with motivational quotes and had been such a positive force in their lives—even offering to help the single moms he knew by picking up their kids after school and helping the children get to after-school programs.
“One of the tragedies of the loss of Courtney is that it took the life out of so many people,” Wells said. “When they killed my son, the light went out on a lot of his friends.”
Copeland had been a high school friend of musician Chance the Rapper, whose real name is Chancelor J. Bennett, while the pair were both students at Jones College Prep High School.
Bennett—who performed the theme song for the podcast and is interviewed in the series—described Copeland as someone everyone loved.
“I just wish that he was respected as a human life on the level that he should have been,” Bennett said, according to a press release promoting the podcast.
Wells said many of the friends they interviewed for the podcast referred to Copeland as a best friend.
“That was a gift that my son had,” she said. “My son had the gift to make people feel that they were special and that they were important and that’s something that is rare in a lot of people, but he had that ability to make people feel love and anybody who talks about him always talks about his smile, his laughter, his playfulness and his sheer joy to be around.”
Questions Around His Death
On the night Copeland died, he had been on the way to his friend’s house, but the 22-year-old never showed up.
As the investigation by Wells and the Invisible Institute got under way, Alison Flowers, director of investigations at the Invisible Institute, told Oxygen.com there were several troubling circumstances around Copeland’s death.
Although police said he was shot while in his car, there was no blood inside Copeland’s car, Flowers said.
Wells also had trouble getting a copy of the video footage of Copeland’s encounter with police and Flowers said she was struck by how dismissive the police seemed to be toward the grieving mother.
“They were condescending,” she said. “They were at times cruel and that really thickened us to the point of wanting to partner with her and getting more answers.”
With Flowers' help, they were able to get a copy of the video footage that showed Copeland trying to get help from police after he had been shot. What they found was shocking, she said.
“We saw him reaching up for help and a crowd of officers kind of milling around him, not engaging him very much,” Flowers said, adding that Copeland was “on the ground for a very long time.”
When police did step in to help, Flowers and Wells questioned some of the decisions that were made.
“We found that he wasn’t taken to the nearest hospital even though two hospitals were closer and were not on bypass and could have taken him,” Flowers said.
Copeland was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.
Wells also discovered that her son had been handcuffed.
Although Flowers said police denied ever handcuffing the 22-year-old, paramedic records and a nurse who had been at the hospital that night both contradicted those claims.
Oxygen.com reached out to the Chicago Police Department to address the allegations but the department declined to comment on the specifics of the case.
“Since this is an ongoing investigation, we are not at liberty to comment on further details of the case,” spokesperson Kellie Bartoli said.
Wells believes the treatment her son received that night is the just the type of everyday “atrocities” minority communities routinely encounter.
“We see what happened with like George Floyd and we see the blatant racism, but this, what happened to my son, the way he was treated as a suspect as opposed to a victim is what happens in everyday Black America that doesn’t get highlighted,” she said. “I just wanted to highlight how many other Courtneys there are out there. How many people are actually dying because they have eight to 10 cops watching them bleed to death because that is what happened to my son.”
Flowers has also questioned the police commitment to solving the case.
“Once we moved past the police as the number one suspect in the series and we move onto this new line of inquiry, that’s when we take a different angle on the police accountability and that’s when we start looking at the murder solve rate and how shallow the police investigation was,” she said, adding that she believes the case “wasn’t a huge priority” for police.
After completing the podcast, Flowers said they gave police a “road map” to use to find Copeland’s killer; however, many of the potential witnesses have told the organization that they haven’t been contacted yet by police.
“I hope that by exposing how superficial the police investigation was and how they overlooked key witnesses and didn’t follow up with some critical evidence, I hope that we are able to get other institutions to take over the case and to follow up on the compelling information that we surfaced,” Flowers said.
Bartoli told Oxygen.com the case remains “an open and active” investigation; however, no one is in custody at this time.
Wells hopes the podcast will help listeners experience what she felt as she was able to see her dead son one last time and strive for justice in the years that followed.
“That’s my hope is that we are able to reach people in their hearts so that we could start putting more love back in the atmosphere and they can start looking at Black people as human,” she said.
The podcast was also a way for her to continue to honor her son’s legacy.
“It was a labor of love, but a lot of pain, a lot of passion, a lot of grief all rolled into one and so for me, I always feel and I still feel that, you know, that night that my son was by himself. He was alone and there was nobody to help him, to look after him, to protect him like a mom should and so I said, ‘In death, I have to be his voice.’"
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